Becket and Henry II: Exile
BECKET AND HENRY II: EXILE
ADDRESS BY THE HONOURABLE J J SPIGELMAN AC
CHIEF JUSTICE OF NEW SOUTH WALES
TO THE ST THOMAS MORE SOCIETY
THE FOURTH ADDRESS IN THE BECKET LECTURE SERIES
SYDNEY, 8 OCTOBER 2002
In 1157, Roland, Cardinal of S. Marco and Chancellor to Pope Adrian IV, created uproar at the Imperial Diet called by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, at Besançon. In the presence of almost everyone that mattered in the Empire and of ambassadors from throughout Europe, Roland read a letter to the Emperor from the pope, reminding Frederick of his coronation by him and expressing the hope at some future date to confer additional benefices upon him. The two words he used “conferre” and “beneficia” were technical terms, or at least translated as such, by which a fief is conferred upon a vassal.
At this time, the forged Donation of Constantine was still asserted to be valid. In riposte to the Emperor’s outrage at this terminology of subordination, Cardinal Roland provocatively proclaimed: “From whom does the Emperor hold his office, if not from the Pope”. The answer of the Emperor was, of course: “From God”. The conflict of institutional authority between the Empire and papacy, extant for at least a century, would continue for another.
In September 1159, after Adrian’s death, the 30 Cardinals who assembled in the conclave behind the high altar of the basilica at St Peters, overwhelmingly elected, by prior arrangement, Cardinal Roland as pope. The pro-Imperial faction had prepared what can only be described as a coup. As Roland bent his head to receive the purple mantle of office – the “immantation” - Cardinal Octavian of St Cecilia grabbed it and tried to put it on himself. When it was taken away from him, his chaplain gave him a replica which Octavian put on back-to-front, ran to the papal throne with the fringes of the mantle tangled around his neck, sat down and proclaimed himself Pope Victor IV. The Imperial ambassadors in Rome supported Victor. Roland took the name Alexander III and, after a week besieged in the Castel Sant ’Angelo, fled Rome. His conflict with Frederick Barbarossa would last for seventeen years.
When Becket left England in late 1164, Alexander had been in exile in France for about three years. His highest priority was the maintenance of support of the French and English kings against Frederick. Throughout the conflict about the Constitutions of Clarendon, the gentle, scholarly, prudent Alexander had urged caution. He had written to Becket from Sens on 26 October 1163:
Becket’s exile would depend on the exigencies of Alexander’s own.
“For with God’s help we shall strive steadfastly to preserve for you the rights and dignities of the Church entrusted to your charge as far as we can, saving justice and reason, as for one whom we find to be a steadfast and able defender of the Church.”
Becket travelled to Sens in an entourage of 300 provided by Louis VII of France, who seized the opportunity to discomfort his long-time rival. At one point this procession came within eyesight of the high powered embassy from Henry, led by the Earl of Arundel and including the Archbishop of York, the bishops of London, Chichester and Exeter, together with a clutch of senior officials.
The royal delegation was received by the pope first. In marked contrast with Henry’s letter to Louis VII, containing a futile request that he deny Becket sanctuary, in which Henry denounced Becket as a “wicked and perjured traitor”, Henry’s letter to the pope was more diplomatically phrased, describing Becket as “the disturber of the realm and church”. Gilbert Foliot, bishop of London, gave the opening address:
Foliot proceeded to attack Becket’s rashness and invoked the text: “The wicked fleeth when no man pursueth”.
At this point the pope interrupted: “Have mercy brother”. Foliot, reflecting the misjudgment of the royal delegation as to the strength of its position, said: “My Lord I will have mercy on him”.
“There has of late arisen in England a dissension between the King and the priesthood on a slight and unimportant matter which might easily have been ended if a discreet moderation had been shown. But my lord of Canterbury, following his own individual judgment and not our advice, has pushed the matter to extremes not considering the malice of the times or what harm might arise from this attack.”
Alexander retorted: “I say not brother that you should have mercy on him, but on yourself”. According to Becket’s hagiographers Foliot was dumbstruck. Alexander had made it perfectly clear that he was not inclined to sacrifice his archbishop.
Foliot was supported by Roger of York, Bartholomew of Exeter and Hilary of Chester, the latter stumbled over his Latin to the great merriment of the assembled curia. The Earl of Arundel, interrupting the flow of Latin conversation, admitted that he didn’t have a clue as to what anyone had been saying for some time, and gave a nice little homily in French about how much Henry loved the pope and how everyone in the delegation was sure that the pope would do the right thing. What Hilary of Chichester had decried only a few moments before as Becket’s “boundless presumption”, the earl chided as having been “a little too impetuous”.
The basic request of the delegation was that the pope should appoint a legate with powers of a viceroy who could make an unappellable decision. Becket’s biographers would later decry this as a stratagem to exploit the notorious corruptibility of cardinals of the curia. It was also, however, a strategy which would enable a decision to be made in the particular case by a delegate who could act in a way that the pope himself may be constrained from acting for fear of creating an unfortunate precedent.
“Since you have asked for legates” Alexander announced – grasping the opportunity to delay any confrontation on the matter – “you shall have legates”.
Foliot, no doubt unsure as to whether the full implications of the request had been conveyed, repeated:
“That”, retorted Alexander, “is my privilege which I shall not give to another and, in truth, when he is to be judged, he shall be judged by us, for it were against all reason to send him back to England to be judged by his adversaries and among his enemies”.
“We ask if they may be empowered to determine the case without appeal.”
Not even an offer to increase the annual English tribute to the pope, a system unique in Christendom known as Peter’s Pence, would convince Alexander to give Henry what he wanted. This was as clear a signal as Alexander could give in the circumstances that important principles were at stake.
A few days later on 29 November, Becket arrived at Sens. He had been fully briefed on what had happened to the royal embassy, Herbert of Bosham had been sent ahead and was present throughout the public sessions.
There is nothing quite like an original document. Becket’s first act was to hand to the pope the chirograph original of the Constitutions of Clarendon, “These, Holy Father, are the laws which the Church of God are called upon to receive,” he said.
Alexander had already indicated that the “customs” were unacceptable, indeed only six were even “tolerable”. The contemporary biographies suggest that Becket went through the document point by point at considerable length. As the clauses were read out and debated one by one, no-one in the room could have had any doubt that a number of the English customs were directly contrary to canon law, as it had developed over recent decades. Of particular concern was the paragraph which banned any appeal to the pope until an ecclesiastic case had gone through the full English hierarchy – from archdeacon to bishop to archbishop – and even then required royal permission to go to Rome. Such appeals had expanded considerably over recent decades and had become the principal mechanism for the exercise by the pope and the curia of a Europe- wide authority. Becket had chosen his ground well.
Becket offered to resign his archbishopric. The contemporary texts suggest that the papal entourage was divided over whether the resignation should be accepted. Alexander refused. Acceptance of the offer would have validated the overbearing conduct of a monarch in driving a senior primate from office. The church could not tolerate so abject a surrender to the raw exercise of secular power. Its appointments could not be subject to the pleasure of kings, as Alexander was all too acutely aware from the continued support by the Emperor of an anti-pope.
For the seven years of Becket’s exile, Alexander would skilfully negotiate the conflicting demands of principle and pragmatism. He never abandoned Becket or surrendered a point of principle. Confrontation, however, was undesirable – Alexander always sought a negotiated settlement. Confrontation often endangered the broader interests of the church.
Becket could not be removed from office. He could, however, be removed from power. A cooling off period was obviously required. Alexander sent him to a monastery. According to one biographer he said:
Pontigny was a monastery of the Cistercian order about 55 kilometres south-east of Sens. There Becket would have to submit to the strict discipline and austerity which the order regarded as the sole route to salvation.
“You have hitherto lived in affluence and luxury and that you may learn in future what you ought to be, the comforter of the poor – a lesson which can only be learned from poverty itself, the mother of religion – we have decided to commend you to the Abbot of Pontigny.”
In response to Becket’s self-imposed exile, Henry invoked the full range of sanctions available to him. Every person close to Becket, relatives, friends and members of his household, whether pregnant, widowed, orphaned, aged or invalid, was banished from England and ordered to leave immediately, with only the clothes on their backs. Many were required to swear an oath that they would join the archbishop at Pontigny and a steady stream of new exiles added to the burden of hospitality of the abbey, until the pope absolved them from their oaths to enable them to find refuge elsewhere in France or Flanders.
By writ addressed to all of the bishops of England, Henry ordered a freeze of the ecclesiastical revenues of any clerk who had fled with Becket or otherwise supported him. He ordered his sheriffs to demand security from the parents, brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces of such clerks, until he had decided what to do – presumably he was considering banishment in their case as well. The sheriffs were ordered to arrest anyone who may have appealed to the pope. Finally, Henry ordered that Peter’s pence was to be paid into the royal treasury until he determined what should be done.
The whole of the archbishop’s property was confiscated and a simple tough Norman baron, Ranulf de Broc – who had occupied Lambeth Palace and ruthlessly executed the order to drive Becket’s relatives and household into exile – was appointed as the custodian of that property, subject to the payment of a fixed amount to the king.
Early in 1165 Henry played the schism card – the ultimate threat against Alexander III. He re-opened negotiations with the Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, who was in any event his natural ally against Louis of France, for a marriage alliance. In April, Rainald, the Archbishop of Cologne and pointedly, as far as Henry was concerned, also the Imperial Chancellor, came to conduct negotiations for a two-fold alliance: one of Henry’s daughters would marry a son of the emperor and another would marry his closest ally, Henry the Duke of Bavaria and Saxony.
The year before, Rainald, compounding his multifarious sins against the church, had spirited away from Milan to his base in Cologne the holy relics of the Three Magi themselves. According to one contemporary record:
Following these negotiations, Henry dispatched two of his most senior officials to the Imperial Court, where, at Würtzburg in May, they were present for the debate as to whether the Emperor should continue to support the Anti-pope. One of the key arguments that Rainald was able to deploy for continuing the policy of opposition to Alexander was the prospect of a change in policy by England. Indeed, according to the record, the two English officials joined in the oath at the end of the council, renouncing Alexander as pope.
