Becket, Thomas

, archbishop of Canterbury in the reign of Henry II. was born in London 1119, the son of Gilbert, a merchant, and Matilda, a Saracen lady, who is said to have fallen in love with him, when he was a prisoner to her father in Jerusalem. Thomas received the first part of his education at Merton-abbey in Surrey, whence he went to Oxford, and afterwards studied at Paris. He became in high favour with Theobald archbishop of Canterbury, who sent him to study the civil law at Bononia in Italy, and at his return made him archdeacon of Canterbury, and provost of Beverley. Before this he had discovered such superior talents for negociation, that archbishop Theobald dispatched him as his agent to the pope, on a point he thought of great moment, which was to get the legantine power restored to the see of Canterbury. This commission was performed with such dexterity and success, that the archbishop entrusted to him all his most secret intrigues with the court of Rome, and particularly a matter of the highest importance to England, the soliciting | from the pope those prohibitory letters against the crowning of prince Eustace, by which that design was defeated. This service, which raised Becket’s merit not only with the prelate by whom he was employed, but also with king Henry, was the original foundation of his high fortune. It is remarkable, that he was the first Englishman, since the latter years of the reign of William the Conqueror, on whom any great office, either in church or state, had been conferred by the kings of the Norman race; the exclusion of the English from all dignities having been a maxim of policy, which had been delivered down by that monarch to his sons. This maxim Henry the Second wisely and liberally discarded, though the first instance in which he deviated from it happened to be singularly unfortunate.

Theobald also recommended him to king Henry II. in so effectual a manner, that in 1158 he was appointed high chancellor, and preceptor to the prince. Becket now laid aside the churchman, and affected the courtier; he conformed himself in every thing to the king’s humour; he partook of all his diversions, and observed the same hours of eating and going to bed. He kept splendid levees, and courted popular applause; and the expences of his table exceeded those of the first nobility. In 1159 he made a campaign with king Henry into Toulouse, having in his own pay 1200 horse, besides a retinue of 700 knights or gentlemen. While here he gave a piece of advice which marked the spirit and fire of his character. This was, to seize the person of Lewis, king of France, who had imprudently thrown himself into the city of Toulouse without an army. But the counsel was deemed too bold. Besides several political reasons against complying with it, it was thought an enormous and criminal violation of the feudal allegiance, for a vassal to take and hold in captivity the person of his lord. We need not inforjn our historical readers, that Henry, though a very powerful monarch, did, by the large possessions he held in France, stand in. the relation of a vassal to the king of that country. In the war against the earl of Toulouse, Becket, besides his other military exploits, engaged, in single combat, Engelvan, de Trie, a French knight, famous for his valour, dismounted him with his lance, and gained his horse, which he led off in great triumph.

In 1160, he was sent by the king to Paris, to treat of a marriage between prince Henry and the king of France’s | eldest daughter, in which he succeeded, and returned with the young princess to England. He had not enjoyed the chancellorship above four years, when archbishop Theobald died; and the king, who was then in Normandy, immediately sent over some trusty persons to England, who managed matters so well with the monks and clergy, that Becket was almost unanimously elected archbishop.

