It is difficult to believe that President Donald Trump is an avid student of mediaeval English history. Yet on 29 December 2020, the White House issued a formal proclamation (a nicely mediaeval touch) celebrating the 850th anniversary of the death of St Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury struck down fatally in his cathedral in the 12th century and canonised two years later.

It has become difficult to remain surprised at the actions of the outgoing 45th president of the United States. But the adoption of St Thomas of Canterbury as a “lion of religious liberty” and “a powerful and timeless reminder to every American that our freedom from religious persecution is not a mere luxury or accident of history, but rather an essential element of our liberty”, is a cause for raised eyebrows even by Trumpian standards. Giving the presidential imprimatur to a saint of the Roman Catholic Church might seem to sit uneasily with the famous separation of church and state (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”), and while the constitution does endorse religious freedom, it does so from a proto-secular perspective rather than as a champion of the rights of believers.

Identifying St Thomas with freedom of conscience and worship and with the limitations of state power over religious belief, is a strange reading of history. Becket was taken up as a hero and martyr by the Church very rapidly following his death: he was canonised after only two years, a remarkably rapid elevation. As a champion (and tourist attraction), he was an immediate hit: his shrine at Canterbury cathedral became a focal point for pilgrims from across Europe, and was a major money spinner for the monks there (who had despised Becket during his lifetime).

Canterbury Cathedral

That is not the whole tale though. Certainly, St Thomas was, as Archbishop of Canterbury, a doughty defender of the privileges of the church but this was a cause to which he came late. In 1155, in his mid-thirties, he was named Chancellor of England by Henry II, with whom he was to become very close, and he was a loyal ‘man of business’ for the king. He was assiduous in extracting the maximum revenues for the crown from both nobility and clergy, and wielded extensive power as the king’s right-hand man. It was only when he was nominated, reluctantly, as Archbishop of Canterbury in early 1162 that St Thomas began to ‘rediscover’ the ancient rights of the church. He resigned the Chancellorship, to the king’s dismay, developed a new interest in canon law and began dressing as an ascetic, allegedly wearing a cilice under his vestments.

The church in 12th-century England enjoyed wide privileges and exemptions from secular authority. The chief point of friction was the so-called ‘benefit of clergy’: the immunity of “criminous clerks” (i.e. men in holy orders who committed crimes) from prosecution by the temporal authorities, even for offences which were wholly civil rather than religious in nature. These clerks were numerous; as they included even those in minor orders they may have represented up to a fifth of the male population. That so many men could be effectively protected despite committing crimes like assault, robbery and rape seemed iniquitous and was an inherent challenge to royal authority.

It was in Becket’s nature that the sudden adoption of a stance in opposition to his previous views should be both swift and thorough. His breach with the king did not take long. A temporary capitulation at Clarendon in January 1164 was short-lived, and in October Becket was seized and tried by the king for various offences. Seeing the inevitability of the trial, Becket fled, first to Normandy, and then to Pontigny, where he would spend most of the rest of his life.

The denouement is well known. By the middle of 1170, with Becket threatening to place England under interdict, Henry II was induced to negotiate, and a settlement was reached which would allow the archbishop to return from his five-year exile. However, just before Becket landed in Kent in December, he excommunicated three of the king’s most senior prelates (bishops), Roger of York, Josceline of Salisbury and Gilbert Foliot, bishop of London. He was not quite ready to lay down his arms yet.

The news of the excommunications reached Henry at Bures in Normandy at Christmas 1170, and enraged a king not known for his forbearance. In his fury he exclaimed:

“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!”

It is not known whether he really did ask rhetorically “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”, but he did not have to. Four of his knights, perhaps initially flushed with pot-valiance, left immediately for England. Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton confronted the archbishop in his cathedral on 29 December, perhaps intending to arrest him and take him to the king in Normandy.

