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Chapter XLIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1 page 3


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Proceeding on his way, the archbishop passed through Canterbury to Woodstock, where he endeavoured to obtain an interview with Prince Henry, the eldest son of the king. The prince had been the pupil of Becket, who now, in his difficulties, desired, if possible, to secure his influence and goodwill. The interview was forbidden by the royal command, and Becket was ordered to proceed at once to his diocese, and there to remain. The time of Christmas was approaching, and the archbishop retraced his steps, escorted on the way by the poor people, armed with such coarse weapons as they could obtain. Various insults were offered to the prelate by persons of the opposite party, who were anxious to provoke his followers to a quarrel, which would afford a pretext for attacking and murdering him. His faithful guard, however, contented themselves with protecting the person of their archbishop, and received these insults with imperturbable coolness.

The royal order which confined the primate to his diocese was published in the towns, and with it another edict, which declared that whoever looked upon him with favour should be regarded as an enemy of the king and the country. Signs like these were not to be mistaken; and it scarcely needed the acute intellect and foresight of Becket to perceive that his end was approaching. On Christmas Day he Breached to the assembled crowd in Canterbury Cathedral, choosing as his text the solemn words, Veni ad vos, mori inter vos - "I have come to die among you." He told the people that whereas one of their archbishops had already been a martyr, another would soon be so also; but he declared that before he died he would avenge some of the wrongs which had been inflicted upon the Church. He then proceeded to excommunicate several of those persons from whom he had received insults since his return to England.

The prediction of Becket was soon followed by its fulfilment. The three bishops who had been excommunicated by the Pope's letters immediately hastened to cross the Channel, and presenting themselves before Henry in Normandy, demanded redress. "We entreat you," they said, "in the name of your kingdom and of its prelates. This man is setting England in flames. He marches with a number of armed men, both horse and foot, going about the fortresses, and endeavouring to obtain admission into them." Henry beard this statement, and burst out into a violent fit of rage. "What!" he cried; "a man who has eaten my bread - a beggar who first came to my court riding a lame pack-horse, with his baggage at his back - shall he insult the king, the royal family, and the whole kingdom, and not one of the cowards who eat at my table will deliver me from such a turbulent priest?" (Vita. B. Thomae Quadripart.)

These words proved to be the death-warrant of the archbishop. Four knights who were present, Richard Brito, Hugh de Morville, William Tracy, and Reginald Fitzurse, bound themselves by an oath to support each other to the death, and suddenly departed from the palace. There is no evidence that the king was acquainted with their design, or anticipated that his hasty words would be so speedily acted upon. On the contrary, it is recorded that, while the knights were hastening towards the coast, a council of the barons of Normandy, assembled by the king, was engaged in appointing three commissioners to seize the person of Thomas a Becket, and place him in prison on a charge of high treason.

The conspirators had departed, and, if their absence was perceived, its cause was not suspected. On the fifth day after Christmas they arrived in the neighbourhood of Canterbury, and having collected a number of armed men, to overcome any resistance that might be offered, they first summoned the mayor, and called upon him to march the citizens who were armed for the king's service to the house of the archbishop. On his refusal, they proceeded thither without more delay, and the four conspirators, with twelve men, abruptly entered the archbishop's apartment. Becket was at the dinner-table, with his servants in attendance. He saluted the Normans, and desired to know what they wanted. They made no reply, but sat down gazing at him intently for some minutes. At length Reginald Fitzurse rose up and said that they were come from the king to demand that the person excommunicated should be absolved, the suspended bishops restored to their benefices, and that Becket himself should answer the charge of treason against the throne. The archbishop replied that not he, but the Pope, had excommunicated the bishops, and that he only could absolve them. "From whom, then, do you hold your bishopric?" Fitzurse demanded. "The spiritual rights I hold from God and the Pope, and the temporal rights from the king." "What, then, the king did not give you all?" "By no means." This reply was received with murmurs by the knights, who twirled their gauntlets impatiently. "I perceive that you threaten me," the archbishop said; "but it is in vain. If all the swords in England were hanging over my head, they would not alter my determination." "We do indeed dare to threaten," said Fitzurse; "and we will do more." With these words he moved to the door, followed by the others, and gave the call to arms.

