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December 29, 2005


Mary Kay

Amy, my jaw literally dropped when I read that Thomas Becket was voted worst person. Talk about distorting the truth.


The principles Becket died for were institutionalized clericalism and absolute privilege from civil authority. If the principles he championed would have triumphed, we would have thousands of pedophile priests still in place......because we know for a fact that the hierarchy will not police its own.

On the other hand, it would be hard to characterize him as the absolute worst of the 12th Century....


I vote we put them in the stocks, read them the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and then throw rotten eggs at 'em until they repent.

Seriously. Before Thomas was born, the 12th century was the time of the squabbles between Stephen and Matilda. England was in ruins.

"They oppressed the wretched people of the country severely with castle-building. When the castles were built, they filled them with devils and wicked men. Then, both by night and day they took those people that they thought had any goods - men and women - and put them in prison and tortured them with indescribable torture to extort gold and silver - for no martyrs were ever so tortured as they were. They were hung by the thumbs or by the head, and corselets were hung on their feet. Knotted ropes were put round their heads and twisted till they penetrated to the brains.

"They put them in prisons where there were adders and snakes and toads, and killed them like that. Some they put in a 'torture-chamber' - that is in a chest that was short, narrow and shallow, and they put sharp stones in it and pressed the man in it so that he had all his limbs broken. In many of the castles was a 'noose-and-trap' - consisting of chains of such a kind that two or three men had enough to do to carry one. It was so made that it was fastened to a beam, and they used to put a sharp iron around the man's throat and his neck, so that he could not in any direction either sit or lie or sleep, but had to carry all that iron. Many thousands they killed by starvation.

"I have neither the ability nor the power to tell all the horrors nor all the torments they inflicted upon wretched people in this country; and that lasted the nineteen years while Stephen was king, and it was always going from bad to worse. They levied taxes on the villages every so often, and called it' 'protection money'. When the wretched people had no more to give, they robbed and burned the villages, so that you could easily go a whole day's journey and never find anyone occupying a village, nor land tilled. Then corn was dear, and meat and butter and cheese, because there was none in the country. Wretched people died of starvation; some lived by begging for alms, who had once been rich men; some fled the country.

"There had never been till then greater misery in the country, nor had heathens ever done worse than they did. For contrary to custom, they respected neither church nor churchyard, but took all the property that was inside, and then burnt the church and everything together. Neither did they respect bishops' land nor abbots' nor priests', but robbed monks and clerics, and everyone robbed somebody else if he had the greater power. If two or three men came riding to a village, all the villagers fled from them; they expected they would be robbers.

"The bishops and learned men were always excommunicating them, but they thought nothing of it, because they were all utterly accursed and perjured and doomed to perdition.

"Wherever cultivation was done, the ground produced no corn, because the land was all ruined by such doings, and they said openly that Christ and his saints were asleep. Such things too much for us to describe, we suffered nineteen years for our sins."

Henry II was a "good guy" for bringing all that back under law. But in his love for centralization and law, he did have a tendency to head for totalitarianism and the iron hand. That's why Becket died. It may not have been for civil and religious rights people like much today, but back then, it was important. And Henry's repentance and Becket's cult was a big reason why medieval England was a pretty free place, till the Tudors came.

You could definitely vote for Prince Henry as most idiotic, though. His rebellion was just plain stupid. All he had to do was wait for Henry II to die, and he'd rake in the whole pot of England and half of France. But noooooo.


"And Henry's repentance and Becket's cult was a big reason why medieval England was a pretty free place, till the Tudors came."

When they made pilgrimage to Canterbury and kissed Thomas' saintly bones, the kings of England knew in their own bones that they were not the ultimate source of law in their kingdom. They were servants of God and England, subject to the laws of the land just like anyone else. They were responsible for protecting and respecting every nook and corner of liberty, just like anyone else.

That's what I meant to say....

Re: ecclesiastical courts

Ecclesiastical courts protected the rights and academic freedom of countless European students and scholars. Ecclesiastical courts allowed priests to tell the local lord to his face, in front of the whole parish, that he was doing something sinful. They did let some unworthy people off on technicalities, just like today's courts. But in general, they were a good thing and a buffer for freedom in many unfree places. If you believe otherwise, you've probably been listening to a lot of Tudor propaganda. :)


I think poor St Thomas has suffered enough. His murder was rather grotesque and unpleasant. Henry VIII ordered his body exhumed and incinerated. And have you SEEN that hideous 'shrine' the Cathedral put up on the site of the martyrdom?

