The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6

Author: John Lingard  | Date: A.D. 1162-1170

Archiepiscopate of Thomas Becket;
His Defence of Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction;
His Assasination (A.D. 1162-1170)

A.D. 1162-1170


Henry II, son of the empress Matilda of Germany by her second husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, ascended the throne of England on the death of his uncle Stephen, the usurper, and was the first king of that Plantagenet line which ruled England for over three centuries.

Henry was crowned at Westminster on December 19, 1154, by Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury. Theobald by his authority and vigilance had maintained public tranquillity after the death of Stephen, and by his counsels of conciliation and peace and other services had earned the gratitude of the Monarch.

When age compelled Theobald to retire from the councils of his sovereign, he recommended Henry to accept as minister his archdeacon, Thomas Becket.

Becket was the son of Gilbert Becket, a prominent citizen of London. The boy’s mother, according to an interesting tradition, had been the daughter of a Saracen emir who had made Gilbert a captive, in Jerusalem, after the First Crusade. The daughter helped Gilbert to escape, and later, for love of him, followed on an eastern ship bound for the English metropolis, although she knew no other words of the English language than "London" and "Gilbert." Wandering desolately through the streets and markets, with these words on her lips, she was recognized by a servant who had shared his master’s captivity. He hastened to tell Gilbert, who at once sought for, sheltered her, and, shortly afterward, made her his wife.

Their son Thomas was educated at the Abbey of Merton and in the schools of London, Oxford, and Paris. When his father died, Archbishop Theobald took the youth into his family. He studied civil and canon law on the Continent, attending, among others, the lectures of Gratian at Bologna.

His accomplishments and talents were fully recognized on his return to England, and preferments followed rapidly until he became archdeacon of Canterbury, a dignity with the rank of baron, next to that of bishop and abbot. He became confidential adviser to the Primate; as his representative twice visited Rome; and, recommended to the notice of King Henry, was appointed chancellor, preceptor of the young prince, depositary of the royal favor, and received several valuable sinecures. He assumed great splendor and magnificence in his retinue. He attended Henry on his expedition to France, and his chivalric exploits in Normandy at the head of seven hundred knights, twelve hundred cavalry, and four thousand infantry, were more befitting the career of a military adventurer than that of a churchman.

Archbishop Theobald died in 1161, and left at the royal disposal the highest dignity in the English Church.

The favor enjoyed by the Chancellor Thomas Becket, and the situation which he filled, pointed him out as the person the most likely to succeed Theobald. By the courtiers he was already called the "Future Archbishop"; and when the report was mentioned to him, he ambiguously replied that he was acquainted with four poor priests far better qualified for that dignity than himself. But Henry, whatever were his Intentions, is believed to have kept them locked up within his own breast. During the vacancy the revenues of the see were paid into his exchequer, nor was he anxious to deprive himself of so valuable an income by a precipitate election. At the end of thirteen months (A.D. 1162) he sent for the Chancellor at Falaise, bade him prepare for a voyage to England, and added that within a few days he would be archbishop of Canterbury. Becket, looking with a smile of irony on his dress, replied that he had not much of the appearance of an archbishop; and that if the King were serious, he must beg permission to decline the preferment, because it would be impossible for him to perform the duties of the situation and at the same time retain the favor of his benefactor. But Henry was inflexible; the legate Henry of Pisa added his entreaties; and Becket, though he already saw the storm gathering in which he afterward perished, was induced, against his own judgment, to acquiesce.

He sailed to England (May 30); the prelates and a deputation of the monks of Canterbury assembled in the king’s chapel at Westminster; every vote was given in his favor; the applause of the nobility testified their satisfaction; and Prince Henry in the name of his father gave the royal assent. Becket was ordained priest by the Bishop of Rochester, and the next day, having been declared free from all secular obligations, he was consecrated by Henry of Winchester. It was a most pompous ceremony, for all the nobility of England, to gratify the King, attended in honor of his favorite. That the known intentions of Henry must have influenced the electors there can be little doubt; but it appears that throughout the whole business every necessary form was fully observed. Gilbert Foliot, Bishop of Hereford, a prelate of rigid morals and much canonical learning, alone observed jeeringly that the King had at last wrought a miracle; for he had changed a soldier into a priest, a layman into an archbishop. The sarcasm was noticed at the time as a sally of disappointed ambition.

That Becket had still to learn the self-denying virtues of the clerical character is plain from his own confession; that his conduct had always defied the reproach of immorality was confidently asserted by his friends, and is equivalently acknowledged by the silence of his enemies. The ostentatious parade and worldly pursuits of the chancellor were instantly renounced by the Archbishop, who in the fervor of his conversion prescribed to himself, as a punishment for the luxury and vanity of his former life, a daily course of secret mortification. His conduct was now marked by the strictest attention to the decencies of his station. To the train of knights and noblemen, who had been accustomed to wait on him, succeeded a few companions selected from the most virtuous and learned of his clergy. His diet was abstemious; his charities were abundant; his time was divided into certain portions allotted to prayer and study and the episcopal functions. These he found it difficult to unite with those of the chancellor; and, therefore, as at his consecration he had been declared free from all secular engagements, he resigned that office into the hands of the King.

This total change of conduct has been viewed with admiration or censure according to the candor or prejudices of the beholders. By his contemporaries it was universally attributed to a conscientious sense of duty: modern writers have frequently described it as a mere affectation of piety, under which he sought to conceal projects of immeasurable ambition. But how came this hypocrisy, if it existed, to elude, during a long and bitter contest, the keen eyes of his adversaries? A more certain path would surely have offered itself to ambition By continuing to flatter the King’s wishes, and by uniting in himself the offices of chancellor and archbishop, he might in all probability have ruled without control both in church and state.

For more than twelve months the primate appeared to enjoy his wonted ascendency in the royal favor. But during his absence the warmth of Henry’s affection insensibly evaporated. The sycophants of the court, who observed the change, industriously misrepresented the actions of the Archbishop, and declaimed in exaggerated terms against the loftiness of his views, the superiority of his talents, and the decision of his character. Such hints made a deep impression on the suspicious and irritable mind of the King, who now began to pursue his late favorite with a hatred as vehement as had been the friendship with which he had formerly honored him.