It has been said that it was with the utmost difficulty Becket could be prevailed upon to accept of this dignity, and that he even predicted it would be the cause of a breach between the king and him. But this is greatly doubted by lord Lyttelton in his History of Henry II. and it stands contradicted by the affirmation of Foliot, bishop of London, and ill agrees with the measures which were taken to procure Becket‘ s election. His biographers themselves acknowledge, that one reason which induced Henry to promote him to Canterbury, was, “because he hoped, that, by his means, he should manage ecclesiastical, as well as secular affairs, to his own satisfaction.” Indeed, no other reasonable motive can be found. Nothing could incline that prince to make so extraordinary and so exceptionable a choice, but a firm confidence, that he should be most usefully assisted by Becket, in the important reformation he meant to undertake, of subjecting the clergy to the authority of the civil government. Nor is it credible that he should not have revealed his intention, concerning that affair, to a favourite minister, whom he had accustomed to trust, without reserve, in his most secret counsels. But if such a declaration had been made by that minister, as is related by the historians, it is scarcely to be supposed, that a king so prudent as Henry would have forced him into a station, in which he certainly might have it in his power to be exceedingly troublesome, instead of being serviceable to his royal master. It was by a different language that the usual sagacity of this prince could have been deceived. Nor, indeed, could the most jealous and penetrating eye have discovered in Becket, after he was elected archbishop of Canterbury, any marks of an enthusiastic or bigotted zeal. That several indications of a contrary temper, and different principles, had appeared in his conduct, is shewn by lord Lyttelton, who produces two remarkable instances in support of his assertion. The same noble writer hath brought, likewise, satisfactory evidence, to prove that Becket was almost as eager for procuring the archbishopric, | as his master could be to raise him to that dignity. After he had received his pall from pope Alexander III. then residing in France, he immediately sent messengers to the king in Normandy, with his resignation of the seal and office of chancellor. This displeased the king; so that upon his return to England, when he was met at his landing by the archbishop, he received him in a cold and indifferent manner.

Becket now betook himself to a quite different manner of life, and put on all the gravity and austerity of a monk. He began likewise to exert himself with great zeal, in defence of the rights and privileges of the church of Canterbury; and in many cases proceeded with so much warmth and obstinacy, as raised him many enemies. Pope Alexander III. held a general council of his prelates at Tours in April 1163, at which Becket was present, and was probably animated by the pope in his design of becoming the champion for the liberties of the church and the immunities of the clergy. It is certain that on his return he prosecuted this design with such zeal that the king and he came to an open rupture Henry endeavoured to recall certain privileges of the clergy, who had greatly abused their exemption from the civil courts, concerning which the king had received several complaints; while the archbishop stood up for the immunities of the clergy. The king convened a synod of the bishops at Westminster, and here demanded that the clergy, when accused of any capital offence, might take their trials in the usual courts of justice. The question put to the bishops was, Whether, in consideration of their duty and allegiance to the king, and of the interest and peace of the kingdom, they were willing to promise a submission to the laws of his grandfather, king Henry? To this the archbishop replied, in the name of the whole body, that they were willing to be bound by the ancient laws of the kingdom, as far as the privileges of the order would permit, salvo ordine suo. The king was highly displeased with this answer, and insisted on having an absolute compliance, without any reservation whatever; but the archbishop would by no means submit, and the rest of the bishops adhered for some time to their primate. Several of the bishops being at length gained over, and the pope interposing in the quarrel, Becket was prevailed on to acquiesce; and soon after the king summoned a convention or parliament at Clarendon, in 1164, wheje several laws | were passed relating to the privileges of the clergy, called from thence, the Constitutions of Clarendon. But before the meeting of this assembly, Becket had again changed his rnind, and when he appeared before the council, he obstinately refused to obey the laws as he had before agreed. This equally disappointed and enraged the king, and it was not until after some days debate, and the personal entreaties, and even tears, of some of his particular friends, that Becket was again softened, and appearing before the council, solemnly promised and swore, in the words of truth and without any reserve, to obey all the royal laws and customs which had been established in England in the reign of his majesty’s grandfather Henry L The constitutions of Clarendon were then put in writing, read in the council, and one copy of them delivered to the primate, another to the archbishop of York, and a third deposited among the records of the kingdom. By them ecclesiastics of all denominations were reduced to a due subjection to the laws of their country; they also limited the jurisdiction of spiritual courts, guarded against appeals to Rome, and the pronouncing of interdicts and excommunications, without the consent of the king or his judiciary.

