Thomas Becket: The Turbulent Priest

In Political, Religion, Travel, Uncategorized by Amy MantravadiLeave a Comment

In the long history of the English people, there have been few events more dramatic than the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, on the 29th of December in the year of our Lord 1170. There within the walls of his own cathedral, the highest ranking church official in England was cut down in a rather gruesome manner by four knights, their motive arising from the long running power struggle between the archbishop and King Henry II.

In one of those legends so oft repeated that it becomes historical fact, the king is said to have uttered the infamous words, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” The four knights, having overheard the king’s pronouncement, took a rather literal interpretation, immediately riding off to Canterbury to force Becket to either bow to the king’s demands or face the consequences.

Too bad for Thomas Becket. He was the victim of either an insidious plot or one of history’s most unfortunate misunderstandings. However, in the greater scheme of things, getting murdered was the best thing that ever happened to him. On the whole, archbishops of Canterbury tend to fade into obscurity with the passage of time, with a few notable exceptions. Only those with a serious interest in British history are likely to be able to name more than three of these men out of more than a thousand years of possibilities.

The manner of Becket’s death vaulted him into the ranks of the martyrs and made him a kind of medieval superstar. Unending lines of pilgrims traveled to his shrine to pay their respects. King Henry II was forever tarnished by association and had to literally end up groveling at Becket’s grave for forgiveness. Even before being immortalized in works such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and T.S. Eliot’s Murder at the Cathedral, Becket had become one of the most revered figures in English history – a man who stood by his principles even when it forced him to pay the ultimate price. There is also a close parallel between Becket and Sir Thomas More, who has enjoyed a similar reputation boost after his refusal to acknowledge King Henry VIII as head of the English church (and subsequent beheading), which was dramatized in the clever piece of post-death propaganda play A Man for All Seasons.

 What I find interesting about Becket’s story is that, with the exception of the cultural immortality it has granted him, it is not particularly unique. In fact, the period of time in which he lived was rather deadly for bishops throughout Europe. Allow me to provide you with a few examples.

Shortly after the Norman Conquest of England, King William I (“The Conqueror”) appointed a certain William Walcher as Bishop of Durham, one of the two highest ranking religious offices in the northern half of the kingdom. Whether due to his own errors or not, the bishop did not find favor with the local population, particularly the old Anglo-Saxon nobles who lost out with the coming of the Normans. After an attempt at negotiations went terribly wrong, the bishop and his men were forced to barricade themselves in a church, which was subsequently set on fire by the angry mob. Walcher apparently managed to escape the fire, but was immediately killed. This occurred in the year 1080.

Nineteen years later, Bishop Conrad of Utrecht, the most important medieval town in what is now the Netherlands, had the seemingly wonderful idea to oversee construction of the new collegiate church of Notre-Dame. He somehow became displeased with the work of one of the architects and decided to discharge him, i.e. fire him. Due to this snub, and perhaps because he was instigated by a local nobleman who had it out for the bishop, the architect murdered Conrad on April 14, 1099, just after he had finished leading mass.

Then there was Waldric, a former Lord Chancellor of England who was subsequently appointed Bishop of Laon (located in northern France). Apparently, he was not a particularly good bishop and may even have possessed a violent streak. James Craigie Robertson, a biographer of Becket and canon of Canterbury who noticed a similarity between the two men, tells how the Bishop of Laon “was slain by the populace of his city; his head was cleft with an axe, the finger adorned by the episcopal ring was hewn off, his lifeless body was covered with wounds, stripped naked, and exposed to innumerable insults, and lay unburied, like that of a dog…”[1] This reportedly occurred in the cathedral crypt, where Waldric had gone to hide from his pursuers, on Eastertide 1112.

Last but not least, I will mention Arnold of Selenhofen, Archbishop of Mainz (in modern day Germany), one of the leading figures in the Holy Roman Empire in the middle of the 12th century. He apparently had a reputation for being unmerciful in the way he administered justice. While the archbishop traveled to Italy in an attempt to boost the status of Antipope Victor IV, the citizens of Mainz rebelled. Upon returning home in June 1160, he received a very special greeting in the form of being murdered outside the monastery of St. Jakob. The moral of the story: if you must lend support to an Antipope, consider doing so by mail.

 All of these stories raise two important questions: 1) Why did people all over western Europe want to murder bishops?, and 2) Given the apparent hazards of the job, why would anyone want to be a bishop?

The same answer works for both questions: The bishops in medieval Europe were not just men of the church, but also prominent politicians. There was no separation of church and state as we now understand it. Bishops stood to gain immense wealth and territories. They served as chief advisors to kings and, depending on where they were located, might have effectively ruled over their diocese.

