Henry Plantagenet—The Story of Thomas à Becket
K ING HENRY was very fond of Thomas à Becket. They used to work very seriously, but when work was done they would play together like two boys.
The chancellor took care of the King's great seal, looked after the royal chapel, and had many other duties. He was a very important person, lived in splendid style, and dressed magnificently. In fact, his house and servants were richer and grander than those of the King. Many of the nobles sent their sons to serve in the chancellor's house, and the proudest were glad to wait on him and to try to please him.
Every day a great number of people dined with the chancellor. Sometimes the King would come in from riding, in the middle of dinner, jump over the table with a merry jest, and sit down among the guests.
Many stories are told of the fun the King and the chancellor used to have together. One day, while out riding, Thomas and King Henry met an old beggar, shivering and in rags.
"It would be a good action to give that poor man a coat," said the King.
"It would indeed," replied the chancellor.
"Then give him yours," and the King laughingly seized the cloak which Thomas was wearing.
It was a beautiful new cloak of silk and fur, and Thomas did not wish to lose it. So he held it tight, while the King tugged hard to pull it off. Neither would let go until, between struggling and laughing, they both nearly fell off their horses.
The courtiers watched and laughed too, but at last the King succeeded in getting the cloak and flung it to the beggar. Thomas was not very pleased, but he had to make the best of it and go shivering for the rest of his ride. The poor beggar went away greatly delighted with the King's joke.
Once Henry sent Thomas with a message to the King of France. Thomas took so many soldiers and servants in glittering dress, so many horses and carriages with him, that the people came out of their houses to stare at him wherever he passed.
"Who is it?" every one asked.
"The Chancellor of England," was the reply.
"Only the chancellor," cried the astonished people. "What must the King be, if the chancellor is so grand?"
Henry worked hard, and with the help of his chancellor improved many things in England. He found that the Church and the clergy, like everything else, had grown very unruly and disorderly. He determined to put them in order, and Thomas à Becket he thought would be the best man to help him. Thomas had been brought up as a priest, and King Henry resolved to make him Archbishop of Canterbury and head of all the clergy in England.
But Thomas was gay and worldly. He loved fine clothes and rich food. "I do not want to be Archbishop of Canterbury," he said to the King.
"You must be," said the King.
"Then we shall quarrel," said Thomas.
"Why?" said the King.
"Because if you make me head of the Church I shall work for the Church and not for you. We shall no longer be friends, but enemies," replied Thomas.
But King Henry did not believe Thomas when he talked like this and, in spite of all he could say, he made him Archbishop of Canterbury.
As soon as he became archbishop, Thomas changed his way of living. He gave up his fine house and fine clothes and his great number of servants. He began to wear coarse, rough clothes, lived in a little narrow cell, ate very plain food and drank only water.
It is difficult to understand why he did this. Perhaps he thought that the Primate of all England, as the Archbishop of Canterbury is called, ought to be a very holy man, and he knew no other way of becoming holy, for in those days if a man fasted and went barefoot and wore coarse clothing it was thought that he must be a saint.
Thomas now wrote to the king and told him that he must find another chancellor, as he could not be archbishop and chancellor too. This was a great surprise and grief to the King. In those days it was nothing unusual for one man to be archbishop as well as chancellor. Henry had expected Thomas still to be chancellor and still to help him. He had merely made him primate so that he should help him more.
But that was only the beginning of the troubles.
The Bishop of Rome, whom we call the Pope, said that he was the head of the whole Christian Church, and that no one could be made a bishop in England without his consent. Henry said that he, the King, was the head of the English church, and he would make what bishops he chose. Thomas, instead of siding with the King, sided with the Pope, so they quarrelled, as Thomas had warned Henry that they would.
In those days some of the clergy had grown very wicked. Instead of leading good lives, and being an example to others, they led bad lives. Priests and clergy who did wicked things were not judged by the same courts as other people. They were judged by a bishop's court. Now a bishop's court had no power to order any very severe punishment. If a priest killed a man, the worst that could happen to him would be that he would be beaten—not very hard—and have only bread and water to live on for a few days. Many wicked people became priests simply that they might be able to do as much wrong as they liked, without being punished for it.
