Although is one of the most famous and well

Although the conflict between Henry II and Thomas Becket is
one of the most famous and well documented disputes in British history, the
issues that were at stake are much more obscure, and have been vigorously
debated by historians. While Poole has suggested that ‘no ecclesiastical
principle was at stake’1
during the conflict, other historians such as Cheney have stated that ‘the
clash between Henry II and Thomas Becket raised big issues’2
within both England and Europe during the late 12th Century. What
exactly were these ‘big issues’ emphasised by Cheney? Ecclesiastical issues
such as clerical immunity, the control of church appointments, and the nature
of ecclesiastical property were all at stake to some degree during the
conflict. These issues should be placed in the wider context of the period and
in seen in relation to the disputes that both Anselm and Langton had with their
respective kings: this allows us to see whether these issues were unique to the
Becket dispute, and the degree to which they were at stake throughout the
period as opposed to during one specific conflict. On a European scale the
dispute jeopardised the papacy of Alexander III at a time when the antipopes
Victor IV and Paschal III were gathering sustained support in opposition. It
also seems appropriate to analyse who was actually to blame for both the
origins and tragic end of the conflict. To a large extent, all of the issues
discussed above were at stake in the conflict between Henry II and Thomas
Becket, though it should be noted this was not an isolated incident, rather
part of a process of ecclesiastical reform and development that spanned across
the whole period.


The conflict between Henry II and Thomas Becket must be seen
in the context of the early period of Henry’s reign; Henry’s policy toward the
church ‘was just one aspect of his large-scale policy of recovering royal
rights following the ‘interregnum’ of the usurper Stephen’3.
Thus, it does not seem unreasonable that Henry reasserted his control over
appointments in the church, took revenues from vacant bishoprics and insisted
that barons could not be excommunicated without his consent. Thus, Henry’s
motives for promoting Becket to the see of Canterbury seem obvious in this
light: through combining the chancellorship and the primacy Henry thought he
would be able to put a hold on the growth of the assertiveness of the church
which through the weaknesses of Stephen’s reign, closer relations with Rome,
and the development of canon law under Archbishop Theobald, had advanced
massively. With this in mind, it is not surprising that Henry viewed Becket’s
actions once he became archbishop of Canterbury as a betrayal, with Barlow
suggesting that ‘Henry could not forgive the man he had raised from the dust
and heaped in honours and riches for repaying him in this fashion’4.

