Post-classical history

Chapter Eighteen


Death of a Priest

In England, between 1154 and 1170, Henry II establishes English criminal law, and his archbishop is murdered

IN ENGLAND, Henry II was ruling over his barons and his people with little opposition. But the English church was a more difficult subject.

During the Anarchy, the church had gradually taken on more and more responsibility for administering justice. Like secular courts, church courts had judges, scribes, registrars, and summoners—all church officials. They had been in operation since 1072, when William the Conqueror had given the English church the right to deal internally with all matters involving either clergymen or violations of church law: in his own words, “any matter which concerns the rule of souls.” Cases tried in secular courts could be appealed to the king; if you were convicted in a church court, your last resort was the pope. The ultimate penalty in the church court was excommunication; in the secular court, death.1

“The rule of souls” was an ambiguous phrase, and by the end of the Anarchy, the church had drawn all cases involving oath breaking and sexual morality into its sphere, as well as matters of actual church administration. Even more drastic: all clergy accused of misdeeds—no matter what their crimes—were being tried in church courts, and in church courts alone. Rape and murder, punishable by the king’s courts with death, could be punished in church courts only with imprisonment.

As a result, the number of people claiming to be “clergy” ramped sharply upwards. Entrance into the service of the English church had not yet been formalized with a series of tests, oaths, and rituals. If you could read and write Latin, you could claim to be a clerk; if you shaved the top of your head (the “tonsure”), you could claim to have taken monastic vows. The claim itself instantly removed you from the king’s reach.2

Early in his reign, Henry II was twice thwarted by church courts, once when he tried to convict an archdeacon of blackmail, and again when he attempted to prosecute another archdeacon for poisoning his superior. Both men (“criminous clerks,” in Henry’s words) were acquitted by church courts.3 Henry had a low tolerance for being crossed in any situation, and as he reduced the power of the barons back within lawful limits, he found it particularly exasperating that an entire class of Englishmen lay beyond law’s reach.

To reduce the power of the church courts back within bounds, Henry needed a sympathetic Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1161, the aged archbishop Theobald of Bec (chosen by King Stephen back in 1138) died. To replace him, Henry chose a man he thought was his own: his royal chancellor, tutor of his son and heir, Thomas Becket.

Becket, then in his midforties and at the height of his political career, had not originally been educated for the church. He was the son of a merchant, but in his early twenties a family friend had procured him an interview with Theobald. The archbishop, says one contemporary account, “perceiving him to be intelligent of face, received him with favour and honour, and bade him stay on.” Despite his poor Latin and his nonexistent knowledge of canon law, Becket proved industrious, reliable, and quick. The archbishop gave him increasing responsibilities, remediated his education, and in 1154 made him the Archdeacon of Canterbury.4

Formally, the archdeacon was the oculi episcope, the eyes of the bishop; less formally, the bishop’s watchdog. The archdeacon was an efficient executive who carried out the archbishop’s decrees. It was more of a middle-management job than a priestly vocation, and it suited Becket’s efficiency. Shortly afterwards, Henry II appointed Becket to be his chancellor, another executive role; he acted as the king’s chaplain, but his primary job was that of chief clerk, overseeing the score or so of lesser clerks who drew up the king’s decrees and wrote out his charters. It was an important position; the royal chancellor kept the king’s seal, attended all his councils, and was in the king’s confidence.

But it did not require, any more than the archdeaconry, much in the way of spiritual skill or theological conviction.

By necessity, Henry II spent a great deal of time in his chancellor’s company; and he discovered that he liked Becket. The two men hunted together, ate together, drank together. Thomas, well-off for perhaps the first time in his life, copied the king’s spending habits and supplied himself with lavish meals and clothes, even keeping a couple of exotic monkeys for pets and two wolves to act as hunting dogs. Henry had every reason to think that Becket was a loyal and (more importantly) pliable servant. The king nominated him to fill the vacant position, and on May 23, a month after Theobald’s death, the required assembly of bishops and barons obediently elected Becket, and the chancellor became archbishop.5

With his elevation to the highest office of the church, Becket went through a startling and unexpected change. “As if transformed to another man,” writes one of his biographers, William of Canterbury, “he became more restrained, more watchful, more frequent in prayer, more attentive in preaching.” Although he had never taken monastic vows, he began to wear a monk’s hair shirt—a stiff, prickly, vermin-infested garment of goat hair, meant to mortify the flesh—beneath his ecclesiastical robes. He began to eat and drink sparingly, to pray late into the night, to condemn the luxury in which he had once lived: “Every day in his private cell on bended knees he would wash the feet of thirty paupers in memory of Christ,” remarks Herbert of Bosham, in awe.6

Contemporary chroniclers chalk this metamorphosis up to a road-to-Damascus experience with God, an awakening to divine call. But it is not so out of line with Becket’s previous twenty years of service. He had always been efficient, conscientious, adaptable; and his new persona was exactly suited to the archbishop’s role. To be archbishop meant to hold a loyalty higher than that of archdeacon to bishop, or of chancellor to king.

