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.149
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.150 But he was passionate, vindictive, and licentious. He had frequent fits of rage, during which he behaved like a madman. He was the most powerful sovereign in Western Europe. His continental 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,151 incited her sons, Geoffrey and Richard, to rebel against their father, was imprisoned in 1173, and released after Henry’s death in 1189 by his successor, Richard I., Coeur de Lion, who made her regent on his departure for the Holy Land. She 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.152