Henry II, Thomas Beckett, and Church Immunity

Henry II, Thomas Beckett, and Church Immunity
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“Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”  With these infamous words King Henry II of England set in motion the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett, and forever doomed his legacy, while Beckett was launched into Sainthood.  This most famous of medieval murders is the best remembered incident of the lives of both Henry and Beckett, but what is often forgotten is the substance of the issues that caused this great rift to occur.  At issue was whether the clergy were subject to punishment from secular authorities or if they should be judged only by the church.  Sadly, given the recent findings of a grand jury, this issue seems eerily familiar and relevant today and so it is worth retelling this story. Given certain recent revelations in the Catholic church, this story may take on increased significance.

In 1162, King Henry II of England shocked and horrified many with his choice of Beckett to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Beckett was a man of keen wit and had grown fabulously wealthy.  He lived in great luxury, surrounded himself with the company of high society, and was serving as the King’s Chancellor.  In making this appointment, the King intended that the only other institution in England as powerful as the state – the church – should now be headed by someone who was friendly to his interests.  He intended that Beckett should remain as chancellor and could direct the church and the government at home in England while the King focused on expanding his French possessions. Beckett warned the King that if he followed through with this appointment that he and the King would soon hate each other.  King Henry could not possibly have known how much this appointment would define his legacy.

Indeed, the appointment as Archbishop brought great changes to Beckett and quickly set him at odds with the King.  This once proud, rich man became an ardent philanthropist to the poor, he abstained from rich food, dressed only in coarse cloaks, and slept on the floor each night.  Where he had previously defended the King’s interests, he now militantly defended the rights and powers of the church and the clergy.  He went from being a man concerned with fine food and charming conversations to talking constantly of men’s souls, and no subject seemed to animate him as much as the glory and greatness of God’s church on earth.

The King and the Archbishop came into conflict within months about the power and privileges of the church.  A compromise between state and church authority was reached in 1164 with the Constitutions of Clarendon, which attempted to make clergy more accountable to the justice system. The King and the bishops supported this compromise.  Beckett, begrudgingly, verbally affirmed the Constitutions, but when pressed he would not sign the document.  Pope Alexander III urged him to sign, but Beckett said he would only do so if the Pope issued an official Bull mandating it. The Pope would not take this official step, so Beckett did not sign.  This enraged the King and even made Beckett’s otherwise supportive bishops uncomfortable, but Beckett was becoming and saint and hero to the common people of England who rallied behind a man so daring he’d stand up to the King. 

Henry put Beckett on trial at Northampton that same year, accusing him of mishandling money during his time as chancellor.  The assembled bishops pleaded with the Archbishop to compromise before the King, but to each of their entreaties, Beckett simply and sternly replied only “I hear you.”  With the trial going against him, Beckett fled the country in disguise and took refuge in France for seven years during which time he and Henry feuded bitterly.  Beckett always held over the king’s head the threat of excommunication, a punishment which carried incredible personal and political implications at that time, and which Henry greatly wanted to avoid.

Eventually, the two men appeared to reconcile and Beckett was allowed to return to England where he promptly excommunicated several bishops and made a procession through the country.  Everywhere he was greeted by vast throngs of the common people cheering him and kneeling reverently before this bold priest who had so long defied the King.  On hearing of the excommunications, and of how the common people celebrated him, the King, in France, flew into a rage and shouted his famous words “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”  

At once, four armed knights rode out from the King, crossed the English Channel, and made their way to Canterbury.  On the night of Dec. 29, 1170, they broke into the church at Canterbury while vespers were being chanted. The practice of “sanctuary” should have protected the Archbishop from any harm befalling him in the church.  But the knights proceeded to slaughter this priest who would not yield to the King and compromise his beliefs on the power of the church.

The murder forever stained the legacy of King Henry II, who was forced to make great shows of repentance and sorrow for what he had caused to be done.  He even went so far as to approach Canterbury in sackcloth and ashes and be flogged mercilessly in front of the tomb of the martyr Beckett.  Beckett was made a saint by the Pope and pilgrims flocked from all over England and Europe to pray at his tomb.  For centuries, his feast day of Dec. 29 was among the most celebrated of the year.

Beckett appears as a sort of Thomas Moore figure in the telling of this story, a man of God and conscience who would not be bowed by a powerful king and his threats.  Who could help but sympathize with such a man, persecuted and killed for standing up for his beliefs?  Who can help but be drawn to the powerful man who became a simple priest, depriving himself of worldly comforts, beloved by the people, unwavering in his beliefs?  This tale, with the dramatic transformation of this great man, the growing feud between priest and King, the dramatic murder in the church barely illuminated by candlelight, , and the outpouring of miracles and adoration that followed his death, is as dramatic as almost any story in history.

But in one respect, at least, the appeal of this tale begins to come apart: the actual issues that caused Beckett and the King to grow increasingly bitter.  Beckett wanted to preserve the rights and independence of the church.  But it was not matters of doctrine, freedom of religion, or free speech on which the King threatened to encroach, but on matters where most of us would not sympathize with the church.  The churches and monasteries grew wealthy, they used the laws of the land to often abuse and deprive the poor, and the right of sanctuary meant that many a guilty criminal could shelter himself in churche,s and the state was powerless to bring these men to justice.

But perhaps the worst of the powers that the church claimed, and the one most at issue between Henry and Beckett, was that when the clergy were accused of a crime they could not be brought to secular courts.  They could only be tried by church courts that were notoriously lenient, often only giving fines to murderers.  In the most galling case of  Beckett’s reign, a clergyman named Philip de Brois murdered a knigh,t and for his crimes received a fine and a flogging.  Beckett would not hand over the man to secular courts to be tried for his crimes.  It was to reign in abuses such as these that the Constitutions of Clarendon were established, and Beckett’s refusal to affirm these compromises set him irrevocably at odds with the King and prepared the stage for his eventual murder.

Through history, the part of this story that has been best remembered is that Henry the great king ordered the murder of Thomas the uncompromising priest, and thus people’s sympathies have lain with the murdered man who was afforded no trial or justice.  While certainly this deed was treacherous and unjustified, it is worth remembering that on the substantive issues in dispute between Beckett and Henry, most of us would side with Henry: That the church and clergy should be subject to the same standards of law and justice as everyone else.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caleb Smith is a RealClearHistory contributor.

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