Charles Dickens.

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clothes ; two with the dresses of his numerous servants, Then
came twelve horses, each with a monkey on his back ; then a
train of people bearing shields, and leading fine war-horses,
splendidly equipped ; then falconers with hawks upon their
wrists ; then a host of knights and gentlemen and priests ; then
the chancellor, with his brilliant garments flashing in the sun,
and all the people capering and shouting with delight.

The king was well pleased with all this, thinking that it
only made himself the more magnificent to have so magnificent
a favorite ; but he sometimes jested with the chancellor upon
his splendor too. Once when they were riding together
through the streets of London in hard winter weather, they
saw a shivering old man in rags. " Look at the poor object,"
said the king. " Would it not be a charitable act to give that
aged man a comfortable warm cloak ? " " Undoubtedly it
would," said Thomas k Becket ; " and you do well, sir, to
think of such Christian duties." " Come," cried the king, give
him your cloak ! " It was made of rich crimson trimmed
with ermine. The king tried to pull it off ; the chancellor
tried to keep it on. Both were near rolling from their saddles
in the mud, when the chancellor submitted and the king gave
the cloak to the old beggar much to the beggar's astonishment,
and much to the merriment of all the courtiers in attendance ;
for courtiers are not only eager to laugh when the king laughs,
but they really do enjoy a laugh against a favorite.

" I will make," thought King Henry the Second, " this
chancellor of mine, Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canter-
bury. He will then be the head of the Church, and, being de-
voted to me, will help me to correct the Church. He has al-
ways upheld my power against the power of the clergy, and
once publicly told some bishops (I remember) that men of the
Church were equally bound to me with men of the sword.
Thomas \ Becket is the man, of all other men in England, to
help me in my great design." So the king, regardless of all



objection, either that he was a fighting man, or a lavish man,
or a courtly man, or a man of pleasure, or anything but a likely
man for the office, made him archbishop accordingly.

Now, Thomas k Becket was proud, and loved to be famous.
He was already famous for the pomp of his life, — for his riches,
his gold and silver plate, his wagons, horses, and attendants.
He could do no more in that way that he had done ; and, being
tired of that kind of fame (which is a poor one), he longed to
have his name celebrated for something else. Nothing, he knew,
would render him so famous in the world as the setting of his
utmost power and ability against the utmost power and ability
of the king. He resolved with the whole strength of his mind
to do it.

He may have had some secret grudge against the king be-
sides. The king may have offended his proud humor at some
time or other, for anything I know. I think it likely, because
it is a common thing for kings, princes, and other great people,
to try the tempers of their favorites rather severely. Even the
little affair of the crimson cloak must have been anything but a
pleasant one to a haughty man. Thomas a Becket knew better
than any one in England what the king expected of him. In
all his sumptuous life, he had never yet been in a position to
disappoint the king. He could take up that proud stand now,
as head of the Church ; and he determined that it should be
written in history, either that he subdued the king, or that the
king subdued him.

So of a sudden he completely altered the whole manner of
his life. He turned off all his brilliant followers, ate coarse
food, drank bitter water, wore next his skin sackcloth covered
with dirt and vermin (for it was then thought very religious to
be very dirty), flogged his back to punish himself, lived chiefly
in a little cell, washed the feet of thirteen poor people every
day, and looked as miserable as he possibly could. If he had
put twelve hundred monkeys on horseback instead of twelve,
and had gone in procession with eight thousand wagons instead
of eight, he could not have half astonished the people so much
as by this great change. It soon caused him to be more talked
about as an archbishop than he had been as a chancellor.

The king was very angry ; and was made still more so, when
the new archbishop, claiming various estates from the nobles as
being rightfully church property, required the king himself, for
the same reason, to give up Rochester Castle, and Rochester
City too. Not satisfied with this, he declared that no power
but himself should appoint a priest to any church in the part of


England over which he was archbishop, and when a certain
gentleman of K nt made such an appointment, as he claimed
to have a right to do, Thomas a Eecket excommunicated

Excommunication was, next to the interdict I told you of at
the close of the IctSt chapter, the great weapon of the clergy. It
consisted in declaring the person who was excommunicated an
outcast from the church and from all religious offices ; and in
cursing him all over, from the top of his head to the sole of his
foot, whether he was standing up, lying down, sitting, kneeling,
walking, running, hopping, jumping, gaping, coughing, sneezing,
or whatever else he was doing. This unchristian nonsense
would of course have made no sort of difference to the person
cursed, — who could say his prayers at home if he were shut out
of church, and whom none but God could judge, — but for the
fears and superstitions of the people, who avoided excommuni-
cated persons, and made their lives unhappy. So the king said
to the new archbishop, " Take off this excommunication from
this gentleman of Kent \ " to which the archbishop replied, " I
shall do no such thing."