As it was with visible reluctance that Becket had sworn to obey these constitutions, he soon began to give indications of his repentance, by extraordinary acts of mortification, and by refraining from performing the sacred offices of his function. He also dispatched a special messenger, with an account of what had happened, to the pope, who sent him a bull, releasing him from the obligation of his oath, and enjoining him to resume the duties of his sacred office. But though this bull reconciled his conscience to the breach of his oath, it did not dispel his fears of the royal indignation, to avoid which he determined to retire privately out of the kingdom. Accordingly he went aboard a ship, in order to make his escape beyond sea but before he could reach the coast of France, the wind shifting about, he was driven back to England, and, conscious that he had done amiss, he waited upon the king at Woodstock, who received him without any other expression of displeasure than asking him if he had left England because he thought it too little to contain both? Notwithstanding the mildness of this rebuke, Becket persisted in setting the clergy above the laws; and therefore the king summoned a parliament at Northampton, 1165, where the archbishop | having been accused of failure of duty and allegiance to the king, was sentenced to forfeit all his goods and chattels. Becket made an appeal to the pope but this having availed nothing, and finding himself deserted by his brethren, he withdrew privately from Northampton, and went aboard a ship for Graveline in Holland, from whence he retired to the monastery of St. Bertin in Flanders.

The king seized upon the revenues of the archbishopric, and sent an ambassador to the French king, desiring him not to give shelter to Becket: but the French court espoused his cause, in hopes that the misunderstanding betwixt him and Henry might embarrass the affairs of England; and accordingly when Becket came from St. Bertin to Soissons, the French king paid him a visit, and offered him his protection. Soon after the archbishop went to Sens; where he was honourably received by the pope, into whose hands he in form resigned the archbishopric of Canterbury, and was presently re-instated in his dignity by the pope, who promised to espouse his interest. The archbishop removed from Sens to the abbey of Pontigny in Normandy, from whence he wrote a letter to the bishops of England, informing them, that the pope had annulled the Constitutions of Clarendon. From hence too he issued put excommunications against several persons, who had violated the rights of the church. This conduct of his raised him many enemies. The king was so enraged against him for excommunicating several of his officers of state, that he banished all Becket’s relations, and compelled them to take an oath, that they would travel directly to Pontigny, and shew themselves to the archbishop. An order was likewise published, forbidding all persons to correspond with him by letters, to send him any money, or so much as to pray for him in the churches. He wrote also to the general chapter of the Cistertians, threatening to Seize all their estates in England, if they allowed Becket to continue in the abbey of Pontigny. The archbishop thereupon removed to Sens; and from thence, upon the king of France’s recommendation, to the abbey of St. Columba, where he remained four years. In the mean time, the bishops of the province of Canterbury wrote a letter to the archbishop, entreating him to alter his behaviour, and not to widen the breach, so as to render an accommodation impracticable betwixt him and the king. This, however, no effect on the archbishop. The pope also sent two | cardinals to try to reconcile matters but the legates finding both parties inflexible, gave over the attempt, and re*­turned to Rome.

The beginning of 1167, Becket was at length so far prevailed upon as to have an interview with Henry and the king of France, at Mont-Moral in Champaigne. He made a speech to Henry in very submissive terms and concluded with leaving him the umpire of the difference between them, saving the honour of God. Henry was provoked at this clause of reservation, and said, that whatever Becket did not relish, he would pronounce contrary to the honour of God. “However,” added the king, “to shew my inclination to accommodate matters, I will make him this proposition: I have had many predecessors, kings of England, some greater and some inferior to myself; there have been likewise many great and holy men in the see of Canterbury. Let Becket therefore but pay me the same regard, and own my authority so far, as the greatest of his predecessors owned that of the least of mine, and I am satisfied. And, as I never forced him out of England, I give him leave to return at his pleasure; and am willing he should enjoy his archbishopric, with as ample privileges as any of his predecessors.” All who were present declared that Henry had shewn sufficient condescension. The king of France, surprised at the archbishop’s silence, asked him why he hesitated to accept such reasonable conditions? Becket replied, he was willing to receive his see upon the terms his predecessors held it; but as for those customs which broke in upon the canons, he could not admit them; for he looked upon this as betraying the cause of religion. And thus the interview ended without any effect.

In 1169, endeavours were again used to accommodate matters, but they proved ineffectual. The archbishop refused to comply, because Henry would not give him the customary salute, or kiss of peace, which his majesty would have granted, had he not once swore in a passion never to salute the archbishop on the cheek; but he declared that he would bear him no ill will for the omission of this ceremony. Henry became at length so irritated against this prelate, that he ordered all his English subjects to take an oath, whereby they renounced the authority of Becket and pope Alexander: most of the laity complied with this order, but few of the clergy acquiesced. The following year king Henry, upon his return to England, ordered his son, prince | Henry, to be crowned at Westminster, and the ceremony was performed by the archbishop of York: this office belonged to the see of Canterbury; and Becket complained of it to the pope, who suspended the archbishop of York, and excommunicated the bishops who assisted him.

