St. Thomas More
Feast Day: July 9th
Saint Thomas More:
Saint, knight, Lord Chancellor of England, author and martyr, born in London, 7 February, 1477-78; executed at Tower Hill, 6 July, 1535.
What does it
avail to know that there is a God, which you not only believe by Faith, but also
know by reason: what does it avail that you know Him if you think little of Him?
- Saint Thomas More
He was the sole surviving son of Sir John More, barrister and later judge, by his first wife Agnes, daughter of Thomas Graunger. While still a child Thomas was sent to St. Anthony's School in Threadneedle Street, kept by Nicholas Holt, and when thirteen years old was placed in the household of Cardinal Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Lord Chancellor. Here his merry character and brilliant intellect attracted the notice of the archbishop, who sent him to Oxford, where he entered at Canterbury Hall (subsequently absorbed by Christ Church) about 1492. His father made him an allowance barely sufficient to supply the necessaries of life and, in consequence, he had no opportunity to indulge in "vain or hurtful amusements" to the detriment of his studies. At Oxford he made friends with William Grocyn and Thomas Linacre, the latter becoming his first instructor in Greek. Without ever becoming an exact scholar he mastered Greek "by an instinct of genius" as witnessed by Pace (De fructu qui ex doctrina percipitur, 1517), who adds "his eloquence is incomparable and twofold, for he speaks with the same facility in Latin as in his own language". Besides the classics he studied French, history, and mathematics, and also learned to play the flute and the viol. After two years' residence at Oxford, More was recalled to London and entered as a law student at New Inn about 1494. In February, 1496, he was admitted to Lincoln's Inn as a student, and in due course was called to the outer bar and subsequently made a bencher. His great abilities now began to attract attention and the governors of Lincoln's Inn appointed him "reader" or lecturer on law at Furnival's Inn, his lectures being esteemed so highly that the appointment was renewed for three successive years.
It is clear however that law did not absorb all More's energies, for much of his time was given to letters. He wrote poetry, both Latin and English, a considerable amount of which has been preserved and is of good quality, though not particularly striking, and he was especially devoted to the works of Pico della Mirandola, of whose life he published an English translation some years later. He cultivated the acquaintance of scholars and learned men and, through his former tutors, Grocyn and Linacre, who were now living in London, he made friends with Colet, Dean of St. Paul's, and William Lilly, both renowned scholars. Colet became More's confessor and Lilly vied with him in translating epigrams from the Greek Anthology into Latin, then joint productions being published in 1518 (Progymnasnata T. More et Gul. Liliisodalium). In 1497 More was introduced to Erasmus, probably at the house of Lord Mountjoy, the great scholar's pupil and patron. The friendship at once became intimate, and later on Erasmus paid several long visits at More's Chelsea house, and the two friends corresponded regularly until death separated them. Besides law and the Classics, More read the Fathers with care, and he delivered, in the Church of St. Lawrence Jewry, a series of lectures on St. Augustine's De civitate Dei, which were attended by many learned men, among whom Grocyn, the rector of the church, is expressly mentioned. For such an audience the lectures must have been prepared with great care, but unhappily not a fragment of them has survived. These lectures were given somewhere between 1499 and 1503, a period during which More's mind was occupied almost wholly with religion and the question of his own vocation for the priesthood.
This portion of his life has caused much misunderstanding among his various biographers. It is certain that he went to live near the London Charterhouse and often joined in the spiritual exercises of the monks there. He wore "a sharp shirt of hair next his skin, which he never left off wholly" (Cresacre More), and gave himself up to a life of prayer and penance. His mind wavered for some time between joining the Carthusians or the Observant Franciscans, both of which orders observed the religious life with extreme strictness and fervour. In the end, apparently with the approval of Colet, he abandoned the hope of becoming a priest or religious, his decision being due to a mistrust of his powers of perseverance. Erasmus, his intimate friend and confidant, writes on this matter as follows (Epp. 447):
Meanwhile he applied his whole mind to exercises of piety, looking to and pondering on the priesthood in vigils, fasts and prayers and similar austerities. In which matter he proved himself far more prudent than most candidates who thrust themselves rashly into that arduous profession without any previous trial of their powers. The one thing that prevented him from giving himself to that kind of life was that he could not shake off the desire of the married state. He chose, therefore, to be a chaste husband rather than an impure priest.
The last sentence of this passage has led certain writers, notably Mr. Seebohm and Lord Campbell, to expatiate at great length on the supposed corruption of the religious orders at this date, which, they declare, disgusted More so much that he abandoned his wish to enter religion on that account. Father Bridgett deals with this question at considerable length (Life and Writings of Sir Thomas More, pp. 23-36), but it is enough to say that this view has now been abandoned even by non-Catholic writers, as witness Mr. W.H. Hutton:
It is absurd to assert that More was disgusted with monastic corruption, that he 'loathed monks as a disgrace to the Church'. He was throughout his life a warm friend of the religious orders, and a devoted admirer of the monastic ideal. He condemmned the vices of individuals; he said, as his great-grandson says, 'that at that time religious men in England had somewhat degenerated from their ancient strictness and fervour of spirit'; but there is not the slightest sign that his decision to decline the monastic life was due in the smallest degree to a distrust of the system or a distaste for the theology of the Church.
