Thomas Becket : Prelatical Power – Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages

Mohammed : Saracenic Conquests
Charlemagne : Revival of Western Empire
Hildebrand : The Papal Empire
Saint Bernard : Monastic Institutions
Saint Anselm : Mediaeval Theology
Thomas Aquinas : The Scholastic Philosophy
Thomas Becket : Prelatical Power
The Feudal System
The Crusades
William of Wykeham : Gothic Architecture
John Wyclif : Dawn of the Reformation

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages
John Lord

Topics Covered
Becket a puzzle to historians
His early history
His gradual elevation
Friendship with Henry II.
Becket made Chancellor
Elevated to the See of Canterbury
Dignity of an archbishop of Canterbury
Becket in contrast
His ascetic habits as priest
His high-church principles
Upholds the spiritual courts
Defends the privileges of his order
Conflict with the king
Constitutions of Clarendon
Persecution of Becket
He yields at first to the king
His repentance
Defection of the bishops
Becket escapes to the Continent
Supported by Louis VII. of France
Insincerity of the Pope
Becket at Pontigny in exile
His indignant rebuke of the Pope
Who excommunicates the Archbishop of York
Henry obliged to compromise
Hollow reconciliation with Becket
Return of Becket to Canterbury
His triumphal procession
Annoyance of Henry
Assassination of Becket
Consequences of the murder

Thomas Becket : Prelatical Power

A.D. 1118-1170.

A great deal has been written of late years on Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury in the reign of Henry II.,–some historians writing him up, and others writing him down; some making him a martyr to the Church, and others representing him as an ambitious prelate who encroached on royal authority,–more of a rebel than a patriot. His history has become interesting, in view of this very discrepancy of opinion,–like that of Oliver Cromwell, one of those historical puzzles which always have attraction to critics. And there is abundant material for either side we choose to take. An advocate can make a case in reference to Becket’s career with more plausibility than about any other great character in English history,–with the exception of Queen Elizabeth, Cromwell, and Archbishop Laud.

The cause of Becket was the cause of the Middle Ages. He was not the advocate of fundamental principles, as were Burke and Bacon. He fought either for himself, or for principles whose importance has in a measure passed away. He was a high-churchman, who sought to make the temporal power subordinate to the spiritual. He appears in an interesting light only so far as the principles he sought to establish were necessary for the elevation of society in his ignorant and iron age. Moreover, it was his struggles which give to his life its chief charm, and invest it with dramatic interest. It was his energy, his audacity, his ability in overcoming obstacles, which made him memorable,–one of the heroes of history, like Ambrose and Hildebrand; an ecclesiastical warrior who fought bravely, and died without seeing the fruits of his bravery.

There seems to be some discrepancy among historians as to Becket’s birth and origin, some making him out a pure Norman, and others a Saxon, and others again half Saracen. But that is, after all, a small matter, although the critics make a great thing of it. They always are inclined to wrangle over unimportant points. Michelet thinks he was a Saxon, and that his mother was a Saracen lady of rank, who had become enamored of the Saxon when taken prisoner while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and who returned with him to England, embraced his religion, and was publicly baptized in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, her beauty and rank having won attention; but Mr. Froude and Milman regard this as a late legend.

It would seem, however, that he was born in London about the year 1118 or 1119, and that his father, Gilbert Becket, was probably a respectable merchant and sheriff, or portreeve, of London, and was a Norman. His parents died young, leaving him not well provided for; but being beautiful and bright he was sent to school in an abbey, and afterwards to Oxford. From Oxford he went into a house of business in London for three years, and contrived to attract the notice of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, who saw his talents, sent him to Paris, and thence to Bologna to study the canon law, which was necessary to a young man who would rise in the world. He was afterwards employed by Theobald in confidential negotiations. The question of the day in England was whether Stephen’s son (Eustace) or Matilda’s son (Henry of Anjou) was the true heir to the crown, it being settled that Stephen should continue to rule during his lifetime, and that Henry should peaceably follow him; which happened in a little more than a year. Becket had espoused the side of Henry.

The reign of Henry II., during which Becket’s memorable career took place, was an important one. He united, through his mother Matilda, the blood of the old Saxon kings with that of the Norman dukes. He was the first truly English sovereign who had sat on the throne since the Conquest. In his reign (1154-1189) the blending of the Norman and Saxon races was effected. Villages and towns rose around the castles of great Norman nobles and the cathedrals and abbeys of Norman ecclesiastics. Ultimately these towns obtained freedom. London became a great city with more than a hundred churches. The castles, built during the disastrous civil wars of Stephen’s usurped reign, were demolished. Peace and order were restored by a legitimate central power.

Between the young monarch of twenty-two and Thomas, as a favorite of Theobald and as Archdeacon of Canterbury, an intimacy sprang up. Henry II. was the most powerful sovereign of Western Europe, since he was not only King of England, but had inherited in France Anjou and Touraine from his father, and Normandy and Maine from his mother. By his marriage with Eleanor of Aquitaine, he gained seven other provinces as her dower. The dominions of Louis were not half so great as his, even in France. And Henry was not only a powerful sovereign by his great territorial possessions, but also for his tact and ability. He saw the genius of Becket and made him his chancellor, loading him with honors and perquisites and Church benefices.

