How did the murder of St. Thomas Becket affect the relationship between Church and State in England 1170-1215?

Bachelor Thesis, 2007

31 Pages, Grade: First



I. Introduction

II. Becket’s rise to power

III. The relationship between Church and State prior to the murder of Becket.

IV. The murder’s immediate political impact 1170-1174

V. Longer term impact of the murder 1174-1215

VI. The role of the murder in the signing of Magna Carta (1215)

VII. Conclusion: How did the murder of St. Thomas Becket affect the relationship between Church and State in England 1170-1215?

VIII. Bibliography

IX. References

I. Introduction

Thomas Becket (also spelt Beckett) was murdered on the night of 29th December 1170 by four knights (namely Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, Reginald FitzUrse and Richard le Bret)[i] acting in the name of the reigning monarch, King Henry II. The murder was the culmination of a long and bitter dispute between both Becket and the King. Becket was, at the time, serving as Archbishop of Canterbury, and his murder on the altar steps of Canterbury cathedral caused considerable political alarm throughout Europe. Although Archbishops had been murdered before Becket, never so in their own cathedral and, more importantly, never seemingly on the orders of the reigning Monarch. The murder served to considerably change the political relationship between Church and State both within England and also in other European nations. The murder also indirectly led to the signing of Magna Carta (Great Charter) by King John in 1215; an event signifying a huge constitutional change in England, the consequences of which are still relevant to politics today. How did the murder lead to this event, and in what ways did the murder affect the relationship between Church and State in England between Becket’s death and the signing of Magna Carta?

II. Becket’s rise to power

Thomas Becket was born to Matilda, wife of Gilbert Becket sometime around 1117,[ii] although the exact time of his birth is somewhat unclear. It has been suggested that he was baptised in honour of St. Thomas the Apostle, which places the date of his birth on or near December 21st 1117, this being the date of that festival.[iii] Becket’s family was relatively affluent, and as a result Becket was able to serve in high office from an early age after spending some time in prestigious Paris schools.[iv] Becket’s contemporaries described him as a congenial character who, whilst not afraid to speak his own mind, was generally polite and easy going, though his rivals often viewed him as an arrogant and manipulative hypocrite.[v] Becket was also noted by his contemporaries to be of considerable intellect, and was at least as educated as the average bishop, having received what was at the time a comparatively excellent education.[vi] Becket was involved with the Church from an early age, although purely in an administrative capacity; he served as a student of Archbishop Theobald (his predecessor as Archbishop of Canterbury) for several years and ingratiated himself in both ecclesiastical and civic circles during his tenure by having the ability to easily placate people.[vii] It was through his association with Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury that Becket came to be known to the King, and Becket’s calm and trustworthy manner soon gained him the King’s support. Resultantly, Becket was appointed Lord Chancellor by Henry in 1154, a highly influential position.[viii] He was later given further powers, including mastery of the deanery of Hastings, wardenship of the Tower of London, and the castle at Berkhampstead.[ix] After Theobald’s death in 1161, Becket was consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, primarily due to the insistence of the King. Although Becket and Henry were on good terms during Becket’s tenure as Lord Chancellor, his appointment to the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162 (after which his Chancellorship was resigned)[x] served as a turning point between the two men; from this moment their relationship began to worsen. After his appointment as Archbishop, Becket suddenly styled himself as a champion and protector of the Church’s liberty,[xi] which was coming increasingly under threat by Henry during this period. Resultantly, during his time as Archbishop Becket crossed Henry several times, most notably at the Council of Clarendon (discussed below). Indeed, Henry had Becket exiled to France for most of his time in office.