Amidst a number of discordant statements it is difficult to fix on the original ground of the dissension between them; whether it were the Archbishop’s resignation of the chancellorship, or his resumption of the lands alienated from his see, or his attempt to reform the clergymen who attended the court, or his opposition to the revival of the odious tax known by the name of the danegelt.1

But that which brought them into immediate collision was a controversy respecting the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts. A rapid view of the origin and progress of these courts, and of their authority in civil and criminal causes, may not prove uninteresting to the reader.

From the commencement of Christianity its professors had been exhorted to withdraw their differences from the cognizance of profane tribunals, and to submit them to the paternal authority of their bishops, who, by the nature of their office, were bound to heal the wounds of dissension, and by the sacredness of their character were removed beyond the suspicion of partiality or prejudice. Though an honorable, it was a distracting, servitude, from which the more pious would gladly have been relieved; but the advantages of the system recommended it to the approbation of the Christian emperors.

Constantine and his successors appointed the bishops the general arbitrators within their respective dioceses; and the officers of justice were compelled to execute their decisions without either delay or appeal. At first, to authorize the interference of the spiritual judge, the previous consent of both the plaintiff and defendant was requisite; but Theodosius left it to the option of the parties, either of whom was indulged with the liberty of carrying the cause in the first instance into the bishop’s court, or even of removing it thither in any stage of the pleadings before the civil magistrate. Charlemagne inserted this constitution of Theodosius in his code, and ordered it to be invariably observed among all the nations which acknowledged his authority. If by the imperial law the laity were permitted, by the canon law the clergy were compelled, to accept of the bishop as the judge of civil controversies. It did not become them to quit the spiritual duties of their profession, and entangle themselves in the intricacies of law proceedings. The principle was fully admitted by the emperor Justinian, who decided that in cases in which only one of the parties was a clergyman, the cause must be submitted to the decision of the bishop. This valuable privilege, to which the teachers of the northern nations had been accustomed under their own princes, they naturally established among their converts; and it was soon confirmed to the clergy by the civil power in every Christian country.

Constantine had thought that the irregularities of an order of men devoted to the offices of religion should be veiled from the scrutinizing eye of the people. With this view he granted to each bishop, if he were accused of violating the law, the liberty of being tried by his colleagues, and moreover invested him with a criminal jurisdiction over his own clergy. Whether his authority was confined to lesser offences, or extended to capital crimes, is a subject of controversy. There are many edicts which without any limitation reserve the correction of the clergy to the discretion of the bishop; but in the novels of Justinian a distinction is drawn between ecclesiastical and civil transgressions. With the former the Emperor acknowledges that the civil power has no concern: the latter are cognisable by the civil judge. Yet before his sentence can be executed, the convict must be degraded by his ecclesiastical superior; or, if the superior refuse, the whole affair must be referred to the consideration of the sovereign. That this regulation prevailed among the western nations, after their separation from the Empire, is proved by the canons of several councils; but the distinction laid down by Justinian was insensibly abolished, and, whatever might be the nature of the offence with which a clergyman was charged, he was, in the first instance at least, amenable to none but an ecclesiastical tribunal.

It was thus that on the Continent the spiritual courts were first established, and their authority was afterward enlarged; but among the Anglo-Saxons the limits of the two judicatures were intermixed and undefined. When the Imperial government ceased in other countries, the natives preserved many of its institutions, which the conquerors incorporated with their own laws; but our barbarian ancestors eradicated every prior establishment, and transplanted the manners of the wilds of Germany into the new solitude which they had made. After their conversion, they associated the heads of the clergy with their nobles, and both equally exercised the functions of civil magistrates.

It is plain that the bishop was the sole judge of the clergy in criminal cases: that he alone decided their differences, and that to him appertained the cognizance of certain offences against the rights of the Church and the sanctions of religion; but as it was his duty to sit with the sheriff in the court of the county, his ecclesiastical became blended with his secular jurisdiction, and many causes, which in other countries had been reserved to the spiritual judge, were decided in England before a mixed tribunal. This disposition continued in force till the Norman Conquest; when, as the reader must have formerly noticed, the two judicatures were completely separated by the new sovereign; and in every diocese "Courts Christian," that is, of the bishop and his archdeacons, were established after the model and with the authority of similar courts in all other parts of the Western Church.

The tribunals, created by this arrangement, were bound in the terms of the original charter to be guided in their proceedings by the "episcopal laws," a system of ecclesiastical jurisprudence, composed of the canons of councils, the decrees of popes, and the maxims of the more ancient fathers. This, like all other codes of law, had in the course of centuries received numerous additions. New cases perpetually occurred; new decisions were given; and new compilations were made and published. The two, which at the time of the Conquest prevailed in the spiritual courts of France, and which were sanctioned by the charter of William in England, were the collection under the name of Isidore, and that of Burchard, Bishop of Worms.

About the end of the century appeared a new code from the pen of Ivo, Bishop of Chartres, whose acquaintance with the civil law of Rome enabled him to give to his work a superiority over the compilations of his predecessors. Yet the knowledge of Ivo must have been confined to the Theodosian code, the institutes and mutilated extracts from the pandects of justinian. But when Amalphi was taken by the Pisans in 1137, an entire copy of the last work was discovered; and its publication immediately attracted, and almost monopolized, the attention of the learned. Among the students and admirers of the pandects was Gratian, a monk of Bologna, who conceived the idea of compiling a digest of the canon law on the model of that favorite work; and soon afterwards, having incorporated with his own labors the collections of former writers, he gave his "decretum"to the public in 1151. From that moment the two codes, the civil and canon laws, were deemed the principal repositories of legal knowledge; and the study of each was supposed necessary to throw light on the other. Roger, the bachelor, a monk of Bec, had already read lectures on the sister sciences in England, but he was advanced to the government of his abbey; and the English scholars, immediately after the publication of the decretum, crowded to the more renowned professors in the city of Bologna. After their return they practised in the episcopal courts; their respective merits were easily appreciated, and the proficiency of the more eminent was rewarded with an ample harvest of wealth and preferment.

