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?" (spoken aloud; also expressed as "troublesome priest" or "meddlesome priest") is a quote attributed to Henry II of England preceding the death of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170. While the quote was not expressed as an order, it prompted four knights to travel from Normandy to Canterbury, where they killed Becket. The phrase is commonly used in modern-day contexts to express that a ruler's wish may be interpreted as a command by his or her subordinates. It is also commonly understood as shorthand for any rhetorical device allowing leaders to covertly order or exhort violence among their followers, while still being able to claim plausible deniability for political, legal, or other reasons.


Henry made the outburst on Christmas 1170[1] 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 cleric![2]

The popular version of the phrase was first used in 1740 by the author and bookseller Robert Dodsley, in his Chronicle of the Kings of England, where he described Henry II's words as follows: "O wretched Man that I am, who shall deliver me from this turbulent Priest?" This was modelled on Romans 7:24: "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?"[3] A similar version of the phrase was later used in George Lyttleton's 1772 History of the Life of King Henry the Second, where the quote 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."[4][5] 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?"[6]

No such phrase is spoken in T. S. Eliot's 1932 play Murder in the Cathedral, as Henry does not appear in that play.[7] 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."[8] In the 1964 film Becket, which was based on the Anouilh play, Henry says, "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?"[9]

There are likely several English iterations of Henry II's original quote because it had to be translated; Henry, though he understood many languages, spoke only Latin and French.[10]


Reportedly, upon 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.[11] 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.[12] Although nobody, even at the time, believed that Henry directly ordered that Becket be killed, his words had started a chain of events that was likely to have such a result.[13] Moreover, as Henry's harangue had been directed not at Becket, but at his own household, the four probably thought that a failure to act would be regarded as treachery, potentially punishable by death.[14]

Following the murder, Becket was venerated and Henry was vilified. There were demands that the king 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]

The four knights subsequently fled to Scotland and from there to Knaresborough Castle in Yorkshire. All four were excommunicated by Pope Alexander in 1171 during Easter and ordered to undertake penitentiary pilgrimages to the Holy Land for 14 years.[15]

Use and analysis[edit]

The Turbulent Priest was the title of Piers Compton's 1957 biography of Becket.[16]

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.[17]

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 their words.[8]

The New York Times commented that even though Henry might not actually have said the words, "in such matters historical authenticity may not be the point".[18] The phrase has been cited as an example of the shared history with which all British citizens should be familiar, as part of "the collective memory of their country".[19]

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?"[citation needed]

In a 2017 appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee, former FBI director James Comey testified that US President Donald Trump had told him that 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?'"[20]

In popular culture[edit]

  • In "The Archbishop", a 1983 episode of the British television comedy series Blackadder, two knights overhearing King Richard IV quote the phrase, which they misconstrue as a directive to assassinate the main character.[21]
  • In the final episode of the 1988 television series A Very British Coup these words are spoken by the Director General of MI5 in reference to Harry Perkins, a left wing prime minister and trade unionist.[22]
  • In 2011, it was quoted by innkeeper Samuel Quested in Midsomer Murders ("The Night of the Stag", 2011)[23]
  • In a 2023 opinion piece in The New York Times, Maureen Dowd refers to former President Donald Trump's "'Who will rid me of this meddlesome democracy?' plot"[24]
  • In a pre-trial filing filed 25 October, 2023,[25] the office of federal special counsel Jack Smith prosecuting former US president Donald J. Trump for election crimes requested of the judge overseeing the case (Tanya Chutkan) that a previous gag order, meant to prohibit Trump from threatening judicial staff as well as named & potential witnesses (a gag order temporarily suspended pending an appeal), be reinstated, after Trump made more threats verbally and on social media. In its filing, the special counsel’s office called Trump’s threats “harmful and prejudicial attacks” and feared for the safety of those staffers & witnesses, concerned that Trump’s language would trigger a supporter to inflict violence upon the subjects of Trump’s bellicosity. On page 3 of the filing (“Case 1:23-cr-00257-TSC” “document 120”), the special counsel’s office writes, "As the Court explained (id. at 41, 60), targeted disparagement of this sort can pose a real danger even when it does not explicitly call for harassment or violence, as repeated attacks on a perceived adversary are often understood as a signal to act against that person—much like King Henry II’s famous remark, in reference to Archbishop Thomas à Becket, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ which resulted in Becket’s murder.”
  • Laurell K. Hamilton's Meredith Gentry series books also feature this phrase/ideology in the form of Prince Cel, who often uses this method, even the exact phraseology to "keep his hands clean" while having what he wanted done, thus being able to swear 'honestly' that he did not order it...

