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Thomas Becket and Henry II (Classroom Activity)

Thomas Becket and Henry II (Classroom Activity)

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When Henry II became king in 1154, he asked Archbishop Theobald of Bec for advice on choosing his government ministers. On the suggestion of Theobald, Henry appointed Thomas Becket as his chancellor. Becket's job was an important one as it involved the distribution of royal charters, writs and letters. People declared that "they had but one heart and one mind". The king and Becket soon became close friends.

When Theobald of Bec died in 1162, Henry chose Becket as his next Archbishop of Canterbury. The decision angered many leading churchmen. They pointed out that Becket had never been a priest, and had a reputation as a cruel military commander when he fought against the French king Louis VII.

Becket was also very materialistic (he loved expensive food, wine and clothes). His critics also feared that as Becket was a close friend of Henry II, he would not be an independent leader of the church. At first Becket refused the post: "I know your plans for the Church, you will assert claims which I, if I were archbishop, must needs oppose." Henry insisted and he was ordained priest on 2nd June, 1162, and consecrated bishop the next day.

Herbert of Bosham claims that after being appointed as archbishop, Thomas Becket began to show a concern for the poor. Every morning thirteen poor people were brought to his home. After washing their feet Becket served them a meal. He also gave each one of them four silver pennies. John of Salisbury believed that Becket sent food and clothing to the homes of the sick, and that he doubled Theobald's expenditure on the poor.

Instead of wearing expensive clothes, Becket now wore a simple monastic habit. As a penance (punishment for previous sins) he slept on a cold stone floor, wore a tight-fitting hair-shirt that was infested with fleas and was scourged (whipped) daily by his monks.

In January, 1163, after a long spell in France, Henry II arrived back in England. Henry was told that, while he had been away, there had been a dramatic increase in serious crime. The king's officials claimed that over a hundred murderers had escaped their proper punishment because they had claimed their right to be tried in church courts. Those that had sought the privilege of a trial in a Church court were not exclusively clergymen. Any man who had been trained by the church could choose to be tried by a church court. Even clerks who had been taught to read and write by the Church but had not gone on to become priests had a right to a Church court trial. This was to an offender's advantage, as church courts could not impose punishments that involved violence such as execution or mutilation.

The king decided that clergymen found guilty of serious crimes should be handed over to his courts. At first, the Archbishop agreed with Henry on this issue and in January 1164, Henry published the Clarendon Constitution. After talking to other church leaders Becket changed his mind. Henry was furious when Becket began to assert that the church should retain control of punishing its own clergy. The king believed that Becket had betrayed him and was determined to obtain revenge.

One day they (King Henry II and Thomas Becket) were riding together through the streets of London. It was a hard winter and the king noticed an old man coming towards them, poor and clad in a thin and ragged coat. "Do you see that man? ... How poor he is, how frail, and how scantily clad!" said the king. '"Would it not be an act of charity to give him a thick warm cloak." "It would indeed... my king." Meanwhile the poor man drew near; the king stopped, and the chancellor with him. The king greeted him pleasantly and asked him if he would like a good cloak... The king said to the chancellor, "You shall have the credit for this act of charity," and laying hands on the chancellor's hood tried to pull off his cape, a new and very good one of scarlet and grey, which he was unwilling to part with... both of them had their hands fully occupied, and more than once seemed likely to fall off their horses. At last the chancellor reluctantly allowed the king to overcome him. The king then explained what had happened to his attendants. They all laughed loudly.

There are two principles by which the world is ruled: the authority of priests and the royal power. The authority of priests is the greater because God will demand an accounting of them even in regard to kings.

These hands, these arms, even these bodies are not ours; they are our lord king's, and they are ready at his will whatever it may be.

1. If a controversy arise between laymen, or between laymen and clerks, or between clerks concerning patronage and presentation of churches, it shall be treated or concluded in the court of the lord king.

2. Churches of the lord king's fee cannot be permanently bestowed without his consent and grant.

3. Clerks charged and accused of any matter, summoned by the king's justice, shall come into his court to answer there to whatever it shall seem to the king's court should be answered there; and in the church court to what it seems should be answered there; however the king's justice shall send into the court of holy Church for the purpose of seeing how the matter shall be treated there. And if the clerk be convicted or confess, the church ought not to protect him further.

