Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

Becket and Other Foes

Steve Muhlberger

In this lecture, we will talk about the setbacks that Henry suffered in the latter part of his life.

Perhaps powerful men who like Henry are bent on innovation must create powerful opposition. Henry did indeed create some opposition of this sort. His most dangerous enemies, however, were personal ones -- and Henry must bear a great deal of responsibility for turning friends and family into implacable foes. The first of these enemies was Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury. The others were Henry's wife Eleanor and his sons, Henry, Richard, Geoffrey and John.

The conflict between Henry and Thomas Becket could be seen as a conflict of principle, but it became a major crisis because of the personalities of the two major antagonists. Let's look at the matter of principle first.

Henry spent his reign systematically building up royal power in England.  These efforts brought him up against the other great organization with English interest, the church.

For about a century, a series of reforming popes had been fighting to make the clergy independent of all laymen and women, and to make themselves, as the head of the clergy, the undisputed overlords of the church and its property. The justification for this program was of course the usual one for any ecclesiastical reform, namely, the purification of the church.

Previous generations of reformers had often relied on royal support, but twelfth century reformers  felt that royal control of the church led to corruption, and so they sought to reduce this influence. In England they had quite a bit of success during Henry I's and Stephen's reign in gaining more autonomy for the English clergy a greater role for the pope  in refereeing ecclesiastical disputes in England.

Henry II had come to the throne as the restorer of Henry I's good government, when it came to the church, this implied a rolling back of the privileges of the biggest interest group in the kingdom. Thus, some trouble was inevitable. Henry, however, would probably have got most of what he wanted from the English church if it had not been for Becket. Reforming ideology was very attractive to most ranking churchmen, but it was new. The habit of working with and for the king was very old. Most English bishops were willing to go to some lengths to accommodate Henry as he went about restoring royal influence over the church. This was a normal way of behaving.

What was surprising was the way Thomas Becket acted. Thomas Becket has been recognized for centuries as a martyr. It takes an effort to realize that he was, at the time, the English bishop least likely to become a saint. No would have imagined him even as a principled defender of ecclesiastical liberties. For most of his life he was a careerist, pure and simple, a man who through ability, luck, and the favor of powerful patrons had made it to the big time.

Becket's father was a London merchant who later fell on hard times. Luck and a family friend got him a job as a clerk in the household of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, and while acting as liaison between Theobald and Henry when the new king came to England in 1154. The young king took a liking to the older man, and soon enough he had made Becket chancellor of England. It was an important office, if not of the first rank.

Becket became a wealthy man when Henry had him appointed archdeacon of Canterbury, in other words CEO of the diocese. Becket, like many royal servants enjoyed the privileges and the revenues of a church office without actually performing the duties -- this was entrusted to low-paid deputies, who did the unpleasant jobs.

The early Thomas Becket, although a member of the clergy and holding church office, was a worldly man and recognized as such. He was well known for his love of display and his frank enjoyment of wealth, and for being one of the king's favorite drinking buddies. Yet no one was shocked:  he was a common enough type, a professional administrators and a courtier who had got his training in the church and was employed by it. If he showed no aptitude for a spiritual life, no one was surprised. After all he was not a priest or a monk.

Henry trusted his judgement and loyalty. At one point he gave command of a royal army to Becket, the one that attacked Toulouse unsuccessfully. (This military role did raise a few eyebrows in ecclesiastical circles. Clerics were not supposed to wield the sword.) So when Archbishop Theobald died in 1162, Henry decided that his chancellor should succeed to the highest position in the English church.

This was shocking. A worldly archdeacon was one thing, but a courtier being made archbishop was another matter entirely.

Two other things about Becket made the bishops uneasy. First, he had no great amount of education. He had gone to the schools of Paris but never finished any course. Second, he had been an ally of the kings in bullying the churches for war taxes. They expected him to be the king's tool, pure and simple.

Henry got his way, and Becket was consecrated. But very soon thereafter, the new archbishop began to obstruct the royal will. Those who think of him as a saint believe he underwent a conversion from his worldly life. The less sympathetic see him as a proud man who had always been a subordinate but now had the opportunity to be his own boss.

Finally an issue came up that brought the two old friends into direct conflict. This was the matter of criminal clerics, "criminous clerks."

In the twelfth century, clerics accused of crimes, even violent ones, were supposed to be tried before ecclesiastical courts. The punishments imposed on those found guilty in these church courts were notably milder than those imposed by lay courts. Murders and rapists were not hung, but merely expelled from the clergy and required to do penance.

Many lay people objected to this double standard, especially since a large number of men living ordinary lives, no less worldly if less prominent than the early Thomas Becket, had been ordained into some minor clerical rank, and could claim the "privilege of clergy" -- the privilege of being tried by a church court. The basic qualification was the ability to read simple Latin. That such people could get away with murder offended lay opinion.

Henry proposed to eliminate or modify this privilege of clergy so that serious criminals could not get off with simple penances. Most of the bishops were willing to make some accommodation, but Thomas, to everyone's surprise, stood for absolute clerical independence in this matter. But his tactics were poorly chosen. He not only earned Henry's lasting enmity, but alienated the other bishops by first convincing them to follow his lead, then capitulating to the king, then going back to a stubborn opposition. He earned a reputation as a thoughtless hothead.

Henry, who felt betrayed by Becket, decided to destroy him, and harassed him in every possible way. Becket finally fled to the continent, where he lived for years in exile, under the discreet protection of the king of France, Louis VII. Despite Louis's self-interested support, Becket was almost isolated. The English bishops were against him. The pope, Alexander III, did little to help. The pope had other worries. He was fighting the German emperor and the emperor's antipope, and he needed Henry's support and recognition.