“They had been preserved in balsam and other aromatic spices, they continued entire, as far as the skin and hair and outward appearance was concerned.”
In June Alexander wrote to Gilbert Foliot, imploring him to intercede with Henry:
Alexander also raised the question of money. He asked Foliot to attend to the collection of the overdue Peter’s pence and inquired whether the bishop could advance the sum of 200 pounds from his own funds, perhaps by way of loan.
“The King has fallen off much from his devotion to the Holy Church: he has forbidden appeals, he has entered into communications with schismatics and persons excommunicated and exiled from his dominions our venerable brother the Archbishop of Canterbury, by which act he has become even a persecutor of the church. … You should recall to his mind that unless he repents of his evil deeds, and that speedily, God will most surely visit him with heavy vengeance and the time must at last come when our patience can no longer endure.”
In his letter Alexander had referred to only one of the ten Constitutions of Clarendon, being the one that directly affected the pope’s own power and authority, i.e. the issue of appeals. Foliot, after consulting Henry, replied in his name offering a compromise:
Although Alexander would have little cause to permit the English bishops to decide the scope of papal authority – like bishops everywhere they had frequent occasion to regard such appeals as undermining their own jurisdiction – nevertheless there was an opening here for negotiation on the only clause that the pope signalled to be fundamental. As for the overdue Peter’s Pence, Foliot said that he found himself a bit short at the time and did not think that he could raise a loan.
“[The King] had no wish to interfere in appeals to your Holiness’s court but merely claimed for himself the right, in civil cases, to hear the case first, according to the ancient usage of the country; should this decision prove unjust, he would place no further obstacle in the way of an appeal. Moreover should this claim prove in anyway prejudicial to the interests of the church, he pledged himself to submit it to the judgment of the next general English Council.”
With respect to Becket, however, there was no compromise. Henry’s personal vendetta would continue:
Alexander was in no position to bring the matter to a head at this time. He threw Becket a few crumbs of consolation. He ordered Clarenbald of St Augustine’s, Henry’s crony, to make a formal profession of obedience to Canterbury, as his predecessor had done. He also purported to overturn Becket’s conviction in the John the Marshall case, which as indicated in the last lecture, was in effect a conviction for contempt of court.
“With regard to the flight of our father the Lord Archbishop, he assures your Holiness it was not ordered by him; that his lordship’s absence is purely voluntary; and that no-one will interfere with his returning whenever he is so minded; only that he will have to answer certain complaints lodged against him respecting a breach of the royal privileges which he is sworn to uphold.”
Alexander asserted a sweeping jurisdiction at the highest level of Gregorian rhetoric:
This was as far as Alexander was prepared to go. It is noticeable that he took no step to interfere in any way with the enforcement of any of the condemned Constitutions. He directed Becket to do nothing rash until Easter 1166, by which time Alexander expected to have re-established himself at Rome and Henry’s flirtation with Frederick Barbarossa would have been subject to the inevitable strains of the passage of time.
“We, whose responsibility it is to correct faults and to amend what would leave a dangerous example to later ages if left uncorrected, decree that the sentence presumptuously uttered against you by the bishops and barons of England is entirely void in which, contrary to both the form of law and to ecclesiastical custom, the said bishops and barons condemned you to lose all your movable possessions because you did not appear in person at the first citation of the king, especially since you have no movables apart from the goods belonging to your church; and we quash it by Apostolic authority, declaring that it has no force in the future, and cannot cause any prejudice or damage to you or to your successors in the future or to the church entrusted to your charge.”
On 22 August 1165, Alexander wrote:
Becket was a political eunuch. He settled back into the pious austerities and sensory deprivation of an isolated Cistercian monastery – “between the rocks and the monks” as Herbert of Bosham, an urban sophisticate, drearily complained. The elegant simplicity of the white limestone monastery, with its majestic, severe church – almost as big as Notre Dame in Paris - built in the style of the transition from Romanesque to Gothic and which survives to this day, was devoid of ornamentation. Cistercians abjured paintings, sculpture, stained glass or precious metal objects, save for a single chalice which had to be silver gilt and never gold. Between the Ides of September and Easter, when the papal restrictions were to be lifted, the Cistercian regime was limited to one simple meal a day. Religious services took up six to seven hours of every day.
“Since these are evil times, and much must be borne because of the temper of the times, we ask, advise, counsel, and exhort your discretion to act with caution, prudence, and circumspection in everything concerning your own and the church’s affairs; do nothing hurriedly or precipitately, but only soberly and maturely, and labour and strive to recover the grace and goodwill of the illustrious English king by all possible means, as far as you can, while preserving the church’s freedom and the honour of your office, and bear with the king until next Easter, so that you take no action against him or his kingdom until that time. For then the Lord will grant better days and both you and we can more safely proceed in this matter.”
John of Salisbury, wallowing in the comparative luxury of the unreformed Benedictine practice in his separate exile at the abbey of St Remi in Rheims – thought Becket was devoting himself excessively to the study of the canon law. He wrote to him to say:
“Laws and canons are indeed useful, but believe me, these are not what will now be needed … Whoever rises pricked in heart from the reading of laws or even of canons? …You would do better to confer on moral subjects with some spiritual man, by whose example you might be kindled, than to pry into and discuss the contentious points of secular learning.”
Directed to the study of scriptures, intensively organised for him by Herbert, Becket could fill the gaps of four decades of intermittent religious instruction and identify the parables and dicta which were of greatest comfort to him in his present position – theological crutches which his isolated penance invested with a new intensity.
It is from this period that one can trace many of the later stories of intense and covert piety in Becket’s personal conduct. It remains impossible to decide what, if any, credence to give to the tales of abject devotion by mortification of the flesh – the wearing of a hair shirt, exposure to icy streams, regular flagellation and sleeping on a bare floor with a stone for a pillow. There seems no reason to doubt that the enforced isolation and religious observance of this period added an inner spiritual strength and ideological fervour to the course which had already been charted by personal and institutional pride.
As Easter 1166 approached, with the pope’s injunction against action by Becket expiring, Henry was resident in his castle at Angers – his ancestral home on his father’s side – unrepentant, still demanding Becket’s complete humiliation. His revenues were swollen by the substantial incomes of the archdiocese of Canterbury and, before the end, to this would be added the income of five bishoprics falling vacant namely Bath, Lincoln, Hereford, Ely and Chichester. With the pragmatic Gilbert Foliot the effective head of the English church and Becket marginalised, Henry was in no hurry.
John of Salisbury, Herbert of Bosham and other clerks close to Becket, were summoned to Angers to see if they could make a satisfactory arrangement for their own return to England or a restoration of the revenues from their frozen benefices.
John of Salisbury, theologian and author, the most cosmopolitan of the group – maintaining a correspondence with fellow intellectuals throughout Europe – offered the Westminster formula: submission to the king “saving his order”. Henry demanded an unqualified oath and full acceptance of the Constitutions of Clarendon; “Whatever the pope, the archbishop or his bishop might do”. The most that John could conceivably offer was to volunteer to accept anything which the pope and archbishop accepted, he was dismissed, fulminating to his friends that the whole exercise had been a waste of time and had cost him 13 pounds to boot.
Next was Herbert of Bosham, no doubt exhilarated by release on parole from the austerities of Pontigny and from its sumptuary rules. He stepped forward, as William Fitzstephen described him:
Henry, knew Herbert from his days as a royal clerk. He muttered in an aside: “Now we shall see a proud fellow”. Herbert audaciously rejected out of hand the terms that had been offered to John and burst into praise for Becket’s in such vociferous terms that Henry exclaimed:
“Tall and handsome and splendidly attired, having on a tunic of green cloth auxerre, with a mantle of the same, hanging down, after the German fashion, from his shoulders to his ankles and adorned with suitable appurtenances.”
“It is not I that do it”, the quick witted Herbert shot back, “Neither am I the son of a priest, as I was born before my father became a priest. Nor is he the son of a king whose father was no king when he begot him”.
“Is this son of a priest to disturb my kingdom and disquiet my peace.”
This was an accurate but barbed impudence on the part of Herbert, directed at Henry’s own lineage. “Whosoever son he is”, one of the barons was recorded to say, “I would give half my land if he were mine”.
In this period the most perceptive comment that Becket received about Henry – confirming what he must already have understood – came from the opportunistic, world weary Arnulf of Lisieux, later described by Herbert of Bosham as one “whose whole virtue is in his mouth”. Arnulf wrote, accurately:
The problem was that Becket had – or at least believed that in the interests of the church he had to display – the same defect at the same level of obsession.
“He will never submit to compulsion. Whatever he does openly must appear to have sprung from his own will and not from weakness.”
In April 1166, Becket wrote to Henry in respectful terms. The salutation was: “To his most respected ….. Henry …”. He stressed the dilemma in which he was placed, between doing his duty to his God and to the king. “Difficulties surround me on all sides” he told the king. “Distress and danger have sought me out: set between two very grievous and fearful things and fearful between two very heavy imperatives, between silence and admonition”. This was a reference to admonition of the king. Becket added “But if I am silent, it will be my spiritual death”. The primary message which Becket wished to convey was not put in writing. It was delivered orally by abbot Urban of a Cistercian monastery which was a daughter house of the abbey at Pontigny.
In late May or early June 1166, abbot Urban delivered a second letter to Henry which was read aloud before the king at his castle at Chinon. The tone was no longer conciliatory. Becket referred to Henry first as his “lord”, then as his “king” and, thirdly, as his “spiritual son”.
Becket continued in a hectoring tone:
“It is certain that kings receive their power from the Church and the Church receives hers not from them but from Christ. If you allow me to say so, you do not have the power to command bishops to absolve or excommunicate anyone, to draw clergy to secular judgments, to pass judgment concerning churches and tithes, to forbid bishops to hear cases concerning breach of faith or oaths, and many other things of this kind, which are written down among your customs which you call ‘ancestral’.”
