« Prev Thomas Becket and Henry II of England Next »

§ 31. Thomas Becket and Henry II of England.


For the extensive Becket literature, see Robertson, in "The Contemporary Review," 1866, I. (Jan.) 270–278, and Ulysse Chevalier, in his Répertoire des sources historiques du Moyen Age (Paris, 1886), s. v. "Thomas," fol. 2207–2209.


I. Sources: —

*Materials for the History of Thomas `a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. Edited by James Craigie Robertson (Canon of Canterbury, d. 1882) and J. Brigstocke Sheppard, LL. D. London, 1875–1885, 7 vols. This magnificent work is part of a series of Rerum Britannic. Medii Aevi Scriptores, or "Chronicles and Memorials of Great Britain and Ireland during the Middle Ages," published under direction of the Master of the Rolls and popularly known as the "Rolls Series." It embraces all the important contemporary materials for the history of Thomas. Vols. I.-IV. contain the contemporary Vitae (by William of Canterbury, Benedict of Peterborough, Edward Grim, Roger of Pontigny, William Fitz-Stephen, John of Salisbury, Alan of Tewkesbury, and Herbert of Bosham, etc.); vols. V.-VII., the Epistolae, i.e. the whole correspondence relating to Thomas.

This collection is much more accurate, complete, and better arranged (especially in the Epistles) than the older collection of Dr. Giles (Sanctus Thomas Cantuariensis, London, 1845–1846, 8 vols., reprinted in Migne’s Patrologia, Tom. 190), and the Quadrilogus or Historia Quadripartita (Lives by four contemporary writers, composed by order of Pope Gregory XI., first published, 1495, then by L. Christian Lupus or Wolf, Brussels, 1682, and Venice, 1728).

Thómas Saga Erkibyskups. A Life of Archb. Th. Becket in Icelandic, with Engl. transl., notes, and glossary, ed. by Eiríkr Magnússon. London, 1875, and 1883, 2 vols. Part of the "Chronicles and Memorials," above quoted.

Garnier of Pont Sainte-Maxence: La Vie de St. Thomas le martir. A metrical life, in old French, written between 1172 and 1174, published by Hippeau, and more recently by Professor Bekker, Berlin, 1844, and Paris, 1859.

The Life And Martyrdom Of Thomas Becket by Robert of Gloucester. Ed. By W. H. Black. London, 1845 (p. 141). A Biography In Alexandrine verse, written in the thirteenth century.


II. Modern Works: —

Richard Hurrell Froude (one of the originators of the Oxford Anglo-Catholic movement, d. 1836): Remains. London, 1838, 4 vols. The second vol., part II., contains a history of the contest between Thomas à Becket and Henry II., in vindication of the former. He was assisted by J. H. (late Cardinal) Newman.

A. F. Ozanam: Deux Chanceliers d’Angleterre, Bacon de Verulam et Saint Thomas de Cantorbéry. Paris, 1836.

J. A. Giles: The Life And Letters Of Thomas à Becket. London, 1846, 2 vols.

F. J. Buss (Rom. Cath.): Der heil. Thomas und sein Kampf für die Freiheit der Kirche. Mainz, 1856.

John Morris (Rom. Cath. Canon of Northampton): The Life and Martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket. London, 1859.

*James Craigie Robertson: Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. London, 1859. Accurate, but unfavorable to Becket.

*Edw. A. Freeman: St. Thomas of Canterbury and his Biographers. A masterly article in the "National Review" for April, 1860, reprinted in his "Historical Essays," London, 1871, pp. 99–114. Comp. the summary in his History of the Norman Conquest, V. 660 sqq., and his articles against Froude, noticed below.

*James Anthony Froude: Life and Times of Thomas Becket. First published in "The Nineteenth Century" for 1877, then in book form, London and New York, 1878 (pp. 160). Against the Roman and Anglo-Catholic overestimate of St. Thomas. This book is written in brilliant style, but takes a very unfavorable view of Becket (opposite to that of his elder brother, R. H. Froude), and led to a somewhat personal controversy with Professor Freeman, who charged Froude with habitual inaccuracy, unfairness, and hostility to the English Church, in, "The Contemporary Review" for 1878 (March, April, June, and September). Froude defended himself in "The Nineteenth Century" for April, 1879, pp. 618–637, to which Freeman replied in Last Words on Mr. Froude, in "The Contemporary Review" for May, 1879, pp. 214–236.

*R. A. Thompson: Thomas Becket, Martyr, London, 1889.—A. S. Huillier: St. Thomas de Cantorbèry, 2 vols., Paris, 1892.

*Edwin A. Abbott: St. Thomas of Canterbury. His Death and Miracles, 2 vols., London, 1888. This work grew out of studies in preparation of a critical commentary of the Four Gospels. It takes the early narratives of Thomas à Becket, sets them side by side, and seeks to show which are to be accepted upon the basis of disagreements in regard to event or verbal expression. It also presents the details in which Dean Stanley and Tennyson are alleged to have been misled. The criticism is able, stimulating, and marked by self-confidence in determining what events really did occur, and how much is to be discarded as unhistoric. The discussion has all the merits and demerits of the strict critical method.


