Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?

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Manuscript illustration. The central man is wearing robes and a mitre and is facing the seated figure on the left. The seated man is wearing a crown and robes and is gesturing at the mitred man. Behind the mitred figure are a number of standing men wearing armor and carrying weapons.
14th-century depiction of King Henry II of England with Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket

Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest? (sometimes expressed as troublesome or meddlesome priest) is an utterance attributed to Henry II of England, which led to the death of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170. While it was not expressed as an order, it caused four knights to travel from Normandy to Canterbury, where they killed Becket.

The phrase is now used to express the idea that a ruler's wish can be interpreted as a command by his or her subordinates.

Origin[edit]

Henry's outburst came at Christmas 1170 at his castle at Bures, Normandy, at the height of the Becket controversy. He had just been informed that Becket had excommunicated a number of bishops supportive of the king, including the Archbishop of York.[1] Edward Grim, who was present at Becket's murder and subsequently wrote the Life of St. Thomas, quotes Henry as saying

"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 low-born clerk!"[2]

In George Lyttleton's 1772 History of the Life of King Henry the Second, this is rendered as "[he said] that he was very unfortunate to have maintained so many cowardly and ungrateful men in his court, none of whom would revenge him of the injuries he sustained from one turbulent priest."[3][4] In The Chronicle of the Kings of England (1821) it becomes "Will none of these lazy insignificant persons, whom I maintain, deliver me from this turbulent priest?", which is then shortened to "who shall deliver me from this turbulent priest?"[5]

No such phrase is spoken in T. S. Elliot's 1932 play Murder in the Cathedral, because Henry does not appear in that play.[6] In Jean Anouilh's 1959 play Becket Henry says, "Will no one rid me of him? A priest! A priest who jeers at me and does me injury."[7] In the 1964 film Becket, which was based on the Anouilh play, he says, "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?"[8]

Consequences[edit]

On hearing the king's words, four knights—Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton—travelled from Normandy to Canterbury, with the intention of forcing Becket to withdraw his excommunication, or alternatively, taking him back to Normandy by force.[9] The day after their arrival, they confronted Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. When Becket resisted their attempts to seize him, they slashed at him with their swords, killing him.[10] Although nobody, even at the time, believed that Henry directly ordered that Becket be killed, his words had started a chain of events that were likely to have that result.[11] Moreover, since Henry's harangue had been directed not at Becket, but at his own household, the four may well have thought that a failure to act would be regarded as treachery, potentially punishable by death.[12]

Following the murder, Becket was venerated and Henry was vilified. There were demands that he be excommunicated. Pope Alexander forbade Henry to hear mass until he had expiated his sin. In May 1172, Henry did public penance in Avranches Cathedral.[1]

Use and analysis[edit]

The Turbulent Priest was the title of Piers Compton's 1957 biography of Becket.[13]

According to Alfred H. Knight, the phrase "had profound long-term consequences for the development of constitutional law", because its consequences forced the king to accept the benefit of clergy, the principle that secular courts had no jurisdiction over clergy.[14]

It has been said that the phrase is an example of "direction via indirection", in that it provides the speaker with plausible deniability when a crime is committed as a result of his words.[7]

The New York Times commented that even though Henry may not actually have said it, "in such matters historical authenticity may not be the point."[15] The phrase has been cited as an example of the shared history that all British citizens should be familiar with, part of "the collective memory of their country".[16]

In a 2009 BBC documentary on The Satanic Verses Controversy, journalist and newsreader Peter Sissons described a February 1989 interview with the Iranian chargé d'affaires in London, Mohammad Mehdi Akhondzadeh Basti. The position of the Iranian government was that the fatwa against Salman Rushdie declared by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini was "an opinion". Sissons described this argument as being "a bit like the, 'who will rid me of this turbulent priest', isn't it?"[17]

In a 2017 appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee, former FBI director James Comey testified that US President Donald Trump had told him he "hoped" Comey could "let go" of any investigation into Michael Flynn; when asked if he would take "I hope", coming from the president, as a directive, Comey answered, "Yes. It rings in my ears as kind of 'Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?'"[18]

In popular culture[edit]

"The Archbishop", a 1983 episode of the British television comedy series Blackadder, features two knights overhearing King Richard IV quote the phrase, which they misconstrue as a directive to assassinate the main character.[19]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Ibeji, Mike (17 February 2011). "Becket, the Church and Henry II". BBC History. Retrieved 19 April 2018.
  2. ^ Barlow, Frank (1986). Thomas Becket. University of California Press. p. 235. ISBN 0520071751. Retrieved 16 April 2018.
  3. ^ Knowles, Elizabeth M. (1999). The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Oxford University Press. p. 370. ISBN 0-19-860173-5.
  4. ^ Lyttleton, George (1772). History of the Life of King Henry the Second. 4. London: J. Dodsley. p. 353. Retrieved 16 April 2018.
  5. ^ Dodsley, Robert (1821). The Chronicle of the Kings of England, from William the Norman to the Death of George III. J. Fairburn. p. 27. Retrieved 19 April 2018.. The longer quote is in the footnote.
  6. ^ Loomis, George (26 May 2009). "An Austere Glow to Pizzetti's 'Assassinio'". New York Times. Retrieved 16 April 2018.
  7. ^ a b Schafer, Arthur (March 1999). "A wink and a nod: a conceptual map of responsibility and accountability in bureaucratic organizations". Canadian Public Administration. 42 (1): 22–3. doi:10.1111/j.1754-7121.1999.tb01545.x. Retrieved 19 April 2018.
  8. ^ Dans, Peter E. (2009). Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 169. ISBN 0742570320. Retrieved 16 April 2018.
  9. ^ Barlow (1986), pp. 235–7.
  10. ^ Becket, Thomas (1120?–1170), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  11. ^ Barlow (1986), p. 237.
  12. ^ Lipton, Sara (June 8, 2017). "Trump's Meddlesome Priest". The New York Times. Retrieved June 9, 2017.
  13. ^ Compton, Piers (1957). The Turbulent Priest: A Life of St. Thomas of Canterbury. Staples Press. Retrieved 19 April 2018.
  14. ^ Knight, Alfred H. (2008). Utter Justice: Verbal Glimpses Into Fifteen Hundred Years of Our Legal History. iUniverse. p. 9. ISBN 0595475566. Retrieved 19 April 2018.
  15. ^ "Becket, the Man and the Myth". The New York Times. May 29, 2016. Retrieved 20 September 2017.
  16. ^ Lewis, Jemima (10 April 2015). "Nick Clegg is wrong – I wish I had learnt a list of medieval kings and queens". The Telegraph. Retrieved 9 June 2017.
  17. ^ AtheistMeme (2013-02-14), The Satanic Verses Affair Salman Rushdi Documentary Iran, retrieved 2018-04-27
  18. ^ Minsky, Amy (June 8, 2017). "Senate goes medieval: James Comey and the 'meddlesome priest' – National". Global News. Retrieved 9 June 2017.
  19. ^ Parrill, Sue; Robison, William B. (2013). The Tudors on Film and Television. McFarland. p. 28. ISBN 9780786458912.