“Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” The truth behind Henry II’s notorious lament

Is the quote, most commonly attributed to King Henry II, fact or fabrication? Emily Guerry considers the evidence for BBC History Magazine

Peter O’Toole (top) plays Henry II alongside Richard Burton

On 8 June 2017, Thomas Becket made a surprise appearance in the investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Former FBI director James Comey had been summoned to appear before a hearing of a Senate Intelligence Committee to provide “texture and context” about his interactions with President Trump. About an hour and 40 minutes into proceedings, Senator Angus King of Maine asked Comey about Trump’s “hope” that Comey would stop the investigation of General Michael Flynn, the disgraced former national security adviser – at which point Comey made a pointed reference to Becket’s martyrdom.

King: “When a president of the United States in the Oval office says something like ‘I hope’ or ‘I suggest’ or ‘Would you?’, do you take that as a directive?”

Comey: “Yes. Yes. It rings in my ears as kind of ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’”

King: “I was just going to quote that! In 1170 December 29 Henry II said: ‘Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ and the next day he was killed, Thomas à Becket, that is exactly the same situation.”

That the term “meddlesome priest” was used in such a context proves just how intertwined those two words have become with Henry II’s fateful outburst about Becket – an outburst, so the story goes, that four knights misinterpreted as a directive to kill the archbishop. But, in reality, there’s no way of knowing precisely what Henry said. Edward Grim, the most influential of Becket’s hagiographers, reports a different exclamation in his account of c1171–72. Grim, who was an eyewitness to the murder, wrote that Henry said: “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!”

So there’s no mention of “meddlesome priest” here. In fact, it was another 800 years before the term first entered the popular imagination, when it was uttered by Peter O‘Toole, while playing King Henry II in the 1964 film Becket. Opposite O‘Toole was Richard Burton, cast in the title role, which he performed with an unmovable moral resilience.

The film was based on the successful Tony-winning play of the same name, written by the French dramatist Jean Anouilh. It was first performed in Paris in 1959 and then New York City in 1960, starring Lawrence Olivier and Anthony Quinn. But there’s no mention of the “meddlesome priest” in Anouilh’s script. The line should instead be credited to Edward Anhalt, who adapted the play for the silver screen. Although the film received 12 Academy Award nominations, only Anhalt – the man who apparently fabricated one of the most notorious refrains of the Middle Ages – won the Oscar.

This article was first published in the January 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine

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