4. It is not permitted the archbishops, bishops, and priests of the kingdom to leave the kingdom without the lord king's permission. And if they do leave they are to give security, if the lord king please, that they will seek no evil or damage to king or kingdom in going, in making their stay, or in returning.

Who can count the number of persons he (Becket) did to death, the number whom he deprived of all their possessions. Surrounded by a strong force of knights, he attacked whole regions. He destroyed cities and towns, put manors and farms to the torch without a thought of pity.

The king (Henry II) demanded that the clergy seized or convicted of great crimes should be deprived of the protection of the Church and handed over to his officers, adding that they would be less likely to do evil if... they were subjected to physical punishment.

King Henry II: Have I not raised you from the poor and humble to the summit of honour and rank?... How can it be that after so many favours... that you are not only ungrateful but oppose me in everything.

Thomas Becket: I am not unmindful of the favours which, not simply you, but God the giver of all things has decided to confer on me through you... as St Peter says, 'We ought to obey God rather than men."

King Henry II: I don't want a sermon from you: are you not the son of one of my villeins?

Thomas Becket: It is true that I am not of royal lineage; but then, neither was St Peter.

If the criminal (in England) can read, he asks to defend himself by the book... if he can read it he is liberated from the power of the law, and given as a clerk into the hands of the bishop.

Clad in a hair-shirt of the roughest kind which reached to his knees and swarmed with vermin, he punished his flesh with the sparest diet, and his main drink was water... He often exposed his naked back to the lash.

Questions for Students

Question 1: Give as many reasons as you can why Henry II appointed Thomas Becket as (a) chancellor; (b) archbishop of Canterbury.

Question 2: How did Becket's behaviour change after he was appointed archbishop of Canterbury? Give some possible reasons for these changes.

Question 3: Study sources 3 and 4. Did Foliot and Becket agree about the authority of kings?

Question 4: Why did Henry II issue the Clarendon Constitution in 1164? Give as many reasons as you can for Henry's decision.

Question 5: Study sources 5, 8 and 10. Describe the changes that took place to church courts between the 12th and 14th centuries.

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.

How Falling Out with Henry II Resulted in Thomas Becket’s Slaughter

The quarrel between Thomas Becket and King Henry II of England lasted 7 years between 1163 and 1170. It was entwined with bitterness, heightened by their previous personal friendship and Thomas laterly finding God, which resulted in him leveraging a whole new network of power against his previous friend and boss.

The fallout culminated in Becket’s murder within Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, which then resulted in more years of pain for the king.

Shortly after Becket’s consecration as the Archbishop of Canterbury he resigned the chancellorship, and changed his entire lifestyle. Becket then chose to no longer aid the king in defending royal interests in the church, and instead began to champion ecclesiastical rights.

Was Thomas Becket a Saint or an Arrogant Troublemaker?

We ask four historians to consider the reputation of Henry II’s Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered 850 years ago this month.

‘Medieval sanctity was usually not equivalent to a life of cherubic sweetness’

Rachel Koopmans, Associate Professor of History, York University, Toronto

A saint? Yes. Citizens of Canterbury began mopping up Thomas Becket’s blood as martyr’s relics almost before his body was cold. Within five years of his death, Becket was considered to be a saint by virtually everyone. Even his arch-enemies came around. Henry II believed that Becket miraculously fought on his side and saved his kingdom from rebellion in 1174. Gilbert Foliot, the Bishop of London, hated Becket, in part because he thought he should have been archbishop, but he too later believed that Becket had performed a miracle for him. Becket was not just a saint: he was one of the great medieval saints, drawing in pilgrims from across Latin Christendom. Lollard heretics, who rejected sanctity wholesale, were some of the very few who dissented, speaking of Becket as ‘Thomas of Cankerbury’.