This circumstance gave to the spiritual a marked superiority over the secular courts. The proceedings in the former were guided by fixed and invariable principles, the result of the wisdom of ages; the latter were compelled to follow a system of jurisprudence confused and uncertain, partly of Anglo-Saxon, partly of Norman origin, and depending on precedents, of which some were furnished by memory, others had been transmitted by tradition. The clerical judges were men of talents and education; the uniformity and equity of their decisions were preferred to the caprice and violence which seemed to sway the royal and baronial justiciaries; and by degrees every cause, which legal ingenuity could connect with the provisions of the canons, whether it regarded tithes, or advowsons, or public scandal, or marriage, or testaments, or perjury, or breach of contract, was drawn before the ecclesiastical tribunals.

A spirit of rivalry arose between the two judicatures, which quickly ripened into open hostility. On the one side were ranged the bishops and chief dignitaries of the Church, on the other the King and barons; both equally interested in the quarrel, because both were accustomed to receive the principal share of the fees, fines, and forfeitures in their respective courts. Archbishop Theobald had seen the approach, and trembled for the issue of the contest; and from his deathbed he wrote to Henry, recommending to his protection the liberties of the Church, and putting him on his guard against the machinations of its enemies.

The contest at last commenced; and the first attack was made with great judgment against that quarter in which the spiritual courts were the most defenceless, their criminal jurisdiction. The canons had excluded clergymen from judgments of blood; and the severest punishments which they could inflict were flagellation, fine, imprisonment, and degradation. It was contended that such punishments were inadequate to the suppression of the more enormous offences; and that they encouraged the perpetration of crime by insuring a species of impunity to the perpetrator. As every individual who had been admitted to the tonsure, whether he afterward received holy orders or not, was entitled to the clerical privileges, we may concede that there were in these turbulent times many criminals among the clergy; but, if it were ever said that they had committed more than a hundred homicides within the last ten years, we may qualify our belief of the assertion, by recollecting the warmth of the two parties, and the exaggeration to which contests naturally give birth.

In the time of Theobald, Philip de Brois, a canon of Bedford, had been arraigned before his bishop, convicted of manslaughter,2

and condemned to make pecuniary compensation to the relations of the deceased. Long afterward, Fitz-Peter, the itinerant justiciary, alluding to the same case, called him a murderer in the open court at Dunstable. A violent altercation ensued, and the irritation of Philip drew from him expressions of insult and contempt. The report was carried to the King, who deemed himself injured in the person of his officer, and ordered De Brois to be indicted for this new offence in the spiritual court. He was tried and condemned to be publicly whipped, to be deprived of the fruits of his benefice, and to be suspended from his functions during two years.

It was hoped that the severity of the sentence would mitigate the King’s anger; but Henry was implacable: he swore "by God’s eyes" that they had favored De Brois on account of his clerical character, and required the bishops to make oath that they had done justice between himself and the prisoner (A.D. 1163). In this temper of mind he summoned them to Westminster, and required their consent that, for the future, whenever a clergyman had been degraded for a public crime by the sentence of the spiritual judge, he should be immediately delivered into the custody of a lay officer to be punished by the sentence of a lay tribunal. To this the bishops, as guardians of the rights of the Church, objected. The proposal, they observed, went to place the English clergy on a worse footing than their brethren in any other Christian country; it was repugnant to those liberties which the King had sworn to preserve at his coronation; and it violated the first principle of law, by requiring that the same individual should be tried twice and punished twice for one and the same offence. Henry, who had probably anticipated the answer, immediately quitted the subject, and inquired whether they would promise to observe the ancient customs of the realm. The question was captious, as neither the number nor the tendency of these customs had been defined; and the Archbishop with equal policy replied that he would observe them, "saving his order." The clause was admitted when the clergy swore fealty to the sovereign; why should it be rejected when they only promised the observance of customs? The King put the question separately to all the prelates, and, with the exception of the Bishop of Chichester, received from each the same answer. His eyes flashed with indignation: they were leagued, he said, in a conspiracy against him; and in a burst of fury he rushed out of the apartment. The next morning the primate received an order to surrender the honor of Eye and the castle of Berkhamstead. The King had departed by break of day.

The original point in dispute was now merged in a more important controversy; for it was evident that under the name of the customs was meditated an attack not on one, but on most of the clerical immunities. Of the duty of the prelates to oppose this innovation no clergyman at that period entertained a doubt; but to determine how far that opposition might safely be carried was a subject of uncertain discussion. The Arch-bishop of York, who had been gained by the King, proposed to yield for the present, and to resume the contest under more favorable auspices; the undaunted spirit of Becket spurned the temporizing policy of his former rival, and urged the necessity of unanimous and persevering resistance. Every expedient was employed to subdue his resolution; and at length, wearied out by the representations of his friends and the threats of his enemies, the pretended advice of the Pontiff, and the assurance that Henry would be content with the mere honor of victory, he waited on the King at Woodstock, and offered to make the promise and omit the obnoxious clause. He was graciously received; and to bring the matter to an issue, a great council was summoned to meet at Clarendon after the Christmas holidays.

In this assembly, January 25, 1164, John of Oxford, one of the royal chaplains, was appointed president by the King, who immediately called on the bishops to fulfil their promise. His angry manner and threatening tone revived the suspicions of the Primate, who ventured to express a wish that the saving clause might still be admitted. At this request the indignation of the King was extreme; he threatened Becket with exile or death; the door of the next apartment was thrown open, and discovered a body of knights with their garments tucked up, and their swords drawn; the nobles and prelates besought the Archbishop to relent; and two Knights Templars on their knees conjured him to prevent by his acquiescence the massacre of all the bishops, which otherwise would most certainly ensue. Sacrificing his own judgment to their entreaties rather than their arguments, he promised in the word of truth to observe the "customs," and required of the King to be informed what they were.