The question of religious vocation being disposed of, More threw himself into his work at the Bar and scored immediate success. In 1501 he was elected a member of Parliament, but as the returns are missing his constituency is unknown. Here he immediately began to oppose the large and unjust exactions of money which King Henry VII was making from his subjects through the agency of Empson and Dudley, the latter being Speaker of the House of Commons. In this Parliament Henry demanded a grant of three-fifteenths, about 113,000 pounds, but thanks to More's protests the Commons reduced the sum to 30,000. Some years later Dudley told More that his boldness would have cost him his head but for the fact that he had not attacked the king in person. Even as it was Henry was so enraged with More that he "devised a causeless quarrel against his father, keeping him in the Tower till he had made him pay a hundred pounds fine" (Roper). Meanwhile More had made friends with one "Maister John Colte, a gentleman" of Newhall, Essex, whose oldest daughter, Jane, he married in 1505. Roper writes of his choice: "albeit his mind most served him to the second daughter, for that he thought her the fairest and best favoured, yet when he considered that it would be great grief and some shame also to the eldest to see her younger sister preferred before her in marriage, he then, of a certain pity, framed his fancy towards" the eldest of the three sisters. The union proved a supremely happy one; of it were born three daughters, Margaret, Elizabeth, and Cecilia, and a son, John; and then, in 1511, Jane More died, still almost a child. In the epitaph which More himself composed twenty years later he calls her "uxorcula Mori", and a few lines in one of Erasmus' letters are almost all we know of her gentle, winning personality.
Of More himself Erasmus has left us a wonderful portrait in his famous letter to Ulrich von Hutten dated 23 July, 1519 (Epp. 447). The description is too long to give in full, but some extracts must be made.
To begin then with what is least known to you, in stature he is not tall, though not remarkably short. His limbs are formed with such perfect symmetry as to leave nothing to be desired. His complexion is white, his face rather than pale and though by no means ruddy, a faint flush of pink appears beneath the whiteness of his skin. His hair is dark brown or brownish black. The eyes are grayish blue, with some spots, a kind which betokens singular talent, and among the English is considered attractive, whereas Germans generally prefer black. It is said that none are so free of vice. His countenance is in harmony with his character, being always expressive of an amiable joyousness, and even an incipient laughter and, to speak candidly, it is better framed for gladness than for gravity or dignity, though without any approach to folly or buffoonery. The right shoulder is a little higher than the left, especially when he walks. This is not a defect of birth, but the result of habit such as we often contract. In the rest of his person there is nothing to offend . . .He seems born and framed for friendship, and is a most faithful and enduring friend . . .When he finds any sincere and according to his heart, he so delights in their society and conversation as to place in it the principal charm of life . . .In a word, if you want a perfect model of friendship, you will find it in no one better than in More . . .In human affairs there is nothing from which he does not extract enjoyment, even from things that are most serious. If he converses with the learned and judicious, he delights in their talent, if with the ignorant and foolish, he enjoys their stupidity. He is not even offended by professional jesters. With a wonderful dexterity he accommodates himself to every disposition. As a rule, in talking with women, even with his own wife, he is full of jokes and banter. No one is less led by the opinions of the crowd, yet no one departs less from common sense . . . (see Father Bridgett's Life, p. 56-60, for the entire letter).
More married again very soon after his first wife's death, his choice being a widow, Alice Middleton. She was older than he by seven years, a good, somewhat commonplace soul without beauty or education; but she was a capital housewife and was devoted to the care of More's young children. On the whole the marriage seems to have been quite satisfactory, although Mistress More usually failed to see the point of her husband's jokes.
More's fame as a lawyer was now very great. In 1510 he was made Under-Sheriff of London, and four years later was chosen by Cardinal Wolsey as one of an embassy to Flanders to protect the interests of English merchants. He was thus absent from England for more than six months in 1515, during which period he made the first sketch of the Utopia, his most famous work, which was published the following year. Both Wolsey and the king were anxious to secure More's services at Court. In 1516 he was granted a pension of 100 pounds for life, was made a member of the embassy to Calais in the next year, and became a privy councillor about the same time. In 1519 he resigned his post as Under-Sheriff and became completely attached to the Court. In June, 1520, he was in Henry's suite at the "Field of the Cloth of Gold", in 1521 was knighted and made sub-treasurer to the king. When the Emperor Charles V visited London in the following year, More was chosen to deliver the Latin address of welcome; and grants of land in Oxford and Kent, made then and three years later, gave further proof of Henry's favour. In 1523 he was elected Speaker of the House of Commons on Wolsey's recommendation; became High Steward of Cambridge University in 1525; and in the same year was made Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, to be held in addition to his other ofices. In 1523 More had purchased a piece of land in Chelsea, where he built himself a mansion about a hundred yards from the north bank of the Thames, with a large garden stretching along the river. Here at times the king would come as an unbidden guest at dinner time, or would walk in the garden with his arm round More's neck enjoying his brilliant conversation. But More had no illusions about the royal favour he enjoyed. "If my head should win him a castle in France," he said to Roper, his son-in-law, in 1525, "it should not fail to go". The Lutheran controversy had now spread throughout Europe and, with some reluctance, More was drawn into it. His controversial writings are mentioned below in the list of his works, and it is sufficient here to say that, while far more refined than most polemical writers of the period, there is still a certain amount that tastes unpleasant to the modern reader. At first he wrote in Latin but, when the books of Tindal and other English Reformers began to be read by people of all classes, he adopted English as more fitted to his purpose and, by doing so, gave no little aid to the development of English prose.
