Gateway to the Classics: Tales from Canterbury Cathedral by Mrs. Frewen Lord
Tales from Canterbury Cathedral by  Mrs. Frewen Lord

The Story of Thomas Becket

Thomas Becket, who was Archbishop of Canterbury, and who, as you very likely already know, was killed in the cathedral in the reign of Henry II., is very often spoken of as St. Thomas Becket. The story of his life is a very interesting one, but although he was perhaps the greatest of the many great men who have been Archbishops of Canterbury, he was not at all the kind of man we should have expected him to be when we hear him spoken of as "Saint" Thomas.

King Edward the Confessor, who is buried in Westminster Abbey, and who was called St. Edward the Confessor, seems to have been rightly so called, for he spent his whole life—he lived to reign over twenty years—in working for the good and happiness of all around him; but Thomas Becket, although he made himself, during his quite short life of fifty-four years, the most powerful and most dreaded man in England, worked, as you will see when you come to read the great history of England written by Hume, not so entirely for the happiness of others as to forget himself and his own advancement.

Thomas Becket was born in London on St. Thomas's Day, 1118, and this was probably the reason he was called Thomas. From the time he was born he seems to have been a baby of much importance. He was most likely an only child, for we hear nothing of any other brothers or sisters. There is a story told of how his mother, when he was quite a tiny baby, used to weigh him every few days to see how fast he grew. On one side of the scale she put the baby, and on the other, instead of the ordinary weights, she put meat and bread. This she then gave away to poor people, who might in this way feel that thanks to little Thomas growing strong and fat, they got every few days a good meal. When he was ten years old he was sent to a monastery school near London—near enough for his father to go very often and see him. His father seems to have looked upon his little son as the most wonderful boy ever born, and to have shown what he felt much more than was good for Thomas. One day he went to the school to see him, and to the surprise of every one, instead of letting his boy kneel down before him, as was the custom, his father knelt down before him. "Foolish old man," exclaimed the prior (or head of the monastery), for so this story is told, "what art thou doing? It would be more seemly that he should do thee that honour." "I know, sir," rejoined Gilbert (his father's name was Gilbert Becket), "what I am doing, for this boy shall be great in the sight of the Lord."

No doubt, even in those days, at his first school, Thomas must have shown that he was a marvellously clever boy; but by treating him in this way his father made a very great mistake—the mistake of teaching him to think too much of himself. If, as a small boy, he was taught to think more of himself than of his father, it is perhaps not strange that, when he grew to be a man, he thought more of himself than he thought of his King or his country.

In his holidays he used to go and stay with a rich friend of his father's at Pevensey. Here he was taken out on hunting and hawking excursions with the nobles, who all made much of the clever, good-looking boy; and up to the time he was twenty-one, Thomas was petted and spoilt and admired everywhere and by every one. Nevertheless, he had much that was good in him; and when his father suddenly became very poor, Thomas set to work and got a place as clerk in the office of one of his relations—a rich London merchant. Here he worked so well that some of his father's friends, who knew the Archbishop of Canterbury, advised him to take this young Becket, who was both clever and charming, into his service as a kind of secretary The archbishop did so; and from that time Becket, who soon afterwards became a priest, was well known as the favourite of the old Archbishop Theobald, who made him Archdeacon of Canterbury.

It was while he was with the archbishop that Becket first came to know King Henry II. The King, like every one else, at once took such a fancy to him that he made him his chancellor and Keeper of the King's Seal. He was also made guardian of the Tower of London and of the Castle of Eye at Berkhampstead. He lived now in a magnificent way—more like a great noble than a great Churchman. Henry soon became very fond of him—so fond that when he wished to arrange a marriage for his son with the daughter of the King of France, Becket was sent to see and talk to Louis VII. He went in great state, attended by many nobles, and the King himself could hardly have been treated with greater honour.

