Gateway to the Classics: The World's Story: England by Eva March Tappan
The World's Story: England by  Eva March Tappan

The Struggle Between the King and the Archbishop


THE reign of Henry II, during which Becket's memorable career took place, was an important one. He united, through his mother Matilda, the blood of the old Saxon kings with that of the Norman dukes. He was the first truly English sovereign who had sat on the throne since the Conquest. In his reign (1154-1189) the blending of the Norman and Saxon races was effected. Villages and towns rose around the castles of great Norman nobles and the cathedrals and abbeys of Norman ecclesiastics. Ultimately these towns obtained freedom. London became a great city with more than a hundred churches. The castles, built during the disastrous civil wars of Stephen's usurped reign, were demolished. Peace and order were restored by a legitimate central power.

Between the young monarch of twenty-two and Thomas, as a favorite of Theobald and as Archdeacon of Canterbury, an intimacy sprang up. Henry II was the most powerful sovereign of western Europe, since he was not only King of England, but had inherited in France Anjou and Touraine from his father, and Normandy and Maine from his mother. By his marriage with Eleanor of Aquitaine, he gained seven other provinces as her dower. The dominions of Louis were not half so great as his, even in France. And Henry was not only a powerful sovereign by his great territorial possessions, but also for his tact and ability. He saw the genius of Becket and made him his chancellor, loading him with honors and perquisites and Church benefices.

The power of Becket as chancellor was very great, since he was prime minister, and the civil administration of the kingdom was chiefly entrusted to him, embracing nearly all the functions now performed by the various members of the Cabinet. As chancellor he rendered great services. He effected a decided improvement in the state of the country; it was freed from robbers and bandits, and brought under dominion of the law. He depressed the power of the feudal nobles; he appointed the most deserving people to office; he repaired the royal palaces, increased the royal revenues, and promoted agricultural industry. He seems to have pursued a peace policy. But he was unscrupulous and grasping. His style of life when chancellor was for that age magnificent: Wolsey, in after times, scarcely excelled him. His dress was as rich as barbaric taste could make it,—for the more barbarous the age, the more gorgeous is the attire of great dignitaries. "The hospitalities of the chancellor were unbounded. He kept seven hundred horsemen completely armed. The harnesses of his horses were embossed with gold and silver. The most powerful nobles sent their sons to serve in his household as pages; and nobles and knights waited in his antechamber. There never passed a day when he did not make rich presents." His expenditure was enormous. He rivaled the king in magnificence. His sideboard was loaded with vessels of gold and silver. He was doubtless ostentatious, but his hospitality was free, and his person was as accessible as a primitive bishop. He is accused of being light and frivolous; but this I doubt. He had too many cares and duties for frivolity. He doubtless unbent. All men loaded down with labors must unbend somewhere. It was nothing against him that he told good stories at the royal table, or at his own, surrounded by earls and barons. These relaxations preserved in him elasticity of mind, without which the greatest genius soon becomes a hack, a plodding piece of mechanism, a stupid lump of learned dullness. But he was stained by no vices or excesses. He was a man of indefatigable activity, and all his labors were in the service of the Crown, to which, as chancellor, he was devoted, body and soul.

Is it strange that such a man should have been offered the See of Canterbury on the death of Theobald? He had been devoted to his royal master and friend; he enjoyed rich livings, and was Archdeacon of Canterbury; he had shown no opposition to the royal will. Moreover Henry wanted an able man for that exalted post, in order to carry out his schemes of making himself independent of priestly influence and papal interference.

So Becket was made archbishop and primate of the English Church at the age of forty-four, the clergy of the province acquiescing,—perhaps with secret complaints, for he was not even a priest; merely deacon, and the minister of an unscrupulous king. He was ordained priest only just before receiving the primacy, and for that purpose.

Nothing in England could exceed the dignity of the See of Canterbury. Even the bishopric of York was subordinate. Becket as metropolitan of the English Church was second in rank only to the king himself. He could depose any ecclesiastic in the realm. He had the exclusive privilege of crowning the king. His decisions were final, except on appeal to Rome. No one dared disobey his mandates, for the law of clerical obedience was one of the fundamental ideas of the age. Through his clergy, over whom his power was absolute, he controlled the people. His law courts had cognizance of questions which the royal courts could not interfere with. No ecclesiastical dignitary in Europe was his superior, except the Pope. . . .

