The atrocious murder sent a thrill of horror throughout the Christian world. The moment of Becket’s death was his triumph. His exalted station, his personal virtues, the sacrilege,—all contributed to deepen the impression. At first opinion was divided, as he had strong enemies, even at Canterbury. A monk declared that Becket paid a just penalty for his obstinacy others said, "He wished to be king and more than king; the archbishop of York dared to preach that Becket "perished, like Pharaoh, in his pride."
But the torrent of public admiration soon silenced all opposition. Miracles took place at his tomb, and sealed his claim to the worship of a saint and martyr. "The blind see, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the devils are cast out, even the dead are raised to life." Thus wrote John of Salisbury, his friend.168 Remarkable cures, no doubt, took place; credulity and fraud exaggerated and multiplied them. Within a few years after the murder, two collections of his miracles were published, one by Benedict, prior of Canterbury (afterwards abbot of Peterborough), and one by William, monk of Canterbury.169 According to these reports, the miracles began to occur the very night of the archbishop’s death. His blood had miraculous efficacy for those who drank it.170
Two years after his death, Feb. 21, 1173, Becket was solemnly canonized by Alexander III., who had given him only a lukewarm support in his contest with the king. There is scarcely another example of such an early recognition of saintship; but public sentiment had anticipated it. At a council in Westminster the papal letters of canonization were read. All the bishops who had opposed Becket were present, begged pardon for their offence, and acquiesced in the pope’s decision. The 29th of December was set apart as the feast of "St. Thomas of Canterbury."
King Henry II., as the supposed author of the monstrous crime, was branded with a popular excommunication. On the first news, he shut himself up for three days in his chamber, rolled himself in sackcloth and ashes, and obstinately refused food and comfort. He lived secluded for five weeks, exclaiming again and again, "Alas, alas that it ever happened!" He issued orders for the apprehension of the murderers, and despatched envoys to the pope to exculpate, himself and to avert the calamity of excommunication and, an interdict. After long delay a reconciliation took place in the cathedral of Avranches in Normandy, before the papal legates, the archbishop of Rouen, and many bishops and noblemen, May 22, 1172.171 Henry swore on the holy Gospels that he had neither commanded nor desired the death of Becket, that it caused him more grief than the death of his father or his mother, and that he was ready to make full satisfaction. He pledged himself to abrogate the Statutes of Clarendon; to restore the church of Canterbury to all its rights and possessions; to undertake, if the pope should require it, a three years’ crusade to Jerusalem or Spain, and to support two hundred knights in the Holy Land. After these pledges he said aloud: "Behold, my lord legates, my body is in your hands; be assured that whatever you order, whether to go to Jerusalem or to Rome or to St. James [at Compostella in Spain], I am ready to obey." He was led by the bishops into the church and reconciled. His son, who was present, promised Cardinal Albert to make good his father’s pledges. This penance was followed by a deepest humiliation at Canterbury.
Two years later, July 12, 1174, the king, depressed by disasters and the rebellion of his wife and his sons, even made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Becket. He dismounted from his horse as he came in sight of the towers of Canterbury, walked as a penitent pilgrim in a woollen shirt, with bare and bleeding feet, through the streets, knelt in the porch of the cathedral, kissed the sacred stone on which the archbishop had fallen, threw himself prostrate before the tomb in the crypt, and confessed to the bishops with groans and tears his deep remorse for the hasty words which had led to the murder. Gilbert Foliot, bishop of London, once Becket’s rival and enemy, announced to the monks and bystanders the king’s penitence and intention to restore the rights and property of the Church, and to bestow forty marks yearly on the monastery to keep lamps burning at the martyr’s tomb. The king, placing his head and shoulders on the tomb, submitted to the degrading punishment of scourging, and received five stripes from each bishop and abbot, and three stripes from each of the eighty monks. Fully absolved, he spent the whole night on the bare ground of the crypt in tears and prayers, imploring the forgiveness of the canonized saint in heaven whom he had persecuted on earth.
No deeper humiliation of king before priest is recorded in history. It throws into the shade the submission of Theodosius to Ambrose, of Edgar to Dunstan, of Barbarossa to Alexander, and even the scene at Canossa.
