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Henry II vs. Thomas Becket

Many eyes throughout history have zoomed in on the conflict between the English king, Henry II, and the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. The arguments and the horrible death of Becket make this a very interesting time in history. Most observers are unaware of this conflict was the reflection of what was happening in mainland Europe between the Church and the State.

The Church was desperately trying to increase the power it had throughout all Christendom. This led to many disputes over where the boundaries of the Church’s authority lay and where that of the kings and rulers ended. Tradition became the murky waters that caused much turbulence. One of the greatest struggles was between Pope Gregory VII and the Germanic king Henry II. Henry refused to give up the tradition of choosing the clergy in his realm. The Church demanded that it was their right only to make such decisions. Verbal battles commenced with both sides having to concede in order to save face while refusing to change their stances.(1) To quote the Pope: “But if he shall presume to do so he shall clearly know that such investiture is bereft of apostolic authority, and that he himself shall lie under excommunication until fitting satisfaction shall have been rendered.” (2)

Drama was not amiss in this struggle, but only in England could the true colors be seen of what was lying beneath the surface of the Church-State struggle for power. Henry’s fights with Becket grew to alarming proportions. Things might not have progressed so far if the Pope was not focused so intently on the actions of the German king. This left England alone to fight the same battle on a different field. Becket wanted to “limit the king’s authority over the English church.” (3) Though the principle was the same, the issue at hand in England was not over the appointment of clergy. It was over who was to be the judge of the clergy. Becket firmly believed that any clergy who was accused of a crime should be tried by ecclesiastical courts. Henry believed that they should be tried by the royal courts. (4)

The heart of the matter was no different than that being fought between the Pope and the German King. How far it went stopped the papacy and other in their tracks. In frustration Henry wished that Becket was out of the picture and not troubling him anymore. A few knights decided that this would be the perfect time to please the king. They entered the church at Canterbury and slew the archbishop in the position of prayer. All were shocked, including Henry who was just venting his frustration. The situation in England had gone further than anywhere else, but it was a sign of what was to come if both sides did not reign their tongues in.


(1) Norman F. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1994), 268-271.
(2) Gregory VII, “Lay Investitures Forbidden 1080” Internet Medieval Sourcebook, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/g7-reform2.html, (accessed March 14, 2011)
(3) Cantor, 399.
(4) Ibid, 400.

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