29 December 2023

The Life of St Thomas à Beckett

From The Golden Legend of Blessed Jacobus Voragine (ca. 1260) translated by William Caxton in 1483.


Thomas the martyr was son to Gilbert Beckett, a burgess of the city of London, and was born in the place whereas now standeth the church called S. Thomas of Acre. And this Gilbert was a good devout man, and took the cross upon him, and went on pilgrimage into the Holy Land, and had a servant with his knees. And on a Trinity Sunday received he [Thomas] his dignity, and there was at that time the king with many a great lord and sixteen bishops.

And from thence was sent the abbot of Evesham to the pope with other clerks for the pall which he gave and brought to him, and he full meekly received it. And under his habit he ware the habit of a monk, and so was he under within forth a monk, and outward a clerk, and did great abstinence making his body lean and his soul fat. And he used to be well served at his table, and took but little refection thereof, and lived holily in giving good ensample.

After this, many times the king went over into Normandy, and in his absence always S. Thomas had the rule of his son and of the realm, which was governed so well that the king cold him great thanks, and then abode long in this realm. And when so was that the king did any thing against the franchise and liberties of holy church, S. Thomas would ever withstand it to his power.

And on a time when the sees of London and of Winchester were vacant and void, the king kept them both long in his hand for to have the profits of them; wherefore S. Thomas was heavy, and came to the king and desired him to give those two bishopricks to some virtuous men. And anon the king granted to him his desire and ordained one master Roger, bishop of Winchester, and the Earl of Gloucester's son, bishop of London, named Sir Robert.

And anon after S. Thomas hallowed the abbey of Reading, which the first Henry founded. And that same year he translated S. Edward, king and confessor at Westminster, where he was laid in a rich shrine. And in some short time after, by the enticement of the devil, fell great debate, variance, and strife, between the king and S. Thomas, and the king sent for all the bishops to appear tofore him at Westminster at a certain day, at which day they assembled tofore him, whom he welcomed, and after said to them how that the archbishop would destroy his law, and not suffer him to enjoy such things as his predecessors had used tofore him. Whereto S. Thomas answered that he never intended to do thing that should displease the king as far as it touched not the franchise and liberties of holy church.

Then the king rehearsed how he would not suffer clerks that were thieves to have the execution of the law; to which S. Thomas said, that he ought not to execute them, but they longeth to the correction of holy church, and other divers points; to which S. Thomas would not agree.

To the which the king said: Now I see well that thou wouldest foredo the laws of this land which have been used in the days of my predecessors, but it shall not lie in thy power, and so the king being wroth departed.

Then the bishops all counselled S. Thomas to follow the king's intent, or else the land should be in great trouble; and in like wise the lords temporal that were his friends counselled him the same, and S. Thomas said: I take God to record it was never mine intent to displease the king, or to take any thing that longeth to his right or honour. And then the lords were glad and brought him to the king to Oxenford, and the king deigned not to speak to him.

And then the king called all the lords spiritual and temporal tofore him, and said he would have all the laws of his forefathers there new confirmed, and there they were confirmed by all the lords spiritual and temporal. And after this the king charged them for to come to him to Clarendon to his parliament at a certain day assigned, on pain to run in his indignation, and at that time so departed. And this parliament was holden at Clarendon, the eleventh year of the king's reign, and the year of our Lord eleven hundred and sixty-four.

At this parliament were many lords which all were against S. Thomas. And then the king sitting in his parliament, in the presence of all his lords, demanded them if they would abide and keep the laws that had been used in his forefathers' days. Then S. Thomas spake for the part of holy church, and said: “All old laws that be good and rightful, and not against our mother holy church, I grant with good will to keep them.”

And then the king said that he would not leave one point of his law, and waxed wroth with S. Thomas. And then certain bishops required S. Thomas to obey to the king's desire and will, and S. Thomas desired respite to know the laws, and then to give him an answer. And when he understood them all, to some he consented, but many he denied and would never be agreeable to them, wherefore the king was wroth and said he would hold and keep them like as his predecessors had done before him, and would not minish one point of them. Then S. Thomas said to the king with full great sorrow and heavy cheer, “Now, my most dear lord and gracious king, have pity on us of holy church, your bedemen, and give to us respite for a certain time.”