An arrogant troublemaker? Also yes. Becket got into trouble time and again by stating that he accepted the terms of an agreement ‘saving the privileges of my order’, or ‘saving the honour of God’. This was equivalent to saying ‘sure, I’ll do it, unless I think God would want me to do otherwise’ and wrecked peace deal after peace deal. One of Becket’s own household mocked him with this phrase, loudly telling his stumbling horse that it needed to keep going, ‘saving the honour of God’. Becket reproved the man, but there’s no question that even Becket’s friends and supporters sighed over his pig-headedness.

Medieval sanctity was usually not equivalent to a life of cherubic sweetness. If Becket had not been an arrogant troublemaker, he wouldn’t have found himself in such a difficult position with the king. If he hadn’t insulted and fought with the knights on the day of his death, he probably would not have died. In the eyes of his contemporaries, what made him a saint was his willingness to die in defence of the church’s privileges, his death in the cathedral (which many compared to the passion of Christ) and then, to them the irrefutable proof, news of his miracles. Attested to even by his enemies, the miracles sealed the case for Becket’s sanctity.

‘No one imagined he would have become a saint if he hadn’t been brutally murdered’

John Guy, Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge and author of Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim (Allen Lane, 2012)

Thomas Becket was no saint, and he knew it. When, in 1162, Henry II bluntly ordered him to combine the roles of chancellor and archbishop, Becket answered incredulously: ‘How religious, how saintly is the man you would appoint to that holy see?’ He guessed the plan could tax his loyalty, but the king remained insistent.

Becket never lacked for critics. His resignation of the chancellorship without consulting Henry smacked of arrogance. In 1164, at Clarendon, he promised to adhere to what the king called the ‘ancestral customs’, only to renege when Henry produced a written text. Becket had been naive: it didn’t occur to him to demand that the ‘customs’ be declared in full before he promised to observe them. He was tricked into believing that verbal assent would suffice. His jealous rival for the archbishopric, Gilbert Foliot, said of him: ‘He always was a fool and always will be.’ In 1166, Foliot sent him a broadside, calling him rash, brash and supercilious, a troublemaker who allowed his obsessions to run riot.

Becket could act impulsively in his attempts to force matters to a head. He had two opportunities to settle the quarrel in 1169 when, instead of ratifying the terms he had previously agreed, an ascetic, rebel’s instinct kicked in at the last moment. No one imagined he would have become a saint if he hadn’t been brutally murdered. In his defence, the pope had ordered him: ‘Humble yourself before the king as far as it can be done, but do not agree to anything which leads to the diminution of your office and the Church’s liberty.’

John of Salisbury, the friend who knew Becket best, gives us as true a verdict as we are ever likely to have. Becket was a divided consciousness, keenly aware that one day he could no longer go on vacillating between self-assertion and dishonest compliance.

Opinion tends to be shaped by circumstances. In 1520, Henry VIII regarded Becket as a revered saint and took Emperor Charles V with him to kneel at his shrine. Some years later, he denounced Becket as a traitor to his king. What had changed? Henry had broken with Rome.

‘The canonisation and subsequent cult were defined by the manner of his death’

Anne J. Duggan, Author of Thomas Becket (Bloomsbury Academic, 2004), Emeritus Professor of Medieval History and fellow of King’s College, London

It all depends on the perspective. Although Becket’s biographers emphasised signs of sanctity in his earlier life, the canonisation and subsequent cult were defined by the manner of his death in defence of ecclesiastical rights, which became encapsulated in the slogan ‘freedom of the Church’ (libertas ecclesie). Without the violent and bloody murder in the cathedral on 29 December 1170, it is unlikely that Becket would have been canonised. Without the relevance of his struggle to contemporary church-state relations across Europe, his cult would not have enjoyed the extraordinary success that saw him recognised before 1200 as a clerical icon across the whole of Latin Christendom, from Trondheim (Norway) to Monreale (Sicily) and from Tomar (Portugal) to Sulejów (Poland). Becket’s heroic resistance to Henry II’s attempt to curtail freedom of election, ecclesiastical jurisdiction over clerics in criminal and some civil actions and the right of appeal from English episcopal courts to the papal court, gave encouragement to other prelates confronted by similar challenges. Read from the perspective of 21st-century realities, however, where, generally speaking, the nation state enjoys legal sovereignty, Becket’s resistance to such policies looks like arrogant obstruction of the legitimate rights of the crown to govern the realm of England but such a conclusion is defensible only by reading history backwards.

