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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