Before the reign of Henry VIII, Becket was the centre of the largest shrine in England, and one of the largest in the world. Henry VIII revenged himself for his Angevin ancestor; where Henry II had submitted himself for penance, Henry VIII had the shrine destroyed and plundered its wealth; never again would some jumped-up cleric challenge a King of England – and live. This lesson St John Fisher and St Thomas More were to learn. After centuries of failing to bring the Church under their control, the Kings of England hit on the answer – get rid of the Pope and make yourself its head. In such an England, Becket, whose feast day we celebrate today, was an embarrassment.
It is certain that Henry, otherwise theologically conservative, wanted very little change, but he found he had opened a Pandora’s box. Under his more radical son, Edward VI, England became a Protestant nation, and if his early death halted the radicalism, then the early death of his sister, Mary, halted the counter-reformation, leaving their surviving siater, Elizabeth, to construct her own version of a compromise, which has lasted to this day. But as she and her successors found, once you give an example of disobedience, others will follow it, and within half a century there were numerous sects, all claiming to be able to understand the Bible better than each other.
Becket, like most historical figures, has been picked up by those who want him to prove their point: Whigs saw him as an anti-Monarchy figure; Protestant historians as a champion of ecclesiastical privilege; and film-makers as a good subject for drama. Through such rich encrustations it becomes hard to discern the martyr – the man who scorned to take the route later taken by Wolsey, of serving the King first and God second. As we stand in great need of such men in our time, let us pray to the Saint that God will raise up among us, more such.