Becket was no sooner ordained priest and consecrated as archbishop than he changed his habits. He became as austere as Lanfranc. He laid aside his former ostentation. He clothed himself in sackcloth; he mortified his body with fasts and laceration; he associated only with the pious and the learned; he frequented the cloisters and places of meditation; he received into his palace the needy and the miserable; he washed the feet of thirteen beggars every day; he conformed to the standard of piety in his age; he called forth the admiration of his attendants by his devotion to clerical duties. "He was," says Fitz-Stephen, "a second Moses entering the tabernacle at the accepted time for the contemplation of his God, and going out from it in order to perform some work of piety to his neighbor. He was like one of God's angels on the ladder, whose top reached the heavens, now descending to lighten the wants of men, now ascending to behold the divine majesty and the splendor of the Heavenly One. His prime councilor was reason, which ruled his passions as a mistress guides her servants. Under her guidance he was conducted to virtue, which, wrapped up in itself, and embracing everything within itself, never looks forward for anything additional."

This is the testimony of his biographer, and has not been explained away or denied, although it is probably true that Becket did not purge the corruptions of the Church, or punish the disorders and vices of the clergy, as Hildebrand did. But I only speak of his private character. I admit that he was no reformer. He was simply the High Churchman aiming to secure the ascendance of the spiritual power. Becket is not immortal for his reforms, or his theological attainments, but for his intrepidity, his courage, his devotion to his cause,—a hero, and not a man of progress; a man who fought a fight. It should be the aim of an historian to show for what he was distinguished; to describe his warfare, not to abuse him because he was not a philosopher and reformer. He lived in the twelfth century.

One of the first things which opened the eyes of the king was the resignation of the chancellor. The king doubtless made him primate of the English hierarchy in order that he might combine both offices. But they were incompatible, unless Becket was willing to be the unscrupulous tool of the king in everything. Of course Henry could not long remain the friend of the man who he thought had duped him. Before a year had passed, his friendship was turned to secret but bitter enmity. Nor was it long before an event occurred,—a small matter,—which brought the king and the prelate into open collision.

The matter was this: A young nobleman, who held a clerical office, committed a murder. As an ecclesiastic, he was brought before the court of the Bishop of Lincoln, and was sentenced to pay a small fine. But public justice was not satisfied, and the sheriff summoned the canon, who refused to plead before him The matter was referred to the king, who insisted that the murderer should be tried in the civil court,—that a sacred profession should not screen a man who had committed a crime against society. While the king had, as we think, justice on his side, yet in this matter he interfered with the jurisdiction of the spiritual courts, which had been in force since Constantine. Theodosius and Justinian had confirmed the privilege of the Church, on the ground that the irregularities of a body of men devoted to the offices of religion should be veiled from the common eye; so that ecclesiastics were sometimes protected when they should be punished. But if the ecclesiastical courts had abuses, they were generally presided over by good and wise men,—more learned than the officers of the civil courts, and very popular in the Middle Ages; and justice in them was generally administered. So much were they valued in a dark age, when the clergy were the most learned men of their times, that much business came gradually to be transacted in them which previously had been settled in the civil courts,—as tithes, testaments, breaches of contract, perjuries, and questions pertaining to marriage. But Henry did not like these courts, and was determined to weaken their jurisdiction, and transfer their power to his own courts, in order to strengthen his royal authority. Enlightened jurists and historians in our times here sympathize with Henry. High Church ecclesiastics defend the jurisdiction of the spiritual courts, since they upheld the power of the Church, so useful in the Middle Ages. The king began the attack where the spiritual courts were weakest,—protection afforded to clergymen accused of crime. So he assembled a council of bishops and barons to meet him at Westminster. The bishops at first were inclined to yield to the king, but Becket gained them over, and would make no concession. He stood up for the privileges of his order. It was neither justice nor right which he defended, but his Church, at all hazards,—not her doctrines, but her prerogatives. He would present a barrier against royal encroachments, even if they were for the welfare of the realm. He would defend the independence of the clergy, and their power,—perhaps as an offset to royal power. In his rigid defense of the privileges of the clergy we see the churchman, not the statesman; we see the antagonist, not the ally, of the king. Henry was of course enraged. Who can wonder? He was bearded by his former favorite,—by one of his subjects.

[The contest continued. The king desired the bishops to sign the "Constitutions of Clarendon," resolutions which gave to the king instead of the Church the right to punish clergymen, forbade that any officer or tenant of the king should be excommunicated without his permission, and, in short, gave to the king much power that had previously been in the hands of the Church. Becket at first agreed to sign the Constitutions, "saving the honor of his order"; but eventually refused. At length he left the kingdom.]