Donald R. McClarey

These polls of historians are usually unintentionally amusing. They say nothing about the historical events, but much about the prejudices of the historians polled. Becket is, of course, an extemely uncongenial, not to say incomprehensible, figure to the secularists that infest academia, particularly in Europe. For them the secular State is their God and the State is a jealous deity and will brook no rivals. It is of course a completely wrong-headed view. I think an independant Church is one of the main reasons that we have any freedoms today. It is no accident that the Tudors, Henry VIII and Elizabeth being the closest to absolute monarchs in English history, created a puppet Church firmly under the royal thumb. Henry II was taking the first steps down that path. Saint Thomas Becket died a martyr for Christ and for a Church free from state control.

John M

I remember Titus Oakes as a record store here in NY that would buy and sell used records (vinyl). I certainly would have included him as the worst person of the 20th century when one of his minions would only pay me 50 cents for my used copy of "Cornerstone" by Styx.

Hunk Hondo

A strange list indeed. I'm wondering how Chaucer (or anybody) could have been a "closet Catholic" a century and a half before the reformation. (BTW, it sure would have saved me a lot of trouble on my dissertation if I could have cited a member of Monty Python as a source.) And the guy who said that Hugh le Despenser "browbeated" the people must have slepted through his grammar class. But it's hard to argue with the presence of Titus Oates and Richard Rich.


Highly suspicious list!
Why no mention of the usual suspects?
Mary Tudor
William Allen
Guy Fawkes
James II

James Kabala

Actually, this was a pretty fair-minded list on the whole. We have three centuries in a row where the worst person - Rich, Oates, and Cumberland - was a noted enemy of Catholicism. As Paul points out, they overlooked some pretty easy Catholic targets.
Hondo: I suspect that the reporter got it backwards and meant "closet Lollard." Believe it or not, Terry Jones has done some work on Chaucer that is pretty well-respected in the field. My own Chaucer professor discussed in class an article Jones wrote in the 1970s claiming that Chaucer's attitude towards the Knight in the Canterbury Tales was one of scorn rather than, as traditionally believed, admiration and treated it as a serious scholarly argument, although the professor himself disagreed with it and upheld the traditional view. This claim about Arundel seems over the deep end, however; I highly doubt that Arundel or anyone else murdered Chaucer.

Hunk Hondo

Fascinating, James. I'll have to look into that. Of course, it's SOP nowadays to say that anybody in the Middle Ages who condemned abuses in the Church was a heretic or proto-Protestant. If More had died earlier, the same claim could have been speciously made of him.

Rich Leonardi

There's that line in Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited" where Cordelia says of Lady Marchmain "I sometimes think when people wanted to hate God they hated Mummy."

One wonders whether Becket is a stand-in not for God but for the now universally lionized (and therefore off-limits) figure of Thomas More. If "divisiveness" is dispositive, More is your man.

Maureen O'Brien

Now that I'm reading this poll:

Brownshirt Mosley was the most evil Briton of the 20th century? Oh, please. He was scum, but not even close. Howzabout Kim Philby, who betrayed hundreds of brave people? How about Paisley? How about whoever made Britain socialist and nearly destroyed it?

Jack the Ripper was the worst Briton of the 19th century. Yeah, right. He only killed a few women. What about robber baron industrialists who killed hundreds of women and children, not to mention grown men? What about eeeevil imperialists? What about all those crazy anarchists and nationalists who kept blowing people up in messy ways?

15th century -- Arundel is being convicted on a guess? In a century that featured such foul fiends in human form as those darned Tudors chose to employ? What about "Morton's Fork"? That's pure evil, if you like. Chancellor John Morton was even a bishop, which should delight the anti-clerical sort.

Kevin Jones

The principles Becket died for were institutionalized clericalism and absolute privilege from civil authority. If the principles he championed would have triumphed, we would have thousands of pedophile priests still in place......because we know for a fact that the hierarchy will not police its own.

Was clericalism all that likely in a pre-Trent world where priests were often poorly educated, or forced into the clergy by economic or political necessity, or cynically pushed there so they couldn't compete with their siblings' claims for title and property inheritance, or to claim benefices for themselves? I highly doubt people didn't notice such things and thus possess a touch of cynicism about the secular clergy.

I don't know if clericalism is possible without the apparently recent and very naive habit of treating every man's claim to a priestly vocation as true and prima facie trustworthy, or proven by the fact of his ordination.


