Thomas Becket: The Troublesome Priest

“Troublesome priest” Thomas Becket, murdered (1170)

Struggles between the Church under the Popes and the monarchy were a significant feature throughout the Middle Ages. One of the most dramatic conflicts was that between King Henry II of England and Thomas Becket in the 12th century.

Becket’s Early Years

Thomas Becket was born in London in 1118. He served in the household of Theobold, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1139 to 1161 and later studied civil and canon law in Bologna. Theobold ordained Thomas a Deacon and in 1154, the Archbishop advised King Henry II to appoint Becket as his Chancellor.

The Chancellor served as the head of the royal writing office, more of a chief secretary, but Becket added formulation of governmental policy to his duties. Becket was a staunch supporter of control by the monarchy over that of the Church and, of course, this greatly pleased the King. People remarked that the King and Becket ‘had but one heart and one mind.’

Becket is Appointed Archbishop

In 1162 the archbishopric of Canterbury became vacant, and Henry thought that if he appointed Thomas Becket to the post he would gain a loyal ally in his fight against Papal control. Becket tried to dissuade the King from appointing him because he knew that, as the Archbishop, his loyalties must lie with the Church and not the monarchy.

Henry proceeded with his plan, and Becket was ordained a priest on Saturday and consecrated as a bishop on the next day. This would never happen today but was not uncommon at this time in history.

Reform Movement

It was in the late 11th century that Pope Gregory VII had undertaken a reform movement aimed against the domination of the clergy by the rulers of Western Europe. Monarchs were not to be considered God’s representatives on earth, but the Church and its ministers were and the Church must have freedom to fulfill its mission. Alexander III, the Pope at the time of Becket, continued this struggle against the monarchies of Europe, notably against Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor.

The Troublesome Priest

For awhile Becket and King Henry II worked together but within two years trouble erupted. Henry wanted to ensure that all clerks of the Church who had been found guilty under canon law be turned over to civil courts. Clerks included not only priests and monks but also married men who had received the first tonsure. Although he was not lenient with clerks who had committed crimes, Becket opposed this move of jurisdiction of laymen over churchmen.

Henry extended his demands at a council held at Clarendon and stipulated that barons could not be excommunicated, bishops could not appeal to Rome or leave the country without the King’s permission and election of bishops were to be controlled by the King. When the King accused Thomas Becket of financial dishonesty as well, he fled to France and appealed to the Pope, who was also in France. He spent two years of his six year exile at Pontigny, near Auxerre. Henry has been described as vindictive in his harassment of Becket’s relatives and friends but there were constant efforts to resolve the dispute from both sides.

Martyrdom and Sainthood

On December 1, 1170, Becket returned to England and things would have gone well if he had not previously excommunicated two bishops. The remark of Henry that has come down in history as, ”Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” It was more likely closer to, “Not one will rid me of this low-born priest.” In any case, four knights overheard the King’s remark and took it literally.

Whether King Henry meant that he wanted Becket killed is unknown, but the knights took it upon themselves to help the King rid the kingdom of the’ troublesome’ priest. The knights rode to Canterbury Cathedral at Vespers and, on entering, called out, “Where is the traitor?” Becket answered, “Here I am, no traitor, but archbishop and priest of God.” They tried to drag him from the church but could not and killed him before the altar.

A great devotion to the martyred archbishop immediately arose amongst the population and two years after Becket was canonized. On 12 July, 1174, the King did public penance and was scourged at Becket’s tomb. Many miracles followed Becket’s death and the shrine at Canterbury Cathedral became the most popular and famous in Europe. The martyr’s remains are believed to have been destroyed in 1538 when the later King, Henry VIII, razed the shrines and monasteries of Catholic England. Thomas Becket’s Feast Day is celebrated December 29, the day of his murder.

Becket in Literature

In 1386 Chaucer wrote his now famous, The Canterbury Tales. Although not about Becket’s murder, the poem is made up of stories told by pilgrims on their way to Becket’s shrine at Canterbury.

T.S. Eliot wrote a verse drama of Becket’s murder, Murder in the Cathedral. It was first produced in 1935 in England.