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By Medieval artist, 19th century restorer — TTaylor, 2005, Public Domain,

Henry II vs. Thomas Becket

Many eyes throughout history have zoomed in on the conflict between the English king, Henry II, and the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. It is a drama that one’s imagination would struggle to create. Writers could not develop such a story.

The arguments and the horrible death of Becket make this a very interesting time in history. Most observers are unaware that this conflict was the reflection of what was happening in mainland Europe between the Church and the State. It was more than just an argument between two powerful men. It was an argument between religion and power.

The Situation

The Catholic Church was desperately trying to increase the power it had throughout all Christendom. This led to many disputes over where the boundaries of the Church’s authority lay and where that of the kings and rulers ended. Tradition became the murky waters that caused much turbulence.

One of the greatest struggles was between Pope Gregory VII and the Germanic king, Henry II. Henry refused to give up the tradition of choosing the clergy in his realm. It was an old tradition that was held special by the rulers of the kingdom. The Church demanded that it was their right only to make such decisions. It was, after all, the men who would serve the church and make up the governing body.

Verbal battles commenced with both sides having to concede in order to save face while refusing to change their stances.(1) To quote the Pope: “But if he shall presume to do so he shall clearly know that such investiture is bereft of apostolic authority, and that he himself shall lie under excommunication until fitting satisfaction shall have been rendered.” (2) They were determined to win and refused to back down for any reason. They only quieted the argument for the politeness of society.


Drama was not amiss in this struggle, but only in England could the true colors be seen of what was lying beneath the surface of the Church-State struggle for power. Outside of England it seemed to be nothing major. In England, it was a simmering volcano.

Henry’s fights with Becket, as the Pope’s representative, grew to alarming proportions. Things might not have progressed so far if the Pope was not focused so intently on the actions of the German king. This left England alone to fight the same battle on a different field.

Becket wanted to “limit the king’s authority over the English church.” (3) Though the principle was the same, the issue at hand in England was not over the appointment of clergy. It was over who was to be the judge of the clergy. Becket firmly believed that any clergy who was accused of a crime should be tried by ecclesiastical courts. Henry believed that they should be tried by the royal courts. (4)

Who’s In Charge?

When it came to the clergy, who was in charge of them? They reported to the Pope. He was their boss. So the church should take care of misconduct. Yet they lived in England, so the King saw it as his right. The rule was under the state and not the Church.

Back and forth they went, fighting over who had the authority. Becket refused to back down. He would not let the king take more power than he was entitled to. He was part of the body of the Church which ruled his life completely.

Stopped the World Around Them

The heart of the matter was no different than that being fought between the Pope and the German King. How far it went stopped the papacy and others in their tracks. It became a war that took on more than words.

In frustration, Henry wished that Becket was out of the picture and not troubling him anymore. We do this all the time with people or obstacles that frustrate us. Do we actually mean it? Maybe.

A few knights decided that this would be the perfect time to please the king. If a king wants something, he should get it, right? They entered the church at Canterbury and slew the archbishop Becket in the position of prayer. Unarmed and at a very vulnerable moment, Becket was killed.

All were shocked, including Henry who was just venting his frustration. The situation in England had gone further than anywhere else, but it was a sign of what was to come if both sides did not reign their tongues in.

Historical Debate

How serious was Henry? Most feel he was just venting. Others think he meant it and hoped they would take action. His response was to save face. The fact remains that the king got angry and to please him a murder was committed. It’s a question that may never be fully answered, but it gives us all something to discuss and debate. It also pushed the Church and State relationship further apart.


(1) Norman F. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1994), 268–271.

(2) Gregory VII, “Lay Investitures Forbidden 1080” Internet Medieval Sourcebook,, (accessed March 14, 2011)

(3) Cantor, 399.

(4) Ibid, 400.

Written by

Writer for ten years, lover of education, and degrees in business, history, and English. Striving to become a Renassiance woman.

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