Thomas Becket and Henry II (Classroom Activity)

When Henry II became king in 1154, he asked Archbishop Theobald of Bec for advice on choosing his government ministers. On the suggestion of Theobald, Henry appointed Thomas Becket as his chancellor. Becket's job was an important one as it involved the distribution of royal charters, writs and letters. People declared that "they had but one heart and one mind". The king and Becket soon became close friends.

When Theobald of Bec died in 1162, Henry chose Becket as his next Archbishop of Canterbury. The decision angered many leading churchmen. They pointed out that Becket had never been a priest, and had a reputation as a cruel military commander when he fought against the French king Louis VII.

Becket was also very materialistic (he loved expensive food, wine and clothes). His critics also feared that as Becket was a close friend of Henry II, he would not be an independent leader of the church. At first Becket refused the post: "I know your plans for the Church, you will assert claims which I, if I were archbishop, must needs oppose." Henry insisted and he was ordained priest on 2nd June, 1162, and consecrated bishop the next day.

Herbert of Bosham claims that after being appointed as archbishop, Thomas Becket began to show a concern for the poor. Every morning thirteen poor people were brought to his home. After washing their feet Becket served them a meal. He also gave each one of them four silver pennies. John of Salisbury believed that Becket sent food and clothing to the homes of the sick, and that he doubled Theobald's expenditure on the poor.

Instead of wearing expensive clothes, Becket now wore a simple monastic habit. As a penance (punishment for previous sins) he slept on a cold stone floor, wore a tight-fitting hair-shirt that was infested with fleas and was scourged (whipped) daily by his monks.

In January, 1163, after a long spell in France, Henry II arrived back in England. Henry was told that, while he had been away, there had been a dramatic increase in serious crime. The king's officials claimed that over a hundred murderers had escaped their proper punishment because they had claimed their right to be tried in church courts. Those that had sought the privilege of a trial in a Church court were not exclusively clergymen. Any man who had been trained by the church could choose to be tried by a church court. Even clerks who had been taught to read and write by the Church but had not gone on to become priests had a right to a Church court trial. This was to an offender's advantage, as church courts could not impose punishments that involved violence such as execution or mutilation.

The king decided that clergymen found guilty of serious crimes should be handed over to his courts. At first, the Archbishop agreed with Henry on this issue and in January 1164, Henry published the Clarendon Constitution. After talking to other church leaders Becket changed his mind. Henry was furious when Becket began to assert that the church should retain control of punishing its own clergy. The king believed that Becket had betrayed him and was determined to obtain revenge.

Primary Sources

Thomas Becket
(Source 1) Illustration from the book, Life of St. Thomas. The picture
shows Becket denouncing the Clarendon Constitution (c.1210)

(2) William FitzStephen, The Life of Thomas Becket (c. 1190)

One day they (King Henry II and Thomas Becket) were riding together through the streets of London. It was a hard winter and the king noticed an old man coming towards them, poor and clad in a thin and ragged coat. "Do you see that man? ... How poor he is, how frail, and how scantily clad!" said the king. '"Would it not be an act of charity to give him a thick warm cloak." "It would indeed... my king." Meanwhile the poor man drew near; the king stopped, and the chancellor with him. The king greeted him pleasantly and asked him if he would like a good cloak... The king said to the chancellor, "You shall have the credit for this act of charity," and laying hands on the chancellor's hood tried to pull off his cape, a new and very good one of scarlet and grey, which he was unwilling to part with... both of them had their hands fully occupied, and more than once seemed likely to fall off their horses. At last the chancellor reluctantly allowed the king to overcome him. The king then explained what had happened to his attendants. They all laughed loudly.

(Source 3) Thomas Becket in a letter to Henry II (1166)

There are two principles by which the world is ruled: the authority of priests and the royal power. The authority of priests is the greater because God will demand an accounting of them even in regard to kings.

(Source 4) Bishop Gilbert Foliot to Thomas Becket at their meeting at Clarendon (1164)

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.

(Source 5) Clarendon Constitution (January, 1164)

1. If a controversy arise between laymen, or between laymen and clerks, or between clerks concerning patronage and presentation of churches, it shall be treated or concluded in the court of the lord king.

2. Churches of the lord king's fee cannot be permanently bestowed without his consent and grant.

3. Clerks charged and accused of any matter, summoned by the king's justice, shall come into his court to answer there to whatever it shall seem to the king's court should be answered there; and in the church court to what it seems should be answered there; however the king's justice shall send into the court of holy Church for the purpose of seeing how the matter shall be treated there. And if the clerk be convicted or confess, the church ought not to protect him further.

4. It is not permitted the archbishops, bishops, and priests of the kingdom to leave the kingdom without the lord king's permission. And if they do leave they are to give security, if the lord king please, that they will seek no evil or damage to king or kingdom in going, in making their stay, or in returning.

Thomas Becket
(Source 6) Thomas Becket visiting King Louis VII (Trinity Chapel Canterbury Cathedral)


(Source 7) Edward Grim, Life of Thomas Becket (c. 1180)

Who can count the number of persons he (Becket) did to death, the number whom he deprived of all their possessions. Surrounded by a strong force of knights, he attacked whole regions. He destroyed cities and towns, put manors and farms to the torch without a thought of pity.

(Source 8) Herbert of Bosham, Life of Thomas Becket (c. 1188)

The king (Henry II) demanded that the clergy seized or convicted of great crimes should be deprived of the protection of the Church and handed over to his officers, adding that they would be less likely to do evil if... they were subjected to physical punishment.

(Source 9) Conservation between Henry II and Thomas Becket, quoted by Roger of Pontigny in his book Life of Thomas Becket. (c. 1176)

King Henry II: Have I not raised you from the poor and humble to the summit of honour and rank?... How can it be that after so many favours... that you are not only ungrateful but oppose me in everything.

Thomas Becket: I am not unmindful of the favours which, not simply you, but God the giver of all things has decided to confer on me through you... as St Peter says, 'We ought to obey God rather than men."

King Henry II: I don't want a sermon from you: are you not the son of one of my villeins?

Thomas Becket: It is true that I am not of royal lineage; but then, neither was St Peter.

(Source 10) Andreas Trevisano, Italian ambassador to England between 1497 and 1502.

If the criminal (in England) can read, he asks to defend himself by the book... if he can read it he is liberated from the power of the law, and given as a clerk into the hands of the bishop.

(Source 11) William FitzStephen, The Life of Thomas Becket (c. 1190)

Clad in a hair-shirt of the roughest kind which reached to his knees and swarmed with vermin, he punished his flesh with the sparest diet, and his main drink was water... He often exposed his naked back to the lash.

Questions for Students

Question 1: Give as many reasons as you can why Henry II appointed Thomas Becket as (a) chancellor; (b) archbishop of Canterbury.

Question 2: How did Becket's behaviour change after he was appointed archbishop of Canterbury? Give some possible reasons for these changes.

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

Question 4: Why did Henry II issue the Clarendon Constitution in 1164? Give as many reasons as you can for Henry's decision.

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

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.