This year, however, an accommodation was at length concluded betwixt Henry and Becket, upon the confines of Normandy,where the king held the bridle of Becket’s horse, while he mounted and dismounted twice. Soon after the archbishop embarked for England; and upon his arrival, received an order from the young king to absolve the suspended and excommunicated bishops; but refusing to comply, the archbishop of York, and the bishops of London and Salisbury, carried their complaint to the king in Normandy, who was highly provoked at this fresh instance of obstinacy in Becket, and said on the occasion, “That he was an unhappy prince, who maintained a great number of lazy, insignificant persons about him, none of whom had gratitude or spirit enough to revenge him on a single, insolent prelate, who gave him so much disturbance,’ 7 or as some report his words,” Shall this fellow, who came to court on a lame horse, with all his estate in a wallet behind him, trample upon his king, the royal family, and the whole kingdom? Will none of all these lazycowardly knights whom I maintain, deliver me from this turbulent priest?" This passionate exclamation made too deep an impression on some of those who heard it, particularly on the four following barons, Reginald Fitz-Urse, William de Tracy, Hugh de Morville, and Richard Breto, who formed a resolution, either to terrify the archbishop into submission, or to put him to death.

Having laid their plan, they left the court at different times, and took different routes, to prevent suspicion; but being conducted by the devil, as some monkish historians tell us, they all arrived at the castle of Ranulph de Broc, about six miles from Canterbury, on the same day, Dec. 28, 1170, and almost at the same hour. Here they settled the whole scheme of their proceedings, and next morning early set out for Canterbury, accompanied by a body of resolute men, with arms concealed under their clothes. These men they placed in different parts of the city, to prevent any interruption from the citizens. The four barons above-named then went unarmed with twelve of their company, to the archiepiscopal palace, about eleven o’clock | in the forenoon, and were admitted into the apartment where the arehbishop sat conversing with some of his clergy. After their admission a long silence ensued, which was at length broken by Reginald Fitz-Urse, who told the archbishop that they were sent by the king to command him to absolve the prelates, and others, whom he had excommunicated; and then to go to Winchester, and make satisfaction to the young king, whom he had endeavoured to dethrone. On this a very long and violent altercation followed, in the course of which they gave several hints, that his life was in danger if he did not comply. Bat he remained undaunted in his refusal. At their departure they charged his servants not to allow him to flee; on which he cried out with great vehemence, “Flee! I will never flee from any man living; I am not come to flee, but to defy the rage of impious assassins.” When they were gone, his friends blamed him for the roughness of his answers, which had inflamed the fury of his enemies, and earnestly pressed him to make his escape but he only answered, “I have no need of your advice I know what I ought to do.” The barons, with their accomplices, finding their threats were ineffectual, put on their coats of mail; and taking each a sword in his right hand, and an axe in his left, returned to the palace, but found the gate shut. When they were preparing to break it open, Robert de Broc conducted them up a back stair-case, and let them in at a window. A cry then arose, “they are armed! they are armed!” on which the clergy hurried the archbishop almost by force into the church, hoping that the sacredness of the place would protect him from violence. They would also have shut the door, but he cried out, “Begone, ye cowards! I charge you on your obedience, do not shut the door. What! will you make a castle of a church?” The conspirators having searched the palace, came to the church, and one of them crying, “Where is the traitor? where is the archbishop?” Becket advanced boldly and said, “Here I am, an archbishop, but no traitor.” “Flee,” cried the conspirator, “or you are a dead man.” “I will never flee,” replied Becket. William de Tracy then took hold of his robe, and said, “You are my prisoner; come along with me.” But Becket seizing him by the collar, shook him with so much force, that he almost threw him down. De Tracy, enraged at this resistance, aimed a blow with his sword, which almost cut off the arm of one Edward | Grim, a priest, and slightly wounded the archbishop on the head. By three other blows given by the other conspirators, his skull was cloven almost in two, and his brains scattered about the pavement of the church.

