I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
William Shakespeare gave Henry IV the well-known line “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” The bard might justifiably have written “Uneasy lies the head that wears a mitre,” because some English archbishops have suffered an early and violent death.
Indeed, Henry himself ordered the execution Richard le Scrope, Archbishop of York, in 1405. The clergyman asked the headsman to complete his grisly remit with five blows as homage to the five wounds to Christ.
In Henry’s defence, Richard le Scrope did step out of line by joining a rebellion aimed at overthrowing the king.
No Pity for the Pious
Aelfeah or Aelfheah is also referred to as Alfege or Alphage and was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1006 to 1012. He was born into an upper-class family but gave it all up for a life of piety and self-denial as a monk.
He had the misfortune to become the head of the English church at a time when the Vikings were making a nuisance of themselves. In a raid, they captured poor Aelfeah and demanded a ransom to free him; the archbishop gave orders that the money was not to be paid.
During a night of drunken revelry that does nothing to soften the image of Vikings as violent barbarians bad things happened to Aelfeah. The rabble started pelting the archbishop with ox bones, then someone whacked him with his ax causing a copious flow of blood and death. It’s said the ax blow was delivered as an act of mercy by a Christian convert but a thousand years of telling and re-telling may have distorted the story somewhat.
Within a handful of years, Cnut of Denmark (often referred to as Canute) became king of England. Sensing the need to polish the reputation of his fellow marauding countrymen he had old Aelfeah’s remains dug up and re-interred next to the high altar in Canterbury Cathedral.
The Meddlesome Priest
Canterbury was the scene of one of the most famous murders of an archbishop. It all starts with King Henry II perhaps saying “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Sometimes, the priest is described as meddlesome or troublesome.
Henry’s outburst came over a conflict between him and the man who had long been a personal friend, Thomas Becket. Henry was trying to control the power of the church and Becket was determined to defend its privileges.
On Christmas Day 1170, Becket excommunicated some bishops who were loyal to Henry. The king exploded in anger and uttered, perhaps, his fateful comment. Some knights, always eager to please the monarch, took the statement as an order and headed off to Canterbury.
They found the archbishop at the High Altar where Aelfeah was lying at peace. Historic U.K. relates what happened: “One of the knights approached him, and struck Becket on the shoulder with the flat of his sword. It seems that the knights did not at first intend to kill Becket, but as he stood firm after the first blow, the four attacked and butchered him.”
When news reached Henry that his loyal courtiers had murdered Becket he became distraught. He did not think his words would be taken so literally. As a penance he dressed in sackcloth, did not eat for three days, and allowed monks to flog him.
Peasants’ Revolt Victim
In medieval England, the lines between church and state were blurred, so, in 1380, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon of Sudbury, was appointed Lord Chancellor. It was a job that cost him his life.
The virus of corruption had infected the church, England was losing a war with France, and taxes were crippling citizens. These irritants were blamed on the Lord Chancellor and prompted the Peasants’ Revolt, which was an armed rebellion of ordinary folk demanding a better deal.
They marched on London and confronted King Richard II who was only 14 at the time. The monarch promised the peasants everything they asked for, something that was beyond his power to grant.
The angry mob then went looking for Archbishop Sudbury shouting “Where is the traitor of the Kingdom?” They found him at prayer in the Tower of London, dragged him out and lopped off his head; although the peasants, unschooled in the dark arts of the executioner, made a right old mess of the affair.
The peasants were happy with their work and went home comforted by the king’s worthless pledge. Richard sent his army after them and a merciless hunt followed.
The Pliable Archbishop
Many people who moved in the orbit of Henry VIII found his acquaintance to be a mixed blessing; Thomas Cranmer was one of these.
Henry saw Cranmer as a supportive clergyman in his bid to divorce Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. To further his desire, the king appointed Cranmer Archbishop of Canterbury.
Once the appointment was confirmed by the pope, Cranmer gave it as his opinion that Henry’s marriage to Catherine violated the divine law. The archbishop then presided over Henry’s marriage to Anne. As Britain Express notes, Cranmer continued to support the king’s marital behaviour: He presided “over the trial of Anne Boleyn, the divorce from Anne of Cleves, and Catherine Howard’s trial and execution. In these proceedings Cranmer showed his pliability; he seemed unable to deny Henry any whim.”
He was also instrumental in Henry’s separation from Rome and the establishment of the Protestant Church of England.
Cranmer outlived Henry only to see Mary Tudor, Catherine of Aragon’s daughter, become queen. Mary was a devout Catholic and hated Cranmer for his role in Henry’s divorce from her mother. She had Cranmer tried and convicted of treason for abandoning the Catholic Church in favour of Protestantism and sentenced him to be burned at the stake.
Perhaps, in an attempt to save his life, Thomas Cranmer signed a document in which he recanted his Protestant views and affirmed the supremacy of the papacy. It didn’t worked and, on March 21, 1556, he was brought to the place of execution in Oxford.
He was expected to give a short speech confirming his renewed faith in the Roman Catholic Church. Instead, he took back his recantation and called the pope “Christ’s enemy, and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine.”
He was dragged to the scaffold and as the flames rose around him he thrust his right hand into the fire. This was the hand that had signed his recantation and which he wanted punished first.
Thomas Becket seems to have had a major religious conversion and he began wearing sackcloth that was said to be filled with all sorts of vermin. (This is not how he is portrayed in the 1964 movie Becket). He ate sparingly and drank only water. This was a sharp contrast to the opulence and luxury in which many of his bishops lived.
The body of Archbishop Sudbury was taken to Canterbury for burial with the required amount of pomp. However, the man’s head was missing so he was interred with a cannonball as a replacement.
Ralph Morice was Archbishop Cranmer’s secretary. He recalled that Henry VIII wanted to have Catherine of Aragon’s daughter, Mary, executed, but that Cranmer had persuaded the king to be merciful. According to Jasper Ridley, one of Henry VIII’s biographers, Morice claimed that the king warned Cranmer that he would live to regret working to save Mary’s life.
- “Archbishop Aelfheah of Canterbury Murdered by Vikings.” Richard Cavendish, History Today, April 4, 2012.
- “Thomas Becket.” Ben Johnson, Historic UK, undated.
- “Rebels Killed Archbishop Sudbury.” Dan Graves, Christianity.com, July 2007.
- “Thomas Cranmer.” David Ross, Britain Express, undated.
- “Thomas Cranmer.” Spartacus Educational, undated.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Liz Westwood from UK on February 21, 2019:
Becket was the one who immediately sprang to mind. So I was interested to read about the other archbishops who met an untimely end.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on February 21, 2019:
William Shakespeare's quote seems to apply to priests as well as kings. Can you imagine a 14 year old being a king, even in that timeframe. The King Henry II story was very interesting. I knew more about Thomas Becket than the details of the others. This is a very good article.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on February 20, 2019:
Hello, Rupert, it seems that religion and politics do not mix well during this period. Thanks forsharing