From the Chambers’ Book of Days
The career and fate of this celebrated ecclesiastic, form one of the most remarkable episodes of English history in the twelfth century. The leading incidents of his life are familiar to all, but a brief and comprehensive recapitulation may nevertheless not be unacceptable to our readers.
Thomas Becket or a Becket, as his name is some-times written, was the son of a London merchant, who bestowed on him a good education. For a time young Becket was employed in the office of the sheriff of London, and there made the acquaintance of Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury, who sent him to study civil law in Italy and France, and afterwards, besides presenting him with two ecclesiastical livings, intrusted him with the management of certain negotiations with the see of Rome, requiring the utmost tact and address. The young clerk succeeded so well in this mission as not only to justify the confidence reposed in him by his patron, but also in attracting the notice of Henry II, who conceived rapidly such an attachment to Becket personally, and so exalted an estimate of his abilities, that in 1158 he promoted his new favourite to the dignity of chancellor of the realm. The king had no occasion to accuse him-self of injudiciousness in taking this step, for Becket proved not only a most accomplished courtier and delightful companion, but likewise a clear-headed and sagacious statesman. He even gave evidence of military tastes and prowess by accompanying the king on an expedition to France, where, at the head of a company of knights, he took active part in several sieges, and unhorsed in single combat a French knight of high renown for bravery and feats of arms.
But Henry was not content with the position to which he had raised Becket, and in which, if he had been allowed to remain, his life would, in all probability, have ultimately terminated in tranquillity and honours, instead of the awful tragedy by which it was prematurely brought to a close. Desirous of curbing the growing pretensions of the church, and believing that in his chancellor he would find a ready coadjutor in this project, the king insisted on the latter accepting the arch-bishopric of Canterbury, which had just then become vacant. Becket, it is said, would have declined this accession of honours, and frankly warned the king of the consequences which he must expect. Henry however insisted, and Becket was forthwith installed in his new dignity.
A most extraordinary change of conduct now took place. From the gay and worldly chancellor, who joined in all his sovereign’s amusements, and indulged in every obtainable luxury and splendor, Becket was transformed to the austere and enthusiastic monk, whose sole aim is the exaltation of his order, and the extension or the power of the church. The first sign of this altered procedure was the resigning of the office of chancellor, an act which likewise occasioned the first coldness between him and the king. Then followed an exhibition of self-mortification and asceticisrn, such as in medieval times was regarded as the most conclusive evidence of goodness and piety. Yet much exaggeration seems to have taken place on this subject, as Becket, notwithstanding his numerous charities, and those ostentatious but highly-esteemed acts of humility which he now practiced, maintained to the close of his life a realm magnificence in establishment and retinue.
After many causes of dissension and ill-will between Henry and the archbishop, produced by the zeal and energy of the latter in prosecuting the interests of the church and the claims of his own see in particular, an open rupture was at last occasioned by the immunity which the clergy claimed from secular jurisdiction, and which Becket vehemently urged and supported. The king was no less resolute in asserting the subjection of priests to the authority of the ordinary courts, in the event of crimes committed by ecclesiastics, and a vital struggle ensued, in which Henry had for a time the advantage. Becket was forced to quit the country as an exile, and remained abroad for several years. Through the influence of the pope and the king of France, a seeming reconciliation was at last effected in July 1170, and in the beginning of the ensuing month of December, the formidable champion of ecclesiastical rights returned to England, and entered again amid acclamations the archiepiscopal metropolis of Canterbury.
The reconciliation had proved but hollow with both parties, neither of whom were disposed to recede from what they considered their rights. Three prelates, the archbishop of York, and the bishops of London and Salisbury, had given in-expiable offence to Becket by performing, in the absence of the latter, the coronation of the king’s eldest son, Prince Henry, an act which the archbishop of Canterbury resented as an unpardonable encroachment on his exclusive privileges. He published letters of excommunication against the offending bishops, who forthwith made their way to France, where Henry II was then residing, in the castle of Buy, near Bayeux, and reported this fresh instance of Becket’s resistance to the authority of the crown.
