Sunday, 13 June 2021

Thomas and Henry

 I went to the Thomas Becket exhibition (as they call him now, I always thought he was Thomas a Becket) at the British Museum last week. Whilst giving a good account of its subject the exhibition wasn't quite as interesting as I'd hoped simply because there isn't that much that survives. There were some beautiful reliquary boxes and illuminated manuscripts, some stained glass and seals, and they did the best they could with what there is but it isn't a great deal. 

I'm sure everyone knows the story. On 29th December 1170 Thomas, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, was murdered in his cathedral by four knights acting, as they thought, at the behest of the king, Henry II. Thomas and Henry had been friends in earlier times but had fallen out over, as I understand it, disputes to do with secular and ecclesiastical power, for instance whether the clergy could be tried in secular courts. It was basically the typical Medieval tussle between church and state. The whole of Europe was horrified by the assassination and a mere three years later Thomas was canonised by the pope. Henry was forced to do penance, even though he hadn't directly ordered the killing, and walked barefoot into Canterbury Cathedral wearing sackcloth and ashes where he allowed himself to be flogged by monks. Canterbury thereafter became a famous place of pilgrimage as depicted in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in which a group of pilgrims entertain each other on the way to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket.

The story had a curious echo about 350 years later when another Henry and another Thomas clashed. This was Henry VIII and his Lord Chancellor, Thomas More. The situations were surprisingly similar. A proud and arrogant monarch and a man he thought his friend and "good servant" who fell out over religious matters. In Thomas More's case it was his refusal to accept the annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Like his predecessor he put loyalty to God above loyalty to King even if he was never disloyal to the King other than in matters of conscience. This dispute also ended in death although this time it was a legal execution after Thomas had been convicted of treason. Curiously, this Thomas wore a hair shirt under his outer garments just as the earlier one is said to have done.

Both these men stood up to the worldly powers when they saw these powers as exceeding their authority and stepping into spiritual territory. They paid for their principled stands with their lives. Without wishing to appear melodramatic, (for instance, I don't envisage executions) I wonder if we might not take some heart from their examples. It seems very possible that the world will demand more and more from us, going from gestures of allegiance to its cause to intellectual and maybe even physical signs of submission. This has actually started to happen over the last year and may well increase. It is important to avoid the "martyr complex" in which you self-importantly see yourself as a valiant soldier for truth but are really just giving in to egotistical inflation. The humility of both Thomases, especially, I think, the second one, is critical. But the signs are there. The churches appear to have put the state before God recently and one must assume that anyone who takes the opposite stance will be condemned, probably as a mad person and hater of humanity. But those of us who believe in God have to put that belief first. If God is real everything must be seen in a spiritual light. The spiritual cannot be secondary. It must always be the reason for everything else which makes sense only as an expression of the spiritual. This hierarchy is now being reversed. That is something the two Thomases understood, resisted and died to prevent.


Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Nice post. But things feel very different for us than for the Thomases - who really experienced The Church as the same thing as Christianity; so their conflict was betweeen institutions. A modern Thomas would probably be on his own - and with The Church against him - The Church urging him to go along with the King.

I'm not saying that we have it harder than the Thomases, but that our challenge takes a different form; and is much more individually experienced. A modern martyr is Very unlikely to become the focus of pilgrimage or mass prayer.

William Wildblood said...

You're right, Bruce. The two Thomases would have been supported by the Church but the Church often now seems to be on the other side. Now both the challenges and the support have moved on to a different plane.