III. Becket is more or less fully treated by Milman: Latin Christianity, bk. VIII. ch. VIII.—Dean Stanley: Historical Memorials of Canterbury, Am. ed., 1889.—Reuter: Alexander III., I. 237 sqq., 530 sqq. Dean Hook: Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury, II. 354–508. Greenwood: Cathedra Petri, bk. XII. ch. VII.—William Stubbs: The Constitutional Hist. of England, 6th ed., 3 vols., Oxford, 1897, and Select Charters and Other Illustrations of the English Constit. Hist., 8th ed., Oxford, 1900.—Gee and Hardy: Documents Illustrative of Engl. Ch. Hist., London, 1896.—F. W. Maitland: Rom. Canon Late in the Ch. of England, London, 1898, 134–147.—W. R. W. Stephens: The English Church (1066–1272), London, 1901, 157–190. The Histories of Lingard, Green, etc.

Lord Tennyson has made Becket the subject of a historical drama, 1884.


During the pontificate of Alexander III., the papal hierarchy achieved an earlier and greater triumph over the king of England than over the emperor of Germany.

Thomas Becket, or Thomas à Becket, or St. Thomas of Canterbury, is, next to Alexander and Barbarossa, the most prominent historical figure in the twelfth century, and fills a chapter of thrilling interest in the history of England. He resumed the conflict of Anselm with the crown, and by his martyrdom became the most popular saint of the later Middle Ages.

The materials for his history, from his birth in London to his murder in his own cathedral by four knights of the royal household, are abundant. We have six or seven contemporary biographies, besides fragments, legends, and "Passions," state papers, private letters, and a correspondence extending over the whole Latin Church. But his life is surrounded by a mist of romantic legends and theological controversies. He had extravagant admirers, like Herbert of Bosham, and fierce opponents, like Gilbert Foliot, in his own day; and modern biographers still differ in the estimate of his character, according to their creed and their views on the question of Church and State, some regarding him as a hero and a saint, others as a hypocrite and a traitor. We must judge him from the standpoint of the twelfth century.

Becket was born in London, Dec. 21, 1118, during the reign of Henry I. He was the son of Gilbert Becket, a merchant in Cheapside, originally from Rouen, and of Matilda or Rose, a native of Caen in Normandy.150150    The Norman descent of Becket rests on contemporary testimony, and is accepted by Giles, Lingard, Robertson, Milman, Hook, Freeman, Reuter, Hefele. The commercial advantages of London attracted emigrants from Normandy. Lord Lyttleton, Thierry, Campbell, and J. A. Froude make Becket a Saxon, but without authority. Becket is a surname, and may be Norman as well as Saxon. The prefix à seems to be of later date, and to have its origin (according to Robertson and Hook) in vulgar colloquial usage.

In the later legend his father appears as a gallant crusader and his mother as a Saracen princess, who met in the East and fell in love with each other. Matilda helped Gilbert to escape from captivity, and then followed him alone to England. Knowing only two English words, "London" and "Gilbert," she wandered through the streets of the city, till at last she found her beloved in Cheapside as by a miracle, was baptized and married to him in St. Paul’s with great splendor. She had dreams of the future greatness and elevation of her infant son to the see of Canterbury.

Becket was educated at Merton Abbey in Surrey and in the schools of London. At a later period he attended the universities of Paris, Bologna, and Auxerre, and studied there chiefly civil and canon law, without attaining to special eminence in learning. He was not a scholar, but a statesman and an ecclesiastic.

He made his mark in the world and the Church by the magnetism of his personality. He was very handsome, of tall, commanding presence, accomplished, brilliant, affable, cheerful in discourse, ready and eloquent in debate, fond of hunting and hawking, and a proficient in all the sports of a mediaeval cavalier. He could storm the strongest castle and unhorse the stoutest knight.

Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, 1139–1161, took him into his service, 1142; sent him to Bologna, where Gratian then taught canon law; employed him in delicate missions with the papal court; made him archdeacon (1154), and bestowed upon him other profitable benefices, as the provostship of Beverly, a number of churches, and several prebends. When charged, as archbishop, with ingratitude to the king, who had raised him from "poverty," he proudly referred to this accumulation of preferments, and made no attempt to abolish the crying evil of plurality, which continued till the Reformation. Many a prosperous ecclesiastic regarded his parishes simply as sources of income, and discharged the duties by proxy through ignorant and ill-paid priests.

King Henry II., 1154–1189, in the second year of his reign, raised Becket, then only thirty-seven years of age, at Theobald’s instance, to the chancellorship of England. The chancellor was the highest civil dignitary, and held the custody of nearly all the royal grants and favors, including vacant bishoprics, abbacies, chaplaincies, and other ecclesiastical benefices.

