For the extensive Becket literature, see Robertson, in “The Contemporary Review,” 1866, I. (Jan.) 270-278, and Ulysse Chevalier, in his Répertoire des sources historiques du Moyen Age (Paris, 1886), s. v. “Thomas,” fol. 2207-2209.
*Materials for the History of Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. Edited by James Craigie Robertson (Canon of Canterbury, d. 1882) and J. Brigstocke Sheppard, LL. D. London, 1875-1885, 7 vols. This magnificent work is part of a series of Rerum Britannic. Medii Aevi Scriptores, or “Chronicles and Memorials of Great Britain and Ireland during the Middle Ages,” published under direction of the Master of the Rolls and popularly known as the “Rolls Series.” It embraces all the important contemporary materials for the history of Thomas. Vols. I.-IV. contain the contemporary Vitae (by William of Canterbury, Benedict of Peterborough, Edward Grim, Roger of Pontigny, William Fitz-Stephen, John of Salisbury, Alan of Tewkesbury, and Herbert of Bosham, etc.); vols. V.-VII., the Epistolae, i.e. the whole correspondence relating to Thomas.
This collection is much more accurate, complete, and better arranged (especially in the Epistles) than the older collection of Dr. Giles (Sanctus Thomas Cantuariensis, London, 1845-1846, 8 vols., reprinted in Migne’s Patrologia, Tom. 190), and the Quadrilogus or Historia Quadripartita (Lives by four contemporary writers, composed by order of Pope Gregory XI., first published, 1495, then by L. Christian Lupus or Wolf, Brussels, 1682, and Venice, 1728).
Thómas Saga Erkibyskups. A Life of Archb. Th. Becket in Icelandic, with Engl. transl., notes, and glossary, ed. by Eiríkr Magnússon. London, 1875, and 1883, 2 vols. Part of the “Chronicles and Memorials,” above quoted.
Garnier of Pont Sainte-Maxence: La Vie de St. Thomas le martir. A metrical life, in old French, written between 1172 and 1174, published by Hippeau, and more recently by Professor Bekker, Berlin, 1844, and Paris, 1859.
The Life And Martyrdom of Thomas Becket by Robert of Gloucester. Ed. By W. H. Black. London, 1845 (p. 141). A Biography In Alexandrine verse, written in the thirteenth century.
II. Modern Works
Richard Hurrell Froude (one of the originators of the Oxford Anglo-Catholic movement, d. 1836): Remains. London, 1838, 4 vols. The second vol., part II., contains a history of the contest between Thomas à Becket and Henry II., in vindication of the former. He was assisted by J. H. (late Cardinal) Newman.
A. F. Ozanam: Deux Chanceliers d’Angleterre, Bacon de Verulam et Saint Thomas de Cantorbéry. Paris, 1836.
J. A. Giles: The Life And Letters of Thomas à Becket. London, 1846, 2 vols.
F. J. Buss (Rom. Cath.): Der heil. Thomas und sein Kampf für die Freiheit der Kirche. Mainz, 1856.
John Morris (Rom. Cath. Canon of Northampton): The Life and Martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket. London, 1859.
*James Craigie Robertson: Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. London, 1859. Accurate, but unfavorable to Becket.
*Edw. A. Freeman: St. Thomas of Canterbury and his Biographers. A masterly article in the “National Review” for April, 1860, reprinted in his “Historical Essays,” London, 1871, pp. 99-114. Comp. the summary in his History of the Norman Conquest, V. 660 sqq., and his articles against Froude, noticed below.
*James Anthony Froude: Life and Times of Thomas Becket. First published in “The Nineteenth Century” for 1877, then in book form, London and New York, 1878 (pp. 160). Against the Roman and Anglo-Catholic overestimate of St. Thomas. This book is written in brilliant style, but takes a very unfavorable view of Becket (opposite to that of his elder brother, R. H. Froude), and led to a somewhat personal controversy with Professor Freeman, who charged Froude with habitual inaccuracy, unfairness, and hostility to the English Church, in, “The Contemporary Review” for 1878 (March, April, June, and September). Froude defended himself in “The Nineteenth Century” for April, 1879, pp. 618-637, to which Freeman replied in Last Words on Mr. Froude, in “The Contemporary Review” for May, 1879, pp. 214-236.
*R. A. Thompson: Thomas Becket, Martyr, London, 1889. — A. S. Huillier: St. Thomas de Cantorbèry, 2 vols., Paris, 1892.
*Edwin A. Abbott: St. Thomas of Canterbury. His Death and Miracles, 2 vols., London, 1888. This work grew out of studies in preparation of a critical commentary of the Four Gospels. It takes the early narratives of Thomas à Becket, sets them side by side, and seeks to show which are to be accepted upon the basis of disagreements in regard to event or verbal expression. It also presents the details in which Dean Stanley and Tennyson are alleged to have been misled. The criticism is able, stimulating, and marked by self-confidence in determining what events really did occur, and how much is to be discarded as unhistoric. The discussion has all the merits and demerits of the strict critical method.
III. Other Treatments
Becket is more or less fully treated by Milman: Latin Christianity, bk. VIII. ch. VIII. — Dean Stanley: Historical Memorials of Canterbury, Am. ed., 1889. — Reuter: Alexander III., I. 237 sqq., 530 sqq. Dean Hook: Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury, II. 354-508. Greenwood: Cathedra Petri, bk. XII. ch. VII. — William Stubbs: The Constitutional Hist. of England, 6th ed., 3 vols., Oxford, 1897, and Select Charters and Other Illustrations of the English Constit. Hist., 8th ed., Oxford, 1900. — Gee and Hardy: Documents Illustrative of Engl. Ch. Hist., London, 1896. — F. W. Maitland: Rom. Canon Late in the Ch. of England, London, 1898, 134-147. — W. R. W. Stephens: The English Church (1066-1272), London, 1901, 157-190. The Histories of Lingard, Green, etc.
Lord Tennyson has made Becket the subject of a historical drama, 1884.
Thomas Becket and Henry II. of England
During the pontificate of Alexander III., the papal hierarchy achieved an earlier and greater triumph over the king of England than over the emperor of Germany.
