Gateway to the Classics: Stories from English History, Book I by Alfred J. Church
Stories from English History, Book I by  Alfred J. Church

Thomas Becket, the Archbishop

W HAT Becket had said, soon came to pass, for he fell out with the King. It would be long to tell all the causes of quarrel between them, but the chief was this, that the King desired to put the clergy under the common law of England, while Becket would have them judged by a law of their own, or by the Pope. Once did Becket give way, but he soon repented of having done so, and this made the King even more angry than before.

At last the King called him to come before an assembly of the earls and barons of the kingdom. When these were about to pronounce sentence against him, he refused to hear. "I am your father," he said, "you are laymen only. I will not hear your sentence." Then he arose from his place, and went bearing his cross to the door. One of the King's friends following him called out that he was a traitor. Thomas turned on him and said, "Were I a knight, mine own hands would prove that thou liest."

He mounted his horse, and rode back to the monastery where he lodged, but could scarcely manage his horse or carry his cross for the multitude that thronged about him and asked for his blessing. After this he sat down to meat with a cheerful spirit, the chamber where he was being thronged with people. In the book that, according to custom, was read during the meal, came by chance the text, "When they persecute you in one city, flee ye to another." Hearing these words, he looked to one of his friends, as if taking these words to himself.

That night he fled. Not without much toil and danger did he reach a place of safety. For a time he went afoot; not being used to this travelling he often tottered and fell. His companions besought a boy whom they saw to hire something for the holy man to ride. The boy ran to the nearest village, but was absent so long that Thomas's companions began to fear that he had betrayed them. At last he came back leading with him an ass, which, for a bridle, had a wisp of hay, and lacked a saddle. Still they were forced to be content; so, throwing a cloak on the beast, they made the holy man ride. For two miles he rode, then, thinking it both easier and more respectable to go on foot, he walked for the rest of the way with his companions.

They passed a certain knight standing at the door of his house with a hawk upon his wrist. When he saw four men dressed as clerks going by, he looked at them closely, and said, "One of these is either the Archbishop of Canterbury, or very like to him." To whom one of Thomas's companions answered, "Didst ever see the Archbishop of Canterbury travelling in such fashion?" Some say that Thomas was in greater danger of being known because, as was his manner, he looked lovingly on the hawk. At another place the landlord of an inn knew him by the slenderness of his hands, and by the kindness with which he gave portions of food to the children.

As for the King, he was greatly enraged, and not being able to harm the Archbishop, banished all his kindred from England. It would be long to tell how the quarrel went on. At last it seemed that the two were reconciled. Thomas went to meet the King, and the King ran forward from the crowd, and saluted him, and talked to him in so friendly a fashion that it might have seemed there had been no enmity between them. But it was more a show than a reality. "Trust him not," said the King of France, "my Lord Archbishop, unless he gives you the kiss of peace." And this the King never gave.

After this Thomas went back to England, but he would not give way one jot in the matter that was in dispute, and he put under the ban the bishops and others that had held with the King. When he came to Canterbury the people and the clergy received him with all honour. From Canterbury he went to London, and there also he was most honourably received.

When the King heard of these things, how that the bishops had been excommunicated—this the bishops themselves crossed the sea to tell him—and how great multitudes of the people went out to do honour to the Archbishop, he was greatly enraged. First he asked of the bishops, "My lords, what shall I do?" They answered, "It is not our part to tell you what must be done." But one of them said—it was the Archbishop of York—"My lord, as long as Thomas lives, you will have no peace nor quiet, nor will you see another good day." Then the King cried, "I have nourished and promoted to honour sluggish and wretched knaves who are faithless to their lord, and suffer him to be tricked in such infamous fashion by a base clerk."

Four knights of the household, hearing the King speak, and seeing how great was his rage, agreed together that they would kill the Archbishop, and departed for England, sailing from different ports. These four were Reginald Fitz-Urse, William de Tracy, Hugh de Morville, and Richard Brito.

Meanwhile the Archbishop had come back to Canterbury. On Christmas Day he preached to the people, taking for his text the song of the Angels of Bethlehem, "Peace on earth to men of good will." At the end of his sermon he said that the time of his departure was at hand, and as he said this he wept. There was heard also throughout the church weeping and wailing, while the people murmured, "Father, why dost thou desert us so soon?" Afterwards when some one said to him that there had been in Canterbury, among the archbishops, one martyr, St. Alphege, he answered, "It may well be that in a short time you will have another." Nevertheless, when he sat down at table with his friends, he was merry after his custom.

On the fourth day after Christmas, that is the day following the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the four knights came to Canterbury. They pretended that they came by order of the King, and so had gathered a band of followers. It was past the dinner-hour when they arrived, and the Archbishop had risen from table, and had gone into an inner room to do some business. They who had waited upon the Archbishop were themselves dining, and invited the knights, whom they knew as being servants of the King, to sit down with them. The knights refused, saying that they had business with the Archbishop.

He consenting to see them, they were brought into the chamber where he was. They sat down without saluting him, and when he greeted them courteously, they answered him with anger. The Archbishop changed countenance, knowing that they had come for his hurt. Then Fitz-Urse, who seemed to be the ringleader among them, said, "We have somewhat to say to thee by the King's command; shall we tell it here before all?" The Archbishop, knowing what they were about to say, answered, "These things should not be spoken in private, but in public."

