Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Thomas Becket's Hero?: Anselm of Canterbury

Today, I get to post over at English Historical Fiction Authors about the archbishop who defied a king...two kings, actually. No, it's not Thomas Becket. It's his predecessor, Anselm. One of the interesting things I discovered while researching this is that it was Thomas Becket who requested that Anselm be canonized as a saint. It certainly makes sense, given that Becket was following in Anselm's footsteps by defying royal authority and defending the power of the Church.

English Historical Fiction Authors is a fabulous blog run by Debra Brown with around forty member authors and a new historical post every day. The blog celebrated its first anniversary a few months back and Debra is compiling a book of the first year's blog posts, to be published by Madison Street Publishing. A very exciting project for us, and lots of proofreading for me to do! I'm thrilled to get to read through all the posts again and help present them in a more accessible format to readers. The release date for Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors has not yet been set, but I'll be sure to keep you posted.


  1. I'm more of a WW2 history buff, but your comments are very intriguing. I'm inclined to devote some scarce reading time to your books. Thanks for posting!

  2. I watched a fascinating show last year on the History and Development of English law, from the Anglo Saxon to the modern era presented by a Barrister (a type of lawyer) who knew his stuff (and seemed to realize the folly of judging the past by modern standards).

    His view of Thomas Becket was unflattering, though interesting. The main issue he had was that Becket supposedly wanted to prevent criminal clergymen who had committed offenses from being tried in secular, civil courts. Rather, it seems he wished that the church courts could deal with them- their usual punishment was some form of penance, and if I recall, a particular practice known as 'benefit of clergy' was rallied against.

    Personally, I was inclined to agree with the barrister- anyone breaking the law should have been subject to the judgement of that law, the same as everyone else, not exempt from it. The presented seemed to think that what Becket supported effectively allowed clergymen who had committed crimes to escape justice.

    1. So funny! -- I almost wrote that EHFA post about the criminous clerks issue but decided, instead, to write about Anselm! Guess I'll have to write about that for next month on EHFA.

      I dealt with that issue when I wrote my college thesis on Thomas Becket. My take on it is that Becket's defense of the criminous clerks needs to be seen in the context of the larger struggle. Henry was trying to usurp control of the church by appointing whomever he pleased to church office. Becket over-reacted by saying that Henry should have NO control over the church.

      When the issues with the criminous clerks came up, Becket had just finished having two disputes with Henry. One was where Henry wanted to divert local taxes into his own coffers. The other was where Henry said Becket couldn't excommunicate any of the king's tenants-in-chief without the king's permission -- a very arrogant thing to say, since the sword of excommunication belongs to the Church, not the king!

      I think that Becket, fresh out of these conflicts, overreacted when the next situation came up. His position on the criminous clerks was a mistake, but an understandable one.

    2. That is interesting in the context, and perhaps a little more understandable. Perhaps the presenter of that show, being a legal man (his name was Harry Potter- that must cause some issues) perhaps saw it from a legal standpoint, so was more inclined to side with the King.
      Perhaps it was because the church became too intertwined in politics that such issues arose in the first place?

    3. Possibly--although it's a bit anachronistic to think that the medievals of this time would have understood a separation between the religious and political world. It was the conflicts centering around Anselm, Becket, and others, that created the need to define the spheres of church and state.

      One of the main issues was the Church's ownership of land. Because bishops had significant land holdings, they were feudal lords as well as spiritual leaders. The kings wanted to choose their own feudal vassals and thus they meddled in the elections/appointments of bishops. Becket's "election" is an interesting one. Technically, according to church polity, he was supposed to be elected by the monks of Canterbury. But it was obvious, by that period, that they had no power to elect an archbishop that the king hadn't previously nominated (or the pope approved of).

    4. Don't worry I was just sort expressing my own personal (albeit anachronistic) viewpoint. I realize it may not be in keeping with what people thought at the time, and I know that the church could be own a lot of land. In fact, I think the village where I live might have been a church holding in the Medieval period.

      I recall once that one of my lecturers told us about how the crown began to erode the power and influence of the church in England. If I recall, he also argued or implied that it was things like that which might have contributed to the English reformation. It does seem to make sense that it was might not have been something which just came out of the blue, but rather the culmination of a gradual process.


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