English historians have been fighting, and losing, a rearguard action for relevancy ever since 1066 And All That memorably came out in 1930. And this is a Good Thing.

thomas tucker

And, maybe we do have thousands of pedophile priests still in place. Who knows?


"English historians have been fighting, and losing, a rearguard action for relevancy ever since 1066 And All That memorably came out in 1930."

There's a blast from the past -- one of my elementary school teachers was a fervent Anglophile and would amuse us with this book all the time. (He also introduced us to Shakespeare, the Savoy operettas, "Coars Acting", and the works of Dickens long before the curriculum called for him.)
Mr. G was only ever to be addressed as "sir," and I may be remembering incorrectly, but I think his students were the only ones with any manners in the school.
Hadn't thought of this book in years and will have to try and find a copy now.

Lists like this are intentionally absurd to attract notice and provoke disagreement.


It wasn't clear to me that the selection process was even complete. This is what the cited article actually said:

"The BBC's History Magazine has asked historians to make their selections, and now the public can vote. Ian Herbert examines the front-runners."

Sandra Miesel

Terry Jones' book on Chaucer's Knight, whom he claims is really Sir John Hawkwood, is a nasty piece of work and not to be taken seriously.
Given that clerics constituted about 5% of the medieval English population, their claims of impunity from secular courts--even for murder--had enormous social consequences. Church courts were notoriously lenient, so men were eager to claim "privilege of clergy" for even the minor orders. Despite BECKET,which is unhistorical in a lot of details, such as his supposed humble Anglo-Saxon origins, Thomas wasn't the most likeable saint in the calendar.

Patte Gradwell

From: http://stpetershelpers.blogspot.com/

St. Thomas Beckett's Fidelity
Today is the fifth day of Christmas. We remember the martyrdom of St. Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury. His story shows us that fidelity to God is the highest aspiration and honor, even if it means death in the hands of the monarchy. He served only one King, Jesus and he loved Him unto death. What is not told in the following account is that after his death, King Henry repented by putting on a sack cloth and walked barefoot while eighty monks flogged him in public.

As an Archdeacon of Canterbury, St. Thomas Becket was also chancellor to England's King Henry II, twelve years younger then himself. Both men liked each other. Thomas went along with the King insofar as his conscience permitted. When Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury died King Henry, who in those days had some say in such affairs, recommended St. Thomas as his successor. He figured that by placing Thomas in such a position he could then have more control over Church affairs. A mistake he was soon to regret.

Thomas was born in the city of London in 1118. His father was a Norman knight, Gilbert, who had become a prosperous merchant in London; his mother was also Norman. To his mother he owed his early piety, his devotion to our Lady, and generosity to the poor. As a boy Thomas liked to play field sports. After school at Merton priory and Paris he became, at twenty-one, financial clerk to a relative in the city. Three years later he was employed by Archbishop Theobald.

At thirty-six years old Thomas had warned the King against recommending him for Archbishop of Canterbury, as conflicts over Church issues would certainly be unavoidable. With a Cardinal's insistence Thomas accepted the office. He was ordained a priest and then a bishop. He immediately led a more austere and spiritual lifestyle and devoted himself to the interests of the Church. To the Kings displeasure he gave up his office as chancellor.

Soon the new Archbishop found himself opposing policies of the King. Conflicts reached a crisis point when in 1164 the King demanded assent to the Constitutions of Clarendon, which brought back customs of the past that were contrary to the law of the Church and the practice of the papacy. Thomas gave in for a short time but then he opposed the King. Facing threats of death or imprisonment Thomas fled to France where Pope Alexander III was residing. Together they tried to settle the controversy and bring back peace to the Church in England.

Thomas returned to Canterbury in 1170 under a tentative peaceful accord reached with the King while he was in France. Thomas' opponent, the Archbishop of York, told the King that while Thomas lived he would never have peace. The King responded to him by exclaiming angrily, "Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?"

Four knights hearing this thought they would gain the King's favor by getting rid of Thomas. On December 29th the knights followed Thomas to the Cathedral and killed him. Thomas was canonized by the Pope two years later and King Henry II in 1174 did public penance at the Shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury. Because so many miracles occurred at this Shrine it became, for the rest of the Middle Ages, the wealthiest and most famous one in all of Europe.