Thomas Becket, or Thomas à Becket, or St. Thomas of Canterbury, is, next to Alexander and Barbarossa, the most prominent historical figure in the twelfth century, and fills a chapter of thrilling interest in the history of England. He resumed the conflict of Anselm with the crown, and by his martyrdom became the most popular saint of the later Middle Ages.
The materials for his history, from his birth in London to his murder in his own cathedral by four knights of the royal household, are abundant. We have six or seven contemporary biographies, besides fragments, legends, and “Passions,” state papers, private letters, and a correspondence extending over the whole Latin Church. But his life is surrounded by a mist of romantic legends and theological controversies. He had extravagant admirers, like Herbert of Bosham, and fierce opponents, like Gilbert Foliot, in his own day; and modern biographers still differ in the estimate of his character, according to their creed and their views on the question of Church and State, some regarding him as a hero and a saint, others as a hypocrite and a traitor. We must judge him from the standpoint of the twelfth century.
Becket was born in London, Dec. 21, 1118, during the reign of Henry I. He was the son of Gilbert Becket, a merchant in Cheapside, originally from Rouen, and of Matilda or Rose, a native of Caen in Normandy.
In the later legend his father appears as a gallant crusader and his mother as a Saracen princess, who met in the East and fell in love with each other. Matilda helped Gilbert to escape from captivity, and then followed him alone to England. Knowing only two English words, “London” and “Gilbert,” she wandered through the streets of the city, till at last she found her beloved in Cheapside as by a miracle, was baptized and married to him in St. Paul’s with great splendor. She had dreams of the future greatness and elevation of her infant son to the see of Canterbury.
Becket was educated at Merton Abbey in Surrey and in the schools of London. At a later period he attended the universities of Paris, Bologna, and Auxerre, and studied there chiefly civil and canon law, without attaining to special eminence in learning. He was not a scholar, but a statesman and an ecclesiastic.
He made his mark in the world and the Church by the magnetism of his personality. He was very handsome, of tall, commanding presence, accomplished, brilliant, affable, cheerful in discourse, ready and eloquent in debate, fond of hunting and hawking, and a proficient in all the sports of a medieval cavalier. He could storm the strongest castle and unhorse the stoutest knight.
Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, 1139-1161, took him into his service, 1142; sent him to Bologna, where Gratian then taught canon law; employed him in delicate missions with the papal court; made him archdeacon (1154), and bestowed upon him other profitable benefices, as the provostship of Beverly, a number of churches, and several prebends. When charged, as archbishop, with ingratitude to the king, who had raised him from “poverty,” he proudly referred to this accumulation of preferments, and made no attempt to abolish the crying evil of plurality, which continued till the Reformation. Many a prosperous ecclesiastic regarded his parishes simply as sources of income, and discharged the duties by proxy through ignorant and ill-paid priests.
King Henry II., 1154-1189, in the second year of his reign, raised Becket, then only thirty-seven years of age, at Theobald’s instance, to the chancellorship of England. The chancellor was the highest civil dignitary, and held the custody of nearly all the royal grants and favors, including vacant bishoprics, abbacies, chaplaincies, and other ecclesiastical benefices.
Henry, the first of the proud Plantagenets, was an able, stirring, and energetic monarch. He kept on his feet from morning till evening, and rarely sat down. He introduced a reign of law and severe justice after the lawless violence and anarchy which had disturbed the reign of the unfortunate Stephen. But he was passionate, vindictive, and licentious. He had frequent fits of rage, during which he behaved like a madman. He was the most powerful sovereign in Western Europe. His continental dominions were more extensive than those of the king of France, and embraced Maine and Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine, reaching from Flanders to the foot of the Pyrenees. He afterwards (1171) added Ireland by conquest, with the authority of Popes Adrian IV. and Alexander III. His marriage to Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had been divorced for infidelity from King Louis VII. of France, enriched his realm, but involved him in protracted wars with France and in domestic troubles. Eleanor was jealous of her rivals, incited her sons, Geoffrey and Richard, to rebel against their father, was imprisoned in 1173, and released after Henry’s death in 1189 by his successor, Richard I., Coeur de Lion, who made her regent on his departure for the Holy Land. She afterwards retired to the abbey of Fontevrault, and died about 1203.
Becket occupied the chancellorship for seven years (1155-1162). He aided the king in the restoration of order and peace. He improved the administration of justice. He was vigorous and impartial, and preferred the interests of the crown to those of the clergy, yet without being hostile to the Church. He was thoroughly loyal to the king, and served him as faithfully as he had served Theobald, and as he afterwards served the pope. Thorough devotion to official duty characterized him in all the stations of his career.
He gave to his high office a prominence and splendor which it never had before. He was as magnificent and omnipotent as Wolsey under Henry VIII. He was king in fact, though not in name, and acted as regent during Henry’s frequent absences on the Continent. He dressed after the best fashion, surrounded himself with a brilliant retinue of a hundred and forty knights, exercised a prodigal hospitality, and spent enormous sums upon his household and public festivities, using in part the income of his various ecclesiastical benefices, which he retained without a scruple. He presided at royal banquets in Westminster Hall. His tables were adorned with vessels of gold, with the most delicate and sumptuous food, and with wine of the choicest vintage. He superintended the training of English and foreign nobles, and of the young Prince Henry. He was the favorite of the king, the army, the nobility, the clergy, and the people.
The chancellor negotiated in person a matrimonial alliance (three years before it was consummated) between the heir of the crown (then a boy of seven years) and a daughter of the king of France (a little lady of three). He took with him on that mission two hundred knights, priests, standard-bearers, all festively arrayed in new attire, twenty-four changes of raiment, all kinds of dogs and birds for field sports, eight wagons, each drawn by five horses, each horse in charge of a stout young man dressed in a new tunic. Coffers and chests contained the chancellor’s money and presents. One horse, which preceded all the rest, carried the holy vessels of his chapel, the holy books, and the ornaments of the altar. The Frenchmen, seeing this train, exclaimed, “How wonderful must be the king of England, whose chancellor travels in such state!” In Paris he freely distributed his gold and silver plate and changes of raiment, — to one a robe, to another a furred cloak, to a third a pelisse, to a fourth a war-horse. He gained his object and universal popularity.