However, although Becket became increasingly distanced from the King, it is fair to say that over the course of his lifetime, Becket was increasingly favoured by the Pope,[xii] a situation that increased Becket’s status in the Church, and also his confidence when dealing with the Crown in political matters. Indeed, the Pope was instrumental in Becket’s rise to power, and the Pope appointed Becket Legate of England (a highly influential political position, especially combined with the archbishopric) on 24th April 1166,[xiii] at an unusually young age. Similarly, Becket’s radicalism and zeal shown during his tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury served to considerably increase the political influence and unity of the Church in England as a whole, and also served to give the Papacy more confidence in its political ambitions and dealings with the English State. For example, unlike some of his predecessors, Becket was not shy of opposing his bishops- he did this several times at the Council of Westminster, despite opposition from nearly every bishop at that assembly.[xiv] Similarly, Becket begged the Pope for powers of excommunication soon after his consecration as Archbishop,[xv] and then proceeded throughout his term in office to literally shower excommunications over his enemies,[xvi] punishing all those who crossed him- indeed it was his excommunication of three English bishops that was a bitter point of contention between Becket and the King shortly before Becket’s death. Therefore, Becket was determined that his authority should be absolute and that the Church’s authority should be increased at the expense of the State. Indeed, at this point, serving as both Archbishop of Canterbury and Papal Legate to England, Becket presented a political authority almost great enough to present a serious challenge to the authority of the monarch. Becket’s motivation in fighting for the rights of the Church and risking the wrath of Henry is often questioned and explained by a personal desire for status by Becket, however from some sources written before his martyrdom it is clear that Becket had a genuine zeal and concern for the Church,[xvii] on purely political grounds if not spiritual. Nevertheless, whatever his motivation, Becket played an important part in increasing the Church’s temporal claims in English politics throughout his time as Archbishop, initiating what were later to become significant changes in the relationship between Church and State in England.

III. Relationship between Church and State prior to the murder of Becket

The political situation in England throughout the twelfth century was very much one marked by dualism. The political structure of England was firstly dualist in terms of there being two main political entities; the State (fundamentally the Crown) and the Church. These entities themselves were also of a dualist nature; the Church was torn between loyalty to the Papacy in Rome and loyalty to the monarch- the opinions and policies of which frequently differed- and the State (for all intents and purposes comprised of the King and his appointed offices) forced to occupy a position whereby it advocated the Divine Right of the monarch and yet was increasingly accountable to the nobility and especially the landowning barons.

The mediaeval Church was a hugely powerful organisation, both in terms of spiritual influence but also in terms of temporal authority.[xviii] The Church controlled considerable areas of land, particularly so in England; by the twelfth century it was one of the largest landowners in the country. It also commanded huge monetary resources (for example, the Bishop of Winchester was at the time at Becket’s tenure the wealthiest man in England)[xix] and an increasingly centralised administrative system that formed the most advanced bureaucracy of its time. Naturally the Church, owing to its powerful position and socio-political influence, also commanded influence in English law. Although individual diocese and bishoprics (administrated by a bishop) were in themselves powerful political entities, the centre of political and spiritual authority within the Church in England was the see of Canterbury; indeed the importance of the Archbishopric of Canterbury in English politics at this time cannot be overstated. It was, according to contemporaries, the centre of all learning and ability of the Kingdom.[xx] The Archbishop, along with the bishops over which he presided, was responsible for the administration of the Church in England which was, as mentioned, an increasingly powerful political body. As a result, the Archbishop of Canterbury was a highly esteemed position both within the Church and without, and the importance of the Archbishopric increased throughout Henry’s reign; indeed, the power of the Church had been increasing in England from the mid twelfth century onwards,[xxi] and by the time of Becket’s tenure as Archbishop the pace of this political aggrandisement was considerable.

Nevertheless, the State- and more fundamentally the King- retained absolute overall control of the country and, for all practical purposes, the Church. Although the English nobles (primarily barons and large landowners) played an important role in supporting the feudal monarchy of the period, the administrative, executive and judicial bodies of the State were comprised virtually exclusively of agents appointed by the monarchy and indeed vast control lay with the King himself. Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that the monarchy was the State, and these terms can be used interchangeably. However, by the twelfth century, the Crown was in a position whereby its authority was being seriously challenged by the Church for the first time. Although Henry was considered to be of relatively pious character (far more so than his successors Richard I and John), he was nevertheless- somewhat naturally- a fierce opponent of any Papal claims on temporal power,[xxii] which increased in both frequency and intensity as his reign progressed. As a result, Henry spent much time attempting to reduce the power of the Church in England, and indeed it could be argued that the majority of Henry’s reign was spent attempting to further this end, striving to deprive the Church of its privileges being one of his main political objectives;[xxiii] this went hand in hand with his increasing desire to centralise the Crown’s control of the country.[xxiv] For example, Henry was insistent that important clerical offices (such as abbots and bishops etc) were chosen appointed by the Crown and not the Church. However, despite his lack of trust in the Church and his desire to reduce its temporal privileges and status, Henry was also far more dependant on the support of the Church, in particular the English bishops, than his predecessors in maintaining effective political control of the country, meaning that during the reign of Henry, the clergy and Church was in arguably its most powerful position relative to the State that it had ever been.[xxv]

