« Prev The Archbishop and the King Next »

§ 32. The Archbishop and the King.

Compare §§ 22–24 (pp. 80 sqq.).

A year after the death of Theobald, April 18, 1161, Becket was appointed by the king archbishop of Canterbury. He accepted reluctantly, and warned the king, with a smile, that he would lose a servant and a friend.154154    Tennyson ingeniously introduces his drama with a game of chess between Henry and Becket, during which the king informs the chancellor of the fatal illness of Theobald, and speaks of the need of a mightier successor, who would punish guilty clerks; while the chancellor quietly moves his bishop and checkmates the king; whereupon Henry kicks over the board, saying—
   "Why, there then—down go bishop and king together."
t of Hereford (afterwards of London) remarked sarcastically, perhaps from disappointed ambition, that "the king had wrought a miracle in turning a layman into an archbishop, and a soldier into a saint."

Becket was ordained priest on the Saturday after Pentecost, and consecrated archbishop on the following day with great magnificence in Westminster Abbey, June 3, 1162. His first act was to appoint the Sunday after Whitsunday as a festival of the Holy Trinity in the Church of England. He acknowledged Alexander III. as the rightful pope, and received from him the pallium through his friend, John of Salisbury.

He was the first native Englishman who occupied the seat of the primate since the Norman Conquest; for Lanfranc and Anselm were Italians; Ralph of Escures, William Of Corbeuil, and Theobald of Bec were Normans or Frenchmen. There is, however, no ground for the misleading theory of Thierry that Becket asserted the cause of the Saxon against the Norman. His contest with the king was not a contest between two nationalities, but between Church and State. He took the same position on this question as his Norman predecessors, only with more zeal and energy. He was a thorough Englishman. The two nations had at that time, by intermarriage, social and commercial intercourse, pretty well coalesced, at least among the middle classes, to which he belonged.155155    "Though of Norman blood, his whole feeling, his whole character is English, and it is clear that no man looked on him as a stranger." Freeman (l.c., pp. 101 sq.).

With the change of office, Becket underwent a radical and almost sudden transformation. The foremost champion of kingcraft became the foremost champion of priestcraft; the most devoted friend of the king, his most dangerous rival and enemy; the brilliant chancellor, an austere and squalid monk. He exchanged the showy court dress for haircloth infested with vermin, fed on roots, and drank nauseous water. He daily washed, with proud humility and ostentatious charity, the feet of thirteen dirty beggars, and gave each of them four pieces of silver. He doubled the charities of Theobald, as Theobald had doubled the charities of his predecessor. He wandered alone in his cloister, shedding tears of repentance for past sins, frequently inflicted stripes on his naked back, and spent much time in prayer and reading of the Scriptures. He successfully strove to realize the ideal of a mediaeval bishop, which combines the loftiest ecclesiastical pretensions with personal humility, profuse charity, and ascetic self-mortification. He was no hypocrite, but his sanctity, viewed from the biblical and Protestant standpoint, was artificial and unnatural.

His relation to the king was that of the pope to the emperor. Yea, we may say, as he had outkinged the king as chancellor, so he outpoped the pope as archbishop. He censured the pope for his temporizing policy. He wielded the spiritual sword against Henry with the same gallantry with which he had wielded the temporal sword for him. He took up the cause of Anselm against William Rufus, and of Gregory VII. against Henry IV., but with this great difference, that he was not zealous for a moral reformation of the Church and the clergy, like Hildebrand and Anselm, but only for the temporal power of the Church and the rights and immunities of the clergy. He made no attempt to remove the scandal of pluralities of which he had himself been guilty as archdeacon and chancellor, and did not rebuke Henry for his many sins against God, but only for his sins against the supremacy of the hierarchy.

The new archbishop was summoned by Pope Alexander III. to a council at Tours in France, and was received with unusual distinction (May, 1163). The council consisted of seventeen cardinals, a hundred and twenty-four bishops, four hundred and fourteen abbots; the pope presided in person; Becket sat at his right, Roger of York at his left. Arnolf of Lisieux in Normandy preached the opening sermon on the unity and freedom of the Church, which were the burning questions of the day. The council unanimously acknowledged the claims of Alexander, asserted the rights and privileges of the clergy, and severely condemned all encroachments on the property of the Church.

