Murder in the Cathedral – an old struggle to govern these islands

As dusk fell on 29th December 1170 the four knights came into Canterbury Cathedral from the cloister. The monks had barred the doors against them,but Becket had them unlocked, with the words ??I will not have the Church made a castle??. The Knights accused him of treachery to the King. Becket responded ?? I am no traitor, but the Archbishop and Priest of God??. His words were provocative to ears wanting reassurance that he accepted the King’s authority.

The knights were convinced of Beckets guilt and proceeded to attack him. His last words were ?? For the name of Jesus and the defence of the Church, I am willing to die??, as he was hacked down in the north west transept of the great church. He had picked a fight with the power of the Crown which he largely lost when alive, but extracted some concessions from the monarch when dead. He gave to Canterbury a Saint and a story which led to large numbers of pilgrims and the business they brought in for 368 years.

This dark event on a dark day late in the year 1170 has left its scars. Its shadow has a long cast. To this day there is a huge empty space behind the high altar of Canterbury, the Trinity Chapel and its marble pavement, where Becket shrine shone adorned by gold and jewels until Henry VIII had it removed and plundered in 1538. Even today Becket is clearly too contentious a figure to justify some reconstruction or commemoration of the tomb in the prominent position where it lay for so long.

Henry VIII, like Henry II before him, saw Beckets allegiance to God, to the Pope and to the Catholic Church as treachery to the King who had sponsored him and nominated him for the archbishopric. He wanted all record of Beckets allegiance to a higher or non English power expunged, as well as welcoming the redistribution of wealth which the plundering of the monasteries and the shrine permitted.

When Henry VIII completed his reformation of Church-state relations, he ensured that no Archbishop of Canterbury could appeal again to the Pope and his secular allies on the continent in the way Becket had appealed between 1162 and his death in 1170. The struggle between Church and State was also a struggle between English and continental power, with Becket appealing to foreign Kings as well as to the Roman curia.

When I first had the story told to me on a dark winter evening in the cloisters of the Cathedral the conflict seemed to be one of the past. I was born into what appeared to be a settled country where power came from an elected Parliament, which could decide the laws and run the administration without foreign interference. Whilst I hated the butchery and barbarity of the knights, I had some sympathy with the Kings wish to be master in his own kingdom. The murder of Becket meant the most powerful monarch London had seen had to put on sackcloth and wend his way in sorrow as a penitent in Canterbury. The man who was King of England, Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Count of Anjou and Maine, and lord of much of Ireland was damaged by the violent acts of his supporters. It deflected him for a bit from getting more control over clerical matters, but did not stop the wish in England to establish authority here at home. It is only in more recent years the secular authority has been casual with our right to self government through its signature of several centralising EU treaties.


  1. [[NAME EDITED]]
    December 29, 2007

    It is extraordinary that, having been a nation state for so long (were we the first?) we should now be throwing away our independence, apparently for no other reason than that we have lost confidence in ourselves, and for nothing – less than nothing – in return.

  2. mikestallard
    December 29, 2007

    I personally believe that, despite the fact that Henry II was hyper active, a cuckold and an extremely strange, rather intemperate warrior king, he did not actually cause the murder which was done by the four knights who wanted to “work towards” his wishes. But I am grateful to your retelling of the excellent tale!
    I could not agree more about the EU.
    The gift of the Middle Ages was, surely the Common Law (including the jury and habeas corpus); the integrity of Parliament (both houses); and the fact that the King is under, not above, the law.
    Unlike the Turks and, yes, even the Romans, we came to believe in the sacredness of property and life. Neither could be taken away by the government. We also had the right to vote for our taxes, not have them imposed.
    Well, all this happened before even Mrs Thatcher, even before Adolf Hitler. So, according to the EU, and the Labour Intellectuals, it does not matter.
    Well, it does to me.

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