The final sentence, after a list of such demands, must have infuriated Henry:
“Therefore, my Lord, if you desire your soul’s salvation, do not for any reason take away what belongs to the Church or oppose it in anything beyond what is just; rather, allow it to have in your realm the freedom which it is known to have in other realms … Restore the church of Canterbury, from which you received promotion and consecration, to the condition and dignity in which it was in the times of your predecessors and ours, and restore in full the possessions belonging to that church and to us – the villagers, castles and estates, which you have distributed at will, and all the goods sequestrated from us and the clergy and laity connected with us.”
The final threat was bad enough. But the addition to the qualification of “saving my order”, which Henry had rejected at Westminster, of the two further qualifications, “saving the honour of God and of the Roman Church”, was a request for Henry to humiliate himself.
“And we are ready to serve you as our dearest lord and king, loyally and devotedly with all our strength in whatever way we can, saving the honour of God and of the Roman Church and saving our order. If you do not, you may know for certain that you will suffer the divine severity and vengeance.”
Later in the year Gilbert Foliot would write to Becket claiming that “the humble mindedness which began to show in you” in the first letter had its effect on Henry and he was intending to act in accordance with an offer to Alexander to modify the Constitutions. Foliot’s assessment was similar to that of Arnulf’s:
Foliot went on to refer to Becket’s second letter, and a third delivered, not by the urbane abbot Urban but by a barefoot monk, describing them as “terrible letters savouring neither the affection of a father nor the modesty of a bishop”. He said that it was the receipt of these letters that had turned Henry’s mind against him.
“Our lord the King would not have cared for these dignities and Constitutions but for two reasons only. He thought it would be a reproach to him if he should allow the Crown to suffer loss and diminution of the honours which had been handed down to him by his ancestors; and secondly, though he might give up anything for his God, he would nevertheless blush to have it taken from him by violence.”
No doubt Foliot was reflecting a conversation with Henry. However, the treatment of Herbert of Bosham and John of Salisbury at Angers does not suggest there is much credence in the implication that Henry was prepared to consider any significant change in his position at this time. Becket would have had no doubt that Henry would remain intransigent in the face of threats but also, with good reason, he would have known that such intransigence required no provocation on his part.
Now safely ensconced back in Rome, the pope removed the restrictions on Becket.
In April or May 1166, before the second letter to Henry, Pope Alexander indicated that he could exercise “ecclesiastical justice when you consider it opportune against those who have done violence or injury to the properties and possessions of your church or against you and yours”. He noted specifically, however, that “We are not giving you a particular mandate concerning the King’s person”.
He reinforced Becket’s restored institutional authority by a restatement of the traditional formula for Canterbury’s primacy and by appointing him papal legate for the whole of England – excepting only the archbishopric of York. Investing Becket with the pope’s own authority in this manner was the clearest possible signal to Henry that the archbishop had the full backing of the Church.
The next move was up to Becket.
Henry must have found Becket’s exile increasingly convenient. In the first half of 1166, Henry and his body of royal officials made perhaps their greatest contribution to the peace and order of the realm, particularly to the legal system. There was, I am convinced, no grand plan. The expansion of royal jurisdiction was driven by a mixture of self interest and duty, adapting rules and procedures to the requirements of the time.
The widespread lawlessness that emerged during the course of the reign of King Stephen took time to overcome. From the outset the restoration of order was Henry’s highest priority. The maintenance of order remained a problem a decade after his succession.
Disorder included criminal conduct by clergy, an issue at the heart of the conflict with Becket. In large measure the concern of Henry and his officials was directed at the substantial body of acephalous clerks amongst whom were murders, rapists and thieves in clerical orders, vagabonds with no ties to any bishop or any parish.
The bishops and abbots, with other barons of the realm, attended upon the king in February 1166 at Clarendon, overlooking the valley where Salisbury is located, an establishment which began as a hunting lodge but which by the end of his reign had a great hall with pillared arcades, a chapel with marbled columns and an array of rooms and kitchens and a huge wine cellar. They agreed to a new campaign against robbers, murderers, thieves and receivers.
The agreement was proclaimed in a document, called the Assize of Clarendon: “for the preservation of peace and the enforcement of justice”. It was adopted at much the same time as another Assize, thought to exist but which has not survived. This has been called by historians the Assize on Disseisin – using the word “assize” in the sense of a royal enactment – which established the right to approach the royal courts to challenge dispossession from land. In the last lecture I noted the case of John the Marshall, where Becket was the disseisor, perhaps the first recorded case to lead to royal intervention.
Taken together, as they probably should be, the two enactments represent a new systematic approach to royal justice, subsequently reinforced and extended in the 1170s. The two Assizes of 1166 deserve to be recognised together as a foundation document of the rule of law, of significance at least equal to the Magna Carta.
The idea that the king had a responsibility for maintaining peace and good order throughout his kingdom was gradually developed over the course of centuries. In England, it fused with the idea that the king had a supervisory jurisdiction to see that justice was done in the seignorial courts. The concept of the “kings peace” – distinct from the canon law doctrine of “God’s peace”, which was always general – was specific and limited, extending by incremental steps. Until the time of Henry II, it was limited by time, category and place, e.g. to areas of propinquity to the kings presence, to particular geographical areas such as the royal forests or highways, to certain periods like the octaves of the king’s crowning and the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. It could be declared on an ad hoc basis for specific occasions. It had been extended to the death of any Norman, requiring proof that a murder victim was English before a shire court had jurisdiction, by the process called presentment of Englishry.
The idea of a general peace extending throughout a kingdom took time to take hold. In 1155 King Louis VII, on his return from the Second Crusade, declared a general peace of ten years throughout his kingdom. Three years earlier, Frederick Barbarossa declared a Landfriede, also a general peace throughout the kingdom. The difference between Henry II and the others was that Louis and Frederick declared a peace and left enforcement to the magnates. Henry created his own system of enforcement.
In the Assize of Clarendon and in the probable Assize of Disseisin, Henry II in substance, if not form, declared a kings peace which was so wide ranging as to constitute a general peace. Of particular significance were the mechanisms by which it was to be enforced.
The Assize of Clarendon created a sworn inquest in every county and in every hundred throughout the kingdom. This was the presenting, or what came to be known as the grand, jury which would state on oath whether there was in the area any person known to be a robber, a murderer, or a thief, or a receiver.
This was not the first time such a jury of presentment had been used. However, it was the first time that in a single measure such juries were to be created in every single region. In this, as in so many other things, Henry drew on a local precedent but expanded it, systematised it and made it routine so that, in retrospect, the change was revolutionary.
Detailed provision was made in the Assize of Clarendon for the mechanism of investigation, trial and punishment and for the specific responsibilities of the sheriffs, including their ability to intervene notwithstanding a claim to exemption or privilege. Sheriffs were also directed to investigate the reputation of persons who had recently come into their areas of responsibility.
The trial of persons accused by presenting juries was to be conducted by itinerant justices. This was Henry II’s first Grand Eyre. This was not the first time that the king’s justices had been directed to travel and conduct trials. It was however the first time, with respect to a wide ranging criminal jurisdiction, that justices were to travel throughout the realm and do justice in every region. This was the beginning of a professional judiciary, although for some years the justices were to be condemned for their avarice. At the beginning, royal jurisdiction was extraordinary. Then it became concurrent. Quickly, it became dominant.
Specific provision was made in the Assize of Clarendon forbidding monks and canons of any religious community to receive any person as a monk, or canon, or a brother, from what is described as “the lower classes”, until that person’s reputation was determined, save only in the case of terminal illness. The bishops who agreed to this last provision, there is no record of any controversy or dissent, could not have shared the ideal of non-interference with church affairs, which Becket had declared to be an issue of high principle.
After eighteen months of enforced idleness, Becket prepared to act. At the beginning of June he left Pontigny and travelled north to Soissons. He spent three nights in devout vigil before each of the three shrines of the cathedral in succession. One was dedicated to the Virgin. The second was dedicated to Saint Drausius, the patron saint of those about to face combat. Finally, and perhaps most symbolically, he spent a night before the shrine and relics of Saint Gregory, the eighth century pope who sponsored St Augustine, the founder of the English church and first Archbishop of Canterbury. Gregory the Great was the originating source of all the institutional authority of his archdiocese.
From Soissons, Becket travelled 250 kilometres south, past Pontigny to the small fortified hilltop village of Vézelay, a famous pilgrimage site as the start of one of four routes to Santiago de Compastella. It also had the most important relics in that part of France. Just two years before, in 1164, a secret cavity in a wooden image of the Virgin had disgorged a cornucopia of relics: a hair of the Virgin, a part of her dress, a bone of St John the Baptist, fragments of Christ’s purple robe and the clothes of the three companions of Daniel who had defied Nebuchadnezzar himself. Perhaps most significant, were relics of the body of Mary Magdalene herself. Later when it became known that these relics had never actually left their previous location, the attraction of Vézelay as a pilgrimage site rapidly declined, perhaps explaining its almost pristine preservation to this day.
Vézelay was best known at the time as the site at which St Bernard of Clairvaux had preached the Second Crusade on March 31, 1146, enticing Louis VII of France and a small army of aristocrats to take the cross on the spot. One was Eleanor, then Louis’ wife and now Henry’s. The crusade was directed to save the kingdom of Jerusalem to which Henry may have had a claim, indeed late in his life he was offered the kingdom. The then recently deceased King of Jerusalem, Fulk of Anjou, was Henry’s grandfather on his father’s side. On the other hand Bernard of Clairvaux, in dispute with Henry’s father Geoffrey had once condemned the whole House of Anjou “From the devil they came and to the devil they will return”. No doubt, Henry got whatever message Becket was intending to convey by the choice of Vézeley. No-one else has been able to work it out. My own preference is the presence of the relics of the companions of Daniel who defied Nebuchadnezzar, as Becket was to defy Henry – the Iion was a Plantagenet emblem and Becket was entering the lion’s den. However, that may be an Old Testament bias.
