Thomas Becket's assassination (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Reclaiming Becket

London’s great saint needs a reboot

It’s 850 years since that night when four knights murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s been a rocky old road for Thomas Becket despite hundreds of years as the poster-boy of the cult of saints which swept medieval England. His reputation, his legacy and his conduct have been filleted over the last few centuries and we are left with just a ghost of the man who, once upon a time, stood for all that was good.

It is a cautionary tale of historical revisionism, measuring yesterdays’ saints by today’s ‘standards’ and assembling a set of half-truths to trash the reputation of England’s great, perhaps greatest, saint. It is high time he made a comeback – especially in these political times. After all, Becket was perhaps the greatest political martyr we have. Of course, there is always truth in just about any criticism. And Becket lays himself open. He was, to say the least, stubborn. He was a contrarian and he was reckless with his own safety. In an age of kingly power, it doesn’t do to embarrass the monarch.

The charge sheet does quickly stack up. Becket was a canny careerist (although you’d be hard pushed to find anyone of influence at the time who wasn’t). He seemed to have a death wish, or at least refused to listen to perfectly sensible advice on taking a more circumspect path. And his cause, seen through a certain lens, seems off-beam for modern times. He has been painted as standing for the ancient legal power of the church against a reforming king who began to kick-start Common Law. But of course, it’s never as simple as this.

But none of this was the real problem and none of it was what caused our great saint to be consigned to the historical dustbin. As is often the way, the problem comes down to background and class. Becket was born to only modestly well-off parents in London (he has always been London’s saint). His father was middle-class, and a merchant. Becket was ‘trade’ by background and it was something he couldn’t shake off. But his rise was an astounding feat of defying gravity.

In order to rehabilitate our saint, we need to listen to what his contemporaries saw in him

In an era of complex geopolitics and conflicts between pope and state Thomas rose through the ranks and became Archbishop of Canterbury. At first, he seemed like the king’s man, but relations soured. Becket and the king were entangled in a fight to the death, with the archbishop excommunicating various opponents and generally throwing his weight around.

His death was gruesome. Four knights ambushed him. He could have run or barricaded himself in the cathedral, but he told his followers that God’s house should not be made a fortress. He pushed one of his attackers. What followed was a flurry of sword-strokes to the head – one of which took his tonsured skull right off. The contemporaneous reports paint a ghastly picture of brain fluid and blood mixing freely on the cathedral floor. But it didn’t end there.

In order to rehabilitate our saint, we need to listen to what his contemporaries saw in him. There was public disgust at the murder. When Thomas’ body was reclaimed it was found he was wearing a hair-shirt under his garb, which he was wearing as a kind of saintly penance and reminder of the suffering of God. He’d also infected himself with thousands of lice to make his self-torture even more challenging. The bon-viveur and social climber of his youth had become the serious aesthete and proponent of a certain kind of hard-line holiness. His devotion struck a chord. Plus, the way he offered no resistance to the men of violence and stood against the state for his beloved church, made him a candidate for sainthood. It duly followed two years after his death and the king engaged in public penance.

People flocked to the shrine of London’s great saint. Miracles were had and books and accounts were written. There was a thriving trade in pilgrimage medals. Where today people might wear a badge with a favoured cause or pop-star, our forebears would have worn a Thomas Becket medal. It wasn’t some kind of fake fandom, though. People felt that the saint mattered and that his life was an example for their life.

In a way Becket was big business for the church. He was part of the reestablishment of the catholic church. The tide began to turn with the Reformation. Henry VIII had his shrine destroyed and bones disposed of. In more Protestant times Becket became a symbol of failed clericalism and misused authority. He was marked as all that was bad about popery. And so, his reputation has languished. The doomed archbishop who not many people are interested in.

In a way his fall is a paradigm for a more general mistrust of saints. It would be hard to say that religious saints hold much sway over the general imagination of people.

There are good reasons for this, and we need to get these out into the open. Those canonised by the church are a rum old lot – bizarre by any standards. Scratch just the obvious ground and you’ll find saints like Simeon Stylites, who spent 20 years atop a pillar 60 feet high, or St Cyril of Alexandria whose favoured modus operandi was bribery and blackmail. Cyril seems to have become a saint by mistake. Then there are the saints who didn’t exist at all – just reworked legends. The female saint Wilgefortis did not want to marry and so miraculously grew a beard. She is a pure figment of the imagination.

But we need to reserve judgement and see what the alternative is and then wonder just whether we might benefit from a resurgence of saints.

All societies tend to have figureheads – people we look up to. We have secular saints in our modern day. What about Saint Beckham? Or Saint Greta? Or Saint Aung San Suu Kyi? Many people we now revile were, in their day, seen to be saintly fighters for the good. Robert Mugabe comes to mind. As we develop the list the problem becomes obvious.

What makes a secular saint? Is it their service to others, their unblemished character, their talent, their success? We don’t have anything to anchor them other than doing good and being famous. And then we discover that they have feet of clay and they are toppled. The odd thing is that it is the very feet of clay that makes a non-secular saint, a religious one, all the more believable and followable. All we need to do is to be clear about what makes religious saints so potent. In the Christian tradition the saint is not a picture of perfection. Quite the opposite in many cases. They are people who tried. People who tried to follow God and suffered doing so or wrestled with the great contradictions both within themselves and without. They are much closer to home than we might think.

Let’s go back to Becket and wonder if we might rehabilitate him as a very modern saint. His personal flaws were legendary. He had a temper, he could be unreasonable, his ego was mighty. He was awkward and didn’t know how to compromise (but neither did his opponents). And yet he is an emblem of what it is to stand against state power and what it is to die for something he held so dear. The turbulent priest has inspired other turbulent priests to be a thorn in a government or junta’s flesh. His opponent Henry II was a ruthless tyrant in the making, a perjurer who never played fair. Henry never missed a chance to demean Becket’s mercantile origins. But this tough Londoner kept fighting.

As he was struck down, one of the knight’s lackeys pinned his body to the floor and scraped his brain out of his skull and spread it on the floor. It looked like the ultimate humiliation. But over the years and centuries that followed Becket, the Londoner of relatively humble origin, whose father was a merchant and when the money nearly ran out sent his son to be a clerk, became a popular hero, whose example helped others to resist, even gently, the push of the state into everyday lives and the law.

Even hundreds of years of negative press have failed to extinguish this great English saint where, in just a matter of decades, our modern secular variety will be forgotten, written off and irrelevant.

Perhaps there is something deep about following a noble cause – the desire to live a useful and holy life – and all the struggles that come with that make saints durable.

And Becket is due a reboot. He is the saint of the shopkeeping classes – of everyone who has dragged themselves up by their bootstraps. He is the saint who stood against the advancing state and its insidious power. He is the saint who rediscovered how to live a simple and holy life. And he is the saint who raised no hand to protect himself in the face of thuggery. And he is the great political saint – or the perhaps the saint who shows how politics can chew us up and spit us out. He is our greatest Saint, at least I think he is.

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