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Chapter XLIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1

Reign of Henry II. - Career and Death of Thomas a Becket.
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Among the yeomen of Saxon race whose necessities compelled them to seek the service of the Norman barons as esquires or attendants, was a man whose romantic history, no less than the extraordinary career of his son, caused his name to become famous to a degree which rarely happened in those days to one of obscure birth. Gilbert Becket was born in London in the reign of Henry I. It would appear that his real name was Beck, and that his Norman masters changed it into Becket, which was corrupted by the Anglo-Saxons into Beckie. At the beginning of the twelfth century Gilbert Becket, or Beckie, followed his lord to the Holy Land. After having taken part in the ordinary dangers and sufferings of the soldiers of the cross, Gilbert was made prisoner and reduced to slavery. In this condition the Saxon yeoman attracted the notice of the daughter of a Saracen chief, and gained her love. With her assistance, he succeeded in effecting his escape, and returning to England. The paynim damsel, however, found herself unable to live without him, and she determined to find her way to the distant country, whither he had told her he was going. She knew only two words of English, which were London and Gilbert. With the help of the former she obtained a passage in a ship which carried returning pilgrims and traders; and by means of the latter - running from street to street, and repeating "Gilbert! Gilbert!" amidst the wonder and derision of the crowd, she found the man she loved (Chronicle of Johannes Bromton.). Gilbert Becket appears to have received her tenderly and honourably, and having asked the advice of the clergy, he caused her to be baptised, and having changed her name to that of Matilda, he married her. The strange circumstances of this marriage caused it to become famous throughout the country, and it was made the subject of various popular ballads and romances, two of which are still extant (Jamieson's Popular Songs.).

About the year 1119 Gilbert and Matilda had a son, who was named Thomas, and who was destined to occupy a prominent position in the history of his time. At an early ago he was sent to France to receive his education, and to get rid of that English accent which, under the Norman domination, would have been fatal to his advancement in life. This object was attained so completely that, on his return, Thomas Becket found himself able to enter the most refined society of the court without giving any indication of his Saxon origin, either by word or gesture. The youth was ambitious, and he quickly found means to turn this talent to account. He obtained the favour of one of the Norman barons who lived near London, and he joined in all the amusements of his patron. In this position his talents acquired him a great reputation among the courtiers, to whom his ready wit recommended him, no lees than the obsequious demeanour which he sedulously cultivated.

Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, having heard of the young Englishman, desired to see him, and having been pleased with the interview, took Becket into his service. He caused him to take deacon's orders, gave him the appointment of archdeacon of his church, and employed him in various negotiations with the Holy See. In the reign of Stephen, Becket was employed by the partisans of Matilda to procure the Pope's prohibition of the intended coronation of the king's son. The mission was attended with complete success, and on the accession of Henry II., Becket was presented to him as one who had done his cause good service. Henry extended his favour to the young archdeacon, and Theobald, the primate, who exercised the functions of first minister to the kingdom, finding his growing infirmities rendered him unfit for the duties of his office, delegated to Becket a great part of his power. A few years afterwards the archdeacon was raised to the office of Chancellor of England, or Keeper of the Seal of the Three Lions, which was the symbol of the Anglo-Norman power. The king also gave him the wardenship of the Tower of London and of the castle of Berkhampstead, and placed in his hands the care and education of the heir to the throne.

These various appointments yielded large revenues, which were spent by Becket in the greatest luxury and magnificence. He kept in his house, which was furnished with great splendour, a numerous retinue; and it is related that there were in his pay 700 men-at-arms, well mounted and equipped. His tables were covered with choice viands, served upon costly plate; and the trappings of his horses were adorned with gold and silver. The haughtiest nobles of the court regarded it as an honour to visit this magnificent son of a Saxon peasant; the foreigners who enjoyed his hospitality were never suffered to depart without some costly present.