The power of Becket as chancellor was very great, since he was prime minister, and the civil administration of the kingdom was chiefly intrusted to him, embracing nearly all the functions now performed by the various members of the Cabinet. As chancellor he rendered great services. He effected a decided improvement in the state of the country; it was freed from robbers and bandits, and brought under dominion of the law. He depressed the power of the feudal nobles; he appointed the most deserving people to office; he repaired the royal palaces, increased the royal revenues, and promoted agricultural industry. He seems to have pursued a peace policy. But he was unscrupulous and grasping. His style of life when chancellor was for that age magnificent: Wolsey, in after times, scarcely excelled him. His dress was as rich as barbaric taste could make it,–for the more barbarous the age, the more gorgeous is the attire of great dignitaries. “The hospitalities of the chancellor were unbounded. He kept seven hundred horsemen completely armed. The harnesses of his horses were embossed with gold and silver. The most powerful nobles sent their sons to serve in his household as pages; and nobles and knights waited in his antechamber. There never passed a day when he did not make rich presents.” His expenditure was enormous. He rivalled the King in magnificence. His sideboard was loaded with vessels of gold and silver. He was doubtless ostentatious, but his hospitality was free, and his person was as accessible as a primitive bishop. He is accused of being light and frivolous; but this I doubt. He had too many cares and duties for frivolity. He doubtless unbent. All men loaded down with labors must unbend somewhere. It was nothing against him that he told good stories at the royal table, or at his own, surrounded by earls and barons. These relaxations preserved in him elasticity of mind, without which the greatest genius soon becomes a hack, a plodding piece of mechanism, a stupid lump of learned dulness. But he was stained by no vices or excesses. He was a man of indefatigable activity, and all his labors were in the service of the Crown, to which, as chancellor, he was devoted, body and soul.

Is it strange that such a man should have been offered the See of Canterbury on the death of Theobald? He had been devoted to his royal master and friend; he enjoyed rich livings, and was Archdeacon of Canterbury; he had shown no opposition to the royal will. Moreover Henry wanted an able man for that exalted post, in order to carry out his schemes of making himself independent of priestly influence and papal interference.

So Becket was made archbishop and primate of the English Church at the age of forty-four, the clergy of the province acquiescing,–perhaps with secret complaints, for he was not even priest; merely deacon, and the minister of an unscrupulous king. He was ordained priest only just before receiving the primacy, and for that purpose.

Nothing in England could exceed the dignity of the See of Canterbury. Even the archbishopric of York was subordinate. Becket as metropolitan of the English Church was second in rank only to the King himself. He could depose any ecclesiastic in the realm. He had the exclusive privilege of crowning the king. His decisions were final, except an appeal to Rome. No one dared disobey his mandates, for the law of clerical obedience was one of the fundamental ideas of the age. Through his clergy, over whom his power was absolute, he controlled the people. His law courts had cognizance of questions which the royal courts could not interfere with. No ecclesiastical dignitary in Europe was his superior, except the Pope.

The Archbishop of Canterbury had been a great personage under the Saxon kings. Dunstan ruled England as the prime minister of Edward the Martyr, but his influence would have been nearly as great had he been merely primate of the Church. Nor was the power of the archbishop reduced by the Norman kings. William the Conqueror might have made the spiritual authority subordinate to the temporal, if he had followed his inclinations. But he dared not quarrel with the Pope,–the great Hildebrand, by whose favor he was unmolested in the conquest of the Saxons. He was on very intimate terms of friendship with Lanfranc, whom he made Archbishop of Canterbury,–a wily and ambitious Italian, who was devoted to the See of Rome and his spiritual monarch. The influence of Hildebrand and Lanfranc combined was too great to be resisted. Nor did he attempt resistance; he acquiesced in the necessity of making a king of Canterbury. His mind was so deeply absorbed with his conquest and other state matters that he did not seem to comprehend the difficulties which might arise under his successors, in yielding so much power to the primate. Moreover Lanfranc, in the quiet enjoyment of his ecclesiastical privileges, gave his powerful assistance in imposing the Norman yoke. He filled the great sees with Norman prelates. He does not seem to have had much sympathy with the Saxons, or their bishops, who were not so refined or intellectual as the bishops of France. The Normans were a superior race to the Saxons in executive ability and military enthusiasm. The chivalric element of English society, among the higher classes, came from the Normans, not from the Saxons. In piety, in passive virtues, in sustained industry, in patient toil, in love of personal freedom, the Saxons doubtless furnished a finer material for the basis of an agricultural, industrial, and commercial nation. The sturdy yeomen of England were Saxons: the noble and great administrators were Normans. In pride, in ambition, and in executive ability the Normans bore a closer resemblance to the old heroic Romans than did the Saxons.

