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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Another Henry in Trouble over Becket

Henry II and Thomas Becket
'Who shall rid me of this meddlesome priest?'

Whether Henry II truly uttered these words in 1170 or not, by 1538, the trouble with Thomas Becket had not been concluded. Lacking patience with his subjects looking to anyone but himself as a higher power, Henry VIII, a distant grandson of Becket's antagonist, destroyed the shrine of Saint Becket to put an end to prayers directed toward the king-defying martyr.

Just as Henry II's actions were not without consequence, Henry VIII found his irreverent treatment of religious relics and saints' remains under fire. He did not, however, model his reaction upon that of his ancestor. Where Henry II had done penance for his part in leading knights to believe he wished Becket dead, Henry VIII was not one for humbling himself.

Becket's assassination from
De Grey Book of Hours
Before destroying the Canterbury shrine, Henry VIII sent a commission to charge the saint with violating the newly enacted laws of supremacy. As if baiting his Catholic subjects, Henry ordered that Thomas Becket be given ten days to appear in his own defense against the charge of treason before the shrine would be destroyed. When the dead man predictably missed his day in court, the king ordered the grave decimated and Becket's bones burned and the remains scattered that they might not be collected for worship.

Canterbury had been the center of Christianity in England long before the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, but its popularity as a destination for pilgrims surged almost immediately after the famous priest's death. Even 368 years later, Henry VIII was offended and threatened by the people's love for the saint. He may not have anticipated the consequences of his attempt to rid himself of the cult dedicated to Saint Becket.

Condemnation for Henry came from a familiar source, his own cousin, Cardinal Reginald Pole. He had regularly written to the king to advise him in spiritual matters. It was advice that Henry did not appreciate. Pole attempted to point out that Henry II had received praise and forgiveness because of his humility and repentance after Becket's death. If he hoped that Henry Tudor would follow suit, Pole would be disappointed. But he was used to that with Henry. Pole had attempted to advise Henry on a multitude of issues related to his Great Matter, and had been repeatedly ignored. Rather than consider the Cardinal's advice, Henry called him a traitor, and Pole's family remaining in England paid the price for his words.

Pole's voice was not a lone one. Pope Paul III excommunicated Henry for his stunning actions, a step that had little effect upon the man who had already convinced himself that no one, not even the pope, had power greater than his own.

While Henry's desecration of Becket's tomb may not have silenced the voice of those who worshiped the saint any more than his break with Rome rid his country of Catholics, he could take some comfort in the estimated £1,000,000 in spoils retrieved from the shrine and given a new home within the king's treasury.