Thomas Becket vs Henry II
- Length: 2285 words (6.5 double-spaced pages)
- Rating: Excellent
The High Middle Ages was a time of power struggles between the Church and the State. Increases in royal power and expeditions like the Crusades symbolized the teeter-totter of the balance of power between the two foundations, and a prime example of the fight for power is the conflict of Henry II, King of England, and Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.
Henry II gained his throne thanks to the efforts of his mother, who fought to maintain her family's stature in the royal family tree. Thomas Becket was the son of a wealthy London merchant, and lived a life of no worries. Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, recognized Becket's intelligence, and he was put under Theobald's church tree. There, Becket gained experience and serious attention from his great successes as the Archbishop's trusty servant, and King Henry II laid an eye on him also.
Seeing Becket's potential intelligence, Henry II appointed Becket to the position of Chancellor of England. In England, the Chancellor was second-in-command only to the King. Any man of this stature was given great power, and any man placed in this position must be able to match his expectations. Henry's instincts were accurate, and Becket performed amazingly at his new position. He revolutionized how England's government was run, and turned the quiet castle into a busy place of work. Becket's fame rose instantly, gaining attention from all over England, and quickly gained the reputation of being Henry's greatest loyal worker.
Becket, aside from being Henry's most trustworthy servant, also became Henry's greatest friend. Henry frequently visited Becket for dinner, and the two would discuss issues and exchange ideas almost every night. Henry was able to derive one conclusion from their dinner sessions Ð Thomas Becket was the most intelligent man in all of England.
At this point in time, the Church and State of England fought mainly for power over the judicial system of England. Henry II wanted to enforce common law in his country, a system of justice with a jury that accuses suspects and royal judges that determine the sentence on the criminals. The Church, headed by the archbishop of Canterbury, wanted to keep their traditional system of canon law. The huge flaw in canon law was apparent to all of England, but the church was not willing to back down to the State. In the church's court system, the two greatest concerns were the immunity granted to church officials and the immunity granted to those who sought sanctuary.
Sanctuary was the greatest blockade to any court system in England. Any criminal could, by religious tradition, just hide in any church to flee the hands of punishment for a crime. A thief could rob a man, run into a church, hide there for a night, and go out again the next day to continue his mischief. The church's easily manipulated emphasis on forgiveness and purity of the human soul made judicial punishments impossible in England. Henry wanted to end the Church's sympathetic system of law and bring into play common law, a strict code that would govern how to treat criminals all over the country.
Just when Henry was struggling most to figure out how to rob the church of its authority over the courts, a very convenient opportunity was handed to him when Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury, died. The Archbishop of Canterbury was the head of the Church of England. What Rome was for the Roman Catholic Church, Canterbury was for all of England. The year was 1162, and to Henry, it seemed like he was finally getting close to achieving the goal of increasing the State's authority over the courts of England.
Henry II had authority to choose who would be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. The man he chose would control the Church of England and lead the Church in any direction the Archbishop of Canterbury wished. The choice was obvious. What man had more intelligence, more loyalty, more trust from the King than the Chancellor of England? Who would possibly be able to be as perfect as Thomas Becket? To the King, it was obvious that his best and loyal friend was the most appropriate, suitable character for the newly opened position. If Becket were head of the Church of England, there is no way that the royal government would have to struggle or control. Since Becket is Henry's loyal servant, the power of the church was about to fall right into the hands of Henry. Or so he thought.
Thomas Becket changed. His old life of luxury and accessories morphed into a life of strict obedience and religious zeal to God. His loyalty to the King turned into an immobile trust and love for God, and his great mind was now a property of the Church. When Henry first heard of this unbelievable change in Becket, he sent letter after letter to him just to make sure that his best friend had not sided with his enemy. Sadly, Becket was a man of God now.
To show that his converting was no joke, Becket managed over every church court in England personally. He judged cases and handled them like an ideal church official. He set off a trigger in Henry when he excommunicated a noble for rejecting a church official's order. Excommunication is one of the deadly weapons of a leader of a church, and an excommunication on any person means that he or she is no longer connected from the Church, and is condemned to hell. This was the first spark of a great storm that was to split apart one of the greatest loyalties and friendships in all of Europe. Thomas Becket and Henry II was no longer the friendly pair of a King and his Noble. Now they were bitter enemies, each representing the Church and the State.
Henry struck back with what he could. Seeing that Becket held two advantageous church positions, he raised the issue of Plural Appointments (it was illegal to hold more than one church position) and forced Becket to discard the archdeaconry of Canterbury. He also appointed a Norman monk named Clerambault as the abbot of St. Augustine's Monastery near Canterbury. The monk was notorious for being slovenly and corrupt, and the monastery had always been a pain in Canterbury's neck by staying out of its jurisdiction. Henry wanted to aggravate Becket by making annoying changes.
Henry also moved to end the Church's canon law. He called a trial consisting of a jury, to have the jury decide which law was more appropriate for England. Becket and his scholarly subjects prevailed, and Henry's first attempt at ending canon law failed.