This was the point which kindled the controversy between the sceptre and the crozier in England. The dignity of the crown was the sole aim of the king; the dignity of the Church was the sole aim of the archbishop. The first rupture occurred over the question of secular taxation.

Henry determined to transfer the customary payment of two shillings on every hide of land to his own exchequer. Becket opposed the enrolment of the decree on the ground that the tax was voluntary, not of right. Henry protested, in a fit of passion, "By the eyes of God, it shall be enrolled!" Becket replied, "By the eyes of God, by which you swear, it shall never be levied on my lands while I live!"

Another cause of dispute was the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts. The king demanded that all clerics accused of gross misdemeanors be tried by the civil court. A certain clerk, Philip of Broi, had been acquitted of murder in the bishop’s court. The king was indignant, but Philip refused to plead in the civil court. The matter was taken up by the archbishop, but a light sentence imposed.

The king summoned a Parliament at Westminster, and demanded in the name of equal justice, and in accordance with "ancient customs" (of the Norman kings), that all clerks accused of heinous crimes should be immediately degraded, and be dealt with according to law, instead of being shielded by their office. This was contrary to the right of the priest to be tried only in the court of his bishop, where flagellation, imprisonment, and degradation might be awarded, but not capital punishment.

Becket and the bishops agreed that the king’s demand was an infringement of the canon law and argued the case from Scripture. Joab, and Abiathar the priest, were guilty of putting Adonijah to death. Joab was punished, but the priest suffered no other punishment than deposition from office. Nahum 1:9 was quoted as against a double tribunal for clerks. According to the Septuagint version, this passage declares that God does not give two judgments in the same case.

The king hastily broke up the Parliament, deprived Becket of the custody of the royal castles, and of the education of his son. The bishops advised the archbishop to yield; at first he refused, though an angel from heaven should counsel such weakness; but at last he made a concession to the king at Woodstock, and promised to obey in good faith the customs of the realm. He yielded at the persuasion of the pope’s almoner, Philip de Eleeomosyna, who was bribed by English gold.156156    Tennyson makes Becket say:—
   "This Almoner hath tasted Henry’s gold.

   The cardinals have fingered Henry’s gold.

   And Rome is venal even to rottenness."

The king summoned a great council of the realm to Clarendon, a royal palace a few miles from Salisbury, for the ratification of the concession (Jan. 25, 1164). The two archbishops, twelve bishops, and thirty-nine lay-barons were present. Sixteen famous statutes were enacted, under the name of The Clarendon Constitutions, as laws of England. They are as follows:157157    They are found in Matthew Paris, ad ann. 1164; Mansi, XXI. 1187; Wilkins, Concilia M. Britanniae, vol. I. Gieseler, II. 89 sqq. (Am. ed. II. 289 sq.); Reuter, I. 371-375, 573-577; Hefele-Knöpfler, V. 623-628 (in German); Stubbs, 135-140 (in Latin); Gee and Hardy, 68-73.


I. Of the advowson and presentation (de advocatione et presentatione) to churches: if any dispute shall arise between laics, or between clerks and laics, or between clerks, let it be tried and decided in the court of our lord the king.

II. Churches in the king’s fee (de feudo domini Regis) shall not be given in perpetuity without his consent and license.

III. Clerks accused of any crime shall be summoned by the king’s justiciaries into the king’s court to answer there for whatever the king’s court shall determine they ought to answer there; and in the ecclesiastical court, for whatever it shall be determined that they ought to answer there; yet so that the king’s justiciaries shall send into the court of holy Church to see in what way the matter shall there be handled; and if the clerk shall confess or be convicted, the Church for the future shall not protect him.158158    Maitland, p. 135 sqq., has thrown light upon this article, and interprets it to mean that a clerk is first to be accused and plead in the temporal court, then to be taken to the ecclesiastical court, and if found guilty and degraded he is to be returned to the temporal court and receive sentence to the layman’s punishment. This procedure was for civil crimes, such as robbery, rape, murder.

IV. No archbishop, bishop, or other exalted person shall leave the kingdom without the king’s license; and if they wish to leave it, the king shall be empowered, if he pleases, to take security from them, that they will do no harm to the king or kingdom, either in going or remaining, or in returning.

