White House honours anniversary of St Thomas Becket’s martyrdom

A murdered English bishop who was assassinated nine centuries ago has been proclaimed by the US as a symbol of the universal struggle for religious freedom

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A stained glass window of St Thomas Becket is seen at St Alban’s Cathedral in St Albans, England. Photo: CNS, Gene Plaisted, The Crosiers

As an intriguing piece of detective work in the UK may have uncovered the actual prayer book of St Thomas Becket, famously martyred 850 years ago by English King Henry II, the White House issued a proclamation honouring the anniversary of his martyrdom on 29 December and inviting “the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches and customary places of meeting with appropriate ceremonies.”

The proclamation, signed by President Donald Trump on 28 December, described Becket as “a statesman, a scholar, a chancellor, a priest, an archbishop and a lion of religious liberty.”

A London-born clerk to Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, St Thomas studied canon law abroad and was ordained a deacon. His support of Henry II’s claim to England’s throne led to his appointment as royal chancellor.

Decorated with champlevé enamel and made from gilt copper, this St Thomas Becket reliquary casket was produced in Limoges, France. Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral was one of the most famous in the Christian world until its total destruction in 1538 on the orders of King Henry VIII. It is likely that the saint’s bones were enshrined within a gabled chest, a design echoed in this colourful reliquary. Photo: Ashmolean Museum

Symbol of freedom from religious persecution

But he and the king clashed over many issues, notably the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts. Becket fled to France for six years; soon after his return, Henry’s wish to be rid of this troublesome prelate led to Thomas’s murder by four knights.

The White House proclamation described this martyrdom as “an event that changed the course of history” and which “eventually brought about numerous constitutional limitations on the power of the state over the church across the West.”

It also said Becket’s death “serves as a powerful and timeless reminder to every American that our freedom from religious persecution is not a mere luxury or accident of history, but rather an essential element of our liberty.”

A detail of the reliquary casket: three of the four knights who killed the saint are pictured, each with their weapons raised, ready to strike Becket. Behind the Archbishop we see the altar and the hand of God appearing from the heavens. Photo: Ashmolean Museum

Modern witnesses

It urged Americans to “celebrate and revere” the saint’s courageous stand for religious liberty and to reaffirm efforts to end religious persecution worldwide.

The White House acknowledged religious believers everywhere who suffer persecution for their faith, particularly Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong and Pastor Wang Yi of Chengdu, China, describing them as “tireless witnesses to hope.”

“To honour Thomas Becket’s memory, the crimes against people of faith must stop, prisoners of conscience must be released, laws restricting freedom of religion and belief must be repealed and the vulnerable, the defenseless and the oppressed must be protected,” the proclamation said, adding that the “tyranny and murder that shocked the conscience of the Middle Ages must never be allowed to happen again. ”

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