On Language: Will No One Rid Me of this Meddlesome Priest

The Most Right Hon. and Rev. Edward Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1883 until his death in 1896

By Jonathan Spira on 17 October 2023
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My favorite quote from September has now been replaced by one that originally goes back to the 12th century.

At the end of September, former Governor Nikki Haley, without a sense of irony, told fellow candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, “Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber.”

The phrase just tumbled out, creating a memorable moment of the second Republican presidential debate.  It was an inadvertent variant on a line from the Adam Sandler movie “Billy Madison,” in which the high school principal said to Billy Madison after he answered a question about the industrial revolution, “Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it.”

The principal’s statement hit home because I felt the same way about the word salad that sprouted from his mouth (and I had similar feelings about the movie itself but that’s another story).  It is a line I tend to think of every time I hear someone make an insanely idiotic comment, launch into a rambling, incoherent response, pontificate about almost anything without even coming close to a rational thought, or say something mind-numbingly illogical, and paradoxically stupid.

Now, a quote attributed to Henry II of England is making the rounds in Beltway circles.

“Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” is what Henry II said preceding the death of Thomas Becker, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170. [Editor’s note: – In some renditions of the quote, “meddlesome priest” is sometimes expressed as either “troublesome priest” or “turbulent priest.”]

While Henry’s utterance was not stated as an order, it did prompt four knights (not of the roundtable, however, this wasn’t Arthurian England) to travel from Normandy to Canterbury, where they killed Becket.

The phrase, which pops up from time to time, was most recently uttered by the judge overseeing the election subversion case against Donald Trump, Tanya Chutkan.

“In what kind of case do you think it would be appropriate for a criminal defendant to call the prosecutor a thug and stay on the streets?” the judge asked Trump attorney John Lauro. “‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest’ comes to mind.”

The quote is typically understood to express a ruler’s wish that should be interpreted as a command by subordinates.  It is also understood as shorthand for any rhetorical device that would allow a leader – be it of a political party, a religion, or a country – to organize or exhort violence among their followers, while retaining culpable deniability.

It’s not the first time this has popped up in recent history relative to Trump.

At a Senate intelligence committee hearing in 2016, Senator Angus King, a Maine independent, was pressing then FBT Director James Comey about how he interpreted phrases President Donald Trump used in a one-on-one February dinner, in which Trump urged Comey to drop the probe into just-fired national security adviser Mike Flynn.

The senator, an independent, asked Comey if he interpreted language such as “I hope” as directives from the President.

“Yes. It kind of rings in my ears as, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’” Comey replied.

“I was just going to quote that,” King responded.

The irony in the 12th century drama was that Becket – an annoyance to Henry II just as Comey eventually became to Trump – was later venerated as a saint.

It’s quite likely Comey knew this when he made the quote, given his focus on religion in his undergraduate and graduate studies.

It’s also one of my all-time favorite quotes and, just as in the story of the Three Bears, the judge’s use of it was “just right.”

(Photo: Accura Media Group)


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