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THE CHURCH. The Problem with Thomas Becket. The Church. Stephen had granted concessions to the Church, which had weakened the position of the monarch The church was important to the monarch: it held land of the King and was an important player in the feudal system in England

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the church


The Problem with Thomas Becket

the church1
The Church

Stephen had granted concessions to the Church, which had weakened the position of the monarch

  • The church was important to the monarch:
    • it held land of the King and was an important player in the feudal system in England
    • it provided many of the men the King needed to run the government.
  • The power of the papacy had been steadily rising during the twelfth century
    • kings like Henry II took thought that an English churchman’s first loyalty should be to him rather than the Pope
the appointment of thomas becket
The appointment of Thomas Becket
  • Thomas of Cheapside was the son of Gilbert Becket, who was a successful merchant in London.
  • Thomas was trained as a priest and became a favourite clerk of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury.
  • He met Henry and became his friend and he was made Chancellor in 1154.
becket as chancellor
Becket as Chancellor
  • Becket was resented by the landowners and the church as he imposed a traditional tax.
  • Thomas was devoted to Henry's interests and he became an accomplished and extravagant courtier.
  • He became wealthy, but was scrupulously honest
  • King Henry even sent his son Henry to live in Becket's household

Becket was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162

the beginning of the problem
The Beginning of the problem

Since the time of Pope Gregory VII, the independence of the Church had been growing.

  • Henry was concerned about this independence and with the lenient sentencing of the Church courts.

Henry began to address these concerns in 1163.

westminster council october 1163
Westminster Council, October 1163
  • Henry demanded that clerks convicted of crimes and unfrocked should be handed over to royal courts for punishment.
  • Becket argued that this was punishment twice for the same offence and he and the bishops refused to comply.
  • Pope Alexander III urged Becket to compromise and he reluctantly agreed ‘to observe the ancient customs’.
  • Henry felt betrayed by Becket’s opposition
constitutions of clarendon january 1164
Constitutions of Clarendon, January 1164

This put key aspects of church-state relations in writing

  • Law-breaking clerks were to have their cases examined by royal justices before going to a church court.
  • A royal observer had to be present in the Church court
  • Clerics found guilty of crimes in church courts had to return to royal courts for sentencing.
  • There was to be no appeal to Rome without the King’s permission.
  • Advowsons (right of appointing clerics to positions in the Church) had to be heard in lay courts.

Becket wavered over Clarendon

constitutions of clarendon january 11641
Constitutions of Clarendon, January 1164
  • even the Pope thought Henry had gone too far and instructed that they should not be recognised.
  • Putting his victory in writing was a tactical error, as it put the Pope on the offensive
  • Henry again felt cheated by his friend and he too went on the offensive;

he went all out to destroy Becket.

exile and murder
Exile and murder
  • Becket was accused of theft by Henry at the Council of Northampton, October 1164, for money spent when he was Chancellor.
  • He turned up in full ceremonial robes claiming that, as a priest, he had no alternative but to refuse royal jurisdiction.

He fled to France


In 1166 Becket was appointed papal legate

  • From exile he disciplined the Bishop of Salisbury and his dean for accepting the Constitutions of Clarendon.

The English bishops wrote to him threatening to withdraw their support.


In 1170 Henry, who had been very ill, had his son crowned by the Archbishop of York.

  • Becket complained – it was the job of the archbishop of Canterbury to crown kings
  • England was threatened by an interdict & the popes sanction was withheld.

Henry tried to reach a compromise


A meeting took place at Freteval, though Henry withheld the kiss of peace

  • It was agreed that Becket should return to England.
  • On his return, Becket immediately excommunicated the clergy involved in the coronation of the young king.
  • Henry was furious when he heard the news
the murder
The Murder

“will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?”

the murder1
The Murder
  • 4 knights heard this outburst:
    • Hugh De Morville
    • William De Tracy
    • Reginald Fitz Urse
    • Richard Le Bret
  • They arrived at Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December 1170

They demanded that Becket pardon the men he had excommunicated

the murder2
The Murder

He Refused

He was hacked

To death with


Christian Europe

Was shocked by

The murder

The pope canonized Becket & his shrine in

Canterbury became the most important place for pilgrims to go

the results of the murder
The results of the murder

Henry seemed to lose little as a result of his involvement in the murder.

  • Aspects 1 & 4 of the Constitutions of Clarendon were withdrawn
  • Appeals were allowed but only if no harm would result to king or kingdom.

In addition:

    • Henry retained tight control over elections to bishoprics and abbacies.
    • He continued to enjoy revenues from vacant sees.
    • The ban on excommunication of royal officials remained in place.
    • The King retained the right of veto over the entry of papal legates into England.
    • Advowsonsremained with lay rather than church courts.
    • Clerks had to prove they were genuine churchmen before a trial in a church court would be allowed to go ahead.
    • Clerical trials involving treason and forest laws remained in royal courts.
winner or loser
Winner or loser?
  • Henry was publicly humiliated and forced to back down
  • Historians generally agree that co-operation between church and state continued as before and the Church seemed to come to terms with the fact that it had two masters, pope and king.

Henry seemed to have got almost exactly what he wanted

what the historians say
What the historians say
  • Brooke (1971)
    • Henry’s purpose was to preserve what he believed were the inherited rights of kingship.
    • Becket was a proud, self-centred individual who believed he could do anything.
    • the Constitutions of Clarendon was defensive and necessary in the face of a church which was increasingly asserting its rights in the wake of the investiture contest.
    • Henry simply misjudged his man in as far as choosing an archbishop
  • Professor Barlow
    • Lays the blame squarely with Becket, whom he sees as a fool and a social climber; he could have compromised.
    • He was ridiculed by his peers because of his lack of learning and felt he had to prove himself.
    • He was out of his depth and did not have either the confidence or sufficient support to compromise.