In October, 1529, More succeeded Wolsey as Chancellor of England, a post never before held by a layman. In matters political, however, he is nowise succeeded to Wolsey's position, and his tenure of the chancellorship is chiefly memorable for his unparalleled success as a judge. His despatch was so great that the supply of causes was actually exhausted, an incident commemorated in the well-known rhyme,
When More some time had Chancellor been
No more suits did remain.
The like will never more be seen,
Till More be there again.
As chancellor it was his duty to enforce the laws against heretics and, by doing so, he provoked the attacks of Protestant writers both in his own time and since. The subject need not be discussed here, but More's attitude is patent. He agreed with the principle of the anti-heresy laws and had no hesitation in enforcing them. As he himself wrote in his "Apologia" (cap. 49) it was the vices of heretics that he hated, not their persons; and he never proceeded to extremities until he had made every effort to get those brought before him to recant. How successful he was in this is clear from the fact that only four persons suffered the supreme penalty for heresy during his whole term of office. More's first public appearance as chancellor was at the opening of the new Parliament in November, 1529. The accounts of his speech on this occasion vary considerably, but it is quite certain that he had no knowledge of the long series of encroachments on the Church which this very Parliament was to accomplish. A few months later came the royal proclamation ordering the clergy to acknowledge Henry as "Supreme Head" of the Church "as far as the law of God will permit", and we have Chapuy's testimony that More at once proferred his resignation of the chancellorship, which however was not accepted. His firm opposition to Henry's designs in regard to the divorce, the papal supremacy, and the laws against heretics, speedily lost him the royal favour, and in May, 1532, he resigned his post of Lord Chancellor after holding it less than three years. This meant the loss of all his income except about 100 pounds a year, the rent of some property he had purchased; and, with cheerful indifference, he at once reduced his style of living to match his strained means. The epitaph he wrote at this time for the tomb in Chelsea church states that he intended to devote his last years to preparing himself for the life to come.
For the next eighteen months More lived in seclusion and gave much time to controversial writing. Anxious to avoid a public rupture with Henry he stayed away from Anne Boleyn's coronation, and when, in 1533, his nephew William Rastell wrote a pamphlet supporting the pope, which was attributed to More, he wrote a letter to Cromwell disclaiming any share therein and declaring that he knew his duty to his prince too well to criticize his policy. Neutrality, however, did not suit Henry, and More's name was included in the Bill of Attainder introduced into the Lords against the Holy Maid of Kent and her friends. Brought before four members of the Council, More was asked why he did not approve Henry's anti-papal action. He answered that he had several times explained his position to the king in person and without incurring his displeasure. Eventually, in view of his extraordinary popularity, Henry thought it expedient to remove his name from the Bill of Attainder. The incident showed that he might expect, however, and the Duke of Norfolk personally warned him of his grave danger, adding "indignatio principis mors est". "Is that all, my Lord," answered More, "then, in good faith, between your grace and me is but this, that I shall die today, and you tomorrow." In March, 1534, the Act of Succession was passed which required all who should be called upon to take an oath acknowledging the issue of Henry and Anne as legitimate heirs to the throne, and to this was added a clause repudiating "any foreign authority, prince or potentate". On 14 April, More was summoned to Lambeth to take the oath and, on his refusal, was committed to the custody of the Abbot of Westminster. Four days later he was removed to the Tower, and in the following November was attainted of misprision of treason, the grants of land made to him in 1523 and 1525 being resumed by the Crown. In prison, though suffering greatly from "his old disease of the chest . . .gravel, stone, and the cramp", his habitual gaiety remained and he joked with his family and friends whenever they were permitted to see him as merrily as in the old days at Chelsea. When alone his time was given up to prayer and penitential exercises; and he wrote a "Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation", treatise (unfinished) on the Passion of Christ, and many letters to his family and others. In April and May, 1535, Cromwell visited him in person to demand his opinion of the new statutes conferring on Henry the title of Supreme Head of the Church. More refused to give any answer beyond declaring himself a faithful subject of the king. In June, Rich, the solicitor-general, held a conversation with More and, in reporting it, declared that More had denied Parliament's power to confer ecclesiastical supremacy on Henry. It was now discovered that More and Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, had exchanged letters in prison, and a fresh inquiry was held which resulted in his being deprived of all books and writing materials, but he contrived to write to his wife and favourite daughter, Margaret, on stray scraps of paper with a charred stick or piece of coal.
