On December 29, 1170, four knights of King Henry II of England murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury (the highest ecclesiastical office in England) Thomas Beckett, right there in the cathedral, just eight days after his birthday.
The knights had carried out the heinous act, not on the command of the king, but his misplaced words. He had said “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’’
Beckett had resisted the reforms Henry wanted to carry out in the Church of England and this had displeased the king. When he said those words, he never meant to have him killed but removed from his position. After Beckett’s death, Henry was forced to recognize him as a martyr.
Beckett and Henry II had only just resolved their differences over the Constitutions of Clarendon which Beckett claimed to have agreed with in substance but refused to sign.
Returning to Canterbury, Beckett became enraged when he learned that the Archbishop of York and the Bishops of London and Salisbury had crowned Henry II’s heir, Henry the Young King, violating Canterbury’s Privilege of Coronation.
He excommunicated the three bishops and then began excommunicating others of his enemies. Upon hearing of his new troubles with Beckett, Henry is supposed to have thrown up his hands and exclaimed: “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” Four of his knights interpreted this as a royal command, journeyed to Canterbury and murdered Beckett in his cathedral.
Beckett had not been particularly popular in life even with his fellow churchmen, but in martyrdom he became a symbol of the independent church.
Henry II almost certainly did not want him murdered. He was too intelligent and capable of a politician to think that murdering an archbishop could help his cause. But he was saddled with the blame for the crime and did penance for it before brilliantly turning Beckett into a posthumous saintly supporter and patron of his house during a rebellion against him in 1174.
On 21 February 1173—little more than two years after his death—Beckett was canonised by Pope Alexander III in St Peter’s Church in Segni. On 12 July 1174, in the midst of the Revolt of 1173–74, Henry humbled himself with public penance at Becket’s tomb as well as at the church of St. Dunstan’s, which became one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in England.
Becket’s assassins fled north to Knaresborough Castle, which was held by Hugh de Morville, where they remained for about a year. They were not arrested and neither did Henry confiscate their lands, but he failed to help them when they sought his advice in August 1171.
Pope Alexander excommunicated all four. Seeking forgiveness, the assassins travelled to Rome and were ordered by the Pope to serve as knights in the Holy Lands for a period of fourteen years.
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Careless words can hurt people. Not only can they influence a person’s self-worth, they can actually shape that person’s destiny. If we are uncertain, let us consider these two stories:
One day in a small county church in the Orient, an altar boy accidentally dropped the communion wine. The officiating priest slapped him and shouted, “Leave, and don’t come back!” That boy became General Tito, the brutal communist dictator who ruled the people of Yugoslavia for years.
About the same time in a big city cathedral in the Occident another altar boy dropped the communion wine. The priest turned to him and whispered reassuringly, “It’s okay, someday you will be a great priest.” That boy became Archbishop Fulton Sheen, whose sermons touched the heart of millions on national television in America.
Our words either build people up or tear them down and here is a truth we don’t like to acknowledge; what comes out of our lips reveal what’s in our hearts.
Have a historical week ahead.
Unbowed! Unbent! Unbroken!
A Perfect Gentleman…