“Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” is a quote attributed to Henry II of England that preceded the death of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170.
The quote is also expressed as “turbulent priest” or “meddlesome priest“.
The king’s words were misinterpreted as an order, prompting four knights from Normandy to travel to Canterbury and murder Becket.
The phrase implies that a leader’s desire may be taken as an order by his or her officials. It is frequently used in contemporary settings to convey the idea that a ruler’s wish might be interpreted as a command by his or her subordinates.
On Christmas 1170, Henry reportedly lost his temper at his castle at Bures, Normandy, during the Becket dispute.
He had just been informed that Becket had excommunicated several bishops who backed the king, including the Archbishop of York.
According to Edward Grim, who was there at the killing of Becket and subsequently wrote the Life of St. Thomas. Grim was an eyewitness to Becket’s murder and was wounded in the attack, and his account was written ca. 1180.
Grim’s Latin reads:
Inertes ac miseros homines enutrivi et erexi in regno meo, qui nec fidem ferunt domino suo quem a plebeo quodam clerico tam probrose patiuntur illudi. (Patrologia Latina 190.042A)
“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!”
Grim was not in a position to hear the pronouncement by Henry, so this must be a hearsay account.
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?”
According to The Chronicle of the Kings of England (1821), it is transformed into “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?”
In the 1964 film Becket, which was inspired by Anouilh’s play, Henry remarks, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”
The Murder of Thomas Becket
According to legend, four knights—Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton—traveled from Normandy to Canterbury to force Becket to retract his ex-communication or take him back by force after hearing the king’s words.
They confronted Becket in Canterbury Cathedral the day after he and his followers arrived. When Becket defied their efforts to take him, they attacked him, they slashed at him with their swords, killing him.
Nobody, not even at the time, believed that Henry himself intended for Becket to be slain; nevertheless, his comments had set in motion a chain of events that was very likely to produce such an outcome.
Furthermore, as the four believed that Henry’s harangue was not directed at Becket, but his household, they likely considered that a failure to act would be regarded as treason and potentially punishable by death.
Following the murder, Becket was worshipped while Henry was reviled. There were demands that the king be excommunicated. Pope Alexander prohibited Henry from hearing Mass until he had atoned for his crime.
In May 1172, Henry did public penance in Avranches Cathedral.
The four knights fled to Scotland and from there to Knaresborough Castle in North Yorkshire.
During Easter 1171, Pope Alexander excommunicated all four and ordered them to undertake penitential pilgrimages to the Holy Land for 14 years.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" https://englishhistory.net/middle-ages/will-no-one-rid-me-of-this-meddlesome-priest/, May 19, 2022