29th December 1170. Battle Between Church and State.

‘Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm’.(1)

Today in 1170 Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury, the successor to Theobald, was assassinated in his own cathedral, possibly at the behest of the King.

Beckett once Henry II’s Keeper of the Seal as Chancellor, had became a thorn in the King’s side, as a supporter of clerical independence and papal power. However Henry wished to put his own stamp on monarchy, particularly after the disputes of the previous reign and without interference from the church. His aim was to restore “the laws and customs of the realm’, which he saw as inherited from his grandfather Henry I.

The 11th century was a time when both church and state were seeking dominance over the other. The Papacy had wrested back some control from the Holy Roman Emperors and feudal over-lords, with particular reference to appointment and investiture of prelates, at the Concordat of Worms 1122.

Thus was a new confidence inspired resulting in a re-defined canon law, a reformed theology and a papal power later exerted against King John (in 1215) and Henry III in 1258.

The struggle for power went back to the acclamation of the Holy Roman Emperor as Imperator et Augustus in Rome on Christmas Day 800, which revived the customs of the Roman Empire fallen into disuse since the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476,

However it was a continuum of authority, which then suited the Church in its bid to become the Universal Power, as it provided the protective military shield of Charlemagne’s Empire, covering as it did, a greater part of Western, but not Eastern Christendom.(2)

But by the 11th century the church had grown rich and worldly, many had a renewed vision of simplicity in the new religious orders which spread Christian culture across Europe: the monasticism of the Cistercians, Augustinians (Austin Canons), and the crusader Knights Templar and Hospitaller.

The renewed spiritual independence, saw a priesthood adopting celibacy, enforced by the English King Canute, and by a church refusing to accept royal jurisdiction over all offences by tonsured clergy: in effect one law for the laity and one for the clerics.(3)

Tonsure (4) was now a manifest sign of the gulf between the religious, and the lay people who now found themselves subject to compulsory tithes.

The fact that the laws of Kings Edmund (939-46) and Edgar (959-75), added the power of the Crown to that of the Church to enforce tithe payment, demonstrates how close church and state had become.

Other edicts in this new religiosity made Sundays a day of rest free from business and amusements. All English subjects were required to learn the Creed and Lord’s Prayer and pagan worship of Danish immigrants was banned.

Thus did the grip of the Universal Church and its canon law, now encroach on the regulation of all aspects of society and through its sacraments the ordering of marriage.

Henry II’s bid to ‘rid himself of the turbulent priest’ was finally realized by Henry VIII in the 16th century.

(1) 1 Chronicles 16:22,

(2) When Charlesmagne had himself crowned Holy Roman Emperor in AD 800 the largest town in Christian Europe had 20,000 inhabitants; the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid’s Baghdad had a million. Notion of Arab Empire giving birth to Islam not vive-versa.

(3) These issues were enshrined in a Code drafted by Wulfstan, Archbishop of York and expressed in two letters to Canute’s subjects in 1020 and 1027.

Wulfstan held Worcester at the same time, is not to be confused with Wulfstan II a later Bishop of Worcester.

(4) There were 4 types of tonsure: St. Paul (the eastern), the head is shaved entirely. St John (the Celtic) the front of the head is shaved from ear to ear. St Peter (the Roman), the crown is shaved.

Even the diameter of the tonsure varied according to seniority.

Ref: sparknotes.com/history/Europe.


Ref; oxfordscholarship.com/ Papal monarchy 1050-1250.Colin Morris.



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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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