The stone in the pavement of Canterbury
Cathedral that marks the site of the
martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket
Medieval canon law, recognized by the King and his law as governing the Church, exempted members of the clergy from royal justice and mandated they be tried in Church courts. In other words, there were two parallel legal systems. If a layman stole a cow or killed his brother-in-law he was tried in the King’s Court and punished by the King’s court. If a member of the clergy stole a cow or murdered his brother-in-law he was tried and punished by Church courts. As Church courts were limited in their ability to punish grave crimes—they could only impose sentences of fines, flogging, loss of clerical state and office, and excommunication—the King was not convinced they could adequately punish—or deter—grave crimes. Moreover, clerical privilege applied not only to bishops. Priests, and deacons but to any man who had been tonsured as well as monks, nuns, friars, hermits (both monastic and lay), pilgrims and anyone who lived “under the protection of the Church.” There were many men who had been tonsured—subdeacons, acolytes, lectors, sacristans, clerks in minor orders, as well as most university professors and even students. Probably 15% or more of the adult population qualified for Church protection. Many of these men—the majority in fact—had no intention of ever advancing to higher orders or Church ministry. In addition to the problem of clerical exemption for the King’s justice, there were other issues where royal authority was coming into conflict with the Church or papal authority. Some of these matters concerned appointment to certain church posts, what happened to church revenues during the vacancy of an ecclesiastical post, the right of a bishop to appeal over and against the King to the Pope and various other issues. In 1164 King Henry issued a charter of 16 provisions called the Constitutions of Clarendon. They were meant to regulate the conflicting authorities of the Crown and the Church. Needless to say, they regulated them in favor of the Crown but to the modern ear, even the Catholic ear, they do not sound unreasonable. They did not sound unreasonable to the Bishops and Abbots of England who, with one exception, approved them. They did, however, sound unreasonable to Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of England. Becket refused to accept the royal decree and for that was tried for contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in his office as Lord Chancellor. Becket fled to France before he could be apprehended. Louis VII of France, an enemy of Henry, was only too happy to give refuge to the exiled Archbishop. Becket spent six years in exile before Pope Alexander III was able to negotiate a compromise between King and Archbishop that allowed Becket to return to his see.
Henry was a proud man and demanded a humiliation of Becket in return for his having had to accept the Archbishop back on more or less Becket’s own terms. Henry arranged that his eldest son should be crowned king in June 1170. This was not unusual in the central Middle Ages—the crowning of the “young king” while the old one was still alive and well. In fact, Henry the Father would outlive Henry the Son by six years. The point of a coronation, somewhat strangely, is not the crowning but the anointing. The anointing with sacred chrism confers a special character on the monarch with the scriptural admonition: “Touch not the Lord’s anointed” (1 Chronicles 16:22). While a second coronation would often be held when old king had died, having the heir in place, crowned, and anointed was seen to provide for a smooth transition. So Henry the Father arranged for Henry the Son to be crowned with all due pomp at Westminster Abbey. Henry invited the Archbishop of York, assisted by the bishops of London and Salisbury, to do the honors. But the honor of crowning the monarch belonged by right to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket. Becket—for his revenge—excommunicated Roger de Pont l’Évȇque of York, Gilbert Foliot of London, and Josceline de Bohon of Salisbury for usurping his, Becket’s, right to crown the king. The bishops, all political enemies of Becket, fled to Henry who was at the time in Normandy. Becket was on a roll and went on to excommunicate several of the King’s nobles who had committed offenses against the Church, including one who had, in violation of the Church’s right to administer justice to its own, arrested a priest, tried him for murder (outside a Church Court) and hung him. These excommunications were seen as challenges to Henry and his authority. Shortly after Christmas 1170, Henry, probably under the influence of too much wine, exasperated “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their Lord the King be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?” Four knights, overzealous to win the royal favor, immediately set out, crossed the channel, and arrived at Canterbury on December 29, 1170. They were Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, and Richard de Brito. They forced their way into the cathedral where they confronted Becket on his way to vespers and in the ensuing scuffle killed the Archbishop.
The murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury was not initially to the political advantage of the Crown. Henry treated the matter lightly, advising the knights to flee to Scotland where Henry could not reach them so that he would not have to punish them. Their property escheated to the Crown but Henry seems to have allowed them to continue to receive their incomes from their lands. Pope Alexander III excommunicated them several months later, however, and the King was unable to protect them from the papal sanctions. All four were ordered to go on Crusade to the Holy Land. None seem to have returned. Henry, though not personally excommunicated (though his lands were for a while placed under interdict), was sentenced by the Pope to go on Crusade. Henry agreed but never, in fact, went. By the Compromise of Avranches Henry permitted the English Church to appeal over royal authority to the Pope—thus expanding papal power in England. He also annulled the Constitutions of Clarendon and restored the authority of Church courts to punish members of the clergy. In other words, Henry lost the battle with Becket, but he still managed to win the war. Henry managed to “spin” the cult of the martyred Archbishop to his own benefit and by his accepting his penances and then building shrines to the Becket and furthering the cult of the martyred Archbishop, actually became the hero of the story in the popular imagination rather than the villain. Henry was far more cynical than he was pious but his strategy worked. The conflict with Becket was a political misstep and Henry was unable to push back on the expansion of papal power in England, but he emerged all the stronger nonetheless. His son, King John, would squander that heritage and lose even more power to Rome.