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June 16, 2017 Column

This ‘Meddlesome Priest’

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

No, the title doesn’t describe me. Just in case you were wondering …

Like many other political junkies, I watched former FBI director James Comey testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. My ears perked up when I heard him use this phrase about the meddlesome priest. He said that President Trump “hoped” he would drop the investigation into Michael Flynn and his connections to Russia. When he was asked if he took that comment “as a directive”, Comey responded, “Yes, yes. It rings in my ears as kind of ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’”

Where do these words come from?

Allegedly, they are the words that King Henry 2 of England cried out in 1170, when he was frustrated by the political opposition of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. Four royal knights immediately rushed off to Canterbury and murdered the “meddlesome priest”.

Often, contemporary politicians will refer to an historical incident in a way that skews what actually happened “back then”. But it strikes me this time that Mr. Comey’s reference to this incident in English history is more apt.

The point he was trying to make was that when a powerful leader expresses a “hope” or a “desire,” it is tantamount to an order. When Republican Senator James E. Risch noted that the president had merely “hoped for an outcome,” Mr. Comey replied, “I mean, this is the president of the United States, with me alone, saying ‘I hope this.’ I took it as, this is what he wants me to do.”

In the same way, the four knights attending King Henry also assumed that the king’s wish constituted a command. Like Trump, King Henry denied any intention of inciting murder. Nevertheless history has widely held Henry responsible for Archbishop Becket’s death. And not just history. In his time, the pope issued an order prohibiting Henry from attending church services or participating in the sacraments (excommunication), and the king was eventually forced to do penance for the violence perpetrated in his name.

The main issues at stake in 1170 were divided loyalty and institutional independence. King Henry 2 was known as an energetic and ruthless ruler, who spent much of his energy trying to expand the borders of his kingdom. He also wanted to assert royal supremacy over the English Church. Not unexpectedly, Thomas Becket, as Archbishop of Canterbury, opposed him.

There are notable parallels with the situation between Trump and Mr. Comey. Although Trump has offered various reasons for the firing of Comey, it is clear that Trump thought Comey’s allegiance to FBI protocol to be a form of disloyalty. Trump asked Comey for his personal loyalty to him, rather than to the position he occupied.

The same thing with Becket and Henry 2. Before he had been elected Archbishop, Becket had been a close friend and faithful servant to the king. Henry had engineered Becket’s election in the expectation that, as Archbishop, Becket would continue to serve royal interests. It was not an unreasonable assumption. For centuries bishops had performed dual roles, acting as temporal as well as spiritual lords. They commanded armies, enforced royal decrees, and took it for granted that the rulers who appointed them could claim their loyalty.

It was not until the 1070s that secular control over bishops began to be challenged by a series of popes who sought to free clerics from secular influence and insisted that bishops’ first allegiance was to the church. This goal was rarely fully realized — kings were generally closer than the pope and more able to dispense both patronage and punishment. But to Henry’s fury, Becket unexpectedly embraced reform. He became a vigorous defender of church privilege and a critic of royal interference. Henry felt intensely betrayed. Becket died not because he was “meddlesome,” but because, in the king’s view, he was disloyal.

The Becket episode may likewise help explain why Trump’s advisers did not prevent him from firing Mr. Comey. King Henry expected all his officials to share his fury at Becket and saw any failure to do so as a betrayal as well.

King Henry, however, probably did not call Becket a “meddlesome priest.” That was a later invention, made famous by Hollywood in the 1964 film “Becket.” Henry’s actual exclamation — or at least the cry attributed to him in the medieval sources — was “What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a lowborn clerk!’”

No wonder the four knights were so eager to take the hint. Henry’s courtiers may well have feared that if they didn’t make a conspicuous display of loyalty, the king might turn on them next. Treachery was a capital offense.

Finally, the aftermath of the Becket episode may resonate in one final way. Although Henry had longed to get rid of Becket for years, he presumably came to rue the day his words of rage were heeded. In addition to performing humiliating penance, he had to swear obedience to the pope, make a series of concessions to the church and eventually face rebellion.

One suspects that Trump might also come to understand the wisdom of the words “be careful what you wish for.”