Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The Plantagenets - An Intractable Quarrel II

Thomas Becket – Man or Saint? Henry II – King or Sinner?

Pope Alexander III

The Split

In 1163 Henry allowed all his bishops and archbishops to attend a council in Tours, called by Pope Alexander III, who had been thrown out of Rome by the German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Henry could have forbidden attendance at the council, as his uncle Stephen had in 1148 on a similar occasion. The result of Henry’s compliant attitude was a message of support from the Pope

‘That on account of this no detriment or disadvantage ought to come upon him or his successors. Nor by reason of this should a new custom be introduced into his realm, or the privilege of the realm be diminished in any degree’.[i]

In October 1163 Henry summoned a royal council to meet at Westminster. He listened to the bishops and then wondered why the church had impinged on royal authority in the matter of his legal powers. He was obviously referring to the message from the Pope. The church was now taking upon itself to deal with criminal cases internally rather than handing accused over to the courts. Becket spoke against Henry’s proposals, suggesting that it was improper under canon law to hand over criminous clerks to the king’s justice. He was supported by his bishops.

However the bishops realised that Becket’s stance vis a vis the king was unhelpful to the church’s cause. The majority felt that his attitude was hardly likely to improve the church’s standing. The Pope was also not impressed with Thomas’s intransigence which was disrupting the church in England. He counselled restraint and pliancy.

Henry II - tomb at Fontrevault
On 13th January 1164 Henry presided over an assembly of churchmen at Clarendon Palace. He aimed to reduce dependence of the church in England upon Rome and to reduce clerical independence. He demanded that the bishops acknowledge an explicit statement of customs of the past to be adhered to in the future and to accept that these would be kept in good faith. They were to place their seals on the document. Becket suddenly capitulated and advised his bishops to do likewise. After leaving Clarendon he repented of his action and took penitent’s garb.

There were many objections to the Constitutions of Clarendon, many of the bishops were unhappy that unwritten custom was now to be given the force of law. Henry immediately applied for Papal approval of the conditions, and was unhappy when this was not forthcoming.

Following dismissal of a claim in the archbishop’s court, one of Henry’s household, made complaint of injustice. Both Henry and Thomas acted in a petty manner and Thomas was finally arraigned before the royal council meeting at Northampton on a charge of contempt of court. The court declared that Thomas’s goods and chattels were forfeit. Henry now made claims of embezzlement during Thomas’s reign as Chancellor and demanded that Thomas account for the revenues of vacant bishoprics and abbeys administered by him as Chancellor.

On 12 October 1164 Becket attended the council at Northampton, but he and Henry did not meet. His bishops revealed to the king that Becket had reprimanded them for giving judgement against him, appealed to Rome against the judgement and forbidden them to judge against him on the embezzlement case, breaching both the Constitutions of Clarendon and the archbishop’s oath of allegiance; tantamount to treason. The bishops now felt trapped between their loyalty to their king and their loyalty to their archbishop. The following day Becket had gone, taking himself into a self-imposed exile.


King and Archbishop

Louis gave Becket refuge in France. Here was chance to pay back an over mighty subject for the many slights and transgressions committed by Henry. Henry sent a deputation to the Pope now at Sens, and Thomas took his case to the Pope in person. Over the next six years the Pope attempted to persuade the two parties to compromise. But Becket was determined that only the public abasement of Henry would be sufficient to appease his overweening pride. Henry for his part stated that Thomas had left of his own free will.

In 1166 the Pope made Thomas Papal Legate to England. Thomas wrote three letters to Henry, the first was friendly but the third letter progressed to threats of divine vengeance. In June Becket spoke against the ‘depravities’ contained in the Constitutions of Clarendon. Henry responded by threatening to withdraw his allegiance to the Pope. He had been flirting with the idea of an allegiance with Frederick Barbarossa.

Alexander was able to stall the two protagonists and by the end of 1168 Henry was beginning to lose his bargaining power. He wanted his eldest son Henry to be crowned joint king with himself, hoping to make peace with his French overlord by dismembering his empire amongst his sons. And the crowning of kings was the prerogative of the archbishop of Canterbury. Meanwhile Thomas was wearing out his welcome in France. Louis’ daughter was married to the future Young King.

In January 1169 a conference at Montmirail was used to try and end the conflict between king and archbishop. Both men were prepared to reconcile, but neither was prepared to lose face. Becket’s intransigence ensured that the reconciliation failed, despite the obvious unhappiness of King Louis and the French and English barons present at the meeting.

In the autumn of 1169 after excommunicating the bishops of London and Salisbury Becket threatened to excommunicate Henry and to interdict the kingdom. Henry sealed all ports and forbad any communication with Becket or the Pope. The bishops refused to take an oath to observe the decrees Henry had issued. But in turn the Pope refused to confirm some of Becket’s excommunications. Henry and Becket were brought together in November 1169 by the papal legates, again the meeting was unsuccessful in solving the differences between the two protagonists.

