Four knights murdered Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170, allegedly on Henry II’s orders.

Early 14th-century representation of Henry and Thomas Becket

Henry’s exasperated utterance ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest’ meant one thing—he wanted Becket to disappear, but not, as historian Simon Schama says, necessarily six feet under.

He spent the early years of his reign restoring law and order, after his predecessor Stephen left the kingdom in chaos following years of civil war.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald of Bec, recommended an enterprising, educated and well-travelled young men for positions at court.

Henry II’s Chancellor

One of these young men, his archdeacon Thomas Becket, the son of a London merchant, came highly recommended and he soon rose swiftly to power as the Chancellor, the King’s chief advisor.

King Henry II of England. Source: National Portrait Gallery, London

Becket also became Henry’s best friend despite regular sparring matches and being subjected to those famous Norman-Angevin rages.

Theobald died in 1161 so Henry appointed Becket as Archbishop one year later, hoping the latter would put the Church in its place—keeping within the laws and customs of the realm.

Respectable church leaders deemed Becket as unsuitable because he was considered ‘too worldly’ and his friendship with King Henry was a major cause of concern.

Henry’s determination to impose control throughout England eventually led to a clash with the Church.

Church vs State

The Papacy never accepted the sacred authority of kings as they believed they held the keys to salvation and supreme power over Christendom. The Papacy crowned Holy Roman Emperors and allowed archbishops to crown kings in lavish coronations across Europe.

Bishops held the authority to excommunicate royal officials or nobles without consulting the king.

However, clergy who committed crimes were exempt from the law—something which really infuriated Henry II, who insisted all his subjects should be treated the same.

It was considered a fundamental violation of common law, as they escaped capital punishment (execution or mutilation) by claiming a trial in the ecclesiastical courts where they lost their positions or subject to penance.

Henry’s quarrel with the Church began in earnest in October 1163 when he imposed a new tax to be levied on barons and clergymen.

He demanded criminal clergy be unfrocked by the Church before handed over to the courts for punishment.

However, Becket and his ecclesiastical colleagues vigorously defended these privileges which led to a showdown between Henry and the bishops at a royal council in January 1164.

Henry felt a sense of betrayal as he had raised Becket to a high position, out of friendship, and felt the Archbishop’s behaviour smacked of ingratitude.

Becket was determined to prove his independence and to be the best archbishop, by opposing the King’s demands for two days.

However, Becket caved in with the other bishops following suit.

Henry, now thoroughly exasperated sumond Becket before a royal court to answer trumped up charges. Becket was found guilty, his estates forfeited and forced into exile.

Canterbury Cathedral. Photo: Mattana, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Becket fled across the Channel and appealed to the Pope for protection.

Meanwhile, Henry decided to crown his eldest son and heir, Henry the Young King, in during his own lifetime to secure the succession.

However, the Young King could only be crowned by an Archbishop of Canterbury to ensure legitimacy, but Becket refused, so Henry went ahead with the coronation.

Pope Alexander III threatened Henry with excommunication unless he reconciled with Becket, who returned to England in 1170.

Becket was determined to discipline those bishops who crowned the Young King, which he believed was an outrageous breech of his privileges.

Murder in Canterbury Cathedral

When the news reached Henry in Normandy, he uttered those infamous words: ‘What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!’

A 13th-century depiction of the death of Thomas Becket

According to Dan Snow in The Plantagenets, these words were misinterpreted as ‘will no one rid me of this turbelant priest?’

Four knights hurried off to Canterbury and murdered Becket in the cathedral, by hacking off the top of his head with his brains spilling out onto the ground.

Henry faced excommunication and forced to do public penance by walking barefoot in a hair shirt during the last few miles to Becket’s grave at Canterbury.

He fell on his face, confessed his sins and given five lashes by each attending bishop.

Becket’s death shocked the Christian world. He was canonised as a Catholic saint three years later.

Meanwhile, the four murderers spent a year hiding out in Yorkshire before they were told to go on a Crusade or be excommunicated.

Sculpture and altar marking the spot of Thomas Becket’s martyrdom, Canterbury Cathedral. The sculpture by Giles Blomfeld represents the knights’ four swords (two metal swords with reddened tips and their two shadows).

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