When the old Archbishop of Canterbury died, Becket became archbishop—as well as chancellor—in his place, and it would seem that he could have now nothing left to wish for. He was rich and prosperous, he was Archbishop of Canterbury and the great friend of the King, who hoped that he and Becket together would be able to do much to reform or improve the Church, and the laws about the Church, many of which were very bad ones, and were likely, so the King saw, to do a great deal of harm to the country. To tell you all that was wrong or unwise in the laws of that time would take too long. By-and-by you will read for yourselves many interesting books about those far-off days, and then you will see that the King was right in wishing to make better laws—laws by which all the people in his kingdom should be treated alike; by which all who did wrong should be punished with equal fairness, no matter who they were, just as they are at this day.

It is so easy for us to understand that the laws of a country should be alike for every man, woman, and child living in that country, that it is difficult to think that there was a time, even in England, when this was not the case. At the time of which we are now speaking there were two sets of laws—one set made by the King and his council, and by which all the people in the country, except those who were priests or who had anything to do with the business or management of the Church, were governed. These laws were strict, and, on the whole, wise; and by them, if any one did wrong, he was severely punished. The other set of laws were made for all who were priests, or who had anything to do with the management of the Church, by priests or great Churchmen; and these laws were much less strict than those made by the King and his council. So it often happened that a priest who did something wrong, and who was allowed to be governed only by these Church laws—the ecclesiastical laws, they were called, from the Latin word ecclesia, meaning "a church"—was given some very small punishment, or even let off altogether; while another man, not a priest, who had done the very same thing, but who was governed by the laws made by the King—the secular laws they were called, from the Latin word sculum, meaning "having to do with the world"—was severely punished or imprisoned, as he deserved to be.

Now, you see at once how unfair this was, and the King—who felt that his chief duty as King of England was, as the words of the Prayer-book say, "to truly and indifferently minister justice," that is, to treat every man alike with equal fairness—thought and said that this state of things must be altered. There must be one set of laws, made by the King and his council, by which every one in the country, priests and not priests, must be governed. This was the King's idea, and with Becket his friend, Archbishop of Canterbury, and next to himself the most important man in England, he felt no doubt this idea could be carried out. But unfortunately the King was greatly mistaken. To be the second most important man in England was not enough for Becket—he must be the first and the most important. Just as when a small boy he was accustomed to be the first and most important boy at school and at home, so now he was a man he could not rest until he was the first and most important man in England. If these laws were made, the archbishop and all other priests would have to obey them. Although in all Church matters the archbishop would have power over all the clergy in the country, yet above the archbishop was the King, and the King and his council would make the laws which all England must obey.

Now it was that Becket first proclaimed himself as the opposer of the King—the Champion of the Church and of the existing laws of the Church, and declared that his first duty and care was to do all that lay in his power to prevent these new laws from being made. And there was much that he could do—so much, that while he and the bishops and clergy (who were for the most part afraid to disobey him) all stood up against the King and his friends, it was impossible that the laws should be made. Soon a dreadful state of things arose, and from being the greatest of friends, the King and Becket soon became the greatest of enemies. It would take too long to describe to you all the quarrels of the next seven years, during which time Becket still fought against the King and the King's wishes with all his might, believing that in the end Henry would be tired of the struggle, and would give up all thoughts of the new laws. Then things would go on in the old way, and the Archbishop of Canterbury would be known all over the world as the man who was the master of the King of England.

But, much as he knew about men and things, there was one man whom he did not know or understand—and this man was his master Henry II., who, although he now treated Becket in many ways very badly, yet was always ready and willing to be on the old terms of friendship with him as soon as he should promise to obey—as every loyal Englishman does—the laws of his King and country. But at the same time he made it very clear to Becket, that nothing that he could do, and nothing that he could say, would alter his determination to be master in his own kingdom.

Then it was that, after fighting all these years, Becket seems to have seen at last that the King would never give in, even though the fight might go on to the end of his life. There was no man living, so he saw—no, not even Thomas Becket—who could overcome or humble Henry II. But to own himself beaten was a thing that Becket had never yet done all his life, and he would not own himself beaten now. So he fought on, though almost alone; for most people in England were on the King's side. But if he had few friends in England, he had more abroad; and it was perhaps for this very reason that Henry had forbidden him to leave England. The King felt that an Englishman ought to be above asking foreigners to take sides with them over English affairs. He disobeyed the King and went abroad for six years. In December, 1170, he came back to England (the King was away in France), and no sooner had he arrived than fresh quarrels broke out between him and the "King's men," as they called themselves. The barons did all they could to annoy and exasperate the archbishop, and he in return did all he could to exasperate them, although he must have known that by so doing he was acting in the surest way to rouse the King's anger. For it was well known that Henry II., when he was opposed, used to fall into the most dangerous and violent fits of passion, and that while they lasted he often said and did things which he would otherwise never have dreamed of saying or doing, and for which he was heartily sorry afterwards.

