St. Thomas Becket’s Martyrdom – The Unfinished Vespers of 29 December 1170

“For the Name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death.”  These words, according to an eye-witness account, were spoken by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, as he was hacked to death near the altar of his cathedral on December 29, 1170.  His crime?  He chose to support the rights of the Church, and thus the reign of Christ the King, over his earthly King, and former friend, Henry II.

Frustrated that Becket wouldn’t concede to his demands, which would have eroded the rights of the Church, King Henry is said to have uttered “What sluggards, what cowards have I brought up in my court, who care nothing for their allegiance to their lord. Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest.”  Four knights who heard this traveled from France to Canterbury to carry out what they took to be the king’s command.  They arrived and hid their swords under a tree outside the cathedral, then went inside and tried to get the bishop to come with them.  When he refused, they retrieved their swords and hacked him to death, splitting off part of his skull, as he was walking to the choir for vespers, which was already underway.

Here is an eye-witness account from Edwin Grim, one of the monks, who was hiding near the altar during the murder:

“The murderers followed him; ‘Absolve’, they cried, ‘and restore to communion those whom you have excommunicated, and restore their powers to those whom you have suspended.’

“He answered, ‘There has been no satisfaction, and I will not absolve them.’

‘Then you shall die,’ they cried, ‘and receive what you deserve.’

‘I am ready,’ he replied, ‘to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace. But in the name of Almighty God, I forbid you to hurt my people whether clerk or lay.’

“Then they lay sacrilegious hands on him, pulling and dragging him that they may kill him outside the church, or carry him away a prisoner, as they afterwards confessed. But when he could not be forced away from the pillar, one of them pressed on him and clung to him more closely. Him he pushed off calling him ‘pander’, and saying, ‘Touch me not, Reginald; you owe me fealty and subjection; you and your accomplices act like madmen.’

“The knight, fired with a terrible rage at this severe repulse, waved his sword over the sacred head. ‘No faith’, he cried, ‘nor subjection do I owe you against my fealty to my lord the King.’

“Then the unconquered martyr seeing the hour at hand which should put an end to this miserable life and give him straightway the crown of immortality promised by the Lord, inclined his neck as one who prays and joining his hands he lifted them up, and commended his cause and that of the Church to God, to St. Mary, and to the blessed martyr Denys. Scarce had he said the words than the wicked knight, fearing lest he should be rescued by the people and escape alive, leapt upon him suddenly and wounded this lamb who was sacrificed to God on the head, cutting off the top of the crown which the sacred unction of the chrism had dedicated to God; and by the same blow he wounded the arm of him who tells this. For he, when the others, both monks and clerks, fled, stuck close to the sainted Archbishop and held him in his arms till the one he interposed was almost severed.

“Then he received a second blow on the head but still stood firm. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living victim, and saying in a low voice, ‘For the Name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death.’

“Then the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay, by which the sword was broken against the pavement, and the crown which was large was separated from the head. The fourth knight prevented any from interfering so that the others might freely perpetrate the murder.

“As to the fifth, no knight but that clerk who had entered with the knights, that a fifth blow might not be wanting to the martyr who was in other things like to Christ, he put his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to say, scattered his brain and blood over the pavement, calling out to the others, ‘Let us away, knights; he will rise no more.’

Soon after his martyrdom miracles began to be attributed to Becket, and pilgrims flooded Canterbury Cathedral, the site of his murder.  He was canonized in 1173, and devotion to him spread widely.  In 1538, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, King Henry VIII ordered the destruction of the saint’s shrine, as well as obliteration of any mention of him.  His name was literally blotted out, since the office for his feast day was either ripped out of books, or blotted out with ink.  In our own times one copy of his office was found intact, in a breviary from Lewes Priory, and this was used by the late Mary Berry to create an album of Gregorian Chant celebrating the life and death of St. Thomas Becket.

Below we share a few tracks from this album, which attempts to musically re-create the vespers of Dec 29, 1170, which would have been interrupted by the murder of St. Thomas.  The first is The Unfinished Vespers, which is interrupted during the capitulum (little reading) at about the time the saint would have been martyred, by a death knell.  The second track is a death knell, and the third track is the subvenite.  You can find the entire album for purchase here.

O God, for whose Church the glorious Bishop Thomas Becket fell by the swords of wicked men: grant, we beseech thee; that all who call upon him for succour may be profited by the obtaining of all that they desire; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

 

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