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The Disturbing History Behind James Comey’s Henry II Reference

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While testifying before the U.S. Senate intelligence committee on Thursday morning, former FBI Director James Comey likened the President’s “hope” that he’d “drop” the probe into NSA advisor Michael Flynn’s Russian ties to Henry II’s frustration with Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket.

When Senator Angus King of Maine asked him if Comey interpreted the President’s use of “hope” as an order, Comey replied by quoting an exclamation often attributed to Henry II, “It rings in my ear as kind of, ‘will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?'”

Comey is referring to several knights who took Henry II’s outburst—”Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”—to mean that the king wanted Becket dead. They murdered Becket near the altar of Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170.

The disagreement was over Becket’s refusal in the 12th century to carry out orders from Henry II that would have given the king additional power over the bishops and the church courts. Becket believed “that in all things the authority of the church should be supreme, and that the king should rule as the church’s representative in the secular world,” according to the historian Richard Barber. “Both believed passionately in laws: Henry in the laws of the realm, Thomas in those of the church – canon law.”

Becket became a saint in 1173, venerated by both Catholic and Anglican believers. A shrine to him at the church became a site of pilgrimage, while his relics were distributed to other European churches. (His elbow, for instance, was recently returned to Canterbury cathedral.)

His defiance became glorified in pop culture depictions of the quarrel, such as T.S. Eliot’s drama Murder in the Cathedral and the Academy Award-nominated 1964 film Becket, starring Peter O’Toole as Henry II and Richard Burton as Becket.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com