This is an utterance attributed to Henry II of England, which led to the death of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170. While it was not expressed as an order, it caused four knights to travel from Normandy to Canterbury, where they killed Becket.
The phrase is now used to express the idea that a ruler’s wish can be interpreted as a command by his or her subordinates.
Henry’s outburst came at Christmas 1170 at his castle at Bures, Normandy, at the height of the Becket controversy. He had just been informed that Becket had excommunicated a number of bishops supportive of the king, including the Archbishop of York.Edward Grim, who was present at Becket’s murder and subsequently wrote the Life of St. Thomas, quotes Henry as saying:
“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 clerk!”
In George Lyttleton’s 1772 History of the Life of King Henry the Second, this is rendered as “[he said] that he was very unfortunate to have maintained so many cowardly and ungrateful men in his court, none of whom would revenge him of the injuries he sustained from one turbulent priest. “In The Chronicle of the Kings of England (1821) it becomes “Will none of these lazy insignificant persons, whom I maintain, deliver me from this turbulent priest?”, which is then shortened to “who shall deliver me from this turbulent priest?”
No such phrase is spoken in T. S. Elliot’s 1932 play Murder in the Cathedral, because Henry does not appear in that play. In Jean Anouilh’s 1959 play Becket Henry says, “Will no one rid me of him? A priest! A priest who jeers at me and does me injury.” In the 1964 film Becket, which was based on the Anouilh play, he says, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”
On hearing the king’s words, four knights—Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton—travelled from Normandy to Canterbury, with the intention of forcing Becket to withdraw his excommunication, or alternatively, taking him back to Normandy by force. The day after their arrival, they confronted Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. When Becket resisted their attempts to seize him, they slashed at him with their swords, killing him. Although nobody, even at the time, believed that Henry directly ordered that Becket be killed, his words had started a chain of events that were likely to have that result. Moreover, since Henry’s harangue had been directed not at Becket, but at his own household, the four may well have thought that a failure to act would be regarded as treachery, potentially punishable by death.
Following the murder, Becket was venerated and Henry was vilified. There were demands that he be excommunicated. Pope Alexander forbade Henry to hear mass until he had expiated his sin. In May 1172, Henry did public penance in Avranches Cathedral
Use and analysis
The Turbulent Priest was the title of Piers Compton’s 1957 biography of Becket.
According to Alfred H. Knight, the phrase “had profound long-term consequences for the development of constitutional law”, because its consequences forced the king to accept the benefit of clergy, the principle that secular courts had no jurisdiction over clergy.
It has been said that the phrase is an example of “direction via indirection”, in that it provides the speaker with plausible deniability when a crime is committed as a result of his words.
The New York Times commented that even though Henry may not actually have said it, “in such matters historical authenticity may not be the point.” The phrase has been cited as an example of the shared history that all British citizens should be familiar with, part of “the collective memory of their country”.
In a 2009 BBC documentary on The Satanic Verses Controversy, journalist and newsreader Peter Sissons described a February 1989 interview with the Iranian Charge D’Affairs in London, Mohammad Mehdi Akhondzadeh Basti. The position of the Iranian government was that the fatwa against Salman Rushdie declared by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini was “an opinion”. Sissons described this argument as being “a bit like the, ‘who will rid me of this turbulent priest’, isn’t it?”
In a 2017 appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee, former FBI director James Comey testified that President Donald Trump had told him he “hoped” Comey could “let go” of any investigation into Michael Flynn; when asked if he would take “I hope”, coming from the president, as a directive, Comey answered, “Yes. It rings in my ears as kind of ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?'”