On 1 July, More was indicted for high treason at Westminster Hall before a special commission of twenty. More denied the chief charges of the indictment, which was enormously long, and denounced Rich, the solicitor-general and chief witness against him as a perjuror. The jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to be hanged at Tyburn, but some days later this was changed by Henry to beheading on Tower Hill. The story of his last days on earth, as given by Roper and Cresacre More, is of the tenderest beauty and should be read in full; certainly no martyr ever surpassed him in fortitude. As Addison wrote in the Spectator (No. 349) "that innocent mirth which had been so conspicuous in his life, did not forsake him to the last . . .his death was of a piece with his life. There was nothing in it new, forced or affected. He did not look upon the severing of his head from his body as a circumstance that ought to produce any change in the disposition of his mind". The execution took place on Tower Hill "before nine of the clock" on 6 July, the body being buried in the Church of St. Peter ad vincula.
The head, after being parboiled, was exposed on London Bridge for a month when Margaret Roper bribed the man, whose business it was to throw it into the river, to give it to her instead. The final fate of the relic is somewhat uncertain, but in 1824 a leaden box was found in the Roper vault at St. Dunstan's, Canterbury, which on being opened was found to contain a head presumed to be More's. The Jesuit Fathers at Stonyhurst possess a remarkable collection of secondary relics, most of which came to them from Father Thomas More, S.J. (d. 1795), the last male heir of the martyr. These include his hat, cap, crucifix of gold, a silver seal, "George", and other articles. The hair shirt, worn by him for many years and sent to Margaret Roper the day before his martyrdom, is preserved by the Augustinian canonesses of Abbots Leigh, Devonshire, to whom it was brought by Margaret Clements, the adopted child of Sir Thomas. A number of autograph letters are in the British Museum. Several portraits exist, the best being that by Holbein in the possession of E. Huth, Esq. Holbein also painted a large group of More's household which has disappeared, but the original sketch for it is in the Basle Museum, and a sixteenth-century copy is the property of Lord St. Oswald. Thomas More was formally beatified by Pope Leo XIII, in the Decree of 29 December, 1886.
More was a ready writer and not a few of his works remained in manuscript until some years after his death, while several have been lost altogether. Of all his writings the most famous is unquestionably the Utopia, first published at Louvain in 1516. The volume recounts the fictitious travels of one Raphael Hythlodaye, a mythical character, who, in the course of a voyage to America, was left behind near Cape Frio and thence wandered on till he chanced upon the Island of Utopia ("nowhere") in which he found an ideal constitution in operation. The whole work is really an exercise of the imagination with much brilliant satire upon the world of More's own day. Real persons, such as Peter Giles, Cardinal Morton, and More himself, take part in the dialogue with Hythlodaye, so that an air of reality pervades the whole which leaves the reader sadly puzzled to detect where truth ends and fiction begins, and has led not a few to take the book seriously. But this is precisely what More intended, and there can be no doubt that he would have been delighted at entrapping William Morris, who discovered in it a complete gospel of Socialism; or Cardinal Zigliara, who denounced it as "no less foolish than impious"; as he must have been with his own contemporaries who proposed to hire a ship and send out missionaries to his non-existent island. The book ran through a number of editions in the original Latin version and, within a few years, was translated into German, Italian, French, Dutch, Spanish, and English.
A collected edition of More's English works was published by William Rastell, his nephew, at London in 1557; it has never been reprinted and is now rare and costly. The first collected edition of the Latin Works appeared at Basle in 1563; a more complete collection was published at Louvain in 1565 and again in 1566. In 1689 the most complete edition of all appeared at Frankfort-on-Main, and Leipzig. After the Utopia the following are the most important works:
|"Luciani Dialogi . . .compluria opuscula . . . ab Erasmo Roterodamo et Thoma Moro interpretibus optimis in Latinorum lingua traducta . . ." (Paris, 1506);|
|"Here is conteigned the lyfe of John Picus, Earle of Mirandula . . ." (London, 1510);|
|"Historie of the pitiful life and unfortunate death of Edward the fifth and the then Duke of York his brother . . .", printed incomplete in the "English Works" (1557) and reissued with a completion from Hall's Chronicle by Wm. Sheares (London, 1641);|
|"Thomae Mori v.c. Dissertatio Epistolica de aliquot sui temporis theologastrorum ineptiis . . ." (Leyden, 1625);|
|Epigrammata...Thomae Mori Britanni, pleraque e Graecis versa. (Basle, 1518); Eruditissimi viri Gul. Rossi Opus elegans quo pulcherrime retegit ac refellit insanas Lutheri calumnias (London, 1523), written at the request of Henry VIII in answer to Luther's reply to the royal "Defensio Septem Sacramentorum";|
|"A dyaloge of Syr Thomas More Knyght . . .of divers maters, as of the veneration and worshyp of ymages and relyques, praying to sayntys and goyng on pylgrymage . . ." (London,1529);|
|"The Supplycacyon of Soulys" (London, 1529[?]), written in answer to Fish's "Supplication of the Beggars";|
|"Syr Thomas More's answer to the fyrste parte of the poysoned booke . . . named 'The Souper of the Lorde' " (London, 1532);|
|"The Second parte of the Confutacion of Tyndal's Answere . . ." (London, 1533); these two works together form the most lengthy of all More's writings; besides Tindal, Robert Barnes is dealt with in the last book of the whole;|
|"A Letter impugnynge the erronyouse wrytyng of John Fryth against the Blessed Sacrament of the Aultare" (London, 1533);|
|"The Apologye of Syr Thomas More, Hnyght, made by him anno 1533, after he had given over the office of Lord Chancellour of Englande" (London, 1533);|
|"The Debellacyon of Salem and Bizance" (London, 1533), an answer to the anonymous work entitled "Salem and Bizance", and vindicating the severe punishment of heresy;|
|"A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation . . ." (London, 1553).|
Among the other writings in the collected volume of "English Works" are the following which had not been previously published:
|An unfinished treatise "uppon those words of Holy Scripture, 'Memorare novissima et in eternum non peccabis' ", dated 1522;|
|"Treatise to receive the blessed Body of our Lorde, sacramentally and virtually both";|
|"Treatise upon the Passion" unfinished;|
|"Certein devout and vertuouse Instruccions, Meditacions and Prayers";|
some letters written in the Tower, including his touching correspondence with his daughter Margaret.
