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Murder in the Cathedral – Legal Dispute Turned Deadly

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We have written several “today in history posts” recently and this is another.  Today, December 29, is the 847th anniversary of the murder of Thomas Becket in his cathedral in Canterbury, England.  This date is also his feast day in the Roman Catholic calendar of saints.

I previously wrote about Thomas Becket and the origins of his feud with Henry II in a post about the Constitutions of Clarendon.  The Constitutions were issued in 1164 and were one of the reasons for the rupture between Thomas and Henry II.  Their quarrel centered on disagreements about the right of the clergy to appeal directly to Rome and the issue of clerical immunity.  Also under dispute was the issue of whether the archbishop needed to notify the king before excommunicating one of the king’s vassals.  Several months after the issuance of the Constitutions, in October 1164, Becket fled England for France.  But during the six years of his exile, he and Henry continued to wage a legal battle over the precedence of civil versus canon law, part of the medieval struggle between church and state.

Becket liberally used the tools available to him as prelate in the church to fight back.  His main two weapons from the canon law arsenal were interdicts and excommunications.  Excommunications were issued against individuals.  In addition to cutting them off from all church services, excommunication was also meant to cut them off from all social contact.  To associate with someone who was excommunicated was forbidden, although if the excommunicate was a king, his nobles might overlook the danger of this association.  In the 12th century, an interdict was an ecclesiastical censure or a ban which limited a person or the people in a certain geographical region from participating in church services.  An interdict was less severe than an excommunication and the dying would still receive extreme unction.  The celebration of major feast days was also permitted, but baptisms, confession, marriage and the regular celebration of the mass would be suspended.  Although this may not seem very terrible today, in the Middle Ages, the church and religious services were the center of life.  The suspension of church services would often pressure kings into agreeing with the church’s directives to spare their people the suffering brought about by an interdict.

While Becket hurled interdict and excommunication at various members of Henry’s court, including the Bishop of Salisbury in 1166 and the Bishop of London in 1169, Henry retaliated by expelling all Becket’s family from England and confiscating his estates which were his means of generating revenue.  Although several attempts were made at mediating a peace between Henry and Becket, an agreement was not reached until 1170, six years after the quarrel began.  The impetus for the agreement was the crowning of the Young King, Henry II’s heir, by Geoffrey, Archbishop of York.  Traditionally, kings were to be crowned by the Archbishops of Canterbury and after this assault on the prestige of his title, Becket came to terms with Henry in July 1170.  Despite this supposed truce, in December, when Becket returned to England, he immediately excommunicated several English bishops including Geoffrey.  It is believed that in response to the news of this action, Henry uttered his famous phrase, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?”  Unfortunately, four of his knights decided to implement a literal solution to the problem and on December 29, 1170 they brutally murdered Becket.

For a dispute that was centered on the definition of the legal rights of the church in England versus the rights of the king, this was a particularly bloody end to the argument.  However, disputes between kings and clergy in the Middle Ages were not quiet affairs – the 11th century disagreements between Pope Gregory VII and the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV had led to depositions, battles and exile for both protagonists.

Canterbury Cathedral. Choir Looking East. [London] ; [Tunbridge Wells] : [The Photochrom Co., Ltd.], [ca. 1890-1906]. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division,

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