Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The problem of the relation between the church of Jesus Christ in the world and the secular state has always been a vexing one, but never more so than in the Middle Ages. Beginning with the fall of Rome and the destruction of the Roman Empire in the West, the Roman Catholic Church began to gather to itself power and authority not only in ecclesiastical affairs, but also in affairs of the state. And as the pope of Rome increasingly set himself up as the head of the church, so he began to promote himself also as the head of the secular state. It was increasingly the teachings of popes that Christ had given them all authority on earth in every sphere of life. In the church, the lower clergy, such as cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and priests, were the men through whom popes exercised their authority; but in the state, kings and princes were the men through whom the pope ruled. All owed their allegiance to him; all were responsible to him; all were subject to his control. The pope could crown kings and depose kings as he saw fit.
For a while this sort of view was made to stick in Europe and many powerful monarchs bowed in obedience to papal claims. But as the nations developed in power and national independence, Europe’s kings were not all that willing always to do what the popes said. And so conflict arose over these questions.
While these conflicts were realities in many different lands, they came to a head in Great Britain; and Thomas Becket, strange man that he was, stood in the very center of these struggles and was an example of how fierce and bitter these struggles were.
Although both popes and kings wanted power, there. were several key issues which again and again became occasions for controversy. One of these issues was whether or not clergy who were guilty of civil crimes could be tried in civil courts. The pope said; No; the kings said, Yes. The kings argued that even clergy were subject to the law of the land; the popes said that as members of the clergy they ere exempt from such laws.
Another issue was the “investiture” of bishops and archbishops: Who had the right to ordain into office? One would think that here at least the church was right when it insisted that only the church could ordain men into*church office. But the question was not all that simple, for many of the bishoprics and archbishoprics were also secular realms where these higher clergymen of the church owned vast tracts of land, ruled over vast areas as secular rulers, raised armies, fought battles, and collected taxes. At the time when these things were happening, one half of England was owned by the church. So the kings argued with considerable justification that if these clergymen wanted to be secular rulers, they ought to be subject to the king, and the king ought to have the right to appoint them to office. But the matter of taxes was after all the bottom line- as it always is. While the kings wanted the revenues from these feudal estates over which clerics ruled to go into the royal treasury to finance the king’s wars and extravagant living, the popes wanted the revenues to flow out of the countries into the coffers in Rome where the popes could spend these vast fortunes for their own ends.
Against this background Thomas Becket rose to prominence in England.
England was at this time under the rule of the powerful Plantagenet kings who ruled not only over most of Great Britain, but also over huge sections of France. The king on the throne at the time of Thomas was Henry II, a typical member of the Plantagenet dynasty, a huge man of great strength, who hardly ever was off his horse; a man of shrewdness and ability, an able administrator, a fierce warrior, a gifted ruler; but also a man of violent temper and burning lusts for money, power, and the pleasures of the flesh.
Thomas’ early life was rather normal and of little interest. He was born in London, but of Norman parents (i.e., parents from Normandy in France) on the 21st of December in 1118. They were of the upper middle class and were able to provide him with an excellent legal education in schools in London and on the continent. He studied in the great universities of Paris, Bologna, and Auxerre. What was to thrust Thomas into prominence was his many gifts. He was an extremely handsome man, tall and vigorous, athletically inclined, and skilled in the arts of war. His education, coupled with natural intelligence, gave him proficiency in law and made him an accomplished courtier who could associate freely and easily with people from the highest levels of society. He was brilliant and affable, cheerful and eloquent, accomplished and polished. He was an expert swordsman and brilliant strategist. He had few, if any, faults – other than a towering pride.
Such a man quite naturally came to the king’s attention, and Henry II soon made Thomas one of the most powerful men in the kingdom. He was given the royal chancellorship, in which office he led military campaigns, traveled about dispensing justice in the king’s name, supervised the collection of taxes, engaged in diplomatic ventures, and handed out royal patronage. He was totally loyal to the king, a close friend and confidant, one who spent more time with Henry than did anyone else, not only in matters of state, but also in drinking, hunting, and carousing. When Henry was absent to France on royal business, Thomas reigned in his place. The king had no more loyal subject. Thomas became extremely wealthy in this high position so that he took with him on a mission to France “two hundred knights, priests, standard bearers, all festively arrayed in new attire, twenty-four changes of raiment, all kinds of dogs and birds for field sports, with wagons, each drawn by five horses, each horse in charge of a stout young man dressed in a new tunic. Coffers and chests contained the chancellor’s money and present. One horse, which preceded all the rest, carried the holy vessels of his chapel, the holy books, and the ornaments of the altar.”1
Because the king was having such great problems with maintaining an independent rule over his domains against papal encroachments, and because so much of the money of the realm was flowing out of the country to Rome, bleeding the country white, Henry decided to appoint Thomas Becket to the highest post in the church, the archbishopric of Canterbury. Henry was confident that with a friend in this highest of all ecclesiastical posts, he could successfully thumb his nose at the pope.
