Thomas Becket – A Canterbury Murder Tale

In 1170, Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in an act that sent shock-waves through English society. The main sketch for this episode focuses on the investigation and subsequent trial of the ones alleged to have done the deed.

Air Date: April 8, 2002

In the 12th century controversial clergyman Thomas Becket was struck down in his cathedral by knights loyal to King Henry II. It’s a case of papal power vs. the kings power, separation of church and state, and jurisdiction in courts. The murder case is solved and prosecuted in a parody of Law & Order

YouTube Transcript

Thomas Becket

Welcome to History Bites I’m Rick Green.  Whenever someone famous or rich gets off scot-free for a crime it seems as if there’s one set of laws for a select few and another for the rest of us.

In fact in medieval England that’s exactly how it was.  Officially there was one set of laws for most folks that the King enforced and another set implemented in a separate Court which applied to the clergy.

This was good for priests who could speak their conscience without worrying too much about what the King thought.

It wasn’t so good for the King who had to listen to it all.  King Henry wanted the church firmly under his control so he had his right-hand man and Chancellor Thomas Becket ordained as

Archbishop of Canterbury, the top cleric in the land.

Now that two of them could harmonize the legal systems in Henry’s own special way and put an end to the church courts.

That was Henry’s plan but it went awry leading to murder, betrayal and courtroom drama.

All the ingredients for prime-time television.

In the anglo-saxon criminal justice system there are two distinct but equally important bodies, the king, who controls the ley courts and the church which oversees the ecclesiastic courts

these are their stories.