The reader will probably feel some surprise to learn that they were yet unknown; but a committee of inquiry was appointed, and the next day Richard de Lucy and Joscelin de Baliol exhibited the sixteen Constitutions of Clarendon. Three copies were made, each of which was subscribed by the King, the prelates, and thirty-seven barons. Henry then demanded that the bishops should affix their seals. After what had passed, it was a trifle neither worth the asking nor the refusing. The Primate replied that he had performed all that he had promised, and that he would do nothing more. His conduct on this trying occasion has been severely condemned for its duplicity. To me he appears more deserving of pity than censure. His was not the tergiversation of one who seeks to effect his object by fraud and deception: it was rather the hesitation of a mind oscillating between the decision of his own judgment and the opinions and apprehensions of others. His conviction seems to have remained unchanged: he yielded to avoid the charge of having by his obstinacy drawn destruction on the heads of his fellow-bishops.

After the vehemence with which the recognition of the "customs" was urged, and the importance which has been attached to them by modern writers, the reader will naturally expect some account of the Constitutions of Clarendon. I shall therefore mention the principal:

I. It was enacted that "the custody of every vacant arch-bishopric, bishopric, abbey, and priory of royal foundation ought to be given and its revenues paid to the king; and that the election of a new incumbent ought to be made in consequence of the king’s writ, by the chief clergy of the church, assembled in the king’s chapel, with the assent of the king, and with the advice of such prelates as the king may call to his assistance." The custom recited in the first part of this constitution could not claim higher antiquity than the reign of William Rufus, by whom it was introduced. It had, moreover, been renounced after his death by all his successors, by Henry I, by Stephen, and, lastly, by the present King himself. On what plea therefore it could be now confirmed as an ancient custom it is difficult to comprehend.

II. By the second and seventh articles it was provided that in almost every suit, civil or criminal, in which each or either party was a clergyman, the proceeding should commence before the king’s justices, who should determine whether the cause ought to be tried in the secular or episcopal courts; and that in the latter case a civil officer should be present to report the proceedings, and the defendant, if he were convicted in a criminal action, should lose his benefit of clergy. This, however it might be called for by the exigencies of the times, ought not to have been termed an ancient custom. It was most certainly an innovation. It overturned the law as it had invariably stood from the days of the Conqueror, and did not restore the judicial process of the Anglo-Saxon dynasty.

III. It was ordered that "no tenant-in-chief of the king, no officer of his household, or of his demesne, should be excommunicated, or his lands put under an interdict, until application had been made to the king, or in his absence to the grand justiciary, who ought to take care that what belongs to the king’s courts shall be there determined, and what belongs to the ecclesiastical courts shall be determined in them."

Sentences of excommunication had been greatly multiplied and abused during the Middle Ages. They were the principal weapons with which the clergy sought to protect themselves and their property from the cruelty and rapacity of the banditti in the service of the barons. They were feared by the most powerful and unprincipled, because, at the same time that they excluded the culprit from the offices of religion, they also cut him off from the intercourse of society. Men were compelled to avoid the company of the excommunicated, unless they were willing to participate in his punishment. Hence much ingenuity was displayed in the discovery of expedients to restrain the exercise of this power; and it was contended that no tenant of the crown ought to be excommunicated without the king’s permission, because it deprived the sovereign of the personal services which he had a right to demand of his vassal. This "custom" had been introduced by the Conqueror, and, though the clergy constantly reclaimed, had often been enforced by his successors.

IV. The next was also a custom deriving its origin from the Conquest, that no archbishop, bishop, or dignified clergy-man should lawfully go beyond the sea without the king’s permission. Its object was to prevent complaints at the papal court, to the prejudice of the sovereign.

V. It was enacted that appeals should proceed regularly from the archdeacon to the bishop, and from the bishop to the archbishop. If the archbishop failed to do justice, the cause ought to be carried before the king, that by his precept the suit might be terminated in the archbishop’s court, so as not to proceed further without the king’s consent. Henry I had endeavored to prevent appeals from being carried before the Pope, and it was supposed that the same was the object of the present constitution. The King, however, thought proper to deny it. According to the explanation which he gave, it prohibited clergymen from appealing to the pope in civil causes only, when they might obtain justice in the royal courts. The remaining articles are of minor importance. They confine pleas of debt and disputes respecting advowsons to the cognizance of the king’s justices; declare that clergymen who hold lands of the crown hold by barony, and are bound to the same services as the lay barons; and forbid the bishops to admit to orders the sons of villeins, without the license of their respective lords.

As the Primate retired he meditated in silence on his conduct in the council. His scruples revived, and the spontaneous censures of his attendants added to the poignancy of his feelings. In great agony of mind he reached Canterbury, where he condemned his late weakness, interdicted himself from the exercise of his functions, wrote to Alexander a full account of the transaction, and solicited absolution from that Pontiff. It was believed that, if he had submitted with cheerfulness at Clarendon, he would have recovered his former ascendency over the royal mind: but his tardy assent did not allay the indignation which his opposition had kindled, and his subsequent repentance for that assent closed the door to forgiveness. Henry had flattered himself with the hope that he should be able to extort the approbation of the "customs" either from the gratitude of Alexander, whom he had assisted in his necessities, or from the fears of that Pontiff, lest a refusal might add England to the nations which acknowledged the antipope.

The firmness of the Pope defeated all his schemes, and the King in his anger vowed to be revenged on the Archbishop. Among his advisers there were some who sought to goad him on to extremities. They scattered unfounded reports; they attributed to Becket a design of becoming independent; they accused him of using language the most likely to wound the vanity of the monarch. He was reported to have said to his confidants that the youth of Henry required a master; that the violence of his passions must and might easily be tamed; and that he knew how necessary he himself was to a king incapable of guiding the reins of government without his assistance. It was not that these men were in reality friends to Henry. They are said to have been equally enemies to him and to the Church. They sighed after the licentiousness of the last reign, of which they had been deprived, and sought to provoke a contest, in which, whatever party should succeed, they would have to rejoice over the defeat either of the clergy, whom they considered as rivals, or of the King, whom they hated as their oppressor.

