Henry II and Thomas Becket

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Henry II and Thomas Becket

Henry II

Henry II

“Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?”

Henry II, King of England (1133 – 89) succeeded King Stephen in 1154. Henry was not Stephen’s son, but took the throne because Stephen had recognised Henry as his heir in the Treaty of Winchester (1153). The new King was the lawful son of Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. On Geoffrey’s death young Henry inherited Normandy, Maine (not the State in New England please), Touraine, Brittany and Anjou, in France. This last section of France made Henry the first Angevin King of England.
Henry married the richest woman in Europe, Eleanor de Aquitaine in 1152 when he was 19. Eleanor had been abandoned by a French King, Louis VI, for reasons that are too complicated to go into. The marriage brought Henry even greater estates than he had before, and his kingdom now stretched from the north of England south to the Pyrenees.

These territories were enhanced by the homage of King Malcolm III of Scotland in 1157, and his recognition by the barons of Ireland as their overlord in 1171. All in all, young Henry had a very great deal going for him. He was tall, bad tempered, athletic, good-looking and a typical Plantagenet.

First, Henry had to deal vigorously with the mess, meyhem and ruin left by the disastrous previous reign and civil wars. He ruthlessly eliminated those barons who had illegally built castles during Stephen’s reign. He confirmed the Laws of Scutage in 1157; Scutage represented English military obligations, including a kind of medieval obligatory ‘call-up’. His subjects were reminded that they must by Law equip themselves for military service. He went on to initiate a number of legal reforms in the Assizes of Clarendon and Northampton. It was during Henry’s reign that land-laws were developed in order to meet the needs of a more complex society.

Henry and Eleanor had sons, each one of which provided endless complications for the King and Queen as father and mother. They were Henry, who died in his youth; Richard (known as The Lionheart) who became Richard I; John (known as Lackland) who became John I (of Robin Hood fame), and Geoffrey, by far the cleverest of the three, who never became anything important. Each of these roused rebellions against his father in the period between 1171 and 74. Henry imprisoned all three at one time or another, as well as locking up his rich wife for years, on the grounds that she was backing his sons against him, especially Richard. The latter was a great soldier and fine strategist who married Berengaria of Spain, though as he was an active homosexual there were no fruits of the marriage.

Henry’s biggest mistake was the appointment of his friend and crony Thomas Becket, a cunning Norman, to the See of Canterbury. The King thought (in vain) that through Becket he would be able to rule the Church, but Becket did not share this good idea. As Head of the Catholic Church in England he caused Henry endless trouble. He excommunicated Beaumont and other important barons, and Henry, who had liked him very much, realised that Becket would have to go. In his cups with his faithful lords, he suggested it might be a good idea for Becket to die. He lived to regret this, as four of the barons decided (without informing the King of their intention) to ride from London to Canterbury, where they entered the great church while Becket and a monk were celebrating High Mass. They slaughtered both Becket and the monk, thus creating a martyr. Shortly afterwards the Pope, for ever ready in case he could do Britain some damage, made Becket a saint, which, if he had known it in life, would have made Thomas Becket laugh out loud.

After the canonisation of Thomas, Henry II had himself soundly scourged by willing monks in repentance for having suggested Becket’s death, and quietly told the murderers to exile themselves in France quickly, on pain of death. The King died, exhausted by his work, his rebellious sons and his clever scheming wife, in 1189, aged only fifty-six. After his death Pope Alexander III forgave Henry for the murder of Thomas Becket, an act which would have him, also, laugh out loud.

There are two excellently written, acted and directed movies which deal with the adult life of Henry II. They are Becket (1964) with Peter O’Toole as Henry and Richard Burton as Becket, and The Lion in Winter (1968) with O’Toole as an ageing Henry, Katharine Hepburn magnificent as Eleanor, and Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton in small parts.

Thomas à Becket (1118 – 1170) was a Londoner, born into a comfortably-off Norman family; he was educated in Paris and Bologna, where he acquired notoriety as a bit of a scoundrel and ladykiller. Being a second son, there was little else he could do but enter the church, which he did as a deacon. As a young man he served at the court of Henry II, and though he was fifteen years older, became the King’s closest friend and confidant.

Henry made him Chancellor of England in 1155. He was eminently good at his job, much loved by the people of London, and renowned for his good works. He had become Archdeacon of Canterbury in 1154, and easily managed to combine being a prince of the Church with the more worldly position as Chancellor. One should note that a chancellor of England in the twelfth century was equivalent in power and prestige to the Prime Minister of today.

As Chancellor, Becket travelled a good deal, and was both statesman and diplomat. Everything seemed smooth and happy when Henry suddenly made Becket Archibishop of Canterbury, thus elevating him to the highest post in the English Catholic Church, acting directly for the Pope. As archbishop, Becket did not feel bound by any laws of England or the King, but became a determined defender of the rights of the Church in the face of the King. It is important to relate that history notes Henry’s wife Eleanor of Aquitaine could not stand Becket, and nor could Henry’s mother. They considered him a middle-class upstart, and disliked his open friendship with the King.

Before long Becket clashed with Henry in the councils at Westminster, Clarendon and Northampton, especially over Henry’s claim to try in the lay courts clergymen who had already been convicted in an ecclesiastical court. This was important because churchmen very often misbehaved rashly (above all in sexual matters) in medieval times, and Henry did not consider any punishment meted out by an ecclesiastical court harsh enough. When a priest accused of rape was executed by a local baron (de Beaumont), Becket promptly excommunicated him, which made the King very angry indeed as de Beaumont was a crony.

Henry the King and Becket the Archbishop had a number of terrific public rows, leading to the latter’s escaping to exile in France, where he was well received by the French monarch. Henry begged him to return, and he did so, apparently reconciled, in 1170. Re-installed at Canterbury as archbishop, Becket immediately suspended the judgments made at Clarendon and Northampton, judgments especially planned and recommended by Henry. He also fired a number of bishops appointed in his absence by the King.

Henry’s Plantagenet blood got the better of him, and in a moment of rage aided by the bottle, he said something in a low voice which was misinterpreted (or so they later claimed) by four of his soldier barons. Legend tells us that he asked, “Who will rid me of this troublesome (in some accounts ‘irksome’) priest?” The knights rode off the seventy miles to Canterbury and cut Becket down by his own high altar in Canterbury Cathedral. He was made a saint in 1173, and his grave at Canterbury became a popular shrine, much visited as part of a pilgrimage. It was such a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury that inspired Geoffrey Chaucer to write one of the great classical poems of the English language, The Canterbury Tales.

By | 2016-02-13T19:44:34+00:00 May 30th, 2011|English History|2 Comments

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.


  1. Guy Mortensen February 10, 2016 at 8:21 pm - Reply

    You refer to Becket as a Saxon. He wasn’t, he was Norman!

    • Dean Swift February 13, 2016 at 7:41 pm - Reply

      You are right !

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