Vertu engendred

The gruffness of Thomas Becket (saint and martyr, 1118–1170; feast 29th December) is something that might appeal to the adherents of our Halbbildung. (This is a beautiful German word that means “half-education,” and so much more.) Thomas came from a good family, with some money, and was a good lad by all accounts. (Many, many “instant biographies” were written shortly after his death, providing the modern scholar with an embarras de richesses.) But the money was lost, and after only a year of university (at Paris), Thomas had to leave. It is said his Latin was less than elegant.

We are not well-educated today, to say less than the half of it. I should perhaps speak only for myself in this matter: I did not even make it into the Sorbonne. (Though I did get to the Latin Quarter.) And though I once attended a pretty solid cathedral school (St Anthony’s in Lahore), it was probably not as good as the earlier ones Thomas Becket attended.


Now, perhaps I should explain that the late-adolescent Thomas went to the university before it was a university. (Do I use too many parentheses?) The University of Paris was formally established only later in the XIIth century than Thomas lived; but long before that, there were college-like guilds, congregated chiefly around the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and the Abbey of Sainte-Geneviève. Each was already, for practical purposes, a universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which is to say, a “community of masters and students.” As elsewhere, across Europe: for cathedrals, abbeys, and monasteries of all sorts were, in their nature, teaching institutions.

This certainly included convents, by the bye, where women were taught, often to a very high level — for in the Middle Ages we did not yet have the horror feminae, or shall we say “gynophobia,” that came with the Reformation. (The distinction between sexes is very Catholic. The depreciation of the female sex is very unCatholic.) Mary Becket, the sister of Thomas, who became Abbess at Barking, is worth mentioning in this respect. Barking Abbey, until its suppression by Henry VIII, was the greatest of England’s “universities” for women, alma mater to so many distinguished ladies of both Church and Court, including Saints and Queens. For nine hundred years it flourished, until the Tudor monster had it crushed. (But that was just an aside.)

It was the same in other towns, where the earliest Universities were founded — Padua, Naples, Salamanca, Oxford, Cambridge, and so forth. We had the thing itself before we had the thing as autonomous institution.

When, later and on his feet with ecclesiastical sponsorship, Thomas went to Bologna and Auxerre, he “graduated” not as theologian but lawyer — yet with a finer grounding in natural law, than would be available in any law school today. He had the reputation of being “not very religious” (but that would require another aside). …

Something was lost, as well as something gained, when the modern University — this entirely Catholic, mediaeval invention — came into being. One might, perhaps, write at length some day about that darker side, which appeared almost immediately in student rioting and much other disgraceful behaviour, reminding us of campus life today. By putting higher education at one remove from ecclesiastical authority, Newman’s liberal (in the best classical sense) “idea of a university” became possible. But it was also like putting a dam across the river. A certain kind of fish was excluded from breeding in the river’s upper reaches; a professorial cabal began jealously to guard and impound the waters. A new kind of authority was created, displaced from the ancestral cure of souls. An intense new flavour of academic smugness was dispersed in society.

One might even argue that the invention of the formal University was the launch of our modern “secular inhumanism”; or put another way, the launch of technocrats and pointy-heads to new positions of power and prestige, as specialist advisers to the princes of this world — soon enjoying the prerogative of the harlot (power without responsibility).

But Thomas Becket was a product of the old school — the church and monastic learning, focused on responsibility itself. His brief tastings of the learned life proved nutrient sufficient to his needs, and I speculate that his graceful strength came to his calling from that pedagogic background: his peculiar sense of the smallness in the largeness of the world; of the completeness of things, the hardness or tactility of a world intentionally created by a divine Maker. One reads this in his surviving Correspondence. He seems to have had, from his early manhood, like our later and more learned Saint Thomas More, a conception of civil society so hardily rooted in the Christian teaching that, almost without thinking, he could stand up to a king.

