Thomas Becket, or Thomas à Becket as he was called by my teacher of History, was not a Saxon. He was a son of a wealthy Norman merchant (born 1118), and as Norman as his friend and king, Henry II. Thomas read Canon Law at the University of Bologna, where his teachers found him a first-class student, digesting books when he was not drinking or whoring. It may have been his ability to keep up glass by glass with the young Henry Plantagenet that cemented (he thought) his friendship, and caused Henry to make Thomas his Chancellor, the holder of the royal seal, and high on the list of very powerful men in England, an island he had chosen to make his home.
Our subject was a master of courtliness, master of intrigue, and perhaps imagined he was master of Henry II – a serious and eventually fatal error. As Chancellor he behaved in exemplary fashion as well as lining his pockets in the way all powerful persons seem to do when given the chance. He could get away with almost anything because he was the king’s friend. Much to the chagrin and shame of Henry’s mother, the redoubtable ex-Empress Matilda, and his own wife, probably the richest woman in Europe – the equally indomitable Eleanor of Aquitane – Henry and Thomas shared mistresses, sometimes at the same time, but there is no evidence of viciousness between the men themselves.
As we all know, Henry made the young Becket Archbishop of Canterbury, because he thought Thomas would ideally become a puppet churchman. Sadly for Henry, he didn’t. He became holy instead, a zealous ascetic, determined to serve the Church as strongly as he had previously served Henry the King. It was a no-go situation.
After several dramatic rows with his king, Becket fled from England in secret and found refuge with a spider-like French king, Louis, who always enjoyed irritating his Anglo-Norman cousin Henry, his mother and his wife, whose widespread properties in France he envied. Meanwhile Henry and his new advisers grabbed whatever fortunes Thomas had gathered, and the income from his sees. He then journeyed to see the Pope in the Vatican, where he was received cordially, and reinstated in his see of Canterbury. This led to a temporary truce with Henry, and Becket returned in what he saw as triumph to Canterbury.
Perhaps Thomas à Becket had forgotten that Henry was a true Plantagenet. He began behaving in too lordly a manner, for example by refusing to allow Henry’s barons to judge errant priests. He quarrelled with Henry in public and private, and finally the Plantagenet temper overcame the king, who said privately to his barons that Becket was a ‘turbulent priest’ that he wished to be rid of. Inevitably, four of these barons took this to be a kingly order, and rode off to Canterbury, where they murdered Becket in his own cathedral (29 December, 1170).
Henry was mortified by the news of the assassination of his erstwhile friend, and suggested forcefully to the murderers that they should leave England as quickly as possible to avoid royal punishment. Mowbray and the others did so. Henry asked the monks at Canterbury to exact penance on him, which they did on his bare back with whips, all of which he tolerated, though his body bled for days (1174). Poor Henry, if he thought the removal of Becket meant the end of his troubles, he was mistaken; very soon his own wife and his sons Richard, Geoffrey and John were involved in a conspiracy against him, and he was forced to punish all of them. Unlike Tudor monarchs however, he did not cut off their heads. Perhaps he should have done, and then there would have been no John I, one of the worst kings Europe has seen.