In James Comey’s testimony today, when he was questioned by Angus King, they both mentioned the same moment in history: The death of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury. Specifically, they referred to Henry II’s question, said in open court, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” It’s an important moment in history, because it’s all about how underlings read the intent of their bosses.
Becket and Henry were, hard as it might be to believe, close friends. Becket, before he became archbishop, was Henry II’s chancellor, essentially the tax collector, and boarded Henry’s son. Becket also worked under the Archbishop of Canterbury as, essentially, his diplomat, traveling overseas on business. All that added up to Becket being nominated to the role of Archbishop in 1162.
Knowing his loyal work as chancellor, Henry was hoping that Becket would work to advance the king’s interests, not the church’s. Becket did the exact opposite, and there was, essentially, a word of words and laws waged between the bishopric and Henry that quickly accelerated. Most notably, it led to the Constitutions of Clarendon, where Henry tried to force the clergy to bow to the king, and weaken its connections with Rome. Becket fled to France, Henry dogging him and his friends all the way. Even the Catholic Church struggled to resolve the problem.
The climax came in 1170, when Henry The Younger was coronated king without Becket’s consent. Becket attempted to excommunicate the men involved, inspiring Henry II to ask the notorious question “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” Historians argue to this day whether Henry was joking, just idly expressing frustration, or was asking his court to kill Becket. Nonetheless, four knights interpreted it as a royal order and murdered Becket in his own cathedral.
Comey’s mention is interesting for two reasons. The first, of course, is that much is being made of the underlying intent of Trump’s statements. The second, however, is a bit more subtle: In the end, Henry II’s vague statement cost him dearly, politically and personally. Any President is well served to remember history, especially when things go wrong.