Reluctant leaders: Thomas Beckett

Written by Paul Russell on 27 February 2018 in Features

Paul Russell takes a look back to Medieval times for the latest reluctant leader.

What happens when reluctance to lead turns sour? When a desire to raise a friend and colleague higher raises them so high that they become a threat to your plans; the initial reluctance replaced by vengeance. This is the story of one of the most reluctant leaders in history: Thomas Beckett and his close friend Henry II.

Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury was famously slain by the men of King Henry II on  29 December 1170 within the sacred walls of Canterbury Cathedral. Yet it was Henry II that had raised his friend Thomas Becket to the role of Archbishop, a role that Becket was extremely reluctant to accept.

Although born to a wealthy family, much of Becket’s accession to the upper echelons of society was down to both luck and his ability to ingratiate himself with those around him, making the best of opportunities that came his way.

After working as a clerk, Becket secured employment in the household of Theobold, Archbishop of Canterbury where it is said he quickly gained favour, eventually becoming the Archdeacon of Canterbury.

Becket was introduced to the newly crowned King Henry II in 1154 when Henry was 21 and Becket 36. Becket is said to have been both charming and diplomatic, two essential skills for any courtier, so that the two men became firm friends is perhaps to be expected.

Becket is said to have been both charming and diplomatic, two essential skills for any courtier

In those days, as in these, influence often came through connections with others. It wouldn’t have been unusual for courtiers to have utilised their affiliation to royalty to gain wealth and position- so to vilify Becket for using his charm to advance his career and social standing would perhaps be unfair. Becket became Lord Chancellor in January 1155.

Becket’s acclimatisation to his new post was swift. Encouraged by Henry II, Becket was only too happy to show off the wealth of England when he arrived in France to negotiate the marriage of Henry’s eldest son to the daughter of Louis VII.

Becket was accompanied by no fewer than 250 footmen and many coaches full of animals and luxury items. In comparison, born to wealth and position, Henry chose to wear his riches lightly. After displays of further loyalty from Becket, it would appear that Henry was convinced of Becket’s fealty and believed that allowing Becket to rise further would enable them both to achieve their aims.

But Becket’s response to Henry’s decision to make him Archbishop of Canterbury was not what Henry had expected.

When Theobold died in 1161, Henry decided that Becket would be the ideal man for the job. Yet Becket was extremely reluctant to take it on, issuing warnings to the king that the change would irrevocably damage their friendship. It would appear that Becket was able to clearly see what Henry was unwilling to see - that their strategies did not align.

Further, that they were diametrically opposed.

Despite the reluctance and despite the warnings, one year after the death of Theobold, Becket became Archbishop and once more, he quickly adapted to his new position. Where he had once embraced wealth and riches, Becket now embraced austerity, resigning as Chancellor and pursuing a single minded devotion to the church that disregarded his previous affinity to the king.

There are many possible reasons for this Becket’s change of allegiance from king to church. It could be that Becket’s chameleon like ability to adapt to his surroundings made it impossible to resist, it could be that the power of the position overwhelmed him.

But the fact is that Becket knew in advance what his allegiance would be once he became Archbishop and that is precisely why he attempted to dodge the elevated leadership role. King Henry II assumed that their friendship would surpass everything. Becket understood that this would not be the case.

After skirmishes and oppositions, the end for Becket came soon after Henry is said to have uttered the words: “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest.” Becket was canonised in 1173 becoming Saint Thomas. It is extremely likely that Becket repressed his true feelings about Henry’s leadership whilst Chancellor.

He was well versed in the ways of the court and knew his role well but realised that once he became Archbishop all that would change. He could no longer remain silent, or go along with plans that he didn’t fully support. It would mean stepping out of his comfort zone, and stepping away from an easier life.

In Becket’s case, his reluctance to lead was a reluctance to break the peace and perhaps after many years of playing a role, also a reluctance to reveal his true identity.


About the author

Paul Russell is co-founder and director of Luxury Academy London. Luxury Academy London specialise in leadership, communication and business etiquette training for companies and private clients across a wide range of sectors.


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