On Whitsunday, 12 June 1166, Becket celebrated mass in the grand abbey church which crowns the hill. Since Saint Bernard had preached the Crusade in 1146, the 200 foot long knave – which had proved inadequate for Bernard’s crowd so that he spoke in the open air – had been extended by a narthex. The harmony and dignity of the multi-coloured limestone interior is ethereal in its lightness. With alternating stones of brown and white in the arches between the nave and the aisles and in the semi-circular transverse arches of the groin vaulting, an array of intricately carved capitals on the semi-columned pillars and light streaming from the clerestory windows above the main arches, the church at Vézelay is one of the gems of Romanesque architecture.
After mass, Becket moved to the pulpit to deliver the sermon. There, while explaining the nature of his quarrel with Henry, to the surprise of his own household, let alone the congregation of pilgrims, he announced that the time for action had arrived. He condemned the Constitutions of Clarendon and anathemised all who complied with them. He formally quashed the document, proclaiming it to be ineffective and absolved from their oaths all those who had sworn to uphold it. He specified eight clauses dealing with ecclesiastical jurisdiction, appeals to Rome, and restrictions on excommunication. Interestingly, clauses 11 and 12 dealing with the election to vacant clerical posts and the obligation of bishops as holders of land were not mentioned. It may be that Becket intended this as some kind of compromise.
True to his word, he proceeded to defy the Constitutions themselves by conducting a ceremony of excommunication, the ultimate ecclesiastical sanction which cut the excommunicate off from all intercourse with other members of the church and carried the perils of eternal torment.
First, was John of Oxford – later bishop of Norwich - who had dealt with schismatics at the Imperial Council in Würzburg, as Henry’s representative, where he had, Becket proclaimed, “fallen into vile heresy by swearing the Emperor an impious oath”. Furthermore, John had accepted appointment as dean of Salisbury cathedral in defiance of a papal order that no such positions could be filled in the absence from the electoral college of those canons of the cathedral who had followed Becket into exile. This decree, which Alexander was prepared to enforce, was an important component of Becket’s long term strategy. Such key offices, from bishoprics down, could not be filled as long as Becket remained in exile. The cumulative effect of such vacancies, growing in number with time, would – whilst a convenient source of additional revenue in the short term – eventually increase pressure on Henry to compromise. Such appointments were Henry’s means of rewarding his supporters in the church, especially those who were royal officials. Without such sinecures he would have to pay them himself.
Making full use of his new authority as a papal legate, the archbishop solemnly lit the candle, inverted it and – pronouncing the final sentence on John of Oxford – dashed it to the ground.
The ceremony was repeated on Richard of Ilchester, the other royal official who had accompanied John of Oxford to Würzburg. Richard had worked with Becket as Chancellor and was a relative of Foliot’s. He later became bishop of Winchester after Henry issued a writ to the cathedral chapter in the form: “I order you to have a free election, but forbid you to elect anyone but Richard my clerk”.
Then Richard de Lucy and Jocelin de Baliol, the two royal officials who Becket believed to be the actual authors of the Constitutions of Clarendon, “those heretical inequities” Becket called them, were made excommunicate. Then it was the turn of Ranulf de Broc and others who had presumed to occupy the lands and usurp the goods of the church of Canterbury.
Becket was probably correct when he identified Richard de Lucy as one of the authors of the Constitution of Clarendon. De Lucy had been a colleague of Becket’s when Becket was Chancellor. Personally devout, de Lucy had been on pilgrimage in Compastella and missed the trial at Northampton. He was the first to visit Becket after his exile to try and convince him to return. Eventually Henry would come to call him “Richard the Loyal” and, in effect, entrust him as a viceroy, especially after 1173 when he alone held England for the king during his sons’ rebellion. De Lucy had commenced in the king’s service in the time of Stephen and was one of the few who was able to transfer his allegiance seamlessly to the new regime. During the trial concerning the privileges of Battle Abbey, discussed in the first lecture, where his Brother Walter was abbot, he and Becket were allies. He had served, and was to serve for many years, in a number of administrative capacities, particularly as the royal justiciar. It seems overwhelmingly probable that de Lucy was also one of the authors of the Assize of Clarendon. He was one of the two itinerant justices sent on circuit to enforce the Assize of Clarendon. He was undertaking this task when he was declared excommunicate by Becket at Vézelay.
In accordance with the directive to be prudent that the pope had given him, Becket contented himself with issuing a public warning to the king that he would move against him unless he repented in full.
Becket also exercised his newly granted legatine authority to suspend Jocelin, bishop of Salisbury – himself, only two years before, the target of Henry’s most vindictive threats. He had succumbed to the royal pressure and appointed John of Oxford as dean of his cathedral. Neither Foliot of London, nor Hillary of Chichester – Roger of York being expressly exempted from Becket’s legatine authority – was singled out for any special treatment, not even with respect to their occupation of Canterbury property. Becket had turned on Jocelin without notice or trial. “In manifest and notorious crimes a hearing is not required”, Becket self-righteously proclaimed. Perhaps he believed Jocelin – originally Henry of Blois’s archdeacon at Winchester and appointed bishop under the patronage of that elder statesman of the English church – to be the weak link in the collective failure of his suffragan bishops to sacrifice themselves for his cause. “Wherefore do you not arise with me against my enemies”, he implored them when in an Old Testament mood.
Henry responded to Becket’s challenge in the only way his pride would allow: he attacked. At his insistence, all the bishops of England formally appealed to the pope against these decisions. The appeals had the consequence of suspending the effect of the excommunications. Henry also turned on Becket’s haven at Pontigny. The Cistercian order, which had recently been expelled from the Imperial territories in Germany and Northern Italy, because of the order’s support for Alexander, was vulnerable. Henry wrote to the order’s General Council, which was about to conduct its annual meting at the founding abbey at Cîteux, suggesting that if they attached any value to the lands of the order in England they would not continue to harbour his “personal enemy”. A delegation led by the abbot of Cîteux called on Becket at Pontigny. He could only approach the matter indirectly:
Herbert of Bosham was dispatched to Louis VII to negotiate an alternative arrangement in France. That pious king – who had trained to be a monk before the death of his older brother thrust him into the succession – had no conflict of interest at all. His support of Becket was merely one part of the tectonic friction between his lands and those under the control of Henry. He could afford to wax eloquent, as reported by Herbert:
“My Lord, the chapter does not drive you out of their house in consequence of an order such as this; they merely lay the letter before you that you may consider and decide what is to be done. The chapter knows well … that your regard for the Cistercian Order is too great to allow a heavy calamity to befall it.”
Accompanied by a mounted escort of 300 Becket left Pontigny for the Benedictine monastery of St Columba near Sens, where the band of exiles was to be supported by the royal revenue. Delighted to be near civilization again, Herbert of Bosham, he who wore his cloak in the German fashion, recorded the transition in an unbridled panegyric:
“Oh religion! Oh religion! Wither art though gone? Lo those whom we suppose to be dead to the world are afraid of the world’s threats and for the perishable and fleeting things which they profess to have despised for God’s sake they cast out God’s cause and Him who is in exile for it.”
“Sweet France, truly sweet is she. Her people have made drunken with delight all those that came to her.”
Gilbert Foliot, bishop of London, who had emerged as the chief supporter of the king, expressed a widely held view when he said:
This distinction – compelling to the modern ear – would have appeared to be polemical to those who regard the institutional interests of the church, and particularly of the papacy, as themselves raising issues of faith and morals. Becket and his supporters unquestionably characterised the issues in dispute as involving a high order of theological claim, rather than the mere legal dispute that Foliot suggested.
“There is no dispute between us about the faith or the sacraments or morals. The whole dispute is with the King or about the King, on account of certain customs which he asserts were observed and maintained by his predecessors and which he himself desires to be observed.”
There was, however, an element of truth in the dismissive conclusion of Foliot’s rebuking letter to Becket:
Whatever Foliot’s personal views, he never questioned the pope’s authority or Becket’s authority as his legate. When he received a direct order from the pope to restore the benefices of Becket’s household clerks, to collect Peter’s pence and to circulate all the bishops with a copy of Becket’s legatine authority, he begged Henry to let him comply, pointing out that there was no appeal from this kind of order. When Becket in exercise of his legatine powers, commanded him to come to France, he proceeded to obey. At Southhampton he met John of Oxford, returning from his mission to Rome, John informed Foliot that the pope had backed down.
“You should have handled such matters with mature deliberation not with the ardour of a novice.”
Responding to the invasion of Italy in November by Frederick Barbarossa, who proclaimed that he would reconsecrate the latest anti-pope in Rome, Alexander’s need for Henry’s support, and particularly his funding, which Becket’s camp believed John of Oxford had liberally distributed in Rome, was more critical than ever. Alexander accepted John’s assurances, given without Henry’s authority, that something could be done about the more objectionable provisions of the Constitutions of Clarendon. On 1 December, Alexander overturned John’s excommunication, personally reinvested him as dean of Salisbury and formally accepted the anticipatory appeal from the bishops about the other excommunications. He restrained Becket from taking any further steps and announced that two new legates would be appointed to settle the dispute.
Foliot was elated: “Thomas will never again be my archbishop”, he exclaimed.
The sense of frustration that Becket felt at this time is evident in the first paragraph of his letter of instructions to his representative in Rome:
Alexander made it clear to his legates that the English dispute must not be allowed to come to a head. They proceeded to France at a leisurely pace. They took almost a year to complete the preliminaries for serious negotiation. Their objective was to restore the peace of the English church, rather than to achieve immediate recognition in England of the proper roles of church and monarchy. Their proposal to Becket was for him to return to England without there being any reference to the Constitutions at all. They told him:
“The manner in which we were again made a figure of shame to our neighbours, a mockery and delusion to those not only in our circle but indeed to almost all people in both kingdoms, French and English, and even in the Empire, and what kind of rumour, not to say infamy and scandal against the Lord Pope, is flying around the ears and mouths of everyone – which, God knows, we regret more keenly than if it were about ourselves – and the serious verbal attacks, insults, and shameful reproaches being cast against the whole Curia, you can gather to some extent from what is written below, and tell it very privately to the Lord Pope and his friends, if he has any.”
