The Assassination Of Thomas À Becket (1170)

One of the most remarkable careers and one of the most famous assassinations in the middle ages were the career and the assassination of Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.

His life (at least after he had been elevated to the Primacy of England) and his death show him as the great representative of the Church of Rome, standing up for the defence of its rights and dying in their defence; and they show also how necessary, in those dark ages, was a superhuman power, to hold the arrogance and brute force of warriors and princes in check, and bring into subjection their unbridled passions and their insolent usurpations. Even if Thomas à Becket miserably perished in his bold resistance to kingly assumption, his death was a wholesome lesson to the tyrants on European thrones, and raised him higher in the estimation of the world than a victory over King Henry the Second would have done.

Thomas Becket, or, as he is oftener called, Thomas à Becket, rose to his eminent station in State and Church from comparatively low birth. He was born in 1119, the son of a London merchant and an Oriental mother. This lady had followed the merchant to England after his return from the Holy Land, where he had been a crusader. The merchant rapidly acquired wealth, and was able to give his son, who was distinguished by brilliant talents, a splendid education. After having studied for some time at Oxford, the young man was permitted to complete his studies at the University of Paris, which at that time attracted students from all parts of Europe by the reputation of its professors and the superiority of its methods of instruction. From Paris Thomas went to Bologna, in order to study theology; by his travels and the application and zeal with which he pursued his studies, he acquired an exceptional reputation for the extent, variety, and depth of his knowledge. On his return from Italy Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury was charmed with the attainments and learning of the young man, and recommended him to the King for the appointment of Chancellor. The King appointed him and made him also the tutor of his son. In the position of Chancellor he ingratiated himself with the King, and his counsels in matters of State and of importance to the crown proved so valuable that the King soon distinguished him above all other courtiers and officials, and treated him more as a friend than as a subject.

Having inherited immense wealth from his father, and having, moreover, been endowed by the munificence of the King with a number of offices and benefices from which he derived large revenues, the Chancellor made a great display of splendor and wealth. His household eclipsed almost that of the King himself, and looked more like the court of a prince than the household of a citizen. However, he neglected no opportunity to show his loyalty and devotion to the King. In 1159 he accompanied the King to Toulouse, with a retinue of seven hundred knights and twelve hundred mounted men, all of whom he had equipped at his own expense. The King also intrusted him with a confidential mission to Paris, where he was to negotiate the marriage of the King’s eldest son with the eldest daughter of the King of France. The Chancellor succeeded in concluding a family alliance between the two courts, and conducted the young princess personally to England.

In 1162 Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, died, and King Henry the Second immediately declared that Thomas à Becket should be his successor. When the King’s plan to make him Archbishop was mentioned to Becket, he protested against it, and it would seem, sincerely. He even went so far as to tell the King, when the latter urged him to work for his election, that he was making a mistake in advocating his elevation to the See of Canterbury, using these words: “If I should be raised to that office, you would soon hate me as much as you now love me; for you will meddle in the affairs of the Church more than I can consent to, and people will not be wanting to embroil us.” But the King laughed at these warnings. He supposed that Becket, as Archbishop, would be as complaisant and willing a tool to assist him in curtailing the prerogatives of the Church and transferring them to the crown, as he had been on a former occasion. He therefore continued to use his influence in favor of Becket’s election, and succeeded in placing him in the Archbishop’s See. At first the Pope objected to his election, but he finally ratified it in order to please the kings of England and France, who had both appealed to him in Becket’s behalf.

No sooner had Becket been installed as Archbishop of Canterbury—which dignity carried with it that of Primate of England—than he entirely changed his mode of living. No more luxury, no more display of wealth, no more horses or magnificent costumes for him! On the contrary, the new Archbishop ostentatiously chose the coarsest and plainest garments. Instead of the fine lace shirt of former days he wore a coarse haircloth, dirty in the extreme, and his outer garments were frequently ragged. His food was of the plainest quality, consisting of bread, water, and skimmed milk. He affected austerity in every way, frequently flogged himself for impure thoughts or nominal sins which he might have committed, and every day he knelt and washed the feet of thirteen beggars. He resigned his office as Chancellor in order to devote all his time and zeal to his new office and the affairs of the Church.

The King did not like the change in the Archbishop’s ways, and protested against his resignation, but Becket would not reconsider it. The King rightly guessed that there might be a hidden meaning and a secret ambition in the Archbishop’s sudden conversion to Christian humility, which so strangely contrasted with his past conduct. The storm between the two mighty men, each self-willed and irascible, was brewing, and when it finally broke out, it was fierce and relentless. It never ended until the prelate lay prostrate as a victim of assassins before the altar of the church which he tried to protect from the King’s usurpation.