The ruin of a single bishop was now the principal object that occupied and perplexed the mind of this mighty monarch. By the advice of his counsellors it was resolved to waive the controversy respecting the "customs," and to fight with those more powerful weapons which the feudal jurisprudence always offered to the choice of a vindictive sovereign. A succession of charges was prepared, and the Primate was cited to a great council in the town of Northampton. With a misboding heart he obeyed the summons; and the King’s refusal to accept from him the kiss of peace admonished him of his danger.

At the opening of the council, October l3th, John of Oxford presided; Henry exercised the office of prosecutor. The first charge regarded some act of contempt against the King, supposed to have been committed by Becket in his judicial capacity. The Archbishop offered a plea in excuse; but Henry swore that justice should be done him; and the obsequious court condemned Becket to the forfeiture of his goods and chattels, a penalty which was immediately commuted for a fine of five hundred pounds. The next morning the King required him to refund three hundred pounds, the rents which he had received as warden of Eye and Berkhamstead. Becket coolly replied that he would pay it; more, indeed, had been expended by him in the repairs, but money should never prove a cause of dissension between himself and his sovereign.

Another demand followed of five hundred pounds received by the Chancellor before the walls of Toulouse. It was in vain that the Archbishop described the transaction as a gift. Henry maintained that it was a loan; and the Court, on the principle that the word of the sovereign was preferable to that of a subject, compelled him to give security for the repayment of the money. The third day the King required an account of all the receipts from vacant abbeys and bishoprics which had come into the hands of Becket during his chancellorship, and estimated the balance due to the Crown at the sum of forty-four thousand marks. At the mention of this enormous demand the Archbishop stood aghast. However, recovering himself, he replied that he was not bound to answer: that at his consecration both Prince Henry and the Earl of Leicester, the justiciary, had publicly released him by the royal command from all similar claims; and that on a demand so unexpected and important he had a right to require the advice of his fellow-bishops.

Had the Primate been ignorant of the King’s object, it was sufficiently disclosed in the conference which followed between him and the bishops. Foliot, with the prelates who enjoyed the royal confidence, exhorted him to resign; Henry of Winchester alone had the courage to reprobate this interested advice. On his return to his lodgings the anxiety of Becket’s mind brought on an indisposition which confined him to his chamber—and during the next two days he had leisure to arrange plans for his subsequent conduct. The first idea which suggested itself was a bold, and what perhaps might have proved a successful, appeal to the royal pity. He proposed to go barefoot to the palace, to throw himself at the feet of the King, and to conjure him by their former friendship to consent to a reconciliation. But he afterward adopted another resolution, to decline the authority of the court, and trust for protection to the sacredness of his character.

In the morning, October 18th, having previously celebrated the mass of St. Stephen the first martyr, he proceeded to court, arrayed as he was in pontifical robes, and bearing in his hand the archiepiscopal cross. As he entered, the King with the barons retired into a neighboring apartment, and was soon after followed by the bishops. The Primate, left alone with his clerks in the spacious hall, seated himself on a bench, and with calm and intrepid dignity awaited their decision. The courtiers, to please the prince, strove to distinguish themselves by the intemperance of their language. Henry, in the vehemence of his passion, inveighed, one while against the insolence of Becket, at another against the pusillanimity and ingratitude of his favorites; till even the most active of the prelates who had raised the storm began to view with horror the probable consequences. Roger of York contrived to retire; and as he passed through the hall, bade his clerks follow him, that they might not witness the effusion of blood. Next came the Bishop of Exeter, who threw himself at the feet of the Primate, and conjured him to have pity on himself and the episcopal order; for the King had threatened with death the first man who should speak in his favor. "Flee, then," he replied; "thou canst not understand the things that are of God." Soon afterward appeared—the rest of the bishops. Hilary of Chichester spoke in their name. "You were," he said, "our primate; but by opposing the royal customs, you have broken your oath of fealty to the King. A perjured archbishop has no right to our obedience. From you, then, we appeal to the Pope, and summon you to answer us before him." "I hear," was his only reply.

The bishops seated themselves along the opposite side of the hall, and a solemn silence ensued. At length the door opened and the Earl of Leicester at the head of the barons bade him hear his sentence. "My sentence," interrupted the Arch-bishop; "son and earl, hear me first. You know with what fidelity I served the King, how reluctantly, to please him, I accepted my present office, and in what manner I was declared by him free from all secular claims. For what happened before my consecration I ought not to answer, nor will I. Know, moreover, that you are my children in God. Neither law nor reason allows you to judge your father. I therefore decline your tribunal, and refer my quarrel to the decision of the Pope. To him I appeal and shall now, under the protection of the Catholic Church and the apostolic see, depart." As he walked along the hall, some of the courtiers threw at him knots of straw, which they took from the floor. A voice called him a traitor. At the word he stopped, and, hastily turning round, rejoined, "Were it not that my order forbids me, that coward should repent of his insolence." At the gate he was received with acclamations of joy by the clergy and people, and was conducted in triumph to his lodgings.

It was generally believed that if the Archbishop had remained at Northampton, that night would have proved his last. Alarmed by frequent hints from his friends, he petitioned to retire beyond the sea, and was told that he might expect an answer the following morning. This unnecessary delay increased his apprehensions. To deceive the vigilance of the spies that beset him, he ordered a bed to be prepared in the church, and in the dusk of the evening, accompanied by two clerks and a servant on foot, escaped by the north gate. After fifteen days of perils and adventures, Brother Christian (that was the name he assumed) landed at Gravelines in Flanders.

His first visit was paid, November 3d, to the King of France, who received him with marks of veneration; his second to Alexander, who kept his court in the city of Sens.