The martyring of Becket

The monks were already singing vespers from the quire when the confrontation happened. One knight shouted “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to king and country?” The archbishop, preternaturally calm according to his biographers (as martyrs are supposed to be when confronted by their imminent demise), replied “I am no traitor, and I am ready to die”. He clung to a pillar, and the knights piled in for what was a messy martyrdom. Three sword blows to the head put Becket on his knees; another took off the top of his skull and his brains spilled out onto the cathedral floor.

So died St Thomas of Canterbury. He was unquestionably the moral victor; rapidly canonised and popularly venerated, his cause was so celebrated that Henry II had to do barefoot penance at Becket’s tomb before he was rehabilitated in the church’s eyes. Some claim that Becket encouraged and perhaps even welcomed his own martyrdom, correctly forseeing the propaganda victory it would hand to his memory and to the Church. Others argue that he acted bravely but rashly when confronted by the four knights, and could have defused the situation if he had been given time to think.

He always was a fool and always will be

This, then, is the legacy with which Donald Trump has identified himself. A high-handed cleric murdered for championing the rights of the church against those of the state; Foliot, the bishop of London whom he excommunicated, said “He always was a fool and always will be”. But Becket was not really fighting for the church’s freedom to go about its business and practise its religion in peace. What he envisioned was a church immune from the temporal authorities, untouchable by its courts and free from its taxes and duties. Clerics should be answerable only to their own kind, and owed authority only up the ecclesiastical hierarchy rather than to any civil jurisdiction.

Is Trump guilty of reading history backwards, or something more sinister?

It seems unlikely that President Trump really wants any church, let alone the Catholic Church, to have such extensive freedom from responsibilities in modern America. And how would such licence apply? While the Catholic Church is the biggest Christian group in the US, several other denominations (the Southern Baptists, United Methodists, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Church of God in Christ) have millions of adherents. Some have positions on moral issues like abortion and equal marriage which differ considerably from those of the United States and its constitution.

Trump is a slightly ridiculous figure, and his presidency has only weeks to run, so it is easy to regard his sudden enthusiasm for the cult of St Thomas of Canterbury as a light-hearted story to amuse over the festive period. It is, however, illustrative of the weaponisation of history, especially by those who, through ignorance or malice, misrepresent the past to suit their own purposes.

Winston Churchill, paraphrasing the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana, told the House of Commons in 1948 that “those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it”. Well, perhaps. But junk history is as dangerous as amnesia. Using the past as a metaphor, a slogan, an exemplar or a bully pulpit is nothing new: the advisers around the young Edward VI in the mid-16th century referred again and again to the analogue of Josiah, the biblical king of Judah who came to the throne at eight years old and busied himself with religious reforms.

Adolf Hitler, as in so many things, was perhaps more guilty than anyone. His National Socialist ideology drew heavily on myth and pseudo-history of a northern Aryan race and a pantheon of Germanic heroes, as well as, more verifiable history such as the activities of the Teutonic Order in eastern Europe and Russia. It hardly mattered that most of the history was bogus; indeed, that may have been the point. But it created, or rediscovered, a narrative to which Hitler could mould his own ambitions and aims.

History matters. When politicians invoke it, be sceptical. The more outlandish or obscure the analogy may seem, the more sceptical and inquisitive we should be. There may be little harm which President Trump can now do with his invocation of St Thomas. Nevertheless, we should be wary. As Prince Metternich asked when he heard of Lord Castlereagh’s suicide, “but what did he mean by that?” No leader, whether the president of the United States or the chairman of Exxon Mobil, touches the fabric of history without intention. Always ask why, and check if the past really says what they think it says.

Image top: Stain glass window showing St Thomas Becket, St Olave’s church in York

Eliot Wilson

Eliot Wilson is policy editor of Culturall. A writer and strategic adviser, he is co-founder of Pivot Point Group, and is also a columnist for The Daily Telegraph and City AM. He was previously a clerk in the House of Commons.