So the quarrels went on; and even on Christmas Day, though Becket preached in Canterbury Cathedral, and took for his text the words, "On earth peace, good will to men," yet no sooner was the sermon over than he began to speak, even though he was still in church, of his enemies and of the wrongs they had done to him, and wished that the heaviest punishments might befall them. Meanwhile, the Archbishop of York and the Bishops of London and Salisbury, who felt that they could no longer put up with Becket, had started for France, determined to tell the King of all that he had said and done since he had come back to England. No sooner did the King hear the many stories than his anger began to get the better of him, as it too often did when he was opposed. "Henry is said at these moments," for so Dean Stanley describes his fits of rage, "to have become like a wild beast. His eyes, naturally dove-like and quiet, seemed to flash lightning; his hands struck and tore whatever came in their way. On one occasion he flew at a messenger, who brought him bad tidings, to tear out his eyes; at another time he is represented as having flung down his cap, torn off his clothes, thrown the silk coverlet from his bed, and rolled upon it, gnawing the straw and rushes. "So now, when he heard the story the bishops had come to tell, his anger rose. "A fellow," he said, hardly able to speak for his rage—"a fellow that has eaten my bread has lifted up his heel against me; a fellow that I have loaded with benefits dares insult the King, and tramples on the whole kingdom; a fellow that came to Court on a lame horse, with a cloak for a saddle, sits without hindrance on the throne itself. What sluggard wretches," he burst forth again and again—"what cowards have I brought up in my Court, who care nothing for their allegiance to their master! Will no one deliver me from this turbulent priest?" And with these words he left the room.

Now, most unfortunately, there happened to be listening to him four knights, who were special enemies of Becket's; and no sooner did they hear these words than they saw a chance to revenge themselves on the archbishop, and, at the same time—so they thought—to serve the King, and "rid him of this turbulent priest." So, setting out in all haste, they journeyed to Canterbury.

* * * * * *

It was growing dark on the afternoon of Tuesday, December 29, 1170, when four knights rode up to the Monastery of Christ Church. Their armour was hidden by their long cloaks, and the monks thought they had only come as friendly visitors. Asking to see the archbishop, they were taken to the room where he was sitting, surrounded by his clergy, and said they had brought him a message from the King, which he only must hear. Becket told the monks to leave him, which they did; but in a very few moments they came back. The loud voices in the next room made them fear that a quarrel had arisen, and that the archbishop might be in danger; so they stood close around him. In a few minutes the knights left the room, and the monks thought that all danger was over, and that the knights would now, having seen the archbishop, leave Canterbury. But as soon as they were outside the room they called their servants and soldiers, who had been waiting for a signal, and posted sentries at all the doors of the monastery to prevent Becket from escaping into the town. They then threw off their cloaks, and one of the monks, who had been watching them unseen, rushed in to Becket crying out that the knights were in armour, and were buckling on their swords. There was only one way to escape, and this was through the cloisters into the cathedral. The monks begged Becket to save himself; but he refused to move. Frightened out of their wits, they paid no attention to his words, and half pushed, half dragged him from his room and along the cloisters until they reached the little door—you can see just where it is on the plan—leading into the north transept. It was five o'clock, and in the dim cathedral Evening Service was going on. Suddenly there came the news that soldiers were in the monastery. The service stopped, and the monks, coming down from the choir into the transept, met the archbishop and his horrified companions. Becket ordered them to go on with the service; but at that moment a clash of swords was heard, and, with a shout of "Armed men in the cloister!" the monks rushed to bar and bolt the little door by which they had come in, quite forgetting that they were shutting out not only the knights, but some of their own monks, who had not had time to get in with them. But now Becket, whose courage did not fail him for one moment, and who never deserted friends in danger, turned angrily to these "cowards," as he called them, and, saying that he would not have the cathedral "turned into a castle," he himself opened the door and hurried in the monks. No sooner were they inside than they rushed to hide themselves, leaving Becket and three others, who had courage to stop with him, alone to meet the knights and soldiers. These three now begged the archbishop to come up the steps into the choir. There at least, so they thought, he would be safe before the high altar. But hardly had he gone up three or four steps when his enemies burst in. "Where is Thomas Becket," they cried, "traitor to the King?" It was growing almost dark, but out of the darkness came a voice, "Here I am—no traitor, but the archbishop and the priest of God. What do you wish?" And, looking up, the knights saw Becket, in the white gown and hood of a Benedictine monk, coming down the steps to meet them. They rushed upon him and tried to drag him from the church; but Becket, who was a strong man, struggled with them, determined that, if he was to be killed, he would be killed in his own cathedral. Standing against a pillar, for a few minutes he fought bravely. But he was one against many. Soon he was severely wounded, and could fight no more. He fell on the ground, and had only time to say a short prayer before he was stabbed to death. Then, with a shout of "The King's men! the King's men!" the knights and soldiers fled from the church, where all was now dark: and no sound was heard in the great cathedral but the crashes of the thunder and the pouring of the rain, for a furious storm was raging; and the knights, as they rode through it, thought that it was sent as a punishment for them.

