Henry II Vs. the Church: The Murder of Thomas Becket


By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., College of William & Mary

Henry II became the king in 1154 and had a long reign. He died in 1189, with 35 years on the throne, and he was, in certain respects, quite a successful ruler. But his long reign was not without major problems, especially the dispute with Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Image shows Henry II sending Thomas Becket's family and servants to exile and then Becket lying sick at Pontigny Abbey, after excessive fasting.
The dispute between Henry II and Thomas Becket was a big issue during Henry II’s reign. (Image: Matthew Paris – The Becket Leaves/Public domain)

Royal Favor: Henry II and Thomas Becket

One of the major problems of Henry II’s reign was the murder of Thomas Becket, a murder for which many would hold Henry responsible. Even in its day, the murder of Thomas Becket generated enormous publicity. It was one of the most famous events of the 12th century.

Earlier in his life, Thomas Becket was a personal friend of Henry II. Essentially, the two were drinking buddies. In 1155, Henry II decided to entrust the most important position within the English government to Thomas Becket: the position of Chancellor of England.

And when the office of Archbishop of Canterbury became vacant, Henry II could think of no better person than his good friend, Thomas Becket; someone whom he could surely trust.

The appointment of Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury raised a few eyebrows. It was, indeed, an appointment, rather than an election. Becket was a bureaucrat, a government official, and a rather secular individual. Many thought that he was not suitable to hold the highest Church office in England.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Henry II and Thomas Becket: A Falling-out

Ordinarily, kings, when they appointed bishops or abbots, could look forward to many years of cozy and mutually profitable relationships that would benefit both the kings and those who had been appointed.

Image depicting Thomas Becket with King Henry II.
Henry II had appointed Thomas Becket the Archbishop of Canterbury in the hope that it would be a mutually beneficial move. (Image: Liber Legum Antiquorum Regum British Library/Public domain)

However, Henry II had not reckoned this with Thomas Becket. For reasons that are still not entirely clear, Thomas Becket underwent a dramatic personal transformation after his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury. Instead of looking out for royal interests, as Henry II believed his friend would do, Becket became determined to defend ecclesiastical interests, especially when those ran contrary to royal interests.

There was one area in which kings had clearly not been acting in accordance with Church law. That was in the matter of appointments and elections. This was something that Thomas Becket had personal experience with; after all, he had been appointed by the king of England.

But once he became Archbishop of Canterbury, he began to denounce Henry II. He denounced the king for interfering in matters of ecclesiastical appointments, for appointing bishops and abbots, regardless of the fact that that was how he himself had come to hold his position.

Learn more about Carolingian Europe, the gateway to the Middle Ages.

Becket’s Exile and Return

Henry II was stunned by what he regarded as a personal betrayal by a friend, and at times, he acted rather rashly with regard to Thomas Becket. Relations grew so tense and so bad between Becket and Henry II that in 1164, Becket had to flee England entirely.

Becket had to live in exile on the European continent for six years. In 1170, Becket was permitted to return to England, and Henry II believed that the troubles between the two had been put behind them, and that Becket would restrain himself.

It was not to be. Almost from the second that Becket set foot on English soil again, he resumed his attacks on Henry II, and continued to denounce the ways in which Henry II interfered in matters that pertained solely to the Church.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, Wondrium.

A Murder in Canterbury Cathedral

The story goes that Henry II grew so exasperated by Thomas Becket that one day, in public, he asked of no one in particular, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” The question was meant to be rhetorical, but four of his knights took the question literally. They traveled to Canterbury and murdered Thomas Becket in the cathedral on December 29, 1170.

Even by medieval standards, the cold-blooded murder of an archbishop in a cathedral was considered to be bad form and beyond the pale.

However, ecclesiastics quickly turned the tragedy to their advantage.

Thomas Becket’s Martyrdom

A Seal of the Abbot of Arbroath, showing the murder of Thomas Becket.
The murder of Thomas Becket became a cause for the clergy, and he became a martyr. (Image: Cosmo Innes and Patrick Chalmers/Public domain)

The monks hailed Becket, with good reason, as a martyr, a martyr who had died for defending the Church and ecclesiastical prerogatives against meddling secular rulers. He was canonized as a saint in record time, and the cathedral at Canterbury quickly became one of the most popular shrines in Europe.

People would travel from far and wide to visit Becket’s tomb and the site at which he had been killed, hoping for cures, in many cases, for their physical ills, thanks to their contact with such a saint.

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Thomas Becket’s Death and Henry II’s Penance

Henry II was suspected of having been more deeply involved in the murder than he let on. Even if he wasn’t, having any role in the murder of someone who was hailed as a saint in record time was bad for public relations.

Henry II had to allow himself to be whipped by the monks of Canterbury, to signal his atonement for the fact that he had, supposedly unwittingly, led to the murder of the most important Church official in England.

Henry II’s plan of controlling the Church by appointing a friend had backfired and caused him a great deal of trouble, while losing him a friend.

Common Questions about the Murder of Thomas Becket

Q. Why did Henry II appoint Thomas Becket as the Archbishop of Canterbury?

Henry II and Thomas Becket had been friends for a long time. When the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury became vacant, Henry II appointed Becket as the Archbishop of Canterbury. The appointment was also made in the hope that it would be a mutually beneficial move.

Q. How was Thomas Becket’s appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury received?

Thomas Becket’s appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury raised eyebrows for two reasons. For one, rather than being elected by the clergy, Becket had been directly appointed by the King. For another, Becket was primarily a bureaucrat, not to mention a layman, rather than a clergyman.

Q. What was the reason for the murder of Thomas Becket?

Once Thomas Becket became the Archbishop of Canterbury, he began to oppose and condemn Henry II’s interference in matters of the Church. Eventually, Henry became so fed up that he is said to have exclaimed: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Taking this as an indirect order, four of Henry II’s knights murdered Thomas Becket inside Canterbury Cathedral.

Q. What was the result of the murder of Thomas Becket?

After Thomas Becket’s murder, he was very quickly canonized as a martyr. Eventually, Henry II had to atone for Becket’s murder by allowing himself to be whipped by the monks of Canterbury.

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