The next archbishop after Lanfranc was Anselm, appointed by William Rufus. Anselm was a great scholar, the profoundest of the early Schoolmen; a man of meditative habits, who it was presumed would not interfere with royal encroachments. William Rufus never dreamed that the austere and learned monk, who had spent most of his days in the abbey of Bec in devout meditations and scholastic inquiries, would interfere with his rapacity. But, as we have already seen, Anselm was conscientious, and became the champion of the high-church party in the West. He occupied two distinct spheres,–he was absorbed in philosophical speculations, yet took an interest in all mundane questions. His resolve to oppose the king’s usurpations in the spiritual realm caused the bitter quarrel already described, which ended in a compromise.

When Henry I. came to the throne, he appointed Theobald, a feeble but good man, to the See of Canterbury,–less ambitious than Lanfranc, more inoffensive than Anselm; a Norman disinclined to quarrel with his sovereign. He died during the reign of Henry II., and this great monarch, as we have seen, appointed Becket to the vacant See, thinking that in the double capacity of chancellor and archbishop he would be a very powerful ally. But he was amazingly deceived in the character of his Chancellor. Becket had not sought the office,–the office had sought him. It would seem that he accepted it unwillingly. He knew that new responsibilities and duties would be imposed upon him, which, if he discharged conscientiously like Anselm, would in all probability alienate his friend the King, and provoke a desperate contest. And when the courtly and luxurious Chancellor held out, in Normandy, the skirts of his gilded and embroidered garments to show how unfit he was for an archbishop, Henry ought to have perceived that a future estrangement was a probability.

Better for Henry had Becket remained in the civil service. But Henry, with all his penetration, had not fathomed the mind of his favorite. Becket may have been a dissembler, or a great change may have been wrought in his character. Probably the new responsibilities imposed upon him as Primate of the English Church pressed upon his conscience. He knew that supreme allegiance was due to the Pope as head of the Church, and that if compelled to choose between the Pope and the King, he must obey the Pope. He was ambitious, doubtless; but his subsequent career shows that he preferred the liberties of his Church to the temporal interests of the sovereign. He was not a theologian, like Lanfranc and Anselm. Of all the great characters who preceded him, he most resembles Ambrose. Ambrose the governor, and a layman, became Archbishop of Milan. Becket the minister of a king, and only deacon, became Archbishop of Canterbury. The character of both these great men changed on their elevation to high ecclesiastical position. They both became high-churchmen, and defended the prerogatives of the clergy. But Ambrose was superior to Becket in his zeal to defend the doctrines of the Church. It does not appear that Becket took much interest in doctrines. In his age there was no dissent. Everybody, outwardly at least, was orthodox. In England, certainly, there were no heretics. Had Becket remained chancellor, in all probability he would not have quarrelled with Henry. As archbishop he knew what was expected of him; and he knew also the infamy in store for him should he betray his cause. I do not believe he was a hypocrite. Every subsequent act of his life shows his sincerity and his devotion to his Church against his own interests.

Becket was no sooner ordained priest and consecrated as archbishop than he changed his habits. He became as austere as Lanfranc. He laid aside his former ostentation. He clothed himself in sackcloth; he mortified his body with fasts and laceration; he associated only with the pious and the learned; he frequented the cloisters and places of meditation; he received into his palace the needy and the miserable; he washed the feet of thirteen beggars every day; he conformed to the standard of piety in his age; he called forth the admiration of his attendants by his devotion to clerical duties. “He was,” says James Stephen, “a second Moses entering the tabernacle at the accepted time for the contemplation of his God, and going out from it in order to perform some work of piety to his neighbor. He was like one of God’s angels on the ladder, whose top reached the heavens, now descending to lighten the wants of men, now ascending to behold the divine majesty and the splendor of the Heavenly One. His prime councillor was reason, which ruled his passions as a mistress guides her servants. Under her guidance he was conducted to virtue, which, wrapped up in itself, and embracing everything within itself, never looks forward for anything additional.”

Inside Canterbury Cathedral From a photograph

Inside Canterbury Cathedral From a photograph

This is the testimony of his biographer, and has not been explained away or denied, although it is probably true that Becket did not purge the corruptions of the Church, or punish the disorders and vices of the clergy, as Hildebrand did. But I only speak of his private character. I admit that he was no reformer. He was simply the high-churchman aiming to secure the ascendency of the spiritual power. Becket is not immortal for his reforms, or his theological attainments, but for his intrepidity, his courage, his devotion to his cause,–a hero, and not a man of progress; a man who fought a fight. It should be the aim of an historian to show for what he was distinguished; to describe his warfare, not to abuse him because he was not a philosopher and reformer. He lived in the twelfth century.

One of the first things which opened the eyes of the King was the resignation of the Chancellor. The King doubtless made him primate of the English hierarchy in order that he might combine both offices. But they were incompatible, unless Becket was willing to be the unscrupulous tool of the King in everything. Of course Henry could not long remain the friend of the man who he thought had duped him. Before a year had passed, his friendship was turned to secret but bitter enmity. Nor was it long before an event occurred,–a small matter,–which brought the King and the Prelate into open collision.

