Will someone rid me of this turbulent priest?

Henry_II_of_England_wlThe words in the headline is according to popular tradition those of Henry II, the first Plantagenet king in relation to his former friend and Chancellor Thomas Becket, at the time Archbishop of Canterbury and a recurring thorn in the side of the king.

When the previous Archbishop, Theobald of Bec died in 1161, the king saw the chance to weaken the privileges of the church and appointed Thomas Becket as the successor, something that turned out to be a mistake. While he had had no problems revoking or weakening church privileges as a Chancellor, things changed once Becket became an archbishop. Instead of continue doing the king´s bidding, Thomas Becket developed into a strong defender of church privileges.

It is sometimes stated that Becket, who as a chancellor had been a lover both of clothes, wine and good food, went through an instant transformation from a man living the good life to an aesthetic, but there are no sources to support for example that he wore a monk´s habit under the more luxurious robes of an archbishop, or that he ever wore a shirt made of horsehair. His diet – it is sometimes alleged that he basically starved himself – had changed years before his appointment, but not due to religious zeal, instead it was colitis that made Thomas Becket careful about what he ate.

One of the things that had angered the hot-headed king was the leniency the Church tended to show members of the clergy when an individual had committed a crime. In cases when a royal court would have sentenced the guilty part to death, church court could be satisfied with defrocking the sentenced man, or sending him off on a pilgrimage.

While there had been minor conflicts between the king and Becket previously, theBecket straw that broke the camel´s back was most likely Thomas Becket´s behaviour when he in January 1164 was being required to agree to the Constitutions of Clarendon, a set of legislative procedures consisting of 16 articles, which aimed primarily to address the problem with what was called criminous clerks of the church and to amend the perceived flaws in church courts, but also to restrict ecclesiastical privileges and curb papal power in England, something that had been increasing during the somewhat anarchic rule of king Stephen, and Henry II wanted to bring church back to the position it had been in during the reign of his grandfather, Henry I, which the church under royal jurisdiction. Becket had seen this coming, but after urging for resistance for months in advance, he left the rest of the clergy in disbelief when he decided to agree to the constitution.

Later he again urged resistance to the constitution, and one can imagine that the priests and bishops were finding it hard to know both on which foot to stand, or knowing where they actually had the archbishop. Becket wasn´t a popular figure to begin with within the clergy, and this hardly helped to strengthen his position or support for his cause, whatever that might have been.

Jindrich2_Beckett (1)A conflict between crown and church should not be underestimated, as the priests and the rest of the clergy had the power to excommunicate both nobility and royalty as they saw fit, another thorn in the side of the king, as he was of the opinion that all excommunications of the nobility should take place in agreement between himself and the church, an opinion clearly not shared with Thomas Becket.

After having the door slammed in his face when trying to see the king after Clarendon, Becket seemed to realise that England might not be the place for him, and attempted to leave the country, but was recognised when trying to leave the country without the king´s consent, and was brought back to his sovereign, who candidly asked him if he thought England wasn´t big enough for the two of them.

By attempting to leave England without seeking royal permission, Becket had already broken one of the articles of the Constitution of Clarendon which stated that it wasn´t “lawful for archbishops, bishops, and persons of the kingdom to go out of the kingdom without the permission of the lord king”, but when he was brought to justice, it was for two other offences; failing to answer summons in a dispute over archiepiscopal lands and mismanaging funds in his role as chancellor. Both accusations were serious, and as if that wasn´t enough, the charge of communicating with the pope without going through the king (a violation of the constitution of Clarendon) was added. Becket was found guilty of all charges, but was freed by the supporter Herbert of Bosham, and together they fled for the continent in 1164.

The following years they spent under the protection of Louis VII in a Cistercian AbbeyOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA in Ponitgny, and here he according to some sources had pope Alexander send him a monk´s habit, as his resolve hardened, and allegedly he wore a shirt not of horse hair under it, but one of the even more uncomfortable goat´s hair. His attitude did not bode well for a benign outcome of the conflict. As Thomas Becket´s militancy grew, so did the anxiety of both the pope and Henry II.

In 1169 Henry tried to defuse the situation when he wanted his son and heir, Henry the Young, crowned, a task traditionally performed by the archbishop of Canterbury, and the two met at Montmirail, on the border between France and Angevin lands. The two former close friends met for th first time in four years, both aged and Henry more choleric than ever. It all seemed well when Thomas Becket fell to his knees in front of his monarch, verbally submitting to his clemency, but true to form managed to aggravate the king by adding words to the affect the God´s judgment of course weighed heavier than anything the king could come up with.

No reconciliation took place, and in the end coronation was instead performed by the archbishop of York, something which sent Thomas Becket into a rage, and he retaliated by having the archbishop of York and the bishop of London excommunicated.

During this period the pope Alexander III, who in principle supported Becket but needed Henry´s support in his own conflict with the German emperor Fredrik I Barbossa, advocated a diplomatic solution to the conflict and in 1170 sent delegates to make that come about.

In July that year another meeting took place between the two, this time in on the banks of the Loire where the two rode to greet each other, a reunion that allegedly was tearful on both sides, and when they were about to part, Thomas threw himself at the hooves of the king´s horse.

This seemingly amicable reunion turned however out to be worth nothing. While Henry had agreed to pardon Thomas followers, Becket himself gave nothing back in terms of recalling the excommunications of Henry´s noblemen.

After a second meeting, when Henry stated that if Thomas Becket abide by Henry´s wishes, he would have everything but getting no response, the two never met again.

Becket returned to England the first week in December 1170, continuing to aggravate the king, leading up to the sickly Henry uttering the words that since has been changed to the ones found in the headline.

English_-_Carrow_Psalter_-_Walters_W34_-_Reverse_DetailWhat the king really did say was ”What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and promoted in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!”, a phrase not necessarily to be taken as an incentive to murder. But that´s exactly how it was taken by four knights who arrived in Canterbury, seeking an audience with Becket.

They were turned away and allegedly retreated to the still existing house The Conquest, from which they supposedly later made their way to the cathedral through a tunnel which still can be seen on the lower floor of the house.

They found Becket in the cathedral on December 29, 1170, where they basically cut the archbishop to pieces, chopping off the upper half of his skull and spreading his brain on the floor.

There wasn´t much doubt as to who the guilty party was, but the only punishment dealt out was excommunication of the knights. They later travelled to Rome to ask for forgiveness and was ordered to serve in the Holy Land for 14 years.  Henry on his part was being required to do penance before being able to attend church again. As a part of the penance, Thomas 517Becket´s sister was appointed abbess at Barking Abbey in 1173. That same year Becket was also canonised.  Henry also visited Becket´s tomb. In 1220 Becket´s remains were moved from the tomb to a shrine where it was kept until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538.

Today a lit candle marks the place where the shrine used to stand.


Roman Canon Law in the Church of England: six essays – F.W. Maitland

 History of England, At the edge of the world 3 000bc -ad1600  –  Simon Schama

 Thomas Becket, warrior, priest, rebel, victim – John Guy


Thomas Becket – Oxford Dictionary of National Biography/Frank Barlow






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