Tuesday, July 9, 2013

How to Become a Twelfth Century Saint: The Case of Thomas Becket

by Rosanne E. Lortz

On February 21, 1173, Thomas Becket was officially canonized as a saint by the decree of the Roman Church. This elevation to sainthood indicated three things about Thomas.

First, it showed that Thomas’s life was of such an exemplary character that the Church recommended it for emulation. The archbishop in his stand for the Church’s liberty was an example for all of his contemporaries to follow.

Second, it showed that the relics of Thomas’s body had produced genuine miracles after his death. If the chroniclers’ records are to be believed, the miracles were exceedingly numerous. A paralyzed woman was healed when she came into contact with the martyr’s blood. A baby boy was relieved from his fever when he drank water from a spring near the shrine. By contact with the martyr’s body, one young man discovered a large treasure; another man, who had stolen from a merchant, was nearly suffocated by the power of the martyr until he resolved to repent of his theft.

Because of these and other miraculous events, rich and poor alike journeyed to Thomas’s shrine at Canterbury seeking the blessing of the martyr. These pilgrimages to Canterbury were later made famous by the poet Geoffrey Chaucer.

Thomas Becket's murder, from a page in a Psalter (c.1250)

Third, Thomas's canonization showed that the events of his life and the miracles subsequent to his death were well-documented enough to be considered authentic. The Church of the twelfth century was becoming more and more scrupulous about who ought to be canonized. An accurate record of the holy man’s life must be produced before he could be officially considered a saint. Canonization could not be conferred on mere hearsay.

In a treatise composed half a century before Thomas’s death, Guibert of Nogent wrote:
[The saints] "are people who are worthy of our reverence and honor in exchange for their example and protection. As regards such people, the only method for considering a person to be a saint which should be considered authoritative is one that relies not on opinion, but on timeworn tradition or on the evidence of trustworthy writers…. 
"Who would ask people, about whose merit in the eyes of God is uncertain, to intercede on their behalf? Would not the conscience of a man offer grave offense if he obtained as an intercessor with God someone who was not to be particularly trusted? Would not the sharpness of his prayer be blunted in its intention if he did not know whether the person whom he asked for help had anything in common with God?" 
This treatise warns us that the Church must prevent charlatans from being venerated as saints. Only those whose merit is unquestionable should be trusted to intercede with God on our behalf. The canonization of Thomas Becket indicates that the twelfth century Church found him a trustworthy intercessor.

Out of all the pilgrims who came to honor the new saint at his tomb, there was one that deserves especial mention. Henry, the king who had refused to kiss the archbishop in peace, did penance for that refusal in the summer of 1174.

Politically, the penance was a necessary deed. After the tumult with Thomas had subsided, Henry found himself faced by a full-scale rebellion led by his wife Eleanor and his sons Henry, Richard, and Geoffrey. His family was aided in their rebellion by King Louis of France, King William of Scotland, and several other foreign powers.  Now Henry himself knew how it felt to stand contra mundum.

Many of his subjects believed that this revolt was a fitting punishment for the king’s mistreatment of Thomas. In order to counteract this opinion and to regain the support of his subjects, Henry made a pilgrimage to Canterbury. The chronicler Edward Grim writes:
"Finally, shown through a vision that there was no other way of obtaining peace except by placating and reconciling the martyr, in whose revenge such great confusion of things now seized the whole realm, so that without much blood no one might hope for peace, the king put aside his pride for a time, and with a contrite and humble heart he came to the tomb of the precious martyr to beg pardon for his presumption."  
Barefoot and sorrowful, King Henry entered the church at Canterbury. The flagstones that had run red with Thomas’s blood were drenched again with the tears of the king. When the archbishop lived, Henry had refused to give him the kiss of peace. Now that the archbishop was dead, Henry kissed his death place over and over again, begging that the saint would give peace to him and his kingdom.

Humbling himself even further, Henry removed his outer clothing and leant against the tomb. The bishops and monks who were present came forward. Each of the bishops struck him five times; each of the eighty monks struck him three times. Following this punishment, Henry spent the entire night in prayer beside the tomb. Thus was the king’s absolution completed.

Stained glass window of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral

There are many nowadays who would question the genuineness of Henry’s sorrow. Because the action had political advantages, they assume that it could not have been from the heart. The chroniclers, however, have no doubts about the authenticity of Henry’s contrition. The events that followed the penance confirm its genuineness. Insofar as the dead can intercede on behalf of the living, Thomas interceded for Henry. On the day that Henry completed his penance,
"The count of Flanders, who with an immense army had blockaded the coast of the sea so as to invade England without warning, suddenly changed his mind and retreated.  Likewise, the next day…the king of the Scots, who was attacking and laying waste and robbing the Northumbrians, was captured in battle."  
Henry had received his own miracle from the hand of the man he had mistreated. Henry had retained his kingship, a gift from the man he had murdered. The deeds that Thomas Becket accomplished in his death vindicated everything he had sought to accomplish in his life.

The man was a saint indeed...according to all the necessary proofs required by the twelfth century.


Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of two books: I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, a historical adventure/romance set during the Hundred Years' War, and Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred, the beginning of a trilogy which takes place during the First Crusade. The above essay was excerpted from Rosanne's New St. Andrews College thesis: The Life and Death of Saint Thomas Becket: Type of Paul, Type of Peter, Type of Christ.

You can learn more about Rosanne's books at her Official Author Website where she also blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.


Head, Thomas, trans. and ed. Medieval Hagiography: An Anthology. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Staunton, Michael, trans. and ed. The Lives of Thomas Becket. New York: Manchester University Press, 2001.


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