The matter was this: A young nobleman, who held a clerical office, committed a murder. As an ecclesiastic, he was brought before the court of the Bishop of Lincoln, and was sentenced to pay a small fine. But public justice was not satisfied, and the sheriff summoned the canon, who refused to plead before him. The matter was referred to the King, who insisted that the murderer should be tried in the civil court,–that a sacred profession should not screen a man who had committed a crime against society. While the King had, as we think, justice on his side, yet in this matter he interfered with the jurisdiction of the spiritual courts, which had been in force since Constantine. Theodosius and Justinian had confirmed the privilege of the Church, on the ground that the irregularities of a body of men devoted to the offices of religion should be veiled from the common eye; so that ecclesiastics were sometimes protected when they should be punished. But if the ecclesiastical courts had abuses, they were generally presided over by good and wise men,–more learned than the officers of the civil courts, and very popular in the Middle Ages; and justice in them was generally administered. So much were they valued in a dark age, when the clergy were the most learned men of their times, that much business came gradually to be transacted in them which previously had been settled in the civil courts,–as tithes, testaments, breaches of contract, perjuries, and questions pertaining to marriage. But Henry did not like these courts, and was determined to weaken their jurisdiction, and transfer their power to his own courts, in order to strengthen the royal authority. Enlightened jurists and historians in our times here sympathize with Henry. High-Church ecclesiastics defend the jurisdiction of the spiritual courts, since they upheld the power of the Church, so useful in the Middle Ages. The King began the attack where the spiritual courts were weakest,–protection afforded to clergymen accused of crime. So he assembled a council of bishops and barons to meet him at Westminster. The bishops at first were inclined to yield to the King, but Becket gained them over, and would make no concession. He stood up for the privileges of his order. It was neither justice nor right which he defended, but his Church, at all hazards,–not her doctrines, but her prerogatives. He would present a barrier against royal encroachments, even if they were for the welfare of the realm. He would defend the independence of the clergy, and their power,–perhaps as an offset to royal power. In his rigid defence of the privileges of the clergy we see the churchman, not the statesman; we see the antagonist, not the ally, of the King. Henry was of course enraged. Who can wonder? He was bearded by his former favorite,–by one of his subjects.

If Becket was narrow, he probably was conscientious. He may have been ambitious of wielding unlimited spiritual authority. But it should be noted that, had he not quarrelled with the King, he could have been both archbishop and chancellor, and in that double capacity wielded more power; and had he been disposed to serve his royal master, had he been more gentle, the King might not have pushed out his policy of crippling the spiritual courts,–might have waived, delayed, or made concessions. But now these two great potentates were in open opposition, and a deadly warfare was at hand. It is this fight which gives to Becket all his historical importance. It is not for me to settle the merits of the case, if I could,–only to describe the battle. The lawyers would probably take one side, and Catholic priests would take the other, and perhaps all high-churchmen. Even men like Mr. Froude and Mr. Freeman, both very learned and able, are totally at issue, not merely as to the merits of the case, but even as to the facts. Mr. Froude seems to hate Becket and all other churchmen as much as Mr. Freeman loves them. I think one reason why Mr. Froude exalts so highly Henry VIII. is because he put his foot on the clergy and took away their revenues. But with the war of partisans I have nothing to do, except the war between Henry II. and Thomas Becket.

This war waxed hot when a second council of bishops and barons was assembled at Clarendon, near Winchester, to give their assent to certain resolutions which the King’s judges had prepared in reference to the questions at issue, and other things tending to increase the royal authority. They are called in history “The Constitutions of Clarendon.” The gist and substance of them were, that during the vacancy of any bishopric or abbey of royal foundation, the estates were to be in the custody of the Crown; that all disputes between laymen and clergymen should be tried in the civil courts; that clergymen accused of crime should, if the judges decided, be tried in the King’s court, and, if found guilty, be handed over to the secular arm for punishment; that no officer or tenant of the King should be excommunicated without the King’s consent; that no peasant’s son should be ordained without permission of his feudal lord; that great ecclesiastical personages should not leave the kingdom without the King’s consent.

“Anybody must see that these articles were nothing more nor less than the surrender of the most important and vital privileges of the Church into the hands of the King: not merely her properties, but her liberties; even a surrender of the only weapon with which she defended herself in extreme cases,–that of excommunication.” It was the virtual confiscation of the Church in favor of an aggressive and unscrupulous monarch. Could we expect Becket to sign such an agreement, to part with his powers, to betray the Church of which he was the first dignitary in England? When have men parted with their privileges, except upon compulsion? He never would have given up his prerogatives; he never meant for a moment to do so. He was not the man for such a base submission. Yet he was so worried and threatened by the King, who had taken away from him the government of the Prince, his son, and the custody of certain castles; he was so importuned by the bishops themselves, for fear that the peace of the country would be endangered,–that in a weak moment he promised to sign the articles, reserving this phrase: “Saving the honor of his order.” With this reservation, he thought he could sign the agreement, for he could include under such a phrase whatever he pleased.

But when really called to fulfil his promise and sign with his own hand those constitutions, he wavered. He burst out in passionate self-reproaches for having made a promise he never intended to keep. “Never, never!” he said; “I will never do it so long as breath is in my body.” In his repentance he mortified himself with new self-expiations. He suspended himself from the service of the altar. He was overwhelmed with grief, shame, rage, and penitence. He resolved he would not yield up the privileges of his order, come what might,–not even if the Pope gave him authority to sign.

