Thomas Becket: Formed for Freedom

Twenty-twenty was a fraught year, particularly for social institutions. Thankfully then, 2020 also called attention to St. Thomas Becket—and the 850th anniversary of his martyrdom on December 29. We should indeed be thankful. Amidst the gloom, exploring Becket’s life reveals what Yuval Levin recently called “a deeper, older idea of freedom.” This idea recognizes that genuine freedom is conditioned on moral formation. This idea safeguards the corresponding freedom of institutions, especially religious institutions, to form their members in the virtues of self-control, and not be platforms for vain self-promotion. Like the American Founding, this idea accepts that self-government requires self-control. Getting to know St. Thomas Becket can help us recover this older idea of freedom—and with it, self-government. 

To the extent 21st-century Americans know of St. Thomas Becket, their knowledge is likely limited to the 1964 Academy-Award-winning film, Becket. Others may know the words that King Henry II rhetorically raged in the presence of the four knights that would confront Becket and hack him to death: “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” But appreciating Becket’s martyrdom requires knowing what led him there.

Becket was a middle-class Londoner, eager to advance while keeping his moral integrity. Becket’s meteoric rise brought him to prominence as Chancellor to the King of England. But it would be as Archbishop of Canterbury where his institutional responsibilities forced his divided heart to resolve stark, moral choices.

Becket’s rise occurred when a new understanding of a truly good, well-ordered society took shape. This “Gregorian Revolution”—named for the Pope who wrote it into the Catholic Church’s laws—saw the good society as preserving space for individual freedom and religious duties, which were considered intertwined and safeguarded by the church’s freedom from governmental influence. As Archbishop, Becket was forced to contend with Henry II’s claims of royal control over all church functions. Gregorian principles converted Becket’s heart and thereby transformed the church’s freedom. Becket grasped that sustaining his church’s institutional freedom was predicated on becoming personally free from self-interested ambition, honoring God first. Becket’s conversion cost him his life.

As Archbishop, Becket was forced to answer a perennial question: Whose will can be legitimate law? God’s or man’s? Becket answered that question in a manner that American constitutionalism would later reflect. Both considered man’s will, and thus potential tyrants, to be subordinated by objective, moral order—what Becket called “God’s honor.” If we 21st century Americans still agree, then this requires what it required in Becket’s day: moral formation. Ensuring that formation depends, in turn, upon preserving the autonomy of religious institutions to provide it.  

Freedom for God’s Honor

Becket’s martyrdom followed decades-long attempts by his longtime benefactor, Henry II, to impose what Henry called the “ancestral customs” of royal control over all church functions. Their dispute is part of what legal historian Harold Berman called “[t]he first of the great revolutions in Western history,” whereby a separate sphere of authority for religious institutions was guaranteed from state control. This marked shift is essential to truly understand Becket’s views and their enduring influence.

The “liberty of the church” was not simply separation of religious and secular spheres. As the guardian of God’s moral laws, the church must be free to form individuals in accordance with their higher and politically prior religious duties.

As Robert Reilly explains in America on Trial, limiting Caesar’s power in the name of God’s has roots as old as the Gospel of Mark, but until medieval times this “had never been attempted.” Government either “fought against the bifurcation” or was deployed as part of salvation. Yet “[b]y the end of the tenth century,” Larry Siedentop explains in Inventing the Individual, “Christian moral intuitions were giving rise to a new sensibility.” Rather than seek empire, the church would save individual souls through greater self-discipline and moral formation.

This “new sensibility” partly arose because political influence produced corruption. Allowing kings and emperors to influence who became a pope or appointed a bishop made ecclesiastical offices seem like state-sanctioned gifts. The local feudal lord considered church property at his disposal. Clerical immorality proliferated, “heighten[ing],” Sidentop says, “a sense that the church was losing control of its own affairs.”

Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) began institutionalizing the growing desire for greater individual self-governance and moral formation. He did so by developing a universally applicable code of church law, known as canon law. Canon law defined proper spheres of religious and secular authority, particularly over clergy selection, property, and ecclesiastical adjudication. The “liberty of the church,” as it began to be called, was not simply separation of religious and secular spheres. As the guardian of God’s moral laws, the church must be free to form individuals in accordance with their higher and politically prior religious duties.

As Becket biographer and Tudor historian John Guy details, the Gregorian vision heavily influenced Becket. Hired as a clerk to Theobald of Bec, then Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket learned the emerging canon law and gained a front-row seat in various church-state conflicts. His prominence in these disputes facilitated Henry II’s decision to name Becket his chancellor—a decision Theobald supported, as he feared that Henry might otherwise be led to restrict the church’s liberty.

Despite Theobald’s hopes (and Henry’s prior promises), Henry pursued the purported “ancestral customs” of royal control over church functions. Part of Henry’s rationale was frustration over the lack of punishment (or under-punishment) of clerical crime by ecclesiastical courts. But as Guy explains, “While [Henry] imagined himself as simply returning to the governing ideals of the past, he was as much an innovator as a restorer.” Henry desired the power he understood his grandfather to have: “king in his own land, papal legate, patriarch, emperor, and everything else he wished.” Far from letting his institutional obligations shape him, Guy recounts, Henry “did what he wanted when he wanted, night or day,” including oath-breaking, unchastity, and sacrilege. He sought exclusive jurisdiction over all litigation involving the church and clergy that purportedly affected his rights. He sought to reclaim church land. And he thought that, by choosing Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury after Theobald died, his loyal chancellor—who, Henry intended, would remain chancellor as archbishop—would help.

Higher Duties

Becket long had a divided heart. Despite his canon law training and known piety, his old friend John of Salisbury said Becket “indulged in the rakish pursuits of youth and was unduly eager to be noticed.” Having gone from middle-class Londoner to Henry’s chancellor, Guy relates that Becket was eager to convince the aristocrats around him that he belonged. His consumption was conspicuous, even acquiring a traveling zoo to entertain guests. As chancellor, Becket was generally obedient to Henry’s will. Knowing his own vanity, Becket initially opposed Henry’s offer to become archbishop. Responding sarcastically, Becket looked at his expensive clothing and said, “how religious, how saintly is the man you would appoint to the holy see!” He eventually yielded. But having divided loyalty as both chancellor and archbishop ate at him.

After his coronation, Becket deepened his theological knowledge and acquired a tutor to continue Gregorian training. Becket’s life began bearing out the emphasis that the Gregorian vision placed on restoring the church’s moral integrity through self-discipline—both in the sense that the church would be free from secular influence, and in the sense that its members and ministers would be constantly trained in virtue. Asceticism (spiritual self-discipline) was at the core of the Gregorian vision. Becket embraced several ascetic practices. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “Becket wore a hair shirt under his gold and crimson.” This gave Becket “the benefit of the hair shirt while the people in the street got the benefit of the crimson and gold.” Becket thus stood in contrast both to Henry—who conflated his will with law—and, Chesterton said, “the modern millionaire, who has the black and drab outwardly for others and the gold next to his heart.” Herbert of Bosham, Becket’s tutor, described Becket’s role as Archbishop making him “like a man awakening from a deep sleep.” His spiritual side, often suppressed in social climbing, fully manifested.

A few months after his coronation, and without consulting Henry, Becket resigned the chancellorship. This infuriated Henry. Feeling betrayed, he raged at Becket, wondering how Becket could do this when he “raised [him] from a poor and lowly station to the pinnacle of rank and honor.” Becket responded by saying that though St. Peter was not of royal ancestry either, “the Lord deigned to give the keys of the kingdom of heaven and the primacy of the whole church to him.” Now Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket saw his primacy as second only to Rome and to God. He must behave accordingly.

