Murder of Thomas Becket (1170)
It was on this date, December 29, 1170, that four knights of King Henry II burst into Canterbury Cathedral and murdered Archbishop Thomas Becket. The story of the stormy breakup between king and cleric has been the subject of a play by T.S. Eliot (Murder in the Cathedral, 1938) and Jean Anouilh (Becket, 1959) as well as an award-winning 1964 film.
The romanticized account of Thomas Becket's character makes for a better drama, but there is little to the rumors of Becket's rakishness. By all accounts, Becket was well educated and morally upright, and therefore an excellent choice as Chancellor (1155-1162) of an England conquered scarcely three generations earlier. The true story behind the drama is a classic power struggle between church and state, one largely settled in modern, secular democracies.
Becket served his king with uncompromising loyalty, even when the ship of state collided with the dock of church doctrine. Henry's case was the stronger: his charge was to protect his subjects from real internal and external enemies; the Church represented protection against imaginary crimes (sins) as representatives of an imaginary judge (God). But both sides wielded real power.
Henry knew the Church was lenient on its clerics, even in cases of murder and sexual depravity, and insisted that ecclesiastical criminals be subject to secular courts. Becket argued for Henry's case until, in a tragic stroke of political naïveté, Henry elevated Becket to Archbishop of Canterbury, there to serve him, even as head of the Church.
Becket succeeded Archbishop Theobald, who died in 1161, was ordained and made Archbishop over a weekend, and the transition of his loyalties to the Church seemed just as rapid. At this same time, the invidious Pope Alexander III, who had wrestled with Victor IV for the papacy, was forced to flee to France. From 1162 until 1165, Alexander was in his French exile.
Relinquishing the Chancellorship, Becket became a zealous advocate for ecclesiastical exemption from secular courts. This caused Henry great consternation: not only as official disloyalty but as personal betrayal. In the wake of a false charge of embezzlement, Becket was forced to flee into France in 1162 as the Pope had. There, Alexander urged Becket to retain his office.
Becket reconciled with Henry at Freteval in 1170. But Henry had had his eldest son crowned by Roger Archbishop of York, with the acquiescence of the Bishop of London, Gilbert Foliot. Becket excommunicated both for violating the traditional right of the Archbishop of Canterbury to crown a king. Henry, so the story goes, made an offhand remark, such as "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" overheard by some knights with more weapons than wits. A sympathetic eyewitness (Edward Grim, a monk) reports,
The murderers pursued [Becket] and asked, "Absolve and restore to communion those you have excommunicated and return to office those who have been suspended."The murder was blamed on King Henry, who did penance four years later. Becket was made a saint. The question of primacy church or state was still not resolved, so the 12th century drama was repeated in the 16th century with Henry VIII and Thomas More. As if to demonstrate just how powerful and persistent the conflict is, those events too were dramatized in the play and film, A Man for All Seasons.
Though Thomas Becket died for his beliefs, that in no way made his beliefs valid. Had he but served his king with half the zeal that he served his God, he would not have been left naked to his enemies.
 Alexander III fought his way back into the Papal palace with a French army bought with French gold. The fight littered the floor of St. Peter's, which was "strewn with corpses," as one chronicler describes it, but the Romans expelled him. It took two more attempts to settle him into an undistinguished papacy, marred by a bull in 1163 which forbade to ecclesiastics "the study of physics or the laws of the world," and decreed that anyone violating this command "shall be avoided by all and excommunicated." Hence, the only men likely study science were officially forbidden to do so.
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