Henry’s rage on receiving this intelligence was tremendous, and vented itself in complaints against those lukewarm and spiritless courtiers, who, he said, allowed this upstart priest to treat their sovereign with such insolence. These fatal words proved Becket’s death-warrant. Four courtiers, named respectively Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton, understanding these expressions as an authorisation of the murder of Becket, quitted forthwith the castle, and took their way to the coast, where they embarked for England. Arriving there, they assembled on the 28th of December 1170, at the castle of Saltwood, occupied by Randulph de Broc, a mortal enemy of Becket, and here, it is said, they concocted in darkness, without seeing each other’s faces, the scheme for the murder of Becket. The next day, the party proceeded to Canterbury, and in the afternoon made their way into the archbishop’s palace and the apartment where Becket was sitting with his clergy. Fitzurse acted as the spokesman, and announcing that he and his companions had come to the archbishop with a message from the king, demanded satisfaction in the absolution of the three bishops, and compliance with the royal will in that and other matters.
Becket defended his conduct, and a scene of violent and mutual recrimination ensued. The conspirators then, boiling with passion, quitted the palace, which they had entered unarmed, and thereupon girded on their swords, one or two of the party, more-over, arming themselves with hatchets. Having returned to the archbishop’s residence, they found the avenues of admission barred against them, but they at last succeeded in forcing an entrance. Becket, meantime, had been urged by a small band of faithful adherents to take refuge within the cathedral, and though, for a time, he rejected this proposal as cowardly and undignified he was at last induced. to do so on being reminded that it was now five o’clock, and the time of vesper-service. Quitting the palace by a private door, he gained the cloisters of the cathedral, and from thence entered the church by a door in the north transept. His enemies, who had now by this time succeeded in making their way into the cloisters, followed him by the same entrance into the sacred building, and here Becket and his foes were again confronted. A scene of altercation similar to what had already taken place in the palace now recommenced, arid. after much invective on both sides, Fitzurse struck Becket a blow on the head with his sword, which, however, did no further damage than knocking off his cap. Tracy followed with a more deadly stroke, and several additional blows left the arch-bishop a lifeless corpse on the pavement of the church.
It is needless to pursue the terrible story any further. No punishment beyond excommunication and the enforced pilgrimage of one or two of the conspirators to the Holy Land, seems to have befallen the murderers; for by a singular reciprocity, it would appear that, by the same principle for which Becket contended so stoutly—the immunity of the clergy from sacred jurisdiction—crimes committed by laymen against priests were, like the offences of the clergy themselves, only cognisable before ecclesiastical courts, where, in both cases, the highest sentence that could be pronounced was excommunication. But the benefit accruing to the church from the archbishop’s death was incalculable. Becket was now regarded as, and received the honours of, a martyr, and it was with great difficulty that Henry succeeded in obtaining absolution from the pope for the passionate expressions which had indirectly authorised the archbishop’s murder. The king’s subsequent pilgrimage to Canterbury, and his painful penance of a day and a night at the tomb of the sainted Thomas, exhibited thoroughly the church’s triumph over the secular power. The victory which the latter had gained in the celebrated. ‘Constitutions of Clarendon,’ at the commencement of the rupture between Becket and Henry II, was now more than avenged. In the advanced supremacy of ecclesiastical over temporal sway, which reached its climax in the reign of Henry’s son, King John, it may well be averred of Becket’s murder that ‘it was more than a crime; it was a blunder.’
From the period of Becket’s death to the Reformation, his shrine in Canterbury Cathedral continued to be visited by crowds of pilgrims, whose offerings proved as valuable a source of clerical revenue as those of the worshippers at the no less celebrated tomb of St. Cuthbert, in the cathedral of Durham. The Canterbury pilgrimages have been immortalized by Chaucer, from whose Canterbury Tales we learn that piety and devotion were by no means uniformly characteristic of the visitors who flocked, on such occasions, to the shrine of St. Thomas. On the overthrow of the Roman Catholic religion in the sixteenth century, Becket’s shrine was dismantled and plundered, and the name of the saint himself excluded from the calendar, in the reformed liturgy. An entire revulsion of feeling now took place regarding him, and from the rank of a holy man and a martyr he descended in general estimation to the level of a scheming priest and audacious rebel, whilst his murder, if not actually approved, was regarded in the light of a righteous judgment for his overweening ambition. This view of his character prevailed generally up to the present day, when a second revolution in public opinion took place; and Becket has found several able panegyrists, not only on grounds of Roman Catholic or Anglican high-church predilections and sympathies, but in reference to principles of a different nature—motives of patriotism and resistance to feudal tyranny.