In 1161 Alexander had given Henry permission to have his son crowned by the bishop of his choice and further wrote to the Archbishop of York to undertake the coronation

‘We command you by apostolic letter that whenever the king our son shall request it you shall place the crown upon the head of his son aforesaid on the authority of the apostolic see’.[ii]

The Young King
On 14th June 1170 Henry the Young King was crowned by the Archbishop of York, much to Becket’s fury at this attack on his prerogatives. The monks of Canterbury were never to forgive Becket for the precedent now set. It also reduced the power of Becket’s claim to the overseeing of the archbishopric of York and the Celtic churches; claims that were contrary to the trend within the church of centralisation and control from Rome.

The Pope now felt that he had no other weapon to solve the impasse other than to support Becket in his excommunications. But having got his own way as far as the coronation of his son was concerned Henry now intimated that he was ready to make peace with Becket. He offered terms which Becket accepted on 22nd July 1170. Henry had promised that Becket could re-crown the Young King and his wife.

Murder in the Cathedral

When Becket returned from his exile the situation on both sides had hardened. Busy on the continent Henry apparently did little to prepare his supporters for his volte face. And they were the ones who would have to carry out the intricacies of the agreement. Becket was demanding full reparations for any losses and he too relied on subordinates as he was unwilling to return to England until all matters were settled. The hostilities were being ramped up again on both sides by subordinates and by Thomas. The Pope and Thomas expected Henry to be more involved in the arrangements than he was able to spare time for. Henry was preoccupied by affairs in Normandy and Anjou and fell very ill in August; so much so he was persuaded to make a will.

Thomas was in November eager to return to England. Henry had intended to accompany him, but his overlord was threatening his interests in Berry. So it fell to John of Oxford, one of Henry’s most trusted subordinates to accompany Becket on his return. Landing in Kent Becket was met with a hostile reception from the sheriff of Kent, Thomas was rescued by John of Oxford, a man whom Becket had reviled in the past.

The Young King refused to meet Becket at Windsor. Becket was not innocent either in the altercations that followed. Before taking ship he excommunicated the Archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury, all involved in the Young King’s coronation. He had permission from the Pope for his actions and Henry had agreed that Thomas had the right to punish his bishops; but it was the timing of his actions which were hardly those of a man prepared for reconciliation. The three prelates decided to lay the issue before Henry, spending Christmas at Bures in Normandy.

Henry was informed that Thomas was

‘Careering about the country at the head of a strong force of armed knights’ [iii]

having learnt nothing in the intervening years. Henry undoubtedly made some comment on Thomas’ behaviour, although he denied wishing for his death. Whatever he did say resulted in four of his household departing for England, making for Canterbury. These four were not men of great intelligence. If they had been they would hardly have taken a course of action so likely to bring their monarch into further dispute with the church. A dispute in which Henry was placed at such disadvantage that he had to abase himself before the prelates.

Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury was murdered on 29th December 1170, in the cathedral of his Archbishopric, still in dispute with his king. He could have escaped death, he was surrounded by his household, so it can only be assumed that he decided to die a martyr.

It was the hangers on, of little worth to the church, who gained much from Thomas’ support and brought the church into disrepute. All that was overturned with the death of Thomas; a martyr for a very unworthy cause. Now the church could dictate to the king, who for political reasons accepted the imposed penance. And also possibly from a feeling of guilt; that his temper had wrought so infelicitous an ending to the relationship with his former friend.

Saints or Sinners?

Neither man comes out of the final quarrel between them unscathed. Both were men of great pride, but much of the blame must lie with Thomas’ insistence on defending what appears to modern eyes, and to the king, as indefensible. Henry lost prestige and his legal reforms were adversely affected by the aftermath of Thomas’ death. The behaviour of both men can bear a lot of criticism. A thwarted Henry pursued Thomas with a petty streak of vengeance, while Thomas could not refrain from exacerbating the situation.

Henry had always been one for sudden rages and the anger he displayed on the occasion of his last quarrel with Becket was characteristic of the man. However whenever his temper cooled it was possible to strike bargains with the king. But Becket’s pride would not allow such a course of action. Indeed he often seemed to be adding insult to injury, to inflate his own sense of self-importance.

Becket’s intransigence over indefensible church privileges was an anathema to Henry. Becket’s defence of the indefensible has often appeared romantic to some historians. Indeed it took a long time for the overturn of ingrained church ‘privileges’ to be enacted.

Thomas was made a saint as a result of church politics, rather than because of any intrinsic goodness in the man. He was ‘martyred’ for standing up for church privileges, which were being badly abused. Rather than attempt to correct the abuses Thomas preferred to insist on defending all who took advantage of the church’s immoral position.


Henry II – WL Warren, Yale University Press 2000
Eleanor of Aquitaine – Alison Weir, Jonathan Cape 1999

[i] Henry II – WL Warren, 2000
[ii] Ditto
[iii] Ditto


  1. Very odd behaviour from Becket, he swings from conciliatory and friendly to intransigent and cold, one can't help wondering if there was some pathological problem rather than merely feeling a need to exert himself to show how high he had risen.

  2. This is really very interesting. I like this period in England's history. BBC History Magazine did a piece on Henry II and Becket a while back. Very interesting.