Wednesday, December 28, 2016

From Becket to Magna Carta

Thomas Becket ( also known as Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Thomas of London, and later Thomas à Becket; 21 December c. 1119 (or 1120) – 29 December 1170) was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his murder in 1170. He is venerated as a saint and martyr by both the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. He engaged in conflict with Henry II, King of England over the rights and privileges of the Church and was murdered by followers of the king in Canterbury Cathedral. Soon after his death, he was canonised by Pope Alexander III.

Beginning when he was 10, Becket was sent as a student to Merton Priory in England and later attended a grammar school in London, perhaps the one at St Paul's Cathedral. He did not study any subjects beyond the trivium and quadrivium at these schools. Later, he spent about a year in Paris around age 20. He did not, however, study canon or civil law at this time and his Latin skill always remained somewhat rudimentary. Some time after Becket began his schooling, Gilbert Beket suffered financial reverses, and the younger Becket was forced to earn a living as a clerk. Gilbert first secured a place for his son in the business of a relative – Osbert Huitdeniers – and then later Becket acquired a position in the household of Theobald of Bec, by now the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Theobald entrusted him with several important missions to Rome and also sent him to Bologna and Auxerre to study canon law. Theobald in 1154 named Becket Archdeacon of Canterbury, and other ecclesiastical offices included a number of benefices, prebends at Lincoln Cathedral and St Paul's Cathedral, and the office of Provost of Beverley. His efficiency in those posts led to Theobald recommending him to King Henry II for the vacant post of Lord Chancellor, to which Becket was appointed in January 1155.

As Chancellor, Becket enforced the king's traditional sources of revenue that were exacted from all landowners, including churches and bishoprics. King Henry even sent his son Henry to live in Becket's household, it being the custom then for noble children to be fostered out to other noble houses. The younger Henry was reported to have said Becket showed him more fatherly love in a day than his father did for his entire life.


Becket was nominated as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, several months after the death of Theobald. His election was confirmed on 23 May 1162 by a royal council of bishops and noblemen. Henry may have hoped that Becket would continue to put the royal government first, rather than the church. However, the famous transformation of Becket into an ascetic occurred at this time.

Becket was ordained a priest on 2 June 1162 at Canterbury, and on 3 June 1162 was consecrated as archbishop by Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester and the other suffragan bishops of Canterbury.

A rift grew between Henry and Becket as the new archbishop resigned his chancellorship and sought to recover and extend the rights of the archbishopric. This led to a series of conflicts with the King, including that over the jurisdiction of secular courts over English clergymen, which accelerated antipathy between Becket and the king. Attempts by Henry to influence the other bishops against Becket began in Westminster in October 1163, where the King sought approval of the traditional rights of the royal government in regard to the church. This led to Clarendon, where Becket was officially asked to agree to the King's rights or face political repercussions.


King Henry II presided over the assemblies of most of the higher English clergy at Clarendon Palace on 30 January 1164. In sixteen constitutions, he sought less clerical independence and a weaker connection with Rome. He employed all his skills to induce their consent and was apparently successful with all but Becket. Finally, even Becket expressed his willingness to agree to the substance of the Constitutions of Clarendon, but he still refused to formally sign the documents. Henry summoned Becket to appear before a great council at Northampton Castle on 8 October 1164, to answer allegations of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the Chancellor's office. Convicted on the charges, Becket stormed out of the trial and fled to the Continent.

Henry pursued the fugitive archbishop with a series of edicts, targeting Becket as well as all of Becket's friends and supporters; but King Louis VII of France offered Becket protection. He spent nearly two years in the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny, until Henry's threats against the order obliged him to return to Sens. Becket fought back by threatening excommunication and interdict against the king and bishops and the kingdom, but Pope Alexander III, though sympathising with him in theory, favoured a more diplomatic approach. Papal legates were sent in 1167 with authority to act as arbitrators.

In 1170, Alexander sent delegates to impose a solution to the dispute. At that point, Henry offered a compromise that would allow Thomas to return to England from exile.


In June 1170, Roger de Pont L'Évêque, the archbishop of York, along with Gilbert Foliot, the Bishop of London, and Josceline de Bohon, the Bishop of Salisbury, crowned the heir apparent, Henry the Young King, at York. This was a breach of Canterbury's privilege of coronation, and in November 1170 Becket excommunicated all three. While the three clergymen fled to the king in Normandy, Becket continued to excommunicate his opponents in the church, the news of which also reached Henry II, Henry the Young King's father.

Upon hearing reports of Becket's actions, Henry is said to have uttered words that were interpreted by his men as wishing Becket killed. The king's exact words are in doubt and several versions have been reported.  The most commonly quoted, as handed down by oral tradition, is "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?", but according to historian Simon Schama this is incorrect: he accepts the account of the contemporary biographer Edward Grim, writing in Latin, who gives us "What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?"  Many variations have found their way into popular culture.

Whatever Henry said, it was interpreted as a royal command, and four knights, Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton, set out to confront the Archbishop of Canterbury.