The Catholic Encyclopedia,
Nihil Obstat, July 1, 1912, Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor
Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York
Text Courtesy of TraditionalCatholic.net
Dear Scholar and Martyr, it was not the King of England but you who were the true Defender of the Faith. Like Christ unjustly condemned, neither promises nor threats could make you accept a civil ruler as head of the Christian Church. Perfect in your honesty and love of truth, grant that lawyers and judges may imitate you and achieve true justice for all people. Amen.
Give me the grace to long for Your holy sacraments, and especially to rejoice in the presence of Your body, sweet Savior Christ, in the holy sacrament of the altar. Amen
Litany of St. Thomas More
(Written by Douglas P. McManaman)
Published on the web with his kind permission.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy. Christ hear us.
Christ graciously hear us.
God, the Father of Heaven,
Have mercy on us!
God, the Son, Redeemer of the world,
Have mercy on us!
God the Holy Ghost,
Have mercy on us!
Holy Trinity, One God
Have mercy on us!
Holy Mary, Queen of Martyrs,
Pray for Us!
St. Thomas More,
Pray for us.
St. Thomas, adorer of Christ's Passion,
Pray for us.
St. Thomas, who put prayer before all else,
Pray for us.
St. Thomas, devoted husband and father,
Pray for us.
St. Thomas, defender of the Church,
Pray for us.
St. Thomas, perfect model of friendship,
Pray for us.
St. Thomas, impervious to all bribery,
Pray for us.
St. Thomas, committed to the common good,
Pray for us.
St. Thomas, who reverenced civil and Divine law,
Pray for us.
St. Thomas, who always had death before thine eyes,
Pray for us.
St. Thomas, acutely aware of the brevity of life,
Pray for us.
St. Thomas, always wary of prosperity and presumption,
Pray for us.
St. Thomas, stranger to haughtiness,
Pray for us.
St. Thomas, ardent devotee of the Fathers of the Church,
Pray for us.
St. Thomas, who loathed idleness,
Pray for us.
Joyful and full of humour,
Pray for us.
Generous to all,
Pray for us.
Friend of the mentally handicapped,
Pray for us.
Lover of animals,
Pray for us.
Pray for us.
Stranger to greed,
Pray for us.
Civil judge of unimpeachable integrity,
Pray for us.
Universal patron of the poor,
Pray for us.
Liberator of the downtrodden,
Pray for us.
Courageous Martyr who gave up all in fidelity
to Christ and His Church,
Pray for us.
The king's good servant, but God's first,
Pray for us.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world,
Spare us, O Lord.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world,
Graciously hear us, O Lord.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world,
Have mercy on us.
Christ, hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us.
V. Pray for us, St. Thomas More,
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Let us pray.
O Lord, Thou didst give Thy servant St. Thomas More the courage to remain faithful to his conscience, formed by the teachings of Thy Holy Catholic Church; we ask Thee to give us the courage to follow in his footsteps, by placing prayer before all things, and by courageously remaining faithful to Christ and His Church to the very end, so that we may attain our eternal reward. Amen.
Feast Day: December 29th
Martyr, Archbishop of Canterbury, born at London, 21 December 1118 (?); died at Canterbury, 29 December 1170. St. Thomas was born of parents who, coming from Normandy, had settled in England some years previously. No reliance can be placed upon the legend that his mother was a Saracen. In after life his humble birth was made the subject of spiteful comment, though his parents were not peasants, but people of some mark, and from his earliest years their son had been well taught and had associated with gentlefolk. He learned to read at Merton Abbey and then studied in Paris. On leaving school he employed himself in secretarial work, first with Sir Richer de l'Aigle and then with his kinsman, Osbert Huitdeniers, who was “Justiciar” of London. Somewhere about the year 1141, under circumstances that are variously related, he entered the service of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, and in that household he won his master's favor and eventually became the most trusted of all his clerks. A description embodied in the Icelandic Saga and derived probably from Robert of Cricklade gives a vivid portrait of him at this period.