Helen you’re back in Canterbury like the
Barry need you in Northumbria you just
needed some extra help cleaning up the
castle after the stage messy huh whole
nine yards corpses of diseased animals
fired over the walls to spread the
plague and I’d be surprised if that
mountain has never had a brush to him
just either ring around that thing I
don’t even get me started on the
portcullis don’t worry I won’t by the
way and one of those new ones with the
middle spikes on it I mean it’s not
enough they have to crush anyone who
tries to get in they have to shish kebab
them as well do you know how hot it is
to try and get a man’s body out front of
those spikes especially when it’s been
dried on oh my god I’m gonna be sick
you are imagine being there it’s not
like they supplied me with a pair of
stop spinning that would yeah well he
sure did a number on that guy I found
this on the floor Maggie
oh and I got this – I I know it looks
like the top of his head and I thought
he just had the world’s worst haircut
anybody know who this guy is
yeah there’s his mitre and his Crozier
it’s the Archbishop of Canterbury the
closest person to God in all of England
yeah that looks like he just got a whole
lot closer
who is accused of murder underwent a
traditional trial by ordeal sticking his
hand into a pot of boiling water and
removing stones three days later no
blisters in a normal traveler deal the
lack of blistering of the clear proof of
innocence but like more and more people
faced trial by ordeal this blacksmith
had prepared himself by reciting magic
spells and then coating is on with an
enchanted mixture of egg white and
radishes a nice flashpoint with the new
merchant clash buying expensive terms
and chemical mixtures to ward off burns
and boils is this a case of justice for
well witnesses say there were four of
them along with a contingent of soldiers
but they weren’t from around here so
nobody recognized them I found a few
monks who might have seen something but
I couldn’t get anything out of them beat
them I threatened them but they refused
to talk
were they Carthusians right I think so
yeah you know they’ve taken a vow of
silence right hey hey what do you think
you’re doing we’re taking over this case
that’s what hey that man was the highest
official of the Kings Court and we’re of
officers of the king’s court sorry that
disappoints you
lieutenant canonic internal affairs
that’s right this matter took place
inside a church that means it falls
under canon law and will be tried in the
ecclesiastic court you’re out of your
yeah we’ll call you if we need you for
anything juris ciao stink diction my
hindquarters we’re not giving up that
easily all right what do you got well
from what I gather the killers must have
been upset that the archbishop Beckett
had suspended and excommunicated the
Kings bishops and Plus get this
he threatened to invalidate the
coronation of King Henry’s son talk
about making powerful enemies the King
doesn’t get much bigger was the
archbishop involved in anything else any
other beefs to arrests hey what about
that shoemaker case yeah Andrew of
Greenwood was the arresting bailiff yeah
yeah yeah yeah he was a shoemaker all
right I’ve been killed a guy in cold
blood right on the grounds of an abbey
it doesn’t say anything here about a
punishment oh yeah there was a
punishment all right a public whipping
well at least those monks made him pay
his debt to society what you kidding me
how they released him then they said I
never should have made an arrest for a
crime that was committed on church
grounds yeah
then they whipped me punk monks you know
much river and I took for life down at
the station I can imagine yeah
and then they asked me if I’d make the
arrests in the Philip of broy case too
and I said yeah right like I’m gonna get
my ass flogged
I don’t think so I’ve always loved
mathematics I can go all the way up to
20 without using my fingers or toes 21
at the public baths I often use these
numbers to tell people how many things I
have or in the market to say how many of
something I want I can ask the pie man
for the largest possible number of pies
which in my case is 20 or the smallest
possible number which is one it’s a
great system but now the Arabs are
saying our way of counting doesn’t add
we need a new smallest number a number
they call a zero a number that means
nothing in math terms we’ve hit a new
low why should i memorize this new
number what can you possibly can with it
nothing how many things can you count
not at all
if I go up to the pieman tape I want a
number of pies he asks me how many how
is he going to react if I say zero does
he ask me for zero pennies in exchange
because of the wild boas is that why
you’re worrying George not Gracie I’m
not worried
I was just wool gathering oh my uncle
stamps used to do that oh yeah he was
lazy oh no he was a sheep Rustler he
pulled the wool right out from under
your eyes
knuckle stomps Toshi oh why sure sheep
do anything he could catch until he was
caught then one day he lost all his hair
because of the Hat oh no because they
cut off his head
sheep whistling why didn’t they just cut
off one hand
well it wasn’t his first offense that’s
what he called him Uncle Sam you but we
called him stump the teasin was shorter
after they cut off his head in this day
and age a number like zero could be very
useful after all
it’s a number most of us can relate to
how much food of you got zero how much
land do you own zero how many of your
kids lived through the winter 0 for 6
I’m Andrew brownie my Aunt Laura used to
have to feed him through the neck from
the handle of the wooden spoon
drip drip just like that in sickness and
in health George they were closer than
they’d ever been and then one day she
was feeding him as usual and her