However, all that Henry had in fact offered was to accept the legate’s decision if they found he had introduced any innovation. This is a limited promise, albeit not a negligible one. It appears highly likely that virtually every clause did actually reflect past practice. The innovation involved was to put the customs in writing and to obtain an oath from the bishops to uphold them. Even the limitation on appeals to the pope without the king’s authority may itself have reflected what actually happened in practice, as distinct from the form. Nevertheless, this provision was seen to be of particular concern to the pope. Foliot, purporting to speak for the king, indicated that the furthest Henry would go was to revoke the clause forbidding such appeals.
“For it would be a dishonour to the king to be compelled to renounce in words what had been sanctioned by all his barons and prelates as belonging to the Crown. Now if the King grants you peace without mentioning the Constitutions, they are thereby understood to be abolished by implication and as this is the sole cause of the present disagreement you will in reality have gained your cause.”
Becket, knowing Henry better than all, rejected the idea of going back quietly:
Becket refused to surrender. He would only return if Henry agreed to the pre-Clarendon formula for his personal submission to the king, with the proviso growing more luxuriant in the hothouse of exile – “saving the honour of God and of the Apostolic See, the liberty of the Church, the honour due to our own person and the possessions of the Church”. There was no point in asking Henry for this, as Becket well knew. The legates, contrary to the impression given to Henry, merely had authority to conciliate but not to decide anything. They asked Becket to submit to their arbitration. Knowing that at least one of them was an open advocate of the king’s position – Alexander always chose one of each - Becket refused.
“It is a proverb of our people that silence implies consent. The King would be seen in possession of those customs and would compel the church to observe them unjustly and by force, if the onslaught on them already underway ceased by my silence, especially if this were authorised by the intervention of the delegates of the Lord Pope. It would instantly appear to the King and to other folk that he had won his case.”
Numerous avenues of reconciliation had been explored. Alexander had even written to King Louis inquiring about his attitude to having Becket as the papal legate for the whole of France, a position that would at least appear to be a promotion and save face all round. There is no record of Louis’ reply. For all of his piety, he is unlikely to have been enthusiastic.
After a two hour discussion with the legates, King Henry ushered them out with a clear stage whisper: “I hope I never set eyes on a cardinal again”. After a full day in conference with the legates, the English bishops and is officials, Henry left in disgust to go hawking. As one of Becket’s informants at court told him: “The king seems to have no wish but for your head in a charger”.
Gilbert Foliot was spokesman for all the attendant bishops, despite the presence of Roger of York. He indicated that Becket’s refusal to account for the 44,000 marks of silver that had passed through his hands as Chancellor were still outstanding: “The Archbishop fancies that consecration wipes out debts as baptism does sin”, he quipped. He made no reference to the other matters actually tried at Northampton. Henry never challenged the pope’s formal overruling of the judgment given against Becket at Northampton on the contempt charge. However, anything which the pope had not expressly forbidden, including the Constitutions which he had only condemned in general terms but not quashed, were still on Henry’s agenda. Henry never gave anything away until he had too.
There was no prospect of settlement. The legates formally revoked any authority Becket might have had to excommunicate the king or his advisers or to place England under interdict, an order which would have prevented any clergyman in England from performing the functions which the population most desired: officiating at weddings, burials, baptisms, performing the mass, even the ringing of bells.
Becket relapsed into maudlin self-pity apparently unable to appreciate Alexander’s dilemma. With Frederick Barbarossa advancing in Italy the pope was resisting a mortal threat to the heartland of the Church. Throughout the early months of 1167 Frederick Barbarossa’s two armies marched down the Italian peninsula. One of them was jointly commanded by the Archbishop of Cologne, Rainald of Dassel, who was also the Imperial Chancellor, and another warlike ecclesiastic, Archbishop Christian of Mainz. On 29 July 1167 St Peters fell. On the following day the anti-pope Paschal celebrated mass and invested Frederick as Emperor, without consultation or approval of the Senate and people of Rome. The acronym SPQR was no longer apt.
However, in this time of triumph a calamity befell Frederick. In August a plague attacked his camp decimating his army and killing Rainald of Dassel. The plague swept through Rome. In that religious age no-one could have doubted that the hand of God was behind the cataclysm. Early in 1168 the Emperor was forced to leave Italy.
In May Alexander wrote to Becket indicating that he intended to renew the order suspending his power but promised to lift it at Lent, still some ten months away. He wanted one more effort to resolve the dispute by negotiation. No doubt influenced by the stream of correspondence that had descended upon him from Becket’s overwrought pen, the pope wanted Becket to participate in those negotiations without the irresistible temptations of actual authority. Unusually for Alexander, he offered Becket a form of reassurance that restricted Alexander’s own future actions. He promised that when the powers were restored to him, no appeal from Becket’s decisions would be allowed.
Alexander sent a representative to Henry impressing upon him, in a new demanding tone, the necessity for some form or reconciliation. Henry remained unwilling to risk any irretrievable breach with the papacy. He did not then know that the legates had a second letter threatening to unleash Becket at the beginning of Lent, if the conflict remained unresolved. They were instructed to deliver the letter if Henry proved obdurate. According to John of Salisbury, Henry received the pope’s first letter, (but not the threat) in January 1169, just a few days before he was to meet King Louis of France for a peace summit at the hilltop village of Montmirail near Chartres. After two years of skirmishes up and down the border between their territories, Henry and Louis had determined upon a mutual adjustment without surrender.
Henry agreed to acknowledge publicly his position of formal subjection, as a mere duke and count, to his king. John of Salisbury pointedly calling Henry “illustrious” and Louis “most Christian” reported:
In form, Henry gave Louis the honour that was due to him as a king. Obviously, the offer would never have been made if there was the least prospect of the French king taking advantage of the unconditional submission. Henry expected the same kind of offer from Becket. It was a question of face.
“The illustrious English King, although he had often solemnly and publicly sworn that he would never again return his homage and allegiance to the most Christian King of France, so long as he lived, has listened to wiser counsel and changed his mind. On Epiphany last, he came as a suppliant to the French King at Montmirail in the county Chartres. He offered himself, his children, his lands, his resources, his treasures; placed all under his judgment to use and abuse as he would, the whole to seize give to whom he would as he liked with no conditions stipulated or attached.”
Becket arrived at Montmirail with his entire entourage, including the French barons, abbots and bishops who had supported him for five years and his personal household, who had shared his exile. Unanimously they urged him to adopt a similar public posture to that of Henry. As Herbert of Bosham recalled:
Henry’s previous offers to delete the provision from the Constitutions inhibiting appeals to Rome and his offer to have the whole matter referred to a council of the English Church, presumably with Becket presiding, was most likely the basis of the negotiations that had been conducted. Details of the negotiations that must have preceded the urging of Becket’s advisers to submit unconditionally have not been fully set out in the biographies. Under intense pressure and numerous private assurances from his closest supporters and genuine mediators, including the archbishops of Rheims, Sens, Rouen and representatives of the king of France, Becket indicated his concurrence.
“The advice of all parties was that the archbishop should submit the question to the King’s mercy and place himself in his Majesty’s hands unconditionally. Now he had already, at the instance and by the advice of the mediators, avowed in the present of all of them that he would do this ‘saving God’s honour’… Now this phrase which was added was similar to that which had been used about the King’s Constitutions when we were still in England. The archbishop had there said that he would observe the King’s Constitutions ‘saving his own order’ … It was now ‘saving God’s honour’. In the arguments and speeches that were made against the former were now used over again to induce the archbishop to omit the latter. Indeed he would at the present meeting have used the same form which he had used in England, if he had not known that the King would be offended at it. … Those of his mediators who are most intimate with him, men of experience in council and on whom the archbishop placed the greatest confidence urged him to omit the words ‘saving the honour of God’, because they said the King would be scandalised thereby. It was therefore the opinion of all that he should submit the whole question to the will and pleasure of the King and so gratify his Majesty by giving him honour before the meeting; at this the King would be pleased and would restore him his favour and make peace with him.”
As John of Salisbury recorded in his contemporary record, echoing the assurances of emissaries of the pope and of the king had conveyed to Becket before Clarendon:
Becket came before the two kings, appearing in Henry’s presence for the first time since Northampton and, with the requisite humility, knelt before Henry and said:
“The King had held out hope of making peace if only the Archbishop would make some show of humility towards him in public and had persuaded the men of religion that he proposed to hold the Archbishop as lord and chief man of the whole kingdom after himself in all honour and preserving the Church’s liberty.”
In form the submission was unconditional. But the intrusion of a reference to “God’s honour” as a statement of the purpose of the submission, in addition to the submission to the king, was an unheralded gloss on the negotiated formula. All the accounts are unanimous that the additional words came as a complete surprise to everyone present.
“Have mercy on me my Lord since I put myself in God’s hands and yours, to God’s honour and yours.”
According to one biographer, Geoffrey Ridel, Becket’s former associate in the chancery and his successor as chancellor and archdeacon of Canterbury – and future bishop of Ely - exclaimed: “There’s sophistry in that!”. He was right. What Becket was saying was not a condition as such. However, it was a reaffirmation that the Archbishop of Canterbury had, at least in spiritual matters, obligations of loyalty which were not filtered through the king. Complete subjection was not possible. His position asserted the existence of rights against the Crown.
At the last moment Becket had been unable to humiliate himself and his office. Henry may or may not have kept his promises, but it is unlikely, in the light of the number and seniority of the witnesses assembled for the settlement, that he would have abused the formal submission, anymore than he would have expected Louis to take advantage of the submission he himself had just made. This was a submission which Henry had to act upon on the spot, as Louis had done with him. That was what was expected by all assembled.
Henry exploded, abusing the archbishop as proud and vain. As Becket had reneged on the arrangement, he felt able to raise the question of the Constitutions. He turned to Becket’s protectors assembled including the King of France:
According to one biographer Henry proclaimed:
“My Lord King, and you saintly men and princes here present, I ask nothing of the archbishop save that he preserve for me the customs which his five predecessors observed, some of whom are saints and shine brightly with their miracles, the customs which he himself promised to observe.”
