Saturday, 5 October 2013

Who will rid me of this Turbulent Priest?

"Who will rid me of this Turbulent Priest?"

Supposedly the famous words uttered by king Henry II, which led to four knights travelling to England to confront Becket, but subsequently murdering him in Canterbury cathedral,

This is also recorded as

"Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?"

and also in English thus

"Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?"

"Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?"

"Will no one revenge me of the injuries I have sustained from one turbulent priest?"
"A curse," said he, "a curse light upon all the false varlets that I have maintained, who have left me so long exposed to this insolence from a priest, and have not attempted to relieve me of him!"

And in French

<<N'y aurait-il donc personne pour me débarrasser de ce clerc outrecuidant ?>>

All of these seem to be embellishments of descriptions of the event, deriving from 18th and 19th century English historiography and historical literature. No chronicler contemporary with those times was present when king Henry was said to have uttered these words.

Edward Grim, hagiographer, records the same event in his Life of Saint Thomas in Latin thus

"Inertes ac miseros homines enutrivi et erexi in regno meo, qui nec fidem ferunt domino suo, quem a plebeo quodam clerico tam probose patiuntur illudi."
   Saint Thomas (à Becket) (1845). Opera. Parker. pp. 68–.
    James Craigie Robertson. Materials for the History of Thomas Becket.Vol II p. 429–. 

"The worthless and pitiful men I have nurtured and raised in my kingdom, who bear no fealty to their lord [the king], who allow him to suffer so injuriously by a certain cleric of low-birth."

But he was not present then

His words have been embellished thus

"What a band of loathsome vipers I have nursed in my bosom who will let their lord be insulted by this low-born cleric!"

"What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their Lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?"

Garnier [writing in the 1170s]

Renders it thus

Garnier de Pont Sainte Maxence (1859). La vie de saint Thomas le martyr, publ. par C. Hippeau. pp. 175–.

« — Uns huem, fet lur li Reis, ki a mun pain mangié.
« Qui à ma curt vint povres, et mult l'ai esalcié,
« Pur mei ferir as denz a sun talun drescié!
« Trestut mun lignage ad et mun règne avilié!
« Li duels m'en veit al cuer! nuls ne m'en a vengié ! »

Michael Staunton (7 December 2001). The Lives of Thomas Becket. Manchester University Press. p. 189. ISBN 978-0-7190-5455-6.

From translation by Janet Shirley (1975) Garnier's Becket by Guernes (de Pont-Sainte-Maxence)

5031 'A man', the king said to them, 'who has eaten my bread, who came to my court poor, and I have raised him high— now he draws up his heel to kick me in the teeth! He has shamed my kin, shamed my realm; the grief goes to my heart, and no one has avenged me!'

Lyttelton [18th century]

Lord Lyttelton, in his biography of Henry the Second, wrote:-

"that he was very unfortunate to have maintained so many cowardly and ungrateful men in his court, none of whom would revenge him of the injuries be sustained from one turbulent priest."

Baron George Lyttelton Lyttelton (1769). The history of the life of King Henry the Second,... Printed for J. Dodsley. pp. 410–.

George Lyttelton Baron Lyttelton (1769). The History of the Life of King Henry the Second: And of the Age in which He Lived. J. Dodsley. pp. 353–

The English Review. Francis and John Rivington. 1853. pp. 114–.

Thierry [19th Century]

A translator of Thierry renders the event thus

"What!" exclaimed he, " a wretch who has eaten my bread, a beggar who came to my court on a limping pack-horse, carrying all his baggage at his hack, shall he insult his king, the royal family, and the whole kingdom, and not one of those dastardly knights whom I feed at my table will go and deliver me from a priest who insults me?"

Jacques Nicolas Augustin Thierry (1841). History of the conquest of England by the Normans [tr. by C.C. Hamilton].. pp. 188–.

Urry [20th century]

William Urry (1 November 1999). Thomas Becket: His Last Days. Sutton. p. 66. ISBN 978-0-7509-2179-4.

'One man, contemptuous of what I have done for him, brings shame upon the whole royal family and goes trampling across my kingdom while no one avenges me. One man, this low-born clerk, came pushing his way into my court mounted on a lame pack-mare. Now he is turning out the proper heir and sits in triumph on the throne while all you lot, who were companions in his rise, just stand watching.'


The whole circumstance and its description seems be nothing more than pure hagiography.

There is in large measure an allusion to the biblical events of the Last Supper. There is a huge lifting of the language used in the Bible from one of the psalms to assist in the description of the event. These were common tricks used in those time to enhance a hagiography.

Richard Sorensen (1 January 2007). Unholy Grail. Xulon Press. pp. 192–. ISBN 978-1-60034-998-0.

Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me.

which was said to have foretold of Jesus' comment about one of his apostles' intended betrayal of Him at the Last Supper. 

Edward Grim seems to have been quite a good story-teller, and may have embellished the truth accordingly, as story-tellers do using biblical episodes.

The real history

It is hugely likely that Henry did lose his temper, provoking four of his loyal knights to leave his court in France, and travel to England, and afterwards these knights to confront Becket in his cathedral at Canterbury, and subsequently murder him following an altercation having taken place.

Garnier states that Roger de Pont L'Évêque, archbishop of York, gave each of the four knights 60 marks of silver, to cover their expenses of going to England, a considerable sum of money.

William Urry The Normans in Canterbury pp. 137-8
Annales de Normandie  Année   1958    Volume   8    Numéro   8-2    pp. 119-138

Thomas Becket (st., abp. of Canterbury.) (1838). Leben des h. Thomas von Canterbury, altfranzösisch, herausg. von I. Bekker. pp. 135.


John Guy (2012). Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim: A 900-Year-Old Story Retold. Penguin Books Limited. pp. 411–. ISBN 978-0-14-193328-3.

James J. Spigelman (2004). Becket & Henry: The Becket Lectures. James Spigelman. pp. 249–. ISBN 978-0-646-43477-3.

Arthur Penrhyn Stanley (1855). Historical Memorials of Canterbury. John Murray. pp. 38–.
Historical memorials of Canterbury. ... The Murder of Becket (1883)
pp 59-125

NationMaster Encyclopedia: Thomas Becket.

Alfred Lord Tennyson.  Becket and Other Plays: By Alfred Lord Tennyson.  pp. 119–. ISBN 978-1-60778-028-1.

BBC Cathedral Series
Murder at Canterbury - YouTube

The Medieval Review 00.05.03
Urry, William. Thomas Becket: His Last Days. New York: Sutton, 1999.
Reviewed by: Phyllis Roberts 

Edwin A. Abbott
St. Thomas of Canterbury, his death and miracles (1898) Volume 1
St. Thomas of Canterbury, his death and miracles (1898) Volume 2

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