On this day in 1170 Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights who clearly understood that they were following the wishes of the King.
It is unlikely that if/when Henry II uttered the sentiments, if not the words ” Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest”, he was knowingly following the modern spin doctor’s strategy of building into his words “plausible deniability”.
Nevertheless, thanks to the ambiguity of his expression of displeasure, after the killing he was able to proceed to the next step in modern day “reputation management”.
He undertook penance in a public form after Thomas had been canonised, which was the rather more arduous medieval equivalent of spending an hour on the sofa with Oprah, having accepted the advice of highly paid professionals that he had acted through medical “anger issues” for which he bore no personal responsibility. The medievals plainly understood repentance better than we do.
Henry thus survived the Europe wide opprobrium for killing a churchman, especially one who had by then become a saint. Within a relatively short period, King and Church were reconciled.
Henry left us an important legacy in the legal and administrative systems which he had necessarily reformed as he constructed an Angevin Empire which stretched from the Pyranees to the Scottish border. Faced with a wide variety of local customs, authorities and jurisdictions he needed to draw them together to facilitate his exercise of royal power, and his model of Administration and Court structures lasted well into the 20th century.
Thomas for his part, also had a long and continuing legacy.
He had not been especially loved in life, partly because he had been the King’s Chancellor and ally in exacting taxes to support the conquests and reforms which Henry planned. Yet he was canonised within three years of his death and his tomb soon became the premier pilgrimage site in England, drawing pilgrims from across the kingdom and beyond. As such, it became a major economic asset to the city of Canterbury and the stop over towns on the way.
So much for the history. The aspect that intrigues Brother Ivo however, is the modern resonances of the dispute itself.
Although he became The Lord Chancellor, Thomas had not had the opportunity to study to become a lawyer from the start of his career. It was not until he entered the household of the then Archbishop of Canterbury Theobald of Bec, that he was sent to study law at the University of Bologna which may have unwittingly been responsible for setting him on his collision course with the King.
In Bologna, the not infrequent tensions between town and gown, which characterised many other later university cities, had resulted in an accommodation between the Church and the civil authorities, with the latter agreeing to hand over the disciplining of the student clerics to the ecclesiastical authorities.
It is hard not to see the study of law under such a regime of clerical immunity as significant.
Equally, an aggressively ambitious king building an empire, and necessarily integrating disparate legal jurisdictions under his unifying power, was always likely to resist any continental inspired claims for such an exception to his integrating plans.
Of course, Brother Ivo is fully aware that Henry was himself “continental” yet it is not overly fanciful to see in this tragic conflict between old friends, something of the current antipathy between UKIP and the Europhiles. This King, pre-dating a subsequent namesake, was asserting his secular independence against a transnational ecclesiastical power which saw itself as the senior partner in a partnership of authority under God.
The essence underlying that dispute was that of sovereignty and we are again passing through a time of contention over the same issues.
The former Lord Chief Justice, Sir Igor Judge, has recently spoken out on the modern incarnation of the same old problem.
In restrained respectful but unequivocal terms reported in the Daily Telegraph, he identified that once again there is a conflict of sovereignty. Yet if anything, the modern dispute is even sharper. At least in the case of Archbishop and King, each saw himself as accountable to God, to whom, ultimately account must be given for the exercise of his talents.
In the modern secular incarnation of this rivalry, Sir Igor sees that “the European Court of Human Rights in its present form is not answerable to anyone” and raised concern that any judges however distinguished – “should have that sort of power.”
He explored this theme in the context of the controversy of prisoner voting rights, and yet anyone who has studied either the English or the American Civil Wars will know that there is a distinction between the occasion for a war, the ostensible casus belli, and the underlying issues which always lie deeper and in the realm of underlying principle.
The problem which confronts our modern politicians is no different to that faced by Henry II or indeed St Thomas himself. Each knew, as Jesus taught beforehand, that no one cannot serve two masters ( Matthew Chapter 6 verse 24). They may finesse, compromise or prevaricate but at some point, not necessarily of their choosing, the tension will be broken and the battle for supremacy will be resolved, even if it should be followed by much subsequent regret and unexpected, unwanted, consequences.
Yet the irony behind this constitutional crisis in waiting is identified by Sir Igor himself. The whole edifice of the European Court of Human Rights was “was largely written by British lawyers for a war-torn, concentration camp filled continent.”
It may have been part of “victor’s justice” but it was the justice of the morally superior. It may offend many today to speak in such terms, yet it is the truth.
It makes it all the more galling to have the judgements of a mature judicial system subjected to what one Court insider described to the Telegraph: ” Some European judges are little more than “activists” and are unqualified for the task ….. We know that around half the Strasbourg judges had no judicial experience before going to the court, which means it’s no surprise they go off on judicial frolics of their own.”
Beyond that irony lies another. The present understanding of Human Rights was never conceived within the earlier Christian philosophy of Natural Law, but rather with reference to the abstract reasoning of the “Enlightenment”. Like Henry II reforming his legal system anew, the old forms which had evolved organically were swept aside, and this time the values were conceived “rationally” with no intention to honour or acknowledge the authority of God.
Yet why was this necessary?
When Brother Ivo described the World War II victors as ” morally superior” he specifically had in mind that the beaten philosophy of Fascism, like the leter beaten philosophy of Marxism, was founded upon the Enlightenment ideal of remaking humanity in the absence of God.
One does not have to be terribly religious to have observed that when Man attempts to remake himself in an image of his own devising, he does not make a very good job of it. He is no more successful when, through excessive regard for his own design capabilities, he attempts to remake laws.
The attempt to codify a man made collection of overarching principles of Justice in a pompously self-regarding ” Universal Declaration”, arose within a Europe which lay in ruins thanks to the ambitions of ” rationalists”. Europe had been rescued largely through the moral values of the God- fearing heirs of both Thomas and Henry. They never really forgave us for holding to those truths.
As a new Europe was constructed out of the ruins, its Legal system was built under the authority of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a European Convention with which to give them expression. They could exclude considerations of faith from the edifice, but not the foundations.
The reason we need such overarching principles is often overlooked, but Henry and Thomas knew and understood it perfectly. Thomas paid for it with his life and Henry through his public penance, for what is the reason that we need such a “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”?
Isn’t that reason nothing other than a simple recognition of original sin?
The Declaration and Convention represent nothing if not a rejection of the Enlightenment notion of the perfectability of Man, without the need for redemption.
In the United Kingdom, we built our Constitution by embodying Church and State in the person of Her Majesty the Queen, who remains in no doubt that she holds both responsibility under the authority of the Almighty.
We should be slow to give up the best of both worlds.