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Thomas Becket and the Constitutions of Clarendon

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  • 0:05 Positions of Power in England
  • 1:08 Becket Becomes Bishop
  • 2:23 Constitutions of Clarendon
  • 3:39 Becket's Murder
  • 5:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explain the power struggle between Church and State in medieval England. It will focus on King Henry II, Thomas Becket, and the Constitutions of Clarendon.

Positions of Power in England

During the Middle Ages, the Church held extreme power. People were afraid of dying and going to hell, and it was preached that the Church alone held the keys to heaven. For this reason, the Pope held crazy power throughout medieval Europe. Along the same lines, the Archbishop of Canterbury stood right behind the Pope, holding the highest position within the Church of England. Also within England, the King had some real power. With all these power players, it's not hard to see why conflicts often arose.

With the powerful force of the Church and the King both vying for power in England, things could get really a bit hairy. Who was the ultimate authority, the Church or the King? On more than one occasion, this power struggle came to a head. Today we're going to explore one particular time in which this occurred. Its main players were King Henry II of England and Thomas Becket, good friends turned to opponents in the struggle for power.

Becket Becomes Bishop

In the year 1162, Thomas Becket was appointed to the powerful position of Archbishop of Canterbury. Now remember, this meant he was the highest Church official in all of England. He was also a very good friend of King Henry II, the very man who appointed him to his new rule. Like many kings before him, Henry liked having an ally in such a high church position. Making the setup even more fun, both Henry II and Becket loved hunting, socializing, and generally being rather secular. What could be better than having your friend, who just happened to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, in your royal corner? In essence, it was the perfect setup of 'you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours'! Or so Henry II thought.

Unfortunately for Henry II, history tells us Becket was serious about his new position - so serious that he gave up his lavish, fun-filled lifestyle. Even more surprising to the king was that, when push came to shove, Thomas Becket put the Church above his friend, the King. Nowhere was this more plainly seen than in the conflict of the Constitutions of Clarendon.

Constitutions of Clarendon

The Constitutions of Clarendon were an attempt by King Henry II to prove his law was more important than Church law. Seeing the power of the Church growing, Henry II wanted to make it clear that clergymen were still under the jurisdiction of the crown. In other words, law-breaking clergymen, known as criminous clerks, would be forced to answer not just to the church, but to the crown. Going a step further, Henry II's Constitutions of Clarendon also made it illegal for the clergy to appeal to the Pope without first getting express permission from the crown.

Now, at first the clergy of England said 'yes' to the Constitutions. Tradition tells us Becket was very uncomfortable with this decision, but, in deference to the king, he agreed. However, when the residing Pope Alexander said, 'Oh no, I don't think so' to the Constitutions, Thomas Becket reversed his position and also denied the validity of the king's Clarendon Constitutions. In other words, Becket no longer had the king's back. As you can imagine, this didn't sit so well with the king, and Becket, in fear for his life, actually fled from England.

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