Thomas a Beckett and Henry II

I have a friend who does not like my fascination with history. On the local television show, he constantly asks me if I am in which century, the 19th. being the furthest-back he wants to travel. Most reportable history occurred prior to that. Most history was played out before that time, and for today’s story I travel back to the 1100’s, the time of Henry II, one of the most notable kings in English history, and Cardinal Thomas a Beckett. Both were notable, partially for their lifestyles, and partially for their deaths. After Henry II was successful with his murder of Saint Thomas, he subjected his body to multiple tortures at his own command. In addition to his tortures, he spent a long time having himself whipped by a real whip designed by the Roman Catholic church for use on monks who were somewhat errant. They were whipped on command, and Henry II had himself whipped on his own command in retribution for his crime of having his favorite Cardinal murdered by three somewhat misguided nobles.

Thomas a Beckett was a nobleman himself before he was named a Cardinal. In their famous dispute, Thomas was elevated from the King’s favorite nobleman and the Chancellor of England to being a deacon, which is not a place for the ordained of the church, to a Cardinal, whose position was bought by the King. The King, who had high hopes for a good relationship with the new head of the English church, instead found that the person he had elevated to the head position of the English church, was going to be difficult to manuever around. Thomas took his church duties with the same intensity he had given to his secular ones.

First, my interest in this struggle was augmented by the movie of the 1950’s, “Beckett,” starring Richard Chamberlain and Richard Burton. The two acted out the famous dispute incredibly well. Pieces did not review the chaos totally evenly, but the essence of the problem was there. Beckett was a powerful man who took into his charge his love of the clergy. He spent six years in abeyance, trying to avoid the end that seemed to be made especially for him. Henry II showed that he was indeed the King of England and he took it upon himself to rid himself of the pesky Cardinal. In a moment of drunken stupor, he gave his nobles the necessary permission to end Beckett’s life. Beckett was the most popular of all the clergy in England at the time, and the net result of the end of the famous feud was that Henry had to subject himself to severe punishments. The reported result of the feud was that Henry had to give himself up to the church for his crimes. It was not common for the monarch to submit his body and soul to the church for his crimes. But Henry, misguided about the severity of the role he had assumed would play over himself, subjected himself to incredible punishments. In some ways his body would never get over the punishments.

An interesting story, which can be treated as an aside, was the fact that people who worshipped at the Canterbury Cathedral, the church where Beckett was stabbed to death, cited a story that the church had a rivulet of blood that changed into water when the bloody mess went under the front entrance. People took the water and used it for bathing aching parts of their bodies, and many had old aches disappeared. A secular group of people formed a congregate, listening to these remarkable stories. The most inexplainable one was about a man without eyes. His eyes had been removed years before on the order of the King. There was documentation which cited his punishment of blindness for his previous crime and, looking at his eyes, it was determined that he did not have any. But he stated that he could see the men formed by the King. He looked around the church and started to describe anything that was new to the church, including those people who were washing in the stream started as a response to Beckett’s bloody death.

The civil authorities had to admit that the man could see, without eyes. This miracle was attested to by the men sent by the King. Another miracle was formed one hundred years to the day that Beckett was killed. A very human nightman saw a spirit in robes of a man with the rank of a Cardinal, approach the front door of the prison of the Tower of London. According to the nightman, the spirit rapped three times on the gates of the Tower, spoke something in Latin, and the entire Tower fell in the Thames River. He swore that his testimony was true. Exactly one hundred years later, another nightman looked up while he was standing next to the Tower, and heard a similiar spirit approach the gates of the new Tower of London, speak in Latin, rap three times on the gate, and the new Tower fell into the Thames. People thought it was the late Cardinal a Beckett and they prayed to him.

e King Henry was to have a relatively miserable life. His three sons, Lionel, the Prince; Richard the Lionheart; and John, who became one of the worst kings in English history; fought their father. He was against them in his own army, when his bastard son forged forward to their father and said that he would join him. In one of the most quoted sayings in English history, Henry looked at him and said, “You are the real son, the others, they are the bastards.”

So that is my lesson on Henry II. He died eighteen years later, very unhappily. Sorry to go back to another century, but this one was interesting.