The dejected and humbled metropolitan advanced to the royal throne with downcast eye but unfaltering voice; accused himself of weakness and folly, and firmly refused to sign the articles. “Miserable wretch that I am,” cried he, with bitter tears coursing down his cheeks, “I see the Anglican Church enslaved, in punishment for my sins. But it is all right. I was taken from the court, not the cloister, to fill this station; from the palace of Caesar, not the school of the Saviour. I was a feeder of birds, but suddenly made a feeder of men; a patron of stage-players, a follower of hounds, and I became a shepherd over so many souls. Surely I am rightly abandoned by God.”

He then took his departure for Canterbury, but was soon summoned to a grand council at Northampton, to answer serious charges. He was called to account for the sums he had spent as chancellor, and for various alleged injustices. He was found guilty by a court controlled by the King, and sentenced to pay a heavy fine, which he paid. The next day new charges were preferred, and he was condemned to a still heavier fine, which he was unable to pay; but he found sureties. On the next day still heavier charges were made, and new fines inflicted, which would have embarrassed the temporalities of his See. He now perceived that the King was bent on his ruin; that the more he yielded the more he would be expected to yield. He therefore resolved to yield no further, but to stand on his rights.

But before he made his final resistance he armed himself with his crozier, and sought counsel from the bishops assembled in another chamber of the royal castle. The bishops were divided: some for him, some against him. Gilbert Foliot of London put him in mind of the benefits he had received from Henry, and the humble condition from which he was raised, and advised him to resign for sake of peace. Henry of Winchester, a relative of the King, bade him resign. Roger of Worcester was non-committal. “If I advise to resist the King, I shall be put out of the synagogue,” said he. “I counsel nothing.” The Bishop of Chichester declared that Becket was primate no longer, as he had gone against the laws of the realm. In the midst of this conference the Earl of Leicester entered, and announced the sentence of the peers. Then gathering himself up to his full height, the Primate, with austere dignity, addressed the Earl and the Bishops: “My brethren, our enemies are pressing hard upon us, and the whole world is against us; but I now enjoin you, in virtue of your obedience, and in peril of your orders, not to be present in any cause which may be made against my person; and I appeal to that refuge of the distressed, the Holy See. And I command you as your Primate, and in the name of the Pope, to put forth the censures of the Church in behalf of your Archbishop, should the secular arm lay violent hands upon me; for, be assured, though this frail body may yield to persecution,–since all flesh is weak,–yet shall my spirit never yield.”

Then pushing his way, he swept through the chamber, reached the quadrangle of the palace, mounted his horse, reached his lodgings, gave a banquet to some beggars, stole away in disguise and fled, reaching the coast in safety, and succeeding in crossing over to Flanders. He was now out of the King’s power, who doubtless would have imprisoned him and perhaps killed him, for he hated him with the intensest hatred. Becket had deceived him, having trifled with him by taking an oath to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon, and then broken his oath and defied his authority, appealing to the Pope, and perhaps involving the King in a quarrel with the supreme spiritual power of Christendom. Finally he had deserted his post and fled the kingdom. He had defeated the King in his most darling schemes.

But although Becket was an exile, a fugitive, and a wanderer, he was still Archbishop of Canterbury. He was the head of the English Church, and all the clergy of the kingdom owed him spiritual obedience. He still had the power of excommunicating the King, and the sole right of crowning his successor. If the Pope should take his side, and the King of France, and other temporal powers, Becket would be no unequal match for the King. It was a grand crisis which Henry comprehended, and he therefore sent some of his most powerful barons and prelates to the Continent to advance his cause and secure the papal interposition.

Becket did not remain long in Flanders, since the Count was cold and did not take his side. He escaped, and sought shelter and aid from the King of France.

Louis VII. was a feeble monarch, but he hated Henry II. and admired Becket. He took him under his protection, and wrote a letter to the Pope in his behalf.

That Pope was Alexander III,–himself an exile, living in Sens, and placed in a situation of great difficulty, struggling as he was with an anti-pope, and the great Frederic Barbarossa, Emperor of Germany. Moreover he was a personal friend of Henry, to whom he had been indebted for his elevation to the papal throne. His course, therefore, was non-committal and dilatory and vacillating, although he doubtless was on the side of the prelate who exalted ecclesiastical authority. But he was obliged from policy to be prudent and conciliatory. He patiently heard both sides, but decided nothing. All he consented to do was to send cardinal legates to England, but intrusted to none but himself the prerogatives of final judgment.

After Henry’s ambassadors had left, Becket appeared with a splendid train of three hundred horsemen, the Archbishop of Rheims, the brothers of the King of France, and a long array of bishops. The Pope dared not receive him with the warmth he felt, but was courteous, more so than his cardinals; and Becket unfolded and discussed the Constitutions of Clarendon, which of course found no favor with the Pope. He rebuked Becket for his weakness in promising to sign a paper which curtailed so fundamentally the privileges of the Church. Some historians affirm he did not extend to him the protection he deserved, although he confirmed him in his office. He sent him to the hospitable care of the Abbot of Pontigny. “Go now,” he said, “and learn what privation is; and in the company of Christ’s humblest servants subdue the flesh to the spirit.”

