Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Duties of a Dead Saint, or Thomas Becket's Busy Schedule as a Martyr

By Rosanne E. Lortz

December 29, 1170—the day that Archbishop Thomas Becket met his death at the hands of King Henry II’s knights in the cathedral at Canterbury.

Within three years of his death he had been canonized (i.e. made a “saint”) by the church. The speed with which he was canonized is telling—in a century where the church was careful only to canonize “legitimate” saints, it often took decades before a saint’s holy life and post mortem miracles were documented and accepted as legitimate.

The new saint was also exceptional in gaining a multi-national following. Historian Thomas Head writes that Becket was such a “prominent” member of the saintly set that “the date of his martyrdom…was annually commemorated all over Europe with special prayers and lessons, and often with special music as well.”

Head goes on to say that:
The standard office for Thomas’s December feast day was evidently written soon after the canonization in 1173 by Benedict of Peterborough, a monk who belonged to the community of Christ Church, Canterbury, until 1177 and served as the first recorder of miracles at the saint’s tomb. 
The readings in the Mass, interspersed between the complex antiphons, are as much a history lesson as a sermon, telling the story of Becket’s disagreement with Henry, his exile, and his martyrdom.

The text of the Mass is interesting, not just because of what it tells us about Thomas Becket, but because of what it tells us about 12th century Europe’s veneration of the saints. Here is one of the responsorial readings:
O kind Jesus, through Thomas’s merits, release us from our debts; watch over our home, city gate, and tomb; and arouse us from threefold death. Restore, by your wonted mercy, what we have lost by act, thought, or habit…. 
Through Thomas’s blood, O Christ, which he shed for thee, make us too to rise where he ascended. 
Note that the words, though they reference “Thomas’s merits,” are directed to Jesus. The medievals were entreating Christ to look upon Becket’s supererogatory merit (deeds done over and above what is required for salvation) and apply it to their own accounts. Becket had gone above and beyond the call of duty, as it were, and his good conduct was something that the pious but not-quite-so-holy could take advantage of as they sought to measure up to the mark.

The popularity of Becket’s feast day throughout Europe shows that there was a high regard for his “merits”…and for their effectiveness in being transferred to others. But besides celebrating the twenty-ninth of December, there was another even more effective way of seeking the help of the dead saint....

Every year, thousands of pilgrims congregated at Becket’s tomb at Canterbury. There they sought a physical connection with the bones and long dried up blood of the martyr, and, while touching the relics of the saint on earth, beseeched him to intercede for them in heaven.

The medieval veneration for relics—a finger bone, a vial of dried up blood, a skull—is often confusing and faintly disturbing to moderns. But rather than being based on macabre superstition, it was actually rooted in the Christian doctrine of the bodily resurrection.

Becket’s soul was in heaven with God. His body was here on earth. There was still a link between the two, for, at the end of time, Becket’s body would be resurrected and reunited with his soul.

Because of this link, the pilgrims who came into contact with Becket’s body had a connection with Becket’s soul. Since the soul was in the presence of God, it could make intercession for them with the Almighty, for whom nothing is impossible. This is why the medievals believed that relics could produce miracles. (For a fuller discussion of this idea, see Peter Brown's The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity.)

Altar marking the spot of Becket's martyrdom at Canterbury

Thomas Becket spent eight long, weary years combating Henry II’s program to erode the liberty of the church. In the end, he certainly did nothing to avoid the grisly death that awaited him, refusing to let the monks bar the door against the murderers and refusing to recant any of his past pronouncements in the face of four drawn swords. Perhaps he was tired of fighting. Perhaps he was ready for death.

But rather than entering a well-deserved rest in the afterlife, it seems that Becket’s duties were only increased. Now, instead of having the cares of the see of Canterbury on his shoulders, he was inundated with the cares of Christians across Europe. When he put off this mortal flesh he put on the role of mediator between the ordinary Christian and the Christ enthroned in heaven. And if he truly was making intercession for each and every pilgrim who murmured a prayer beside his tomb, he would hardly have time for harp-strumming or taking it easy on a floating cloud.

In the 12th century conception of things, Thomas Becket, the martyr, would find himself with a busier schedule than Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, ever had. For a medieval saint, death was only the beginning….


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.

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



Brown, Peter. The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

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


  1. Rosanne,

    Great post! Thanks for explaining the connection between earthly remains and souls as seen from the medieval perspective. All though I knew both the medieval reverence of relics and the importance of pilgrimage, I'd never made the (in retrospect obvious) connection between relics and resurrection.

    Good luck on your next books as well. The crusades are fascinating and I hope interest is picking up in them.

    1. Thanks so much, Helena! It was one of my college history teachers that first made the connection for me...and introduced me to Peter Brown's books. It really is a fascinating subject that often gets ignored because people dismiss relics as just being "weird."

  2. What a marvelous article, beautifully written! I also never made the connection between relics and bodily resurrection. I always thought of a relic as a physical memory of the saint, not a link. I loved the way you described Thomas's too busy life as a saint. I know Peter Brown's work on religion in the late classical world but not the book you mentioned. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Stephanie! Glad you enjoyed the post. Peter Brown is a very insightful historian. I also really enjoyed his biography of Augustine of Hippo.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.