Thursday, January 19, 2012

Thomas Becket : The King's Adversary

Thomas Becket was born in Cheapside, a district of London.  His mother, Matilda was married to a merchant, Gilbert Becket on December 21, 1120.  According to Barlow’s research, Thomas had three siblings: Agnes, Roheise, Mary, and one daughter of which the name is unknown. Gilbert provided for his son, enrolling him at Augustinian priory boarding school at Merton in Surrey. Later, Becket was relocated to London, to a grammar school. He was in process of completing his education in Paris when his mother died. Thomas returned to England.

His next move was one of fortune. Becket was offered, and accepted, a position as a cleric under Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Happy with Thomas’ hard work, Theopold appointed Thomas the Archdeacon of Canterbury. This move put him in place for a position of power, Royal Chancellor to the King.

After the English civil war ended King Stephen came out with the crown over Henry I’s daughter, Matilda. Archbishop Theopold had sent Archdeacon Becket to see Pope Alexander as an emissary to plead the case for Matilda’s son or Stephen son as the heir to the English throne. Becket, on Theopold’s directive, supposedly described Eustace as a cruel, brutal man who lacked any ability of statesmanship. The pope was convinced by Thomas and upheld Henry’s claims to the throne.

Stephen’s son, Eustace passed away on August 17, 1153, leaving Henry FitzEmpress, son of Matilda, as the heir of Stephen. Archbishop Theopold crowned the new King on December 19, 1154 at Westminster. The Archbishop also used his influence with the King to have Becket appointed the new Royal Chancellor.

Both King and Chancellor loved the outdoors. They were intelligent and athletic. It wasn’t long before the two men became friends.  King Henry sent Becket to France in August of 1158 to begin negotiations with King Louis of France, to betroth his son, Henry with Louie’s daughter, Margaret. Henry insisted Margaret’s dowry consist of the Vexin, lands that had once been Norman possessions. Thomas Becket arrived with over 200 knights, squires, pages, and supplies. The Chancellor rode with all pomp and circumstance to Paris, where he met with Louie. When Henry arrived, the betrothal was a done deal, the castles and lands to be held by the Templars until Henry’s nine year son, Henry, and the 3 year old Margaret came of age to marry. Louie was angry when Henry had the children married, therefore taking possession of the Vexin on November 02, 1160.

The King trusted Thomas, leaving the Chancellor in charge when he went hunting or travelled through his realm.  In 1159, Thomas led an army, on behalf of the King, in an attempt to reclaim Toulouse. His army captured three towns, and did take Cahors on the River Lot. Unfortunately, King Henry did demand Thomas repay funds loaned for the campaign at a later time. 

On June 02, Thomas became a priest, and followed that up on June 3rd when he took the vows as the Archbishop of Canterbury. He kept his office of Royal Chancellor, believing her could fulfill both duties at the same time. He quickly came to the realization that the two positions clashed. Prior to becoming Archbishop, Thomas requested King Henry find another as his Royal Chancellor. Thomas had found religion and decided to buck the system.

1163 brought trouble between the King and the Archbishop. Thomas disagreed with Henry’s stance on new legal proceedings of clergyman accused of crimes. As the law currently stood, a churchman accused of a felony crime was tried in the ecclesiastical courts. A priest could rape, steal, or kill another and the most they could receive in punishment was defrocking. King Henry wanted to change that, trying the accused priest in the secular court system. Henry and Thomas also clashed over the King’s idea of reasserting his royal rights as they stood back in his grandfather’s time. On January 26, 1164 , King Henry met with Archbishop Becket at a hunting lodge in Salisbury, where Becket was presented with a chirography (a document in which a text is written twice, and is meant to be torn in half, the irregular edges  proof  of the authenticity of the document). Thomas refused to the paper, later referred to as the Constitutions of Clarendon.

The Archbishop was angry, and in retaliation refused to perform mass until he was absolved from his oath the Constitution of Clarendon by Pope Alexander. The Pope wasn’t stupid, having the common sense to see the bigger picture, he instructed Becket to resume his secular duties. Thomas tried to leave England but was unsuccessful on three different attempts. Thomas then went to see King Henry.

About this time, an incident occurred that broke the camel’s back, so to speak. King Henry’s younger brother, William of Anjou died on January 10th, 1164. It was said William died of a broken heart after Becket denied him the permission to marry Countess of Warenne. Becket had decided the widow was too close in blood to William. Meanwhile, John of Marshall used the new legal process to summon Becket to the Royal court to answer for a case he had pending in the Archbishop’s caseload.