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It is in this context that the dispute between Henry and
Becket began at the Council of Woodstock in 1163. At the council Becket
resisted Henry’s demands that the sheriff’s aid from the see of Canterbury– a
medieval payment by landowners to the sheriffs – should be payed directly to
the exchequer, stating that the aid was a free-will offering and not a tax. Not
only this, but Becket also prohibited the marriage of William, Henry’s brother,
with Isabella de Warenne and excommunicated William of Eynesford without royal
approval. This conflict, ‘obvious at the Council of Woodstock in July 1163,
became serious at the Council of Westminster in October of that year’5.
At the Council of Westminster Henry demanded that clerks accused of serious
crimes, having already been convicted in ecclesiastical courts and stripped of
their status, should then be handed to royal officials for secular punishment
in the form of execution or mutilation. It appears that the issue of clerical
immunity from secular punishment was in part brought to the fore by the case of
Philip de Broi, a secular canon of St. Pauls Bedford, who was accused of killing
a knight. De Broi was cleared of the crime in the ecclesiastical court of the
bishop of Lincoln, but when he was tried again in the royal court he resisted
on the grounds that he was being tried twice for the same crime. Becket
supported de Broi, stating that clerical privileges and ecclesiastical
liberties had to trump royal concern. Becket’s thought declared that the ‘clergy
were a race set apart and chosen for the service of God’, and as a result
‘there bodies were to be without a mutilation of limbs or deformation as this
would be to deform the image of God in men’6.
The resistance of Becket infuriated Henry who demanded that he observe the
royal customs of his grandfather Henry I. By January 1164 at the Council of
Clarendon Henry’s demands had been drafted into a written constitution; the
constitution stated that criminous clerks would be punished in both
ecclesiastical and secular courts. He also placed restriction on the clergy’s
contact with Rome, declaring ecclesiastics were not to leave the kingdom
without royal approval. Becket initially refused the Constitutions of Clarendon
in their entirety and rallied the other bishops in support of his cause, only
to later give way and accept. This was too little too late as Henry summoned
Becket to Northampton in October 1164 to answer charges related to a
misappropriation of funds during his time as chancellor – before he could be
tried and charged Becket fled England and would not return for six years. A
clear theme in the origins of the conflict is the status of criminous clerks
and whether they should be granted immunity from secular forms of punishment;
the issue of appeals to Rome is also a stark throughout the early years of the
dispute. At the settlement of Avranches in 1172, Henry was forced to water down
the Constitutions of Clarendon, promising clerics would be immune from secular
punishment and that appeals to Rome would now be allowed freely ‘in
ecclesiastical cases so long as, if any person were suspect to the king, they
would guarantee not to seek to harm him or his realm’7.
Given the importance of these two issues at both the start and end of the
conflict we can be certain they were at stake throughout to a large degree. In
counter to this point, however, it could be argued that the Becket dispute did
nothing to change the royal attitude in regard to letting appeals through to
the pope. Throughout the entirety of his reign Richard did his best to obstruct
appeals to the pope: when Richard was captive in Germany he attempted to stop
an appeal by the archbishop of York against his cathedral chapter, and also
ruled that bastardy must not be settled in Rome but in English courts. This
does not detract, though, from the fact that the issue was at stake during the
conflict between Henry II and Thomas Becket as it was a principle factor in
causing the initial dispute, but also in maintaining constant levels of
hostility between the two men throughout the 1160s.


More than just clerical immunity was at stake during the
conflict; both the control of church appointments and the nature of
ecclesiastical property were in the balance, though perhaps not to the same
extent. In the Constitutions of Clarendon Henry stated that ‘the archbishops,
bishops and all ecclesiastical persons who hold from the king in chief’8 –
this clearly implies a belief that the king held all church land and property,
and that ecclesiastics must meet certain criteria to hold the land from the
king. The issue of appointment within the church was also at stake, and had
been an area of contention throughout the period as multiple English kings
wished to retain their royal right, whereas ecclesiastical figures believed
they should hold power over ecclesiastical appointments. Although the
settlement of Avranches did not touch upon either of these topics in their own
right, as it did with the issue of clerical immunity, they were both at stake
during the Becket dispute. At the start of his time as archbishop, Becket took
action to recover lands that had been taken by Henry from the see of Canterbury,
some of which he regained through a royal writ that authorised him to restore
any alienated lands. Furthermore, during the nine years between Becket leaving
England in 1163 and settlement of Avranches in 1172, Henry was unable to
appoint a single bishop to replace those who had died. This highlights that,
although not a cause of the dispute itself, the issue of appointment within the
church was at stake during the conflict.


In addition, the issues already discussed were at stake
during other major ecclesiastical conflicts of the period; namely those
involving Anselm and Langton. Considering these conflicts can help us to
uncover general trends of religious development throughout the period. Upon his
appointment to the see of Canterbury, Anselm believed he had become a permanent
papal legate and lobbied William Rufus to set up a primatial council throughout
1094-95; the grounds of his first exile was Rufus’ refusal to allow him to hold
this council. Becket was heavily inspired by Anselm’s use of exile as a
platform for powerful political action, which could explain his decision to
flee in 1164; an argument taken by Reuter. Anselm’s exile had a very important
consequence – it allowed him to be present for the Easter Council at St.
Peter’s in April 1099. It was at this council that Urban II excommunicated all
clergy who had received investiture to bishoprics from lay hands, and all who
did homage to laymen for ecclesiastical lands. When Anselm returned to England Rufus
had died and Henry I was firmly established as king, but he refused to do
homage and was subsequently exiled once more in November 1103, being told to conform
to the practices of his predecessors. Ultimately a compromise was agreed
whereby Henry I promised to no longer nominate bishops, though they would
continue to swear homage from to him for their lands.


