The year was 1163

King Henry II

That was the year a fateful progression of events began with a single act: a priest in England was accused of a murder. The king, the powerful Henry II, demanded that the priest be tried for the crime in his secular court system. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, who was Henry’s good friend and drinking buddy, said, “He is a priest, we will try him ourselves in the Church system, thank you very much.”

Thomas Becket

Henry reluctantly acquiesced. He assumed the outcome was a given – guilty. But the Church, after its own investigation, declared the priest to be innocent of all charges. Henry was incensed. He felt betrayed. Becket, well aware of Henry’s volatile nature, wisely fled to France.

Six years later, missing his friend, Henry begged Becket to return home. Becket did, but was soon caught up in another Church v State controversy. Becket again refused to bend to Henry’s demands. Becket was in England, at Canterbury Cathedral. Henry, in France, supposedly said, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?”

Murder of Thomas Becket

Four English knights immediately sailed for home, cornered Becket on the altar during Mass at Canterbury Cathedral and viciously slashed him to death in a rain of blood. A horrified, terrified monk, Edward Grim, managed to hide near the altar, and later published the blow by blow account of the gruesome murder.

Henry II does penance at the tomb of Thomas Becket

Henry swore he never gave the death order. Miracles began happening at Becket’s tomb. He was made a saint by the Church. Four years after the murder, Henry did penance, walking barefoot, in sackcloth and ashes, to Becket’s grave as 80 priests whipped him with branches. He gave up the idea of the State controlling the Church. Separation of Church and State. Centuries of the Church policing their own? That has not worked out so well.

Gisants of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitane at the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud

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