Henry, the first of the proud Plantagenets, was an able, stirring, and energetic monarch. He kept on his feet from morning till evening, and rarely sat down. He introduced a reign of law and severe justice after the lawless violence and anarchy which had disturbed the reign of the unfortunate Stephen.151151    Tennyson describes Stephen’s reign as—
   "A reign which was no reign, when none could sit

   By his own hearth in peace; when murder common

   As nature’death, like Egypt’s plague, had filled

   All things with blood."
nental dominions were more extensive than those of the king of France, and embraced Maine and Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine, reaching from Flanders to the foot of the Pyrenees. He afterwards (1171) added Ireland by conquest, with the authority of Popes Adrian IV. and Alexander III. His marriage to Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had been divorced for infidelity from King Louis VII. of France, enriched his realm, but involved him in protracted wars with France and in domestic troubles. Eleanor was jealous of her rivals,152152    The tradition ran that she poisoned his favorite concubine, Rosamund de Clifford, who, with her labyrinthine bower, figures largely in the literature of romance, also in Tennyson’s Becket. On her tomb were inscribed the lines:—
   "Hic jacet in tumba Rosa Mundi, non Rosa Munda,

   Non redolet, sed olet, quae redolere solet."

   "Here Rose the graced, not Rose the chaste, reposes;

   The smell that rises is no smell of roses."
afterwards retired to the abbey of Fontevrault, and died about 1203.

Becket occupied the chancellorship for seven years (1155–1162). He aided the king in the restoration of order and peace. He improved the administration of justice. He was vigorous and impartial, and preferred the interests of the crown to those of the clergy, yet without being hostile to the Church. He was thoroughly loyal to the king, and served him as faithfully as he had served Theobald, and as he afterwards served the pope. Thorough devotion to official duty characterized him in all the stations of his career.

He gave to his high office a prominence and splendor which it never had before. He was as magnificent and omnipotent as Wolsey under Henry VIII. He was king in fact, though not in name, and acted as regent during Henry’s frequent absences on the Continent. He dressed after the best fashion, surrounded himself with a brilliant retinue of a hundred and forty knights, exercised a prodigal hospitality, and spent enormous sums upon his household and public festivities, using in part the income of his various ecclesiastical benefices, which he retained without a scruple. He presided at royal banquets in Westminster Hall. His tables were adorned with vessels of gold, with the most delicate and sumptuous food, and with wine of the choicest vintage. He superintended the training of English and foreign nobles, and of the young Prince Henry. He was the favorite of the king, the army, the nobility, the clergy, and the people.

The chancellor negotiated in person a matrimonial alliance (three years before it was consummated) between the heir of the crown (then a boy of seven years) and a daughter of the king of France (a little lady of three). He took with him on that mission two hundred knights, priests, standard-bearers, all festively arrayed in new attire, twenty-four changes of raiment, all kinds of dogs and birds for field sports, eight wagons, each drawn by five horses, each horse in charge of a stout young man dressed in a new tunic. Coffers and chests contained the chancellor’s money and presents. One horse, which preceded all the rest, carried the holy vessels of his chapel, the holy books, and the ornaments of the altar. The Frenchmen, seeing this train, exclaimed, "How wonderful must be the king of England, whose chancellor travels in such state!" In Paris he freely distributed his gold and silver plate and changes of raiment,—to one a robe, to another a furred cloak, to a third a pelisse, to a fourth a war-horse. He gained his object and universal popularity.

When, notwithstanding his efforts to maintain peace, war broke out between France and England, the chancellor was the bravest warrior at the head of seven hundred knights, whom he had enlisted at his own expense, and he offered to lead the storming party at the siege of Toulouse, where King Louis was shut up; but the scruples of Henry prevented him from offering violence to the king of France. He afterwards took three castles which were deemed impregnable, and returned triumphant to England. One of his eulogists, Edward Grim, reports to his credit: "Who can recount the carnage, the desolation, which he made at the head of a strong body of soldiers? He attacked castles, razed towns and cities to the ground, burned down houses and farms without a touch of pity, and never showed the slightest mercy to any one who rose in insurrection against his master’s authority." Such cruelty was quite compatible with mediaeval conceptions of piety and charity, as the history of the crusades shows.

Becket was made for the court and the camp. Yet, though his life was purely secular, it was not immoral. He joined the king in his diversions, but not in his debaucheries. Being in deacon’s orders, he was debarred from marriage, but preserved his chastity at a profligate court. This point is especially mentioned to his credit; for chastity was a rare virtue in the Middle Ages.

All together, his public life as chancellor was honorable and brilliant, and secures him a place among the distinguished statesmen of England. But a still more important career awaited him.153153    Freeman, who exalts him as chancellor, thinks that he failed as archbishop; but his martyrdom was his greatest triumph.



« Prev Thomas Becket and Henry II of England Next »
Please login or register to save highlights and make annotations
Corrections disabled for this book
Proofing disabled for this book
Printer-friendly version





Advertisements



| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |