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

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Middle Ages
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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.

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The Clergy and crime

The main source of the friction was over what to do with clergy who committed secular crimes. Because even those men who took minor orders were considered clerks (clerics), the quarrel over the so-called “criminous clerks” potentially covered up to one-fifth of the male population of England.

Becket felt that anyone considered a clerk could only be dealt with by the church and Henry II really felt that this position deprived him of the ability to govern effectively, and undercut the law and order in England. In addition to this the other issues between them included the actions

Becket took to recover lands lost to the archdiocese, some of which he reacquired with a royal writ that authorised the archbishop to restore any alienated lands.

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Henry and sheriff’s aid

A further disagreement involved Henry’s attempts to collect sheriff’s aid in 1163, when Becket argued that the aid was a free will offering from the sheriffs, and could not be compelled. There was felt to be one other significant matter that contributed, which was Becket’s excommunication of a royal tenant-in-chief who had avoided attempts by the archbishop to place a clerk in a church where the tenant claimed the right to make the appointment.

crowning-of-young-henry
Crowning of Henry the Young King in 1170 by Roger, Archbishop of York.

Crowning of young Henry

Henry II chose to crown his son Henry the Young King of England via the Archbishop of York which infuriated Becket who had the right to perform the coronation.

Becket sought redress by excommunicating Roger of York, Josceline of Salisbury, and Gilbert Foliot, the Bishop of London which when bought to Henry’s attention riled him so much he was reported as saying ‘Will no one rid me of the turbulent priest”.

Hearing these words inspired 4 knights to independently set off from Normandy to Canterbury and murder Becket within the Cathedral.

thomasbecket-execution

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