Fifty years after the martyrdom, Becket’s relics were translated with extraordinary solemnity from the tomb in the crypt to the costly shrine of Becket, which blazed with gold and jewels, in the reconstructed Canterbury cathedral (1220). And now began on the largest scale that long succession of pilgrimages, which for more than three hundred years made Canterbury the greatest sacred resort of Western Christendom, next to Jerusalem and Rome. It was more frequented than Loreto in Italy and Einsiedeln in Switzerland. No less than a hundred thousand pilgrims were registered at Canterbury in 1420. From all parts of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, from France and the far north, men and women flocked to the shrine: priests, monks, princes, knights, scholars, lawyers, merchants, mechanics, peasants. There was scarcely an English king, from Henry II. to Henry VIII., who did not from motives of piety or policy pay homage to the memory of the saint. Among the last distinguished visitors were John Colet, dean of St. Paul’s, and Erasmus, who visited the shrine together between the years 1511 and 1513, and King Henry VIII. and Emperor Charles V., who attended the last jubilee in 1520. Plenary indulgences were granted to the pilgrims. Some went in December, the month of his martyrdom; a larger number in July, the month of the translation of his relics. Every fiftieth year a jubilee lasting fifteen days was celebrated in his honor. Six such jubilees were celebrated,—1270, 1320, 1370, 1420, 1470, 1520. The offerings to St. Thomas exceeded those given to any other saint, even to the holy Virgin.
Geoffrey Chaucer, the father of English poetry, who lived two centuries after Becket’ martyrdom, has immortalized these pilgrimages in his Canterbury Tales, and given us the best description of English society at that time.
The pilgrimages promoted piety, social intercourse, superstition, idleness, levity, and immorality, and aroused moral indignation among many serious and spiritually minded men.
The superstitious idolatry of St. Thomas was continued down to the time of the Reformation, when it was rudely but forever crushed out. Henry VIII. cited Becket to appear in court to answer to the charges of treason and rebellion. The case was formally argued at Westminster. His guilt was proved, and on the 10th of June, 1538, St. Thomas was condemned as a "rebel and a traitor to his prince." The rich shrine at Canterbury was pillaged; the gold and jewels were carried off in two strong coffers, and the rest of the treasure in twenty-six carts. The jewels went into the hands of Henry VIII., who wore the most precious of them, a diamond, the "Regale of France," in the ring on his thumb; afterwards it glittered in the golden, "collar" of his daughter, the bigoted Queen Mary. A royal proclamation explained the cause and mode of Becket’s death, and the reasons for his degradation. All festivals, offices, and prayers in his name were forbidden. The site of his shrine has remained vacant to this day.
The Reformation prepared the way for a more spiritual worship of God and a more just appreciation of the virtues and faults of Thomas Becket than was possible in the age in which he lived and died,—a hero and a martyr of the papal hierarchy, but not of pure Christianity, as recorded in the New Testament. To the most of his countrymen, as to the English-speaking people at large, his name has remained the synonym for priestly pride and pretension, for an arrogant invasion of the rights of the civil estate. To a certain class of English High Churchmen he remains, like Laud of a later age, the martyr of sacerdotal privilege, the unselfish champion of the dowered rights of the Church. The atrocity of his taking-off no one will choose to deny. But the haughty assumption of the high prelate had afforded pretext enough for vehement indignation and severe treatment. Priestly robes may for a time conceal and even protect pride from violence, but sooner or later it meets its just reward. The prelate’s superiority involved in Becket’s favorite expression, "saving the honor of my order," was more than a king of free blood could be expected to bear.
This dramatic chapter of English history may be fitly closed with a scene from Lord Tennyson’s tragedy which presents the personal quality that brought about Thomas à Becket’s fall.172
John of Salisbury.
Thomas, I would thou hadst returned to England
Like some wise prince of this world from his wars,
With more of olive-branch and amnesty
For foes at home—thou hast raised the world against thee.
Why, John, my kingdom is not of this world.
John of Salisbury.
If it were more of this world it might be
More of the next. A policy of wise pardon
Wins here as well as there. To bless thine enemies —