These last-mentioned views are advocated by M. Thierry and Mr. Fronde; the former of whom regards Becket in the same aspect that he does Robin Hood, as the vindicator of Saxon rights and liberties against Norman oppression; the latter sees in him a bulwark to the people against monarchical and baronial outrage, such as the power of the church actually often was in medieval times. Mr. Thierry’s view seems to be entirely fanciful ; and neither in this light, nor in the view taken by Mr. Fronde, is it possible to attribute to Becket the character either of a martyr or a hero. That he was not a hypocrite, may be fairly conceded; and he appears to have been in many respects a really charitable and generous-minded man. But his disposition was both obstinate and headstrong in the highest degree; and in his machinations to render the church paramount, we can only see the promptings of an ambition alike undeserving of commendation on religious or moral grounds, and most dangerous to the progress of the intellectual and personal liberties of mankind.
The Constitutions of Clarendon, against which he protested so strenuously, contained nothing more objectionable than what has come to be universally recognized as essential to the maintenance of good order and liberty in the various relations of church and state. In the opinions of certain parties, it is impossible to exalt too highly the power of the church, and under no circumstances can any procedure be deemed inexcusable, whose object is the furtherance of this holy cause. To persons of this way of thinking, Becket must of course ever appear as a hero.
In connection with the renowned Thomas Becket, noticed in the preceding article, a curious story is related of the marriage of his parents. It is said that Gilbert, his father, had in his youth followed the Crusaders to Palestine, and while in the East had been taken prisoner by a Saracen or Moor of high rank. Confined by the latter within his own castle, the young Englishman’s personal attractions and miserable condition alike melted the heart of his captor’s daughter, a fair Mohammedan, who enabled him to escape from prison and regain his native country. Not wholly disinterested, however, in the part which she acted in this matter, the Moor’s daughter obtained a promise from Gilbert, that as soon as he had settled quietly in his own land, he should send for, and marry his protectress. Years passed on, but no message ever arrived to cheer the heart of the love-lorn maiden, who there-upon resolved to proceed to England and remind the forgetful knight of his engagement.
This perilous enterprise she actually accomplished; and though knowing nothing of the English language beyond the Christian name of her lover and his place of residence in London, which was Cheap-side, she contrived to search him out and with greater success than could possibly have been anticipated, found him ready to fulfil his former promise by making her his wife. Previous to the marriage taking place, she professed her conversion to Christianity, and was baptized with great solemnity in St. Paul’s Cathedral, no less than six bishops assisting at the ceremony. The only child of this union was the celebrated Thomas Becket, whose devotion in after-years to the cause of the church, may be said to have been a befitting recompense for the attention which her ministers had shewn in watching over the spiritual welfare of his mother.
This singular story has found credence in recent times with Dr. Giles, Mr. Thierry, Mr. Fronde, and Mr. Michele; but by one of the most judicious modern biographers of Becket, Canon Robertson, rejected as a legendary tale, wholly unsupported by the evidence of those chroniclers who were Becket’s contemporaries. It gave rise, both in England and Scotland, to more than one ballad, in which the elder Becket’s imprisonment in the East, his liberation by the aid of the Moorish damsel, and the latter’s expedition to Britain in quest of him, are all set forth with sundry additions and embellishments. In one of these, which bears the name of Lord Beichan, the fair young Saracen, who, by some extra-ordinary corruption or misapprehension, is recorded under the designation of Susie Pye, follows her lover to Scotland, and there surprises him at the very hour when, he is about to unite himself in marriage to another lady. The faithless lover on being reminded of his previous compact, professes the utmost contrition, and declares at once his resolve to wed the Saracen’s daughter, who had given such evidence of her love and attachment to him, by making so long and dangerous a journey. The hapless bride, who would otherwise have speedily become his wife, is unceremoniously dismissed along with her mother; and the nuptials of Lord.
Beichan and Susie Pye are then celebrated with great magnificence. Another ballad on the same subject is entitled Young Bekie, but the heroine here is represented as the daughter of the king of France, and distinguished by the title of Burd Isbel. By such romantic embellishments, and so incongruous and ridiculous a nomenclature, did the ballad-writers of a later age embody in verse the story of the parents of the renowned archbishop of Canterbury.