St. Thomas is an example for us today of a person who kept priorities straight in his allegiance to both his country and his Church. When the two came in conflict, he correctly chose to obey the Church. His last words are reported to have been "I accept death for the Name of Jesus and for the Church."

From the government and sometimes at work there is pressure from those in authority and those around us to compromise our allegiance to the beliefs and morals the Church has given us. At times like this we, like St. Thomas, are called upon to oppose misguided authority for the sake of Christ and His Church. Jesus warned His followers of persecution.

May we, like St. Thomas, remain steadfast in our uncompromising fidelity to Christ and His Church.

(Monks of adoration)


"The principles Becket died for were institutionalized clericalism and absolute privilege from civil authority. If the principles he championed would have triumphed, we would have thousands of pedophile priests still in place......because we know for a fact that the hierarchy will not police its own."

St. Thomas's actions should be understood in light of the realities of the 12th century, not 21st. Back then there was no separation of powers, no civil rights, no bill of rights as we understand it, no due process of law, etc. The monarch's power was absolute. It was so easy for the secular power to try to gain control of the Church. The fact that the king tried to prosecute St. Thomas under some trumped-up criminal charges illustrates this amply. Indeed, who has the control of the Church was the big question of the Middle Age. The clerical exemption issue was only part of the big question. The Investiture Contest was another part of that same question.
Henry II (as well as many other kings of his time and his later-namesake Henry VIII) believed that the Church should be part of, and under the control of, the secular state controlled by the king. St. Thomas believed that the Church is a greater reality than the state or the king, and he was willing to die for that belief.


The idea of Becket as Anglo-Saxon, though incorrect, has a fairly long pedigree. I know of an early nineteenth-century Anti-Corn Law propagandist called William Cooke taylor who saw English history as a contest between peaceful commercial Saxons and parasitic aristocratic Normans, enlisting Becket for the former on the basis of his urban birth. (He also remarked that while he considered the mediaeval Church to be dominated by superstitious fanatics - he was a Broad Church anglican - he thought it was better that mediaeval society should have been influenced by men who could read & write rather than being left completely to illiterate robber barons.

James McGregor


Your comment was half-baked, half-witted, and half-boiled.

In brief, clericalism is the result, partly, of the seminary system, which only came into existence in the late 16th century, and partly the Jesuits' new attitude towards obedience, which was an (over)reaction to the anarchy that broke out in Europe because of the reformation, and partly the borrowed glory of papal infallibilty after it had been defined (which isn't to say it should not have been defined, but just that obedience was often abused in the late - 19C - Vatican II - and, some would say, still is, albeit by liberal prelates and superiors).

Pedophilia wouold have been virtually unkown amongst the clergy of that time, as the circstances that gave rise to "thousands of pedophile priests" just did not exist. So get a grip on life.

Oh, and by the way, the current crisis is a homosexual one really, not a pedophile one.

Sue, you're right that there was no bill of rights (not that it really matters), but no "civil rights" or "due process"? Maybe there were no civil rights as an American, or liberal generally would understand them, but that was not necessarily a bad thing. Meanwhile, the natural law bound everyone, and breaches of the foedum or feudal pact by a lord gave rise to a withdrawal of allegiance on the part of a vassal, which could express itself in terms of armed rebellion.

As to due process, it was certainly there, and presumably in spades, as the reforms of Henry II attracted increasing numbers of litigants who recognised the king's centralised justice as more efficient than that of the local feudal courts. As to the monarch's power being absolute, that was the doctrine of divine right of kings, a 17th century invention. Monarchs could be, and were, taken to task by both churchmen and their own vassals, and what the monarch could in practice do was often dictated by the reasonableness of his demand/command/proposed legislation. No mediaeval king could afford to alienate the affections of too many of his subjects.

Unfortunately, Henry VIII did alientate the affection of (apparently) most of his subjects, but was able to get away with it, despite a number of dangerous armed rebellions up and down England after the break with Rome and the suppression of the monasteries. Had such resistance been as successful as Thomas' non-violent resistance 400 years previously was, the entire British Commonwealth and the USA would be catholic today.


Thomas may not always have been very likeable, pleaseant or nice, but since when has niceness been coterminous with goodness? Christ himself was sometimes quite horrible - e.g., to the pharisees. And they deserved it. Sometimes, not being very nice to a person is exactly what that person needs, and is a form of christian charity.

I'm glad Thomas treated Henry II (and his followers) with the imperious harshness he did - it's just what someone over-reaching themselves needs to experience.

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