And thus departed each man. And S. Thomas went to Winchester, and there prayed our Lord devoutly for holy church, and to give him aid and strength for to defend it, for utterly he determined to abide by the liberties and franchise, and fell down on his knees and said, full sore weeping: “O good Lord, I acknowledge that I have offended, and for mine offence and trespass this trouble cometh to holy church, I purpose, good Lord, to go to Rome for to be assoiled of mine offences.” And departed towards Canterbury.

And anon the king sent his officers to his manors and despoiled them, because he would not obey the king's statutes. And the king commanded to seize all his lands and goods into his hands, and then his [Thomas's] servants departed from him, and he went to the seaside for to have gone over sea, but the wind was against him, and so thrice he took his ship and might not pass. And then he knew that it was not our Lord's will that he should yet depart, and returned secretly to Canterbury, of whose coming his meiny made great joy.

And on the morn came the king's officers for to seize all his goods, for the noise was that S. Thomas had fled the land; wherefore they had despoiled all his manors and seized them into the king's hand. And when they came they found him at Canterbury, whereof they were sore abashed, and returned to the king informing him that he was yet at Canterbury.

And anon after S. Thomas came to the king to Woodstock for to pray him to be better disposed towards holy church. And then said the king to him in scorn: “May not we two dwell both in this land? Art thou so sturdy and hard of heart?”

To whom S. Thomas answered: “Sire, that was never my thought, but I would fain please you, and do all that you desire so that ye hurt not the liberties of holy church, for them will I maintain while I live, ever to my power.”

With which words the king was sore moved, and swore that he would have them kept, and especial if a clerk were a thief he should be judged and executed by the king's law, and by no spiritual law, and said he would never suffer a clerk to be his master in his own land, and charged S. Thomas to appear before him at Northampton, and to bring all the bishops of this land with him, and so departed.

S. Thomas besought God of help and succour, for the bishops which ought to be with him were most against him. After this S. Thomas went to Northampton where the king had then his great council in the castle with all his lords, and when he came tofore the king he said: “I am come to obey your commandment, but before this time was never bishop of Canterbury thus entreated, for I am head of the Church of England, and am to you, Sir King, your ghostly father, and it was never God's law that the son should destroy his father which hath charge of his soul. And by your striving have you made all the bishops that should abide by the right of the church to be against holy church and me, and ye know well that I may not fight, but am ready to suffer death rather than I should consent to lose the right of holy church.”

Then said the king, “Thou speakest as a proud clerk, but I shall abate thy pride ere I leave thee, for I must reckon with thee. Thou understandest well that thou wert my chancellor many years, and once I lent to thee £500 which thou never yet hast repaid, which I will that thou pay me again or else incontinent thou shalt go to prison.”

And then S. Thomas answered: “Ye gave me that £500, and it is not fitting to demand that which ye have given.” Notwithstanding he found surety for the said £500 and departed for that day.

And after this, the next day the king demanded £30,000 that he had surmised on him to have stolen, he being chancellor, whereupon he desired day to answer, at which time he said that when he was archbishop he set him free therein without any claim or debt before good record, wherefore he ought not to answer unto that demand.

And the bishops desired S. Thomas to obey the king but in no wise he would not agree to such things as should touch against the liberties of the church. And then they came to the king, and forsook S. Thomas, and agreed to all the king's desire, and the proper servants of S. Thomas fled from him and forsook him, and then poor people came and accompanied him. And on the night came to him two lords and told to him that the king's meiny had emprised to slay him. And the next night after he departed in the habit of a brother of Sempringham, and so chevissed that he went over sea.

And in the meanwhile certain bishops went to Rome for to complain on him to the pope, and the king sent letters to the king of France not to receive him. And the King Louis said that, though a man were banished and had committed there trespasses, yet should he be free in France. And so after when this holy S. Thomas came, he received him well, and gave him licence to abide there and do what he would.

