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 Chancellor

T HE Red King was succeeded by his younger brother Henry, who was surnamed Beauclerc, or Good Scholar, for he had been better educated than princes commonly were in those days, knowing even something of Latin; and he did something for the better government of England. His son and heir William was drowned, and on his death the succession to the Crown was disputed between his daughter Maud, who married, firstly, Henry V., Emperor of Germany, and secondly, Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, and Stephen of Blois, whose mother was Adela, daughter of the Conqueror. Then followed a time of great trouble, but in 1153, Stephen's son Eustace having died, it was agreed that Stephen should reign for the rest of his life, and Henry, son of the Empress Maud, should be king after him.

Henry II., who already possessed Normandy and Maine, received with his wife Eleanor the great province of Aquitaine, and had more of France than the King of France himself. What troubles came from these possessions in France to him and to others will be seen hereafter. But the story that I have to tell of this King concerns a famous Churchman.

Not a few wonderful things are said to have happened to this Thomas while he was a boy. His father, who had given him over to be taught by certain priests who dwelt at Merton in Surrey, came one day to see him. When the boy was brought into his presence, he fell down before him, and did him reverence. The Prior cried out, "Foolish old man, what doest thou? dost thou fall at thy son's feet? That surely he should rather do to thee." But the father answered—not indeed in his son's hearing—"I know what I do: that boy will be great in the sight of the Lord."

Once when he was at home for holiday he had a marvellous escape from death. There lodged with his father a certain knight, who spent his time in hunting with hawks and hounds. Thomas would often go with him, having a great liking for this sport, in which when he grew up he also spent such leisure as he had. One day the knight went out according to custom, and Thomas followed him on horseback. They had to cross a certain swift stream. There was indeed a bridge, but it was so small and narrow that it could be safely passed only on foot. Below this bridge there was a mill with a wheel, towards which the stream ran with a very fast current, having a steep bank on either side. This bridge the knight, intent on his sport, and careless of danger, crossed first on his horse, and Thomas, fearing nothing, followed him. But when he came to the middle of the bridge, suddenly his horse stumbled, and both he and his rider fell into the stream. Here the two were parted by the violence of the current, and the boy was carried downward, nor did there seem any hope but that he would be either drowned or crushed by the wheel. But when he was now on the brink of death, the man that had charge of the mill, knowing nothing of what had happened, suddenly shut off the water from the wheel. Meanwhile the knight and his company were following down the stream with piteous cries. These the man at the mill heard, the noise of the wheel being stopped. Coming forth he thrust his hand into the water, and drew Thomas to land scarce breathing and but half alive.

Thomas, growing up, obtained the favour first of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and then of the King, who made him Chancellor, he being then thirty-seven years of age.

When he was Chancellor, many nobles sent their sons to be in his house. These he caused to be duly trained and taught. Some he sent back to their parents fit to be good and true knights, and some he kept with himself. The King put his own son, Henry, in his charge.

No man ever did the duties of his office more honestly and diligently than did Thomas. The King, the clergy, the nobles, and the people alike honoured him for his greatness of mind and his many virtues. With the King he had a close friendship; and when business was done, they would play together like two boys of the same age. They sat together in church, and they rode out together. One day they were riding together in the streets of London, the weather being very cold. The King saw an old man coming, poor, in thin and ragged clothing. Whereupon he said to the Chancellor, "Do you see him?" The Chancellor answered, "Yes, I see him." THE KING—"How poor he is, how feeble, how poorly clad! Would it not be a most charitable deed to give him a cloak, warm and thick?" THE CHANCELLOR—"Verily it would; and you, my King, should have care that he have it." Meanwhile the man came up. Said the King to him, "Wilt thou have a good cloak, my friend?" The poor man, not knowing who these two might be, thought that he jested. Then said the King to the Chancellor, "You shall do this great charity." And laying hold of the cloak which he wore—it was new, and very fine, of scarlet and grey—he strove to drag it from him. The Chancellor strove to keep it. Then there was a great commotion and noise, and all the knights rode up, wondering what this might mean, for the two were pulling with both their hands, and more than once seemed likely to fall from their horses. At last the Chancellor suffered the King to have his way, that is to pull off the cloak and give it to the poor man. Then the King told the story, and there was great laughter among the knights.

In the third year of his office, Becket went on an embassy to the King of France, to make a contract of marriage between his King's son Henry and the daughter of the King of France. Never did ambassador go more splendidly equipped. He had two hundred men on horseback, all of his own household, knights, esquires, clerks, serving-men, and young nobles whom he had trained in his house. All were clothed as became their rank. As for Becket, he had four-and-twenty changes of raiment and many garments of silk and fur, and robes and carpets such as the chamber and bed of a bishop are wont to be adorned with. He had also hounds and birds of all kinds such as kings and nobles are wont to use. He had light carriages, drawn each by five strong horses. Of these, two bore nothing but beer, "a liquor made of corn with water, which the French greatly admire, for it is clear, and of the colour of wine, but better in taste." In one carriage was the furniture of his chapel, in another that of his chamber, and in a third that of his kitchen. Others carried meat and drink and divers other goods. He had twelve horses, and eight chests full of gold and silver plate, and many clothes and books, and other matters. Each horse had its own groom; under each wagon was a dog chained, strong enough, it was said, to overcome a lion or a bear. And on the back of each horse was a tailed monkey. When the Frenchmen, rushing out of their houses, asked who this was and whose the train, it was answered to them, "It is the Chancellor of the King of the English, going on an embassy to the King of the French." Then said the Frenchmen, "Marvellous is the King of the English, whose Chancellor goes thus grandly." Nor was he famous for these things only. When afterwards there was war between the two kings, the Chancellor had seven hundred knights of his own household, and many others. And he himself met in single combat a valiant French knight, and striking him down, spoiled him of his horse.

When he had been Chancellor for seven years, the King sent for him, and told him that he was minded to make him Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas was greatly unwilling that this should be. "I know," said he, "that if this be done, you will soon turn away your love, and regard me with the bitterest hatred. Already you do many things in respect of the Church which I like not. And now there will be stirred up endless strife between us." These words did not alter the King's purpose. Thomas, therefore, having been duly chosen, was made Archbishop, having being first ordained priest, for before this he was a deacon only.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Red King  |  Next: Thomas Becket, the Archbishop
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.