The assassins, conscious of their crime, and dreading its consequences, durst not return to the king’s court at Normandy, but retired to Knaresburgh in Yorkshire; where every body avoided their company, hardly any person even choosing to eat or drink with them. They at length took a voyage to Home, and being admitted to penance by pope Alexander III. they went to Jerusalem; where, according to the pope’s order, they spent their lives in penitential austerities, and died in the Black Mountain. They were buried at Jerusalem, without the church door belonging to the Templars, and this inscription was put over them:

Hie jacent miseri, qui martyrizaverunt beatum Archiepiscopum


King Henry was much disturbed at the news of Becket’s death, and immediately dispatched an embassy to Rome-to clear himself from the imputation of being the cause of it. Immediately all divine offices ceased in the church of Canterbury; and this for a year, excepting nine days, at the end of which, by order of the pope, it was re-consecrated. Two years after, Becket was canonized; an’d the following year, Henry, returning to England, went to Canterbury, where he did penance as a testimony of his regret for the murder of Becket. When he came within sight of the church, where the archbishop was buried, he alighted off his horse, and walked barefoot, in the habit of a pilgrim, till he came to Becket’s tomb; where, after he had prostrated himself, and prayed for a considerable time, he submitted to be scourged by the monks, and passed all that day and night without any refreshment, and kneeling upon the bare stone. In 1221, Becket’s body was taken up, in the presence of king Henry III. and several nobility, &nd deposited in a rich shrine on the east side of the church. The miracles said to be wrought at his tomb were so numerous, that we are told two large volumes of them were kept in that church. His shrine was visited from all parts, and enriched with the most costly gifts and offerings.

According to lord Lyttelton, who appears to have studied the character of this turbulent prelate with great care, Becket was “a man of great talents, of elevated thoughts, | and of invincible courage; but of a most violent and turbulent spirit; excessively passionate, haughty, and vainglorious; in his resolutions inflexible, in his resentments implacable. It cannot be denied that he was guilty of a wilful and premeditated perjury; that he opposed the necessary course of public justice, and acted in defiance of the laws of his country; laws which he had most solemnly acknowledged and confirmed: nor is it less evident, that, during the heat of this dispute, he was in the highest degree ungrateful to a very kind master, whose confidence in him had been boundless, and who from a private condition had advanced him to be the second man in his kingdom. On what motives he acted, can be certainly judged of by Him alone, ‘ to whom all hearts are open.’ He might be misled by the prejudices of a bigotted age, and think he was doing an acceptable service to God, in contending, even to death, for the utmost excess of ecclesiastical and papal authority. Yet the strength of his understanding, his conversation in courts and camps, among persons whose iiotions were more free and enlarged, the different colour of his former life, and the suddenness of the change which seemed to be wrought in him upon his election to Canterbury, would make one suspect, as many did in the times wherein he lived, that he only became the champion of the church from an ambitious desire of sharing its power; a power more independent on the favour of the king, and therefore more agreeable to the haughtiness of his mind, than that which he had enjoyed as a minister of the crown. And this suspicion is increased by the marks of cunning and falseness, which are evidently seen in his conduct on some occasions. Neither is it impossible, that, when first he assumed his new character, he might act the part of a, zealot, merely or principally from motives of arrogance and ambition; yet, afterwards, being engaged, and inflamed by the contest, work himself up into a real enthusiasm. The continual praises of those with whom he acted, the honours done him in his exile by all the clergy of France, and the vanity which appears so predominant in Ins mind, may have conduced to operate such a change. He certainly shewed in the latter part of his life a spirit as fervent as the warmest enthusiast’s; such a spirit indeed as constitutes heroism, when it exerts itself in a cause beneficial to mankind. Had he defended the established laws of his country, and the fundamental rules of civil justice, | with as much zeal and intrepidity as he opposed them, he would have deserved to be ranked with those great men, whose virtues make one e?sily forget the allay of some natural imperfections: but, unhappily, his good qualities were so misapplied, that they became no less hurtful to the public weal of the kingdom, than the worst of his vices.