Becket and More each served as Lord Chancellor of England — the sovereign’s principal adviser in matters both temporal and spiritual, and thus something more than a Prime Minister today. (Becket, befriended by King Henry II for his obvious abilities, was appointed while still in his thirties; then went directly from Westminster to Canterbury in 1162.) Neither was a “mystic” in the fey understanding we have of that word today; both very practical men of affairs. And in the end, each found himself on the Church side of a bitter clash between Church and State; for which he was murdered.

In the case of Thomas of Canterbury, we should all know the story: the four knights of King Henry II coming to dispute with him in the Cathedral, first hiding their weapons outside; then retrieving them when the discussion had not gone their way. The Saint: still kneeling in prayer for them, as his brains were being splattered.


The pilgrims, gathered in the Tabard Inn at the outset of the Canterbury Tales, are en route to the Shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in the Canterbury Cathedral — which, through the two centuries to Chaucer, had become the epicentre of English religious life:

And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke …

It is gone now: Henry VIII had it smashed and swept clear, as part of his operation to destroy the old England, and replace God with a Man on the English throne — completing the work begun by his predecessor, Henry II. It was a piece of architectural surgery vastly more significant than the nail-holes Martin Luther left in the door at Wittenberg: for Luther was merely following a mediaeval custom by stating his theses in that way. The destruction of the shrine of Saint Thomas was, to men of that age, the great symbolic act announcing that the State would replace the Church, not only as the temporal, but as the supreme spiritual authority in each land. Henry Tudor had promoted himself from Defender of the Faith, to the legislator of it, and henceforth the True Church would have to go underground.

Or to put this another way, modern education had matured, and the full Reign of the Pointy-Heads was about to begin: the men who believed that they “knew better” than any previous men had known, … and about everything. Or if you will, the people who design Obamacare today.

Henry II had tried the same, before ridding himself of that “turbulent priest,” who faced him so gruffly, and stated his case in such plain language as anyone could understand. From his hunting lodge at Clarendon, Wiltshire, this Henry Plantagenet had promulgated legislation that anticipated Henry Tudor’s, making himself the supreme authority in all matters relating to the Church in England, trundling over her ancient independence and established legal rights with something like glee — in the so-called “Constitutions of Clarendon,” reverenced by the Whig historians.

Henry’s Latin was surely better than Thomas’s. He could read several other languages besides that, some English, and his court French; and then there was his famous ability to be morosely silent in a wide variety of tongues. Had Henry II prevailed, we might well have had something like the Reformation started, then and there, instead of so many centuries later. But the times were not yet propitious: the people understood that kings were not popes. So did other kings, who supported Thomas in his subsequent exile, finally compelling Henry to accept his return. But the clash between the two immediately resumed, for exile had not turned the Archbishop into a wimp.

Thomas Becket defeated Henry II, even in death. In the fullness of his mediaeval conscience, with the Will of God against him, and miracles being attributed, all over the place, to the man he’d had killed, Henry finally acknowledged his error, and had himself scourged for the crime on the Saint’s own tomb. For in the end Henry, too, was a man of his Age — of Faith, — lacking our modern swagger and smugness.


To the two Saints Thomas, and more, to Our Lady of Walsingham I look for what is greatest in the English heritage — as also broadest, for all three were justly famed across Europe. Indeed: I have just raised a wee tote to Becket, of Marsala wine — the Cathedral of Marsala in Sicily having been dedicated to our English, but also trans-European Saint, these last eight hundred and forty-ish years. (With difficulty they obtained some relics of the Saint, which later in the goodness of their hearts they returned to Canterbury, when the first post-Reformation Catholic church was allowed to open in that town.) Not even the great shrine-wrecking Henry could take all of that heritage away; and in the Anglican Patrimony, now returned to the Church, we recall much that was long missed from that old Catholic England.

On this Fifth Day of Christmas, we celebrate triumphantly this Saint of Christian truth and valour, against worldly cowardice and lies, and the foetid moral stench of secularism. In the face of Christ’s enemies, when they come to “debate” with weapons hid: Saint Thomas of Canterbury, pray for us.