To look upon he was slim of growth and pale of hue, with dark hair, a long nose, and a straightly featured face. Blithe of countenance was he, winning and lovable in his conversation, frank of speech in his discourses, but slightly stuttering in his talk, so keen of discernment and understanding that he could always make difficult questions plain after a wise manner.
Theobald recognized his capacity, made use of him in many delicate negotiations, and, after allowing him to go for a year to study civil and cannon law at Bologna and Auxerre, ordained him deacon in 1154, after bestowing upon him several preferments, the most important of which was the Archdeaconry of Canterbury.
It was just at this period that King Stephen died and the young monarch Henry II became unquestioned master of the kingdom. He took “Thomas of London”, as Becket was then most commonly called, for his chancellor, and in that office Thomas at the age of thirty-six became, with the possible exception of the justiciar, the most powerful subject in Henry's wide dominions. The chroniclers speak with wonder of the relations which existed between the chancellor and the sovereign, who was twelve years his junior. People declared that “they had but one heart and one mind”. Often the king and his minister behaved like two schoolboys at play. But although they hunted or rode at the head of an army together it was no mere comradeship in pastime which united them. Both were hard workers, and both, we may believe, had the prosperity of the kingdom deeply at heart. Whether the chancellor, who was after all the elder man, was the true originator of the administrative reforms which Henry introduced cannot now be clearly determined. In many matters they saw eye to eye. The king's imperial views and love of splendor were quite to the taste of his minister. When Thomas went to France in 1158 to negotiate a marriage treaty, he traveled with such pomp that the people said: “If this be only the chancellor what must be the glory of the king himself?”
In 1153 Thomas acted as justice itinerant in three counties. In 1159 he seems to have been the chief organizer of Henry's expedition to Toulouse, upon which he accompanied him, and though it seems to be untrue that the impost of “scutage” was called into existence for that occasion, still Thomas undoubtedly pressed on the exaction of this money contribution in lieu of military service and enforced it against ecclesiastics in such a way that bitter complaints were made of the disproportionately heavy burden this imposed upon the Church. In the military operations Thomas took a leading part, and Garnier, a French chronicler, who lived to write of the virtues of St. Thomas and his martyrdom, declares that in these encounters he saw him unhorse many French nights. Deacon though he was, he lead the most daring attacks in person, and Edward Grim also gives us to understand that in laying waste the enemy's country with fire and sword the chancellor's principles did not materially differ from those of the other commanders of his time. But although, as men then reported, "he put off the archdeacon", in this and other ways, he was very far from assuming the licentious manners of those around him. No word was ever breathed against his personal purity. Foul conduct or foul speech, lying or unchastity were hateful to him, and on occasion he punished them severely. He seems at all times to have had clear principles with regard to the claims of the Church, and even during this period of his chancellorship he more than once risked Henry's grievous displeasure. For example, he opposed the dispensation which Henry for political reasons extorted from the pope, and strove to prevent the marriage of Mary, Abbess of Romsey, to Matthew of Boulogne. But to the very limits of what his conscience permitted, Thomas identified himself with his master's interests, and Tennyson is true to history when he makes the archbishop say:
I served our Theobald well when I was with him:
I served King Henry well as Chancellor:
I am his no more, and I must serve the Church.
Archbishop Theobald died in 1161, and in the course of the next year Henry seems to have decided that it would be good policy to prepare the way for further schemes of reform by securing the advancement of his chancellor to the primacy. Our authorities are agreed that from the first Thomas drew back in alarm. "I know your plans for the Church," he said, "you will assert claims which I, if I were archbishop, must needs oppose." But Henry would not be gainsaid, and Thomas at the instance of Cardinal Henry of Pisa, who urged it upon him as a service to religion, yielded in spite of his misgivings. He was ordained priest on Saturday in Whitweek and consecrated bishop the next day, Sunday, 03 June 1162. It seems to have been St. Thomas who obtained for England the privilege of keeping the feast of the Blessed Trinity on that Sunday, the anniversary of his consecration, and more than a century afterwards this custom was adopted by the papal Court, itself and eventually imposed on the whole world.
A great change took place in the saint's way of life after his consecration as archbishop. Even as chancellor he had practiced secret austerities, but now in view of the struggle he clearly saw before him he gave himself to fastings and disciplines, hair shirts, protracted vigils, and constant prayers. Before the end of the year 1162 he stripped himself of all signs of the lavish display which he had previously affected. On 10 August he went barefoot to receive the envoy who brought him the pallium from Rome. Contrary to the king's wish he resigned the chancellorship. Whereupon Henry seems to have required him to surrender certain ecclesiastical preferments which he still retained, notably the archdeaconry, and when this was not done at once showed bitter displeasure. Other misunderstandings soon followed. The archbishop, having, as he believed, the king's express permission, set about to reclaim alienated estates belonging to his see, a procedure which again gave offense. Still more serious was the open resistance which he made to the king's proposal that a voluntary offering to the sheriffs should be paid into the royal treasury. As the first recorded instance of any determined opposition to the king's arbitrary will in a matter of taxation, the incident is of much constitutional importance. The saint's protest seems to have been successful, but the relations with the king only grew more strained.