In this Cistercian abbey it would seem that Becket lived in great austerity, tearing his flesh with his nails, and inflicting on himself severe flagellations; so that his health suffered, and his dreams haunted him. He was protected, but he could not escape annoyances and persecutions. Henry, in his wrath, sequestrated the estates of the archbishopric; the incumbents of his benefices were expelled; all his relatives and dependents were banished,–some four hundred people; men, women, and children. The bishops sent him ironical letters, and hoped his fasts would benefit his soul.

The quarrel now was of great interest to all Europe. It was nothing less than a battle between the spiritual and temporal powers, like that, a century before, between Hildebrand and the Emperor of Germany. Although the Pope was obliged from motives of policy,–for fear of being deposed,–to seem neutral and attempt to conciliate, still the war really was carried on in his behalf. “The great, the terrible, the magnificent in the fate of Becket,” says Michelet, “arises from his being charged, weak and unassisted, with the interests of the Church Universal,–a post which belonged to the Pope himself.” He was still Archbishop; but his revenues were cut off, and had it not been for the bounty of Louis the King of France, who admired him and respected his cause, he might have fared as a simple monk. The Pope allowed him to excommunicate the persons who occupied his estates, but not the King himself. He feared a revolt of the English Church from papal authority, since Henry was supreme in England, and had won over to his cause the English bishops. The whole question became complicated and interesting. It was the common topic of discourse in all the castles and convents of Europe. The Pope, timid and calculating, began to fear he had supported Becket too far, and pressed upon him a reconciliation with Henry, much to the disgust of Becket, who seemed to comprehend the issue better than did the Pope; for the Pope had, in his desire to patch up the quarrel, permitted the son of Henry to be crowned by the Archbishop of York, which was not only an infringement of the privileges of the Primate, but was a blow against the spiritual power. So long as the Archbishop of Canterbury had the exclusive privilege of crowning a king, the King was dependent in a measure on the Primate, and, through him, on the Pope. At this suicidal act on the part of Alexander, Becket lost all patience, and wrote to him a letter of blended indignation and reproach. “Why,” said he, “lay in my path a stumbling-block? How can you blind yourself to the wrong which Christ suffers in me and yourself? And yet you call on me, like a hireling, to be silent. I might flourish in power and riches and pleasures, and be feared and honored of all; but since the Lord hath called me, weak and unworthy as I am, to the oversight of the English Church, I prefer proscription, exile, poverty, misery, and death, rather than traffic with the liberties of the Church.”

What language to a Pope! What a reproof from a subordinate! How grandly the character of Becket looms up here! I say nothing of his cause. It may have been a right or a wrong one. Who shall settle whether spiritual or temporal power should have the ascendency in the Middle Ages? I speak only of his heroism, his fidelity to his cause, his undoubted sincerity. Men do not become exiles and martyrs voluntarily, unless they are backed by a great cause. Becket may have been haughty, irascible, ambitious. Very likely. But what then? The more personal faults he had, the greater does his devotion to the interests of the Church appear, fighting as it were alone and unassisted. Undaunted, against the advice of his friends, unsupported by the Pope, he now hurls his anathemas from his retreat in France. He excommunicates the Bishop of Salisbury, and John of Oxford, and the Archdeacon of Ilchester, and the Lord Chief-Justice de Luci, and everybody who adhered to the Constitutions of Clarendon. The bishops of England remonstrate with him, and remind him of his plebeian origin and his obligations to the King. To whom he replies: “I am not indeed sprung from noble ancestors, but I would rather be the man to whom nobility of mind gives the advantages of birth than to be the degenerate issue of an illustrious family. David was taken from the sheepfold to be a ruler of God’s people, and Peter was taken from fishing to be the head of the Church. I was born under a humble roof, yet, nevertheless, God has intrusted me with the liberties of the Church, which I will guard with my latest breath.”

Henry now threatens to confiscate the property of all the Cistercian convents in England; and the Abbot of Pontigny, at the command of his general, is forced to drive Becket away from his sanctuary. Becket retires to Sens, sad at heart and grieved that the excommunications which he had inflicted should have been removed by the Pope. Then Louis, the King of France, made war on Henry, and took Becket under his protection. The Pope rebuked Louis for the war; but Louis retorted by telling Alexander that it was a shame for him not to give up his time-serving policy. In so doing, Louis spoke out the heart of Christendom. The Pope, at last aroused, excommunicated the Archbishop of York for crowning the son of Henry, and threatened Henry himself with an interdict, and recalled his legates. Becket also fulminated his excommunications. There was hardly a prelate or royal chaplain in England who was not under ecclesiastical censure. The bishops began to waver. Henry had reason to fear he might lose the support of his English subjects, and Norman likewise. He could do nothing with the whole Church against him.