bracelet slid off her wrist and imagine
dying on the bracelet yeah she must have
been said oh sure it was a favorite
it doesn’t take a wizard or an alchemist
to see that the blow was strong so
strong in fact that it severed the top
of the Archbishop’s head and broke off
when the sword struck the ground looks
like we’re looking for someone who knew
how to handle a sword you got that right
a two-hander – I ran it through the
system and came up with the match a
sword with this balance and strength
could only come from one place Toledo
Spain sorry
Toledo where Alito Spain where they make
the finest sword in the world
not many Nobles would have the expertise
to use a sword like this let alone the
resources to buy it your assailants were
pros gentlemen Knights vicious ones – I
examined the body and found out that
after they cut off the top of mr.
Beckett’s head they stuck another sword
in and scrambled his brains around a
little I guess I didn’t want Pickett
remembering who killed him when he
showed up in heaven huh when we come
back how business problems can kill a
friendship and a friend
when British church leader Thomas Becket
was ordained Archbishop of Canterbury by
King Henry
well Henry expected something in return
you anoint my back I’ll anoint yours he
figured Becket would ensure that his
reforms of the ecclesiastic courts were
pushed through finally there would be
one justice system for both clergy and
ordinary folk a system run by King Henry
but Becket wouldn’t play ball he defied
the king and upheld many ecclesiastical
privileges why well some say he wanted
to show the world he wasn’t just Henry’s
yes-man others say that once he’d been
ordained he suddenly got all religious
maybe he just liked the power whatever
it was from King Henry’s perspective
Thomas had gone from archbishop to
Phillipa broy go ahead make a move
I’ve got you right here like you did to
that night hey there was three years ago
now I was acquitted for that how do you
murder a knight and then get it okay
okay take it easy guys okay I was never
tried in the lay courts okay
it’s a system c-come on as a member of
the clergy I could be tried in
ecclesiastic court instead all you do is
swear an oath in front of the archbishop
that’s off the hook
nice yeah it’s pretty sweet there’s this
little legal loophole of anything to do
with Thomas Beckett’s death okay okay
look I don’t know much but I knew doe
the to court system okay I know the
whole thing it’s the law it’s how the
whole thing started King Henry wanted
more power over his court and as
itinerant justice courts so the King
didn’t like seeing the clergy beat the
rap yes right yeah he was he was tired
of the clerics walking on crimes that
they would have got the rock showered
for it they had they been in lay courts
so Henry wanted jurisdiction but his old
buddy Beckett wouldn’t play ball huh and
that’s why Henry summon the council at
Clarendon to establish the Kings
customary rights over the church hey man
that’s only no I swear
for women and with men going on Crusades
there’s more and more interest in
chastity belts so much for clothes make
the man with the men gone for months or
god forbid years you want a chastity
belt that’s comfy look for the label
make sure it’s forged by a designer
blacksmith you want a good forger not
food and his talking stump now coming up
later in the show reginald of exeter
singing his courtly love song milady is
not of this earth and my desires are so
based in common they Sully her very
being in a document called the
Constitution’s of Clarendon King Henry
set out to increase the power of his lay
courts the document said essentially
okay if a member of the clergy is
charged with a crime than the church or
ecclesiastic courts could determine the
verdict but the state’s court would
determine the punishment when Becket
refused to approve the document
Henry became incensed so Becket did what
most of us would do when faced with a
king throwing a temper tantrum he fled
to France for six years
Beckett told the king he’d signed the
Clarendon documents then he backed out
wouldn’t sign the king was mad at
Beckett mad enough to kill mad enough to
bring him up on perjury charges that’s
what forced Beckett into exile for six
years yeah
similar thing happened to me and my
first wife she found out I was a liar I
got out of town so this exile of Beckett
created more bad blood between them then
he came back from exile and Becket
excommunicated all the Kings bishops
sounds like motive to me
let’s bring in some of the king’s nests
for questioning
wait a minute just the two of us you saw
what they did to the archbishop
gentlemen I suggest you wear very hard
hats yeah come on ray there are heads
for wild dogs and finally from a story
about crime and punishment to a story
about crime prevention our roads that
highways could become safer for
commercial travelers and pilgrims on
pilgrimages authorities are planning to
cut down underbrush and trees up to a
hundred yards on either side of major
this will increase cart driver
visibility and make it easier to see
highway robbers as well ditches will be
filled in denying bandits a hiding place
in places where these measures have been
tried the number of highway robberies
has declined dramatically the goal is to
reduce the crime rate in rural areas
until a dangerous rural areas are as
safe as big cities
any chance we can try this in the late
courts instead of the ecclesiastic
I don’t know Adam the four Knights say
they were acting on orders from the king
now the king isn’t a member of the
clergy and he wasn’t on church grounds
when the murder took place he says he
never told him to do anything who do we
believe I don’t care who you believe you
get somebody they’re calling our
departed Archbishop a martyr and the
