At the end of June I had the great pleasure of visiting the British Museum’s exhibition about Thomas of Canterbury. He was killed on 29 December 1170 and was canonised by Pope Alexander III in 1173. The extraordinary speed with which he was sanctified as a martyr and the equally extraordinary speed with which his cult spread were of course a result of the high profile of the murder and the sensational sequence of events: King versus Archbishop, the knights killing Thomas within the very walls of his own cathedral, and then Henry II’s spectacular public penance. But the cult’s energetic promotion, nationally and internationally, was because the archbishop’s death was instantly weaponised by the church in a European-wide struggle between the religious and secular powers in these centuries.
Politics and martyrdom have often been intertwined, never more so than in the ‘Age of Martyrs’ in the first three centuries of Christianity. The great waves of Roman persecution coincided with times of political difficulty, either because the emperor himself needed to find scapegoats (as in the case of Nero in the first century) or, more usually, because the empire itself was under stress (as in the time of Diocletian at the end of the third). The Romans generally didn’t bother much about what people actually believed. But what they were concerned about was adherence to social norms in support of social order; and it was when they tightened up on these, as a way of exerting authority at a time of threat, that Christians fell foul of law and custom and were then killed as b convenient public examples of what happens to those who refused to comply. The actual beliefs of the victims were not closely enquired into; the issues, rather, were their refusal to conform, their tendency cohere as a group apart, holding to a loyalty above the emperor, and their practice of meeting in secret, which created huge suspicion in an empire always paranoid about secret societies. Religious toleration was pronounced by Constantine in 313, and in the late fourth century Christianity became the official religion of the empire. This radical change marked the end of the ‘Age of Martyrs’, but not, of course, the end of martyrdoms. The difference was that there were fewer mass martyrdoms; and circumstances were usually more particular and individualised, although not necessarily separated from politics, just as Thomas’s was not, nor the killings of Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer, commemorated by the Martyrs’ Memorial in Oxford. They were burnt at the stake for their protestant beliefs when Mary Tudor led England back to Rome for the short duration of her reign. Martyrs have often been victims of conflicts within Christianity itself.
In the light of history, we define a ‘martyr’ as someone who suffers persecution and death for resolutely upholding and so ‘witnessing to’ their religious belief. When, in Acts 1 v.8, Jesus tells the disciples that they will receive the Holy Spirit and so be empowered to become ‘witnesses’ to Christ throughout the world, the word used is μάρτυρες [martyres]. This is nothing to do with how they will die; it is all about how they will spread the gospel, how they will be ‘witnesses’ to what they have seen and learnt. Witnessing to the power of faith to the point of death is the most extreme form of public witness. These repeated examples across the centuries, inspiring believers and sometimes even converting non-believers, are why the word ‘martyr’ has come to have the specialised meaning that it does today.