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The Shocking Medieval Execution Story Referenced by James Comey

It’s not every day that 12th century feuds are brought up in the U.S. Senate.

Former FBI director James Comey in a testimony before the U.S. Senate intelligence committee likened his dealings with President Trump—which ultimately led to his dismissal in May 2017—to a deadly power struggle in the medieval world between King Henry II of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket.

“It rings in my ear as kind of, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’” Comey said, paraphrasing Henry II in an answer to a question by Maine Senator Angus King about how he had interpreted President Trump’s words in a private meeting in February 2017.

King, an Independent who is apparently quite familiar with European history, immediately began to explain Comey’s statement to the rest of the room. “In 1170, December 29, Henry II said, ‘Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ and then, the next day, he was killed—Thomas Becket,” King said. “That’s exactly the same situation.”

The event that both men referenced was one of the darkest moments in the fraught battles between church and state in the Middle Ages. Henry II, a Plantagenet king, saw himself as a reformer. He reorganized the judicial system, and pushed for equality under royal law for his subjects, a move that saw courts and prisons established, and quicker verdicts for those on trial. But he was also ruthless about expanding the size of his empire—at one point he had control of territories from Ireland to the Pyrenees—and sought to reform the crown’s relationship with the Church, too.

Portrait of King Henry II, 1620. (Credit: Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)

Portrait of King Henry II, 1620. (Credit: Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)

This is what led to the rift with his former friend, Thomas Becket, who believed that the authority of the church was higher than that of the crown, and that the king should be a divine representative on earth. Henry, meanwhile, was more interested in asserting royal supremacy over the English church. A main sticking point was that Henry II wanted to prosecute members of the clergy who committed crimes in a secular court, while Becket believed that only an ecclesiastical hierarchy could judge the clergy, which at that point comprised around 20 percent of the English population. The two men feuded, acrimoniously and publicly, for much of the 1160s.

In 1170, Henry II—frustrated that Becket had excommunicated three of his ecclesiastical allies—had an outburst while speaking with four knights at his court at Normandy. “Will no one rid of me of this turbulent priest?” he exclaimed, in one variation of the famous quote often attributed to him. (Historian Simon Schama believes this is incorrect, and that Henry actually said something more akin to, “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?”) No matter what he said, the armed knights interpreted it as a death sentence for the king’s foe, Thomas Becket. They set off for Canterbury to find the archbishop and kill him.

Just after Christmas, on December 29, 1170, the four knights reached Canterbury. They gained admittance by claiming to be carrying a message from King Henry II. Instead, they attempted to take the archbishop prisoner. Becket shut himself inside the church, but the knights hauled him out violently. They drew their swords on Becket, and one knight “smote him with such force that the sword was broken against his head.” Becket, dead, was now missing the crown of his head; another knight extracted his brains through this hole.

When it came to light what had happened to such a high-ranking member of the clergy, and in such a holy place no less, the public was outraged. Thomas Becket became known as a martyr, and later, received sainthood.

James Comey, who studied religion at the College of William and Mary, was certainly making a dramatic point about the nature of his relationship with President Trump. He can only hope for a better ending.

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