Now that Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has announced his impending retirement, there’s been a whole lot of speculation over his successor. But Christians really needn’t worry. Whoever gets the job can’t be nearly as brilliantly bonkers as some of Williams’ predecessors.
Take Archbishop George Abbot for example. In 1621 he straight-up killed someone with a crossbow, the most appropriate weapon for a priest to use. Admittedly, it was an accident. Abbot was out hunting and the arrow, which accidentally hit a gamekeeper, was meant for a deer. Nevertheless this makes him the only Archbishop of Canterbury to actually kill a person. That we know of. If you believe some questionable but fun sources from the twelfth century then you can enjoy the mental image of Archbishop Oda swinging his sword alongside King Æthelstan at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937. In case you think this isn’t awesome, here’s a brief description of what happened to Oda’s Viking opponents that day: “The enemy perished… fated they fell. The field flowed with blood of warriors, from sun up in the morning, when the glorious star glided over the earth… till that noble creation sank to its seat.”
Because this clearly wasn’t enough blood for Oda, he is reported to have conjured up a brand new miracle sword when the King’s shattered. As much as everyone really wants this to be true, the more sceptical of us can be satisfied that Oda wasn’t the only Archbishop of Canterbury to go to war.
However the best combinations of Christianity and insanity always seem to result in martyrdom. St. Aelfheah was killed with an axe in 1012 after a drunken hoard of Vikings pelted him half to death with bones and cattle skulls. He could have perhaps saved himself, but he refused to pay a ransom or let anybody pay it for him. Yet probably the most famous example of defiance in the face of death is the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket. Even though the King had appointed him in hopes that he’d support the secular government, Becket insisted on playing Pope’s pet. When Henry II’s resulting temper tantrum was overheard by four knights, they quickly went to teach Becket some manners; by bashing his brains in. In 1170 Canterbury Cathedral became the site of a grisly murder and, reputedly, some badass last words. Becket’s response to the three blows from a sword, which left the top of his head split from the rest of it, was to state calmly: ‘For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death’. Whether he would actually be able to say much besides ‘Aaaaaaaaargh’ at this point is debatable.
That’s just a few of many unusual Archbishops. Thankfully, whoever succeeds Dr. Williams, we don’t have to worry about any modern priests pulling out a crossbow; that’s already been done.