Saint Thomas Becket, Sin and Contrition

Henry II:  Hear me!
People of Canterbury
and citizens of England,
as I have submitted myself to the lash,
so have I petitioned the Pope.
And this day,
I have received his answer.
Thomas Becket,
former Archbishop of Canterbury
and martyr to the cause
of God and his church,
shall henceforth be honored
and prayed to in this kingdom
as a saint.
(crowd cheering)
Henry II:  (sotto voce) Is the honor of God
washed clean enough?
Are you satisfied now, Thomas?







Today is the feast day of my confirmation saint, Saint Thomas Becket, the holy, blessed martyr.  His story tells us how foreign to our time the Middle Ages are.  Becket was a worldly cleric who had risen to be chancellor of England for Henry II.  Henry seized the opportunity to place his man, Becket, on the throne of Canterbury as Primate of England.  Becket had a sudden and complete religious conversion and fought Henry for the liberty of the Church for which Becket suffered exile and, ultimately, murder.  In penance for Becket’s murder Henry had himself beaten by the monks at Canterbury before the tomb of his former friend who, two years after his death, was canonized by the Pope.  For over three centuries his tomb became one of the major pilgrimage sites in Europe and inspired the immortal Canterbury Tales.

The Middle Ages were fully as immersed in sin as our own time, although with different mixtures of evil, but the sins of the Middle Ages were often followed by great penances and acts of contrition that brightened and inspired countless lives down through the centuries.  This we have lost and this we must regain.  G.K. Chesterton put what we lack in high relief when he wrote about Saint Thomas:

At the grave of the dead man broke forth what can only be called an epidemic of healing. For miracles so narrated there is the same evidence as for half of the facts of history; and any one denying them must deny them upon a dogma. But something followed which would seem to modern civilization even more monstrous than a miracle. If the reader can imagine Mr. Cecil Rhodes submitting to be horsewhipped by a Boer in St. Paul’s Cathedral, as an apology for some indefensible death incidental to the Jameson Raid, he will form but a faint idea of what was meant when Henry II was beaten by monks at the tomb of his vassal and enemy. The modern parallel called up is comic, but the truth is that mediaeval actualities have a violence that does seem comic to our conventions. The Catholics of that age were driven by two dominant thoughts: the all-importance of penitence as an answer to sin, and the all-importance of vivid and evident external acts as a proof of penitence. Extravagant humiliation after extravagant pride for them restored the balance of sanity. The point is worth stressing, because without it moderns make neither head nor tail of the period. Green gravely suggests, for instance, of Henry’s ancestor Fulk of Anjou, that his tyrannies and frauds were further blackened by “low superstition,” which led him to be dragged in a halter round a shrine, scourged and screaming for the mercy of God. Mediaevals would simply have said that such a man might well scream for it, but his scream was the only logical comment he could make. But they would have quite refused to see why the scream should be added to the sins and not subtracted from them. They would have thought it simply muddle-headed to have the same horror at a man being horribly sinful and for being horribly sorry.

Bishop Stephen Gardiner who helped Henry VIII destroy the Catholic Church in England so long under the protection of Saint Thomas Becket, Henry plundering and destroying the tomb of Saint Thomas as a symbol of the Catholicism he hated, later repented and sought to restore the Catholic Church in England under Queen Mary.  He died before Queen Mary and therefore he did not live to see the failure of the attempted restoration as a result of Mary’s death and the accession of Bloody Elizabeth.  As he lay dying he purportedly said something in his grief that I think gets at the heart of what sickens the modern world:  Erravi cum Petro, sed non flevi cum Petro.  (Like Peter I have erred, unlike Peter I have not wept.)  Sin remains sin, no matter what the world in its folly calls it.  Sin without repentance leads to damnation in eternity and endless evil in this world, something the Middle Ages knew well and our Modern World has almost completely forgotten.


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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. Not to be picky or anything, but “Erravi cum Petro, sed non flevi cum Petro” is literally translated as:

    “I erred with Peter, but I wept not with Peter.”

    Of course, it has the same essential meaning as:

    “Like Peter I have erred, unlike Peter I have not wept.”

    Sorry. That’s just the anal nuke in me. Good post. Sharing on FB. Tibi gratias ago.

  2. Thirty or forty years ago, I read a wide-ranging history of the Crusades. The author, I forget his name, spent some space in the introduction trying to explain the medieval person’s world view. A major post-modern mistake is to view medieval or ancient peoples’ acts and motivations through 21st century amoral, secular prejudices.

    Anyhow, I believe the check list includes true repentance, sacramental (outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace) Confession, penance, amendment of life, and through prayer and good works glorification of God Almighty.

  3. How can there be salvation for those who believe not in sin? Sin has washed their minds clean of the sense of evil by destroying common sense. These type of individuals are usually called liberals, those folks who fall in love with theory and mistake it for reality do to pride.

  4. It’s too bad there isn’t still public penance for very grievious sin by public figures. Not talking about public beatings, but some sort of pilgrimage or community work, or reparation to those harmed. When the sinner or grievious sin is made public, mostly the response is denial or silence. This business of an “I’m sorry” announcement drafted by a publicist doesn’t cut it. Whatever happened to shame?
    St Thomas a Becket is my birthday saint so I’m familiar with the story and have seen the spot where he was murdered. The thought on public penance occurred to me when on the 29th we went up to the “Swamp” to celebrate and passed many government buildings.

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