In contrast to Henry II and the Norman kings in their dispute
with Anselm, John suffered both interdict and excommunication during his
conflict with Innocent III. The starting point of the conflict was a struggle
over the right to appoint a successor to Hubert Walter, the archbishop of
Canterbury, who died in 1205. The monks of Canterbury had decided upon a
candidate, the bishops of the province appealed to Rome because they felt they
should have a say in the decision, and all the while John went ahead with his
own appointment; Pope Innocent III overruled John and proclaimed he would have
the final say, securing the election of Stephen Langton. That the monks were
allowed to appeal to Rome does perhaps suggests that the outcome of the Becket
dispute did leave a legacy in this respect. Not accepting this appropriation of
his rights, John refused to allow Langton entry to the kingdom, drove the
Canterbury monks out of England and seized the lands of the archbishopric for
himself. As a consequence, Innocent declared the interdict in March 1208 and
formally excommunicated John in the autumn of 1209. The dispute was settled in
1213 when John and Innocent came to terms, with John surrendering the kingdom
as a fief to the papacy and allowing Langton to take up his see. Through
considering both of the above it is clear to see that similar matters were
involved in causing, and at stake during, multiple ecclesiastical conflicts.
Anselm, Becket and Langton all faced prolonged periods of exile during which
their lands were exploited: all three conflicts also involved to some degree
issues concerning the right to appointment within the English church. This
highlights that although much was at stake during the Becket conflict, this was
most likely a reflection of themes and ideas that had developed and evolved
throughout the whole period, rather than an isolated incident concerning
different policies.


Beside from affecting solely English affairs the dispute
between Henry II and Becket impacted ecclesiastical matters on a European
scale, seemingly putting the papacy itself into jeopardy. Alexander III was unable
to act in a firm manner during the conflict. Although he was a celebrated
canonist and expressed horror at the Constitutions of Clarendon, Alexander
never issued a formal condemnation and prevented Becket from excommunicating
his enemies. This was because from 1159 to 1177 Alexander faced two rival
claims to the papacy from the anti-popes Victor IV and Paschal III, who were
both sponsored by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. This meant that Alexander
could not act too harshly on Henry as his support was vital to his own
survival. The way in which Alexander acted in response to the conflict was different
to that of Urban II and John, as Urban was in a strong position he was able to
force John to compromise and end the conflict using leverage that Alexander
simply didn’t have. The Becket dispute also put at risk a direct and
longstanding relationship between the English Church and the Papacy – a link
that stretches back to the Anglo-Saxon period and the days of the St. Peters
Pence tax. This relationship had become more regular and important under the
early Anglo-Norman kings with the process of Gregorian Reform being
aggressively administered by Gregory VII at the end of the 11th
Century. That the dispute between Becket and Henry threatened such a
longstanding relationship speaks volumes of its ramifications outside of
England. Though it should be noted that ‘in the mid twelfth century, the
relentlessly advancing canon law and papal ideology were bound to come into
conflict with the concepts of medieval kingship and the increasingly
self-conscious theories of royal justice’9 –
the conflict between king and pope seen during the Becket dispute may, then,
have been part of a larger developmental process. This relationship was at its
most vulnerable after the murder of Becket in 1170 when Alexander had no choice
but to act upon Henry, even if it meant losing his support. Alexander placed
Henry’s continental lands under an interdict, and Henry’s envoys had been
formally refused an audience with the pope. Even though, after Avranches in
1172, the papacy’s relationship with the English church was once again stable,
it was certainly at stake during the conflict. If Alexander had acted too
harshly upon Henry, Henry could have opted to support one of the anti-popes –
neither of which would have punished him for the murder of Becket given their
imperial disposition. Therefore, it is clear to see that the Becket dispute had
a huge array of possible outcomes in regard to wider European affairs, and
during the dispute the papacy itself and its relationship with the English
church were both certainly at stake.  