Because of their overlapping spheres of influence, the relationship between Church and State in the twelfth century was one of undefined political boundaries,[xxvi] legal disputes and attempts at socio-political mastery. For example, abbeys and monasteries were important in English society as places of religious learning, but they were also an important part of the political constitution of England;[xxvii] abbeys often served to administrate local power and supported local landowners, and so they were bound to both the will of the Church and the will of the State. Similarly, the Church also controlled much of the educational infrastructure of England, and operated under similar dualist circumstances.[xxviii] However, although the Church’s claims (led by the Papacy) to temporal sovereignty were growing, they were throughout much of the twelfth century ignored; as mentioned the Crown was able to wield far more political power than the Church. Furthermore, Popes before Becket’s murder did not have the confidence to attempt any serious claim to political pre-eminence. On a practical level, the sheer distance between England and Rome (letters took weeks to travel from one to the other) further meant that Papal power was limited.[xxix]

During Henry’s reign, an important attempt was made to define the relationship between Church and State in England. This culminated in the Constitutions of Clarendon, ratified whilst Becket was Archbishop. Indeed, such was the political significance of this document that it was the primary cause of conflict between the King and Becket. The Constitutions laid down guidelines for the political and judicial limitations of the Church, and were signed on the13 of January 1164.[xxx] Overall, the Constitutions represented a fundamental legal shift of authority away from the Church towards the authority of the Crown. For example, the constitutions prevented bishops appealing to Rome (instead, they had to go through Crown courts) and increased other temporal claims of the King over the authority of the Church by the State.[xxxi] However, the most contentious issue pushed forward by the King regarded the increase of judicial authority of the State over the Church. The Constitutions put in place laws allowing civil courts to try criminal clergy. This was effectively a declaration of supremacy by the Crown, and put bishops under fealty of the King;[xxxii] previously criminal clergy had the right to be tried in ecclesiastical courts, which were often lenient in their punishments. Although Becket at first supported these Constitutions, he renounced them merely days after they were agreed, citing the Constitutions as a clear attack on the Church’s sovereignty. This caused great tension between him and Henry, however the majority of European churchmen supported Becket in his dealings with the King;[xxxiii] the Constitutions were viewed as being anti-clerical and as a serious attempt by the Crown to subdue the Church. However, despite widespread outrage by the clergy in England, and indeed by the wider Church, the Pope asked for no renunciation of the Constitutions of Clarendon;[xxxiv] it could be argued that the Papacy saw the Becket/Henry debate as an opportunity to further its temporal claims[xxxv] and so were willing to support Henry’s actions in order to encourage the outrage of the ecclesiastical establishment against Henry and the English state. Conversely, it could be argued that at this time, the Papacy did not have enough confidence to attempt an intervention. Whatever the reason, it was obvious to contemporaries at this point that the Church’s will was clearly subservient to the will of the State.


[i] Benson p.134

[ii] Barlow p.10

[iii] Morris p.5

[iv] Morris p.7

[v] Brooke, Z.N. p.193

[vi] Barlow p.22

[vii] Barlow p.36

[viii] Ransome and Acland p.23

[ix] Morris p.21

[x] Ransome and Acland p.23

[xi] Smalley p.121

[xii] Douglas and Greenaway p.336

[xiii] Salzmann p.82

[xiv] Morris p.95

[xv] Green p.149

[xvi] Loxton p.11

[xvii] Morris p.99

[xviii] Brooke, C.N.L. p.271

[xix] Duggan p.117

[xx] Morris p.13

[xxi] Jones p.89

[xxii] Green p.129

[xxiii] McKechnie p.224

[xxiv] Jones p.89

[xxv] Brooke, Z.N. p.191

[xxvi] Richardson and Sayles p.303

[xxvii] Jedin and Dolan p.67

[xxviii] Smalley p.36

[xxix] Cheyney p.9

[xxx] Knowles p.87

[xxxi] Knowles p.90

[xxxii] Ransome and Acland p.24

[xxxiii] Knowles p.150

[xxxiv] Knowles p.153

[xxxv] Knowles p.103

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How did the murder of St. Thomas Becket affect the relationship between Church and State in England 1170-1215?
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Andrew Lythall (Author), 2007, How did the murder of St. Thomas Becket affect the relationship between Church and State in England 1170-1215?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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