In this meanwhile the king of England sent certain lords into the pope complaining on the Archbishop Thomas, which made grievous complaints, which when the pope had heard said, he would give none answer till that he had heard the Archbishop Thomas speak, which would hastily come thither. But they would not abide his coming, but departed without speeding of their intents, and came into England again.

And anon after, S. Thomas came to Rome on S. Mark's day at afternoon, and when his caterer should have bought fish for his dinner because it was fasting day, he could get none for no money, and came and told to his lord S. Thomas so, and he bade him buy such as he could get, and then he bought flesh and made it ready for their dinner. And S. Thomas was served with a capon roasted, and his meiny with boiled meat. And so it was that the pope heard that he was come, and sent a cardinal to welcome him, and he found him at his dinner eating flesh, which anon returned and told to the pope how he was not so perfect a man as he had supposed, “for contrary to the rule of the church he eateth this day flesh.” The pope would not believe him, but sent another cardinal which for more evidence took the leg of the capon in his kerchief and affirmed the same, and opened his kerchief tofore the pope, and he found the leg turned into a fish called a carp. And when the pope saw it, he said, they were not true men to say such things of this good bishop. They said faithfully that it was flesh that he ate.

After this S. Thomas came to the pope and did his reverence and obedience, whom the pope welcomed, and after communication he demanded him what meat he had eaten, and he said flesh as ye have heard tofore, because he could find no fish and very need compelled him thereto.

Then the pope understood of the miracle that the capon's leg was turned into a carp, and of his goodness granted to him and to all them of the diocese of Canterbury licence to eat flesh ever after on S. Mark's day when it falleth on a fish day, and pardon withal, which is kept and accustomed unto this day.

And then S. Thomas informed the pope how the king of England would have him consent to divers articles against the liberties of holy church, and what wrongs he did to the same, and that for to die he would never consent to them. And when the pope had heard him he wept for pity, and thanked God that he had such a bishop under him that had so well defended the liberties of holy church, and anon wrote out letters and bulls commanding all the bishops of Christendom to keep and observe the same.

And then S. Thomas offered to the pope his bishopric up into the pope's hand, and his mitre with the cross and ring, and the pope commanded him to keep it still, and said he knew no man more able than he was. And after S. Thomas said mass tofore the pope in a white chasuble; and after mass he said to the pope that he knew by revelation that he should suffer death for the right of holy church, and when it should fall that chasuble should be turned from white into red.

And after he departed from the pope and came down into France unto the abbey of Pontigny, and there he had knowledge that when the lords spiritual and temporal which had been at Rome were come home and had told the king that they might in no wise have their intent, that the king was greatly wroth, and anon banished all the kinsmen that were longing to S. Thomas that they should incontinent void his land, and made them swear that they should go to him and tell to him that for his sake they were exiled, and so they went over sea to him at Pontigny and he being there was full sorry for them.

And after there was a great chapter in England of the monks of Citeaux and there the king desired them to write to Pontigny that they should no longer keep ne sustain Thomas the Archbishop, for if they did, he would destroy them of that order being in England. And, for fear thereof they wrote so over to Pontigny that he must depart thence with his kinsmen, and so he did, and was then full heavy, and remitted his cause to God. And anon after, the king of France sent to him that he should abide where it pleased him, and dwell in his realm and he would pay for the costs of him and his kinsmen. And he departed and went to Sens, and the abbot brought him on the way. And S. Thomas told him how he knew by a vision that he should suffer death and martyrdom for the right of the church, and prayed him to keep it secret during his life.

After this the king of England came into France, and there told the king how S. Thomas would destroy his realm, and then there told how he would foredo such laws as his elders had used tofore him, wherefore S. Thomas was sent for, and they were brought together. And the king of France laboured sore for to set them at accord, but it would not be, for that one would not minish his laws and accustoms, and S. Thomas would not grant that he should do England against S. Thomas, and was wroth with him and commanded him to void his realm with all his kinsmen.