On 29 December 1170 they arrived at Canterbury. According to accounts left by the monk Gervase of Canterbury and eyewitness Edward Grim, they placed their weapons under a tree outside the cathedral and hid their mail armour under cloaks before entering to challenge Becket. The knights informed Becket he was to go to Winchester to give an account of his actions, but Becket refused. It was not until Becket refused their demands to submit to the king's will that they retrieved their weapons and rushed back inside for the killing. Becket, meanwhile, proceeded to the main hall for vespers. The four knights, wielding drawn swords, caught up with him in a spot near a door to the monastic cloister, the stairs into the crypt, and the stairs leading up into the quire of the cathedral, where the monks were chanting vespers

Several contemporary accounts of what happened next exist; of particular note is that of Edward Grim, who was himself wounded in the attack. This is part of the account from Edward Grim:

The wicked knight leapt suddenly upon him, cutting off the top of the crown which the unction of sacred chrism had dedicated to God. Next he received a second blow on the head, but still he stood firm and immovable. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living sacrifice, and saying in a low voice, "For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death." But the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay prostrate. By this stroke, the crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral. The same clerk who had entered with the knights placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to relate, scattered the brains and blood about the pavements, crying to the others, 'Let us away, knights; this fellow will arise no more.

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 Becket then Langton then Magna Carta

The Plantagenets had never enjoyed a good reputation with the Church. Henry II had been widely blamed for the death of Thomas Becket, declared a saint after his murder in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Henry and his sons had taxed the clergy, and had imposed their own courtiers as bishops. In 1205, John attempted to follow this tradition, demanding the promotion of a royal favourite as archbishop of Canterbury. The Pope, Innocent III (1161-1216), refused. Pressured by the Pope, the monks of Canterbury elected a man named Stephen Langton (1150-1228). Langton was an Englishmen, but had spent the past 30 years living and teaching in Paris. There he had used the good and bad kings of the Bible as models with which to criticize modern kingship. Kings, he argued, should obey written law. They should tax their subjects only in the case of dire necessity. They should rule for the public good, not for their own selfish glory

None of this was acceptable to King John, who refused to allow Langton to take up office in England. The Pope replied with a sentence of ‘Interdict’, not just excommunicating the King and his court, but in effect suspending the operations of the English Church. For six years, from 1209 to 1214, the faithful were denied the sacraments and the dead were refused Christian burial. The King replied with even heavier taxation against both the Church and the English barons. Rumours of conspiracy began to mount. Langton sought refuge in France, as did various English barons persecuted or accused of treason by King John. A new consensus was forged between baronial and clerical opposition.

To fend off the threat of a French invasion, and to fulfil his plans for reconquest in Normandy, in 1213 John made his peace with the Pope. In what was intended as a diplomatic master-stroke, he placed himself and his realm under direct papal overlordship. Henceforth, the Pope would be obliged to protect England against any threat of a French invasion. Langton was allowed to return from exile. But the King’s wars in France were unsuccessful. An expedition was dispatched, paid for with the heavy taxes of the past 10 years. John himself campaigned in southern France, his allies in the north. In late June 1214, John was defeated on the Loire. A month later, on 27 July, John’s northern allies were annihilated at the Battle of Bouvines. Broken and humiliated, John was once again obliged to slink home to England.

In his absence, many barons had refused to pay the special tax (called ‘scutage’) intended to pay for war in France. Some had begun openly to demand reform. Keen to protect the privileges of the Church, Archbishop Langton sought to broker a settlement. According to the chroniclers, it was Langton who now produced the coronation charter of Henry I (r.1100-35) as a model of the sort of reforms to which King John should be bound. In 1100, King Henry I of England had been obliged to agree a series of written promises, to limit his financial demands, to restore the good laws and customs of the English past, and to respect the liberties both of his barons and the Church.

So it was that the English opposition in 1214 first began to demand a charter from King John as a guarantee of future good government. The precise terms here took many months of discussion. Drafts circulated, and one of them, known as the Unknown Charter, preserved today in the national archives of France, takes the form of a copy of Henry I’s coronation charter followed by a series of clauses to which King John is said to have agreed. The very first of these clauses, undertaking that the King ‘will arrest no man without judgment nor accept any payment for justice nor commit any unjust act’, later made up one of the central demands enshrined in Magna Carta.

By January 1215, the English barons were openly united against the King. Many of their chief spokesmen came from the north of England, a region particularly resentful of royal interference. As a result, the opposition became known collectively as ‘The Northerners’, even though only a proportion of its fighting strength came from the north. In early May, with the King still seeking delay, the barons declared war. Renouncing their allegiance to John, they seized the city of London. From this point onwards, the King had little choice but to negotiate. London was not only essential to royal government, but with London in rebel hands there was a real threat the rebels might depose the King and place a French pretender on his throne. So it was that barons and king converged upon Runnymede, mid-way between London and the King’s castle at Windsor. Here, following several days of negotiation, written terms were agreed and sealed with the King’s seal. We know this document as the ‘Articles of the Barons’ because it remained merely a draft, setting out a series of clauses, but as yet not issued in the King’s own name. It survives, almost miraculously, preserved by Archbishop Langton in his archive at Lambeth Palace, London, and thence, after various adventures, gifted to the British Museum in 1769. It was this document that, by 15 June 1215, was rewritten into the great charter of liberties known as Magna Carta.

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See also the September 15, 2015 entry for this blog about the 1964 movie, Becket, which received 12 Academy Award nominations.

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