When, notwithstanding his efforts to maintain peace, war broke out between France and England, the chancellor was the bravest warrior at the head of seven hundred knights, whom he had enlisted at his own expense, and he offered to lead the storming party at the siege of Toulouse, where King Louis was shut up; but the scruples of Henry prevented him from offering violence to the king of France. He afterwards took three castles which were deemed impregnable, and returned triumphant to England. One of his eulogists, Edward Grim, reports to his credit: “Who can recount the carnage, the desolation, which he made at the head of a strong body of soldiers? He attacked castles, razed towns and cities to the ground, burned down houses and farms without a touch of pity, and never showed the slightest mercy to any one who rose in insurrection against his master’s authority.” Such cruelty was quite compatible with medieval conceptions of piety and charity, as the history of the crusades shows.
Becket was made for the court and the camp. Yet, though his life was purely secular, it was not immoral. He joined the king in his diversions, but not in his debaucheries. Being in deacon’s orders, he was debarred from marriage, but preserved his chastity at a profligate court. This point is especially mentioned to his credit; for chastity was a rare virtue in the Middle Ages.
All together, his public life as chancellor was honorable and brilliant, and secures him a place among the distinguished statesmen of England. But a still more important career awaited him.
32. The Archbishop and the King
Compare §§ 22-24.
A year after the death of Theobald, April 18, 1161, Becket was appointed by the king archbishop of Canterbury. He accepted reluctantly, and warned the king, with a smile, that he would lose a servant and a friend. The learned and energetic Bishop Gilbert Foliot of Hereford (afterwards of London) remarked sarcastically, perhaps from disappointed ambition, that “the king had wrought a miracle in turning a layman into an archbishop, and a soldier into a saint.”
Becket was ordained priest on the Saturday after Pentecost, and consecrated archbishop on the following day with great magnificence in Westminster Abbey, June 3, 1162. His first act was to appoint the Sunday after Whitsunday as a festival of the Holy Trinity in the Church of England. He acknowledged Alexander III. as the rightful pope, and received from him the pallium through his friend, John of Salisbury.
He was the first native Englishman who occupied the seat of the primate since the Norman Conquest; for Lanfranc and Anselm were Italians; Ralph of Escures, William of Corbeuil, and Theobald of Bec were Normans or Frenchmen. There is, however, no ground for the misleading theory of Thierry that Becket asserted the cause of the Saxon against the Norman. His contest with the king was not a contest between two nationalities, but between Church and State. He took the same position on this question as his Norman predecessors, only with more zeal and energy. He was a thorough Englishman. The two nations had at that time, by intermarriage, social and commercial intercourse, pretty well coalesced, at least among the middle classes, to which he belonged.
With the change of office, Becket underwent a radical and almost sudden transformation. The foremost champion of kingcraft became the foremost champion of priestcraft; the most devoted friend of the king, his most dangerous rival and enemy; the brilliant chancellor, an austere and squalid monk. He exchanged the showy court dress for haircloth infested with vermin, fed on roots, and drank nauseous water. He daily washed, with proud humility and ostentatious charity, the feet of thirteen dirty beggars, and gave each of them four pieces of silver. He doubled the charities of Theobald, as Theobald had doubled the charities of his predecessor. He wandered alone in his cloister, shedding tears of repentance for past sins, frequently inflicted stripes on his naked back, and spent much time in prayer and reading of the Scriptures. He successfully strove to realize the ideal of a medieval bishop, which combines the loftiest ecclesiastical pretensions with personal humility, profuse charity, and ascetic self-mortification. He was no hypocrite, but his sanctity, viewed from the biblical and Protestant standpoint, was artificial and unnatural.
His relation to the king was that of the pope to the emperor. Yea, we may say, as he had outkinged the king as chancellor, so he outpoped the pope as archbishop. He censured the pope for his temporizing policy. He wielded the spiritual sword against Henry with the same gallantry with which he had wielded the temporal sword for him. He took up the cause of Anselm against William Rufus, and of Gregory VII. against Henry IV., but with this great difference, that he was not zealous for a moral reformation of the Church and the clergy, like Hildebrand and Anselm, but only for the temporal power of the Church and the rights and immunities of the clergy. He made no attempt to remove the scandal of pluralities of which he had himself been guilty as archdeacon and chancellor, and did not rebuke Henry for his many sins against God, but only for his sins against the supremacy of the hierarchy.
The new archbishop was summoned by Pope Alexander III. to a council at Tours in France, and was received with unusual distinction (May, 1163). The council consisted of seventeen cardinals, a hundred and twenty-four bishops, four hundred and fourteen abbots; the pope presided in person; Becket sat at his right, Roger of York at his left. Arnolf of Lisieux in Normandy preached the opening sermon on the unity and freedom of the Church, which were the burning questions of the day. The council unanimously acknowledged the claims of Alexander, asserted the rights and privileges of the clergy, and severely condemned all encroachments on the property of the Church.
This was the point which kindled the controversy between the sceptre and the crozier in England. The dignity of the crown was the sole aim of the king; the dignity of the Church was the sole aim of the archbishop. The first rupture occurred over the question of secular taxation.
Henry determined to transfer the customary payment of two shillings on every hide of land to his own exchequer. Becket opposed the enrolment of the decree on the ground that the tax was voluntary, not of right. Henry protested, in a fit of passion, “By the eyes of God, it shall be enrolled!” Becket replied, “By the eyes of God, by which you swear, it shall never be levied on my lands while I live!”
Another cause of dispute was the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts. The king demanded that all clerics accused of gross misdemeanors be tried by the civil court. A certain clerk, Philip of Broi, had been acquitted of murder in the bishop’s court. The king was indignant, but Philip refused to plead in the civil court. The matter was taken up by the archbishop, but a light sentence imposed.
