Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is professor of history at Dominican University in Illinois. He writes regularly on his blog: “How Did We Get Into This Mess?” Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
David Perry: James Comey and Angus King say Trump reminds them of King Henry II, who famously remarked: "'Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?"
Perry: Trump is no medieval king and Comey is no Becket -- the metaphor falls short
About halfway through the James Comey hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, things got surprisingly medieval.
In his written testimony submitted to the committee, Comey had reported that he was left alone with the President, and Trump said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) and Comey both felt this was an attempt to tell Comey what to do, but to avoid giving him a direct order. In an earlier meeting, over an intimate dinner, Comey says Trump asked him for “loyalty.”
King asked the former FBI director how it feels to have the President of the United States, in the Oval Office, say “I hope or I suggest” to him. King asked Comey, “Would you, do you take that as a directive?” Comey says, “Yes, yes, it rings in my ears as, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’”
King nodded. “I was just gonna quote that,” he said. “In 1170, December 29, Henry II said, ‘Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ and the next day he (the priest) was killed, Thomas Becket. We’re thinking along the same lines.”
As a medieval historian, I think it’s important to be clear about two points: President Trump has no qualms about using his office to urge subordinates to commit inappropriate acts, or about behaving himself in ways that have no place in modern American governance. His conduct with Comey is indicative of the way he’s subverting the modern bureaucratic state. Second, President Trump is no Henry II.
Thomas Becket had been King Henry II’s lord chancellor, but was technically in religious orders, so Henry got him promoted as archbishop of Canterbury, the highest church office in the land. Henry clearly hoped Becket would help undermine church financial and judicial independence in order to make the crown more powerful, but the archbishop fought to defend his office’s rights, setting up the conflict that led to murder.
Thanks to a T.S. Eliot play, “Murder in the Cathedral,” and the famous 1960s movie “Becket,” starring Richard Burton as Archbishop Thomas Becket and Peter O’Toole as King Henry, the story of the two medieval power brokers is still well known enough to be quoted – sort of – in the US Senate.
There’s no evidence that Henry specifically said “meddlesome priest” (or “turbulent priest,” which is also commonly quoted). According to our best sources, which are admittedly biased toward Becket, Henry criticized his knights for being “drones and traitors” for letting him be so mistreated by Becket, but never gave a direct command to violence. Four knights traveled to the cathedral, nonetheless, and killed him there.
Scandal erupted. Henry had to go to Canterbury and be publicly flogged, then promise to go on Crusade (he reneged), in order to be absolved of the murder. Thomas soon became the most important saint in medieval England. Henry went back to ruling. So much for Henry and Thomas.
Henry II, murder aside, was a pretty great king for England. He took the throne after a nasty civil war, but drew on his grandfather’s innovations (Henry I) to build an actual administration and restore some basic rule of law to the battered kingdom. He reformed the currency, developed better bookkeeping and taxation systems, and expanded the power of the judiciary to standardize practice of law.
These changes weren’t altruistic – he wanted more tax revenue and to weaken the power of both baronial and church courts. Still, historians looking for the origins of the modern state, have often looked with approval at the “rise of administrative kingship” in medieval kingdoms like England. Unlike Donald Trump, Henry also surrounded himself with strong female allies, though not always without intense conflict.
Donald Trump is no medieval king. While history is always with us, the world has changed for both good and ill. Trump has taken the reins of a vast and reasonably efficient (in the long view of history) administrative and bureaucratic state. The problem is that he’s trying to run it as a corrupt autocracy.
An ideal president manages executive decision-making within a highly structured environment, trusting the bureaucracy to handle myriad details and filter out the nonsense, while presenting him with the best possible information at moments when the chief executive must weigh in.
Donald Trump, by contrast, relies on courtiers who whisper in his ears. As his conversation with Comey shows, he values loyalty over competency, flattery over expertise. The courtiers form factions and fight with each other, destabilizing both the high office and the state it should be governing. He has, therefore, created a kind of court in the Oval Office.
It’s not a medieval form of rule – medieval kings were often severely limited in their exercise of power, to their endless irritation – but a bizarrely modern appropriation of ideas of governance that ought to be incompatible with American norms.
Alas, what we’ve learned with President Trump is that our much-vaunted modern bureaucratic state can be made vulnerable when yoked to a man without scruples and a party that refuses to protect the norms of our nation. The Comey hearings represent a chance to reassert those norms, but only if the governing party decides that they matter.
And let’s not push the metaphor too far. There’s a temptation to see Comey as a Becket figure, a man at risk of being martyred by the overreaching state. But as Dr. Suzanne Conklin Akbari, director of the Centre of Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto and a noted literary scholar, pointed out to me in a Facebook message, Comey is actually one of the knights in this story. “The metaphor actually works best if you think of him as refusing to be one of the four knights who kills the source of trouble,” she says. “In this way of thinking, the martyr – the Becket equivalent – is justice itself.”
We cannot let justice be martyred by this President.