Forget Hell hearth no fury like a woman scorned, instead think Hell hearth no fury like a medieval king scorned when you think of the death of Thomas A Becket.
Born to Norman parents in Cheapside London on 21st December 1118* The future Archbishop of Canetbury entered the world. Thomas would become Grammar school educated possibly in the school at St Pauls. To help support his families finances he went on to become a clerk and ended up in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s employ.
Becket must have demonstrated impressive qualities as the Archbishop, Theobald of Bec entrusted the young Becket with important assignments to Rome. He was then sent to Bologna to study Cannon Law. He was prompted to Archdeacon of Canterbury in 1154 and held several offices within important English cathedrals including Lincoln and St Pauls.
Becket was a good and efficient administrator within these posts and his employer Theobald would recommend him for the post of Lord Chancellor to the King, Richard II. The recommendation was acted on and in January 1155 Becket was in one of the most powerful positions in the country. And his relationship with Richard II started.
In 1162 his old employer and champion Theobald died and within months Becket was nominated as his successor. He was elected officially on 23rd May 1162 by the Royal Council formed of nobility and bishops.
Until this point Becket had reinforced law for the state in his role as Lord Chancellor but his change of career turned him from civil servant to church servant, a change came over him he changed materialism for spiritual awakening. Becket was invested into the Priesthood on 2nd June 1162. the following day he was ordained as Archbishop of Canterbury, the second most powerful man in the country.
Becket provoked Richard when he resigned his Chancellorship. The two were to clash over issues such as the authority of the civil courts over the Clergy in England. The two butted heads leading Richard to seek help from other bishops against his old ally Becket. Things had to come to a head and so a meeting was called to be held at the Palace of Clarendon so that the two sides could discuss their differences.
The meeting at Clarendon
The senior clergy of the Church from England (not to me confused with the Church of
England England was still Catholic and the reformation in England was not to happen for another three centuries under Henry VIII) met a the Palace of Clarendon on 30 January 1164. During the conference Richard in simple terms laid out how he wanted my control over the church and to reduce papal control within his kingdom (sound familiar?). Richard was able to charm and convince all the bishops present apart from Becket who would refuse to sign the documentation drawn up at the meeting.
Later that year, possibly to punish his former friend and ally, Richard demanded that Becket come before a tribnal of men at Northampton Castle to answer questions on so called alliagtions made against him while he was the Lord Chancellor. He was found guilty for these charges but Thomas did not stay around to be dealt with his left the proceedings and went to mainland Europe. Vindictively Richard called on his supporters and allies in Europe to send Becket back but this failed and the French King, Louis VII offered Becket protection.
Thomas fought back at the King threatening him with both interdict and excommunication. The Pope Alexander III although sympathetic towards, Becket, his number one in England, preferred to resolve the issue between the Archbishop and his king through diplomacy rather than action; Little did he know his lack of action would mean that he would have to canonize Becket as he refused to help him practically.
Alexander III sent delegates to see King Richard and they agreed that Becket could return home from exile and to his murder.
In June 1170, the kings son was crowned heir apparent by bishops of London, Sailsbury and York. This was traditionally an entitlement for the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury and Becket was deeply offended. In his anger he excommunicated the three bishops – a huge deal in a time when god was so integral to life especially Clergy who had dedicated their lives to God and the Church. The three excommunicated bishops went to Normandy where Richard was and told him of Becket’s actions. It was during this meeting between bishops and monarch that Richards men were to interpret that Richard wanted Becket dealt in the most final way.
The four men who depending on your perspective understood or misunderstood the meaning of Richards words were: Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton. The four men were knights. Maybe these men saw this as a way to gain favour with the king; whatever their motivation the act they were about to committee was sacrilegious, unjust and unlawful at the every least.
They arrived at Canterbury on 29th December 1170. The knight first undertaking upon arriving at Canterbury was to approach Becket and requested that he go to Winchester to explain his actions of excommunication against the bishops, York, Salisbury and London. Becket refused. The four men, who knew what he was like had probably known that this would be his response, went outside to retrieve their weapons before re-entering the cathedral to assassinate and create a saint. Becket had in this time headed towards where the brothers had started to sing vespers. The knights attacked Becket and upon the 3rd blow to his person Becket went down on his knees and is said to have said:
“For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church, I am ready to embrace death”
The death blow came while Becket was Prostrate on the ground and on of the four knights took of the crown of his head and thus an archbishop was slain and a saint was created for both the Catholic and later the Church of England (although the memorial for Becket was desecrated during the reformation under Henry VIII)
Early politics and the role of divinely appointed Monarchs and how influential the church should be, have always been problematic, the Tudors and then the Stuarts several centuries later were still struggling to find the balance. The death of Becket like the dissolution of the monasteries and the execution of Charles I are all reminders of what can happen when things go wrong and the balance is tipped through greed of power and ego.