On the other hand, Mr. Berington, in his “History of the reign of Henry If.” has attempted a vindication of Becket, in which he differs considerably from lord Lyttelton and other protestant historians, but for this w must refer to the book itself. Few men have had more biographers, if reliance could be placed on them, than Becket, but unfortunately the greater part of them were his panegyrists, and not his historians, and too much under the influence of the monkish principles of their days, to deserve much credit. The following list, however, of his biographers may afford some information to the curious inquirer, taken from Leland, Bale, Pits, and others. 1. Herbert Bosenham, or Bosscham, or de Hoscham, who was this archbishop’s secretary, and also present at the slaughter of him. 2. Edward, a monk, of Canterbury, the martyr’s most intimate friend. 3. Johannes Sarisburiensis, who accompanied Becket in his exile, but never countenanced his behaviour towards the king, being as sharp a writer against the encroachments of the papal see, as any man of his time. 4. Bartholomseus Iscanus, or Exonensis, bisiiop of Exeter, where he died in 118k 5. E. a monk of Eveshatn, who dedicated his book, or wrote it by way of epistle, to Henry, abbot of Croyland. 6. William Stephens, or Fitz-Stephen, a monk of Canterbury, and, for at reason, usually called Gulielmus Cantuariensis. He said to have written three several treatises of the life, martyrdom, and miracles of St. Thomas Becket; which are now in the Cotton library: But that, which there carries his name, seems to have been penned by Johannes Carnotensis, who is the same person with Sarisburiensis above mentioned, since, in the Quadripartite History, what we have from him is often to be found, in the same words, in the life there ascribed to Fitz-Stephen. 7. Benedictus Petroburgensis, abbot of Peterborough, who died in 1200. 8. Alanus Teukesburiensis, abbot of Tewkesbury, who died about the same time. 9. Roger, a monk of Croyland, who lived about 1214. It is observed, that St. Thomas’s miracles were become so numerous in this writer’s time, that | he had matter for seven large volumes, in composing of which he spent no less than fifteen years. 10. Stephen Langton, a famous successor of Becket’s in the see of Canterbury, whose work on this subject is said be in the library of Bene’t college. 11. Alexander de Hales, so called from the monastery of Hales in Gloucestershire, where he was educated, one of the most eminent schoolmen of his age, and master to Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, &c. 12. John Grandison, or Graunston, who died in 1369. 13. Quadrilogus, or the author of a book, entitled “De vita et processu S.Thomae Cantuariensiset Martyris super Libertate Ecclesiastica.” It is collected out of four historians, who were contemporary and conversant with Becket, viz. Herbert de Hoscham, Johannes Carnotensis, Gulielmus Canterburiensis, and Alanus Teukesburiensis, who are introduced as so many relaters of facts interchangeably. This book was first printed at Paris in 1495, and is often quoted by our historians, in the reign of Henry II. by the name of Quadripartita Historia. 14. Thomas Stapleton, the translator of Bede, in whose book De tribus Thomis, or Of the three Thomas’s, our saint makes as considerable a figure as either Thomas the Apostle, or Thomas Aquinas. 15. Laurence Vade, or Wade, a Benedictine monk of Canterbury, who lived and died we know not when, or where; unless perhaps he be the same person with 16. An anonymous writer of Becket’s life, who appears to have been a monk of that church, and whose book is said to be in the library at Lambeth. 17. Richard James, nephew of Dr. Thomas James, some time keeper of the Bodleian library; a very industrious and eminent antiquary, who endeavoured to overthrow the great design of all the above-mentioned authors, in his “Decanonizatio Thomse Cantuariensis et suorum,” which, with other manuscript pieces by the same hand, is in the public library at Oxford. These are the principal writers of our archbishop’s life besides whom, several other historians have spoken largely of him as John Bromton, Matthew Paris, Gervase, &c. 1


Biog. Brit. Henry’s History of Great Britain, vol. V. Lyttelton’s Hist, of Henry II. Berington’s ditto, &c.