It is said that Henry II probably didn’t intend for Thomas Becket – Archbishop of Canterbury and the one who ended the bromance with the king – to be killed when he uttered his famous words, but I like to think he did intend it. Make no mistake: Thomas Becket had it coming.
Henry II had introduced the ‘Constitutions of Clarendon’: his attempt to restrict the power and authority of the clergy in England. Henry didn’t want this restriction to help the likes of peasants like me. It was a cynical move, but one worth having even so. Decreasing the power of the clergy would be to increase his own power, yet who would argue the ‘authority’ of Rome was worth having unclipped? The power of Rome was an occupation of a kind, a psychic occupation of the mind, and if that wasn’t benefit enough for them, the religious granted themselves the ‘benefits of clergy’ and would try religious wrongdoers in their own ecclesiastical courts where the sentences were conspicuously lenient.
Thomas Becket opposed these reforms and wanted the religious to retain their privileged status, exempt from the laws which covered the rest of the population. Allowing for the times, he should have been whacked on the spot.
Henry behaved like he was contrite. He walked barefoot to Canterbury and spent a night being flogged by monks to show how he terribly sorry he was that his former buddy got significantly more than scalped.
One can’t help but ask if all of the famous pious persons from history really were genuine believers. Did religion have a grip on people’s minds in the way political correctness does now, with many making public declarations of piety so as to ward-off accusations of heresy? It’s hardly a ridiculous idea, because being publicly against the politically correct orthodoxy might result in career damage for the person nowadays, and that’s enough to make many compliant, but taking a similar anti-God position in Becket’s day – and for centuries afterwards – would have meant a slow, agonizing death. It’s no surprise to me that many professed faith in God, and publicly made the right noises and shapes.
The Knights who topped Becket – if they were genuine believers – committed an extraordinarily brave act. They killed God’s man in England , and did it in God’s house, and all the while believing that an eternity of fire might await them for their doings. And these chaps were spurred into this soul-threatening action by a few vague sayings from their King. Why didn’t the fear of God stop them?
Whatever the reason, Becket needed to go. If ten of him had to be killed to land a blow against the Pope’s authority then it would have been worth it. Henry’s act, no more than chipping at the religious pillar, was an important precedent.
In 1215 King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede and promptly wrote to the Pope to try to get the whole thing annulled as soon as the barons had turned their backs. The barons weren’t motivated by a desire for the peasant to be protected; they – like Henry before them – were motivated to look after their own interests. Even if the benefit comes from a cynical motivation, it’s worth having.
In the two events briefly mentioned, power is moved slightly. In the first it’s moved slightly toward the individual country: a barely perceptible shift toward greater independence; in the second, slightly toward the ordinary person. These events didn’t change anything immediately, but that they happened is important for freedom.
(Would Henry VIII have been ready to break from Rome without the Becket incident as a precedent? If a King can have God’s man topped in his house and keep his job and his life, then why should a King worry about a simple break in relations?)
Although he was a religious lunatic and mass murdering maniac, Oliver Cromwell was on the right side of the argument. Charles I was a weak-kneed, chinless Catholic fancier, with a strange fascination with the Duke of Buckingham, and, like Becket before him, was rightly got rid of after Cromwell’s Roundhead’s won the Civil War. What was a genuine opportunity to rid the national mind of superstition, and the profoundly un-scientific idea of ‘the divine right of kings,’ (the Stuarts were fond of the idea of divine right) turned first into a tyranny under Cromwell, then collapsed back into monarchy with the Restoration: a failure of imagination which was a national disgrace.
Consider all the political doings in England’s history. There’s more to discuss than the few incidents mentioned here. The problem is that – or rather it’s a problem for some – it is likely ‘we’ are going to vote to remain part of an unelected political empire, the EU. It’s a Soviet model, and (as Peter Hitchens once pointed out) the EU even has its own rouble.
The Scottish voted to stay when I thought they’d vote to leave, and I think the British will vote to stay because we’re British. Do we want all that upheaval, old-boy? If I can still take The Times and knock back a drop of the hard-stuff while checking the cricket-scores, am I going to vote for any boat-rocking?
If more people knew more history they’d be able to see the EU for what it is, and would perhaps vote to leave this corrupt, disgusting experiment for good.