My first trip into Central London for nearly 18 months was to visit the British Museum to see a couple of exhibitions which were due to close in the next few weeks.
The first exhibition was about the Roman Emperor Nero. The traditionally held view is that he was a mad, cruel man who did anything to hang onto power, but this is largely taken from writings after his death. Contemporary evidence suggests that for much of his reign he was extremely popular with the people of Rome, if not it’s elite and nobility, from whom most history writers were drawn. One myth is that he ‘fiddled while Rome burnt’ or even that his excesses in burning Christians led to the fire. Evidence shows that Nero was not in Rome when the fire started, but on hearing of it rushed back to the city and organised the fighting of the fire and the relief effort. It is true however, that in order to deflect any blame from the Imperial authority, he did blame the Christians and instigate a harsh persecution as a punishment. In fact, in many ways, he was the Roman equivalent of some Populist leaders we have encountered in modern day history.
Eventually he lost the support of the people and the senate took this opportunity to move against him. Seeing the signs, Nero committed suicide rather than be taken by the authorities. This was the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and after a year during which 4 Emperors reigned, some for only a matter of days, Vespasian emerged as the strongest candidate and assumed the purple. Roman society tried to eliminate any reference to Nero, statues were destroyed or taken down and some, such as the one below, were re-carved into likenesses of the new Emperor.
Thomas a Becket was the clerk to the Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Henry II and eventually became Chancellor of the Kingdom. He and King Henry were good friends and worked well together. Henry had an ongoing argument with the church authorities about whether members of the church should be tried in secular or church courts and in attempting to win this he arranged for Thomas to be appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, thinking that his friend in this post would strengthen his position. He intended that Thomas should combine that role with continuing as chancellor, but to Henry’s surprise Thomas resigned his court post and argued firmly for the independence of the church courts. This led to a rapid worsening in relations between the two. On one occasion, when in France, Henry heard that Thomas had once again defied him and a small band of knights set out immediately for Canterbury. Did Henry send them or know where they had gone? Did they mean to kill the archbishop or merely to arrest him? These are questions to which the answers will probably never be known. What is known is that on the night of 29 December 1170 they arrived at Canterbury and insisted that Thomas accompany them to Winchester to answer for his actions. Thomas refused and the knights killed him in the cathedral.
Thomas was canonised by the Pope a mere two years after his death. King Henry did public penance at Thomas’ tomb but took no action against the Knights although the Pope excommunicated them. They later travelled to Rome in penance and were sent by the Pope to serve as Knights in the Holy land for a period of 14 years as their penance for the killing.