“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?
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