Henry II was no constitutional monarch. He ruled as much by force and fear as by lawful process and his imposition of his chancellor as Archbishop of Canterbury was part of a plan to add control of the English Church to his political armoury. Becket’s resignation of the chancery and refusal to play the king’s game led directly to the mockery of a ‘trial’ at Northampton in 1164, his denunciation as traitor and, ultimately, to his murder. The four barons who attacked him claimed they were acting on a royal mandate that sanctioned his arrest and transfer to Normandy, but their armed pursuit of the archbishop into the sacred precincts of the cathedral, followed by the brutal murder of the English primate, had no justification. No law sanctioned such outrageous sacrilege.

‘Henry II had a genius for alienating those closest to him’

Hugh M. Thomas, Professor of History at the University of Miami

Thomas Becket became a canonised saint because he was a troublemaker: little else qualified him for that role. The medieval church took many uncompromising stances, at least in theory, and it is hard to know how an ecclesiastical authority could have satisfied all the theoretical demands of office without being a troublemaker. Take a key issue in Becket’s clash with Henry II: the proper punishment of clerics who committed crimes, especially violent ones that traditionally warranted harsh physical punishments, including execution. The clergy strongly supported such punishments for laypeople and acknowledged that priests and other clerics sometimes committed heinous crimes, but insisted that preserving the untouched sacral status of the clerical body was so important that clerics should be exempt from physical penalties. Since views about the sacred character of the clerical body also served as the foundation for demanding celibacy, this was not simply a self-serving stance, but it met with little sympathy from the laity. Henry offered a compromise whereby defrocking preceded physical punishment, which many found reasonable, but for purists like Becket this was an unacceptable legal dodge.

So Becket was a troublemaker. But was he an arrogant one? In practice, ecclesiastical authorities constantly compromised on various issues to function in the world. For Henry and his supporters, including some bishops, Becket’s unwillingness to do so made him arrogant, especially given his status as an ‘upstart’ son of a merchant who owed his rise to the king.

Was Becket’s unwillingness to compromise the sole cause of the disastrous outcome of the feud? Maybe not. Henry II had a genius for alienating those closest to him: one of his brothers, his wife and three of his sons led revolts against him. Henry was not the sole source of family strife, but the pattern is suggestive of an unusually difficult personality. Henry used confrontations, proxy violence and threats, all admittedly standard tactics in the period for powerful people, to bully Becket into submission and, though this worked initially, it ultimately failed spectacularly. For many contemporaries, most importantly the pope, Becket’s troublemaking and subsequent embrace of martyrdom marked him as a saint.

Thomas Becket and Henry II (Classroom Activity) - History

Thomas Becket was an educated and clever man. Before becoming Archbishop, he had been King Henry II’s Chancellor and great friend. Thomas was persuaded by the King to become the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, the King no doubt hoping that by appointing his friend and ally to this role he would be able to hold more influence and control over the Church. However, once given this new role, Archbishop Thomas Becket took his new job very seriously indeed. He became a holy and dedicated priest who fought the King’s attempts to rule the Church.


An important advisor to the King.

Why do you think King Henry II’s knights killed Thomas Becket?

King Henry II

The Church held enormous power in medieval England. King Henry II thought that churchmen who broke the law should not be tried in church courts but handed over to the King’s court. He hoped, as Archbishop, Becket would help him make this law, but Becket refused.

We do not know if Henry meant for his knights to kill Becket. Whilst celebrating Christmas in France he is alleged to have said, ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ But we do not know if he ever said this, or what he might have meant by it.

After Becket was made a saint, Henry undertook a pilgrimage of forgiveness as penance (to ask forgiveness for committing a sin) for his murder. Henry walked barefoot through the streets of Canterbury wearing a poor sackcloth rather than his royal robes. Reaching Becket’s tomb he was beaten by monks and he spent the night with no food or blanket on the Cathedral floor.