At first, the change did not strike Henry as ominous. He began to carry out his planned reforms. He announced to his bishops that he would push for clergymen convicted in church trials to be automatically stripped of their titles, making them fair game to be retried in secular court; and then he drew up a document specifying exactly how far the “rule of souls” stretched, and placed it before Becket for his approval.

This document, the Constitutions of Clarendon (after the royal palace at Clarendon where it was composed), made the king’s authority supreme. Clergymen accused of crimes would be tried in the king’s courts and, if convicted, would be punished by secular law. Bishops, in return, were to stay out of the affairs of laymen. No royal official could be excommunicated unless he had first been convicted by a secular court of wrongdoing; quarrels between clergy and laymen were to be settled by secular, not church officials; anyone appealing the decision of a church court should come to the king, not bypass him and go to the pope. The Constitutions, if made church law, would have emptied the church courts of power.7

But they could not become law without the archbishop’s seal; and Becket, knowing exactly where his new loyalties lay, refused to sign them.

Henry’s notorious temper flared. Suddenly afraid for his life, Becket fled from England in the middle of the night. He intended to appeal to the pope, but instead of traveling directly to Rome, he took shelter with Louis VII of France.

Louis, now on his third wife, was happy to disaccommodate Henry II; he provided the exiled archbishop with shelter, housing, and protection. A contentious three-way correspondence between king, archbishop, and pope was launched, and the long-distance quarrel dragged on for over five years. “I have waited for the Lord to look down on you so that you may change your ways,” Becket wrote to his king, two years into his exile. “You are the son of the Church, not its director; it becomes you to follow the priests in ecclesiastical matters, not to go before them. . . . You should humbly and speedily yield in those things which you are usurping against the divine ordinance. . . . For the Most High is drawing his bow to shoot openly at you who refuse to repent.”8

Henry, unmoved by the threat of divine retribution, refused to give way.


18.1 The Kingdoms of France and England

Reforms to the secular laws proved simpler. Two years after Becket fled the country, Henry issued another set of decrees, this time making them public at the criminal court held at Clarendon in 1166. The act, known afterwards as the Assize of Clarendon, laid out exactly how criminals were to be tried in the king’s courts: by “twelve of the more lawful men . . . upon oath that they will speak the truth.”9

This system of trial by jury was not new to England, but it had never before been the law of the land, ordered by the king and enforced by his officials. The Assize of Clarendon changed the nature of criminal acts; it transformed them from local, personal insults into offenses against the king’s peace and even the king himself. Crime was no longer a parochial affair: “If any sheriff shall send word to another sheriff that men have fled from his county into another county on account of robbery or murder or theft,” the assize says, “. . . the sheriff who is informed shall capture them . . . and keep them in custody.”10

The Assize of Clarendon became the foundation of English criminal law, and the notion at its center is the core of modern Western legislation: the peace of a realm is, in itself, an entity that can be offended; crime is not a personal, but a national, problem. It was a brilliant and nation-changing piece of legislation, pushed through by a man whose restless energy gave him flashes of insight far beyond his century.

But Henry’s insight failed him when it came to his archbishop. Increasingly, Becket’s principled refusals seemed, in the king’s eyes, like personal insults.

In 1170, after years of complicated negotiations between the two men, Henry and Becket traveled to a meadow outside the French town of Freteval, to make a final effort at compromise. This time, both men had trump cards to play. The pope had given Becket the authority to place all of England under an interdict, should Henry not allow him to return. And Becket wanted to take part in the coronation ceremony of Henry’s fifteen-year-old son, once his beloved pupil, as Henry’s co-ruler and heir.*

The two men met in the center of the meadow and talked, alone, for a long time. No one overheard their conversation, but when the conversation was finished, Henry declared that Becket could return safely to England and take up his authority again; Becket, for his part, would carry out the coronation ceremony, guaranteeing the younger Henry’s claim to the throne.

Nothing was said about the Constitutions of Clarendon. Nor was the question of ultimate authority ever raised. It was an agreement that left all of the major issues not only unresolved but apparently undiscussed. And, like most unresolved conflicts, it ended in disaster.

