A Clash of Church & State: The Murder of Thomas Becket


“Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest,” said Henry II to his councilors. And with the alacrity of men whose fortunes rose and fell with the pleasure of their king, they leapt at the chance to murder Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury one December night in 1170. The phrasing gave Henry plausible deniability, or the so the legend goes, for it allowed him distance from the crime – offered him room to say his words were misinterpreted. Today the words are held up as an example for how leaders have a responsibility to wield their power responsibly.

The phrasing reaches us thanks to the oral tradition of storytelling in subsequent centuries and the chances of those exact words coming from Henry’s lips are slim. Even so, the fact remains that at one time the King of England had the Archbishop of Canterbury assassinated, ushering in a violent clash between the state and the church and calling into question who was more powerful, king or pope?

Henry II & Thomas Bcket as depicted in the 13th century

The tragedy of the entire matter on a personal level is that Henry II and Thomas Becket were once uncommonly close friends. Becket became Lord Chancellor for the 21-year-old new king in January 1155, though his origins were humble. Born to middle-class parents in London in 1118, he was educated at Merton Priory and studied law in Paris, Bologna and Auxerre. He was not, however, an academic, though his powers of diplomacy would later become his most significant asset. Back in England, he learned business and accounting skills and finally earned a position in the 1140s as a clerk in the household of Theobold of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Under Theobold he was trusted with several diplomatic missions to Rome and had won enough of the man’s good opinion that it was he who recommended Becket for the post of chancellor. Tall, slim, handsome and witty, he had the makings of a dazzling courtier. He enjoyed hunting, chess and sport, traits which he shared with the King. Where they differed however, was in that Becket had developed a taste for the finer things in life, while Henry remained a soldier at heart.

Established in his position, he kept a lavish household in London that – much like Henry VIII and Wolsey a few centuries later – was often remarked to be more luxurious than his master’s. And like Wolsey, Becket’s power was comparable to that of the monarch. It was said, “The King bestowed upon him many revenues and received him so much into his esteem and familiarity that throughout the kingdom there was none his equal save the King alone.”

Or more poignantly, “The King and Becket played together like little boys of the same age, at the court, in church, in assemblies, in riding.”

Henry II & Eleanor of Aquitaine

Unfortunately we have no idea what Henry’s famous wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, thought of Becket, but we do know that his mother, the Empress Matilda, detested him from the start and often warned her son against him. It was a rather prescient maternal instinct as time would tell.

When Theobold died in April 1161, a new archbishop was needed. Henry’s initial instinct was to nominate his closest and most trusted friend, but was temporarily dissuaded by his mother. Even so, it was around this time that he arranged for his eldest son, the six-year-old Lord Henry, to join Becket’s household. It was a mark of the utmost trust not only for Henry as a father, but as a king, for Becket was charged with molding the next monarch. From that day onward, he referred to the young prince as his adopted son and the two developed a deep and familial affection for one another.

It was that Christmas, held in Bayeux, that Henry finally told Becket that he intended to name him Archbishop of Canterbury. The problem was, Becket didn’t want the job. Henry was planning a massive reformation project for the Catholic Church within England, believing it to have grown too powerful and corrupt. He not only wanted to loosen the chokehold of the clergy residing in his country, but more importantly, that of the Pope. Becket was worried the appointment would put them on opposing sides and ruin their friendship, further supported by jealous courtiers. That, too, was a rather prescient concern.

There was also the small matter that Becket was about to be elevated to the highest religious position in England and he wasn’t a member of the clergy – indeed, he didn’t even attend mass. But what Henry wanted, Henry got. Becket was nominated in May 1162, ordained a priest a month later and consecrated in Canterbury a day after that. The ceremony brought about an immediate and unexpected change in Becket, who wept throughout. As noted by Alison Weir:

“Overnight, it seemed, the proud and worldly courtier, statesman and soldier had become an ascetic priest committed to his spiritual duties. He had changed, he declared, ‘from a patron of play actors and a follower of hounds to a shepherd of souls.’ Becket had never done things by halves, and he now threw himself wholeheartedly into his new role. ‘He handled the Holy Sacraments with the utmost reverence and … so utterly abandoned the world that all men marveled thereat.'”