It was not long before the conflict broke out. It then appeared that the change which had taken place in Becket was not confined to the outer man only, but had also affected his relation to the Church and the State. From a King’s counsellor and servant he had suddenly turned to be the counsellor and servant of the Church, and he carried over into his new station the impulsiveness and stubbornness which had always distinguished him in the service of the King. It is difficult to say which of the two, in this struggle for ascendency, was right, or rather which of the two was the more to blame. For while the King was aggressive, arrogant, domineering, in the consciousness of his power, the Archbishop was imperious, insolent, and inconsistent, inasmuch as he now boldly condemned what he had formerly counselled. But it seemed to be a trait of Becket’s character, that he always devoted himself unconditionally to the master he served at the time, and that from the moment he abandoned the service of the King for that of the Church it was quite natural for him to defend the interests and rights of the latter against the usurpations of the former.

At that time a priest who had committed any crime could be tried by an ecclesiastical court only; consequently very few criminals of this class were convicted and adequately punished; in most cases the accused, even if found guilty, were only reprimanded and degraded. This abuse was carried to such excess that during the first years of the reign of Henry the Second no less than one hundred murders committed by priests had not been punished. A priest had seduced the daughter of a gentleman living in Worcestershire, and, confronted by the angry father of the girl, assassinated him. Public indignation was aroused by this atrocity to such an extent that the King ordered the arrest of the guilty priest and his trial before a civil tribunal. Becket protested against this order, claiming that it was an infringement of the prerogatives of the Church. He ordered an ecclesiastical court to investigate the charges, and the result was as usual, that the punishment awarded was only degradation. The King was furious. He made up his mind to beat the Archbishop at his own game and to punish him for his presumption. He therefore submitted the question of ecclesiastical immunities and of church prerogatives to a council of jurists and ordered them to investigate whether these prerogatives were founded on a solid historical basis. The jurists knew what sort of decision the King wanted, and they gave it. Thereupon the King convened a general council of the high nobility and also of the Church at Clarendon, and there, among other restrictions placed upon the Church, it was enacted that members of the clergy indicted for a crime should be tried by civil tribunals, exactly like other subjects.

Becket, seeing that all the barons and many prelates had submitted to the decree of the council, was compelled to yield, and swore to obey it; but his submission was caused only by his powerlessness. But when this so-called Constitution of Clarendon was sent to the Pope for ratification, he rejected it haughtily and condemned it in the most energetic manner. Thereupon Becket, basing his action on the condemnation of the Pope, openly retracted the consent which he had given to the Clarendon decree, and subjected himself to great austerities and macerations proportionate to the greatness of the sin he had committed in yielding to the royal demands. He even refused to perform any functions connected with his episcopal rank until the Pope had acquitted him of his great wrong against the Church. This action made the rupture between the King and the Archbishop irreparable. Henry swore to have his revenge on a priest who was not only an ingrate but a perjurer. He arraigned him before a parliament convened at Northampton in 1165 as a rebel, as having violated his oath of allegiance. Becket was convicted, his personal estate was confiscated, the revenues of his archbishopric were seized, and Becket himself, abandoned even by his clergy, fled to France, whose King, in spite of the protests of Henry, offered him a refuge.

Becket’s spirit was far from being broken. From his retreat in France he wrote to the bishops of England that the Pope had annulled the Constitution of Clarendon, and at the same time he excommunicated a number of those, bishops as well as other high officials, who had assisted in violating the sacred rights of the Church. The King answered by exiling all his relatives from England, and forbidding his subjects to correspond with him, or to send him money; he even forbade prayers in behalf of the Archbishop to be offered in church.

But the conditions between the Church and the court created by this conflict were such that the King found it expedient to make overtures of reconciliation to Becket, first through the bishops and church officials of England, and afterwards personally. In a conference which he held for that purpose with the King of France, he said to the latter: “There have been several kings of England, some more and others less powerful than myself; there have been also several Archbishops of Canterbury, in my opinion as respectable and as sainted as Thomas à Becket; let him show to me the same deference which the greatest of his predecessors have shown to the least powerful of my predecessors, and there will be no controversy between us.” King Henry also offered to take the clergy of France as umpires in the questions at issue; but when Becket stubbornly refused to be reconciled to the King of England, the King of France lost his patience and withdrew the protection which up to that day he had accorded to him.

