Thomas Becket’s assassination by four zealous knights in 1170 would be a headline-hitter even today, that’s for sure. And it’s certainly one of the most famous murders in medieval history. But just how did the son of a London merchant come to be not only the Archbishop of Canterbury but one of the king’s greatest friends? And what happened for this friendship to end in such a brutal way?
Thomas and Henry – Two Tempestuous Comrades
It would seem that Becket was a typical youth whilst he was growing up. Born in 1118, he developed into a characteristically vain and proud young man who doggedly pursued a sense of fun with his younger friend, Henry; then still a prince. They hunted together, played chess, and it was said that the two ‘had but one heart and one mind’. Both had a temper. Both could be passionately stubborn.
Henry became king at the age of 21 and, alongside this step up in status, he made Becket his Chancellor. It would appear that they both rigorously worked to bring law and order to the country. Familiar terms that we hear today such as ‘trial by jury’ and ‘assizes’ came to the fore during his reign. Henry’s quest for the judiciary to administer common law – the law of all free men – was not one he would forego lightly.
Henry, the Church, and Clerical Privilege
Despite Henry’s success in pursuing his quest, however, there was one significant exception that fought to evade the reach of the judiciary – the Church. Whilst swearing loyalty to the king, the Church still asserted that its true allegiance was to God, and thus the Pope. At this time, the Church had its own courts and own laws. So, by claiming ‘benefit of the clergy’ those who sat under its wing had the right to be tried in the bishop’s court, and were untouchable by common law. For a religious institution, its punishments were lax. Rape and murder often elicited what just amounted to a sentence of severe penance; the worst that could happen was defrocking.
Keen to pursue his quest to subjugate the Church to the crown, however, Henry spotted an opportunity when the Archbishop of Canterbury died in 1161. He turned to his friend and confidante. Thomas Becket suddenly found himself to be the replacement.
Thomas, the Church and Clerical Privilege
If Henry had banked on his friend’s support to shift the balance of power the Church had, though, he was mistaken. It’s not clear quite why Becket changed, but change he did. And within a short time he had become a serious, religious convert. He wore sackcloth, ate sparsely, and drank just water. The days of fun and frolicking with a friend became a thing of the past.
Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before king and archbishop clashed. The subject at the centre of this disagreement was, of course, clerical privilege. To Henry, the Church should be subject to the law of the land. To Becket, however, the Church was still above the law and only answered to God, via the Pope. In a fierce confrontation that took place in Northampton Castle in 1164, Becket was labelled a traitor and a whoremonger (amongst other more choice expressions), and he found himself without an option but to withdraw to France. He made his retreat.
Becket’s Return to Canterbury
Six years slipped by before Becket felt able to return to Canterbury. But though time had passed, it had done little to quash his stormy temperament. Upon his return, and on Christmas Day, 1170, in a fit of anger he excommunicated those bishops who had diplomatically supported Henry in his pursuit to dislodge clerical privilege.
The king was infuriated by this defiant act. And it is this which allegedly prompted him to utter those famous condemning words, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”
It can only be surmised that the four knights who left for Canterbury that day had overheard Henry’s outburst. They arrived at the cathedral on December 29th. Many accounts suggest that their intention was to arrest him and take him back to London. However, Becket resisted.
The attack was brutal. Chroniclers cite the crown of his head being severed and his brains being picked out with a sword. Whatever the true details, Becket met a bloody end at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral.
Henry was swift to rue his words. In penitence he swapped his royal clothes for a sackcloth and ashes, starved himself for three days, walked to Canterbury, and had himself flogged by monks. But nothing was going to bring his friend back.
A final thought
Becket was martyred. At the risk of sounding cynical, this was no bad thing for Canterbury. Miraculous events and cures were soon being reported, and these in turn saw the cathedral become a target for pilgrimage. Much of the proceeds of donations, and ‘sales of official souvenirs’ over the next few hundred years, paid for the building to be what we know it to be today. But the overriding feeling that lingers whenever this story is retold, is one of frustrated pity. Anger management, as we know of it now, did not exist in those days. What revolutionary changes could those two men have made to the legal system in this country if they had been able to work as a team, rather than fury fueled adversaries…?