But Henry was weary with the struggle, and Becket was tired of exile,—never pleasant, even if voluntary. Moreover, the prelate had gained the moral victory, even as Hildebrand did when the Emperor of Germany stooped as a suppliant in the fortress of Canossa. The King of England had virtually yielded to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Perhaps Becket felt that his mission was accomplished; that he had done the work for which he was raised up. Wearied, sickened with the world, disgusted with the Pope, despising his bishops, perhaps he was willing to die. He had a presentiment that he should die as a martyr. So had the French king and his prelates. But Becket longed to return to his church and celebrate the festivities of Christmas. So he made up his mind to return to England, "although I know of a truth," he said, "I shall meet my passion there." Before embarking he made a friendly and parting visit to the King of France, and then rode to the coast with an escort of one hundred horsemen. As Dover was guarded by the king's retainers, who might harm him, he landed at Sandwich, his own town. The next day he set out for Canterbury, after an absence of seven years. The whole population lined the road, strewed it with flowers, and rent the air with songs. Their beloved archbishop had returned. On reaching Canterbury he went directly to his cathedral and seated himself on his throne, and the monks came and kissed him, with tears in their eyes. One Herbert said, "Christ has conquered; Christ is now King!"

From Canterbury Becket made a sort of triumphal progress through the kingdom, with the pretense of paying a visit to the young king at Woodstock,—exciting rather than allaying the causes of discord, scattering his excommunications, still haughty, restless, implacable; so that the court became alarmed, and ordered him to return to his diocese. He obeyed, as he wished to celebrate Christmas at home; and ascending his long-neglected pulpit preached, according to Michelet, from this singular text: "I am come to die in the midst of you."

Henry at this time was on the Continent, and was greatly annoyed at the reports of Becket's conduct which reached him. Then there arrived three bishops whom the primate had excommunicated, with renewed complaints and grievances, assuring him there would be no peace so long as Becket lived. Henry was almost wild with rage and perplexity. What could he do? He dared not execute the archbishop, as Henry VIII would have done. In his age the prelate was almost as powerful as the king. Violence to his person was the last thing to do, for this would have involved the king in war with the adherents of the Pope, and would have entailed an excommunication. Still, the supremest desire of Henry's soul was to get Becket out of the way. So, yielding to an impulse of passion, he said to his attendants, "Is there no one to relieve me from the insults of this lowborn and turbulent priest?"

Among these attendants were four courtiers or knights, of high birth and large estates, who, hearing these reproachful words, left the court at once, crossed the Channel, and repaired to the castle of Sir Ranulf de Broc, the great enemy of Becket, who had molested him in innumerable ways. Some friendly person contrived to acquaint Becket with his danger, to whom he paid no heed, knowing it very well himself. He knew he was to die; and resolved to die bravely.

The four armed knights, meanwhile, on the 29th of December, rode with an escort to Canterbury, dined at the Augustinian abbey, and entered the courtyard of the archbishop's palace as Becket had finished his midday meal and had retired to an inner room with his chaplain and a few intimate friends. They then entered the hall and sought the archbishop, who received them in silence. Sir Reginald Fitzurst then broke the silence with these words: "We bring you the commands of the king beyond the sea, that you repair without delay to the young king's presence and swear allegiance. And further, he commands you to absolve the bishops you have excommunicated." On Becket's refusal, the knight continued: "Since you will not obey, the royal command is that you and your clergy forthwith depart from the realm, never more to return." Becket angrily declared he would never again leave England. The knights then sprung to their feet and departed, enjoining the attendants to prevent the escape of Becket, who exclaimed: "Do you think I shall fly, then? Neither for the king nor any living man will I fly. You cannot be more ready to kill me than I am to die."

He sought, however, the shelter of his cathedral, as the vesper bell summoned him to prayer,—followed by the armed knights, with a company of men-at-arms, driving before them a crowd of monks. The archbishop was standing on the steps of the choir, beyond the central pillar, which reached to the roof of the cathedral, in the dim light shed by the candles of the altars, so that only the outline of his noble figure could be seen, when the knights closed around him, and Fitzurst seized him,—perhaps meaning to drag him away as a prisoner to the king, or outside the church before dispatching him. Becket cried, "Touch me not, thou abominable wretch!" at the same time hurling Tracy, another of the knights, to the ground, who, rising, wounded him in the head with his sword. The archbishop then bent his neck to the assassins, exclaiming, "I am prepared to die for Christ and his Church."

Such was the murder of Becket,—a martyr, as he has been generally regarded, for the liberties of the Church; but, according to some, justly punished for presumptuous opposition to his sovereign.

By John Lord

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