As Becket would often say in opposing Henry’s asserted “customs,” “The Lord said in the Gospel, ‘I am the Truth.’ He did not say, ‘I am custom.’ And so, when truth has become manifest, let custom yield to truth.” Just as an individual must govern himself in accord with what Becket called “God’s honor,” so too must the well-ordered polis. Such arguments underlaid not only Becket’s embrace of asceticism, but also his reasons to recover church property, and oppose Henry’s efforts to apply canon law, direct bishops, bring clerics before secular courts, and obstruct ecclesiastical courts.

The older idea of freedom that Becket embodied helped secure a separate sphere of authority whereby individuals would be free to form their consciences to their highest, best ends.

The path to Becket’s martyrdom began after Henry sought to enumerate his desired restrictions on church authority in the “Constitutions” at the Council of Clarendon. By first opposing, then accepting, then again opposing these restraints, Becket showed weakness. Henry pounced—baselessly charging Becket with embezzlement before the king’s judges. Denying the tribunal’s authority, Becket evaded its sentence by exiling himself in France for the next six years. While the pope would help broker Becket’s return, Henry’s contempt for Becket—and Becket’s corresponding desire to never see the church’s liberty suffer from his personal weakness again—grew.

Becket returned from exile on December 1, 1170. Twenty-eight days later, four knights thought they would gain Henry’s esteem by confronting Becket over the disputed anointing of Henry’s heir. When Becket told them to find someone else to frighten, that he was ready to die for his Lord and his church’s liberty, he was hacked.

God’s Honor, Becket’s Martyrdom, and American Self-Government

T.S. Eliot, writing Murder in the Cathedral, captured Becket’s interior transformation with a sermon he had Becket deliver on Christmas Day 1170 (four days before his martyrdom). There, the “peace” of Christmas, Becket says, is not worldly serenity—there is no crown, Becket would elsewhere say, without the cross. But, Becket’s character in the play explains, taking up the cross simply to gain the crown betrays itself. “A martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God,” not man. The true martyr “has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God.” Eliot understood that Becket, by giving God his last full measure of devotion, let go of the part of his heart that still thought the world had something better to offer than the freedom to be with Him.

Becket’s witness endures. After his murder, Reilly recounts, “Henry recanted and renounced the offensive parts of his Constitutions.” Pilgrims visited the shrine to Becket’s martyrdom for centuries—until Henry VIII, entangled in his own attempt at royal supremacy with another Thomas (More), branded Becket a traitor and ordered that his bones be burned and the shrine destroyed. The Gregorian revolution, Professor Marc DeGirolami explained in The Tragedy of Religious Freedom, helped “ground American ideas about the freedom of ‘the Church,’ and, with time, the nature of the ‘separation’ of church and state.”

Becket’s legacy is particularly instructive now, where self-government’s prerequisites are often unknown or unappreciated. Freedom today is fashionably understood as liberation from institutional obligations, not vice. And modern arguments for freedom are not based on being formed in higher virtues, but by signaling that the advocate belongs to a culturally “innocent” group. These modern conceptions discard the insight that Becket’s life demonstrates: Self-government requires self-government, and the freedom of religious institutions to form individuals in virtue is crucial to that end. By being freed from the vanity and self-justifying passions that once governed his life, Becket’s religious formation echoes the promise of redemption that we hear in America the Beautiful: “God mend thine every flaw. Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.”

But for the modern conceptions of freedom, there is nothing that the “innocent” must be freed from—except the “guilty”—and nothing the “guilty” could be freed for—they must be conquered. The older idea of freedom that Becket embodied helped secure a separate sphere of authority whereby individuals would be free to form their consciences to their highest, best ends. The modern conceptions, by contrast, promise greater freedom, but they deliver factional strife and domination. For Americans still interested in governing themselves, Thomas Becket is an inspiration to reinvest in our religious institutions. By letting them form us for freedom, we uphold one of America’s longest, best expectations for religious institutions: Being, to use Martin Luther King, Jr.’s description, “thermostats” that call us to true freedom, not “thermometers” that reflect the zeitgeist. Thomas Becket would have surely agreed.

Editor’s note: This essay has been updated to clarify that the Christmas Day sermon was written by Eliot, not Becket.