This Meddlesome Priest: The Archbishop Goes to Congress

Things had not gone well for Henry II, these past few months, especially when it came to his relationship with the one person who, arguably, held more authority than he did, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Beckett.

A decade before, when Beckett served as the King’s Chancellor, his responsibilities included collecting tribute from across the Kingdom, including taxes assessed on churches and Dioceses. But the longer Beckett served as Lord Chancellor, the more disturbed he became about the crushing burden of the royal assessments on the Church’s ability to do its ministry. Nevertheless, he did his job, by all accounts, superbly.

He was so good that, when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobold Bec (who may have been a relative of Beckett’s), died in 1162, it was Beckett who was nominated to succeed him, in spite of the fact that he was not a priest. But he was ordained a few weeks later and consecrated as a Bishop, and in fact, the Archbishop, second in authority in the English Church only to the Pope himself.

That’s when things between Henry and Thomas began to fall apart. Henry expected that Beckett would stay on a Chancellor and thus subsume the political office into the religious one. But Beckett was going through a spiritual transformation, and took vows as an ascetic. He was no longer interested in serving as the King’s tax collector, choosing to focus on renewing the Church spiritually.


The Assassination of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.        Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Beckett wanted the Archbishopric to return to its traditional authority over the Kingdom. Henry wanted a fawning acolyte. Their relationship frayed, badly, until Henry instituted the Constitutions of Clarendon in January 1164. This document set up a weakened clerical status, and even more importantly to Beckett, a weaker connection to Rome.

While the rest of the clergy eventually capitulated to the King, Beckett refused to sign it. In October 1164, he was charged and convicted of contempt and corruption and fled to France for several years. After the intervention of the Pope, Beckett returned to Canterbury, but his relationship to the King never recovered.

Things completely fell apart in the summer of 1170 when Henry ordered three Bishops to crown the heir apparent, Henry the Younger, in a slap at the authority of Beckett over the Crown. Beckett excommunicated the three Bishops and the King was furious. That led Beckett to start wholesale excommunications of anyone who supported the Crown’s independence from the authority of Canterbury.

In a fit of royal rage, Henry uttered the words that would change the history of both Church and Crown in England. We are not sure exactly what they were, but the traditional version is: “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

Four knights took the King’s hope and heard a directive and on December 29, inside the Canterbury Cathedral, as he was preparing for vespers, they assassinated the meddlesome priest in front of the high altar. Henry was finally rid of him.

But Beckett’s reputation was sterling, unlike the authoritarian and reckless King. The cult of Beckett grew after his death and he was canonized as a saint less than two years later. The Knights were never tried for his death, but were ordered to serve as Knights in the Holy Lands for fourteen years by the Pope.

All’s well that ends well, I suppose.

So why should you care about this terrible incident from a thousand years ago? Because today, in a Senate hearing, Henry took center stage. The former Director of the FBI, James Comey, brought him up when asked by Senator Angus King of Maine if the President of the united States had directed him to stop an investigation into whether or not the former Director of the National Security Council had committed treason.

“I hope you will let this thing go,” Comey testified that the President told him. And just like those four errant Knights, Comey heard that as an order.

“Do you take that as a directive?” King asked.

“Yes,” said Comey. “It rings in my ears as kind of ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’”

Comey did not give into the President’s hopes and the investigative wheels are still turning. But the implication was clear: the President was pressuring the nation’s top cop to drop an investigation of the most serious sort.

We don’t know where this will end. But it probably will not end well for America.

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