Politicians’ Penance

For centuries, the shrewdest governmental leaders have recognized that the public (although not today’s federal prosecutors, perhaps) will forgive nearly any sin they commit–up to and including homicide–if only the officeholders involved will confess their errors and abjectly apologize.

I thought of this recently while reading about England’s corrupt King Henry II.

Henry was embroiled in a bitter dispute with Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury. On Dec. 29, 1170, four of Henry’s drunken knights barged into Canterbury Cathedral, hacked Becket to death with their swords, then looted the church.

“The deed shocked Christendom,” wrote Danny Danziger and John Gillingham in 1215: The Year of the Magna Carta. “Overnight Becket’s tomb became the most popular shrine in England, visited each year by thousands of pilgrims ….” Pope Alexander III quickly canonized Becket; he became not just a crime victim, but a saint.

Henry loudly denied any connection with Becket’s death. That got him nowhere except deeper in trouble with church officials and common citizens. Unrest multiplied.

Finally, in 1174, Henry admitted that, while he hadn’t intended Becket to be murdered, his rages against the archbishop probably had provoked his knights’ attack.

In what must rank among the grander shows of penance ever recorded, Henry went to Becket’s tomb at Canterbury. According to a contemporaneous account quoted by Danziger and Gillingham:

The king took off his cloak, and thrust his head and shoulders into one of the openings of Saint Thomas’s tomb. He would not, however, take off his green tunic so that I do not know if he was wearing a hair shirt underneath. Then he was flogged, first five strokes of the whip from each of the prelates present and then three lashes from each of the 80 monks. When he had been disciplined and by atonement was reconciled to God, he withdrew his head from the tomb and sat down on the dirty ground with no carpet or cushion under him, and he sang psalms and prayers all night, without getting up for any bodily need.

The public was mollified. Henry kept his throne.

Memo to today’s errant politicos: If you have any hope of surviving scandals, think self-arranged floggings and lots of psalms and prayers.

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