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‘Saving Our Order’: Becket and the Law

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 April 2021

Rowan Williams*
Archbishop of Canterbury, 2002–2012


The conflict between Henry II and Thomas Becket was often seen in the past as a collision between the first stirrings of real legal universalism (the same law for all) and claims to exemptions and immunities. Recent scholarship has seriously qualified this picture, recognising the degree to which Henry sought an unfettered authority for the Crown, overriding traditional patterns of obligation and mutuality. Becket's resistance to this was intelligible, but he was increasingly driven to oppose to it a controversial account of clerical immunity, in which the person of the cleric was sacrosanct and all punishment meted out to the cleric must be essentially reformatory in purpose. The origins of this are explored, and contemporary implications in regard to conscientious religious liberties and also to persisting high-risk cultures of clerical immunity are discussed.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Ecclesiastical Law Society

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This is the text of a public lecture given by Lord Williams of Oystermouth on 10 December 2020 to mark the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket. It was delivered to an international audience on the Ecclesiastical Law Society's Zoom platform in partnership with Villanova University, Notre Dame University and the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral. The lecture is based on an article previously published in the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church and is reproduced here with permission.


2 For some pertinent recent discussions, see, for example, the two collections of lectures given at the Temple Church in London: Griffith-Jones, R (ed), Islam and British Law (Cambridge, 2013)Google Scholar; Griffith-Jones, R and Hill, M (eds), Magna Carta, Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Guy, J, Thomas Becket: warrior, priest, rebel, victim: a 900-year-old story retold (London and New York, 2012)Google Scholar.

4 Adrian Lane Poole's discussion in From Domesday Book to Magna Carta (second edition, Oxford, 1997; first published 1951) sets out the basics (see eg p 199). Alexander, J, ‘The Becket controversy in recent historiography’, (1970) 9:2 Journal of British Studies 126CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Smalley, B, The Becket Controversy and the Schools: a study of intellectuals in politics (Oxford, 1973)Google Scholar, are still significant and invaluable studies.

5 See the groundbreaking work of Tierney, B, The Idea of Natural Rights: studies in natural rights, natural law and church law 1150–1625 (Atlanta, GA, 1997)Google Scholar; and more recently R Ruston, Human Rights and the Image of God (London, 2004).

6 See Alexander, ‘Becket controversy’, pp 1–2.

7 Guy, Thomas Becket, p 189.

8 The history of earlier theory and practice on this is anything but clear. E Zabiski, ‘Thomas Becket and Clerical Immunity’, MA thesis, University of St Thomas, Minnesota (2015), available at <>, accessed 17 February 2021, contains a helpful summary of the conflicting enactments on the subject in late antiquity. See especially pp 3–4, in particular the reference to Justinian's civil law code, mentioned above, in which a clerical offender would be tried in the ordinary courts, referred to the church courts for deposition and returned to a lay court for sentence.

9 Guy, Thomas Becket, pp 200–1; the barons were unhappy with the complainant's appeal to the king over the head of his direct feudal superior.

10 It is worth remembering that the insistence on clerical celibacy in the reforms of Western Christendom in the eleventh and twelfth centuries had a good deal to do with anxieties about the alienation of Church property to clerical families.

11 Guy, Thomas Becket, p 161.

12 McKitterick, R, ‘The Church and the law in the early Middle Ages’, in McKitterick, R, Methuen, C and Spicer, A (eds), The Church and the Law, Studies in Church History 56 (Cambridge, 2020), pp 735Google Scholar.

13 Ibid, p 21.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid, p 23.

16 Ibid, pp 26–35.

17 In addition to McKitterick's treatment, Gerhard Ladner's celebrated monograph on The Idea of Reform: its impact on Christian thought and action in the age of the Fathers (Cambridge, MA, 1959), is still worth consulting on the process whereby the ordained celibate becomes the paradigm for restored/reformed humanity.

18 I recognise the awkwardness of the language of ‘non-public bodies’; it is a way of avoiding a too-general use of the category of ‘state’ activities or agencies.

19 The discussion in J Figgis, Churches in the Modern State (London, 1913), especially the account in chap 1 of the Free Church of Scotland appeals, provides a broad theoretical perspective that is certainly not inflected by any politically conservative agenda.

20 Dietrich Bonhoeffer's treatment of some of these matters in the fragments of his Ethics, trans R Krauss, C West, and D Stott (Minneapolis, MN, 2005), especially his analysis of ‘responsibility’ (pp 246–299) and of the Church's self-positioning in the world (pp 339–408), bears on the wider theological questions.

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