The Lion’s Roar: Anger in the Dispute between Henry II and Thomas Becket
By Meghan Woolley
Master’s Thesis, University of St Andrews, 2014
Introduction: The dispute between King Henry II of England and Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, is one of the most memorable episodes of the twelfth century. Becket’s murder, a shocking event that left the floor of Canterbury Cathedral splattered with blood and brains, catapulted the archbishop into sainthood and lasting historical memory. The king’s anger has a prominent place in almost all accounts of the murder. When Becket, almost immediately after making peace with Henry, issued excommunications of a number of English bishops, the king lost his temper. According to popular oral tradition, he exclaimed, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” which four of his knights interpreted as a mandate to kill the archbishop. In the years to come, Henry’s anger would be cast as the primary cause of Becket’s death. Royal anger did play a significant role throughout the conflict, but that anger was more nuanced than most narratives of Becket’s murder suggest. Henry and others around him used anger to intimidate, coerce, and manipulate. The purpose of this paper will be to analyze representations of anger in the sources on Becket’s life and the place of anger in the dispute, and to assess what that suggests about understandings and uses of anger in twelfth-century English politics.
Before Becket was archbishop of Canterbury, he was Henry’s chancellor and, according to many sources, his close friend. Although many in the ecclesiastical community considered Becket too worldly to be an archbishop, in 1162 Henry forced through his election, hoping that Becket would support him in his efforts to reclaim the rights and customs he attributed to his grandfather, Henry I. However, in what struck some contemporaries as a miraculous conversion, Becket swiftly resigned the chancellorship and began to assert his commitment to defending church rights. He resisted multiple of Henry’s objectives, most notably to try in secular courts clerics who had committed serious crimes and to have English bishops confirm the “customs” of the realm. The argument came to a head in October, 1164, when Henry had Becket tried for embezzlement at Northampton. The behavior of the king and his retinue became increasingly threatening towards Becket until, perhaps fearing for his life, the archbishop fled across the Channel into exile.
In June of 1170, Henry and Becket reached a cautious peace that avoided any mention of the customs that had heretofore prevented reconciliation. Becket returned to England in November, and before he had even landed, he issued excommunications against the bishops who had participated in the coronation of Henry’s son, a privilege traditionally reserved for the archbishop of Canterbury. These excommunications infuriated Henry, leading four knights to enter Canterbury Cathedral on December 29th, 1170. When Becket refused to lift the excommunications and resisted arrest, the knights killed him with successive sword blows to the head. It was a horrific murder that would earn the previously controversial archbishop sainthood in less than three years.