The door of the room was instantly closed, and the attendants of Becket entreated him to take refuge in the church, which communicated with the house by a cloister. He, however, retained his place, although the blows of an axe, which Fitzurse had obtained outside, resounded against the door. At this moment the sound of the vesper bell was heard, and Becket then rose up, and said that, since the hour of his duty had arrived, he would go into the church. Directing his cross to be carried before him, he passed slowly through the cloisters, and advanced to the choir, which was enclosed by a railing. While he was ascending the steps leading to the choir, Reginald Fitzurse entered the door of the church clad in complete armour, and, waving his sword, cried, "Come hither, servants of the king!" The other conspirators immediately followed him armed to the teeth, and brandishing their swords.

It was already twilight, which, within the walls of the dimly-lighted church, had deepened into blackest obscurity. Beckett's attendants entreated him to fly to the winding staircase which led to the roof of the building, or to seek refuge in the vaults underground. He rejected both of these expedients, and stood still to meet his assailants. "Where is the traitor?" cried a voice. There was no answer. "Where is the archbishop?" "Here I am," Becket replied; "but here is no traitor. What do ye in the house of God in warlike equipment?" One of the knights seized him by the sleeve, telling him that he was a prisoner. He pulled back his arm violently. It is related that they then advised him to fly or to go with them, as though they repented of their evil design. The time and the scene, the sacred office of Becket, and his calm courage, were well calculated to make an impression upon men peculiarly susceptible to such influences, and if they hesitated we must attribute it to these causes rather than doubt the ruthless intention with which they came.

Once more they called upon him to absolve the bishops; once more he refused, and Fitzurse, drawing his sword, struck at his head. The blow was intercepted by the arm of one of the prelate's servants, who stepped forward to protect his master, but in vain. A second blow descended, and while the blood was streaming from his face, some one of his assailants whispered him to fly and save himself. Becket paid no heed to the speaker, but clasped his hands and bowed his head, commending his soul to God and the saints. The conspirators now fell upon him with their swords, and quickly despatched him. One of them is said to have kicked the prostrate body, saying, "So perishes a traitor."

The deed thus accomplished, the conspirators passed out of the town without hindrance, but no sooner had they done so than the news spread throughout the town, and the inhabitants, in the utmost excitement and indignation, assembled in crowds in the streets, and ran towards the cathedral. Seeing the body of their archbishop stretched before the altar, men and women began to weep, and while some kissed his feet and hands, others dipped linen in the blood with which the pavement was covered. It was declared by the people that Becket was a martyr, and though a royal edict was published forbidding any one to express such an opinion, the popular feeling still manifested itself. The Archbishop of York returned to his pulpit, and announced the violent death of the archbishop to be a judgment from heaven, and that he had perished in his pride, like Pharaoh. It was preached by other bishops that the body of the traitor ought not to be laid in holy ground, but that it should be left to rot on the highway, or hung from a gibbet. It was even attempted by some soldiers to seize the corpse; but the monks, who had received an intimation of the design, buried it hastily in the crypt of the cathedral.

Louis. King of France, seconded the feeling of the English people with regard to this cowardly murder. He wrote to the Pope, entreating him to punish, with all the power of the Church, that persecutor of God; a Nero in cruelty, a Julian in apostacy, and a Judas in treachery.

The opinion of the French court- - which has been held also by some historians of our own country - was that Henry was guilty of the murder, having known or directed the designs of the conspirators. The question must always remain to some extent doubtful; but the balance of evidence, as well as of probability, is decidedly in favour of his innocence. When the intelligence was first conveyed to him, he displayed extreme grief, shutting himself up within a private room, and refusing either to see his friends or to taste food for three days. The extraordinary penance which he afterwards underwent at the tomb of Becket, and which will be described hereafter, would at first appear to prove his consciousness of guilt; but that penance may as reasonably be regarded as having a political object, and as being intended to overcome the prejudice against him among the people, who universally believed that an atonement ought to be made by the king. He may also have felt that, without having directly ordered the death of the archbishop, he was, nevertheless, to some extent guilty of that crime, in having used words which might, without difficulty, be construed to hav" such meaning.