Louis who, for all his personal piety, asceticism (unlike his father Louis VI who died of gluttony) and overwhelming sense of sin and guilt, had a temper as bad as Henry’s, turned on Becket sarcastically:
“There have been many and holy Archbishops of Canterbury before him. Now let him behave towards me as the most holy of his predecessors behaved before the least of mine and I am satisfied.”
Becket had not endured years of exile in order to back down. His own sense of personal honour was now inextricably but seamlessly interwoven with a sincere belief in the spiritual necessity of independence of the church and his religious obligation to maintain the rights and interests of the church of Canterbury. John of Salisbury reported his firm, calm stand reintroducing the old qualifications expressly:
“My Lord Archbishop, do you wish to be more than a saint.”
The prearranged settlement had broken down. As his own entourage left the conference site, most of his close followers were dismayed by their leaders stubbornness. Becket felt the lash of their frustrations in the sarcastic comment of one of his own clerks who tugged on the reigns of Becket’s recalcitrant horse, that had stumbled:
“The archbishop replied that he was prepared to observe the customs to win peace and favour and do all that he could in accordance with the King’s will saving God’s honour and his own order … and so the King said ‘I will never accept those words or it will appear that the archbishop wishes God’s honour preserved and not I, though I really want it preserved more than he does. The Archbishop of Canterbury replied that on the basis of homage and fealty already performed he had to preserve the King’s life, limbs and earthly honour, saving his order and that he would promise nothing beyond this.”
A fortnight later the pope’s second letter to Henry was delivered. In two months time, Becket would be free to act. On this occasion, Becket wrote to the pope and various cardinals for support in measured penetrating tones, devoid of theological hectoring and self-pity. The pope decided not to interfere.
“Come up, come up --- saving the honour of God and my own order.”
In April 1169, Becket travelled over 100 kilometres east from Sens to St Bernard’s foundation abbey at Clairvaux. There, on Palm Sunday, he proceeded to perform the awesome ceremony of excommunication on ten individuals and threatened a second named list of sixteen with the same fate, unless they gave satisfaction before Ascension Day, six weeks later. The scope of the categories to which his sentences were directed was made clear from the threatened group excommunication in the following terms:
It is perhaps noteworthy that virtually all of the excommunicates had something to do with the confiscation of property of the Church of Canterbury, the restoration of which was accepted by everyone as a pre-condition of the archbishop’s return. Having taken a stand on principle, the now confident archbishop may in fact have been acting pragmatically. In accordance with the restraint which the pope continued to privately urge upon him, the king was spared.
“All those who with the aid or counsel of the King, or by his mandate or authority, have seized the goods of ourselves or our clerks; those also who notoriously have instigated the King to injure the Church, or to proscribe or banish the innocent and impede the Pope’s messengers or our own, so that they may not discharge the commissions of the church.”
The two most senior men on the list were Gilbert Foliot, bishop of London, and Jocelin, bishop of Salisbury. They were both said to be guilty of gross disloyalty to their superior. Foliot, who had emerged as the leader of the English bishops, was denounced by Becket as “the incentor of all malice”. Foliot remained unrepentant. In response, he proclaimed the independence of the see of London and indeed its entitlement to the archbishopric in lieu of Canterbury, recalling his earlier refusal to make a formal profession of obedience. Becket’s escalation was to be met in kind. Henry who had reinforced London’s role as the capital, particularly be developing the palace at Westminster, would probably have supported moving the archbishopric. It would have been the ultimate humiliation of Becket.
Becket wrote to another bishop:
The final formal step in the excommunication of Foliot occurred in a dramatic moment during the mass on Ascension Day at St Pauls Cathedral in London. A young French volunteer, who had carried the crucial letters through the blockade that Henry had proclaimed around England, held out a packet containing the letters as his oblation to the officiating priest. The letter concluded:
“The Bishop of London does not abstain from giving offence among other works of his notable wickedness, since he has been delivered up to Satan, has even gone so far as, with insolent audacity and parasital impiety to lift up his heel against his and your mother, the Holy Church of Canterbury. In presuming to say that he owes it no submission and will pay no obedience to him by whom he was translated to receive and to the weight of his condemnation has added this, that he would be for causing the transfer of the archiepiscopal throne to the See of London … and has not feared the challenge to the combat the whole community of the sons of the Church of Canterbury, while he is thirsting for the blood of their mother and is forsaking the unity of Catholic concord. For he has written to our Lord the Pope, on behalf of our brother the Archbishop of York, beseeching him, with lying and deceitful testimony, that he will allow him to bear the cross throughout our province, supposing that some great gain will be the result, if through hatred to our person he shall be enabled in any way to inflict an injury upon the Church to which by his canonical profession he had duty of obedience.”
Proclaiming the excommunication, the messenger disappeared in a crowd and evaded the royal search party. Henry wrote to Foliot in support:
“We therefore command you, by virtue of your obedience and in peril of your salvation, your Episcopal dignity and priestly orders, to abstain as the forms of the Church prescribe, from all communion with the faithful, less by coming in contact with you the Lord’s flock by contaminated to their ruin.”
Foliot summoned the bishops but found that on this occasion they were not united. Henry of Winchester, pleading infirmity, would not join in any appeal to Rome and scrupulously avoided all contact with the excommunicates. Roger of Worcester, the king’s cousin had already left England in voluntary exile. They all knew, as did Foliot himself, that on this occasion the archbishop’s acts had the authority of the pope. Foliot did appeal the sentence with the support of the London clergy but the members of his own order, revealing the drift of events, excused themselves from joining him on this occasion. Foliot and Jocelin appealed without other bishops in support.
“I have heard of the outrage which that traitor and enemy of mine Thomas has inflicted on you and on other of my subjects, and I am as much displeased as if it had fallen on my person.”
Although proclaiming that his appeal had suspended the sentence, Foliot was a Cluniac monk who had taken an oath requiring implicit obedience to the pope in all things. He had to obey. He suspended himself from performance of his priestly duties and joined the bishop of Salisbury and the king in Normandy.
Alexander appointed his third pair of representatives to negotiate a settlement. One, apparently, was considered incorruptible. One of Becket’s supporters said in amazement: “Although a Roman yet he went not after gold”. The other took Henry’s gifts but, eventually, switched sides. This time their instructions from the pope were resolute. Unless an agreement were reached, the whole of England would be placed under an interdict. To reinforce his determination Alexander imposed a deadline on the legates’ powers. If no settlement were effected before 29 September, 1169 they had to return to Rome.
The basic structure of agreement had really been resolved before Montmirail. The status quo before Clarendon would be restored. Becket and his fellow exiles would receive back all their property. The formal promise to uphold the written Constitutions and the sentences at Northampton were to be regarded as ineffective. However, the nature and binding force of the customs was to be left, as it had been before Clarendon, the subject of rival inconsistent claims requiring resolution or, failing resolution, mutual accommodation.
A range of issues had been quickly conceded, e.g. Henry would not press for an account of Becket’s revenues as Chancellor. With each concession Henry’s reluctance became more manifest. He used every excuse for procrastination as if hoping for a change of circumstances, such as the death of Becket or of Alexander. He twisted and turned, desperately seeking for a way to ensure that he, rather than Becket, could at least appear victorious, as if they were engaged in a petty squabble where the victor was the one who uttered the last defiant word.
Henry used all his old tricks to cower the papal legates: outbursts of fury, storming out with words of defiance, riding off on his horse. One of them calmly responded:
If Becket were to swear “saving the honour of God and of his order” then, Henry said, his part of the deal to accept Becket’s return in “peace”, would have to be made “saving the dignity of the Kingdom”. On this formulation any “peace” would be provisional on Becket’s future conduct. The legates refused to accept any such condition.
“Don’t threaten us Lord. We are emissaries of a court which is accustomed to giving orders to emperors and kings and we fear no man’s threats.”
Becket also made it explicit that upon his return he would expect a strict account of the profits earned during his exile, which he continued to treat as an expulsion contrary to Henry’s assertion that it was voluntary and unwarranted. No-one, Becket made clear, would be allowed to keep any of their illegitimate gains. No final agreement emerged before the pope’s deadline passed.
Henry attempted to turn England into an ecclesiastical fortress. New orders were promulgated, banning all communications to or from the pope and outlawing appeals to the pope. No cleric was permitted to leave the kingdom without a royal passport. All clerics with English estates were ordered home. The property of any supporter of the archbishop was to be confiscated. Anyone bringing an order of interdict into the kingdom was to be treated as a traitor. Anyone who observed any such interdict was to be driven into exile with their extended family. Peter’s pence were to be paid into the royal treasury. Every adult - clergy, baron, knight, peasant - was required to swear an oath to uphold these decrees. The consequence was to split England from the papacy, almost as completely as that effected under Henry VIII. It failed.
The records are imprecise and incomplete, but it is clear that the orders were widely disobeyed. According to an exultant Becket, writing at the time, every bishop and every abbot, except the widely reviled Clarenbald at St Augustine’s, refused to comply or give, what he described as “the nefarious oaths” to support the new rules. He listed a number of specific acts of defiance.
The bishop of Winchester expressly asserted that he “would obey the apostolic decrees and those of the church of Canterbury”. The bishop of Lincoln placed his staff on the altar and said: “He would see who dared extend the hand against the church and its possessions”, before retiring to the contemplation and sanctuary of the cloister. The bishop of Chester found refuge over his Welsh border amongst the king’s most turbulent subjects. Even Roger of York, according to William Fitzstephen, refused to take the oath.
This was rebellion. The prospect of massive disaffection within the population, potentially infecting the warrior barons, was a serious challenge, Henry’s entire career had been spent moving from one point of disaffection to another: from Wales to Scotland, from Brittany to Poitou, from his border with Louis in the Norman Vexin to Toulose or Gascony. There was no shortage of local barons, outwardly loyal but inwardly harbouring ambition or relishing the prospect of revenge for a past slight or humiliation. No-one who had cobbled together so extensive an empire so quickly, and then spent almost two decades protecting it, could be free of paranoia or, indeed, of real enemies. Four years later, Henry would face a civil war, provoked by his feuding sons, which rocked his empire to its foundation. Even in 1169, he must have had some inkling of the resentments and frustrations which caused so many of his barons to defect four years later. Personal excommunication of the king and an interdict on the kingdom, including one that extended throughout his French territory, as the pope openly threatened, could quickly ignite rebellion in too many places at once. Henry had to back down.
