The murder of Archbishop
During the reign of Henry II the issue of Canterbury’s claim to primacy was inextricably tied to Archbishop Thomas Becket whose turbulent relationship with the King made things way more complicated than they needed to be. In 1163 both Becket and Roger de Pont l’Evȇque, the Archbishop of York, attended a papally convened council at Tours and argued over who was to be seated senior to whom. After three wasted days of arguing, Pope Alexander III placed them in places of equal dignity which was a loss to Canterbury’s claim of primacy. To add insult to injury, the following year Alexander named Roger a papal legate though he exempted Becket’s archdiocese from Roger’s legatine authority. When Alexander did declare Canterbury to be Primate in 1166, Roger—as papal legate—still held senior honors. Three weeks later Becket also was named a papal legate, but his authority did not extend over Roger’s Archdiocese. This left matters somewhat at a draw as far as Roger and Becket personally were concerned, but in fact gave Becket’s Archdiocese a leg up with a recognized primacy. Roger’s legateship would expire on his death, as would Becket’s, but the primacy did not expire but passed down to the succeeding archbishops.
Roger infuriated Becket four years after Canterbury was named a primatial see when he, Roger, crowned Henry’s son, Henry, King. This was in the midst of Becket’s dispute with King Henry and although it was not an unusual practice at the time to crown the successor while the king still lived, King Henry had explicitly designed the coronation of the prince by the Archbishop of York to be a slap at Becket as it was Canterbury’s prerogative to crown the monarch.
Roger for his part aggravated Becket further by having his (Roger’s) archepiscopal cross carried before him wherever he was in England. This practice has been discontinued only recently in the Vatican II reforms, but historically a bishop had a second processional cross carried immediately before him in a procession in his own diocese. An Archbishop would have the cross, in this case specially designed with two crossbars, carried before him throughout his province—that is, in the dioceses suffragen to him. By having his archepiscopal cross carried before him not only in his own Province of York but also in the Canterbury Province, Roger was claiming a jurisdiction in Becket’s territory. Finally Pope Alexander had to intervene and demand that Roger stop this provocation.
The battle of the crosses continued, however, under the successors of Roger and Becket, Geoffrey of York and Hubert Walter of Canterbury. Each had his cross carried before him in the other’s province as well as his own and each appealed to King Richard, Henry’s son and heir, for the authority to do so. Richard declined and referred the matter to Rome. It was only in the fourteenth century when the Avignon Pope, Innocent VI (1352-62) confirmed the right of each prelate to have the cross carried before him throughout England and gave York the title: Primate of England while giving Canterbury the slightly higher title: Primate of All England. After the schism under Henry VIII, Parliament enacted a bill giving Canterbury the higher position. And so it still stands. The chief winner in this dispute between Canterbury and York was the papacy to which both appealed and which used those appeals to further establish papal power over matters in the English Church.