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The assassination of Thomas Becket (1170)

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Thomas Becket and England’s King Henry II enjoyed a strong working relationship until the priest became archbishop. At that point, Becket’s loyalty swung fully toward the church in matters of state. The Catholic Church believed monarchs subservient to its religious authority. Many monarchs, including Henry II, struggled to rule free of church interference. Eventually, the relationship between the two men reached an irreparable impasse and the king unwittingly had the priest murdered. The assassination undercut royal authority in England and swung the power pendulum back to Rome.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald of Bec, employed Becket and became the young man’s mentor. Becket served as Theobald’s emissary to Rome and received a church education under the Archbishop’s auspices. In 1154, Becket was ordained the Archdeacon of Canterbury and served admirably. His competence, skills, and talent led Theobald to recommend Becket to King Henry II for the position of Lord Chancellor. Henry II accepted the archbishop’s advice and appointed the archdeacon to the post in 1155.

Henry II and Becket’s professional relationship grew into friendship. Becket enforced the king’s revenue streams against everyone, including the church. Eventually, the king sent his son to live with Becket for a time. The younger Henry felt closer to the priest than his own father. Eventually, Henry “the Young King” turned on his father. Many suspect Henry II’s role in Becket’s death played a major role in the split.

Theobald died in 1162 and Becket succeeded his old mentor. Henry II was thrilled to see his friend move into the position. More importantly, Becket’s ascension meant Henry had his own man in charge of the church in England. As Lord Chancellor, Becket placed the kingdom ahead of the church. Henry II believed the new archbishop would continue in this vein. Henry II’s hopes were quickly dashed. Becket experienced a conversion in his new position. The archbishop worked to extend and consolidate church control in England at the king’s expense. Jurisdictional disputes arose over many issues including the power of secular courts over church men. Henry attempted to circumvent Becket through England’s bishops, but failed.

The king decided to throw down the gauntlet. He called a church assembly to settle the disputes in his favor. Henry issued his sixteen constitutions designed to limit church power and increase royal authority. He strong-armed, cajoled, and threatened the bishops into submission. Becket held out for a while, but eventually acquiesced to the king. However, he refused to sign off on the constitutions. Henry called Becket to face justice in 1164 for contempt of royal authority and malfeasance while serving as Lord Chancellor. The show trial found Becket guilty and he fled to France.

Louis VII protected the archbishop against the English king’s retribution. Eventually, Becket returned to England and threatened to excommunicate Henry. In 1167, Pope Alexander III intervened and sent his own ambassadors to arrange a settlement. Henry demurred. Three years later, Alexander threatened to settle the matter himself and Henry backed down fearful that pope would favor his own.

Becket returned from exile in 1170. Later that year, three bishops crowned Henry the Young King against precedence and tradition. The Archbishop of Canterbury enjoyed the right of coronation. Becket excommunicated the three bishops for the breach of etiquette. Afterward, Becket began to purge his opponents through excommunication. When word reached Henry II, he wondered if anyone would ever relieve him of the “meddlesome priest.”

No one knows for sure what Henry’s exact words were, but they were enough to launch an assassination plot. Four knights moved on the archbishop immediately. They confronted Becket on December 29, 1170 and demanded he go with them and answer for his actions. Becket refused to leave or obey the king. At that point, the four murdered him in cold blood. Becket’s last words were “I am ready to embrace death.” His brains and blood were scattered about the floor.

Immediately, Becket became a martyr and Alexander III canonized him three years later. The assassins begged forgiveness and were dispatched to the Holy Land for 14 years as penance. Henry II lost the showdown with the church. The assassination swung opinion against the monarchy and he was forced to do public penance at Becket’s tomb. A medieval cult of Becket later emerged.

Henry II and Thomas Becket were friends and colleagues in government. When Becket moved to the office of Archbishop of Canterbury, their relationship changed. Becket took his role seriously and fought against monarchical predations upon church authority. Eventually, Becket was forced to flee to France, but returned to be murdered. His death ended the church-state squabble in Rome’s favor when public opinion swung against Henry II.

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