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  • Writer's picturePeter Kennedy

Frenemies: Saint Thomas Becket and King Henry II

saint thomas becket

The Church herself is a sojourner in a foreign world.  In no story is this more apparent than in that of Saint Thomas Becket.  Heads of state have often sought to control every element of the lives of those they govern.  After all, it is far less difficult to maintain order, collect taxes, and build infrastructure if everyone does exactly what you tell them. There’s also that nasty thing called power that so many naturally crave.  It allows a person the ability to live their own life, precisely as they choose to live it, and with as few consequences as possible.  Along comes the Church.  While Carl Marx called religion “the opiate of the masses,” this story makes it clear why he was wrong.  For, while the Church and state can sometimes find common ground, and indeed Church teaching has much to say about a well-run state, the Church is also clear that she is not a slave of the state to be used as a whip to keep the people in line.  In fact, there are those moments in history when the Church and state clash, sometimes violently, and this episode is one of those.


Thomas Becket was a low-born noble of England in the 1100’s.  As was often the case, he was educated enough and eventually hired out as an apprentice clerk.  To make a long story a bit shorter, he began showing himself to be industrious at a young age and he eventually found himself in the employ of one Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald of Bec. The Archbishop saw the young man, by now a bit over twenty, showed promise and gave him a number of important diplomatic tasks.  Over the next ten to fifteen years, he would be sent to study Canon Law and add a number of titles to his name, not the least of which was Archdeacon of Canterbury.  Later, when King Henry II came looking for a new Lord Chancelor, it was Theobold who would recommend Thomas, and Henry gladly accepted.

As the story goes, the two men became fast friends and even “drinking buddies.”  Becket showed great political prowess and supported the King in many endeavors and with much success.  Becket became a very loyal confidant to the King, far closer than his own wife and children who would one day prove deceitful and rebellious.  At the same time Henry sought to consolidate the power of England under his crown so that he might move the country forward with less political infighting.  But Henry saw the Church as his primary opposition in doing this.


At the time, the Church in Europe held considerable power itself.  She had accumulated great wealth, moral influence, and had established political treaties whereby clergy could not be tried by civil authorities but only by the ecclesial courts of Rome.  Rome herself held a territory called the Papal States which, at the time, encompassed most of Italy and was ruled over by the Pope himself.  It was a far more vast territory than the current Vatican City. She was also protected by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederich of Germany, and held treaties with many other nations, ensuring her safety.  Thus, Henry viewed Church influence in England as the influence of a foreign power.


Henry began the movement to consolidate both political and religious power under the crown in England that would not see its completion until the reign of his successor, Henry VIII. For the most part, Thomas supported his king in his pursuit to limit Church influence over England.  The king’s primary rival, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald of Bec, remained firm in his influence and in his opposition to the king, but Bec was older now and when his health finally failed him, Henry saw a chance to consolidate his power further.  In what he thought was a brilliant political move, Henry pushed to have Thomas appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury.  With a political ally and friend in charge of the opposition, Henry could not lose.


But recall the strange and mysterious nature of the Church.  She is not entirely of this world.  Her influence is odd indeed.  Thomas was ordained Archbishop of Canterbury, but just as the laying on of hands has changed many hearts in the past, so too it would cause a tremendous transformation in Thomas.  With his ordination, Thomas left behind his life of luxury and indulgence, and began to live a more ascetical life. As the stories would tell it, he could have been mistaken for a common monk.  What’s more, he saw the danger in allowing the civil authorities to have absolute control over the Church.  He saw that civil authority could utilize the Church as a means of affecting nefarious designs and potential oppression.  In the age of Kings, the Church was the only limit on their absolute power.  Thomas began to oppose Henry, and this was seen as not only a political betrayal, but the betrayal of one of his closest friends.


This opposition to his influence was not taken lightly by the king.  In fear for his life, Thomas fled to France.  After two years and the intervention of the Pope, Henry finally allowed him to return to his archdiocese in Canterbury, but Thomas’s return seemed to reopen the king’s wounds of betrayal.  As the story goes, Henry drank himself into a rage one evening.  Though the stories differ on what exactly was said, it seems Henry made an offhand comment about how lofty Kings should not be subject to the will of low-born clerics like Thomas.  Four young knights, hearing the king’s ramblings, sought to quelle their lord’s suffering and took it upon themselves to find Thomas and bring him before the king.  They arrived as the monks were beginning evening prayer and, out of respect for holy ground, left their weapons outside, while entering and demanding that Thomas accompany them.  He refused. The knights returned with their swords and what follows in the biographies is a rather graphic depiction of the worst way to kill a man with blows to the head.  So bad was the aim of these knights that some stories accuse them of being drunk themselves.  Thomas likely suffered greatly at their hands before his death.


The people of England immediately began to venerate Thomas as a martyr and a saint.  Not only solidifying his influence but severely diminishing that of Henry.  He was so weakened by the episode that his own wife and sons attempted to take his throne. It was not until he repented and did severe penance, having himself whipped while walking barefoot to the tomb of his friend, that he regained his political influence and his crown, though Thomas gained a crown of another sort.

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