Travelling to St Denis, north of Paris, for a further meeting with King Louis, he sought a conference with Becket. The meeting was arranged to take place at Montmartre, in the chapel of the Holy Martyrs at the base of the hill which marked the spot of St Denis’ martyrdom at the hands of the Romans, before he struggled many miles north to expire at the site where the abbey in his name was and is located. Becket’s negotiators presented his demands in writing.
The archbishop would make the following key promise:
“We will perform to him all that an archbishop owes to his King and Prince, saving the honour of God and our own order”.
In return, Henry had to reply:
“I remit to the archbishop and his adherents all my anger and offence and I forgive the same all previous quarrel and I grant to him and his adherents true peace and security from me and mine and I restore to him and his adherents the Church of Canterbury … and likewise I restore to him all the churches and prebends belonging to the archbishopric … saving the honour of my kingdom.”
Becket had accepted the logic of, or at least the symmetry of, Henry’s qualification about the honour of his kingdom.
There was considerable haggling about the financial terms. Becket identified a number of specific properties that had been misappropriated each of which had a particular association with the exile. Each matter was a taunt to Henry.
First, there was land at Mundeham of the manor of Pagham, which the king had confiscated from Canterbury and bestowed on John the Marshall, the complainant who had triggered Becket’s humiliation at the trial at Northampton.
Second, land at Lese of the Manor of Otford, held by William of Eynsford, a man whom Becket had excommunicated over a property conflict. He had been forced to retract by Henry at the very beginning of the conflict between then. Becket had only withdrawn after a blazing row about the custom that no tenant in chief could be excommunicated without the king’s consent. It had been the first argument over what eventually clause 7 in the Constitutions of Clarendon. Then Becket had backed down. Eynsford was to be punished for this past dispute, no doubt as an example to others that taking the side of secular power was not always the profitable course, even in worldly matters.
Perhaps even more significant was the basis on which Becket laid claim to the land at Lese. He wrote at the time of the original dispute:
Henry had spent his entire reign asserting that his rights dated from the time of his grandfather, Henry I. The alternative root of title was the Treaty of Winchester in 1153, by which Stephen adopted Henry as his son and heir to the kingdom. That starting point would have meant a much weaker monarchy, especially vis a vis the church. Henry asserted and reasserted on many occasions that no rights had been created during the years of Stephen’s usurpation. In his claim to the land at Lese, Becket was directly challenging Henry’s programme of restoration, at least so far as it affected the church. The church had extracted numerous concessions, commencing with a sweeping charter of liberty, from the embattled Stephen. By directing attention to Henry’s oath at the time he negotiated the peaceful succession, Becket was creating a precedent which he, and indeed many others, would be able to use in numerous other disputes.
“We demand likewise the fee of William de Ros, which the King took from us, contrary to the oath he made to King Stephen on being adopted as his son and as his heir to the kingdom. For on that occasion he swore solemnly and publicly that he would preserve to the church all that his lord and father had bestowed on it.”
Each of these properties had already featured in Becket’s excommunications earlier in the year. Obviously not knowing precisely who was in occupation at Lese, his excommunication had been delivered in the following form: “The tenant of the land of Mundham (Lese) … if it be held by any man other than the King”.
Thirdly, he demanded the return to him of all the land which Henry of Essex had held as a tenant of the see of Canterbury at the time that his property was escheated to the Crown, on being found guilty of treason. Becket was well aware before he left England that the fate of that former favourite of the king, now a monk at Reading Abbey, was what had been in store for himself. As Henry I’s doctor said of the instability of royal favour: “A king is like a fire: if you are too close, you burn; if you are too far away, you freeze”.
The former property of Henry of Essex included Saltwood Castle, now in the possession of Ranulf de Broc. Before his exile Becket had claimed the castle should have reverted to him, rather than becoming available to Henry to bestow on de Broc. Becket’s best biographer, William Fitzstephen – who evaded a banishment order by ingratiating himself with Henry – would later turn to Virgil for an appellation for de Broc: “Monstrous in crime above all others”, he wrote. It would be at Saltwood Castle, in the presence of de Broc, that the four assassins would subsequently gather before their final descent on Canterbury Cathedral.
Becket’s correspondence during these negotiations was preoccupied with the detail of the financial terms. He claimed 30,000 marks financial compensation as an estimate of his lost revenues during the period of exile. He would settle for half now.
One thing was absolutely obvious. Becket was not proposing to return in a penitent frame of mind. Every one of these specific demands was calculated to let everyone know, especially Henry himself, that Becket had won. The demands were intended to be humiliating. If he granted them, his authority would be significantly undermined especially vis a vis the English church.
During the meeting at Montmartre, a new formula emerged. Instead of a general submission by the archbishop to the king, to which some form of proviso was attached, a new and entirely ambiguous form of submission was proposed, which carried a proviso within the formula of the submission itself. Soon after the meeting Becket wrote that it would have had the following form:
The form of proviso, “saving my order and saving the honour of God” was now subsumed within the words “which an archbishop owes”. What it was that was “owed”, was to be left unspecified.
“He would grant to us and to ours his grace with peace and security together with the restoration of all our possessions, whilst we offered on our part to show towards him all the obedience which an archbishop owes to his King.”
It is by no means clear that Becket’s previous formula encompassed the position of the archbishopric. Becket’s “order” was that of a priest, the archbishopric was an office. At the most, the reference “saving my order” would have referred to the clergy as a whole, though that would not have been its primary contemporary meaning. In any event, Becket probably believed, like Anselm, that preserving the rights of the archbishopric was his duty as a priest.
Herbert of Bosham later explained the new position:
All the chronicles indicate that a final agreement was reached on all essential terms. Whatever the form, the provisional nature of the arrangement was not changed. It was at this point that Becket raised a new requirement. He had consulted the pope as to what assurance he could require from the king. The pope said that no oath or pledge was appropriate but “if God willing, you could prevail on the king to let a kiss of peace pass between you with that you might be content”. The kiss of peace, in public and on the mouth, was a traditional means of guaranteeing agreements, including truces. It is difficult not to see this as Becket insisting on a final twist which humiliated Henry, a final proclamation identifying the victor.
“All the objectionable Constitutions, though not expressly yet virtually were withdrawn and abandoned by the king and full effect was given to the liberty of the Church, though nothing was expressly stipulated by either party on these heads. For all agreed that specification would do harm, because it might tend to impede the reconciliation. The phrase which had always before been added and caused such difficulty, namely ‘saving the honour of God’ was now virtually suppressed. Nor indeed was it necessary to retain it because there was now no wish shown to subject the archbishop in ecclesiastical matters to the king’s will.”
Henry refused. At the last moment he balked at this indignity. Feebly he excused himself disclosing he had taken an oath not to give Becket such a kiss. “It was”, one of Becket’s contemporary admirers asserts, “perhaps the only oath he never broke”.
Transforming the pope’s suggestion into an order, Becket insisted: no kiss, no peace. The talks had broken down again. Becket announced that unless there was a settlement he would place the whole of England under interdict. Baptism, confession and the unction of the dying would be permitted, but no church services of any kind. There would be no burials, no marriages, no celebration of the mass, no ringing of bells. He further indicated that he was now prepared to excommunicate the king.
Alexander backed him up, threatening an interdict over Henry’s lands in France, a matter beyond Becket’s own competence. He appointed yet another pair of representatives with power to implement such an interdict if they could not finalise the agreement which had seemed so close at Montmartre. They were to attempt to get Henry to give a kiss of peace and were supplied with a papal offer to absolve him from his inconvenient oath. Alternatively, the kiss should be given on his behalf by his son, Henry. Alexander was supporting the archbishop. He sent express orders to each French bishop to enforce any interdict that his legates may declare over Henry’s French lands and another to the Archbishop of York and his suffragans to publish and enforce, in his own province, any interdict the Archbishop of Canterbury may lay on his own province.
Henry could not risk any of these measures. He could, however, perform one last act of defiance against Becket. One final twist which would sour Becket’s victory. In breach of Canterbury’s most cherished privilege, he could have his son crowned as his successor by Roger, the archbishop of York.
It had been in 1161, during the interregnum after Theobald’s death, when Becket was still his Chancellor, that Henry acquired written papal permission to have his son crowned by any bishop of his choosing. The pope had reinforced this discretion by an express authority to Roger of York to perform the ceremony if requested.
A coronation of a son during the life of a father was unprecedented in England – indeed Theobald had refused Stephen’s request to do so - but it was common in the Empire and had occurred in France.
Early in 1170 the plans for a coronation were hastily implemented. Henry summoned a council of every senior ecclesiastic he could find at short notice, to proclaim his intention to invite Becket and all his supporters to return to England, there to be reinstated with all their former possessions in complete security. All that he required was a general undertaking in the most ambiguous of terms: that Becket would perform every service that an archbishop should render a king. There was, however, no mention of the kiss of peace. Henry, properly, regarded his open promise at the council as performing the function of a personal assurance, as binding as any “kiss”.
Becket was on his way to a meeting with Henry at Caen in Normandy when he learned that Henry had precipitously left for England, sailing into the teeth of a gale. The impulsive king was returning to England for the first time in four years, just as his most abject humiliation was about to be consummated.
Becket had anticipated the attempt to crown the young Henry, either because of advance intelligence or because of the example set only a few months before in August 1169, when Frederick Barbarossa had had his son Henry crowned King of the Romans. He did not, however, anticipate Henry’s speed.
Upon his return to England Henry summoned a Great Council which assembled at Windsor on April 5. Following the revelations after two years of the, until then, most extensive visitation of itinerant royal justices, in the General Eyres of 1168-1170, Henry appointed a major commission of inquiry composed of teams of commissioners for each province, with authority to inquire into the conduct of all persons in authority during his four years absence. Known to historians as the “Inquest of the Sheriffs”, because it led to the sacking of virtually every sheriff in England for corruption or maladministration, its terms were more wide-ranging than that. What Henry had in fact ordered was an inquiry into the official tasks performed by virtually every bishop, abbot, earl, baron, sheriff, forester and verger.