The doorkeeper thereupon called back those who were in the chamber—for the Archbishop had commanded them to go out. But for this the knights would have killed him there and then, striking him with the shaft of the cross, which stood by, which they afterwards confessed. Then said Fitz-Urse again, "The King, after peace had been made between him and you, sent you back to your see, as you desired; now you have added new insults to the old, excommunicating those who have been on the King's side. Say, then, are you ready to answer for your misdeeds in the King's presence? It is for this that we have been sent."

THE ARCHBISHOP.  "I have had no thought of doing wrong to my lord the King. But it is not just that he should be angry because the people come to meet me, and follow me when I go through cities and towns, seeing that they have been deprived of my presence these seven years past. Yet even now I am ready to satisfy him if I have done aught amiss. And as for the bishops, it was not I but the Pope that passed this sentence upon them."

THE KNIGHT.  "Nay, but it was your doing that he passed it. Absolve them."

A.  "I do not deny that it was of my doing; but those whom the Pope has bound I cannot absolve."

THE K.  "It is the King's command that you depart forthwith from this place with all your men. There can be no peace with you from this day."

A.  "Cease your threats; never again will I put the sea between me and my church. He that wants me shall find me here."

THE K.  "What the King has commanded, that will we cause to be done."

A.  "If any man shall break the laws of Christ's Church, I will not spare him."

THE K.  (springing up from their seats). "You have said this to the peril of your life."

A.  "Do you come to kill me? I have committed my cause to the Judge of all."

FITZ-URSE.  "In the King's name we command all that are here to hold this man, lest he should escape before the King shall have had full justice on his body."

When he had said this they went out, but the Archbishop followed them to the door, saying, "Here shall ye find me." Then returning to his place, he sat down and comforted his people, exhorting them not to fear. He had not been more cheerful if they had come, not to kill him, but to invite him to a bridal. The knights quickly came back armed with swords and axes and other weapons. Meanwhile the doors of the chamber had been barred; and they, finding that it was not opened to their knocking, turned by a private way through the orchard till they came to a wooden partition. This they cut through with their axes.

The servants and clerks, frightened by the noise, fled in all directions; but certain of the monks urged the Archbishop to flee into the church. He refused, remembering that he had said that the knights should find him there. The monks then said that it did not become him to be absent from the church when Vespers were being said—for it was now the time for Vespers. And when he still was unwilling to leave the place, they laid hold of him, and dragged him by force, not heeding his cries that they should let him go, till they had brought him to the church.

When he came, the monks stopped saying Vespers, which they had begun, and ran to him, rejoicing that he was yet alive. But when they would have shut and barred the doors, he forbade them. "It is not meet," he said, "to make a fortress of the house of prayer; though it be not shut up, it is able to protect its own." When he had said this, the knights entered the church, having their drawn swords in their hands.

All that were in the church now fled seeking shelter, some at the altars, some in hiding-places. Three only remained with the Archbishop. And indeed he might easily have escaped, for it was evening, and the crypt was at hand, in which were many dark recesses. Also there was a door hard by, and a winding stair which led to the roof of the church.

The knights cried out, "Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King and realm?" When there was no answer, they cried again, "Where is the Archbishop?" At these words he came down from the winding stair, for he had been dragged thither by the monks, and said in a clear voice, "I am here, no traitor, but a priest; why do you seek me? I am ready to suffer in His house, Who redeemed me. Far be it from me to flee from your swords." So speaking he turned to a pillar, on one side of which there was a chapel of the Blessed Virgin, and on the other a chapel of St. Benedict.

THE KNIGHTS.  "Absolve those whom you have excommunicated."

ARCHBISHOP.  "They have not given satisfaction, and I will not absolve them."

THE K.  "Then shall you die, and receive your deserts."

A.  "I am ready to die, so that I may obtain liberty and peace for the Church by my blood; but in the name of God I forbid you to hurt my people."

The knights laid hands on him, seeking to drag him out of the church, that they might kill him outside, or, it may be, carry him away prisoner. But he clung to the pillar. Fitz-Urse laid hold on him, but the Archbishop called him by an ill name, and said, "Reginald, touch me not, you owe me subjection." Fitz-Urse answered, "I owe no subjection to any, against my fealty to my lord the King."

Then Thomas, seeing that his hour was at hand, inclined his neck as one that prays, and joining his hands together, commended his cause and the cause of the Church to God, and to Saint Mary, and to Saint Denys. Thereupon Fitz-Urse, fearing lest he should be rescued by the people, leapt upon him suddenly, and smote him on the top of the head, wounding by the same blow the arm of a certain monk, Edward Grim by name, who was holding the Archbishop round the body. Another knight dealt him a second blow on the head, but still he stood firm. At the third blow, he fell on his knees and elbows, saying in a low voice, "In the name of Jesus, and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death." Then the third knight, with a stroke of his sword, cut off the crown of the head, so that the blood and the brains together flowed out on the floor of the church. With the knights there was a certain clerk, who for his ill life was called Mauclerc. He put his foot on the dead man's neck and scattered both blood and brains over the pavement. When he had done this, he called out to the others, "Knights, let us away, this man will rise up no more."

The King was greatly troubled when he heard of what had been done. There was nothing that he would not do to show his grief. He even went to the cathedral, and kneeling down in the place where Becket had been slain, submitted to be scourged by one of the monks.

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