The king summoned a Parliament at Westminster, and demanded in the name of equal justice, and in accordance with “ancient customs” (of the Norman kings), that all clerks accused of heinous crimes should be immediately degraded, and be dealt with according to law, instead of being shielded by their office. This was contrary to the right of the priest to be tried only in the court of his bishop, where flagellation, imprisonment, and degradation might be awarded, but not capital punishment.
Becket and the bishops agreed that the king’s demand was an infringement of the canon law and argued the case from Scripture. Joab, and Abiathar the priest, were guilty of putting Adonijah to death. Joab was punished, but the priest suffered no other punishment than deposition from office. Nah_1:9 was quoted as against a double tribunal for clerks. According to the Septuagint version, this passage declares that God does not give two judgments in the same case.
The king hastily broke up the Parliament, deprived Becket of the custody of the royal castles, and of the education of his son. The bishops advised the archbishop to yield; at first he refused, though an angel from heaven should counsel such weakness; but at last he made a concession to the king at Woodstock, and promised to obey in good faith the customs of the realm. He yielded at the persuasion of the pope’s almoner, Philip de Eleeomosyna, who was bribed by English gold.
The king summoned a great council of the realm to Clarendon, a royal palace a few miles from Salisbury, for the ratification of the concession (Jan. 25, 1164). The two archbishops, twelve bishops, and thirty-nine lay-barons were present. Sixteen famous statutes were enacted, under the name of The Clarendon Constitutions, as laws of England. They are as follows: —
The Constitutions of Clarendon
I. Of the advowson and presentation (de advocatione et presentatione) to churches: if any dispute shall arise between laics, or between clerks and laics, or between clerks, let it be tried and decided in the court of our lord the king.
II. Churches in the king’s fee (de feudo domini Regis) shall not be given in perpetuity without his consent and license.
III. Clerks accused of any crime shall be summoned by the king’s justiciaries into the king’s court to answer there for whatever the king’s court shall determine they ought to answer there; and in the ecclesiastical court, for whatever it shall be determined that they ought to answer there; yet so that the king’s justiciaries shall send into the court of holy Church to see in what way the matter shall there be handled; and if the clerk shall confess or be convicted, the Church for the future shall not protect him.
IV. No archbishop, bishop, or other exalted person shall leave the kingdom without the king’s license; and if they wish to leave it, the king shall be empowered, if he pleases, to take security from them, that they will do no harm to the king or kingdom, either in going or remaining, or in returning.
V. Persons excommunicated are not to give bail, ad remanentiam, nor to make oath, but only to give bail and pledge that they will stand by the judgment of the Church where they are absolved.
VI. Laics shall not be accused, save by certain and legal accusers and witnesses in presence of the bishop, so that the archdeacon may not lose his rights, or anything which accrues to him therefrom. And if those who are arraigned are such that no one is willing or dares to accuse them, the sheriff, on demand from the bishop, shall cause twelve loyal men of the village to swear before the bishop that they will declare the truth in that matter according to their conscience.
VII. No one who holds of the king in chief, nor any of his domestic servants, shall be excommunicated, nor his lands be put under an interdict, until the king shall be consulted, if he is in the kingdom; or, if he is abroad, his justiciary, that he may do what is right in that matter, and so that whatever belongs to the king’s court may therein be settled, and the same on the other hand of the ecclesiastical court.
VIII. Appeals, if they arise, must be made from the archdeacon to the bishop, and from the bishop to the archbishop; and if the archbishop shall fail in administering justice, the parties shall come before our lord the king, that by his precept the controversy may be terminated in the archbishop’s court, so that it may not proceed further without the consent of our lord the king.
IX. If a dispute shall arise between a clerk and a laic, or between a laic and a clerk, about a tenement, which the clerk wishes to claim as eleemosynary, but the laic claims as lay fee, it shall be settled by the declaration of twelve qualified men, through the agency of the king’s capital judiciary, whether the tenement is eleemosynary or lay fee, in presence of the king’s judiciaries. And if it shall be declared that it is eleemosynary, it shall be pleaded in the ecclesiastical court; but, if a lay fee, unless both shall claim the tenement of the same bishop or baron, it shall be pleaded in the king’s court; but if both shall claim of that fee from the same bishop or baron, it shall be pleaded in his court, yet so that the same declaration above-named shall not deprive of seizing him who before was seized, until he shall be divested by the pleadings.
X. If any man belonging to a city, castle, borough, or king’s royal manor shall be summoned by the archdeacon or bishop to answer for a crime, and shall not comply with the summons, it shall be lawful to place him under an interdict, but not to excommunicate him, until the king’s principal officer of that place be informed thereof, that he may justify his appearing to the summons; and if the king’s officer shall fail in that matter, he shall be at the king’s mercy, and the bishop shall forthwith coerce the party accused with ecclesiastical discipline.
XI. The archbishops, bishops, and all other persons of the kingdom, who hold of the king in chief, shall hold their possessions of the king as barony, and answer for the same to the king’s justiciaries and officers, and follow and observe all the king’s customs and rectitudes; and be bound to be present, in the judgment of the king’s court with the barons, like other barons, until the judgment proceeds to mutilation or death.
XII. When an archbishopric, bishopric, abbacy, or priory on the king’s domain shall be vacant, it shall be in his hand, and he shall receive from it all the revenues and proceeds, as of his domains. And when the time shall come for providing for that church, our lord the king shall recommend the best persons to that church, and the election shall be made in the king’s chapel, with the king’s consent, and the advice of the persons of the kingdom whom he shall have summoned for that purpose. And the person elected shall there do homage and fealty to our lord the king, as to his liege lord, of life and limb, and of his earthly honors saving his orders, before he is consecrated.
XIII. If any of the king’s nobles shall have refused to render justice to an archbishop or bishop or archdeacon, for himself or any of his men, our lord the king shall justice them. And if by chance any one shall have deforced our lord the king of his rights, the archbishops, bishops, and archdeacons shall justice him that he may render satisfaction to the king.
XIV. The chattels of those who are in forfeiture to the king shall not be detained by the Church or the cemetery, in opposition to the king’s justice, for they belong to the king, whether they are found in the Church or without.