He embraced humility, or rather, humiliation. He wore a hair shirt full of vermin that reached his knees. His diet was sparse. He washed the feet of beggars each day. And he regularly had monks whip his back, mirroring the treatment of Jesus per biblical tradition.

Henry II’s son, Lord Henry

If that wasn’t enough, he swiftly resigned the chancellorship, which Henry hadn’t been expecting. His point was clear: he couldn’t serve two masters and as Archbishop of Canterbury he answered to the Pope.

The battle of wills began almost immediately. In the summer of 1163 Becket condemned Henry’s plan to divert funds into the royal treasury and surprisingly managed to get his way. That autumn Henry spoke out against corruption within the Church and said it should get rid of the clergy who fell short of their offices. Becket opposed the measure, and when Henry demanded that all of his bishops swear an oath of obedience to England, Becket insisted on the caveat, “saving our order.”

Henry’s response was, “By the eyes of God! Let me hear no word of your order! I demand absolute and express agreement to my customs.” Even more, he confiscated two of Becket’s estates and removed Lord Henry from his household.

The rift complete, Becket was set on defending the autonomy and privileges of English clergymen. Even when guilty of crimes like rape or murder, he ensured they received nominal slaps on the wrists, purposefully flouting Henry’s agenda. Henry, meanwhile, appointed the one clergyman who had opposed Becket’s nomination, Gilbert Foliot, to the see of London, expressly telling him to check Becket at every turn. That December, Henry and Eleanor held Christmas in one of Becket’s former homes.

In January 1164, Henry requested that the English clergy endorse 16 new laws, known as the Constitutions of Clarendon. One of the tenets was that priests guilty of a crime would be tried in a secular court. While at first Becket was willing to offer verbal endorsement, he and the Pope were in agreement that it was a slippery slope to threatening the Church’s autonomy. He backed out and even more, he tried to leave for France, though he was delayed by bad weather and Henry’s soldiers. By October, Henry ordered Becket’s arraignment at Northampton and asked him to account for funds handled while he was chancellor, not Archbishop, an issue very much under the King’s purview and in which it would be harder for the Pope to protect him.

Louis VII of France

Knowing they had reached crisis point, Becket entered court holding his episcopal cross and calling for the protection of the Church against Henry and forbidding the bishops to judge him. Henry, in turn, had the bishops inform the Pope that Becket had breached the oath he had sworn to uphold the Constitutions of Clarendon and request his removal from office. Becket refused to wait for a sentence and one night disguised himself as a monk to flee for Flanders. Once abroad, he made his way to Rome where he presented himself to the Pope as a victim of a tyrannical king set on abusing the Church. The display worked – not only did the Pope take Becket under his wing, but other European monarchs were delighted to use the situation as an opportunity to simultaneously check England and ingratiate themselves with the Vatican. Louis VII of France, Eleanor’s ex-husband, even offered Becket refuge. In 1166, Becket indeed moved to an abbey in Sens.

But Louis also tried to mediate and between 1165 and 1170 he organized 12 meetings between Henry and Becket, 10 of which took place and ended poorly. Neither was willing to back down, each believing themselves to hold the moral high ground.

In 1166, Becket took matters a step further and began preaching the threat of excommunication against Henry. He ended up carrying through his threat against the authors of the Constitutions of Clarendon, but held off on the King himself and was then urged to back down by the Pope himself who withdrew the excommunications personally.