These and other changes unfavorable to him finally induced Becket to lend to the King’s proposals of reconciliation a more willing ear, and at last an interview took place between them which resulted in their reconciliation—apparently at least. The interview was much more cordial than might have been supposed from the exceedingly strained relations that had existed between them for years. The Archbishop approached the King as became a subject, and the King met him with the humility shown at that time to princes of the Church; when they parted, Becket bent his knee to the King, who held the stirrup of his horse as the Archbishop mounted. The interview had resulted in settling their differences. Both had made concessions, but the larger part of these had been made by the King. All the Archbishop’s personal property had also been restored to him; he thereupon agreed to return to England and resume the functions of his office. He had been absent seven years.

The people at large, and especially the poor, greeted him with enthusiasm; but the barons kept away, and some of them showed open hostility to the Archbishop, or mysteriously hinted at a speedy ending of his newly regained honors. His arrival in England had been preceded by a messenger from the Pope carrying writs of excommunication for three English bishops who had been especially hostile to Becket. These bishops immediately went to Normandy, where Henry the Second had remained, and laid their complaints before him, laying all the blame on Becket, whom they charged with inflaming the people of England against their King and sowing discord in their hearts. When these matters were laid before him, and also a statement that Becket had excommunicated two barons whom he considered his special enemies, the King got into a rage and exclaimed: “What? Is there among the cowards whom I feed at my table not one brave enough to deliver me from this firebrand of a priest?” These words could have but one meaning. Four of the barons took it upon themselves to deliver the King from the obnoxious priest. The King afterwards declared that he had never intended to suggest the assassination of Becket; but what other construction could be given to his words? The assassination itself was one of the most dramatic in history. The would-be murderers travelled in such haste that a messenger whom the King sent after them to warn them not to kill Becket could not overtake them. Arriving at Canterbury on December 29, 1170, they, with twelve other noblemen, went to the Archbishop’s residence, and expostulated with him concerning the excommunication of certain priests and barons, and when he refused to revoke the excommunications, the barons left him with threats. They returned toward evening. The bell of the church was ringing for vespers, and the Archbishop had gone there. The priests wanted to close and barricade the doors, but he objected. “The doors of the house of God should not be barricaded like a fortress!” said he. Just then the assassins came in, brandishing their swords and calling for the traitor. The priests surrounding the Archbishop fled in terror; only his cross-bearer stayed with him. It was so dark that neither the intruders nor the priest could be seen distinctly. Another voice called: “Where is the Archbishop?” “I am here,” answered Becket. “I am no traitor, but only a priest of the Lord!” They were afraid to kill him in the holy precincts. Once more they asked him to absolve those he had excommunicated. He refused, because they had not repented. “Then you shall die!” they cried. “I am ready, in the name of the Saviour,” he answered; “but I forbid you, by the Lord Almighty, to touch any of these present, priests or laymen.” They heeded him not, but rushed upon him, and with three or four thrusts from their swords, one of them splitting his skull, laid him prostrate at the foot of the altar.

The murderers hurried back to Normandy to get their reward. The news of the murder, when it reached the ears of the King, struck terror into his heart. He knew he was, and would be held, responsible for Becket’s death. Fear seized him, that he would feel the Pope’s wrath, that he would be excommunicated, that England and his possessions in France would be placed under an interdict, that the Saxon population of England, which already revered Becket as a saint, might rise in open rebellion against him. He therefore made haste to disclaim publicly any complicity in the murder, and sent an ambassador to the Pope to assure him of his entire innocence and of his profound grief at the bloody deed. The Pope at first refused to receive the ambassador, and it was only by means of many prayers, promises, and humble supplications that he finally absolved the King of intentional complicity in the heinous crime. The King actually purchased this absolution by pledging himself to support, during three years, two hundred well-equipped horsemen for the protection of the Holy Sepulchre.

But even this act of papal absolution was not deemed sufficient by the King to protect him from the evil consequences of the assassination. To remove this danger the King two years afterwards undertook a pilgrimage to the tomb of Becket, who had in the meantime been buried in the Cathedral with royal honors. As soon as the steeple of the Cathedral appeared on the horizon, the King dismounted, and proceeded on his way barefooted, his bleeding feet leaving a spot of blood at every step. On his arrival at the tomb he prostrated himself, and subjected himself to the humiliation of a severe flagellation at the hands of the monks, each of whom applied to his bare back three strokes from a knotted rope.

Having undergone this public chastisement, the King remained praying and fasting the following night, prostrated on the tombstone. Next morning he returned to London, where, immediately after his arrival, he fell seriously ill from the effects of his pilgrimage.

The Pope canonized the martyr who had so heroically died in the defence of the prerogatives of the Church.


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