It must have come as a shock beyond bearing that Thomas, immediately upon being appointed to this prestigious and powerful position, underwent a complete transformation and shifted his loyalty totally from Henry to the pope. It appeared almost as if Thomas’ conduct was an act of treachery, and so Henry interpreted it.
Thomas gave up all his possessions, exchanged his beautiful robes for a haircloth shirt filled with vermin, ate nothing but roots, drank nauseous water, washed the filthy feet of 13 beggars every day and gave them each four pieces of silver, whipped himself repeatedly and on schedule, and went about bemoaning his many sins. From henceforth he became the bitterest enemy that Henry had in the entire kingdom. Thomas was not concerned about the sins and excesses in the church; all that he fought for was the total supremacy of the pope in all the affairs of the church and kingdom in England and her realms.
It is not difficult to understand that Henry was infuriated and that the two were soon to come into conflict. The matter came to an issue with the adoption of the Clarendon Constitutions, a document which really did nothing else but reiterate old English laws, put England soundly under the rule of the king, and separated England from the rule of the pope in secular affairs. In a moment of weakness, Thomas agreed to this document, but almost immediately repented of it, engaged in penance, sought absolution from the pope, and fled to France to escape royal .wrath.
He spent about six years in France in exile and proceeded from that distant pulpit to excommunicate every one in England whom he thought to be in violation of any papal wish. At the end of six years things were somewhat straightened out between him and the king, and he returned to his position in Canterbury. But rather than letting well enough alone, he seized every opportunity from his pulpit to denounce the king, excommunicate various clergy who seemed to side with the king, and used his position as a bully pulpit to promote papal interests.
The king was in France during one of Thomas’ exceptionally strident blasts. Upon hearing the report, the king, in towering rage, said, “A fellow that has eaten my bread, has lifted up his heel against me; a fellow that I loaded with benefits, dares insult the king; a fellow that came to court on a lame horse, with a cloak for a saddle, sits without hindrance on the throne itself. By the eyes of God, is there none of my thankless and cowardly courtiers who will deliver me from the insults of this low-born and turbulent priest?” And with that he rushed from the room.
Four of his high-ranking knights took him more literally than he evidently intended to be taken, for they immediately left his presence, took ship to England, made careful plans, and attacked Thomas while he was saying vespers in the cathedral at Canterbury. The date was 1173. The spot is still marked today.
It would seem as if Henry had his wish and his most bitter enemy was now gone forever, unable to plague him again. But it was a hollow victory and finally turned out precisely the opposite of what Henry thought. The Romish Church knew how to make capital of it all.
For one thing, the people were stunned by the murder. It was not only a cold-blooded murder of England’s highest ecclesiastic, but it had taken place in the sanctuary itself, a sacred place in which no blood should have been spilled. The people turned bitterly against Henry who they were convinced was implicated in the plot. For another thing, the pope, within four years of Thomas’ death, canonized Thomas and thus enshrined him as a saint worthy of worship. Henry did everything he could to blunt the impact of Thomas’ death, but nothing helped. His confessions, his acts of penance, his pleadings for forgiveness only underscored in the minds of the people his guilt and the cruelty of his crime. In the end he was forced to capitulate almost entirely, abrogate the Clarendon Constitutions, submit to papal rule, and acknowledge that the pope was sovereign over all.
Canterbury and Thomas’ grave became one of the most popular shrines in all Europe, where thousands of pilgrimages were made every year by pilgrims from every land. Chaucer’s famous poem, Canterbury Tales, which almost every college student is required to read at some time or other, describes such a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket.
In the meanwhile, although times have changed, Rome has never formally backed away from her position that she has the right to rule the earth also in the secular realm. One wonders whether this ancient dream of the popes will be finally realized in the kingdom of Antichrist.
1. Quoted from Schaff, The History of the Christian Church, Vol. V. pp. 126, 127.