Thomas Becket and Henry II (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Thomas Becket and Henry II

Q1: Give as many reasons as you can why Henry II appointed Thomas Becket as (a) chancellor; (b) archbishop of Canterbury.

A1: (a) When Henry became king he asked Archbishop Theobald for advice on choosing his government ministers. As Henry had spent most of his life in France he did not know much about the abilities of the different candidates. Henry also wanted to show the Church he was willing to listen to the advice of its leaders. When Theobald suggested that his friend and colleague, Thomas Becket, should become chancellor, Henry agreed.

(b) Henry was pleased with Thomas Becket's performance as chancellor. The two men became close friends and Henry became convinced that he would always be able to count on Becket's loyalty. As the the archbishop of Canterbury held a considerable amount of power and influence in England, Henry was keen to appoint someone who he could trust. As Thomas Becket was his closest friend, he decided he would be the best man for the job.

Q2: How did Becket's behaviour change after he was appointed archbishop of Canterbury? Give some possible reasons for these changes.

A2: Before he became archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket had a reputation for being a cruel military commander and having expensive tastes in food, wine and clothes. Becket was also a close friend of Henry II. Many people claimed that Thomas Becket was the wrong man to lead the Church in England. Becket was determined to show that his critics were wrong. He began to give away his money to the poor. Becket also changed his expensive clothes for a simple monastic habit. He also punished himself for the sins he committed while he was Henry's chancellor (source 11). Becket also showed that he was an independent leader of the church when he disagreed with Henry's policy on church courts.

Q3: Study sources 3 and 4. Did Foliot and Becket agree about the authority of kings?

A3: Thomas Becket believed that the authority of priests was greater than the authority of kings. He used this argument to justify his opposition to Henry II's attempts to reduce the power of church courts. Bishop Foliot, on the other hand, believed that everybody, including priests, had to do what their king told them: "These hands, these arms, even these bodies are not ours; they are our lord king's, and they are ready at his will whatever it may be."

Q4: Why did Henry II issue the Clarendon Constitution in 1164? Give as many reasons as you can for Henry's decision.

A4: Henry was very concerned about the number of people who could demand to be tried by church courts rather than by his courts. As Henry made money from his courts, he had economic reasons for wanting to reduce the number of people appearing before church courts. Henry was also worried about the increase in serious crime. People found guilty in church courts suffered less severe punishment than in other courts. Henry believed that if he were able to punish clerics found guilty in church courts, it would deter other clerics from committing serious crimes in the future.

Q5: Study sources 5, 8 and 10. Describe the changes that took place to church courts between the 12th and 14th centuries.

A5: Source 5 explains how Henry II's demanded that "clergy seized or convicted of great crimes should be deprived of the protection of the Church". Source 8 illustrates how after 1164 clergy convicted of serious crimes had to appear in the king's courts. However, source 10, shows that by 1500, the clergy were once again protected from the king's courts.