Henry II is punished by the monks at Canterbury Cathedral.

‘Finally, shown through a vision that there was no other way of obtaining peace except placating and reconciling the martyr, in whose revenge such great confusion of things now seized the whole realm, so that without much blood no one might hope for peace, the king put aside his pride for a time and with a contrite and humble heart je came to the tomb of the precious martyr to beg pardon for his presumption. While he was hastening there, and was already near the town, so that he might make clear with how much love he was devoted to the saint of God, with how much penitence he was moved on account of what he had done to him, he advanced through the town, in bare feet and ordinary clothes, weeping as he walked, wherever the road appeared roughest, from the church of our blessed father Dunstan, which is the first one meets on entering Canterbury. To the great church where the body of the blessed of the blessed martyr rests. He did not think of the harshness of the path, the tenderness of his feet, or the spectacle to the common people all about, but only the danger to his soul and the scar on his conscience…Coming then to the door of the church he fell prostrate and prayed, but when he went in his drenched the place of martyrdom with tears and kisses. He said confession before the bishops present, and with much trembling and reverence he approached the tomb. Then he prostrated his entire body, and intent on prayer in an extraordinary way what sobs he emitted, what sighs, with what a copious shower of tears he flooded the marble, cannot be estimated..Before Christ the Lord… our lord king recalls that the venerable archbishop was killed by evil men neither on his ordr nor with his knowledge… But because of the words that anger brought forth, which it is believed gave an occasion for profane harshness to carry out the killing, and because he harassed the archbishop during his life so unyieldingly. He proclaims himself blameworthy and begs forgiveness, and is prepared to give satisfaction in every way according to your judgement. Therefore he begs the influential support of your community, so that his abject penance may be acceptable in the sight of the Lord our Saviour… he restores in full the privileges and rights of this church… but also… he offers £30 as a gift to the martyr, so that with your intercession he may be well disposed and forgetful of injuries. Besides, he abandons all ill-feeling in his heart to all those who seemed to have offended him in the cause of the venerable archbishop… After this he removed his outer clothes, and leaned his head and shoulders into one of the openings of the tomb with every humble devotion, so much so that it provoked everyone to tears, and he was whipped five times by the bishops, and three times more by each of the eighty monks, and thus was solemnly absolved. That done, he remained on the bare ground, with the mud not even washed from his bare feet, fasting as he had come, for sorrow and penitence did not allow him any break. He spent the whole night in prayer… ’

Thomas Becket

Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was killed in December 1170. Becket’s death remains one of the most famous stories associated with Medieval England.

In Medieval England the Church was all powerful. The fear of going to Hell was very real and people were told that only the Catholic Church could save your soul so that you could go to Heaven. The head of the Catholic Church was the pope based in Rome. The most important position in the church in Medieval England was the Archbishop of Canterbury and both he and the king usually worked together.

A king of England could not remove a pope from his position but popes claimed that they could remove a king by excommunicating him – this meant that the king’s soul was condemned to Hell and people then had the right to disobey the king.

For people in England , there was always the real problem – do you obey the king or the pope ? In fact, this was rarely a problem as both kings and popes tended to act together as both wanted to remain powerful. On two occasions they fell out – one involved the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, and the other Henry VIII.

In 1162, Henry II, king of England, appointed Thomas Becket, as Archbishop of Canterbury. This was the most important religious position in England. No-one was surprised by Henry’s choice as both he and Thomas were very good friends. They enjoyed hunting, playing jokes and socialising together. Becket was known to be a lover of wine and a good horse rider. Henry II loved to ride as well but his personality was troubled by his fearsome temper. He tried to keep his temper under control by working very hard as it distracted him from things that might sparked off his temper.

Henry II also controlled a lot of France at this time. William the Conqueror had been his great-grandfather and he had inherited his French territories as a result of this. When Henry was in France sorting out problems there, he left Becket in charge of England – such was his trust in him. Becket became Henry’s chancellor – the most important position in England after the king.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury died in 1162, Henry saw the chance to give his close friend even more power by appointing him Archbishop of Canterbury – the most important church position in England. Why would Henry do this ?