Pope’s office wants a conviction maybe
if we offer one of the Knights of Deal
absolution if he rolls on the others we
don’t have the authority to be what is
it more good news apparently they’ve
already discovered three miracles by mr.
Beckett’s great is that a bad thing
having your victim pronounced the same
before we get a conviction
that’s a bad thing that people be
calling for our heads or maybe just the
top piece of our heads in a related
story criminals denied their traditional
cover for highway robberies are now
staging mass raids into towns and
markets so your majesty these four
Knights were in your service so what
everyone’s in my service I’m the king
and as the king King Henry you get to
order the executions of people all the
time isn’t that right sure if they
commit a capital crime it’s one of the
perks of the job it’s perfectly legal
when the clergy break the law they’re
tried in ecclesiastical court what do
you think of that Court not much because
they’re not allowed to pass sentences of
execution or mutilations that’s right
and you resent the fact that your
judicial system can’t punish the clergy
you’re damn right I do
I’m the king it’s my god-given right to
be able to mutilate whoever I see fit
but you took it one step further this
time the execution was an archbishop it
wasn’t an execution it was an accident
so you admit you had him killed no I
didn’t tell them to kill him sure I was
upset with Thomas but all I said was who
will rid me of this turbulent priest I
never thought they’d cut his head off
if I wanted that I would have said can
one of you Knights please go slice the
Archbishop’s head open something like
no further questions
in medieval times Europe was run by the
church and the nobility the church gave
the nobility God’s stamp of approval the
nobility gave the church protection but
where there’s power there’s conflict for
the average serf back in 1170 it wasn’t
easy to decide which side was right the
state or the church I mean the king was
the sovereign ruler of the land but the
church had another King on their side
Jesus Christ
so people were confused about who to
believe of course back then they were
confused about a lot of things and I
believe we have Roger on the line what
can we do for you Roger
well I’ve been married for 10 years and
I lost my wife and I had a loving
relationship and then two weeks ago she
gave birth to twins twins I feel so
betrayed boy you know the twins are
always tough to take because as you know
it means that your wife has to be
impregnated by two different men I know
what do I do now well clearly to satisfy
your honor you need to kill the man who
did this but the question is how do you
find that man so let me ask you who do
the babies look like really the truth is
the only person they look like is each
what what is it well two babies who look
identical family resemblance no your
wife obviously had relations with your
brother on the same night she did with
well it was kind of like King Henry said
me and Sir Richard and Sir William and
Sir Hugh were hanging around at the
palace when King Henry got word that
Thomas Becket had suspended all of his
bishops who had helped in his son’s
so King Henry got kind of mad and any he
started shouting who will rid me of this
turbulent priest like he said and so me
and Huey and Richy and Willie we’re all
like oh and you thought the King was
serious well yeah I mean if you don’t
want someone to rid you of someone why
ask Sir William can you describe what
happened when the four of you arrived at
Canterbury Cathedral well we went inside
crust ourselves lit some votive candles
put some coins in the poor box and then
we killed the archbishop did the
archbishop have a weapon sir you did a
strike at any of you
no he didn’t want to fight we had to
really push it then he kind of sort of
figured out this was it and he knelt and
prayed which made it easier to get him
King Henry ii for your part of this
brutal slaying there will be an
introductory or lands in Normandy in
addition to a personal interdict upon
you you shall not be allowed to enter a
church for a period of not less than
three years and your men Reginald
Fitzurse William of Tracy Hume Orville
and Richard de Breton I find you all
guilty in the murder of Archbishop
Thomas Becket your penance shall be a
crusade in the holy land for a period of
not less than 40 I feel bad for King
Henry they say fasted for days when he
heard the news of Becket’s death I don’t
think he meant for this to happen well
he didn’t try to stop them don’t forget
who the real victim here is the man who
had a skull sliced open don’t feel too
sorry for the late Archbishop Thomas
Becket devoted his entire life to
strengthening the powers of the church
and reforming the archaic customs of
England do you think those things would
be happening as quickly as they are now
if he were still alive that’s the
problem with being a murder you never
get to see your best work
thomas becket was canonized only three
years after his death in today’s terms
that’s like waiving the mandatory five
year waiting period to get Gretzky into
the Hockey Hall of Fame he was that
popular from Beckett’s example people
learned the virtue of standing up for
one’s principles they also learned that
no matter how important you are
oppose the king in your history and
history bites so my question to you Jake
would be why do so many women partake in
this lurid behavior when they have to
know they’re gonna get caught well you
know unfortunately women are so
insatiable that they feed their ravenous
desires without even thinking about the
consequences and and what’s even worse
these women more often than not deny
their obvious unfaithfulness but it as
they say the proof is in the pudding of
whatever other nicknames he has for her