BRIA 16 1 b The Murder of an Archbishop

Bill of Right in Action
Winter 1999 (16:1)

Matters of Principle

BRIA 16:1 Home | John Adams and the Boston Massacre Trials | The Murder of an Archbishop | Should We Have the Right to Die?


The Murder of an Archbishop

In 1170, four knights in the service of England's King Henry II entered Canterbury Cathedral and murdered Archbishop Thomas Becket. This was the climax to a bitter quarrel between Henry and Thomas, pitting the authority of the king against that of the church.

Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church dominated the spiritual lives of nearly everyone in medieval Europe--from powerful kings to lowly peasants. In the 11th century, Pope Gregory VII strengthened the church with a series of reforms. Among other things, Gregory insisted that priests and all other members of the clergy should be tried and punished in church courts only. This included cases involving not only religious matters, but also crimes like theft and murder.

The trial and punishment of clergymen for criminal offenses became a flash point between two headstrong personalities in England: King Henry II and Archbishop Thomas Becket. These powerful men quarreled for almost 10 years over the rights and authority of church and state. Henry believed that the crown had the right to try crimes committed by the clergy. In defending this position, he believed he was upholding ancient customs and his rights as king. In arguing for the right for the church to try the clergy for any offense, Thomas believed he was defending the freedom and authority of the church.

The King

Henry II had ruled England since 1154 when he was 21 years old. He also held lands in France inherited from his ancestors. Henry tended to be emotional and easy to anger, especially when someone challenged his authority.

During his 35-year reign, Henry firmly established the king's law as the law of the land. He increased the number of royal judges traveling about the land hearing cases. He also introduced grand juries to investigate crimes and charge suspects.

His desire to strengthen his justice system got him embroiled in a controversy with the church. By 1163, Henry was fighting with the church for disregarding ancient customs governing relations between church and state. He believed the church was interfering with his rights as the secular (nonreligious) leader of England. In particular, he thought that church courts failed to adequately punish clergy members who committed serious crimes. Church courts could not sentence clergymen to execution or mutilation (by branding, for example), punishments commonly imposed by the king's secular courts.

The Archbishop

Thomas Becket's father had been a London merchant well-connected to English nobility. Thomas went to schools in London and Paris, but showed no special interest in religion. He became an accountant for a family friend and the sheriff of London.

Friends of his father introduced Thomas to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald of Bec, the highest church official in England. In 1143, at age 25, Thomas entered Theobald's service as a clerk at Canterbury.

At Canterbury, Thomas' quick mind and debating ability soon impressed Archbishop Theobald, who sent the young clerk to Italy and France to study civil and canon (religious) law. Then in 1154, the year Henry became king, Theobald appointed Thomas as archdeacon, the second highest office at Canterbury.

Only a few weeks after Thomas became archdeacon, King Henry appointed him as his chancellor. Chancellor Thomas Becket became a close adviser to King Henry. Thomas traveled to France with him, and in one of Henry's military campaigns there led 700 knights into battle. A close personal friendship between the two men developed as they rode, hunted, hawked, and played chess together. Thomas came to occupy a position of trust and power in Henry's government unprecedented for a commoner.

When Archbishop Theobald died in 1161, Henry believed that his chancellor and friend would be the perfect replacement. Officially, Thomas was elected archbishop by an assembly of bishops and archbishops. But this took place in the king's own chapel where Henry could more easily control things. On June 3, 1162, Thomas Becket became the Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest church office in England. Henry was elated, thinking he had a highly placed ally within the church. He was wrong.

Archbishop Thomas Becket set out immediately to prove that his loyalty belonged to the church alone. He resigned his position as chancellor, signaling his independence from Henry. Then he excommunicated one of Henry's barons, opposed the king's plan to collect a sheriff's tax, and insisted on a church trial for a priest accused of killing a knight. All of these acts by Thomas challenged and enraged King Henry.

By 1163, Thomas had become a stubborn defender of church liberties. Among these was Pope Gregory's reform making the clergy immune from prosecution and punishment by the secular courts.

The Quarrel

When tried by a church court, a clergyman could defend himself by taking an oath that he was innocent. If still found guilty, his punishment, even for crimes like rape and murder, might only be removal from his holy office. Henry believed that these convicted clergymen, called "criminous clerks," unfairly evaded the strict punishments faced by everyone else in his secular courts.

At a council of barons and bishops in October 1163, King Henry raised the issue of criminous clerks. He argued that they should be treated according to ancient customs of church and state. He wanted them turned over to royal courts for criminal punishment after church courts had stripped them of their holy offices. Archbishop Thomas Becket objected on the grounds that even "God did not punish twice for the same offense."

Henry then asked the churchmen if they would obey the ancient customs. Speaking for all the bishops, Thomas replied that they would do so except for those customs that were contrary to church law. Angered by this qualified answer, Henry stormed out of the council meeting.

When Pope Alexander III counseled Thomas to back down from his uncompromising stand, Thomas agreed to do so. Henry was pleased, but not satisfied. He wanted Thomas to publicly declare his unqualified obedience to the ancient customs at another council of the barons and bishops.

When the council met at Clarendon in January 1164, Henry surprised everyone by ordering that the customs be set down in writing. He demanded that Thomas and the other bishops take an oath binding the church to observe them for all time.

Among the 16 customs confirmed in the so-called Constitutions of Clarendon, the three most controversial required:

(1) the permission of the king before any clergyman could leave the kingdom.

(2) the king's approval before any of his barons could be excommunicated from the church.

(3) the transfer of "criminous clerks" found guilty in church courts to Henry's courts for punishment.