In Henry’s reign, the Church had its own courts and any member of the Church could decide to be tried in a Church court rather than a royal court. Church courts usually gave out easier punishments to churchmen who had done wrong. Henry believed that this undermined his authority. As king, he was concerned that England was becoming too lawless – there was too much crime. He believed that Church courts did not set a good example as they were too soft on offenders. For example, a royal court would blind or cut off the hand of a thief a Church court might send a thief on a pilgrimage.

Henry hoped that by appointing his good friend Becket, he might have more of a say in how the Church punished offenders. He hoped that Becket would do as he wished and toughen up the sentences passed out by Church courts.

Becket did not want the job. As chancellor, he was as powerful as he wished to be. He also had an excellent relationship with Henry, and he did not want to spoil this. In fact, on being offered the post, Becket wrote to Henry that “our friendship will turn to hate.” However, Henry persuaded Becket and he agreed in 1162 to the appointment. His letter was indeed to become prophetic.

The post of Archbishop changed Becket. He dropped his luxurious lifestyle he ate bread and drank water, he had a luxury bed but preferred to sleep on the floor he wore the rich clothes of an archbishop, but underneath the fine tunics he wore a horse hair shirt – very itchy and unpleasant to wear. He gave his expensive food to the poor.

In 1164, the first sign of a split between Henry and Thomas occurred. Henry passed a law which stated that any person found guilty in a Church court would be punished by a royal court. Becket refused to agree to this, and knowing of Henry’s temper, he fled abroad for his own safety.

It took six years before Becket felt safe enough to return to England. However, they quickly fell out again when Becket asked the pope to excommunicate the Archbishop of York who had taken sides with the king. This was a very serious request and a very serious punishment for someone who could claim that he was only being loyal to the king. Henry was furious when he found out what Becket had done. He is said to have shouted out “will no-one rid me of this troublesome priest ?” Four knights heard what Henry had shouted and took it to mean that the king wanted Becket dead. They rode to Canterbury to carry out the deed. The knights were Reginald FitzUrse, William de Tracey, Hugh de Morville and Richard le Breton. On December 29th 1170 they killed Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. After killing him, one of the knights said “Let us away. He will rise no more.”

Becket’s body was still on the cathedral floor when people from Canterbury came in and tore off pieces of his clothes and then dipped these pieces in his blood. They believed that they would bring them luck and keep evil away.

Where Becket died quickly became a place of pilgrimage. The pope quickly made him a saint. Henry II asked the pope for forgiveness and he walked bare foot to Canterbury to pray at the spot where Becket was killed. Monks whipped him while he prayed.

People left valuables at the spot of his death. It became a shrine to him and people claimed that a visit to the shrine left them free of illness and disease. No-one dared to touch the valuables there until Henry VIII shut down the monasteries and churches and took away any valuables he wanted. It took 21 carts to remove the valuables from Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral.

Archbishop Thomas Becket is murdered

Archbishop Thomas Becket is brutally murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights of King Henry II of England, apparently on orders of the king.

In 1155, Henry II appointed Becket as chancellor, a high post in the English government. Becket proved a skilled diplomat and won the trust of Henry, who nominated him as archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. The king hoped his friend would help in his efforts to curb the growing power of the church. However, soon after his consecration, the new archbishop emerged a zealous defender of the jurisdiction of the church over its own affairs. In 1164, Becket was forced to flee to France under fear of retaliation by the king.

He was later reconciled with Henry and in 1170 returned to Canterbury amid great public rejoicing. Soon afterward, against the objections of the pope, Henry had his son crowned co-king by the archbishop of York, and tensions again came to a head between Becket and Henry. At this time, perhaps merely in a moment of frustration, the king issued to his court the following public plea: “What a parcel of fools and dastards have I nourished in my house, and not one of them will avenge me of this one upstart clerk.” A group of Henry’s knights took the statement very seriously, and on December 29, Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral.