And then S. Thomas wist not whither to go, but comforted his kinsmen as well as he might, and purposed to have gone in to Provence for to have begged his bread. And as he was going, the king of France sent for him again, and when he came he cried him mercy and said he had offended God and him, and bade him abide in his realm where he would, and he would pay for the dispenses of him and his kin.

And in the meanwhile the king of England ordained his son king, and made him to be crowned by the Archbishop of York, and other bishops, which was against the statutes of the land, for the Archbishop of Canterbury should have consented and also have crowned him, wherefore S. Thomas gat a bull for to do accurse them that so did against him, and also on them that occupied the goods longing to him. And yet after this the king laboured so much that he accorded the king of England and S. Thomas which accord endured not long, for the king varied from it afterward.

But S. Thomas, upon this accord, came home to Canterbury, where he was received worshipfully, and sent for them that had trespassed against him, and by the authority of the pope's bull openly denounced them accursed unto the time they come to amendment. And when they knew this they came to him and would have made him to assoil them by force; and sent word over to the king how he had done, whereof the king was much wroth and said: “If he had men in his land that loved him they would not suffer such a traitor in his land alive.”

And forthwith four knights took their counsel together and thought they would do to the king a pleasure, and emprised to slay S. Thomas, and suddenly departed and took their shipping towards England. And when the king knew of their departing he was sorry and sent after them, but they were on the sea and departed ere the messengers came, wherefore the king was heavy and sorry.

These be the names of the four knights: Sir Reginald Fitzurse, Sir Hugh de Morville, Sir William de Tracy, Sir Richard le Breton. On Christmas day S. Thomas made a sermon at Canterbury in his own church, and weeping, prayed the people to pray for him, for he knew well his time was nigh, and there executed the sentence on them that were against the right of holy church. And that same day as the king sat at meat all the bread that he handled waxed anon mouldy and hoar, that no man might eat of it, and the bread that they touched not was fair and good for to eat.

And these four knights aforesaid came to Canterbury on the Tuesday in Christmas week about Evensong time, and came to S. Thomas and said that the king commanded him to make amends for the wrongs that he had done, and also that he should assoil all them that he had accursed anon, or else they should slay him.

Then said Thomas: “All that I ought to do by right, that will I with a good will do, but as to the sentence that is executed I may not undo, but that they will submit them to the correction of holy church, for it was done by our holy father the pope and not by me.”

Then said Sir Reginald: “ But if thou assoil the king and all other standing in the curse, it shall cost thee thy life.”

And S. Thomas said: “Thou knowest well enough that the king and I were accorded on Mary Magdalene day, and that this curse should go forth on them that had offended the church.”

Then one of the knights smote him as he kneeled before the altar on the head. And one Sir Edward Grim, that was his crossier put forth his arm with the cross to bear off the stroke, and the stroke smote the cross asunder and his arm almost off, wherefore he fled for fear, and so did all the monks, that were that time at compline. And then smote each at him, that they smote off a great piece of the skull of his head, that his brain fell on the pavement. And so they slew and martyred him, and were so cruel that one of them brake the point of his sword against the pavement. And thus this holy and blessed Archbishop S. Thomas suffered death in his own church for the right of all holy church.

And when he was dead they stirred his brain, and after went into his chamber and took away his goods, and his horse out of his stable, and took away his bulls and writings, and delivered them to Sir Robert Broke to bear into France to the king. And as they searched his chamber they found in a chest two shirts of hair made full of great knots, and then they said: Certainly he was a good man; and coming down into the churchward they began to dread and fear that the ground would not have borne them, and were marvellously aghast, but they supposed that the earth would have swallowed them all quick. And then they knew that they had done amiss.

And anon it was known all about, how that he was martyred, and anon after took this holy body, and unclothed him, and found bishop's clothing above, and the habit of a monk under. And next his flesh he wore hard hair, full of knots, which was his shirt. And his breech was of the same, and the knots slicked fast within the skin, and all his body full of worms; he suffered great pain. And he was thus martyred the year of our Lord one thousand one hundred and seventy-one, and was fifty-three years old. And soon after tidings came to the king how he was slain, wherefore the king took great sorrow, and sent to Rome for his absolution.