When the news of what had happened that afternoon was brought to King Henry, he was deeply shocked and grieved. But now at last Becket's chief wish was fulfilled, and throughout England, and before long throughout Europe, he was thought and spoken of, not only as the greatest and best of men, but as a martyr and a saint, who had died rather than give in to what he considered wrong; for no sooner was the archbishop dead than every one declared that in all the quarrels, he, and not the King, had been in the right. He was buried in the crypt of the cathedral, and here for very many years pilgrims used to come from all parts of the world (even from Iceland) to kneel at the tomb of St. Thomas, and do penance there, as was the custom in those days. Here, a few years after the murder (in the year 1174), came King Henry, dressed, as Dean Stanley tells us, not as a king, but "in the guise of a penitent pilgrim, barefoot, and with no other covering than a woollen shirt, and a cloak thrown over it to keep off the rain. So, amidst a wondering crowd—the rough stones of the street marked with the blood that started from his feet—he reached the cathedral . . . and went straight to the scene of the murder in the north transept. Here he knelt . . . and kissed the sacred stone on which the archbishop had fallen." After this he went to the tomb in the crypt, and kneeling there he received five strokes from each bishop and abbot, who stood there with their "monastic rods," as they were called, in their hands, and then three more from each of the eighty monks. After this he was considered forgiven. Becket, could he have seen the King at that moment, would have felt that his triumph over him was complete. Fifty years afterwards, his body was taken from the tomb in the crypt to a new and magnificent shrine covered with gold and precious stones which had been made for him in the centre of Trinity Chapel. The young King Henry III., and all the great nobles and bishops of England, came to a solemn service, after which the coffin of Becket was carried to the new shrine; and there it rested for many years, during which time most of our kings and queens, and countless nobles and peasants from all countries, came to see the shrine of St. Thomas, who, so far from being forgotten, seemed every year to be more thought of. At last, in the reign of Henry VIII. England, as you very likely know, became a Protestant, instead of a Roman Catholic country. Then it was that the Pope, who had until now been head of the Church in England, just as he is to this day in all Roman Catholic countries, was told by King Henry that Englishmen would no longer submit to this. The Bible taught them "to fear God and honour the King," but nowhere, except by the Pope, were they bidden to "fear and obey the Pope." Therefore they would obey the Bible, and the Pope should no longer have power in England. Then, too, it was that an order was given that "from henceforth the said Thomas Becket shall not be esteemed, named, reputed, nor called a saint, but Bishop Becket." For it was by order of the Pope that he had been called St. Thomas. The shrine and all that could remind people of the great archbishop was destroyed; and so, when you go to Canterbury Cathedral, though you will see the exact spot where it stood, yet there is nothing remaining of the shrine of Thomas Becket, who for over three hundred years had been thought one of the greatest men who ever lived, and whose story will never be forgotten as long as Canterbury Cathedral stands.

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