V. Persons excommunicated are not to give bail, ad remanentiam, nor to make oath, but only to give bail and pledge that they will stand by the judgment of the Church where they are absolved.

VI. Laics shall not be accused, save by certain and legal accusers and witnesses in presence of the bishop, so that the archdeacon may not lose his rights, or anything which accrues to him therefrom. And if those who are arraigned are such that no one is willing or dares to accuse them, the sheriff, on demand from the bishop, shall cause twelve loyal men of the village to swear before the bishop that they will declare the truth in that matter according to their conscience.

VII. No one who holds of the king in chief, nor any of his domestic servants, shall be excommunicated, nor his lands be put under an interdict, until the king shall be consulted, if he is in the kingdom; or, if he is abroad, his justiciary, that he may do what is right in that matter, and so that whatever belongs to the king’s court may therein be settled, and the same on the other hand of the ecclesiastical court.

VIII. Appeals, if they arise, must be made from the archdeacon to the bishop, and from the bishop to the archbishop; and if the archbishop shall fail in administering justice, the parties shall come before our lord the king, that by his precept the controversy may be terminated in the archbishop’s court, so that it may not proceed further without the consent of our lord the king.

IX. If a dispute shall arise between a clerk and a laic, or between a laic and a clerk, about a tenement, which the clerk wishes to claim as eleemosynary, but the laic claims as lay fee, it shall be settled by the declaration of twelve qualified men, through the agency of the king’s capital judiciary, whether the tenement is eleemosynary or lay fee, in presence of the king’s judiciaries. And if it shall be declared that it is eleemosynary, it shall be pleaded in the ecclesiastical court; but, if a lay fee, unless both shall claim the tenement of the same bishop or baron, it shall be pleaded in the king’s court; but if both shall claim of that fee from the same bishop or baron, it shall be pleaded in his court, yet so that the same declaration above-named shall not deprive of seizing him who before was seized, until he shall be divested by the pleadings.

X. If any man belonging to a city, castle, borough, or king’s royal manor shall be summoned by the archdeacon or bishop to answer for a crime, and shall not comply with the summons, it shall be lawful to place him under an interdict, but not to excommunicate him, until the king’s principal officer of that place be informed thereof, that he may justify his appearing to the summons; and if the king’s officer shall fail in that matter, he shall be at the king’s mercy, and the bishop shall forthwith coerce the party accused with ecclesiastical discipline.

XI. The archbishops, bishops, and all other persons of the kingdom, who hold of the king in chief, shall hold their possessions of the king as barony, and answer for the same to the king’s justiciaries and officers, and follow and observe all the king’s customs and rectitudes; and be bound to be present, in the judgment of the king’s court with the barons, like other barons, until the judgment proceeds to mutilation or death.

XII. When an archbishopric, bishopric, abbacy, or priory on the king’s domain shall be vacant, it shall be in his hand, and he shall receive from it all the revenues and proceeds, as of his domains. And when the time shall come for providing for that church, our lord the king shall recommend the best persons to that church, and the election shall be made in the king’s chapel, with the king’s consent, and the advice of the persons of the kingdom whom he shall have summoned for that purpose. And the person elected shall there do homage and fealty to our lord the king, as to his liege lord, of life and limb, and of his earthly honors saving his orders, before he is consecrated.

XIII. If any of the king’s nobles shall have refused to render justice to an archbishop or bishop or archdeacon, for himself or any of his men, our lord the king shall justice them. And if by chance any one shall have deforced our lord the king of his rights, the archbishops, bishops, and archdeacons shall justice him that he may render satisfaction to the king.

XIV. The chattels of those who are in forfeiture to the king shall not be detained by the Church or the cemetery, in opposition to the king’s justice, for they belong to the king, whether they are found in the Church or without.

XV. Pleas for debts which are due, whether with the interposition of a pledge of faith or not, belong to the king’s court.

XVI. The sons of rustics shall not be ordained without the consent of the lord, in whose land they are known to have been born.