If Becket was isolated, the exile of the chief bishop of the kingdom was a great inconvenience to everybody concerned, and in 1170, the two former friends, now deadly enemies, were convinced to kiss and make up -- quite literally, since the kiss of peace was an important sign of reconciliation.

It soon became evident that no real reconciliation had taken place. When Becket returned to England, royal officials treated him like a traitor and obstructed his efforts to reclaim his episcopal property. Becket was equally unwilling to let bygones be bygones, and pursued his feud against some of the other bishops. The unresolved crisis stretched nerves to the breaking point.

In December of 1170, an enraged Henry, then in Normandy, asked why no one would rid him of that pesky priest. Four of his knights took him at his word, crossed the channel, and murdered the archbishop in his cathedral.

Becket's death turned him from an unpopular maverick churchman into a martyr. He was no longer a stubborn politician, the champion of a controversial cause, but a myth, a timeless symbol of a righteous man struck down by a tyrant. He became a heavenly intercessor showering miracles down on those who visited his shrine in Canterbury. It was now Henry who was on the defensive.

Eventually the king had to capitulate on the issue of criminal clerks; indeed, in 1174, he performed a dramatic public penance by being flogged at the tomb of the newly canonized St. Thomas Becket.

In the long view, it is easy to say that Henry's real troubles began with the murder of Becket.  But for three years, Henry had cruised along with no great problems.  What tripped Henry up was his bad relations with his own progeny.

 In the early 1170s, Henry and Eleanor's four sons were growing up, and the question of succession was being raised. There were no set rules for succession to royal or princely titles, and Henry's sons could reasonably expect him to make provision for all of them out of his vast dominions. In 1169, Henry made his first will. His eldest son, Henry, was to be king of England, duke of Normandy, and count of Anjou. In other words, as first-born, he would get the paternal inheritance. The second son, Richard, later called Lionheart, would get the maternal inheritance of Aquitaine. Geoffrey, the third son, was married to the heiress of Brittany, and would thus be a duke too.

Henry followed up this will by having the young Henry crowned king of England, thus making him his partner in power -- at least in name. Actually the older Henry very reluctant to let his sons exercise any real power. That was one problem with the settlement. Another was that John, the youngest son, had been left out.

In 1173, Henry II decided to tinker with his will to give John some property at the expense of the young Henry. This act almost brought his whole empire down around his ears. Henry and Richard, with the encouragement of their mother Eleanor, created a grand alliance of the elder Henry's enemies. These included the king of France, who still feared his mighty vassal, and the king of Scotland, whose claim to the earldom of Northumbria had long been frustrated. There were also three major English earls and a number of barons who hoped by supporting the young king to loosen the grip of the old one. The count of Flanders jumped onto the pig-pile too.

Henry II was faced nearly simultaneous invasions in Northumbria and  Normandy and risings in  Anjou, the Aquitaine, and Brittany. Putting down such a host of enemies was no easy matter.

The chief reason that Henry survived is that most politically conscious people in his empire considered him a good lord and saw the revolt of the young king and the invasions as simply an outbreak of lawlessness.

Yet Henry's danger was very real; it was during the revolt that he made his dramatic penance at Thomas Becket's tomb, which may have been cynical politics or attempt at gaining some supernatural insurance; but in the end, Henry won. His opponents were reduced to his mercy.

Yet all the victories in the world could not create peace within his ambitious family. There was jealousy among them all, and no easy solution to the problem of the succession. In the 1183, the young Henry and Richard Lionheart fought over the Aquitaine. Their father wanted Richard to have it, but Henry aimed at inheriting everything and declared war on Richard. Only the young Henry's sudden death put a stop to the fighting.

After that, Henry II decided Richard, as the eldest son, should succeed him in England.  But he wanted Richard to give up the Aquitaine, which he would not do.  Richard's subsequent revolts against Henry were more dangerous than the earlier ones because of one factor. That was Philip II of France, who had succeeded his father Louis VII in 1180.

Philip was only fourteen or fifteen at the time, but very quickly made himself the master of his realm.  He cleverly used the support of the Plantagenets to throw off the influence of his mother and her pushy brothers, then  began to plot against the Plantagenets, who remained the greatest danger to his throne. G.W.S. Barrow has well summed up Philip's tactics: when Henry's sons were on the outs with their father, Philip supported the sons, acting as an overlord refereeing between vassals -- since all of them held French lands. But when Philip had a quarrel with the sons, he would call their father to account, telling him it was his responsibility to control his vassals.

In the last years of Henry's life, Philip, Richard, and even his favorite younger son John were almost constantly working together to bring the old man -- actually he was only in his fifties -- to his knees. Finally, they succeeded. In 1189, Henry, at last exhausted after a life of hard riding, politicking, and fighting, accepted all of the demands that Philip and Richard were pressing on him. He died soon after, to be followed on the throne by Richard.

Henry died pathetic and unloved, a fact that evokes a certain amount of sympathy for him. The Plantagenet Chronicles says, for instance, that "Henry II was denied the peaceful and honorable end to his reign which he so richly deserved." But did he deserve that? The greed and selfishness manifested by his various sons were typical of Henry himself. He was at heart a pirate, or perhaps a Mafia don. He did all that he did to establish his own dominance and that of his family, and he spared no one who got in his way. Thomas Becket was right to fear his enmity. He knew that Henry would never forgive him for his opposition, that the king would get back at him in any way that he could -- and in fact Henry did destroy Becket, and lived on for another nineteen years as lord of the English church.

It would be hard to deny that Henry's policies and innovations were in some ways beneficial, and that we are among the beneficiaries. But the rule of such an autocrat would be intolerable to most of us today. One of the nice things about history is that the strongmen and villains who populate it so thickly can't get at us now, and we can appreciate their colorful traits in the safety of our libraries and lecture halls.

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.