The basic assumption underlying the inquest was that all authority was delegated from the king, including a significant part of the authority of bishops, abbots, archdeacons and deans. The surviving records do not indicate how much of an intrusion into the affairs of the church was intended. This part of the plan was soon suspended by the martyrdom. The commissioners were to report to the Council meeting at London the next June, immediately before the coronation. The insecurity which must have gripped everyone who held office until the inquest was over, would ensure a good and obedient attendance at the event.
At about the same time as Henry crossed over to England, Alexander signed an order addressed to Roger Archbishop of York and all the bishops of England, which was forwarded to Becket for delivery at his discretion:
At about this time, over Becket’s furious protests, the pope granted absolution to Gilbert Foliot and Jocelin of Salisbury from the order of excommunication that Becket had imposed. Perhaps in response to Becket’s fury, the pope sent another letter to Becket proscribing in explicit terms any coronation of the young Henry. The problem was how to have the pope’s orders delivered. Henry had tightened the blockade. “The king”, William Fitzstephen later recounted, “caused the ports to be very strictly watched”.
“As we have been told on the authority of several informants, that the coronation of the Kings of England belongs by ancient custom to the Church of Canterbury, we command you most authoritatively by these our letters, not to crown the King of England’s son, if he shall ask you to do so, whilst our venerable brother, Thomas, the Archbishop of Canterbury is in exile.”
Amongst a number of alternatives, Becket personally entrusted copies of the papal letters to Roger, bishop of Worcester, the one bishop who had left England in sympathy with Becket and who was now returning at the specific invitation of the king for the family occasion. Roger was the son of Earl Robert of Gloucester, the bastard son of Henry I and, therefore, a member of the royal family. On hearing that Roger had received such a letter, the constable for Normandy and Queen Eleanor, who was waiting in Normandy with the young Prince Henry for the king’s final clearance to cross the Channel, closed the ports of Normandy to Roger, preventing the bishop leaving for England.
Henry’s blockade proved effective. Although William Fitzstephen asserted that both Roger of York and Foliot of London had received copies of the papal orders on the day before the coronation, no-one would later come forward to challenge their denial.
On 14 June, Prince Henry was crowned in Westminster Abbey, by Roger of York in the presence of Foliot of London, Jocelin of Salisbury and, perhaps, the unkindest cut to Becket, the aging Walter of Rochester, Theobald’s brother and Becket’s original patron, not least in his disputes with Roger of York in Theobald’s household. Henry had made his point.
Although Prince Henry’s wife, Margaret, the daughter of Louis VII of France, had been ready with her husband in Normandy, and her formal coronation robes had been prepared at the considerable expense of 26 pounds 17 shillings and 5 pence, she was left in Normandy to Louis’ immediate and predictable outage. Prince Henry was crowned alone. The only explanation that makes sense of this needless slight is that Henry was leaving himself an excuse for holding a second coronation, to appease Becket’s wounded pride, without any suggestion of loss of face on his own part. After all, Henry I himself, who was crowned by the nearest available bishop when his brother died in a hunting accident, had been crowned a second time by Archbishop Anselm on his return from exile.
Immediately after the coronation, Henry had written from Westminster to one of the papal legates indicating his willingness to accept the pope’s terms for settlement. He agreed to everything except the kiss of peace. The legates arranged for a new meeting between the king and archbishop to follow another conference between Henry and Louis. It was held on the east bank of the Loire, south of Chartres near the town of Fréteval on 22 July 1170.
Coming forward alone from the two large parties, Henry bounded forward and greeted Becket with studied spontaneity. In his contemporaneous letter, reporting on the meeting to the pope, Becket asserted with an equally studied disingenuousness:
This must, of course, be read in the light of the numerous lectures on Henry’s capacity for duplicity, which Becket had sent to the pope on previous occasions.
“He drew us apart to the wonder of all and for a long time spoke with such familiarity that it seemed as though there had never been any discord between us.”
There is no doubt that they had a long conversation, disconcerting their bored entourages on the edge of the field. They ranged over numerous aspects of the dispute. Becket’s letter to the pope is the only surviving contemporaneous record. It cannot be checked and must be treated with care. Steeled as he must have been against Henry’s talent for dissimulation, Becket was charmed by his wit and exuberance. It was at this point that the requisite public posturing of reconciliation occurred: first a show of humility from Becket and then a show of respect and acceptance from the king.
As Herbert of Bosham, an eye-witness, recalled in his biography:
It was an important symbolic gesture. Holding the stirrup was used as a sign of subjection by the Holy Roman Emperor to the pope, in those periods of history when the pope could command such subjection. Becket dissembled the incident in his report to the pope:
“The archbishop … dismounted from his horse and in the sight of all there present humbly prostrated himself at the King’s feet. But as he was about to remount his horse, the King held the stirrup for him while all the bystanders gazed in astonishment.”
The issue on which Becket spent the most time in his letter to the pope was, however, the coronation of Henry’s son. He said that they had discussed at length the propriety of the coronation. Becket explained the special circumstances in the only two cases in which the act had not been performed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, albeit by, regrettably, his two most important predecessors. William the Conqueror had been crowned by the Archbishop of York at a time when the Archbishop of Canterbury was in disgrace. Henry I had been crowned by the bishop of London, when Anselm was in exile. Henry, no doubt as planned, immediately offered to let Becket perform the second coronation on his son to be accompanied, on this occasion, by his wife. Indeed, Henry had promised to do this to King Louis the day before.
“Then I leapt from my horse and would have knelt at his feet, but he seized the stirrup and compelled me to remount and seemed to shed tears.”
Returning to the assembled gathering, Becket proceeded to deliver the formula which had been worked out at Montmartre:
Becket’s entire household came forward one by one and repeated the archbishop’s formula. No reference was made to the Constitutions of Clarendon, not even in the cases of Herbert of Bosham and John of Salisbury, from whom an oath to obey had been demanded at Angers in 1166.
There is no reference of even the most oblique character to any of the outstanding issues raised in the Constitutions. Henry abandoned, because he was forced to do so, the strategic objective which he had consistently pressed from the time of the Westminster Council meeting in 1163: his demand for an unconditional undertaking to observe the customs of his grandfather’s times. On the other hand there had not been any “kiss of peace”, Becket’s demand which had prevented the same settlement nine months before.
“We asked … that he would restore us his favour and peace and security to us and ours and the Church of Canterbury with her possessions, which he could read set down in a scroll; and that he should mercifully amend what he had presumptuously done against us and our king in the coronation of his son; promising to him love and honour and whatsoever obedience can be shown by an archbishop to his king and prince in the Lord.”
Becket asserted in his letter to the pope, no doubt to excuse his earlier misjudgment, that such a kiss was offered but, in his own discretion, waived. Herbert of Bosham’s version, plainly based on his own discussion with Becket at the time, is that the kiss of peace was not mentioned at all. The other biographers suggest that it was refused, although promised at a future time when it could be given without loss of face. On all accounts the settlement proceeded without it. In this regard Becket had backed down too.
Becket had also not attained the full and precise statement of the terms of restoration of property and payment of compensation, because the pope had not made agreement on such detail one of his terms. Becket had lamented:
The personal posturing between the two personalities, and the institutional conflict they personified, had not ended. No-one present could have believed that the feud was over. The formal declaration called it a “peace”. It was, however, only a truce.
“Because you did not order that he should restore to us and ours what has been taken away we could not order it; but neither can we, God willing, yield that point. According to your command the request is deferred not abandoned. Indeed if you had ordered it as forcibly as you expressed your last letters no doubt he would have made satisfaction.”
Herbert of Bosham would recall that he had first thought that the open field at Fréteval, where the meeting occurred, was a particularly beautiful spot. He later discovered that the locals called it “Traitors Meadow”.
Before Fréteral and immediately after his son’s coronation, Henry had left England for Normandy. Near Falaise, he had met Roger, bishop of Worster who, as I have said, had been prevented from crossing for the coronation because he carried one of the papal letters proscribing it. Henry berated his kinsman as a traitor – refusing at first to believe that he had been prevented from attending the coronation. Henry said:
“You favour my enemy … do no expect that I shall let you keep the revenues of your bishopric. I will immediately deprive you of them … you cannot be the son of the good Earl Robert, who brought us both up in his castle together and had us taught the first elements of morals and learning”.
Roger responded defiantly, according to William Fitzstephen:
One of the accompanying courtiers stepped forward to berate the bishop for insulting the king. In a revealing moment, Henry turned on the courtier with venom:
“I am glad things are in their present state and that I was not a witness to the coronation which was unjust, contrary to God’s law, not for any fault of the prince, but of the man who crowned him; and if I had been there I would not have allowed it. You say I am not the son of Earl Robert. I cannot tell whether I am or not but I am certain I am the son of my mother, who was the companion of my father in the honours of the protectorate and you are exhibiting a very sorry proof of being nephew to Earl Robert who bred you so honourably and fought against your enemy King Stephen for sixteen years … . If you had reflected on this you would never have reduced all my brothers to nothing as you have done. Your grandfather good King Henry gave my brother, the Earl, an honour of a thousand knights and you have curtailed it to 250. … This is your mode of recompensing your relations and friends and now you threaten to take away my bishopric. Be it so if you are not already satisfied with the revenues of the archbishopric and six other sees besides numerous abbacies which you have got hold of at the risk of your soul’s salvation”.
Roger had stood up for his family’s rights, in the same way as Becket had stood up for the rights of the Church. In his reaction on this occasion, Henry indicated, albeit in the case of claims of blood rather than of theology, that he accepted and admired an individual who championed his own honour. His courtiers should not always assume that the king’s display of anger required action by them. That could lead to tragedy, as we will see in the next and last lecture.
“Do you think, you rascal, if I choose to say what I like to my relation, the bishop, you or any other person is to abuse or threaten him? I can hardly keep my hands off from your eyes. Neither you nor anyone else is to use your tongue in this way to the bishop”.