Soon after this the great matter of dispute was reached in the resistance made by Thomas to the king's officials when they attempted to assert jurisdiction over criminous clerks. The saint himself had no wish to be lenient with criminous clerks. It was with him simply a question of principle. St. Thomas seems all along to have suspected Henry of a design to strike at the independence of what the king regarded as a too powerful Church. With this view Henry summoned the bishops at Westminster (01 October 1163) to sanction certain as yet unspecified articles which he called his grandfather's customs (avitæ consuetudines), one of the known objects of which was to bring clerics guilty of crimes under the jurisdiction of the secular courts. The other bishops, as the demand was still in the vague, showed a willingness to submit, though with the condition "saving our order", upon which St. Thomas inflexibly insisted. The king's resentment was thereupon manifested by requiring the archbishop to surrender certain castles he had hitherto retained, and by other acts of unfriendliness. In deference to what he believed to be the pope's wish, the archbishop in December consented to make some concessions by giving a personal and private undertaking to the king to obey his customs "loyally and in good faith". But when Henry shortly afterwards at Clarendon (13 January 1164) sought to draw the saint on to a formal and public acceptance of the "Constitutions of Clarendon", under which name the sixteen articles, the avitæ consuetudines as finally drafted, have been commonly known, St. Thomas, though at first yielding somewhat to the solicitations of the other bishops, in the end took up an attitude of uncompromising resistance.
Then followed a period of unworthy and vindictive persecution. When opposing a claim made against him by John the Marshal, Thomas upon a frivolous pretext was found guilty of contempt of court. For this he was sentenced to pay £500; other demands for large sums of money followed, and finally, though a complete release of all claims against him as chancellor had been given on his becoming archbishop, he was required to render an account of nearly all the moneys which had passed through his hands in his discharge of the office. Eventually a sum of nearly £30,000 was demanded of him. His fellow bishops summoned by Henry to a council at Northampton, implored him to throw himself unreservedly upon the king's mercy, but St. Thomas, instead of yielding, solemnly warned them and threatened them. Then, after celebrating Mass, he took his archiepiscopal cross into his own hand and presented himself thus in the royal council chamber. The king demanded that sentence should be passed upon him, but in the confusion and discussion which ensued the saint with uplifted cross made his way through the mob of angry courtiers. He fled away secretly that night (13 October 1164), sailed in disguise from Sandwich (2 November), and after being cordially welcomed by Louis VII of France, he threw himself at the feet of Pope Alexander III, then at Sens, on 23 November. The pope, who had given a cold reception to certain episcopal envoys sent by Henry, welcomed the saint very kindly, and refused to accept his resignation of his see. On 30 November, Thomas went to take up his residence at the Cistercian Abbey of Pontigny in Burgundy, though he was compelled to leave this refuge a year later, as Henry, after confiscating the archbishop's property and banishing all the Becket kinsfolk, threatened to wreak his vengeance on the whole Cistercian Order if they continued to harbor him.
The negotiations between Henry, the pope, and the archbishop dragged on for the next four years without the position being sensibly changed. Although the saint remained firm in his resistance to the principle of the Constitutions of Clarendon, he was willing to make any concessions that could be reasonably asked of him, and on 6 January 1169, when the kings of England and France were in conference at Montmirail, he threw himself at Henry's feet, but as he still refused to accept the obnoxious customs Henry repulsed him. At last in 1170 some sort of reconciliation was patched up. The question of the customs was not mentioned and Henry professed himself willing to be guided by the archbishop's council as to amends due to the See of Canterbury for the recent violation of its rights in the crowning of Henry's son by the Archbishop of York. On 01 December 1170, St. Thomas had brought with him, as well as over the restoration by the de Broc family of the archbishop's castle at Saltwood. How far Henry was directly responsible for the tragedy which soon after occurred on 20 December is not quite clear. Four knights who came from France demanded the absolution of the bishops. St. Thomas would not comply. They left for a space, but came back at Vesper time with a band of armed men. To their angry question, "Where is the traitor?" the saint boldly replied, "Here I am, no traitor, but archbishop and priest of God." They tried to drag him from the church, but were unable, and in the end they slew him where he stood, scattering his brains on the pavement. His faithful companion, Edward Grim, who bore his cross, was wounded in the struggle.
A tremendous reaction of feeling followed this deed of blood. In an extraordinary brief space of time devotion to the martyred archbishop had spread all through Europe. The pope promulgated the bull of canonization, little more than two years after the martyrdom, 21 February 1173. On 12 July 1174, Henry II did public penance, and was scourged at the archbishop's tomb. An immense number of miracles were worked, and for the rest of the Middle Ages the shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury was one of the wealthiest and most famous in Europe. The martyr's holy remains are believed to have been destroyed in September, 1538, when nearly all the other shrines in England were dismantled; but the matter is by no means clear, and, although the weight of learned opinion is adverse, there are still those who believe that a skeleton found in the crypt in January 1888, is the body of St. Thomas. The story that Henry VIII in 1538 summoned the archbishop to stand his trial for high treason, and that when, in June 1538, the trial had been held and the accused pronounced contumacious, the body was ordered to be disinterred and burnt, is probably apocryphal.