Becket did not return to England immediately. In his absence, his Canterbury estates had been handed over to his archdeacon, one Ranulf de Broc. Becket refused to come home until they had been restored to his ownership: “It is not in our mind to return to him as long as he has taken away a single yard of the church’s land,” he wrote to the pope.

In the meantime, Henry spoke unguardedly in front of his courtiers, leaving them in no doubt of his opinions: the agreement reached at Freteval was unsatisfactory, he still believed that the Constitutions of Clarendon should enter into English law, and Becket was still his antagonist. Reading his king accurately, Ranulf de Broc made no effort to return Becket’s Canterbury estate; instead, he sent his men to strip the lands of everything useful before Becket could return. “Before the archbishop’s men could get [possession] of the manor,” one of Becket’s biographers records, “there was nothing left on them—not an ox nor a cow, capon or hen, horse, pig, sheep or full bin of corn.”11

Finally Becket decided that he’d better take back the lands himself. He set sail for England, arriving on December 1. And almost at the moment he arrived in England, he pronounced excommunication on two of the king’s chief officials, as well as on the Archbishop of York.

This was a declaration of war. Excommunication of royal officials was expressly forbidden in the Constitutions of Clarendon; Becket was sending an unambiguous message that he was ready to take up the battle once more. When the news of the excommunications was carried to Henry II—just then, in Normandy, preparing to celebrate Christmas—he flew into one of his notorious tempers. “Such fury, bitterness, and passion took possession of the king,” wrote the contemporary chronicler William Fitz Stephen, “as his disordered look and gesture expressed, that it was immediately understood what he wanted.”12

What Henry wanted was never made explicit; no contemporary chronicler seems to have heard the famous rhetorical question “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” But four of the most prominent men in England—“barons of his household,” writes Herbert of Bosham, who was there, “magnates of substance, notable even amongst his great friends”—left Normandy at once and headed for England. They traveled to the estates of Ranulf de Broc, the archdeacon who had ransacked Becket’s Canterbury lands (Becket had excommunicated him too), borrowed a band of armed men from him, and went to Becket’s residence at Canterbury.13

The events of the next hour were witnessed by a score of men: Becket’s household, his clerks, and the monks who were singing in the cathedral at the time. The four barons confronted Becket in his rooms and demanded that the archbishop withdraw his excommunications, acknowledge the king’s authority, and leave the country. He refused and made his way into the church to lead the service of vespers, taking up his place next to a pillar that stood between altars dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Saint Benedict.

A Cambridge clerk named Edward Grim was in the cathedral, waiting for the service to begin. He wrote, later,

Then they laid sacrilegious hands on him, pulling and dragging him that they might kill him outside the church, or carry him away a prisoner, as they afterwards confessed. But . . . he would not be forced away from the pillar. . . . Joining his hands, [he] lifted them up and commended his cause and that of the church to God. . . . Scarce had he said the words when the wicked knight [Reginald Fitz Urse, a royal relation], fearing lest the archbishop should be rescued by the people and escape alive, leapt upon him suddenly and wounded [him]. . . . Then he received a second blow on the head, but still stood firm. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living victim, and saying in a low voice, “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death.” Then the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay, by which the sword was broken against the pavement, and the crown, which was large, was separated from the head; so that the blood white with the brain, and the brain red with blood, dyed the surface of the virgin mother church. . . . In order that a fifth blow might not be wanting to the martyr who was in other things like to Christ, the fifth (no knight, but that clerk who had entered with the knights) put his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to say, scattered his brains and blood over the pavement, calling out to the others, “Let us away, knights; he will rise no more.”14

When news of the murder was brought to the king, he shut himself in his rooms for three days, refusing to eat or speak.15

The four assassins were never punished, even though their crime was clearly condemned by Henry’s own Assize of Clarendon; and there seems to be little doubt that Henry knew of the plan and gave it his tacit approval.

Yet his involvement does not mean that his grief was false.

In the struggle between divine authority and secular power, it was not yet clear which would prove the stronger. But it was no longer possible for both to rule, side by side. The murder of Henry’s old friend was the inevitable result of the course he himself had set. Necessary though it might have been, he could grieve over the forces that made it inevitable—and over the end of a world where God and the king could coexist in peace.


*Henry II had already given the Archbishop of York permission to coronate young Henry, and the ceremony had taken place in June; Becket was offered the chance to take part in a second coronation that would supersede the first (and make very clear that Becket was still the senior churchman in the land).

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