This series has ten easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Thomas Becket Becomes Archbishop.
The murder of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170 was one of the most stirring stories from the Middle Ages and a high point in the development of relations between church and state.
This selection is from History of England, From the First Invasion by the Romans to the Accession of Henry VIII by John Lingard published in 1819.
John Lingard was a Catholic priest and a British historian. His 8 volume history was a key factor in equality for Catholics in the 19th. century.
Place: Canterbury Cathedral
The favor enjoyed by the Chancellor Thomas Becket, and the situation which he filled, pointed him out as the person the most likely to succeed Theobald. By the courtiers he was already called the “Future Archbishop”; and when the report was mentioned to him, he ambiguously replied that he was acquainted with four poor priests far better qualified for that dignity than himself. But Henry, whatever were his intentions, is believed to have kept them locked up within his own breast. During the vacancy the revenues of the see were paid into his exchequer, nor was he anxious to deprive himself of so valuable an income by a precipitate election. At the end of thirteen months (A.D. 1162) he sent for the Chancellor at Falaise, bade him prepare for a voyage to England, and added that within a few days he would be archbishop of Canterbury. Becket, looking with a smile of irony on his dress, replied that he had not much of the appearance of an archbishop; and that if the King were serious, he must beg permission to decline the preferment, because it would be impossible for him to perform the duties of the situation and at the same time retain the favor of his benefactor. But Henry was inflexible; the legate Henry of Pisa added his entreaties; and Becket, though he already saw the storm gathering in which he afterward perished, was induced, against his own judgment, to acquiesce.
He sailed to England (May 30); the prelates and a deputation of the monks of Canterbury assembled in the king’s chapel at Westminster; every vote was given in his favor; the applause of the nobility testified their satisfaction; and Prince Henry in the name of his father gave the royal assent. Becket was ordained priest by the Bishop of Rochester, and the next day, having been declared free from all secular obligations, he was consecrated by Henry of Winchester. It was a most pompous ceremony, for all the nobility of England, to gratify the King, attended in honor of his favorite. That the known intentions of Henry must have influenced the electors there can be little doubt; but it appears that throughout the whole business every necessary form was fully observed. Gilbert Foliot, Bishop of Hereford, a prelate of rigid morals and much canonical learning, alone observed jeeringly that the King had at last wrought a miracle; for he had changed a soldier into a priest, a layman into an archbishop. The sarcasm was noticed at the time as a sally of disappointed ambition.
That Becket had still to learn the self-denying virtues of the clerical character is plain from his own confession; that his conduct had always defied the reproach of immorality was confidently asserted by his friends, and is equivalently acknowledged by the silence of his enemies. The ostentatious parade and worldly pursuits of the chancellor were instantly renounced by the Archbishop, who in the fervor of his conversion prescribed to himself, as a punishment for the luxury and vanity of his former life, a daily course of secret mortification. His conduct was now marked by the strictest attention to the decencies of his station. To the train of knights and noblemen, who had been accustomed to wait on him, succeeded a few companions selected from the most virtuous and learned of his clergy. His diet was abstemious; his charities were abundant; his time was divided into certain portions allotted to prayer and study and the Episcopal functions. These he found it difficult to unite with those of the chancellor; and, therefore, as at his consecration he had been declared free from all secular engagements, he resigned that office into the hands of the King.
This total change of conduct has been viewed with admiration or censure according to the candor or prejudices of the beholders. By his contemporaries it was universally attributed to a conscientious sense of duty: modern writers have frequently described it as a mere affectation of piety, under which he sought to conceal projects of immeasurable ambition. But how came this hypocrisy, if it existed, to elude, during a long and bitter contest, the keen eyes of his adversaries? A more certain path would surely have offered itself to ambition. By continuing to flatter the King’s wishes, and by uniting in himself the offices of chancellor and archbishop, he might in all probability have ruled without control both in church and state.
For more than twelve months the primate appeared to enjoy his wonted ascendency in the royal favor. But during his absence the warmth of Henry’s affection insensibly evaporated. The sycophants of the court, who observed the change, industriously misrepresented the actions of the Archbishop, and declaimed in exaggerated terms against the loftiness of his views, the superiority of his talents, and the decision of his character. Such hints made a deep impression on the suspicious and irritable mind of the King, who now began to pursue his late favorite with a hatred as vehement as had been the friendship with which he had formerly honored him.
Amidst a number of discordant statements it is difficult to fix on the original ground of the dissension between them; whether it were the Archbishop’s resignation of the chancellorship, or his resumption of the lands alienated from his see, or his attempt to reform the clergymen who attended the court, or his opposition to the revival of the odious tax known by the name of the danegelt. But that which brought them into immediate collision was a controversy respecting the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts. A rapid view of the origin and progress of these courts, and of their authority in civil and criminal causes, may not prove uninteresting to the reader.
From the commencement of Christianity its professors had been exhorted to withdraw their differences from the cognizance of profane tribunals, and to submit them to the paternal authority of their bishops, who, by the nature of their office, were bound to heal the wounds of dissension, and by the sacredness of their character were removed beyond the suspicion of partiality or prejudice. Though an honorable, it was a distracting, servitude, from which the more pious would gladly have been relieved; but the advantages of the system recommended it to the approbation of the Christian emperors.
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