The Christian world was shocked by Becket’s death, and in 1173 he was canonized a Catholic saint. In 1174, Henry was forced to do penance at his tomb, and his efforts to end the separation between church and state ceased. In 1220, Becket’s bones were transferred to Trinity Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral, which later became a popular site of English religious pilgrimage.

  • Henry II ruled as King of England
  • Before he was 40 he controlled England, large parts of Wales, the eastern half of Ireland and the western half of France—an area that would later come to be called the Angevin Empire
  • Henry’s desire to reform the relationship with the Church led to conflict with his former friend Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury
  • Thomas Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his murder in 1170
  • Aimed at Students studying across KS3 or equivalent
  • Premium resource
  • Use as you wish in the classroom or home environment
  • Use with other Middle Ages History Lessons & Resources
  • Includes challenging questions

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Waterford, Henry II and Thomas à Becket

Waterford estuary was the arrival and departure point on many significant occasions in Irish history. It was here at Crooke, near Passage East, on St Bartholomew’s Eve, 23 August 1170, that Richard FitzGilbert de Clare, better known to us as Strongbow, arrived to initiate the Norman invasion. Later that same year something happened in the English county of Kent that is not normally seen as relevant to Irish history. On a bitterly cold 30 December, Thomas à Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, was brutally murdered in his own cathedral by three knights acting, so they assumed, on behalf of King Henry II, then ruler of England, Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, Aquitaine and much of Wales. Thomas had been the king’s closest friend but had infuriated Henry on becoming archbishop by, among other things, refusing to hand over to the crown for punishment churchmen accused of sexually assaulting and murdering subjects. When he became archbishop, Thomas was expected to abolish this canon law practice but he refused. According to tradition, a hot-headed and exasperated Henry had declaimed after perhaps too much wine, ‘Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?’ and the three loyal knights left France immediately for England.
Pope Alexander III demanded that the knights atone for this sacrilegious atrocity by making pilgrimage to Rome or Santiago de Compostela. Jerusalem was not an option, as it was then under Muslim control. In the following year, at the Council of Argentan in July, Henry was relieved of making a penitential crusade to the Holy Land until he had secured control of Ireland. Ireland had its own troublesome priests and Rome was anxious to bring them into line. Henry was in no hurry to return to London either. Pilgrims were already thronging to Canterbury in huge numbers, attracted by the miracles being attributed to Thomas the Martyr. Henry’s head was being called for and his crown was in peril.

On 17 October 1171 the bows of Henry’s 400 ships crunched up onto the safe sandy beaches at Crooke and Passage East. The ships are said to have carried 500 knights, 4,000 men-at-arms and archers, and thousands of horses. On the following day, the feast of St Luke, Henry II advanced on Waterford and set about bringing the Normans, the Irish and the remaining Norsemen into submission to the crown of England. Before leaving for Dublin he founded a church dedicated to St Thomas the Martyr outside the walls of Waterford. The church no longer exists but Thomas Hill still leads towards the site from O’Connell Street in the city centre.

In the following year, 1172, at Avranches, Henry was given absolution for his part in the murder of Thomas à Becket, but his penance was to provide for the maintenance of 200 Knights Templar in the Holy Land and to undertake a crusade, either to the Holy Land or to Compostela. Fearing that his avaricious sons (especially the future kings Richard and John) would usurp his crown while abroad and knowing that funding 200 knights would bankrupt the kingdom, Henry instead offered strategically important tracts of lands in Waterford to the Knights Templar, including control of the lucrative ferry rights between Passage East and Ballyhack in County Wexford. In return, they were to provide sanctuary and protection to travellers, especially pilgrims. The present Ballyhack Castle was built by the Knights Hospitaller around 1450 and is said to have replaced a much earlier Templar preceptory where pilgrims could have claimed shelter.

The Broken Bromance of Henry II and Thomas Becket

On the cold winter night of December 29, 1170, one of the most notorious murders of the Middle Ages occurred.

To please their King, four knights crept into Canterbury Cathedral to assassinate Archbishop Thomas Becket. This cold-blooded murder caused a wave of revulsion and outrage throughout Europe. Cults quickly grew around the slain Archbishop as reports of miracles attributed to him abounded. Becket was recognized as a martyr by the Catholic Church and canonized in 1173, so he’s got that going for him.

