A Battle of Church and State

Thomas Becket, the son of a wealthy Norman merchant living in London, was born in 1118. After being educated in England, France and Italy, he joined the staff of Theobald, the archbishop of Canterbury.
When Henry II became king in 1154, he asked Archbishop Theobald for advice on choosing his government ministers. On the suggestion of Theobald, Henry appointed Thomas Becket as his chancellor. Becket had once been on the staff of the archbishop. The king and Becket soon became close friends.

When Theobald 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, had a reputation as a cruel military commander, and was very materialistic (Becket loved expensive food, wine, and clothes). They also feared that as Becket was a close friend of Henry II, he would not be an independent leader of the church.

After being appointed,Thomas Becket began to show a concern for the poor. Every morning 13 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.

In 1163, after a long spell in France, Henry 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 more than 100 murderers had escaped their proper punishment because they had claimed their right to be tried in church courts. Any man who had been trained by the church could choose to be tried by a church court. There were several examples of clergy found guilty of murder or robbery who received only “spiritual” punishments, such as suspension from office or banishment from the altar.

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, but 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.

In 1164 the archbishop of Canterbury was involved in a dispute over land. Henry ordered Becket to appear before his courts. When Henry mentioned other charges, including treason, Becket decided to run away to France.

Becket eventually agreed to return to England. However, as soon as he arrived on English soil, he excommunicated (expelled from the Christian church) the archbishop of York and other leading churchmen who had supported Henry while he had been away. Henry, who was in Normandy at the time, was furious when he heard the news and supposedly shouted out: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Four of Henry’s knights who had heard Henry’s angry outburst decided to travel to England to see Becket. When the knights arrived at Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170, they demanded that Becket pardon the men he had excommunicated. When Becket refused, they hacked him to death with their swords.

Excerpted from www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk.

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