December 23, 2004
Tommy was born in London as the son of a wealthy Norman merchant, educated in England and France, and joined the staff of Archbishop Theobold. Tommy was appointed Chancellor by King Henry II (r.1154-70) on advice from Theobold. The two men quickly became good friends, as Tommy assisted the king in asserting the monarch’s authority over the church and so became the obvious choice for Theobold’s replacement when he passed away in 1162.
The king’s choice angered many clerics who felt that Tommy’s lack of ecclesiastical experience, previous place at the head of the king’s army, and above all, close friendship with the monarch disqualified him from the position. After his appointment, however, Tommy did a rapid about-turn and became one of the most pious men in the land. He discarded his previous luxuries and fancy clothes for a stone-floor, flea-ridden hair-shirt and would start every day by washing the feet of 13 paupers, but worst of all, he started asserting church authority.
At that time those who had church education had the right to be tried in church-court rather than face the harsh sentences of the king’s court. This angered the king, who attempted to overrule the law, but Tommy stood firm, angering the king and causing a rift between them. In 1164, after becoming embroiled in a land dispute, Tommy himself was ordered to appear before the king’s court. He refused and had his property confiscated and was forced to flee to France.
He returned in 1170 only to anger king again by excommunicating his ecclesiastical supporters. The king raged, "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?", whereupon four knights in his service made their way to Canterbury, where they confronted the Archbishop. Things went badly, and the first blow cut through a monk’s arm before slicing off Tommy’s scalp; further blows followed at the site, with one of the knights sword tips breaking off on the site now marked by the 1986 Altar of the Sword’s Point.
The body was laid to rest in the Eastern Crypt and became a major site of pilgrimage after Tommy was canonized; even Henry came here to pay his penance prior to being absolved. In 1220, the body was moved to a magnificent reliquary in the newly constructed Trinity Chapel while the severed scalp had its own place in the specially built Corona Chapel. The saint’s cult, which threatened the monarch’s supremacy, angered King Henry VIII, who had the shrine and its relics destroyed in 1538. Now only a single candle marks the bare space.
While the reliquary may no longer exist, Tommy still draws visitors to Canterbury, including Pope John Paul II, who visited in 1986 to pray at the site of the martyrdom.
From journal Canterbury Cathedral: If God Were An Englishman