Monday, January 9, 2012

Henry II and Thomas Becket by Christy English

King Henry II

Henry II of England and Thomas Becket were two of the greatest rivals for power in English history. We remember them them even today, over 850 years later. Their struggle for power ended as so many battles do when waged against a ruling king, with Thomas Becket dead in his own cathedral.
Canterbury Cathedral

Henry and Thomas began as friends and allies. Thomas Becket served Henry well as his Chancellor, and was trusted so deeply that he was given the guardianship of the king's eldest son, young Prince Henry. This alliance was so strong, and so strongly based in personal friendship, that King Henry II was certain that Thomas Becket would be the answer to his troubles with the Church.

The clash between Church and State did not begin in England with famous King Henry VIII of the Tudor dynasty. The seeds were sown much earlier, and this battle for power came to a head during Henry II's reign. In 1154, Henry II reclaimed the throne of England from the usurper, Stephen of Blois after decades of civil war which left the lands of England decimated. Henry believed all his life that rule of law and the strength of the King's Peace could extend protection to the common man. Of course, while this goal is lofty, it also served the political purpose of allowing the people to receive justice not just from their barons and local ruler, but from the king himself.

One aspect of extending the King's Peace was to deal with the members of the lower clergy who broke the law. If a layman or priest committed rape or murder, he would not be called on to stand trial as any other man would. Instead, he would be given over to the Church for trial and punishment in the Church courts. The Church did little but chastise their brethren even for crimes as hideous as thievery, rape and murder. While Henry II was working so hard to keep the peace in the land, this loop hole was one he could not allow to continue. So he began trying lower clergymen in secular court, much to the Pope's fury.

Thomas Becket

In 1162, Henry made Thomas, his friend and ally, the next Archbishop of Canterbury, certain that the man who had served him so well as Chancellor would continue to help him uphold the law of the land, and would allow the secular courts to punish those clergy who broke the law. This was not the case.

Once Thomas became archbishop, he did a complete turn around in his attitude toward the law. As a prince of the Church, he served the Church first and Henry, second. He fought Henry at every turn in an effort to protect his own power as well as the power of the Church in England. By 1170, this conflict had become such a burden to Henry II that he made a snide remark in company at a Christmas feast, the famous line "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?"

Four of Henry's knights, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, Reginald Fitz Urse, and Richard le Bret were among those who listened to Henry's furious outburst. They took ship for England at once and on December 29th, murdered Thomas Becket at the foot of the altar of Canterbury Cathedral.

Scholars are divided as to whether or not these men were acting on direct orders from the king. As no doubt you have gathered from the tone of this post, I am very pro-Henry, so you will not be shocked to hear that I do not believe Henry meant for Thomas to be murdered, that night or ever. The king was stricken with grief when he heard the news of his old friend's death, and Pope Alexander III later absolved him of involvement in this crime.

Though Thomas Becket lost his life, the Church regained its power through the sympathy gained from his death. In exchange for forgiveness and absolution of Thomas Becket's murder, Henry II agreed that law breaking clerics would continue to be tried by the Church courts.

Christy English is the author of two historical fiction novels about the Plantagenets, The Queen's Pawn and To Be Queen: A Novel of the Early Life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Please join her on her website


  1. I have always thought this a sad story. The greater powers in the country seem to always have such trouble maintaining friendships.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Nice post. The death of Thomas a Becket has always been a contoversial but compelling part of English history. Interesting to get another slant on it, thanks.

  3. While Henry was right in going after criminal clerics, Becket's point was to keep the Church out of politics. Their struggle is symbolic of the battle between the medieval Church and state. I would point out that Henry's handing Beckett the archbishopric of Canterbury was in itself an attack against the Church's prerogatives. Across Europe kings kept installing their favorites as bishops and cardinals. What makes this story absolutely fascinating is that Beckett ended up taking the Church's side, and paying for it.
    I do think that Henry had a part in the murder of Beckett--that Christmas remark condemn him in my eyes. As to his absolution, that was politics too. Good post, lady!

  4. Good topic, and thanks for the refresher!

    We tend to want to make historical figures into heros or villains and all humanity is a muddled mixture of good, bad and ugly. So intriging, how their friendship turned bad and ugly over a struggle for power. The buck stops here, Henry.

  5. One of the most interesting friendships/rivalries of all time. I always love reading about it. I can't think of either of them as the "bad guy."

  6. Henry ll attempting to hold the papacy accountable while it usurped the power of the state by avoiding priestly accountability to civil and criminal law, what a novel idea.


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