Day 197: The Accidental Assassination of Thomas Becket

I’ve been reading up on some English monarchs lately since I realised that I knew nothing about them, when I happened upon this little tidbit. I had no idea Thomas Becket was accidentally assassinated. Becket was famously the Archbishop of Canterbury during the 12th century. This was during the reign of Henry II. They had quite a cantankerous relationship, strained by all of the usual issues between church and state at that time: Investiture and the question of who held the ultimate power in the earthly realm, clergy or king.

Anyway, in 1170 Henry II was feeling particularly shot with ol’ Tommy B, and was whinging about him to anyone who would listen, reportedly lamenting “Oh who will rid me of this troublesome priest?”* The knights who were attending to him took this as a thinly veiled order from the king to murder the bastard once and for all, so they proceeded to head down to Canterbury and murder the bastard once and for all.

“Two words Mr. President: plausible deniability.”

As far as public executions of annoying Archbishops go, this one was hideously unpopular. Becket was seen as a martyr and almost immediately canonized, and Henry, despite having deniability, created enough ill-will to help many barons and the like decide to support the rebellion against him. This rebellion, by the way, was The Great Revolt, lead by Henry’s sons and his own wife. Awkward.

But the Becket saga didn’t end there. In the mother of all PR turnarounds, Henry managed to regain public opinion by making a big display of walking to Canossa Canterbury, prostrating himself at the tomb of Thomas Becket and begging his forgiveness. He even had himself flogged over and over by the priests as penance. The next day King William of Scotland, one of the main rebels, was captured by Henry’s men, and the tide of the entire revolt turned back in the king’s favour. Coincidence? Je pense pas!

Henry may have survived this rebellion, but his entire reign was plagued by revolts from various members of his immediate family. He died while campaigning against his oldest surviving son at the time, Richard (the future Lionheart). Henry’s obvious preference for his younger son John over Richard had fuelled the latter’s habitual wars against his father, so when the news reached a critically-ill Henry that John had joined forces with his brother against him, it broke Henry’s heart and he died days later. This was a man who never stopped fighting with his own children, right up to his last breath. Sad.

* Even more sad, the phrase “Oh who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” is almost certainly apocryphal. But we will never know what exact words were used in a tbousand year old conversation, so I’m going with the fairytale version because it sounds cool. It gives you a pretty good picture of the story anyway, which is all I’m trying to do. Cool Stories of History, by Stacey O.

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