These Constitutions were drawn up in the spirit and language of feudalism, under the inspiration of the king, by Archbishop Roger of York, Bishop Foliot of London (the chief enemies of Becket), Bishop Joceline of Salisbury, Richard de Luci (the king’s chief judiciary), and Joceline of Baliol. They are restrictions on the immunities of the clergy; the last is an invasion of the rights of the people, but is based on the canonical exclusion of slaves from the clerical order without the consent of their masters. They subject the clergy equally with the laity to the crown and the laws of the land. They reduce the Church to an imperium in imperio, instead of recognizing her as a distinct and independent imperium. They formulate in the shape of legal enactments certain "ancient customs" (consuetudines) which date from the time of William the Conqueror, and were conceded by Lanfranc; but they infringe at many points on the ancient privileges of the Church, and are inconsistent with the hierarchical principle of the exemption of the clergy from temporal jurisdiction. And this was the chief point of the quarrel between the king and the archbishop.

In the present state of civilization there can be no doubt that the clergy should obey the same laws and be subject to the same penalties as the laity. But we must not overlook the fact that in the Middle Ages the clerical exemption had a humanitarian as well as a hierarchical feature, and involved a protest against barbarous punishments by mutilation of the human body, man being made in the image of God. It prepared the way for a mitigation of the criminal code for the benefit of the whole people, the laity as well as the clergy. This explains the large amount of popular sympathy with the cause of Becket.

Becket gave a qualified assent. On his return to Canterbury he changed his mind and imposed upon himself severe penances, and sought and obtained the pope’s absolution from his oath. But Alexander, hard pressed by Barbarossa and the anti-pope, and anxious to keep the good will of Henry, tried to please both parties. He granted, at the request of Henry, legatine commission over all England to Archbishop Roger of York, the rival of the primate of Canterbury. He also afterwards authorized the coronation of Henry’s eldest son by the archbishop of York in the Abbey of Westminster (June 18, 1170), although such coronation was the exclusive privilege of the archbishop of Canterbury. This aggravated the difficulty with the king, and brought on the final crisis.

In the meantime the Clarendon Constitutions were carried out. Clergymen convicted of crime in the king’s court were condemned and punished like laymen.

Becket attempted to flee to the pope, and sailed for the Continent, but was brought back by the sailors on account of adverse winds. This was a violation of the law which forbade bishops to leave the country without royal permission.

He was summoned before a great council of bishops and nobles at the royal castle of Northampton in the autumn of 1164, and charged with misconduct in secular affairs while chancellor and archbishop. But his courage rose with the danger. He refused to answer, and appealed to the pope. The council ordered him cited to Rome on the charges of perjury at Clarendon and of commanding his suffragans to disregard the Constitutions. The bishops he met with a haughty refusal when they advised him to resign. He was to be arrested, but he threatened the peers with excommunication if they pronounced the sentence. He took the bold course of making his escape to the Continent in the disguise of a monk, at midnight, accompanied by two monks and a servant, and provided with his episcopal pall and seal.

The king seized the revenues of the archbishop, forbade public prayers for him, and banished him from the kingdom, ordered the banishment of all his kinsmen and friends, including four hundred persons of both sexes, and suspended the payment of Peter’s pence to the pope.

Becket spent fully six years in exile, from October, 1164, to December, 1170. King Louis of France, an enemy of Henry and admirer of Becket, received him with distinction and recommended him to the pope, who, himself in exile, resided at Sens. Becket met Alexander, laid before him the Constitutions of Clarendon, and tendered his resignation. The pope condemned ten as a violation of ecclesiastical privileges, and tolerated six as less evil than the rest. He tenderly rebuked Becket for his weakness in swearing to them, but consoled him with the assurance that he had atoned for it by his sufferings. He restored to him the archiepiscopal ring, thus ratifying his primacy, promised him his protection, and committed him to the hospitable care of the abbot of Pontigny, a Cistercian monastery about twelve leagues distant from Sens. Here Becket lived till 1166, like a stern monk, on pulse and gruel, slept on a bed of straw, and submitted at midnight to the flagellation of his chaplain, but occasionally indulged in better diet, and retained some of his former magnificence in his surroundings. His sober friend, John of Salisbury, remonstrated against the profuse expenditure.

Becket proceeded to the last extremity of pronouncing, in the church of Vezelay, on Whitsuntide, 1166, the sentence of excommunication on all the authors and defenders of the Constitutions of Clarendon. He spared the king, who then was dangerously ill, but in a lower tone, half choked with tears, he threatened him with the vengeance of God, and his realm with the interdict. He announced the sentence to the pope and all the clergy of England, saying to the latter, "Who presumes to doubt that the priests of God are the fathers and masters of kings, princes, and all the faithful?"