Henry wished to put an end to this, so he said that all people who did wrong must be tried by the same judges, whether they were priests or not. But Thomas à Becket would not agree. Clergymen had always been judged by a bishop's court, he said, and by a bishop's court they should continue to be judged.
So the King and the primate quarrelled worse than ever, till the quarrel grew so fierce, and the King so angry, that Thomas fled over the sea to escape from him.
After a time Henry forgave Thomas and he came back to England, but almost at once he again began to quarrel with the King. This time Henry lost all patience and, in a burst of anger, he exclaimed, "Are there none of the idle people who eat my bread that will free me from this quarrelsome priest?"
Henry was angry, and did not really mean what he said. But four knights heard, and thinking to please their king they took ship (for Henry was in Normandy at this time), crossed the sea to England, and rode to Canterbury. Arrived there they went to the archbishop's house. They found him almost alone. With angry words they told him that he must either promise not to quarrel with Henry or he must leave England.
"I shall do what I think is right," replied Thomas. "If the King tells me to do things which I think are wrong, I will not obey him. I am the servant of God. God is higher than the King; I shall obey Him."
This answer enraged the knights, and more angry words were spoken. Then they went away, telling Thomas to beware, for they would come again.
"You will find me here," replied Thomas proudly. "Never again will I forsake my people."
All the archbishop's friends, and the monks and priests who lived with him, were very much afraid. They felt sure that these angry knights meant to do something dreadful. They begged Thomas to leave his house and take refuge in the cathedral, but he would not. "I said they would find me here," he replied to all entreaties.
The day passed. The time for evening service came. Then only did Thomas consent to leave his house and go into the cathedral, for, said he, "It is my duty to lead the service." The priests tried to hurry him, they tried to drag him along quickly, but Thomas would not hasten. He walked slowly and solemnly, having the great cross carried before him as usual. He feared no man.
When at last he was safe within the cathedral, the priests wished to lock and bar the doors. But Thomas forbade them. "This is not a fortress but the House of God, into which every one is free to enter. I forbid you to bar the doors," he said.
The priests were in despair. They loved their archbishop, they knew that he was in danger, but he would not try to save himself.
Even as he spoke there was a great noise without. The door burst open, and the four knights, dressed in complete armour and carrying drawn swords in their hands, rushed into the cathedral.
The frightened people fled in all directions. The archbishop was left almost alone. Only three remained with him—his cross-bearer and two other faithful friends.
In the dim twilight which filled the cathedral it would have been easy for Thomas to escape. But he would not go. "I told them that they should find me here," he said again to the monks who tried to drag him away.
Even as it was, the knights could not find him. In the gathering darkness they clanked and clanged through the great church, seeking him.
"Where is the traitor?" called one of them.
No one answered. Only the word "traitor" echoed again through the silence.
"Where is the archbishop?" he called again.
"I am here," answered the voice of Thomas à Becket out of the darkness. "I am here; no traitor, but a servant of God. What do you want?"
They stood before him, four armed knights against one unarmed priest. Yet he was not afraid.
"Will you be at peace with the King?" asked the knights.
"What I have done I shall continue to do," replied Thomas.
The knights seized him and tried to drag him out of the cathedral, for they feared to kill him in a holy place.
But Thomas would not go. He held tightly to a pillar. His cross-bearer, still holding the cross, threw one arm round the archbishop, trying to protect him.
The knight who had first spoken struck at Thomas. The cross-bearer received the blow upon his arm, which dropped to his side broken. The next stroke fell on Thomas à Becket's defenceless head.
In a few minutes all was over.
"In the name of Christ, and for the defence of the Church, I die willingly," said Thomas, and spoke no more.
Then the knights, fearful of what they had done, fled, leaving the dead archbishop alone in the dark, silent cathedral.