Broken Friendship: the Case of St Thomas Becket and Henry II

There is a profound ambivalence about St Thomas Becket. While I don’t question his sanctity — no one ever impugned his chastity, for example, which, for the time, is fairly telling — I can’t quite rid myself of the doubts of Gilbert Foliot and others of Becket’s contemporaries. They were shrewd men, and they were good men; so why were they uneasy about the archbishop? The cause for which Thomas died was, ultimately, resolved by king and pope so that, had he lived some years later, it would not have provided a pretext for murder. Was there, as some have thought, a simple clash of personalities: Henry, an angry and hot-blooded man; Thomas, cooler but with a taste for the theatrical, wanting to play the part of archbishop to perfection? Or was there something simpler still, a broken friendship, a scorned love turning to loathing, and lesser men keen to win the king’s favour by killing Thomas?

Whatever the truth of the matter, there can be no doubt that Thomas died bravely and in defence of the Church’s teaching. In other words, he died a martyr. But I think we can say his martyrdom began long before. He witnessed to Christ by the life he led once he became archbishop. Many of the luxuries he had formerly enjoyed, he now renounced — chief among them, his old friendship with Henry. We can only speculate what that meant to either man, but we know the price that Thomas paid.

I think there is a lesson here for all of us. Most of us who claim to be Christians subscribe to the ‘both and’ school of Christian philosophy. We want to be good and virtuous, but we’d also like all the other gifts, if possible — health, wealth, family, friends, etc. Above all, we treasure those we love and find a thousand different justifications for clinging to them. But what if a friendship, for example, no longer gives life but proves a hindrance to our fidelity to Christ? What if we find ourselves in the position of Thomas via-à-vis Henry? In the monastic tradition, renunciation and detachment are a necessary part of ascesis. It isn’t fashionable to say so, but sometimes the good is the enemy of the best. If we are required to perform certain duties in the Church (or anywhere else for that matter), we can be sure that we shall be asked to give up some of what is good as well as all that is bad. Thomas renounced his friendship with Henry, not gladly but because he believed he must. That was part of his martyrdom. Something very similar may be asked of us.

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6 thoughts on “Broken Friendship: the Case of St Thomas Becket and Henry II”

  1. I suspect that Thomas, perhaps regretted his former life style, and to some extent, once appointed as Arch Bishop showed that remorse by the ‘giving up’ the things that were not right or proper to what should be a life lived in the missionary spirit and discipleship of Jesus Christ, with the added responsibilities of leadership of the faithful that went with his role.

    In this, he does set an example of being in the world, but apart from it -as all Christians are called to. A life of engagement with the world, but to be set apart as a disciple of Jesus Christ. A surprisingly hard thing to do for most of us. I know from my own experience that engaging in discipleship can be problematic and pose many ethical challenges — but by declaring for “Christ” I took a deliberate measured decision to abandon all that comforted me about a secular life- style, in exchange for the hope and promises that being a follower of Christ entails. I know that I haven’t been perfect and never will be, but continue to struggle day to day against the temptations of that former life which was so comfortable and unchallenging.

    Perhaps I can call on St Thomas Beckett to intercede for me for the grace that he experienced from his change of life, that a little might overflow into my life.

    In the meantime, getting on with life as a Christian will continue – and I’m more comfortable than I could ever have imagined in the challenges that it poses. Particularly the study involved in LLM Training, but the enormous privileges that are bestowed upon me from serving others in lay ministry.

    There is an example of service in faith in God from her Majesty the Queen, whose faithfulness to her people and to God, while serving us since 1952 is acknowledged far and wide – and as we pray for her daily in the Church, that her ministry of grace might continue through her descendants for a long time to come.

  2. I find it very hard to know whether a friendship is a true conflict and needs to be ended or is instead a challenge to my point of view or lifestyle.

  3. It doesn’t take many words to speak the truth and in remaining faithful to the teachings of Christ and the Church we may be assured of experiencing persecution and possibly martyrdom at some point in our lives. In our modern society our values and beliefs make us easy targets. I’m reminded of Kermit the frog’s mantra “It’s not easy being green.”

  4. It’s a grim realisation to acknowledge the end of a friendship. One of the terrible challenges of existence. As Nancy observes in her comment, it can be difficult to discern the reasons. As followers of Christ, we should have loving feelings towards our enemies, or those we don’t respond to with particular warmth. But this is not a ‘friendship’, it is an attitude of humility. And an attitude that needs constant attention. I’m all too aware how often I fail in this regard.

    • Pam,
      Your comments made me look at my situation differently. Humility was not top of mind. Thank you for giving me a new perspective to mull over.

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