He had been preceded by a magnificent embassy of English prelates and barons, who had endeavored in vain to prejudice the Pontiff against him, though by the distribution of presents they had purchased advocates in the college of cardinals. The very lecture of the constitutions closed the mouths of his adversaries. Alexander, having condemned in express terms ten of the articles, recommended the Archbishop to the care of the Abbot of Pontigny, and exhorted him to bear with resignation the hardships of exile. When Thomas surrendered his bishopric into the hands of the Pope, his resignation was hailed by a part of the consistory as the readiest means of terminating a vexatious and dangerous controversy, but Alexander preferred honor to convenience, and refusing to abandon a prelate who had sacrificed the friendship of a king for the interests of the Church, reinvested him with the archiepiscopal dignity.

The eyes of the King were still fixed on the exile at Pontigny, and by his order the punishment of treason was denounced against any person who should presume to bring into England letters of excommunication or interdict from either the Pontiff or the Archbishop. He confiscated the estates of that prelate, commanded his name to be erased from the liturgy, and seized the revenues of every clergyman who had followed him into France or had sent him pecuniary assistance.

By a refinement of vengeance, he involved all who were connected with him either by blood or friendship, and with them their families, without distinction of rank or age or sex, in one promiscuous sentence of banishment. Neither men, bowing under the weight of years, nor infants still hanging at the breast, were excepted. The list of proscription was swelled with four hundred names; and the misfortune of the sufferers was aggravated by the obligation of an oath to visit the Arch-bishop, and importune him with the history of their wrongs. Day after day crowds of exiles besieged the door of his cell at Pontigny. His heart was wrung with anguish; he implored the compassion of his friends, and enjoyed at last the satisfaction of knowing that the wants of these blameless victims had been amply relieved by the benefactions of the King of France, the Queen of Sicily, and the Pope. Still Henry’s resentment was insatiable. Pontigny belonged to the Cistercians; and he informed them that if they continued to afford an asylum to the traitor, not one of their order should be permitted to remain within his dominions. The Archbishop was compelled to quit his retreat; but Louis immediately offered him the city of Sens for his residence.

Here, as he had done at Pontigny, Becket led the solitary and mortified life of a recluse. Withdrawing himself from company and amusements, he divided the whole of his time between prayer and reading. His choice of books was determined by a reference to the circumstances in which he was placed; and in the canon law, the histories of the martyrs, and the Holy Scriptures he sought for advice and consolation. On a mind naturally firm and unbending, such studies were likely to make a powerful impression; and his friends, dreading the consequences, endeavored to divert his attention to other objects. But their remonstrances were fruitless.

Gradually his opinions became tinged with enthusiasm: he identified his cause with that of God and the Church; concession appeared to him like apostasy, and his resolution was fixed to bear every privation, and to sacrifice, if it was necessary, even his own life in so sacred a contest. The violence of Henry nourished and strengthened these sentiments; and at last, urged by the cries of the sufferers, the Archbishop assumed a bolder tone, which terrified his enemies, and compelled the court of Rome to come forward to his support. By a sentence, promulgated with more than the usual solemnity, he cut off from the society of the faithful such of the royal ministers as had communicated with the antipope, those who had framed the Constitutions of Clarendon, and all who had invaded the property of the Church. At the same time he confirmed by frequent letters the wavering mind of the Pontiff, checked by his remonstrances the opposition of the cardinals who had been gained by his adversaries; and intimated to Henry, in strong but affectionate language, the punishment which awaited his impenitence.

This mighty monarch, the lord of so many nations, while he affected to despise, secretly dreaded, the spiritual arms of his victim. The strictest orders were issued that every passenger from beyond the sea should be searched; that all letters from the Pope or the Archbishop should be seized; that the bearers should suffer the most severe and shameful punishments; and that all freemen, in the courts to which they owed service, should promise upon oath not to obey any censure published by ecclesiastical authority against the King or the kingdom. But it was for his continental dominions that he felt chiefly alarmed. There the great barons, who hated his government, would gladly embrace the opportunity to revolt; and the King of France, his natural opponent, would instantly lend them his aid against the enemy of the Church. Hence for some years the principal object of his policy was to avert or at least to delay the blow which he so much dreaded.

As long as the Pope was a fugitive in France, dependent on the bounty of his adherents, the King had hoped that his necessities would compel him to abandon the Primate. But the antipope was now dead; and though the Emperor had raised up a second in the person of Guido of Crema, Alexander had returned to Italy, and recovered possession of Rome. Henry therefore resolved to try the influence of terror, by threatening to espouse the cause of Guido. He even opened a correspondence with the Emperor; and in a general diet at Wuerzburg his ambassadors made oath in the name of their master, that he would reject Alexander, and obey the authority of his rival. Of this fact there cannot be a doubt. It was announced to the German nations by an imperial edict, and is attested by an eyewitness, who from the council wrote to the Pope a full account of the transaction.

Henry, however, soon repented of his precipitancy. In 1167 his bishops refused to disgrace themselves by transferring their obedience at the nod of their prince; and he was unwilling to involve himself in a new and apparently a hopeless quarrel. To disguise or excuse his conduct he disavowed the act, attributed it to his envoys, and afterward induced them also to deny it. John of Oxford was despatched to Rome, who, in the presence of Alexander, swore that at Wuerzburg he had done nothing contrary to the faith of the Church or to the honor and service of the Pontiff.

His next expedient was one which had been prohibited by the Constitutions of Clarendon. He repeatedly authorized his bishops to appeal in their name and his own from the judgment of the Archbishop to that of the Pope. By this means the authority of that prelate was provisionally suspended; and though his friends maintained that these appeals were not vested with the conditions required by the canons, they were always admitted by Alexander. The King improved the delay to purchase friends. By the Pontiff his presents were indignantly refused: they were accepted by some of the cardinals, by the free states in Italy, and by several princes and barons supposed to possess influence in the papal councils.