Three years later, Henry decided he wanted to see his eldest son crowned – not an unusual practice in the Middle Ages. For that, of course, he needed the Archbishop of Canterbury and he offered to let Becket peacefully return to England and resume his duties if he would only retract his denunciation of the Constitutions of Clarendon. In January 1169, facilitated by Louis, Becket and Henry met for the first time in four years. Becket prostrated himself before his king and begged for mercy, offering to submit to Henry’s orders in everything except the honor of God. The last bit, of course, was the crux of the issue and it allowed Becket to maintain the very independence that had led to their rift. Henry was livid and walked out of the room, ending the meeting.

After two more disastrous almost reconciliations, Henry arranged for the Archbishop of York to crown his son in June 1170. The move was in direct defiance of both Becket – who had forbade the move from abroad – and the Pope. Henry’s flouting of tradition was more than just a slap in the face of Church, however, because Lord Henry was married to one of Louis’s daughters and she hadn’t been crowned alongside her husband. Henry’s reasoning was that a ceremony improperly officiated – and in defiance of the Vatican – might cause Louis more trouble than it was worth, but his daughter’s absence offended the French king’s sensibilities regardless.

Thomas Becket

The issue brought the matter to a head for the Pope, who demanded Henry and Becket reconcile. They met once more in July 1170, only this time Henry was more malleable. The Constitutions of Clarendon weren’t mentioned, but Henry did admit wrongdoing in the matter of the coronation. Becket, for his part, swore to crown Lord Henry and Louis’s daughter properly once they were back in England. In October, Henry arranged for his safe passage home.

The two met again at Chaumont soon after and Becket said, “My lord, my mind tells me that I will never again see you in this life.”

Henry responded, “Do you think I am a traitor?”

“God forbid, my lord,” was Becket’s answer.

Perhaps Becket knew what was coming, because to him his return was not a peaceful homecoming, but an opportunity for revenge. Henry wasn’t at the top of that list, though, so much as the bishops who had remained in England for the years of his exile and made it possible. On November 30, he sent a letter excommunicating all of them, and on December 1 he arrived in Canterbury for the first time in six years.

On Christmas Day, Becket delivered a sermon in Canterbury Cathedral denouncing the bishops and publishing his sentences of excommunication. Three of the bishops went straight to Henry, who was keeping the holiday in Normandy, and one of them was reported to have said, “My lord, while Thomas lives, you will not have peace or quiet or see good days.”

It was then that Henry is said to have cried out, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” Four knights in Henry’s household, hearing his anger, slipped away that night, set for England. When Henry discovered they had gone he sent urgent messengers to recall them, afraid of what they might do. Unfortunately, it was too late.

Four days later, on December 29, 1170, the knights found Becket in his personal study at Canterbury and threatened him to leave England immediately. When Becket refused, they withdrew to a courtyard and put on their armor. One of the monks present, thankfully, gave us a (grisly) eyewitness account of what came next. In the evening, as the monks processed to the cathedral for vespers, the same four knights followed them. When the monks saw them, they attempted to bolt the doors of the church, knowing they meant to attack Becket, but Becket stopped them. The men drew their swords – not allowed in a church – frightening and horrifying everyone watching except Becket who remained calm.

“Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King and realm?” one asked.

“I am here, no traitor to the King but a priest,” answered Becket. “Why do you seek me? I am ready to suffer in His name, who redeemed me by His blood.”

With that, he turned his back on the knights and began to pray, no doubt knowing what was to come and preparing himself for martyrdom. The knights demanded that he absolve the excommunicated bishops, but Becket refused. They threatened him with death, but still he refused, repeating that he was ready to die. The men attempted to drag him out of the church, so as not to murder on holy ground, but Becket pulled away from them. When one knight raised his sword, Becket lifted his hands in prayer.


Per Weir:

“At that, FitzUrse [one of the knights] leaped at him and sliced the skin off the top of his head with his sword. As it descended Edward Grimm [the monk eyewitness] sprang to the Archbishop’s defence, but the blade nearly severed his arm. His brother monks fled, but Grimm remained by Becket’s side, his uninjured arm supporting him. Seeing the Archbishop still on his feet, clinging to a pillar, the knights struck again, but a second blow on the head failed to prostrate him. At the third blow, Becket fell forward onto his knees and elbows, muttering, ‘For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.”