It is related by Fitz-Stephen, who was Becket's secretary, that when the chancellor proceeded on his embassy to Paris, he was attended by many barons and lords, and a large body of knights, besides a great number of attendants and serving-men. His passage through France resembled a triumphal procession, and the train of sumpter-horses and wagons, the hounds and hawks, the falconers and pages, seemed worthy of some powerful king. When he entered a town, 250 boys went before him singing songs; these were followed by huntsmen leading their hounds in couples; then came eight wagons, each drawn by five horses, and attended by five drivers; and these were succeeded by twelve sumpter-horses, on each of which rode a monkey with a groom behind on his knees. Next to the sumpter-horses came the esquires, each carrying the shield and leading the horse of his master; then the youths of gentle birth, who were also esquires, but were exempted from the more menial services of that office; then the knights, priests, and officers of the household; and, lastly, the chancellor himself, attended by his friends. As this procession passed through the towns, the people looked on with wonder, asking each other what manner of man the King of England must be when his chancellor travelled in such magnificence.

At this period Henry lived on the most intimate terms with the chancellor, who was skilled in the sports of the field, and whose wit and vivacity fitted him for a boon companion. The chancellor was not deterred by his sacred calling from sharing in the pleasures of the king, which were as licentious as those of his Norman predecessors. Henry, who could so well support the royal dignity as occasion required, appears to have had a natural tendency to gaiety and frolic. On one occasion, when the chancellor was riding at his side through the streets of London in stormy weather, there came towards the royal party a poor old man in tattered clothes. "Would it not be well," the king asked, "to give that poor man a warm cloak?" The chancellor replied with proper gravity, "It would, sir; and you do well to turn your eyes and thoughts to such objects." The king then immediately rejoined, "You shall have the merit of this act of charity;" and turning towards the chancellor, he seized hold of the new cloak which he wore, lined with ermine, and endeavoured to pull it from his back. Becket resisted for some time, and in the struggle both had nearly fallen from their horses to the ground; but at last the chancellor wisely let go the cloak, and the king gave it to the beggar, who went on his way wondering and rejoicing.

A man entirely delivered up to ambition is necessarily, to some extent, unscrupulous; and there is no doubt that Becket was content to sacrifice principle whenever it stood in the way of his advancement. He, however, possessed many good and great qualities; and during the period of his chancellorship, his influence with the king was used in promoting reforms and instituting measures which were calculated to promote, in a high degree, the welfare of the people. To his exertions may be attributed the restoration of tranquillity throughout the country, the revival of commerce, the reforms in the administration of the law, and the decline of the power of the barons. Although himself a churchman, Becket did not hesitate to attack the extravagant privileges of the bishops. At the time of the war against the Earl of Toulouse, the clergy refused to pay the tax of scutage, which, as already related, was levied by Henry, giving as their reason that the Church forbade them to shed blood (The scutage, or escutcheon-tax, was so called because it was due from all persons who possessed a knight's fee, or an estate which would maintain a man-at-arms, provided he failed to present himself at the stated time with his ecu, escutcheon, or shield upon his arm.). Becket, however, resolved to compel them to pay the tax; and while by so doing he exasperated his own order against him, he secured the goodwill of the king.

Not long after the Conquest the Norman clergy in England began to display great moral depravity. Murders, rapes, and robberies were frequently committed by them; and. according to the laws passed by the Conqueror on the institution of episcopal courts, the offenders could only be brought to justice by men of their own order. Thus it happened that the crimes committed by licentious priests were seldom punished, and they increased to a frightful extent in consequence of this immunity. It is related that from the time of the accession of Henry II. to the year 1161. not less than 100 homicides had been committed by priests who still remained securely in possession of their benefices. To put an end to these disorders, the only course which appeared feasible was to take away from the clerical order those privileges which had been conferred by the Conqueror, and Henry determined to execute this measure. The primacy of Canterbury had long carried with it an authority second only to that of the Pope himself, and it was impossible to carry out the intended reform unless a man devoted to the royal authority, and careless of the interests of the Church, were seated in the archiepiscopal chair. It was evident that for this purpose no fitter man could be found than Becket; and on the death of Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury (a.d. 1161), the king recommended his chancellor to the bishops as the person to succeed to the primacy.