XV. Pleas for debts which are due, whether with the interposition of a pledge of faith or not, belong to the king’s court.
XVI. The sons of rustics shall not be ordained without the consent of the lord, in whose land they are known to have been born.
These Constitutions were drawn up in the spirit and language of feudalism, under the inspiration of the king, by Archbishop Roger of York, Bishop Foliot of London (the chief enemies of Becket), Bishop Joceline of Salisbury, Richard de Luci (the king’s chief judiciary), and Joceline of Baliol. They are restrictions on the immunities of the clergy; the last is an invasion of the rights of the people, but is based on the canonical exclusion of slaves from the clerical order without the consent of their masters. They subject the clergy equally with the laity to the crown and the laws of the land. They reduce the Church to an imperium in imperio, instead of recognizing her as a distinct and independent imperium. They formulate in the shape of legal enactments certain “ancient customs” (consuetudines) which date from the time of William the Conqueror, and were conceded by Lanfranc; but they infringe at many points on the ancient privileges of the Church, and are inconsistent with the hierarchical principle of the exemption of the clergy from temporal jurisdiction. And this was the chief point of the quarrel between the king and the archbishop.
In the present state of civilization there can be no doubt that the clergy should obey the same laws and be subject to the same penalties as the laity. But we must not overlook the fact that in the Middle Ages the clerical exemption had a humanitarian as well as a hierarchical feature, and involved a protest against barbarous punishments by mutilation of the human body, man being made in the image of God. It prepared the way for a mitigation of the criminal code for the benefit of the whole people, the laity as well as the clergy. This explains the large amount of popular sympathy with the cause of Becket.
Becket gave a qualified assent. On his return to Canterbury he changed his mind and imposed upon himself severe penances, and sought and obtained the pope’s absolution from his oath. But Alexander, hard pressed by Barbarossa and the anti-pope, and anxious to keep the good will of Henry, tried to please both parties. He granted, at the request of Henry, legatine commission over all England to Archbishop Roger of York, the rival of the primate of Canterbury. He also afterwards authorized the coronation of Henry’s eldest son by the archbishop of York in the Abbey of Westminster (June 18, 1170), although such coronation was the exclusive privilege of the archbishop of Canterbury. This aggravated the difficulty with the king, and brought on the final crisis.
In the meantime the Clarendon Constitutions were carried out. Clergymen convicted of crime in the king’s court were condemned and punished like laymen.
Becket attempted to flee to the pope, and sailed for the Continent, but was brought back by the sailors on account of adverse winds. This was a violation of the law which forbade bishops to leave the country without royal permission.
He was summoned before a great council of bishops and nobles at the royal castle of Northampton in the autumn of 1164, and charged with misconduct in secular affairs while chancellor and archbishop. But his courage rose with the danger. He refused to answer, and appealed to the pope. The council ordered him cited to Rome on the charges of perjury at Clarendon and of commanding his suffragans to disregard the Constitutions. The bishops he met with a haughty refusal when they advised him to resign. He was to be arrested, but he threatened the peers with excommunication if they pronounced the sentence. He took the bold course of making his escape to the Continent in the disguise of a monk, at midnight, accompanied by two monks and a servant, and provided with his episcopal pall and seal.
The king seized the revenues of the archbishop, forbade public prayers for him, and banished him from the kingdom, ordered the banishment of all his kinsmen and friends, including four hundred persons of both sexes, and suspended the payment of Peter’s pence to the pope.
Becket spent fully six years in exile, from October, 1164, to December, 1170. King Louis of France, an enemy of Henry and admirer of Becket, received him with distinction and recommended him to the pope, who, himself in exile, resided at Sens. Becket met Alexander, laid before him the Constitutions of Clarendon, and tendered his resignation. The pope condemned ten as a violation of ecclesiastical privileges, and tolerated six as less evil than the rest. He tenderly rebuked Becket for his weakness in swearing to them, but consoled him with the assurance that he had atoned for it by his sufferings. He restored to him the archiepiscopal ring, thus ratifying his primacy, promised him his protection, and committed him to the hospitable care of the abbot of Pontigny, a Cistercian monastery about twelve leagues distant from Sens. Here Becket lived till 1166, like a stern monk, on pulse and gruel, slept on a bed of straw, and submitted at midnight to the flagellation of his chaplain, but occasionally indulged in better diet, and retained some of his former magnificence in his surroundings. His sober friend, John of Salisbury, remonstrated against the profuse expenditure.
Becket proceeded to the last extremity of pronouncing, in the church of Vezelay, on Whitsuntide, 1166, the sentence of excommunication on all the authors and defenders of the Constitutions of Clarendon. He spared the king, who then was dangerously ill, but in a lower tone, half choked with tears, he threatened him with the vengeance of God, and his realm with the interdict. He announced the sentence to the pope and all the clergy of England, saying to the latter, “Who presumes to doubt that the priests of God are the fathers and masters of kings, princes, and all the faithful?”
The wrath of Henry knew no bounds. He closed the ports of England against the bearers of the instrument of excommunication, threatening them with shameful mutilation, hanging, and burning. He procured the expulsion of Becket from Pontigny, who withdrew to a monastery near the archiepiscopal city of Sens. He secured through his ambassadors several concessions from Alexander, who was then in exile at Benevento. The pope was anxious to retain the support of the king, and yet he wrote soothing letters to Becket, assuring him that the concessions were to be only temporary. Becket answered with indignation, and denounced the papal court for its venality and rapacity. “Your gold and silver,” he wrote to the cardinals, “will not deliver you in the day of the wrath of the Lord.”
The king now determined to use the permission received from the pope several years before, but afterwards revoked, and have his son crowned by Roger, archbishop of York. This humiliating infringement upon the rights of the primate stirred Becket’s blood afresh. He repeated his excommunication. Like Gregory VII., he applied the words, “Cursed is he that refraineth his sword from blood,” to the spiritual weapon. He even commanded the bishops of England to lay the whole kingdom under interdict and to suspend the offices of religion (except baptism, penance, and extreme unction), unless the king should give full satisfaction before the feast of purification, Nov. 2, 1170.