Thomas viewed the Constitutions of Clarendon as calling for nothing less than the total surrender of church liberties. Nevertheless, after some hesitation and confusion, Thomas and the bishops reluctantly gave their oath of agreement. But shortly after the council adjourned, Thomas changed his mind and without consulting with the other bishops, disavowed his oath.

In response, King Henry summoned Thomas to answer charges before yet another council. The charges against Thomas included contempt of the king's court in a land dispute case and embezzlement of royal funds while he was chancellor. Under Henry's prodding, the council made a judgment against Thomas, which he refused to accept. Amid cries of "Traitor!" and "Perjurer!" from Henry's barons, Thomas fled the council and escaped the country to France. Henry thereafter referred to his old friend as "my great enemy."

For the next six years, Thomas lived in exile in France. Henry confiscated the revenues and possessions of Thomas as well as those of his relatives and friends. Thomas retaliated by excommunicating a number of Henry's barons.

After several fruitless face-to-face meetings between Henry and Thomas in France, things came to a head in 1170. Henry decided to crown his 15-year-old son as co-ruler. But in direct violation of the long-established rights of Canterbury and the will of the pope, Henry had the archbishop of York conduct the coronation ceremony. But fearing that the pope would place an interdict (a decree stopping the administration of all sacraments) on England, he quickly agreed to make peace with Thomas.

The two adversaries met in France and papered over their differences. Henry agreed to allow Thomas to return to England and resume his duties as archbishop. At the end of their talk, Thomas told the king, "My Lord, my heart tells me that I depart as one whom you will not see again."

Thomas left France in November 1170, but not before excommunicating three bishops who had participated in the coronation of Henry's son. Thomas made a triumphant return to England with crowds of common people cheering him as he made his way to Canterbury. Then on Christmas Day, he issued another round of excommunications.

Back in France, Henry viewed the continued excommunications by Thomas as a slap in the face. In anger and frustration, he blurted out, "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?" Nearby were four of Henry's knights who took his words literally and decided to act.

Without Henry's knowledge, the four knights left France for Canterbury. On December 29, 1170, the knights armed with swords forced their way into the cathedral where Thomas was saying prayers. Although he had the opportunity, Thomas did not try to escape.

"Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the king and the kingdom?" shouted one of the knights. Thomas calmly responded, "Here am I, no traitor but a priest and archbishop." The knights demanded that Thomas lift his excommunications. Thomas refused. One of the knights then wounded him on the head with a sword. The others joined and fell upon the archbishop with their weapons, spilling his blood and brains on the cathedral floor.

The Saint

News of the murder shocked Henry. The king maintained that he neither ordered nor desired Thomas' death, but admitted his strong words were the ultimate cause. Two years later, Pope Alexander imposed a number of penances on Henry, which he accepted. One of them required Henry to abolish any customs of England damaging to the church. Later, Henry went on his own to Canterbury Cathedral where Thomas was buried and submitted to a scourging (ritual whipping) by the monks there. The king never punished the actual murderers, but they did their own pope's penance by crusading in the Holy Land.

Meanwhile, pilgrims visiting the site of Thomas' tomb reported miraculous cures from diseases. On February 21, 1173, Pope Alexander made Thomas Becket a saint based on the miracles and his martyrdom in the cause of the holy church.

In 1176, Pope Alexander and King Henry negotiated an agreement on how to try and punish criminous clerks, the issue that had sparked the whole controversy. In the end, most of the other points of conflict between Henry and the church were resolved by compromise and by cooler heads.

For Discussion and Writing

1. What were "criminous clerks" and why were they at the center of the quarrel between King Henry and Archbishop Thomas Becket?

2. Who do you think was most responsible for the death of Archbishop Thomas Becket? Why?

xxxxa. the four knights

xxxxb. King Henry

xxxxc. Archbishop Thomas Becket himself

3. Why would the sort of quarrel that arose between Henry and Thomas never occur in the United States?

For Further Information

Sir Thomas Becket

Muhlberger, Steven "Becket and Other Foes"


Thomas Becket had to decide whether to follow the church or state. In our daily lives, we sometimes face conflicts between various kinds of authority and claims of morality. In this activity, students will make recommendations on what to do in several situations.

1. Divide the class into pairs of students. Each pair should:

xxxxa. Examine and discuss each case below.

xxxxb. Decide what to do in each case.

xxxxc. Prepare to report to the class on their decisions and the reasons for their decisions.

2. After students have decided the cases, have pairs report back and the whole class discuss each case.


Cases #1. It's Dana's first day on the job. His boss has told him to copy and collate 500 reports by the end of the day. About a half hour later, the head of the company comes into the copy room, tells Dana to pack all the boxes in room with pamphlets by the end of the day, and storms out. Each job will take until the end of the day. What should Dana do? Why?

Case #2. Jane works as a products-testing engineer for Cool Tools Rule, a tool manufacturer for the do-it-yourself market. The company has been having financial difficulties, but has just developed a new tool that the marketing department believes will be a best-seller for the Christmas season. Jane is required by state law to do safety tests on the tool before it is marketed. She will not be able to complete all the safety tests until after the Christmas season. So far the tool seems safe, but it might not be. The marketing director is demanding that she sign off on the tests so that the tool can be sold before Christmas. What should Jane do? Why?

Case #3. Pat and Chris have been best friends since kindergarten. Pat is almost a part of Chris's family. Now that they are in high school, Chris has started experimenting with drugs and has told Pat. Chris's father doesn't know anything about Chris using drugs, but he's worried about Chris's behavior. He comes to Pat and asks if Pat knows what's troubling Chris. What should Pat do? Why?

Case #4. A group of high school students goes to a restaurant and orders food. Everyone pays the bill and the waitress brings change. Sam, a member of the group, discovers that the waitress has given back $20 too much. When he tells his friends, they want the money. What should Sam do? Why?



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