Henry II: Blood on His Hands?

Ever fallen out with a friend? Ever looked for ways to resolve relationship issues? Well, take it from me do not take relationship advice from the Plantagenet’s. Welcome to the first in the Plantagenet series: the dramatic story of Henry II and his friend Thomas Becket!

Picture taken by me!

Henry II, the first Plantagenet king ascended the throne in 1154. Things were initially going well for Henry. He was married to the beautiful Eleanor of Aquitaine and this match brought with it considerable French land meaning Henry II controlled more of France in his reign than any other ruler since the 7th century.  His arrival in England restored loyalty to the king and his rivals died within a few years of his ascension, leaving Henry’s position almost untouchable. Henry worked to restore royal justice, finance and order, securing a peace treaty with Wales in 1158. His control over Scotland, England, Wales and a vast amount of Ireland combined with his French domain resulted in the creation of what we now call the Angevin Empire. So, as you can see things really did seem to be going pretty well.

14th Century depiction of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Image taken from Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_II_of_England#/media/File:Jindra_Eleonora.jpg

In addition to his initial success as king, Henry II had a close friend and companion called Thomas Becket. Thomas Becket was the son of a merchant, low born but exceptionally gifted, Becket was appointed by Henry to be his chancellor. It was Becket therefore who enforced justice, secured revenue and acted as the administrative mastermind behind Henry’s reign. Becket was also Henry’s best friend. He would accompany Henry on hunts, royal progress and would eat, drink and make merry with the king. When Becket was chancellor, the two men were as thick as thieves.

14th Century depiction of Henry II and Thomas Becket. Image taken from Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_II_of_England#/media/File:BecketHenryII.jpg

However, that would soon change…

Following the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket was nominated by Henry for the position and in 1161 he became the new archbishop. Now this was a time when the Church was exceptionally powerful and didn’t have to answer to the king. Even when members of the clergy committed crimes such as murder and rape the Church were responsible for justice and often mere fines sufficed- shocking I know! However, Henry wanted to change this and thought that having his closest friend as the archbishop would strengthen his rule and weaken the Church, bringing the clergy further under the control of the crown. But this appointment had the opposite effect and resulted in a huge change in Becket. He began to take on an increasingly ascetic and priestly lifestyle, abandoning the pleasures of courtly life and resigning as chancellor in what was a direct insult to the king. Becket became a staunch advocate of Church rights and argued with the king, wanting to extend church privileges at the expense of royal control. Henry saw this as the ultimate betrayal, and was unwilling to give up power, forcing Becket to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon which was aimed at restricting ecclesiastical privileges.

Cracks in a once unbreakable bond began to show…

Becket swiftly changed his mind and rescinded his support for the Constitutions of Clarendon and the argument between king and archbishop began in earnest. Henry had the Archbishop of York perform a ceremony in a direct snub and insult to Becket who was supposed to preside at this occasion. Becket then excommunicates everyone who was involved in the ceremony, an act which was then believed to send their souls to Hell. Becket then began to excommunicate members of the church who agreed with the king whilst Henry harassed those who sided with Becket. Just when things looked like they would calm down between the two men, Becket decided to excommunicate three more supporters of the King. Once again, the battle of wills between these two men raged on. Finally the tension between the two men reached boiling point with an incensed Henry crying out:

“what miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low born clerk!”

This phrase uttered in anger would be the final nail in the coffin for Thomas Becket.

13th Century depiction of the death of Thomas Becket. Taken from Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_II_of_England#/media/File:Thomas_Becket_Murder.JPG

Four knights who overheard this outburst decided to act at once and set out for Canterbury. They marched into the Cathedral where they endeavoured to arrest Becket who resisted this attempt at capture. The four knights then began to attack Becket, with one chopping off half of his skull with the sheer force of his blow whilst another picked up the brains that had sprayed the altar. The unarmed Archbishop of Canterbury was brutally slain in front of the altar in the sanctuary of God, an event which sent shockwaves around Europe. Henry II was condemned as a cold-blooded murderer following the death of Becket and later in life he sought penance for the death of his once closest friend.

But did Henry order the death of his friend?

The phrase uttered by Henry II has been subject to scrutiny, with no one really knowing exactly what he said. Some sources state Henry said “will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest.” This takes away some of the ambiguity surrounding the death of Becket as it does seem that Henry ordered his death. However the phrase quoted above speaks more of a man frustrated, angry and disappointed with his friend and at a loss at what to do next. Henry appears to berate Becket, annoyed that the friend who he built up to be his archbishop should betray him so. Yet there is seemingly no direct command to go out and arrest Becket let alone kill him. It does seem to be a mystery.

However the four knights who overheard Henry felt the need to do something. Were they overzealous? Did they wrongly act too soon? Were his words taken out of context? Or did Henry II callously order the death of his friend Thomas Becket?

You decide!

Depiction of the assassination of Thomas Becket and his funeral on a French enamelled chasse made around 1190-1200. Image taken from Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Becket#/media/File:Reliquary_Thomas_Becket_MNMA_Cl23296.jpg

Bibliography

Alexander, J. W. (1970). “The Becket Controversy in Recent Historiography”. The Journal of British Studies

Barlow, F (1986). Thomas Becket. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Jones, T. M. (1973). “The Generation Gap of 1173–74: The War Between the Two Henrys”. Albion: A Quarterly Journal 

Schama, S. (2002). A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World? : 3000 BC–AD 1603. London

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