Contrary to all precedent, the bishops unanimously opposed the choice of the king, and delayed the election during thirteen months. At length Henry sent a peremptory demand that the candidate he had chosen should be immediately appointed; and the prelates, not daring to make any further resistance, obeyed the king's command.

The chancellor was ordained priest in the year 1162, and on the following day was consecrated archbishop, and appointed to the vacant see. Immediately a change took place in him so remarkable that those who saw him found a difficulty in recognising him as the same man. He threw off his gorgeous apparel, removed the splendid furniture from his house, gave up the intimacy with the gay nobler who had been his friends, and became the friend of the poor, the beggars, and the Saxons. He even affected poverty, and amidst unbounded wealth, and in the possession of power second only to that of the throne, lived the life of an anchorite. He was clothed in a coarse gown, allowed himself only herbs and water for sustenance, and assumed a deportment of the utmost gravity and humility. Thus Becket at once kicked down from him the ladder by which he had risen, and now, no longer obsequious towards his sovereign, he determined to maintain to the utmost the privileges of the Church. Never was there a change of life more sudden, or one that excited so much indignation, on the one hand, or so much admiration on the other. The new archbishop became the idol of the poor, and especially of his own countrymen, while the king and his favourites regarded him with the deepest anger and aversion.

Under these circumstances, it was evident that a rupture must soon take place. Henry determined to use every means to destroy the power which he had so imprudently created. He began a series of attacks against the archbishop. In the year 1162 he removed from him the archdeaconry of Canterbury, and promoted a dissolute monk of Normandy, named Clerambault, to the abbacy of St. Augustin, at Canterbury. Instigated by the king, the new abbot refused to take the oath of obedience to the primate, according to the law, which dated from the Conquest. Becket defended the authority of his see, and the matter was referred by the abbot to the Pope Alexander III. Strange as it may seem, the decision was given against the primate, and those privileges which had been abolished by Gregory VII., at the desire of the Norman conquerors, were now restored by Alexander at the prayer of a Norman priest.

Becket, whose anger was excited by this unexpected defeat, proceeded to acts of retaliation. In the following year he claimed a number of estates and castles, including that of Rochester from the king, and that of Tunbridge from the Earl of Clare, on the ground that they had originally belonged to the see of Canterbury. Had such restitution been given, it would have tended to overthrow the legal claim of many of the barons to their estates; great alarm was, therefore, excited, and the demand met with a determined resistance. The barons urged their prescriptive rights, but Becket replied briefly that there could be no prescription for injustice, and that the estates wrongly obtained must be restored. In the words of a modern historian, the sons of the companions of William the Bastard thought the soul of Harold animated the body of him whom they had themselves made primate.

The archbishop proceeded to follow up his attack by appointing a priest to a benefice on the lands of a Norman baron, named William de Eynsford. William, like the rest of the Normans, assumed the right of disposing of the churches on his manor, and he expelled the priest sent by Becket. The baron was immediately excommunicated by the archbishop, in defiance of a law passed by Henry, that no vassal of the crown should be excommunicated without the royal consent. The king ordered the sentence to be remitted, and after some delay Becket yielded, though with evident reluctance. The king's animosity was rather increased than appeased by a consent so reluctantly given.

In the year 1164, Henry proceeded to mature his plans for placing the clergy under civil jurisdiction; and at a general assembly of lords lay and spiritual, he demanded the consent of the prelates to the proposed revival of ancient customs. The reply made by Becket and his coadjutors was that they assented, "saving the honour of God and their order." The king angrily broke up the council, and deprived the archbishop of the castle of Berkhampstead. A few days afterwards Becket expressed his readiness to assent to the king's demands, and a great council was convened at Clarendon, in Wiltshire (March, 1164), for the purpose of receiving the assent formally. When the moment came for Becket's signature to be given, he refused it; accusing himself of folly for having promised to observe the king's laws, whatever they might be. The entreaties of the barons were without effect, and the enactments were completed without his signature.

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Pictures for Chapter XLIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1

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