The wrath of Henry knew no bounds. He closed the ports of England against the bearers of the instrument of excommunication, threatening them with shameful mutilation, hanging, and burning. He procured the expulsion of Becket from Pontigny, who withdrew to a monastery near the archiepiscopal city of Sens. He secured through his ambassadors several concessions from Alexander, who was then in exile at Benevento. The pope was anxious to retain the support of the king, and yet he wrote soothing letters to Becket, assuring him that the concessions were to be only temporary. Becket answered with indignation, and denounced the papal court for its venality and rapacity. "Your gold and silver," he wrote to the cardinals, "will not deliver you in the day of the wrath of the Lord."

The king now determined to use the permission received from the pope several years before, but afterwards revoked,159159    See the pope’s letter to the archbishop of York in the "Materials," vol. VI. 206 sq., and Robertson’s note; also Reuter, II. 683 sq. The letter is not in the Vatican, but in other MSS., and is admitted as genuine by Jaffé. It was probably written in the beginning of 1170, when Alexander was hard pressed by Barbarossa in the siege of Rome. See the other letters on the subject in "Materials," VII. 257, 305 sqq., 399.tion. Like Gregory VII., he applied the words, "Cursed is he that refraineth his sword from blood," to the spiritual weapon. He even commanded the bishops of England to lay the whole kingdom under interdict and to suspend the offices of religion (except baptism, penance, and extreme unction), unless the king should give full satisfaction before the feast of purification, Nov. 2, 1170.160160    In 1169 Henry proposed to marry one of his daughters to the young king of Sicily, and to give a sum of money to the cities of the Lombard League for the erection of fortifications, provided they would influence Alexander to depose or transfer Becket. See Stubbs, ed. of Hoveden, II. xci sq.

These extreme measures were not without effect. Several bishops began to waver and change from the king’s cause to that of the archbishop. The king himself was alarmed at the menace of the interdict. The pope pursued his temporizing policy, and counselled concessions by both parties.

The king and the archbishop suddenly made peace in a respectful personal interview at Fretteville (Freteval), a castle between Tours and Chartres, July 22, 1170. Henry said nothing about the Clarendon Constitutions, but made the offer that Becket should crown his daughter-in-law (the daughter of the king of France), and should on that occasion repeat the coronation of his son. Becket laid the blame on the shoulders of Henry’s counsellors, and showed moderation and prudence. The king did not offer the kiss of peace, nor did the archbishop demand it.

But while Becket was willing to pardon the king, he meant to exercise his spiritual authority over his evil counsellors, and especially over the archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury. These prelates had recently officiated at the coronation of Henry’s son. And it was this coronation, even more than the original and more important dispute about the immunity of the clergy, that led to the catastrophe.

After prolonged negotiations with the papal court and the king, Becket returned to his long-neglected flock, Dec. 1, 1170. On landing at Sandwich (instead of Dover, where he was expected), he was surprised by enemies, who searched his baggage, and demanded that he should withdraw his excommunication of the bishops who were then at Dover. He refused. On his way to Canterbury the country clergy and people met him, cast down their garments, chanting, "Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord." He rode to the cathedral with a vast procession, amid the ringing of the bells, and preached on the text, "Here we have no abiding city."

The excommunicated prelates of York, London, and Salisbury sought the protection of the king, who was then at a castle near Bayeux in Normandy. He said: "If all are to be excommunicated who officiated at my son’s coronation, by the eyes of God, I am equally guilty." One of the prelates (perhaps Roger of York) remarked, "As long as Thomas lives, you will never be at peace." Henry broke out into one of his constitutional fits of passion, and dropped the fatal words: "A fellow that has eaten my bread, has lifted up his heel against me; a fellow that I loaded with benefits, dares insult the king; a fellow that came to court on a lame horse, with a cloak for a saddle, sits without hindrance on the throne itself. By the eyes of God, is there none of my thankless and cowardly courtiers who will deliver me from the insults of this low-born and turbulent priest?" With these words he rushed out of the room.

« Prev The Archbishop and the King Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection