It is the 2nd of November 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1164.
Today's story involves one of the more dramatic characters of the medieval Church in England. To set the stage, let's look back quickly at the history of the church in England. You might remember that the other day we mentioned St. Andrew and how important it was for Scottish independence to mark the beginning of their church in the 4th century. It had to be the 4th century because, by the 5th century, the church mission in England was consolidating. Soon Augustine of Canterbury, the Apostle to the English, would establish a relationship between the Pope and Anglo-Saxon Christians. Much has been made of the importance of monasteries for the Anglo-Saxons, but also critical was the church's development after the Norman invasion. After 1066, the church was integrated into the feudal system, with Bishops becoming essential civic positions.
William the Conqueror's promise to reform the English church led many nobles to support him. Within the few centuries after him, the monastic orders and military/religious orders could rival those on the European mainland. One of the most critical bureaucratic decisions was to place one bishop above the rest, an "archbishop" but not just any archbishop, the Archbishop of Canterbury in particular. This has remained a high profile and sometimes precarious position to hold. Before the Reformation, the Archbishop would have to weigh the interests of the crown, the interests of his flock, and the interests of the Pope.
By the time we get to our year, 1164, a decently complicated succession dispute led to King Henry II's reign. He was the first of the house of Anjou. King Henry II's Archbishop of Canterbury was the well-regarded Norman monk, Theobald of Bec. Part of the secret of Theobald's success was his right-hand man, a young Thomas Beckett.
Beckett was born in 1120 to middle-class parents in London. His mother died when he was young, and his dad climbed the socio-economic ladder as a merchant, a landlord, and then a well-connected man amongst the elite in the city. Beckett was introduced to the world of business and civic leadership by his father. He was soon on his way with a reputation for a keen intellect and increasing social network amongst Europe's elite. Theobald recommended that Thomas become Henry II's chancellor. And this is when his life became a rollercoaster.
Thomas proved to be an effective and popular chancellor, supporting the king's policies and rebuffing Papal power. Henry eventually promoted Thomas to be Archbishop of Canterbury, thinking that this would give him even more autonomy over Rome. But as Thomas (perhaps) took his new position in the church seriously, he began to tilt the balance of power back towards Rome. This infuriated the king and many of the Bishops to the extent that on this, the 2nd of November in 1164, Thomas Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury, went into exile in France after being called to a council at which he was sure he would be killed.
The ensuing years involved King Henry II attempting to supplant the authority of the Archbishopric of Canterbury with that of York. This led to the Pope excommunicating King Henry II, and eventually, Thomas agreed to meet Henry and his bishops at Canterbury to bury the hatchet. If you know the story of Thomas Beckett, you know what happens next. If you are familiar with T.S. Eliot's famous play, "Murder in the Cathedral," you know what happens next.
We know that after his murder in the cathedral, a shrine was set up to which pilgrims would make meritorious religious pilgrimages. You may remember that "The Canterbury Tales" is about pilgrims telling each other stories on the way to the Canterbury Cathedral to visit the shrine for Thomas Beckett. He, of the first major institutional controversy in the English church, went into exile on this, the 2nd of November, in 1164.
The reading for today comes from T.S. Eliot's play about Beckett. This from his "Murder in the Cathedral"
For wherever a saint has dwelt, wherever a martyr has given his blood for the blood of Christ,
There is holy ground, and the sanctity shall not depart from it
Though armies trample over it, though sightseers come with guide-books looking over it.
"We have only to conquer
Now, by suffering. This is the easier victory.
Now is the triumph of the cross."
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 2nd of November 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man whose favorite Beckets include Thomas, Samuel, and the guy who tells you how much your baseball cards are worth, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. Remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true… Everything is going to be ok.