These extreme measures were not without effect. Several bishops began to waver and change from the king’s cause to that of the archbishop. The king himself was alarmed at the menace of the interdict. The pope pursued his temporizing policy, and counselled concessions by both parties.
The king and the archbishop suddenly made peace in a respectful personal interview at Fretteville (Freteval), a castle between Tours and Chartres, July 22, 1170. Henry said nothing about the Clarendon Constitutions, but made the offer that Becket should crown his daughter-in-law (the daughter of the king of France), and should on that occasion repeat the coronation of his son. Becket laid the blame on the shoulders of Henry’s counsellors, and showed moderation and prudence. The king did not offer the kiss of peace, nor did the archbishop demand it.
But while Becket was willing to pardon the king, he meant to exercise his spiritual authority over his evil counsellors, and especially over the archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury. These prelates had recently officiated at the coronation of Henry’s son. And it was this coronation, even more than the original and more important dispute about the immunity of the clergy, that led to the catastrophe.
After prolonged negotiations with the papal court and the king, Becket returned to his long-neglected flock, Dec. 1, 1170. On landing at Sandwich (instead of Dover, where he was expected), he was surprised by enemies, who searched his baggage, and demanded that he should withdraw his excommunication of the bishops who were then at Dover. He refused. On his way to Canterbury the country clergy and people met him, cast down their garments, chanting, “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” He rode to the cathedral with a vast procession, amid the ringing of the bells, and preached on the text, “Here we have no abiding city.”
The excommunicated prelates of York, London, and Salisbury sought the protection of the king, who was then at a castle near Bayeux in Normandy. He said: “If all are to be excommunicated who officiated at my son’s coronation, by the eyes of God, I am equally guilty.” One of the prelates (perhaps Roger of York) remarked, “As long as Thomas lives, you will never be at peace.” Henry broke out into one of his constitutional fits of passion, and dropped the fatal words: “A fellow that has eaten my bread, has lifted up his heel against me; a fellow that I loaded with benefits, dares insult the king; a fellow that came to court on a lame horse, with a cloak for a saddle, sits without hindrance on the throne itself. By the eyes of God, is there none of my thankless and cowardly courtiers who will deliver me from the insults of this low-born and turbulent priest?” With these words he rushed out of the room.
33. The Martyrdom of Thomas Becket. Dec. 29, 1170
On the murder of Becket we have the reports of five eye-witnesses, Edward Grim (a Saxon monk of Cambridge), William Fitz-Stephen (Becket’s chaplain), John of Salisbury (his faithful friend), William of Canterbury, and the anonymous author of a Lambeth MS. Two other biographers, Herbert of Bosham and Roger of Pontigny, though absent from England at that time, were on intimate terms with Becket, and took great pains to ascertain the facts to the minutest details.
Four warlike knights of high birth and large estate, chamberlains to the king, — Sir Reginald Fitz-Urse (“Son of the Bear,” whom Becket had originally introduced to the court), Sir William. de Tracy (of royal blood), Hugh de Moreville (judiciary of Northumberland and Cumberland), and Sir Richard le Bret or Breton (commonly known as Brito), eagerly caught at the king’s suggestion, and resolved to carry it out in the spirit of passionate loyalty, at their own risk, as best they could, by imprisonment, or exile, or, if necessary, by murder. They seem to have had no premeditated plan except that of signal vengeance. Without waiting for instructions, they at once departed on separate routes for England, and met at the castle of Saltwood, which belonged to the see of Canterbury, but was then occupied by Randulf of Broc. They collected a band of about a dozen armed men, and reached St. Augustine’s abbey outside of the walls of Canterbury, early on the 29th of December, which was a Tuesday.
On the morning of that fatal day, Becket had forebodings of his death, and advised the clergy to escape to Sandwich before daylight. He attended mass in the cathedral, confessed to two monks, and received three scourgings, as was his custom. At the banquet he drank more freely than usual, and said to the cupbearer, “He who has much blood to shed, must drink much.” After dinner he retired to his private room and sat on his bed, talking to his friends, John of Salisbury, William Fitz-Stephen, and Edward Grim. He was then still in full vigor, being in the fifty-third year of his age, retaining his dignified aspect and the lustre of his large eyes.
At about four that afternoon, the knights went to the archbishop’s palace, leaving their weapons behind, and concealing their coats of mail by the ordinary cloak and gown. They demanded from him, in the name of the king, the absolution of the excommunicated bishops and courtiers. He refused, and referred them to the pope, who alone could absolve them. He declared: “I will never spare a man who violates the canons of Rome or the rights of the Church. My spirituals I hold from God and the pope; my temporals, from the king. Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” The knights said, “You speak in peril of your life.” Becket replied: “Come ye to murder me in my own house? You cannot be more ready to kill me than I am to die. You threaten me in vain; were all the swords in England hanging over my head, you could not terrify me from my obedience to God and my lord the pope. I defy you, and will meet you foot to foot in the battle of the Lord.” During the altercation, Becket lost command over his fiery temper. His friend, John of Salisbury, gently censured him for his exasperating tone. The knights quitted the room and called their men to arms.
A few minutes before five the bell tolled for vespers. Urged by his friends, the archbishop, with his cross carried before him, went through the cloisters to the cathedral. The service had begun, the monks were chanting the psalms in the choir, the church was filled with people, when two boys rushed up the nave and created a panic by announcing that armed men were breaking into the cloister. The attendants of Becket, who had entered the church, shut the door and urged him to move into the choir for safety. “Away, you cowards!” he said, “by virtue of your obedience, I command you not to shut the door; the church must not be turned into a fortress.” He was evidently prepared and eager for martyrdom. He himself reopened the door, and dragged the excluded monks into the building, exclaiming, “Come in, come in — faster, faster!” The monks and priests were terror-stricken and fled in every direction, to the recesses and side-chapels, to the roof above, and the crypt below. Three only remained faithful, — Canon Robert of Merton, Chaplain William Fitz-Stephen, and the clerk Edward Grim. One of the monks confesses that he ran with clasped hands up the steps as fast as his feet would carry him.
