Unconquered soul

Daily Reading for December 29 • Thomas Becket, 1170

In the year of the incarnation of the Lord 1170, Henry king of the English, son of Empress Matilda, held his court in Normandy at Bur, keeping the day of the Lord’s Nativity, saddened and troubled greatly because the archbishop of Canterbury did not wish to absolve the English bishops whom he had bound with the chain of excommunication. And since the above-mentioned king thus angry was in ire, four knights of his household, on account of the disturbed spirits which they saw in him, desiring to defend him, secretly, without the knowledge of the king, hurried to the sea to cross the channel to England. And when they had crossed the channel, they seized their journey with hastened course toward Canterbury.

And the father [Becket] had spent barely a month in his church, when behold, on the fifth day of Christmas the aforementioned four knights came to Canterbury, indeed vassals promised to Satan, whose names are these: William de Tracy, Hugh de Moreville, Richard Brito and Reginald fitz Urse; and the armed men in their rage came upon the aforementioned archbishop in the church. And having entered into that church, they said with great shouts, “Where, where is the traitor?” No one responded to them. And they asked again, “Where is the archbishop of Canterbury?” That one himself responded to them, “Here I am, the servant of Christ, whom you seek.” One of the murderous knights retorted to him in a spirit of fury, “You will die in a moment; it is truly impossible that you live any longer.” However the archbishop responded with no less steadiness in words as in spirit: “I am prepared to die for my God, and for the establishment of justice, and for the freedom of the church. But is you seek my head, I forbid, on behalf of Almighty God, and under anathema, that you should harm in any way anyone else, whether monk or cleric or layman, great or small, but let them be immune from penalty, as they are not involved in this.” These words of his are seen to imitate Christ speaking in the Passion: “If you seek me, let these men go.” [John 18:18] With these words, seeing the butchers with drawn swords, he bowed his head in the manner of praying, offering these words: “To God and the Blessed Mary, and to the holy patrons of this church, and to the Blessed Denis, I commend my very self and the cause of my church.” Then in all these tortures the martyr, of unconquered soul and admirable steadfastness, did not utter a word or cry, did not bring forth a groan, nor lay bare his arm or his garment to the one striking him, but offered his bowed head to their swords, holding fast until it was accomplished.

Thereupon the aforementioned knights, fearing a multitude of both sexes rushing on them from all sides, and lest he be delivered by the prayer he had begun, sped their villainy. And when one of them reaching out brandished his sword at the head of the archbishop, he nearly cut off the arm of a certain cleric, who was called Edward Grim, and likewise wounded the anointed of the Lord in the head. Truly that cleric stretched out his arm over the head of the father, so that he might receive the blows or rather divert the blow of the one striking. He stood thus far just on behalf of justice, patient as a lamb, innocent without a murmur, without complaint, and offered himself as a complete offering to the Lord. And lest any of the deadly vassals be able to argue later that he was blameless, the second and third cruelly smashed their swords against the top of the head of the steadfast athlete, crushed it, and threw down to the ground the victim of the Holy Spirit. Truly the fourth, raving with furious cruelty all the more, cut off the tonsured crown of the dying man already prostrate, scattered the top of the head and, inserting the sharp point into the head, poured forth the brain with blood over the stone pavement. Thereupon in the beginning of the seventh year of his exile, the aforementioned martyr Thomas, for the law of his God, and for the justice of his church, which had completely perished in the English church, struggled all the way unto death, and did not fear the words of the impious, but founded on the rock which is Christ, for the name of Christ, in the church of Christ, by the swords of the wicked, on the fifth day of Christmas, that is on the day after the feast of the Innocents, he himself lay down innocent. Then all ran away, leaving him behind, so that what was written might be fulfilled: “I will strike the shepherd and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.” [Matt. 26:31]

Truly the knights who had perpetrated that profane deed made their way back through the stable of the martyr and removed his horses, which they divided among themselves just as it pleased them. Those wicked ones, suddenly aware of their deed and despairing of pardon, did not dare to return to the court of the king whence they had come; but they withdrew to the western parts of England all the way to Knaresborough, an estate of Hugh de Moreville’s, and there remained for awhile until they were considered vile by compatriots of that province. Truly everyone avoided their company, nor did anyone wish to eat or drink with them. They ate and drank alone, and they were banished to the scraps of food with their dogs. And when they had tasted from that dish, even the dogs no longer wished to eat anything from there. Behold the manifest and worthy vengeance of God, that those who defied the anointed of the Lord were despised even by their dogs.

Meanwhile, the king, who held his court at Bur as we have said above, came to Argentan. Where, when he had heard that the archbishop of Canterbury was slain so cruelly in the church of Canterbury, he grieved violently, even more than it is possible to say. His life was miserable beyond words. Truly he did not wish to eat anything for three days, nor to speak with anyone, but conducted his lonely life behind closed doors for five weeks, until Rotrod archbishop of Rouen and the bishops of the Normans came to him to console him.

From The Chronicle of Benedict of Peterborough: The Murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, 29 December 1170; found at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/1170benedict-becket.html

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