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c 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. ^ McGovern, Jonathan (2021). "The Origin of the Phrase 'Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?'". Notes and Queries. p. 266. doi:10.1093/notesj/gjab094.
  4. ^ Knowles, Elizabeth M. (1999). The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Oxford University Press. p. 370. ISBN 0-19-860173-5.
  5. ^ Lyttleton, George (1772). History of the Life of King Henry the Second. Vol. 4. London: J. Dodsley. p. 353. Retrieved 16 April 2018.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Loomis, George (26 May 2009). "An Austere Glow to Pizzetti's 'Assassinio'". The New York Times. Retrieved 16 April 2018.
  8. ^ 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): 22–23. doi:10.1111/j.1754-7121.1999.tb01545.x. Retrieved 19 April 2018.
  9. ^ Dans, Peter E. (2009). Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 169. ISBN 978-0742570320. Retrieved 16 April 2018.
  10. ^ —— (2007b). "The Court of Henry II". In Harper-Bill, Christopher; Vincent, Nicholas (eds.). Henry II: New Interpretations. Woodbridge, England: Boydell Press. pp. 278–334. ISBN 978-1-84383-340-6.
  11. ^ Barlow (1986), pp. 235–37.
  12. ^ Barlow, Frank (2004). "Becket, Thomas". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/27201. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  13. ^ Barlow (1986), p. 237.
  14. ^ Lipton, Sara (8 June 2017). "Trump's Meddlesome Priest". The New York Times. Retrieved 9 June 2017.
  15. ^ "The Name and Family of Barham by Nobby Clark. Chapter 4 - REGINALD FITZURSE". Archived from the original on 7 July 2011. Retrieved 22 March 2010.
  16. ^ Compton, Piers (1957). The Turbulent Priest: A Life of St. Thomas of Canterbury. Staples Press. Retrieved 19 April 2018.
  17. ^ Knight, Alfred H. (2008). Utter Justice: Verbal Glimpses Into Fifteen Hundred Years of Our Legal History. iUniverse. p. 9. ISBN 978-0595475568. Retrieved 19 April 2018.
  18. ^ "Becket, the Man and the Myth". The New York Times. 29 May 2016. Retrieved 20 September 2017.
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ Minsky, Amy (8 June 2017). "Senate goes medieval: James Comey and the 'meddlesome priest'". Global News. Retrieved 9 June 2017.
  21. ^ Parrill, Sue; Robison, William B. (2013). The Tudors on Film and Television. McFarland. p. 28. ISBN 978-0786458912.
  22. ^ Newcomb, Horace (2013). Encyclopedia of Television (2nd ed.). Routledge. p. 2430.
  23. ^ "Trivia". IMDB. Retrieved 23 June 2022.
  24. ^ Dowd, Maureen (5 August 2023). "Coup-Coup-Ca-Choo, Trump-Style". The New York Times. Retrieved 5 August 2023.
  25. ^ Smith, Jack (23 October 2023). "United States of America vs. Donald J. Trump, defendant CRIMINAL NO. 23-cr-257 (TSC)" (PDF). storage.courtlistener.com/recap/gov.uscourts.dcd.258148/gov.uscourts.dcd.258148.120.0.pdf.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)