Becket proceeded to the high altar and archiepiscopal chair, in which he and all his predecessors from time immemorial had been enthroned. There, no doubt, he wished to gain the crown of martyrdom. It was now about five in the winter evening; the shades of night were gathering, and the lamps on the altars shed only a dim light in the dark cathedral. The tragedy which followed was finished in a few minutes.
In the meantime the knights, clad in mail which covered their faces up to their eyes, and with drawn swords, followed by a motley group of ruffians, provided with hatchets, rushed into the cathedral and shouted: “Where is the traitor? Where is the archbishop?” Becket replied, descending the steps of the altar and facing his enemies, “Behold me, no traitor, but a priest of God!” They again demanded the absolution of the bishops and his surrender to the king’s justice. “I cannot do otherwise than I have done,” he said, and turning to Fitz-Urse, who was armed with a sword and an axe, he added; “Reginald, you have received many favors at my hands: come you to me and into my church armed!” The knights tried to drag him out of the sanctuary, not intending to kill him there; but he braced himself against the pillar between the altars of the Virgin, his special patroness, and St. Benedict, whose rule he followed, and said: “I am ready to die. May the Church through my blood obtain peace and liberty! I charge you in the name of God Almighty that you hurt no one here but me.” In the struggle, he grappled with De Tracy and threw him to the pavement. He called Fitz-Urse (who had seized him by the collar of his long cloak) a miserable wretch, and wrenched the cloak from his grasp, saying, “Off, thou pander, thou!” The soldier, maddened by the foul epithet, waving the sword over his head, struck the first blow, and dashed off his cap. Tracy, rising from the pavement, aimed at his head; but Edward Grim, standing by, interposed his arm, which was almost severed, and then he sank back against the wall. Becket received blow after blow in an attitude of prayer. As he felt the blood trickling down his face, he bowed his neck for the death-blow, clasped his hands, and said in a low voice: “I commend my cause and the cause of the Church to God, to St. Denis, the martyr of France, to St. Alfege, and to the saints of the Church. In the name of Christ and for the defence of his Church, I am ready to die. Lord, receive my spirit.”
These were his last words. The next blow felled him to his knees, the last laid him on the floor at the foot of the altar of St. Benedict. His hands were still joined as if in prayer. Richard the Breton cut off the upper part of his skull, which had received the sacred oil. Hugh of Horsea, the subdeacon, trampled upon his neck, thrust his sword into the ghastly wound, and scattered the blood and the brains over the pavement. Then he said, “Let us go, let us go; the traitor is dead; he will rise no more.”
The murderers rushed from the church through the cloisters into the palace for plunder; while a violent thunder-storm broke over the cathedral. They stole about two thousand marks in gold and silver, and rode off on Becket’s fine horses in the thick darkness of the night.
The body of Thomas was buried in the crypt. The remains of his blood and brains were sacredly kept. His monkish admirers discovered, to their amazement and delight, that the martyr, who had once been arrayed in purple and fine linen, wore on his skin under his many garments the coarsest haircloth abounding with vermin. This seemed to betray the perfection of ascetic sanctity according to medieval notions. The spot of his “martyrdom” is still shown close to the entrance of the cathedral from the cloister.
34. The Effects of Becket’s Murder
The atrocious murder sent a thrill of horror throughout the Christian world. The moment of Becket’s death was his triumph. His exalted station, his personal virtues, the sacrilege, — all contributed to deepen the impression. At first opinion was divided, as he had strong enemies, even at Canterbury. A monk declared that Becket paid a just penalty for his obstinacy others said, “He wished to be king and more than king; the archbishop of York dared to preach that Becket “perished, like Pharaoh, in his pride.”
But the torrent of public admiration soon silenced all opposition. Miracles took place at his tomb, and sealed his claim to the worship of a saint and martyr. “The blind see, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the devils are cast out, even the dead are raised to life.” Thus wrote John of Salisbury, his friend. Remarkable cures, no doubt, took place; credulity and fraud exaggerated and multiplied them. Within a few years after the murder, two collections of his miracles were published, one by Benedict, prior of Canterbury (afterwards abbot of Peterborough), and one by William, monk of Canterbury. According to these reports, the miracles began to occur the very night of the archbishop’s death. His blood had miraculous efficacy for those who drank it.
Two years after his death, Feb. 21, 1173, Becket was solemnly canonized by Alexander III., who had given him only a lukewarm support in his contest with the king. There is scarcely another example of such an early recognition of saintship; but public sentiment had anticipated it. At a council in Westminster the papal letters of canonization were read. All the bishops who had opposed Becket were present, begged pardon for their offence, and acquiesced in the pope’s decision. The 29th of December was set apart as the feast of “St. Thomas of Canterbury.”
King Henry II., as the supposed author of the monstrous crime, was branded with a popular excommunication. On the first news, he shut himself up for three days in his chamber, rolled himself in sackcloth and ashes, and obstinately refused food and comfort. He lived secluded for five weeks, exclaiming again and again, “Alas, alas that it ever happened!” He issued orders for the apprehension of the murderers, and despatched envoys to the pope to exculpate himself and to avert the calamity of excommunication and an interdict. After long delay a reconciliation took place in the cathedral of Avranches in Normandy, before the papal legates, the archbishop of Rouen, and many bishops and noblemen, May 22, 1172. Henry swore on the holy Gospels that he had neither commanded nor desired the death of Becket, that it caused him more grief than the death of his father or his mother, and that he was ready to make full satisfaction. He pledged himself to abrogate the Statutes of Clarendon; to restore the church of Canterbury to all its rights and possessions; to undertake, if the pope should require it, a three years’ crusade to Jerusalem or Spain, and to support two hundred knights in the Holy Land. After these pledges he said aloud: “Behold, my lord legates, my body is in your hands; be assured that whatever you order, whether to go to Jerusalem or to Rome or to St. James [at Compostella in Spain], I am ready to obey.” He was led by the bishops into the church and reconciled. His son, who was present, promised Cardinal Albert to make good his father’s pledges. This penance was followed by a deepest humiliation at Canterbury.
