The Corner

Thomas Becket and the Church–State Conflict

The U.S. publication of the new biography Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, by John Guy, could not be more fortunately timed: The recent controversy over the changing of HHS rules in a way that erodes previous protections for religious freedom has put the issue of church–state conflict near the top of the American agenda.

We all grew up with the story of the angry King Henry II thundering to his associates, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” As Guy points out, this phrasing is apocryphal. More reliable reports render what the king said as follows: “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and promoted in my realm, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a lowborn clerk!” Another version: “How many cowardly, useless drones have I nourished that not even a single one is willing to avenge me of the wrongs I have suffered!” King Henry’s men got the message. (Which, incidentally, makes the assassination of Becket the first recorded instance of an executive-ordered drone strike against a domestic opponent.)

The fate of the four assassins offers a cautionary tale about power and loyalty. Far from rewarding their deed, King Henry soon turned on them, and they ended their lives in exile; in the words of a chronicler cited by Guy, they “spent out their lives” in the East, “in fasting, vigils, prayers, and lamentations.” Just two decades after their assassination of Becket, a visitor to Jerusalem found their graves there, with the epitaph “Here lie those wretches who martyred the Blessed Thomas, archbishop of Canterbury.”

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