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Conspiracy in the Cathedral: the Murder of THOMAS a BECKET

Looks and Words That Kill...

"Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" This exasperated remark of King Henry II of England is what began the entire chain of events leading to the murder of Saint Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Becket did not begin life in a saintly manner. Low born with a shady past and few prospects for the future, Thomas was unremarkable except for a quick wit and keen intelligence. These soon brought him to Henry's attention and the two quickly became fast friends.

King and commoner started as companions in drink and depravity but soon Thomas became privy to the affairs of state. Many were angered but few were surprised when King Henry made his friend Chancellor of England.

Chancellor was the highest civil office in the land: it was an appointment which usually went to a member of the nobility and not to "base born knaves" like Thomas a Becket.

Yet Thomas did not care: he served his master the King quite capably and faithfully. So faithfully, in fact, that when the highest religious office in the land - the Archbishopric of Canterbury - fell vacant, Henry turned once again to his old friend. For King Henry's most pressing problem was the uncontrollable and independent Catholic Church in England.

Henry needed a man as Archbishop he could "rely on". The King was confident there was no one he could better control than his ever faithful servant, Chancellor of England, Thomas a Becket. Once again, Thomas proved to be faithful to his master. Only this time his master was God and not the King of England.

Almost from the start, Thomas as Archbishop of Canterbury opposed Henry, upholding the rights of the Church as staunchly as he had upheld the rights of the King when he was Chancellor. Relations between the two eventually deteriorated so badly that Becket had to flee England to save his life.

When Thomas finally returned home, the King was in France. It was then that Henry made his fateful remark. His "loyal knights" immediately set sail for Kent. On December 29, 1170, four of them - Richard Brito, Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh deMoreville, and William deTracy - entered Canterbury Cathedral.

It was late afternoon: vespers had already been sung. The cathedral was unusually empty. The knights split up and quietly searched for the Archbishop. They found Becket praying at an altar. Although he saw them, he did not rise until his prayers were completed. By then, all the conspirators had gathered around him.

Before they struck, the knights gave the Archbishop a final chance to end his "stubborn opposition" to the King's intervention in church affairs. For Henry had ordered them to give his former friend every chance to end their disputes peacefully. Yet, calmly, almost expecting martyrdom, Becket replied, "For the name of Jesus and the defence of the true church, I am willing to die".

This was all they needed to hear: they knew that Thomas would never abandon his principles. The knights set upon the Archbishop with a vengeance: mutilating far his body more horribly than history records. Out of love for Thomas, servants of the Cathedral covered up the knights' barbarity as best they could.

Public outrage - not just among the common people but among the nobility - was something King Henry had not anticipated. No one bought the spin doctoring Henry was selling: that he had made an idle remark and had intended Becket no harm. To appease the masses, King Henry even walked a mile of penance in humble garments through the streets of Canterbury.

For the rest of his life, the English monarch toughed it out: never once deviating from his story. He died confident that the truth was dying with him. And yet the mists of time can part and the truth can emerge.

King Henry had planned Becket's assassination from start to finish. The knights were acting on his direct orders. Servants of the cathedral were bribed to stay out of the way. So Henry II was guilty as charged in the murder of Thomas a Becket.

Credits: from one of those involved who knew the entire truth behind the murder.



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