Observations of a Monk
Edward Grim, a monk, observed the attack from the safety of a hiding place near the altar. He wrote his account some time after the event. Acceptance of his description must be qualified by the influence that Becket's sainthood had on Grim's perspective. However, the fundamentals of his narrative are no doubt true. We pick up the story after the knights have stormed into the cathedral.
“The murderers followed him; ‘Absolve’, they cried, ‘and restore to communion those whom you have excommunicated, and restore their powers to those whom you have suspended.’
“He answered, ‘There has been no satisfaction, and I will not absolve them.’
‘Then you shall die,’ they cried, ‘and receive what you deserve.’
‘I am ready,’ he replied, ‘to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace. But in the name of Almighty God, I forbid you to hurt my people whether clerk or lay.’
“Then they lay sacrilegious hands on him, pulling and dragging him that they may kill him outside the church, or carry him away a prisoner, as they afterwards confessed. But when he could not be forced away from the pillar, one of them pressed on him and clung to him more closely. Him he pushed off calling him ‘pander’, and saying, ‘Touch me not, Reginald; you owe me fealty and subjection; you and your accomplices act like madmen.’
“The knight, fired with a terrible rage at this severe repulse, waved his sword over the sacred head. ‘No faith’, he cried, ‘nor subjection do I owe you against my fealty to my lord the King.’
“Then the unconquered martyr seeing the hour at hand which should put an end to this miserable life and give him straightway the crown of immortality promised by the Lord, inclined his neck as one who prays and joining his hands he lifted them up, and commended his cause and that of the Church to God, to St. Mary, and to the blessed martyr Denys. Scarce had he said the words than the wicked knight, fearing lest he should be rescued by the people and escape alive, leapt upon him suddenly and wounded this lamb who was sacrificed to God on the head, cutting off the top of the crown which the sacred unction of the chrism had dedicated to God; and by the same blow he wounded the arm of him who tells this. For he, when the others, both monks and clerks, fled, stuck close to the sainted Archbishop and held him in his arms till the one he interposed was almost severed.
“Then he received a second blow on the head but still stood firm. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living victim, and saying in a low voice, ‘For the Name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death.’
“Then the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay, by which the sword was broken against the pavement, and the crown which was large was separated from the head. The fourth knight prevented any from interfering so that the others might freely perpetrate the murder.
“As to the fifth, no knight but that clerk who had entered with the knights, that a fifth blow might not be wanting to the martyr who was in other things like to Christ, he put his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to say, scattered his brain and blood over the pavement, calling out to the others, ‘Let us away, knights; he will rise no more.
Prayers in honor of St. Thomas Becket
As we might expect, the Liturgy of the Catholic Church honors Her beloved Martyr with an affectionate and enthusiastic homage. We copy from the
ancient Salisbury Breviary several passages, and we begin with some of the Antiphons of Matins and Lauds. The whole Office is rhymed according to the custom observed in the 13th century, the time when this Office of St. Thomas was composed.
Thomas being raised to the
fullness of the Priesthood, was
suddenly transformed into a
A monk, wearing the hair-
shirt secretly under his cleric's
dress, he subdues the rebellion
of his flesh, for he was not a
slave to the flesh
Husbandman of the Lord's
vineyard, he roots up the
brambles, and drives the foxes
from the vines.
He neither suffers wolves to
prowl among the lambs, nor
slugs to crawl in the garden.
He is sent into exile, and his
possessions made over to
wicked men ; but the fire of
tribulation bums him not.
The satellites of Satan rush
into the Temple, and perpetrate
the unheard-of crime.
Thomas advances to meet
the unsheathed swords : nor
threats, nor swords, nor very
death can make him yield.
Happy Canterbury ! Happy
Church that cherishes the
memory of her Thomas! Happy
Land that gave such a
Bishop, and happy, too, the
country that honored such,
The grain of wheat falls, and
bringeth forth much fruit : the
precious vase is broken, and
perfumes all the earth !
The whole earth seeks how
most to love our Martyr, and
men look in wonder at each
other as they hear or see the
miracles that are wrought.
Our next selection is of passages equally interesting, as showing the affection and confidence of the
faithful in our glorious Martyr.
Ant. The Shepherd, slain
in the midst of his flock purchaseth
peace at the price of
O joyful mourning,
O mournful joy ! The Shepherd
dead, new life is in the
Flock ! The Mother speaks,
through her tears, the praises
of her Son, for still he lives,
the conqueror of the sword.
R. Cease now to mourn,
that the flower of the world
hath been broken by the
world, O sorrowing Rachel !
The tomb of thy martyred
Thomas gives thee back an
Abel for the Abel thou didst
Ant. Hail O Thomas ! scepter
of justice, light of the
earth, strong champion of the
Church, beloved of the people,
favorite of the clergy ! Hail,
admirable keeper of the Flock !
keep in safety all us who
rejoice in thy glory.