Salta direttamente ai contenuti

St. Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, martyr and friend of Sicily

PDF Print E-mail
Home arrowSt. Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, martyr and friend of Sicily

During the 12th century, Sicily and England had important political and cultural relations, which culminated in 1177, with the marriage celebrated in Palermo between William II called the good, the King of Sicily and Princess Joan of England, the sister of Richard Lionheart and the daughter of Henry II the Plantagenet.
At the time, Palermo housed a thick colony of English scholars, ecclesiastics and politicians who, along with the Greeks, the Arabs and the French, constituted an integral part of a refined and cosmopolitan court. The capital of the island was at the time one of the most important poles for European politics, as well as the cultural link between East and West.
Among the British who were present in Palermo, Walter of the Mill, the preceptor of the future King William, was to the forefront, and later on, the archbishop of Palermo, the builder of the Cathedral and the church of the Holy Spirit (later called the Vespers). His brother, Bartholomew, was the bishop of Agrigento. Another Englishman, Richard Palmer, was the bishop of Syracuse and a friend of the King of England.  Men of science and letters such as Abelard of Bath, stayed in Sicily to study the works of the Greek philosophers, which were translated by Arab scholars.
For the British, Sicily became a legendary land: Gervase of Tilbury who was in Palermo in 1183, set the conclusion of the story of King Arthur on Mount Etna, writing that the mortally injured Sire was transported by his sister Morgan, through the forests of the Sicilian volcano, where he still awaits to return among the Knights of the Round Table.

The political events that occurred during those years in the two courts occasionally had a reciprocal, although indirect involvement. The most evident case was to do with the dispute between the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket and his King, Henry II the Plantagenet, who had decided to affirm his temporal power over the Church of England.
Both the King and the Archbishop appealed to the court of Palermo. The first requested political support, the second, protection for his relatives who, persecuted in England, later found exile in Sicily, thanks to the help of Queen Margaret of Navarre, mother of William II and Richard Palmer.
For the court of Palermo, the contrast between the two illustrious figures was truly embarrassing. If on the one hand, from an emotional and political point of view, people took the side of Becket, on the other hand they couldn’t ignore the fact that Henry II was only asking for part of the privileges granted by the Pope, decades previously, to the reigning Normans of Sicily.
For her part, the Queen of Sicily also needed the authoritative help of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Upon the death of her husband, William I, Margaret became the queen of a multi-ethnic nation, while waiting for her son, William II, to reach adulthood.
Very soon the Norman barons could no longer tolerate the Arab officials holding the reigns of the state and they rebelled, encouraging conspiracies and disorders. Margaret called upon the aid of her cousin Stephen du Perche from France, the Beckets fraternal friend. An energetic and honest man, Stephen soon took the control of the kingdom back, taking the office of Chancellor and later of Archbishop of Palermo. Yet due to his inflexible rectitude, he attracted the occult powers of the court and at the height of an uprising he was forced to go into exile. The archbishop elected in his place was Walter of the Mill. The Queen, who was filled with indignation, wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, asking him to take action, with an authoritative intervention on his part before the king of France and the Pope so as not to ratify the election of Walter and have Stephen return to Palermo. Thomas Becket did everything to comply with the Queen, but all efforts were in vein. Even a letter written to his old friend Richard, the bishop of Syracuse and an influential figure before the court of Palermo, went unheeded. On the other hand, the same Richard and the other Englishmen from Palermo were preparing to abandon Becket’s cause, in the hope of marrying the young king of Sicily into the Reigning English family. And so the events came to a head and despite a brief reconciliation between Thomas and Henry which came about in Frétéval, the relations between the two deteriorated: On the 29th of December 1170, four of Henry’s knights, who were convinced that they were doing the will of their sovereign, killed the archbishop in Canterbury Cathedral. Thomas died murmuring: I accept death in the name of Jesus and His Church.

The dramatic events involving the King’s men in Canterbury cathedral aroused horror and disapproval throughout the world and in Palermo they had the effect of averting the idea of a British wedding for the King of Sicily. Nevertheless, two years after the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, Pope Alexander III, having acknowledged the sincere and public repentance of the English monarch, forgave and absolved him.
A year later (1173), the same Alexander canonised Thomas Becket: Canterbury therefore became England’s most important centre of pilgrimage.
Once relations between the Holy See and the English crown were re-established, the court of Palermo recommenced negotiations regarding the much desired Anglo-Sicilian marriage, which was also favoured by the Pope, given that there would be two homogenous bastions, in Northern and Southern Europe, to work against the threat of the German Emperor.

The marriage was celebrated in Palermo on the 13th of February 1177, amidst the enthusiasm of the people of Palermo due to the very young English queen and the stupor of the dignitaries of her court, due to the wealth and pomp of the Sicilian city.
For her subjects, Joan was a good queen and despite the fact that she was the daughter of the implacable enemy of St. Thomas, it is said that she was sincerely devoted to him. The martyr of Canterbury was never forgotten in Palermo by those who had known him, loved him and worshipped him, and we have seen how close he was to Sicily. Some of his relatives had settled definitively on the island of Palermo and in Sciacca. Among the first images of the saints on the mosaics of the apse of the cathedral of Monreale, William II also wanted that of Thomas of Canterbury, who, not by chance, was positioned between the other martyrs who fell defending the Church. It is one of the most beautiful known portraits of the English martyr and it has a notable historical value, as it was composed approximately three years after his death. But this was not the last homage that Palermo paid to the Saint; in the chapel of the Trinity in the Cathedral of Canterbury, there is a mosaic-covered floor on the site that housed the relics of Thomas from 1220 to 1538. In its style and geometric drawing, this floor bears the unmistakable imprint of Palermo’s native artisans.