So, who was to blame for the dispute in the first place? And
who or what was the largest contributing factor to the conflicts tragic end? In
1164 Gilbert Foliot declared that the whole quarrel had arisen over a minor
matter which could have been easily settled had Becket displayed a ‘discrete
which does seem to fit with the fact that Becket showed less moderation toward
the Constitutions of Clarendon than the pope himself. Of course, we must take
Foliot’s view with a degree of scepticism given that he acted as an envoy for
the king throughout the dispute, and wrote a number of letters condemning
Becket which were widely circulated across Europe. However, there does seem to
be a case for Becket’s culpability, with Warren suggesting that Henry’s
interference in ecclesiastical affairs ‘was well meaning’ whereas Becket’s
actions ‘were grand gestures in which he seemed to be deliberately picking a
Perhaps this is harsh on Becket, who does seem, once he received the see of
Canterbury, to have felt a genuine commitment to the church and its principles.
This sense of commitment is exemplified through a statement Becket made to
Henry in 1164: ‘Since it is certain that kings receive their power from the
church and the church receives hers not from them but from Christ … you do not
have the power to command bishops simply because they are customs’12.
Moreover, although it seems certain that Henry’s initial attempts to reassert
control over the church were ‘well meaning’, during Becket’s period of exile
his conduct served to antagonise the crisis. After the death of his first son
and heir, William, Henry demanded an oath of fealty to be sworn to his second
son, the future Henry III. This was not enough, however, as Henry demanded his
son to be crowned, of which there was no precedent in England; he pressed the
pope to allow the archbishop of York to conduct the ceremony in Becket’s
absence. He agreed to Henry’s request. This kind of action only worked to further
divide Henry and Becket, who felt seriously aggrieved at this fresh affront he
had suffered. Furthermore, this only reiterates the point made earlier that the
absence of a strong pope simply helped to worsen the conflict as the effective
head of the Christian church proved useless in asserting his authority in
settling the dispute. Taking this into consideration, it appears impossible to
blame one single figure for the escalation of the conflict into the ‘greatest
of all clashes between the medieval church and state’13.
Rather, it seems the personal element of the dispute, an element which was
lacking in other major ecclesiastical conflicts of the period, both
kick-started the dispute and intensified the situation to a point of no return.


Clanchy stated that the ‘Becket dispute was a crisis point
because it concerned both the past and

the future’14.
This neatly summarises the reality of the conflict; of course it was an

important dispute in its own right, but the issues at stake
were part of a much bigger process of development that had begun over a century
before. Issues such as clerical immunity, the control of church appointments,
and the nature of ecclesiastical property were not new and would continue to
cause divisions well into the rest of the 12th and early 13th
century. The extent to which these issues were contested during the conflict is
debatable. On the one hand, historians such as Richard and Sayles ‘find it
impossible to believe that the tragic outcome of the controversy deflected
Henry more than momentarily from his course or materially affected the
relations between the church and state’15,
whereas Mayr-Harting declares that following Becket’s murder ‘Henry II no
longer openly obstructed appeals, no longer did he trumpet principles. No
longer were there public showdowns, nor even jokes in public about papal
The answer to the question is somewhere in between these opposite views; much
was at stake in the conflict between Henry II and Thomas Becket and would continue
to be at stake long after their time had come and gone.

1 Poole, Page 199.

2 Cheney, Page 95.

3 Reuter, Page 173 in Medieval Polities and Modern Mentalities.


4 Barlow, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

5 Reuter, Page 173 in Medieval Polities and Modern

6 Thomas Becket, Page 216 in The Secular Clergy in
England, 1066-1215.

7 Cheney, Page 90.

8 Bartlett, Page 407.

9 Alexander, J.W. Page 4.

10 Gilbert Foliot in Carpenter, D. Page 205.

11 Warren, W.L in Duggan, A. Page 253.

12 Thomas Becket in Carpenter, D. Page 205.

13 Carpenter, D. Page 203.

14 Clanchy, M.T. Page 115.

15 Richardson and Sayles in Alexander, J.W. Page 24.

16 Mayr-Harting, H in Alexander, J.W. Page 24.