While he was thus drying, another knight drove his sword through Becket’s head, severing the crown. A subdeacon who had helped the knights gain access – and was clearly no fan of Becket’s – came forward, put his foot on the corpse’s neck and said, ‘Let us away, knights; he will rise no more.”

Thus Becket died, the one-time closest confidante of Henry II and one of the most powerful men in Europe. It’s hard to articulate Becket’s motivation upon returning to England, or how he transformed, almost overnight, from a politician to a man of the cloth, but he did and he seemingly did so in earnest. Likely, he came home to die, unwilling to compromise on the extent of his authority or the Church’s power. But the “why” of it is difficult to fathom, though countless theories abound. It’s difficult to blame Henry’s initial reasoning that placing a man like Becket would have been to his benefit, but Becket’s first response of horror is interesting, as though he knew once he accepted the new role he would do so whole-heartedly and without looking back. And that in and of itself is fascinating, for if Becket could see how this would play out – knowing Henry’s agenda for reform – why was he willing to follow it as a secular man and unwilling to as a priest? What did he actually believe? Or was he simply the ultimate servant?

Henry started off the journey as a king who wanted less interference from Rome, yes, but also as a Catholic who was disgusted by the abuses of clergymen. As monarch, he was furious that men of the cloth could commit violent crimes and get away from it, immune from law and order thanks to the arms of Rome. Nevertheless, the path of brute force he took in bringing his bishop’s to heel was unfortunate. And while the feeling of betrayal against Becket for his insubordination is understandable on a human level, his words on Christmas Day, said in anger, had dire consequences.

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Henry II

In the direct aftermath, Henry waited in Normandy for word of what happened to the knights. Finally, he left for Argentan still not knowing – it wasn’t until December 31 that news of Becket’s murder reached him. He was horrified and guilty – as one eyewitness reported:

“The King burst into loud lamentations and exchanged his royal robes for sackcloth and ashes, behaving more like a friend than a sovereign of the dead man. At times he fell into a stupor, after which he would again utter groans and cries louder and more bitter than before. For three whole days he remained shut up in his chamber and would neither take food nor admit anyone to comfort him, until it seemed from the excess of his grief that he had determined to contrive his own death. So in consequence we began to despair of the life of the King, and so by the death of the one we feared in our misery that we might lose both.”

Becket dead was worse for Henry than Becket alive. As Louis wrote to the Pope when word spread through Europe of the murder, “Such an unprecedented cruelty demands unprecedented retribution. Let the sword of St. Peter be unleashed to avenge the martyr of Canterbury.”

At first the Pope refused to see or speak to the English envoys Henry sent to Rome. His continental domains were placed under an interdict and he was forbidden from setting foot on consecrated ground until his punishment had been meted out. When the Pope returned to the issue, however, he failed to excommunicate Henry as many assumed that he would and the interdict was lifted. The four knights responsible for the murders were excommunicated, but they weren’t punished by Henry, which severely damaged his reputation. As for what Henry was thinking, likely his own guilt – and knowledge of the hand he played in spurring them to ride out that night – held him back. He assumed the responsibility himself.

The matter wasn’t resolved with Rome until May 1172. In Avranches Cathedral, Henry swore an oath that he had neither desired nor ordered Becket’s murder, but that he had unwittingly prompted the four knights to carry out the assassination on his behalf. He was formally absolved by the Archbishop of Rouen on the Pope’s behalf, and for his atonement he knelt on pavement outside the cathedral and was whipped by monks while his eldest son looked on. As for the reforms that Henry had once felt so passionately about, they lost whatever legs they had once had in the face of the King’s penance. The Catholic Church won, save one small caveat that Henry kept – the right for the crown to protect its interests if threatened by the processes of the Church, a vague and yet fundamental right.

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