Now after that S. Thomas departed from the pope, the pope would daily look upon the white chasuble that S. Thomas had said mass in, and the same day that he was martyred he saw it turned into red, whereby he knew well that that same day he suffered martyrdom for the right of holy church, and commanded a mass of requiem solemnly to be sung for his soul. And when the quire began to sing requiem, an angel on high above began the office of a martyr: Letabitur justus, and then all the quire followed singing forth the mass of the office of a martyr. And the pope thanked God that it pleased him to show such miracles for his holy martyr, at whose tomb by the merits and prayers of this holy martyr our blessed Lord hath showed many miracles. The blind have recovered their sight, the dumb their speech, the deaf their hearing, the lame their limbs, and the dead their life.

If I should here express all the miracles that it hath pleased God to show for this holy saint it should contain a whole volume, therefore at this time, I pass over unto the feast of his translation, where I propose with the grace of God to recite some of them. Then let us pray to this glorious martyr to be our advocate, that by his petition we may come to everlasting bliss. Amen.

[The following is a separate entry, composed by or for Caxton and included in his 4th volume, covering the feast of the Translation (that is, the moving of the relics) of St. Thomas á Beckett, which was the primary feast of the saint in England. It replaces Voragine’s brief accounts of six miracles of the saint: the healing wrought by his bloody garments, the lady who prayed for better looking eyes, the servant who substituted ordinary water for St. Thomas’s water, the bird that escaped the hawk by speaking Thomas’ name, the man who prayed for a cure, and the fates of St. Thomas’ murderers. Four of these miracles are included among those that Caxton puts after dealing with the Translation.]


The translation of the glorious martyr, S. Thomas of Canterbury, we shall shortly rehearse unto the laud and praising of Almighty God, then in the fiftieth year after his passion, which was the year of jubilee, that is of remission. For, of ancient time, the fiftieth year was called the year of the jubilee of pardon and remission, and is yet used among religious men. For when a religious man hath continued in his order fifty years, then he shall be admitted to make his jubilee, and that made, he is pardoned and hath remission of many observances that tofore he was bounden unto. Then in this year of jubilee from his passion, was the solemnity of his translation accomplished, in the time of Honorius, the third pope of that name. The which granted yearly remissions and indulgences so great and large, that tofore in no time of mind hath been seen any popes to have granted and given like. Then let us call to mind that on a Tuesday his translation was accomplished. On the Tuesday happed to him many things. On a Tuesday he was born, on a Tuesday he was exiled, on a Tuesday our Lord appeared to him at Pountney in France, saying: Thomas, my church shall be glorified in thy blood. On a Tuesday he returned from his exile, and on a Tuesday he suffered martyrdom.

Then how this holy translation was fulfilled now ye shall hear. The reverend father in God, Stephen, Archbishop of Canterbury, Richard, bishop of Salisbury, Walter, the prior of the same place, with the convent, with spiritual songs and devout hymns, when it was night, went to the sepulchre of this holy martyr, and all that night and day of his translation, they persevered in prayers and fastings. And after midnight, four priests, elected and thereto chosen, approaching to his body, took up the holy head with great devotion and reverence, and unto them all offered it for to kiss it. Then the archbishop, and all the others, made great honour to it, and took all the relics of the precious body, and laid them in a chest, and shut it fast with iron locks, and set it in a place for to be kept unto the day that the translation should be solemnised.

The day then of this holy translation being come, there were present a great innumerable multitude of people, as well of rich as of poor. There was Pandulphus, a legate of our holy father the pope, and two archbishops of France, of Rheims and Arles, with many other bishops and abbots, and also king Harry the Third with earls and barons, which king himself took the chest upon his shoulders, and with the other prelates and lords, brought it with great joy and honour in to the place where it is now worshipped, and was laid in a fair and much rich shrine. At whose holy translation were showed, by the merits of this holy martyr, S. Thomas, many miracles. To blind men was given their sight, to deaf men their hearing, to dumb men their speech, and to dead men was restored life.


