Wednesday, December 29, 2010

December 29, 1170 – Bishop Thomas Becket Arrested

After a career of working tightly together as Chancellor and King, upon Becket’s appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury by Henry II of England, the two discovered a rift that drove them to be bitter enemies. They had once been close; Henry even placed his son in Becket’s household for his education. Henry sought control of his lands, both through Church and State. When Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury died, Henry took it as an opportunity to establish a trusted ally in one of the most powerful positions in the English Church.

Thomas Becket had grown from a fortunate position and constant guest in lordly houses, learning to ride and joust and receiving an excellent legal and canonical education. Upon his installation as archbishop, however, Becket shed his glamorous secular life and became something of an ascetic, even reportedly wearing the penitent hair shirt under his priestly robes. He immediately worked to strengthen the position of the Church, retaking lost land, disallowing Henry from collecting offerings, and excommunicating a royal tenant-in-chief after he refused to acknowledge Becket’s appointment of a clerk. The political rift split wide when Henry called a meeting with the Church heads to discuss canonical customs, and Becket led the bishops in refusing to attend.

Henry pulled his son from Becket’s house and lifted Becket’s many honors, and the diplomatic war erupted with Henry attempting to win favor of the bishops while Becket called on international support from Louis VII. Henry won as the bishops, even Becket, agreed to the customs of the Constitutions of Claredon, and then Becket broke favor by attempting to leave for France without permission. Becket fled into exile for six years. The Pope finally intervened, and Becket returned while many of his excommunications were absolved.

Only a few months later, Becket began a new round of excommunications as Henry’s son had been crowned junior-king by the Bishop of York, which was the right of the Bishop of Canterbury. Upon hearing the news, Henry said from his sickbed, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Four knights took his words as an order and hurried to Canterbury. Placing their weapons under a tree, they entered the cathedral and demanded Becket return with them to see the king. He refused, turned to run, and tripped over his vestments. The knights apprehended Becket and brought him back to Winchester.

Henry had Becket imprisoned and was found guilty of disobeying customs in trial in 1171. Becket was placed into a monastic cell, and, in 1173, Henry’s sons Henry the Younger and Richard rebelled against him in hopes of achieving their inheritances early (as well as at the mentoring of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine). Becket escaped and worked his way into Henry the Younger’s court. While the young brothers were strong in France with their mother’s lands, they did not have the guile to manage England, and Becket gave them the advice and subterfuge they needed to undercut their father’s support. The initial rebellion in 1173 had been met with failure, but 1174 won the rebellion for the brothers. They treated Becket literally as a godsend, and he was restored to Canterbury with great new powers.

Henry II went into forced retirement, and Henry the Younger (now III) went about repairing his father’s strained relations with the other Catholic kingdoms, especially France. Richard (called “The Lionhearted”) went on crusade to the Holy Land, liberating Cyprus and staying with his armies while Henry III ruled politically. Much of England’s social power, however, went into the hands of Becket, who set up his nation as a new stronghold and even persuaded Prince John to become Bishop of Canterbury upon Becket’s death in 1189.

The Church continued its firm ecclesiastical position in England as kings and bishops continued to vie for legal power, as did the many barons of the kingdom, though the former two kept the latter in place. One hundred years later, the two would grow even closer as Edward I would be sainted, much like the French St. Louis (King Louis IX). The Church would be instrumental sources of power for Richard III in the Rebellion of 1484. England remained a strong Catholic nation, acting against the Protestant armies of other northern Europe kings. In the 1700s, bids for religious freedom would deprive England of its colonies in North America as well as the Protestant lands of Scotland.

In reality, Thomas à Becket was assassinated as the knights returned with their weapons and reportedly dashed out his brains. He would be revered among Catholicism as a martyr and sainted soon after. In the Rebellion of 1173, Henry II would come to Canterbury and do penance for his part in the murder. He would defeat his sons; Henry the Younger died a decade later of dysentery while still in rebellion, and Richard and John later would become kings themselves. John would yield to the powers of the Church as well as the barons, for whom he would sign the Magna Carta.

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