In the 12th century, the Catholic Church was the most powerful entity in Europe. Even royalty played second banana to the Church and its leaders. In England, the highest religious authority was the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was often a political and spiritual advisor to the King.

Despite a relative lack of education, Thomas Becket rose to the position of clerk for the Archbishop of Canterbury Theobald and earned the title of Archdeacon in 1154 at the age of 36. He quickly made a favorable impression on the new king Henry II, who named him his Lord Chancellor.

The two men formed a friendship and soon became inseparable. Becket’s calm demeanor proved to be the perfect foil for Henry’s volatile temper. Thomas was also a skilled diplomat and generally well-respected, which came in handy for matters of state.

When Theobald died in 1161, Henry elevated Becket to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury, a move that surprised no one. The King found this arrangement very pleasing, as he assumed having his best bud at the helm ensured his royal wishes would be followed to the letter.

Although hesitant at first to take the post, Becket took his new gig very seriously when he did acquiesce. He hit the books and studied theology with renewed zeal. This new book learning made his loyalties turn from Court to Church and drove a wedge between himself and the King.

Matters came to a head when Henry sought to deny clerics charged with a crime the right to be tried in ecclesiastical courts. This matter took on a certain urgency in 1163 when a canon accused of murder was acquitted by church authorities. This sparked such public outrage that the cleric was brought before the King’s court to answer the charges.

Becket cried foul, and the proceedings were aborted, but Henry II went forward and amended the law anyway. The clergy would no longer be exempt from civil prosecution, and that was that.

Thomas wavered on the issue, but in the end, refused to accept anything that would result in diminished protection for the clergy. This bit of cheek prompted the King to demand the Archbishop show himself at court in Northampton. Unwilling to face what he believed were false charges of meddling with the royal purse, Becket decided it was a good time for a little trip to France.

Once he was across the Channel, Thomas kept up his feud with Henry. He excommunicated the Bishops of London and Salisbury for undermining his authority as head of the church, infuriating the King. After years of acrimony, the two old friends met up in Normandy in 1170. They seemed to put aside their differences, even though Henry had allowed the Archbishop of York to crown his son the heir apparent in May, which cut Becket deeply.

When Becket returned to England, he not only refused to absolve the disgraced Bishops of London and Salisbury, he also excommunicated the Archbishop of York while he was at it. This pushed King Henry, still in Normandy, over the edge. The King went on an epic rant that sealed the Archbishop’s fate:

“What sluggards, what cowards have I brought up in my court, who care nothing for their allegiance to their lord. Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?”

Four brown-nosing knights, Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracey, and Richard Brito were down with that. So off they sailed to England to do their King’s bidding.

The four men arrived at Canterbury on the afternoon of December 29th. Becket ran to the Cathedral, where a service was being held, with the four knights in hot pursuit. They overtook Becket at the altar and drew their swords (which they had hidden on the church grounds the night before.) the four knights began hacking at him until they finally split his skull open in front of horrified witnesses.

The knights, who no doubt foresaw a future of glory for their service to their monarch, instead fell into disgrace. Pope Alexander III excommunicated them and forbade the King from attending Mass until he had atoned for his sin.

The Pope also made King Henry pony up 200 men for the latest Crusade to the Holy Land. It wasn’t long before miracles were attributed to the murdered prelate, and he was put on the fast track to sainthood. Pilgrims flocked to Canterbury, which became a shrine to Becket.

All of this greatly unnerved Henry II, and he did penance for his old friend’s death without complaint. Four years after Becket’s murder, the king donned a sack-cloth and walked barefoot through the streets of Canterbury as 80 monks flogged him with branches. He then slept in the martyr’s crypt that night as a further act of atonement.

Even though there’s some question whether Henry really wanted Becket killed or he was just having an angry outburst, contemporary opinion seems to be that the King earned that sackcloth. Henry II himself certainly seemed to think he did.

Watch the video: Why Henry II Murdered Archbishop Thomas Becket. Britains Bloodiest Dynasty. Timeline (June 2022).


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