His next stab at the termination of canon law came at the Council of Westminster, where the King and Becket each gave a speech concerning which court system was to be upheld. Bishops and nobles from all over England gathered and sat as the two figures gave their talks. In Becket's speech, he stated that the royal government has complete control over the Church, "saving our order"; meaning that the royal officials had no control over the Church with the Church's internal affairs. When Henry asked for every bishop's poll, each one agreed to obey the royal government "saving our order". Henry stormed out of the room, and Becket enjoyed yet another victory for the Church.
Although Becket was successful in upholding the Church's authority against the State, he did not have very many allies in the Church. Powerful figures like the Archbishop of York or the Bishop of London disliked Becket due to his sudden success in the Church, and many other smaller bishops were not willing to take a firm stand against the King.
Henry attempted to make a change in England yet again at the Council of Clarendon in January of 1164. Bishops and Nobles from all over England gathered again, and this time, Henry was the obvious victor. The result of the conference was the Constitutions of Clarendon, documents of law that consisted of 16 articles concerning the position of common and canon law in England. The most important articles of the Constitutions regulated the laws of England in new ways. The King's justices would, from now on, decide whether to send a case to a church court or to a royal court, and if it went to the church court, a royal officer would attend the case to make sure nothing wrong is done. Church officers no longer had the immunity from punishment, and could no longer escape the sentences handed down by royal officers. No noble was to be excommunicated without the approval of the King, and no church officer was allowed to leave the country without the King's consent.
Thomas Becket was legally defeated. Even the Pope had told him to obey the State's laws, and around him were only internal enemies of the Church. Yet, he was not willing to give in to Henry's laws. When Henry ordered him to sign the document of agreement, Becket stormed out of the conference. Becket was not willing to agree with the new laws until the Pope signed documents that showed his consent. The Pope was not willing to sign such a declaration of obedience, so Becket was spared from suffering the embarrassment.
While the Pope refused to sign the document, Henry called Becket to a trial at Northampton Castle for failing to appear in a case in the King's court. The hearing of the royal court lasted 7 days, and the results were demands that the State threw at Becket. The first was to pay a sum of 300 pounds, a large sum, but Becket did not show any bewilderment. The next day, they told him to pay for the equal amount of money he spent in France while he was Chancellor. On the third, he was asked to pay for every income he received as Chancellor from vacant posts. The third was an impossible task, and could not have been carried out even by the King. Obviously, the court of Northampton wanted Becket to lose his position as Archbishop of Canterbury, not to have him pay the sentence. When a representative of the court came to give Becket his sentence at his home, Becket hollered at him, saying that Becket, as a servant of God, would only be judged by the God or the Pope himself, and will not and cannot be judged by lowly laymen. Becket ran out of the castle walls in anger, making everything accomplished at Northampton null.
Henry issued an all-out chase for Becket to sentence him to death in England, but Becket managed to escape to France in exile before he was caught in England. He spent over seven years in France, where Louis, King of France and enemy of Henry protected him. The Archbishop also managed to talk with the Pope, who nullified the Constitutions of Clarendon. On Henry, Becket threatened the actions of an excommunication or an interdict on all of England to keep him from chasing Becket too far. An interdict on England would strip the whole country of its right to practice religious rites, and would throw on Henry a horrible reputation as King.
While in France, Becket stayed in the Cistercian monastery at Pontigny, continuing his religious ways, as Henry stayed in England, grieving over what has happened to their once blooming friendship. Henry declared that he would crown his eldest son as King, to show his stable position as King of England. As an attempt to heal their shattered relation, a meeting was set up for the two at FrŽteval. At this meeting, where the two were allowed to talk alone with no interruptions, the two agreed to return to England and crown the son properly, with the Archbishop of Canterbury presiding. Yet, there was a conspiracy to murder Becket in England. Becket, being his smart self, overcame this obstacle and managed to ride into London proudly, with the newly crowned prince supporting his entrance. Henry, hearing of this news, was outraged and cried out, "Will somebody deliver me from this lowborn priest!!!"
On The 28th of December, the year of Becket's return to England, Henry's 4 loyal knights murdered Becket in a cathedral. The knights had responded to Henry's cry, and made sure that they ended Becket's life. After Becket's death, reports of miracles and religious visions spread throughout all of England. Peasants who followed him mourned and grieved over his death.
The Pope, seeing as Becket's death as Henry's fault, threatened him with the risk of an excommunication or an interdict. To escape the harsh punishment, Henry agreed to repent for his sin of killing Becket. He walked barefoot through the streets of Canterbury and was whipped by the priests of the Cathedral. The news of Henry's repent was an embarrassment for Henry, but was the only way for him to escape an interdict.
The tale of Thomas Becket and Henry II is just one example of the struggle for power in the High Middle Ages between the church and the State. Becket's stubborn obsession for the Church's authority brought positive effects for the Church, and Henry's persistent efforts to increase the State's power brought to his country much stir and conflict. Like any other power struggle, the churchly weapons of excommunication and interdict were what kept the church in command. As the eventful tale of these two men shows, the struggle for power between the Church and the State was not a peaceful dispute. Repeated, controversial conflicts just like this one occurred all over Europe, and like this one, the power never really shifted a great deal