Whether Henry did or did not direct the assassination of the archbishop, it is not improbable that he may more than once have desired the death of his troublesome servant. But the manner of that death - a prelate, whose office was regarded with the highest veneration, slain at the altar; an old man butchered in cold blood, not by robbers, but by soldiers and knights of fame - such a death, with the indignation it excited, was well calculated to induce feelings of remorse in the breast of the king. He immediately sent legates to Rome, to offer assurances of his innocence to the Pope Alexander, who threatened to place the whole kingdom under an interdict, as a punishment for the outrage upon Heaven and the Church. Some time elapsed before Alexander changed his purpose and was prevailed upon to confine his anathema to the actual murderers and their abettors.

In the year 1172 a council was held at Avranches, at which the king and the legates of the Pope were present, and which was attended by a great multitude, both of the clergy and of the people. Here Henry voluntarily swore, in what was considered the most solemn manner - that is to say, over the sacred relics - that he had no concern in the murder of the archbishop, and that he had not desired his death. We must, therefore, either believe him to have been innocent, or regard him as utterly destitute of religious feeling, as well as entirely free from those superstitious tendencies of the age which influenced, to some extent, even the hard and ruthless minds of the Conqueror and his sons.

On reviewing the remarkable career of Thomas a Becket, it appears extremely difficult to form a just estimate of his character. That he frequently acted independently of principle, and displayed qualities better suited to a soldier than a priest, is beyond question. That his sudden conversion was mere hypocrisy, his piety assumed, and his aims altogether selfish - accusations which have frequently been brought against him - is much less certain. When the religious habit was first assumed by Becket, he accepted it as a step to power, and with little regard for the sacred functions it conferred upon him; but when he was called to a higher office, and he felt that the dignity of his order was placed in his keeping, he determined to support that dignity. What were the precise character of the motives which actuated him it is vain to inquire; but it is at least possible that he was sincere in the course he pursued, and that he believed the interests of religion to be identified with the power of the Church. Allusion has already been made to the benefits conferred upon the nation by the reforms which he introduced, and to the veneration with which the people regarded him. The popular regard is not always to be taken as a criterion of excellence, for men are apt to be attracted by a showy and noisy benevolence rather than by silent and unobtrusive virtue; but in process of time the true is distinguished from the false, and the instincts of the people are rarely long deceived. Neither the mitre which he wore, nor the Saxon blood which flowed in his veins, could have placed the archbishop so high in the affections of the nation, unless there had been also high and sterling qualities in the man. Well-authenticated accounts have reached us of his conduct at the time of his death - that hour when the mask of the hypocrite usually falls away, and something of his true character seldom fails to show itself. At this time, then, we find Thomas a Becket presented to us in an aspect which must command the respect even of those who take the worst view of his previous life. With far more courage than his knightly assassins, we see him refusing to attempt a flight, which might have shown a consciousness of guilt; preserving, in the face of death, a calm and undaunted brow; and, as we are told by one of the chroniclers, employing his last words in securing the safety of his friends and servants (On being told that he must die, Becket replied, "I resign myself to death; but I forbid you, in the name of the Almighty God, to injure any of those around me, whether monk or layman, great or small," - Vita, B. T. Qwdripart.).

It is worthy of note that the only primate who, since the Conquest, and previously to the time of Becket, had placed himself in opposition to the will of his sovereign, was Anselm, who, although a Norman by birth, was essentially English in sympathies, and who exerted himself in the cause of the people against their oppressors. Anselm had attempted to revive the old custom of ecclesiastical elections, which had been abolished by the Conqueror. Being successfully opposed at Rome, as well as persecuted in England, the archbishop was compelled to take refuge in France. From his place of retirement he wrote, and Becket afterwards echoed the words, "Rome prefers gold and silver to justice; what counsel or redress can a man obtain there who has nothing to give?" The primates who succeeded Anselm were more easily moulded to the will of their sovereign; they were Ranulph (or Raoul), "William of Corbeil, and Theobald, who was the immediate predecessor of Thomas a Becket.

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Pictures for Chapter XLIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1 page 3

Progress of Thomas a Becket through France
Progress of Thomas a Becket through France >>>>
Defeat of the English by the Welsh at Berwin
Defeat of the English by the Welsh at Berwin >>>>
Murder of Thomas a Becket
Murder of Thomas a Becket >>>>
Henry II. doing Penance at the Tomb of Thomas a Becket
Henry II. doing Penance at the Tomb of Thomas a Becket >>>>

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