Two years later, July 12, 1174, the king, depressed by disasters and the rebellion of his wife and his sons, even made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Becket. He dismounted from his horse as he came in sight of the towers of Canterbury, walked as a penitent pilgrim in a woollen shirt, with bare and bleeding feet, through the streets, knelt in the porch of the cathedral, kissed the sacred stone on which the archbishop had fallen, threw himself prostrate before the tomb in the crypt, and confessed to the bishops with groans and tears his deep remorse for the hasty words which had led to the murder. Gilbert Foliot, bishop of London, once Becket’s rival and enemy, announced to the monks and bystanders the king’s penitence and intention to restore the rights and property of the Church, and to bestow forty marks yearly on the monastery to keep lamps burning at the martyr’s tomb. The king, placing his head and shoulders on the tomb, submitted to the degrading punishment of scourging, and received five stripes from each bishop and abbot, and three stripes from each of the eighty monks. Fully absolved, he spent the whole night on the bare ground of the crypt in tears and prayers, imploring the forgiveness of the canonized saint in heaven whom he had persecuted on earth.
No deeper humiliation of king before priest is recorded in history. It throws into the shade the submission of Theodosius to Ambrose, of Edgar to Dunstan, of Barbarossa to Alexander, and even the scene at Canossa.
Fifty years after the martyrdom, Becket’s relics were translated with extraordinary solemnity from the tomb in the crypt to the costly shrine of Becket, which blazed with gold and jewels, in the reconstructed Canterbury cathedral (1220). And now began on the largest scale that long succession of pilgrimages, which for more than three hundred years made Canterbury the greatest sacred resort of Western Christendom, next to Jerusalem and Rome. It was more frequented than Loreto in Italy and Einsiedeln in Switzerland. No less than a hundred thousand pilgrims were registered at Canterbury in 1420. From all parts of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, from France and the far north, men and women flocked to the shrine: priests, monks, princes, knights, scholars, lawyers, merchants, mechanics, peasants. There was scarcely an English king, from Henry II. to Henry VIII., who did not from motives of piety or policy pay homage to the memory of the saint. Among the last distinguished visitors were John Colet, dean of St. Paul’s, and Erasmus, who visited the shrine together between the years 1511 and 1513, and King Henry VIII. and Emperor Charles V., who attended the last jubilee in 1520. Plenary indulgences were granted to the pilgrims. Some went in December, the month of his martyrdom; a larger number in July, the month of the translation of his relics. Every fiftieth year a jubilee lasting fifteen days was celebrated in his honor. Six such jubilees were celebrated, — 1270, 1320, 1370, 1420, 1470, 1520. The offerings to St. Thomas exceeded those given to any other saint, even to the holy Virgin.
Geoffrey Chaucer, the father of English poetry, who lived two centuries after Becket’ martyrdom, has immortalized these pilgrimages in his Canterbury Tales, and given us the best description of English society at that time.
The pilgrimages promoted piety, social intercourse, superstition, idleness, levity, and immorality, and aroused moral indignation among many serious and spiritually minded men.
The superstitious idolatry of St. Thomas was continued down to the time of the Reformation, when it was rudely but forever crushed out. Henry VIII. cited Becket to appear in court to answer to the charges of treason and rebellion. The case was formally argued at Westminster. His guilt was proved, and on the 10th of June, 1538, St. Thomas was condemned as a “rebel and a traitor to his prince.” The rich shrine at Canterbury was pillaged; the gold and jewels were carried off in two strong coffers, and the rest of the treasure in twenty-six carts. The jewels went into the hands of Henry VIII., who wore the most precious of them, a diamond, the “Regale of France,” in the ring on his thumb; afterwards it glittered in the golden “collar” of his daughter, the bigoted Queen Mary. A royal proclamation explained the cause and mode of Becket’s death, and the reasons for his degradation. All festivals, offices, and prayers in his name were forbidden. The site of his shrine has remained vacant to this day.
The Reformation prepared the way for a more spiritual worship of God and a more just appreciation of the virtues and faults of Thomas Becket than was possible in the age in which he lived and died, — a hero and a martyr of the papal hierarchy, but not of pure Christianity, as recorded in the New Testament. To the most of his countrymen, as to the English-speaking people at large, his name has remained the synonym for priestly pride and pretension, for an arrogant invasion of the rights of the civil estate. To a certain class of English High Churchmen he remains, like Laud of a later age, the martyr of sacerdotal privilege, the unselfish champion of the dowered rights of the Church. The atrocity of his taking-off no one will choose to deny. But the haughty assumption of the high prelate had afforded pretext enough for vehement indignation and severe treatment. Priestly robes may for a time conceal and even protect pride from violence, but sooner or later it meets its just reward. The prelate’s superiority involved in Becket’s favorite expression, “saving the honor of my order,” was more than a king of free blood could be expected to bear.
This dramatic chapter of English history may be fitly closed with a scene from Lord Tennyson’s tragedy which presents the personal quality that brought about Thomas à Becket’s fall.
John of Salisbury.
Thomas, I would thou hadst returned to England
Like some wise prince of this world from his wars,
With more of olive-branch and amnesty
For foes at home — thou hast raised the world against thee.
Why, John, my kingdom is not of this world.
John of Salisbury.
If it were more of this world it might be
More of the next. A policy of wise pardon
Wins here as well as there. To bless thine enemies —
Ay, mine, not Heaven’s.
John of Salisbury.
And may there not be something
Of this world’s leaven in thee too, when crying
On Holy Church to thunder out her rights
And thine own wrong so piteously. Ah, Thomas,
The lightnings that we think are only Heaven’s
Flash sometimes out of earth against the heavens.
The soldier, when he lets his whole self go
Lost in the common good, the common wrong,
Strikes truest ev’n for his own self. I crave
Thy pardon — I have still thy leave to speak.
Thou hast waged God’s war against the King; and yet
We are self-uncertain creatures, and we may,
Yea, even when we know not, mix our spites
And private hates with our defence of Heaven.