Sunday, December 29, 2019
For today's Feast of St. Thomas Becket, below is a passage from the conclusion of historian Anne Duggan's very fine 2004 biography (previous posts on Becket's legacy drawing upon Tudor historian John Guy and GK Chesterton are here and here). 2020 will mark 850 years since Becket's martyrdom on December 29, 1170 and 800 years since the translation of his remains from the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral to a shrine on July 7, 1220. See here for information about a series of Becket2020 events and here for an exhibition on Becket at the British Museum opening October 15.
If one picture is worth a thousand words, the depiction of Becket’s murder—with the armour-clad knights brandishing their swords above the unprotected head of the priest—created an unforgettable image, which expressed the tension between religious and secular forces. No commentary was required to interpret the dramatic scene transmitted across Europe in manuscripts or on the reliquaries manufactured in Limoges. Detached from the specifics of the dispute with Henry II, that image became a powerful symbol of ecclesiastical steadfastness in the face of secular excess. In a sense, the image was the message; and the meaning of the message was not lost on Henry VIII, who destroyed the shrine and caused the hated name to be erased from the service books of the English Church; nor was it lost on the controversialists of the post-Reformation era, Catholic, Anglican and Protestant, who responded to the message with praise or censure according to its application to their own outlook.
Many secular heroes are made by single events: Richard I at Acre, Henry V at Agincourt, Nelson at Trafalgar, Wellington at Waterloo, Montgomery at El Alamein. For martyrs, it is the fact of their death in defence of their beliefs that justifies their claim. In Becket’s case, the cause for which he died was ultimately bypassed by history; but it had numerous analogues that could be recognized in very different historical settings. Even in this generation, the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador in , or of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko in Poland, called up the image of St Thomas of Canterbury, murdered for opposition to a powerful king. Becket’s example, of resistance to an aggressive “public power” and courage in the face of extreme violence, could be appreciated by men and women across the ages.
Anne Duggan, Thomas Becket (2004), 268-69.