The King was therefore obliged to compromise. Several times before, he had sought reconciliation with his dreadful enemy; but Becket always, in his promises, fell back on the phrase, “Saving the honor of his order,” or “Saving the honor of God.” But now, amid the fire of excommunications, Henry was compelled to make his peace with the man he detested. He himself did not much care for the priestly thunderbolts, but his clergy and his subjects did. The penalty of eternal fire was a dreadful fear to those who believed, as everybody then did, in the hell of which the popes were supposed to hold the keys. This fear sustained the empire of the popes; it was the basis of sacerdotal rule in the Middle Ages. Hence Becket was so powerful, even in exile. His greatness was in his character; his power was in his spiritual weapons.

In the hollow reconciliation at last effected between the King and the Prelate, Henry promised to confirm Becket in his powers and dignities, and molest him no more. But he haughtily refused the customary kiss of peace. Becket saw the omen; so did the King of France. The peace was inconclusive. It was a truce, not a treaty. Both parties distrusted each other.

But Henry was weary with the struggle, and Becket was tired of exile,–never pleasant, even if voluntary. Moreover, the Prelate had gained the moral victory, even as Hildebrand did when the Emperor of Germany stooped as a suppliant in the fortress of Canossa. The King of England had virtually yielded to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Perhaps Becket felt that his mission was accomplished; that he had done the work for which he was raised up. Wearied, sickened with the world, disgusted with the Pope, despising his bishops, perhaps he was willing to die. He had a presentiment that he should die as a martyr. So had the French king and his prelates. But Becket longed to return to his church and celebrate the festivities of Christmas. So he made up his mind to return to England, “although I know, of a truth,” he said, “I shall meet my passion there.” Before embarking he made a friendly and parting visit to the King of France, and then rode to the coast with an escort of one hundred horsemen. As Dover was guarded by the King’s retainers, who might harm him, he landed at Sandwich, his own town. The next day he set out for Canterbury, after an absence of seven years. The whole population lined the road, strewed it with flowers, and rent the air with songs. Their beloved Archbishop had returned. On reaching Canterbury he went directly to his cathedral and seated himself on his throne, and the monks came and kissed him, with tears in their eyes. One Herbert said, “Christ has conquered; Christ is now King!”

From Canterbury Becket made a sort of triumphal progress through the kingdom, with the pretence of paying a visit to the young king at Woodstock,–exciting rather than allaying the causes of discord, scattering his excommunications, still haughty, restless, implacable; so that the Court became alarmed, and ordered him to return to his diocese. He obeyed, as he wished to celebrate Christmas at home; and ascending his long-neglected pulpit preached, according to Michelet, from this singular text: “I am come to die in the midst of you.”

Henry at this time was on the Continent, and was greatly annoyed at the reports of Becket’s conduct which reached him. Then there arrived three bishops whom the Primate had excommunicated, with renewed complaints and grievances, assuring him there would be no peace so long as Becket lived. Henry was almost wild with rage and perplexity. What could he do? He dared not execute the Archbishop, as Henry VIII. would have done. In his age the Prelate was almost as powerful as the King. Violence to his person was the last thing to do, for this would have involved the King in war with the adherents of the Pope, and would have entailed an excommunication. Still, the supremest desire of Henry’s soul was to get Becket out of the way. So, yielding to an impulse of passion, he said to his attendants, “Is there no one to relieve me from the insults of this low-born and turbulent priest?”

Among these attendants were four courtiers or knights, of high birth and large estates, who, hearing these reproachful words, left the court at once, crossed the channel, and repaired to the castle of Sir Ranulf de Broc, the great enemy of Becket, who had molested him in innumerable ways. Some friendly person contrived to acquaint Becket with his danger, to whom he paid no heed, knowing it very well himself. He knew he was to die; and resolved to die bravely.

The four armed knights, meanwhile, on the 29th of December, rode with an escort to Canterbury, dined at the Augustinian abbey, and entered the court-yard of the Archbishop’s palace as Becket had finished his mid-day meal and had retired to an inner room with his chaplain and a few intimate friends. They then entered the hall and sought the Archbishop, who received them in silence. Sir Reginald Fitzurst then broke the silence with these words: “We bring you the commands of the King beyond the sea, that you repair without delay to the young King’s presence and swear allegiance. And further, he commands you to absolve the bishops you have excommunicated.” On Becket’s refusal, the knight continued: “Since you will not obey, the royal command is that you and your clergy forthwith depart from the realm, never more to return.” Becket angrily declared he would never again leave England. The knights then sprang to their feet and departed, enjoining the attendants to prevent the escape of Becket, who exclaimed: “Do you think I shall fly, then? Neither for the King nor any living man will I fly. You cannot be more ready to kill me than I am to die.”

He sought, however, the shelter of his cathedral, as the vesper bell summoned him to prayers,–followed by the armed knights, with a company of men-at-arms, driving before them a crowd of monks. The Archbishop was standing on the steps of the choir, beyond the central pillar, which reached to the roof of the cathedral, in the dim light shed by the candles of the altars, so that only the outline of his noble figure could be seen, when the knights closed around him, and Fitzurst seized him,–perhaps meaning to drag him away as a prisoner to the King, or outside the church before despatching him. Becket cried, “Touch me not, thou abominable wretch!” at the same time hurling Tracy, another of the knights, to the ground, who, rising, wounded him in the head with his sword. The Archbishop then bent his neck to the assassins, exclaiming, “I am prepared to die for Christ and His Church.”

