‘Nothing in his Life Became him like the leaving it.’
Shakespeare has Prince Malcolm of Scotland utter this pithy comment about the Thane of Cawdor in his famous tragedy, Macbeth. This apophthegm could equally well apply to Archbishop Becket. Yesterday, 29th December, was the 840th anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Becket in Canterbury Cathedral: an anniversary still commemorated in the Church of England lectionary. Obviously no-one would excuse Becket’s brutal murder, but to still commemorate his martyrdom today would seem to be excessive.
Becket’s tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury in England lasted only just over two and a half years (May 1162-November 1164). He then spent just over six years in exile before returning to England in December 1170. During his lengthy exile, he managed to advance his clerical position by being appointed Papal Legate to England in 1166. Apart from this brief excursion into the clerical hierarchy he appears to have spent most of his time in exile deliberately antagonising Henry II, Henry II’s ministers and his fellow Bishops in England. Hardly the response of a saintly prelate. He wrote to Henry II in a discourteous manner. He excommunicated Richard de Lucy (one of Henry II’s co-justicars) in 1166. Becket also pursued a vendetta against Gilbert Foliot (Bishop of London). Becket then extended his clerical animus against the three bishops who had been involved in the coronation of ‘Henry III’ (Henry II’s heir) in July 1170. The latter action was against the compromise between Church and State which had led to Becket’s return to England in December 1170.
Not unnaturally, Becket’s rancorous actions upset Henry II. According to a reliable contemporary chronicler, William of Newburgh, Henry II, then in Normandy, ‘waxed furious and indignant beyond measure’. Even so, William of Newburgh also stated that Becket should have acted ‘with greater leniency’. Four knights then left Henry’s court in Normandy and slipped over to Canterbury, and, of their own volition, brutally murdered Becket in his own Cathedral, thereby making their crime even more heinous. This atrocity placed Henry II in a quandary because, as William of Newburgh expressed it, ‘whether he pardoned the murderers or not, men would only be ready to think evil of him’. William of Newburgh’s comments are prescient. Even today, ill-informed people are still too ready to think evil of Henry II and blame him for Becket’s martyrdom. This one event has overshadowed Henry II’s glorious achievements as King of England between 1154 and 1189, such as his involvement, in 1170, with the important Inquest of Sheriffs, a vital contribution to the development of English Common Law.
Perhaps the continued presence of Archbishop Becket in the Anglican lectionary has helped to perpetuate the less than illustrious reputation of Henry II. Bishop Foliot was going too far when he stated that Becket ‘was a fool and always will be’. Becket is a clerical icon, but in reality a flawed icon. Malcolm of Scotland whose words began this post was the great grandfather of Henry II, and I am sure he would have applied his famous epithet to Archbishop Becket.