The medieval prince-bishops, most prominently found within the Holy Roman Empire – think Germany, Switzerland, and parts of France and Italy – were powerful secular authorities in their own right who often clashed with kings. Their role was so significant that all three of the biggest kingdoms in Western Europe (England, France, and Germany) had their own version of an “Investiture Controversy” in the century before Becket’s death, meaning that the king fought with the church over who had the authority to invest bishops.

The closest thing in modern day America would probably be the appointment of a Supreme Court justice. Once a bishop or archbishop was appointed, the king not only had limited control over what the bishop could do, but the bishop actually had certain powers to keep kings in check. For example, three of the seven electors who had the power to decide on who should succeed as Holy Roman Emperor were members of the clergy: the archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne. Both Emperor Henry IV and his son, Emperor Henry V, were faced with civil war when bishops within their borders excommunicated them. One of Becket’s predecessors as Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm of Bec, was forced into exile multiple times by the English King Henry I due to disagreements over jurisdiction, but each time the king was forced to recall him.

 In the case of Thomas Becket, he ended up in an argument over who has the authority to judge members of the clergy. King Henry II, predictably, believed that anyone living within his kingdom was subject to his rule, and thus his courts had the power to try them for any crimes of which they were accused. The archbishop believed that all such matters should be handled by church courts and that members of the clergy were essentially immune from secular justice. Interestingly, while the world has changed a great deal in the past 1,000 years, we have recently seen through the clerical sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church how time and again, charges brought against priests were handled within the realm of the church rather than being reported to secular authorities. While changes are being made in this area, it shows how this concept of church justice for men of the church is deeply embedded.

While Becket was perceived to be somewhat worldly in his younger days and a reliable supporter of the king’s authority, the story goes that he saw the light and became more pious later in life. I cannot judge the sincerity of the archbishop’s heart, but I will say that such an amazing transformation was not all that uncommon. Adalbert of Saarbrücken, who eventually became one of the greatest opponents of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, aided the emperor in his early struggles with papal authority, helping him to push for the right of investiture to be handed over to the secular ruler. However, once Adalbert received the plum job of Archbishop of Mainz, he did an apparent 180° turn, becoming a staunch defender of the rights of the church. It may not be a matter of coincidence that this was also the point at which Adalbert stood to gain from such an increase in church authority.

The role of bishop – or even better, archbishop – was the best job that money could buy in the 12th century….and a lot of people did try to buy it. Despite the potential hazard of being murdered after morning prayers, or simply locked up for years on end (as occurred with Archbishop Adalbert of Mainz), you still couldn’t do much better than being a “prince of the Church”. At the same time, the power that these men held was often abused in ways that turned the public against them, and they also got into nasty, high-level political struggles that sometimes led to unfortunate ends.

The reason that I go into such detail is to demonstrate that what happened to Thomas Becket was not an isolated event, but rather one of the highlights of a struggle for power that had existed long before Becket came on the scene and continued long after his death. I think it is essential to understand this, not only to see where Becket stands in terms of history, but also because it points to how we arrived at the situation in which we find ourselves today.

There are two commonly held but ultimately deceptive beliefs about the Protestant Reformation: 1) That it should be viewed from a primarily theological and religious standpoint, and 2) That it began when Martin Luther nailed a piece of paper to a door, or if you want to really stretch things, when John Wycliffe translated the Bible into English. Wrong and wrong. The Reformation was well under way in the 11th and 12th centuries, and though its theological effects were massive, I believe that, in the long run, they are only secondary to its political effects.

Theological differences have existed in Christianity since its inception, but what allowed the Reformation to occur when it did was a political sea change. The rise of powerful, centralized governments meant that bishops were no longer the obvious go-to individuals for maintaining social stability. It also created a rise in nationalist sentiment that caused secular rulers to resent the meddling (real or perceived) of the vast church bureaucracy. The spread of education beyond members of the clergy also made it possible for average people to evaluate religious ideas for themselves rather than relying on church authorities to instruct them in all things.

Thomas Becket’s murder is not merely an interesting historical anecdote to be drawn on by writers searching for dramatic subject material. It is also a prime example of a political movement that turned Europe upside down and created Western government as we know it today. Let that be the lesson that we receive from this “turbulent priest”.

Amy Mantravadi works for the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Science Research and was previously employed at the Press Office of the Egyptian government in Washington, D.C. She received her B.A. from Taylor University and her M.A. from King’s College London. She lives in Dayton, OH with her husband, where she enjoys research, writing, and cheering for the Ohio State Buckeyes.



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[1] James Craigie Robertson, Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, (London: John Murray, 1859) pg. 287

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