Such was the murder of Becket,–a martyr, as he has been generally regarded, for the liberties of the Church; but, according to some, justly punished for presumptuous opposition to his sovereign.

The Murder of St. Thomas à Becket After the painting by A. Dawant

The Murder of St. Thomas à Becket After the painting by A. Dawant

The assassination was a shock to Christendom. The most intrepid churchman of his age was slain at his post for doing, as he believed, his duty. No one felt the shock more than the King himself, who knew he would be held responsible for the murder. He dreaded the consequences, and shut himself up for three days in his chamber, refusing food, issuing orders for the arrest of the murderers, and sending ambassadors to the Pope to exculpate himself. Fearing an excommunication and an interdict, he swore on the Gospel, in one of the Norman cathedrals, that he had not commanded nor desired the death of the Archbishop; and stipulated to maintain at his own cost two hundred knights in the Holy Land, to abrogate the Constitutions of Clarendon, to reinvest the See of Canterbury with all he had wrested away, and even to undertake a crusade against the Saracens of Spain if the Pope desired. Amid the calamities which saddened his latter days, he felt that all were the judgments of God for his persecution of the martyr, and did penance at his tomb.

So Becket slew more by his death than he did by his life. His cause was gained by his blood: it arrested the encroachments of the Norman kings for more than three hundred years. He gained the gratitude of the Church and a martyr’s crown. He was canonized as a saint. His shrine was enriched with princely offerings beyond any other object of popular veneration in the Middle Ages. Till the time of the Reformation a pilgrimage to that shrine was a common form of penance for people of all conditions, and was supposed to expiate their sins. Even miracles were reputed to be wrought at that shrine, while a drop of Becket’s blood would purchase a domain!

Whatever may be said about the cause of Becket, to which there are two sides, there is no doubt about his popularity. Even the Reformation, and the changes made in the English Constitution, have not obliterated the veneration in which he was held for five hundred years. You cannot destroy respect for a man who is willing to be a martyr, whether his cause is right or wrong. If enlightened judgments declare that he was “a martyr of sacerdotal power, not of Christianity; of a caste, and not of mankind;” that he struggled for the authority and privileges of the clergy rather than for the good of his country,–still it will be conceded that he fought bravely and died with dignity. All people love heroism. They are inclined to worship heroes; and especially when an unarmed priest dares to resist an unscrupulous and rapacious king, as Henry is well known to have been, and succeeds in tearing from his hands the spoils he has seized, there must be admiration. You cannot extinguish the tribute of the soul for heroism, any more than that of the mind for genius. The historian who seeks to pull down a hero from the pedestal on which he has been seated for ages plays a losing game. No brilliancy in sophistical pleadings can make men long prefer what is new to that which is true. Becket is enshrined in the hearts of his countrymen, even as Cromwell is among the descendants of the Puritans; and substantially for the same reason,–because they both fought bravely for their respective causes,–the cause of the people in their respective ages. Both recognized God Almighty, and both contended against the despotism of kings seeking to be absolute, and in behalf of the people who were ground down by military power. In the twelfth century the people looked up to the clergy as their deliverers and friends; in the seventeenth century to parliaments and lawyers. Becket was the champion of the clergy, even as Cromwell was the champion–at least at first–of the Parliament. Carlyle eulogizes Cromwell as much as Froude abuses Becket; but Becket, if more haughty and repulsive than Cromwell in his private character, yet was truer to his principles. He was a great hero, faithful to a great cause, as he regarded it, however averse this age may justly be to priestly domination. He must be judged by the standard which good and enlightened people adopted seven hundred years ago,–not in semi-barbarous England alone, but throughout the continent of Europe. This is not the standard which reason accepts to-day, I grant; but it is the standard by which Becket must be judged,–even as the standard which justified the encroachments of Leo the Great, or the rigorous rule of Tiberius and Marcus Aurelius, is not that which enthrones Gustavus Adolphus and William of Orange in the heart of the civilized world.


Eadmer’s Life of Anselm; Historia Novarum; Sir J. Stephen’s Life of Becket, of William of Malmsbury, and of Henry of Huntington; Correspondence of Thomas Becket, with that of Foliot, Bishop of London, and John of Salisbury; Chronicle of Peter of Peterborough; Chronicle of Ralph Niper, and that of Jocelyn of Brakeland; Dugdale’s Monasticon; Freeman’s Norman Conquest; Michelet’s History of France; Green, Hume, Knight, Stubbs, among the English historians; Encyclopaedia Britannica; Hook’s Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury; Lord Littleton on Henry II.; Stanley’s Memorials of Canterbury; Milman’s Latin Christianity; article by Froude; Morris’s Life of Thomas à Becket; J. Craigie Robertson’s Life of Thomas Becket.

The Feudal System

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages