Will No One Rid Me of This Turbulent Priest?
Today marks the 850th anniversary of the murder in 1170 of Saint Thomas Becket. This murder has always been the most serious stain upon the reign of King Henry II.
Becket rose to be appointed Lord Chancellor of England. While Chancellor Henry nominated Becket (who at this time was not a priest) to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury, clearly hoping that Becket would use his power as primate of England to mold ecclesiastical policy in favor of royal interests. Becket failed to do so, rather becoming an ascetic and placing the interests of the Church over those of the crown. Eventually he was forced to resign as Lord Chancellor.
The contest of wills between Henry and Becket over the Constitutions of Clarendon, they seeking to increase the power of the civil state over the Church and its constituents, led to a final break in the relationship, with Becket fleeing England for France. Furthermore, several suffragan bishops crowned Henry II’s son, thereafter the “Young King” (there was a sometimes employed tradition of crowning the heir during his father’s lifetime), in defiance of the prerogative of Canterbury to perform the coronation. That led to their excommunication. With the intercession of papal legates the terms of Thomas’ return to Canterbury were agreed upon.
While in France and likely well into his cups, Henry made a statement (exactly what was said is lost to history – there are conflicting accounts) that was interpreted by four knights as a direction to kill Becket. They crossed the Channel and challenged Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, there killing him. Services in the Cathedral were suspended after its desecration. Becket was canonized barely three years later, and the four assassins were excommunicated and ordered to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land (there are disputed accounts that thereafter at least one became a Templar). Henry, fearful that he himself would be excommunicated, would later do public penance at Becket’s shrine in Canterbury Cathedral. That Shrine would be stripped under King Henry VIII as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
The “benefit of clergy” that was the source of the dispute was not abolished in England until the mid-19th century.
There is a passing reference to Becket in The Lion in Winter. And don’t believe what is presented in the movie Becket – he was of Norman heritage, and was not a “Saxon.” However, for both movies Peter O’Toole was nominated for a best actor award (he received neither).The leading biographies of Becket are those written by Anne Duggan and Frank Barlow. His letters were collected and edited by Anne Duggan.