On some occasions Henry threw himself and his cause on the equity of Alexander; at others he demanded and obtained legates to decide the controversy in France. Twice he condescended to receive the Primate, and to confer with him on the subject. To avoid altercation, it was agreed that no mention should be made of the "customs"; but each mistrusted the other. Henry was willing to preserve the liberties of the Church "saving the dignity of his crown"; and the Archbishop was equally willing to obey the King, "saving the rights of the Church." In the second conference these cautionary clauses were omitted; the terms were satisfactorily adjusted, and the Primate, as he was about to depart, requested of his sovereign the kiss of peace. It was the usual termination of such discussions, the bond by which the contending parties sealed their reconciliation. But Henry coldly replied that he had formerly sworn never to give it him; and that he was unwilling to incur the guilt of perjury. So flimsy an evasion could deceive no one; and the Primate departed in the full conviction that no reliance could be placed on the King’s sincerity.

He had now in view the coronation of his son Henry, a measure the policy of which has been amply but unsatisfactorily discussed by modern historians. The performance of the ceremony belonged of right to the Archbishop of Canterbury; and Becket had obtained from the Pope a letter forbidding any of the English bishops to usurp an office which was the privilege of his see. But it was impossible for him to transmit this prohibition to those to whom it was addressed; and his enemies, to remove the scruples of the prelates, exhibited a pretended letter from the Pontiff empowering the Archbishop of York to crown the prince. He was knighted early in the morning of June 14th; the coronation was performed with the usual solemnities in Westminster Abbey; and at table the King waited on his son with his own hands. The next day William, King of Scotland, David his brother, and the English barons and free tenants did homage and swore fealty to the young King. Why the wife of the Prince was not crowned with her husband we are not informed; but Louis took to himself the insult offered to his daughter, and entered the borders of Normandy with his army. Henry hastened to defend his dominions; the two monarchs had a private conference; the former treaty was renewed; and a promise was given of an immediate reconciliation with the Primate.

Every attempt to undermine the integrity of the Pontiff had now failed; and Henry saw with alarm that the thunder, which he had so long feared, was about to burst on his dominions. A plan of adjustment had been arranged between his envoys and Alexander; and to defeat the chicanery of his advisers, it was accompanied with the threat of an interdict if it were not executed within the space of forty days. He consented to see the Archbishop, and awaited his arrival in a spacious meadow near the town of Freitville on the borders of Touraine (July 22d). As soon as Becket appeared, the King, spurring forward his horse with his cap in his hand, prevented his salutation; and, as if no dissension had ever divided them, discoursed with him apart, with all that easy familiarity which had distinguished their former friendship. In the course of their conversation, Henry exclaimed, "As for the men who have betrayed both you and me, I will make them such return as the deserts of traitors require." At these words the Archbishop alighted from his horse, and threw himself at the feet of his sovereign, but the King laid hold of the stirrup, and insisted that he should remount, saying: "In short, my Lord Arch-bishop, let us renew our ancient affection for each other; only show me honor before those who are now viewing our behavior." Then returning to his attendants, he observed: "I find the Archbishop in the best disposition toward me: were I otherwise toward him, I should be the worst of men." Becket followed him, and by the mouth of the Archbishop of Sens presented his petition. He prayed that the King would graciously admit him to the royal favor, would grant peace and security to him and his, would restore the possessions of the See of Canterbury, and would, in his mercy, make amends to that Church for the injury it had sustained in the late coronation of his son. In return he promised him love, honor, and every service which an archbishop could render in the Lord to his king and his sovereign. To these demands Henry assented: they again conversed apart for a considerable time; and at their separation it was mutually understood that the Archbishop, after he had arranged his affairs in France, should return to the court, and remain there for some days, that the public might be convinced of the renewal and solidity of their friendship.

If Henry felt as he pretended, his conduct in this interview will deserve the praise of magnanimity, but his skill in the art of dissimulation may fairly justify a suspicion of his sincerity. The man who that very morning had again bound himself by oath in the presence of his courtiers to refuse the kiss of peace, could not be animated with very friendly sentiments toward the Archbishop; and the mind of that prelate, though his hopes suggested brighter prospects, was still darkened with doubt and perplexity. Months were suffered to elapse before the royal engagements were executed; and when at last, with the terrors of another interdict hanging over his head (November 12th), the King restored the archiepiscopal lands, the rents had been previously levied, the corn and cattle had been carried off, and the buildings were left in a dilapidated State.

The remonstrances of the Primate and his two visits to the court obtained nothing but deceitful promises; his enemies publicly threatened his life, and his friends harassed him with the most gloomy presages; yet, as the road was at last open, he resolved to return to his diocese, and at his departure wrote to the King an eloquent and affecting letter. "It was my wish," he concludes, "to have waited on you once more, but necessity compels me, in the lowly state to which I am reduced, to revisit my afflicted church. I go, sir, with your permission, perhaps to perish for its security, unless you protect me. But whether I live, or die, yours I am, and yours I shall ever be in the Lord. Whatever may befall me or mine, may the blessing of God rest on you and your children." Henry had promised him money to pay his debts and defray the expenses of his journey. Having waited for it in vain, he borrowed three hundred pounds of the Archbishop of Rouen, and set out in the company, or rather in the custody, of his ancient enemy, John of Oxford.

Alexander, before he heard of the reconciliation at Freitville, had issued letters of suspension or excommunication against the bishops who had officiated at the late coronation; he had afterward renewed them against Roger of York (September 26th), Gilbert of London, and Joscelin of Salisbury, to whose misrepresentations was attributed the delay of the King to fulfil his engagements. For the sake of peace the Archbishop had wisely resolved to suppress these letters; but the three prelates, who knew that he brought them with him, had assembled at Canterbury, and sent to the coast Ranulf de Broc, with a party of soldiers, to search him on his landing, and take them from him. Information of the design reached him at Whitsand; and in a moment of irritation he despatched them before himself by a trusty messenger, by whom, or by whose means, they were publicly delivered to the bishops in the presence of their attendants. It was a precipitate and unfortunate measure, and probably the occasion of the catastrophe which followed. The prelates, caught in their own snare, burst into loud complaints against his love of power and thirst of revenge; they accused him to the young King of violating the royal privileges, and wishing to tear the crown from his head; and they hastened to Normandy to demand redress from the justice or the resentment of Henry.