Among all others there was a man, because of great devotion that he had to be at this holy translation and visit the holy martyr, which came to the bridge at Brentford by London; and when he was in the middle of the bridge, meeting there one, was cast into the water. This man, not forgetting himself, called S. Thomas unto his help, and besought him not to suffer his pilgrim to perish, ne to be there drowned. And five times he sank down to the ground, and five times arose above the water, and then he was cast to the dry ground. Then he affirmed that he received no water into his mouth, ne into his ears that did to him grievance ne hurt that he felt, save in his falling he felt in his mouth a little salt water; and added more thereto, saying that, when he sank, a bishop held him up that he might not sink.


This holy translation was done and accomplished the year of our Lord twelve hundred and twenty, in the nones of July, at three o'clock, in the fiftieth year after his passion.


For this glorious saint our Lord hath showed many great miracles, as well by his life, as after his death and martyrdom. For a little tofore his death a young man died and was raised again by miracle. And he said that he was led to see the holy order of saints in heaven, and there he saw a seat void, and he asked for whom it was, and it was answered to him that, it was kept for the great bishop of England, S. Thomas of Canterbury.


There was also a simple priest that daily sang no other mass but of our Lady, whereof he was put to S. Thomas his ordinary, whom accused, he opposed, and found him full simple of conning, wherefore he suspended him, and inhibited him his mass. Wherefore this priest was full sorry, and prayed humbly to our blessed Lady that he might be restored again to say his mass.

And then our blessed Lady appeared to this priest, and bade him go to S. Thomas, and bid him by the token that “the lady whom thou servest” hath sewed his shirt of hair with red silk, which he shall find there as he laid it, that he give thee leave to sing mass, and assoil thee of his suspending and thine inhibiting, and restore thee again to thy service.

And when S. Thomas heard this he was greatly abashed, and went and found like as the priest had said, and then assoiled him to say mass as he did before, commanding him to keep this thing secret as long as he lived.


There was a lady in England that desired greatly to have grey eyes, for she had a conceit that she should be the more beauteous in the sight of the people; and only for that cause she made a row to visit S. Thomas upon her bare feet. And when she came thither, and had devoutly made her prayers to have her desire, suddenly she wax stark blind, and then she perceived that she had offended and displeased our Lord in that request, and cried God mercy of that offence, and besought him full meekly to be restored of her sight again. And by the merits of the blessed S. Thomas she was restored to her sight again, and was glad to have her old eyes, and returned home again, and lived holy to her life's end.


Also there was a lord's carver that brought water to him at his table, to whom the lord said: If thou hast ever stolen anything of mine, I pray God and S. Thomas that thou have no water in the bason, and suddenly it was all void of the water and dry, and there was he proved a thief.


There was a tame bird kept in a cage whicb was learned to speak. And on a time he fled out of the cage and flew into the field; and there came a sparrowhawk, and would have taken this bird and pursued after. And the bird being in great dread cried: S. Thomas! help! like as he had heard others speak, and the sparrowhawk fell down dead. and the bird escaped harmless.


Also there was a man that S. Thomas loved much in his days, and he fell in a grievous sickness, wherefore he went to the tomb of S. Thomas to pray for his health, and anon he had his desire and was all whole. And as he turned homeward, being all whole, then he began to dread lest this health should not be most profitable for his soul. Then he returned again to the tomb of S. Thomas, and prayed if his health were not profitable to his soul, that his old sickness might come again to him. And it came anon again to him, and endured unto his life's end.


And in like wise there was a devout blind man which had his sight restored to him again by the merit of S. Thomas; but after, he repented him for he could not be so quiet in his mind as he was before, he had then so much letting by seeing the vanities of the world. Wherefore he prayed to our Lord that by the merits of S. Thomas, he might be blind again to the world as he was before, and anon he had his desire, and lived after full holily to his life's end.

Who should tell all the miracles that our blessed Lord hath showed for this holy martyr, it should overmuch endure, for ever sith his passion unto this day, God hath showed continually for him many great miracles. Then let us pray this holy saint to be a special advocate for us wretched sinners unto our Lord God, who bring us unto his everlasting bliss in heaven.

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