All but one of the country’s bishops was on hand at the Royal Court to witness the ‘trial’ of Thomas Becket. Henry demanded monies due going back to the mainland campaigns. Again, Thomas asked for time, telling Henry he would need time to gather the 20,000 pounds. After stewing over the weekend, Beckett claimed he was too sick to attend the court proceedings on Monday, sending representatives instead. He did show up on Tuesday, refusing to acknowledge any sentence because John of Marshall hadn’t shown up and he was the reason for Becket’s appearance. That night, Thomas recognize the warning sign, and managed to skip out, starting his formal exile on November 02, 1164.

King Henry’s supporters grew. The Pope even went as far as to approve the Roger, Bishop of York to officiate over the crowning of Henry’s son, Henry. At the same time, Pope Alexander urged the two men to settle their differences. On April 13, 1169, Palm Sunday, Thomas put out a series of excommunications: on the list was the Bishop of London – Gilbert Foliet, the leader of the Templars in England – Richard of Hastings, and Richard de Lucy – one of Henry’s Justiciars. Meetings in the fall of 1169 were dead-locked between the King and the Archbishop, neither of them willing to give ground. In June 1170, Henry the Younger was crowned. On July 20th, King’s Louie, Henry, and Archbishop Becket met to make another attempt at a solution of the problem. After a week, terms were reached and the king and his archbishop had a truce.

Counselors of the King whispered words in Henry’s ear, urging him to pay close attention to the Archbishop. Those close to Henry told him that he couldn’t trust Becket any longer. One fateful day, supposedly after he spouted aloud, his anger at Becket’s action once he had returned to England, the King was heard to utter his fateful words, “Who will free me from this meddlesome priest?”

Four knights rode to Canterbury Cathedral to seek out the Archbishop. The men were Baron William de Tracy, Baron Reginald fitzUrse, Baron Hugh de Morville, and Richard le Bret. Beckett was there, on the high altar. When one of the four men called out entered the Cathedral, “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King and realm?”

Surprisingly, King Henry had sent a group of men to arrest Becket. These men, Earl William de Mandeville, Saher de Quincy, and Constable Richard de Humet, were enroute from the Henry, the Young King’s court. They were to present terms to Thomas, and if he refused, to arrest him. To Henry’s regrets, they arrived after the murder took place.

The Archbishop responded, “I am no traitor.” Confronted with four angry, and armed knights, Thomas still refused to lift the excommunications he’d set when he had returned to England. The knights attacked, de Morville kept witnesses away. The Archbishop of Canterbury was struck down, his head split open and the sacred floor of the church ran red with blood. One strike to Thomas’ head was so hard it broke the sword of the knight who held it, scattering blood and brains. We know of the event due to multiple witnesses, John of Salisbury, William fitzStephen, Benedict of Peterborough, William of Canterbury, and Edward Grim.

The murder committed on Tuesday, December 5th, 1170, shocked the English people, making Becket an instant martyr. King Henry was distraught. Whether he meant for Thomas to be killed or not is unknown, but either way, Henry hadn’t counted on the reaction of his people.  He had to make a pilgrimage to Becket’s tomb, kneeling while he was whipped by a clergyman. To rub salt into the King’s wounds, he had to back down on his stand regarding ecclesiastical trials. Churchman were allowed to plead “benefit of clergy’ to get trials outside of royal courts. Miracles were credited to Thomas; he was eventually made a saint and his tomb a shrine. Of the four men who participated in his death, they were made to travel to Rome and seek an audience with the Pope. He ordered them to take up the cross as a penance. De Morville, fitzUrse, and de Bret apparently left on Crusade soon after their meeting with the Pope, de Tracy followed late. Of the men, de Tracy and de Bret are on record as having descendants.

Thomas Becket was said to be a handsome man by his contemporaries. He was described as tall and slender, with dark hair and a fair complexion. Thomas had an aquiline, long nose, wide forehead, a pleasant demeanor, and bright eyes. Biographers from his time noted he had a slight stammer and suffered from abdominal complaints. Other sources, citing events involving the later Archbishop of Canterbury claimed he had a bit of vanity to his personality.

Thaelia’s World has an equivalent to Thomas Becket in Walthen of Campo. Walthen is a priest and a member of the Temple of the Black Arrow, which is dedicated to the Goddess Chanxeri. Walthen just happened to befriend Prince Arken of Greycliff. When Arken was crowned King at 17 years of age, he designated Walthen as one of his counselors. After the High Priest of Foxwarre dies, Arken nominates Walthen for the position, which is comparable to the Archbishop of Canterbury. In my previous posts, I have a profile of Walthen of Campo.

As always, stay safe out there!

For further reading:

The Medieval World
By John A. Thompson
2009 The National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.
ISBN # 987-1-4262-0533-0

Thomas Becket
By Frank Barlow
1986 University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
ISBN #0-520-07175-1

Henry Plantagenet 1133-1189
By Richard Barber
1964, 1993 Barnes & Noble Books,
ISBN #1-56619-363-X

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