Under the protection of his conductor the Primate reached Canterbury, December 3d, where he was joyfully received by the clergy and people. Thence he prepared to visit Woodstock, the residence of the young Henry, to pay his respects to the Prince and to justify his late conduct. But the courtiers, who dreaded his influence over the mind of his former pupil, procured a peremptory order, December 15th, for him to return, and confine himself to his own diocese. He obeyed, and spent the following days in prayer and the functions of his station. Yet they were days of distress and anxiety. The menaces of his enemies seemed to derive importance from each succeeding event. His provisions were hourly intercepted; his property was plundered; his servants were beaten and insulted.

On Christmas Day he ascended the pulpit. His sermon was distinguished by the earnestness and animation with which he spoke. At the conclusion he observed that those who thirsted for his blood would soon be satisfied, but that he would first avenge the wrongs of his Church by excommunicating Ranulf and Robert de Broc, who for seven years had not ceased to inflict every injury in their power on him, on his clergy, and on his monks. On the following Tuesday (December 28th) arrived secretly in the neighborhood four knights, Reginald Fitzurse, William Tracy, Hugh de Moreville, and Richard Brito. They had been present in Normandy when the King, irritated by the representations of the three bishops, had exclaimed, "Of the cowards who eat my bread, is there not one who will free me from this turbulent priest?" and mistaking this passionate expression for the royal license, had bound themselves by oath to return to England and either carry off or murder the Primate. They assembled at Saltwood, the residence of the Brocs, to arrange their operations.

The next day (December 29th), about two in the afternoon the knights abruptly entered the Archbishop’s apartment, and, neglecting his salutation, seated themselves on the floor. It seems to have been their wish to begin by intimidation; but if they hoped to succeed, they knew little of the intrepid spirit of their opponent. Pretending to have received their commission from Henry, they ordered the Primate to absolve the excommunicated prelates. He replied with firmness, and occasionally with warmth, that if he had published the papal letters, it was with the royal permission; that the case of the Archbishop of York had been reserved to the Pontiff; but that he was willing to absolve the others on condition that they previously took the accustomed oath of submitting to the determination of the Church. It was singular that of the four knights, three had, in the days of his prosperity, spontaneously sworn fealty to him. Alluding to this circumstance he said, as they were quitting the room, "Knowing what formerly passed between us, I am surprised you should come to threaten me in my own house."

"We will do more than threaten," was their reply.

When they were gone, his attendants loudly expressed their alarm: he alone remained cool and collected, and neither in his tone nor gesture betrayed the slightest symptom of apprehension. In this moment of suspense the Voices of the monks singing vespers in the choir struck their ears; and it occurred to someone that the church was a place of greater security than the palace. The Archbishop, though he hesitated, was borne along by the pious importunity of his friends; but when he heard the gates close behind him he instantly ordered them to be reopened, saying that the temple of God was not to be fortified like a castle.

He had passed through the north transept, and was ascending the steps of the choir, when the knights with twelve companions, all in complete armor, burst into the church. As it was almost dark, he might, if he had pleased, have concealed himself among the crypts or under the roof; but he turned to meet them, followed by Edward Grim, his cross-bearer, the only one of his attendants who had not fled. To the vociferations of Hugh of Horsea, a military subdeacon, "Where is the traitor?" no answer was returned; but when Fitzurse asked, "Where is the Archbishop?" he replied: "Here I am, the Archbishop, but no traitor. Reginald, I have granted thee many favors. What is thy object now? If you seek my life, I command you in the name of God not to touch one of my people." When he was told that he must instantly absolve the bishops he answered, "Till they offer satisfaction I will not!"

"Then die!" exclaimed the assassin, aiming a blow at his head.

Grim interposed his arm, which was broken, but the force of the stroke bore away the Primate’s cap and wounded him on the crown. As he felt the blood trickling down his face he joined his hands and bowed his head saying, "In the name of Christ and for the defence of his Church I am ready to die." In this posture, turned toward his murderers, without a groan and without a motion, he awaited a second stroke, which threw him on his knees; the third laid him on the floor at the foot of St. Bennet’s altar. The upper part of his skull was broken in pieces, and Hugh of Horsea, planting his foot on the Archbishop’s neck, with the point of his sword drew out the brains and strewed them over the pavement!3

Thus at the age of fifty-three perished this extraordinary man, a martyr to what he deemed to be his duty, the preservation of the immunities of the Church. The moment of his death was the triumph of his cause. His personal virtues and exalted station, the dignity and composure with which he met his fate, the sacredness of the place where the murder was perpetrated, all contributed to inspire men with horror for his enemies and veneration for his character. The advocates of the "customs" were silenced. Those who had been eager to condemn, were now the foremost to applaud, his conduct; and his bitterest foes sought to remove from themselves the odium of having been his persecutors. The cause of the Church again flourished: its liberties seemed to derive new life and additional vigor from the blood of their champion.

1 A tax originally levied by Ethelred II to maintain forces against the Danes.

2He had killed the father of a young lady whom he had betrayed.

3The King knew not how to behave to the murderers. To punish them for that which they had understood he wished them to do, appeared ungenerous; to spare them was to confirm the general suspicion that he had ordered the murder. He left them therefore to the judgment of the spiritual courts. In consequence they travelled to Rome, and were enjoined by Alexander to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where some, if not all, of them died.


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Chicago: John Lingard, "Archiepiscopate of Thomas Becket; His Defence of Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction; His Assasination (A.D. 1162-1170)," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed February 25, 2024,

MLA: Lingard, John. "Archiepiscopate of Thomas Becket; His Defence of Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction; His Assasination (A.D. 1162-1170)." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 25 Feb. 2024.

Harvard: Lingard, J, 'Archiepiscopate of Thomas Becket; His Defence of Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction; His Assasination (A.D. 1162-1170)' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 25 February 2024, from