Henry II and Thomas Becket

I recently read an historical novel about a stone mason/church builder during the latter part of the 11th Century and into the 12th. The English King, Henry II was an intelligent, interesting and able ruler. He is known for an ongoing argument with a close friend, Thomas Becket. Becket’s father was a Crusader and his mother was a princess.

In 1156, Henry appointed Becket, at the age of 38, to be the chancellor of England. That was the highest civil service position in the land.  During his term in that office Becket ruled in power and was in essence a de facto king, Henry’s closest ally.

In 1162 Henry wanted to appoint Thomas as archbishop of Canterbury.  Becket opposed this move and warned Henry that if Thomas was appointed it would break their friendship. In spite of that, Henry was made the head of the Church of England. In protest, Becket traded his splendid clothes for rags and wandered through his cloisters shedding tears for past sins. He whipped himself, read the Bible, and spent hours in prayer. And to Henry’s horror, Becket consistently sided with church against crown. The frantic king finally banished his onetime close friend from the country.

On this day, December 1, 1170, Becket returned, electrifying all England. Henry, in a careless moment of rage, shouted, “By the eyes of God, is there none of my cowardly courtiers who will deliver me from this turbulent priest?” Four knights took up the challenge, and on December 29 they fell on Becket during evening vespers. “In the name of Christ and for the defense of his church, I am ready to die,” Becket uttered as the blows fell. “Lord, receive my spirit.” The attackers slashed at his head, spilling his blood and brains on the floor.

Becket’s murder caused waves of horroried reactions in the Christian community and the tide of popular opinion quickly turned against him. In order to make atonement, Henry walked through Canterbury’s streets with bleeding feet, entered the cathedral, kissed the spot where Becket had died, and placed his head and shoulders on Becket’s tomb. There he was flogged by the priests.

Alas, however, the remainder of his days were filled with calamity and Henry died with a broken spirit and cursing the day he was born. In some ways that reminds me of Cain, who in a fit of anger killed his brother Abel.

I was reminded by this story of the terrible damage that can be done in a fit of anger. Wars can be started, friendships dissolved, marriages destroyed, children broken in spirit and testimonies lost. We’ve all seen it in action, even on our highways where it manifests itself as “road rage.” Fits of anger rarely, if ever, accomplish anything positive. They almost always leave the angry one to be the loser. And that which is lost is very difficult, if not impossible, to regain.

“The angry man stirs up all kinds of trouble, and the passionate or furious man commits plenty of sins.” – Proverbs 29.22.