The quarrel went on. A priest in Worcestershire committed
a most dreadful murder that aroused the horror of the whole
nation. The king demanded to have this wretch delivered up,
to be tried in the same court and in the same way as any other
murderer. The archbishop refused, and kept him in the bishop's
prison. The king, holding a solemn assembly in Westminster
Hall, demanded that in future all priests found guilty before
their bishops of crimes against the law of the land, should be
considered priests no longer, and should be delivered over to
the law of the land for punishment. The archbishop again re-
fused. The king required to know whether the clergy would
obey the ancient customs of the country ? Every priest there,
but one, said, after Thomas k Becket, " Saving my order.'
This really meant that they would only obey those customs
when they did not interfere with their own claims ; and the king
went out of the hall in great wrath.

Some of the clergy began to be afraid, now, that they were
going too far. Though Thomas a Becket was otherwise as un-
moved as Westminster Hall, they prevailed upon him, for the
sake of their fears, to go to the king at Woodstock, and promise
to observe the ancient customs of the country, without saying
anything about his order. The king received this submission
favorably, and summoned a great council of the clergy to meet
at the Castle of Clarendon, by Salisbury. But when the council



met, the archbishop again insisted on the words, *^ saving my
order ; " and he still insisted, though lords entreated him, and
priests wept before him and knelt to him, and an adjoining
room was thrown open, filled with armed soldiers of the king,
to threaten him. At length he gave way, for that time ; and
the ancient customs (which included what the king had demanded
in vain) were stated in writing, and were signed and sealed by
the chief of the clergy, and were called the Constitutions of

The quarrel went on, for all that. The archbishop tried lo
see the king. The king would not see him. The archbishop
tried to escape from England. The sailors on the coast would
launch no boat to take him away. Then he again resolved to
do his worst in opposition to the king, and began openly to set
the ancient customs at defiance.

The king summoned him before a great council at North-
ampton, where he accused him of high treason, and made a
claim against him, which was not a just one, for an enoromous
sum of money. Thomas a Becket was alone against the whole
assembly ; and the very bishops advised him to resign his office,
and abandon his contest with the king. His great anxiety and
agitation stretched him on a sick bed for two days, but he was
still undaunted. He went to the adjourned council, carrying a
great cross in his right hand, and sat down, holding it erect
before him. The king angrily retired into an inner room. The
whole assembly angrily retired, and left him there ; but there he
sat. The bishops came out again in a body, and renounced him
as a traitor. He only said, " I hear ! " and sat there still. They
retired again into an inner room, and his trial proceeded with-
out him. By and by, the Earl of Leicester, heading the barons,
came out to read his sentence. He refused to hear it, denied
the power of the court, and said he would refer his cause to the
pope. As he walked out of the hall, with the cross in his hand,
some of those present picked up rushes, — rushes were strewn
upon the floors in those days by way of carpet, — and threw them
at him. He proudly turned his head, and said that, were he
not archbishop, he would chastise those cowards with the sword
he had known how to use in bygone days. He then mounted
his horse, and rOde away, cheered and surrounded by the com-
mon people, to whom he threw open his house that night and
gave a supper, supping with them himself. That same night he
secretly departed from the town ; and so, travelling by night and
hiding by day, and calling himself " Brother Dearman," got
away, not without difficulty, to Flanders.


The struggle still went on. The angry king took possession
of the revenues of the archbishopric, and banished all the re-
lations and servants of Thomas a Becket, to the number of
four hundred. The pope and the French king both protected
him, and an abbey was assigned for his residence. Stimulated
by this support, Thomas a Becket, on a great festival day,
formally proceeded to a great church crowded with people,
j.iid going up into the pulpit, publicly cursed and excom-
municated all who had supported the Constitutions of Claren-
tlon, mentioning many English noblemen by name, and not
distantly hinting at the king of England himself.

When intelligence of this new affront was carried to the king
in his chamber, his passion was so furious, that he tore his
clothes, and rolled like a madman on his bed of straw and
rushes. But he was soon up and doing. He ordered all the
ports and coasts of England to be narrowly watched, that no
letters of interdict might be brought into the kingdom; and
sent messengers and bribes to the pope's palace at Rome.
Meanwhile, Thomas a Becket, for his part, was not idle at
Rome, but constantly employed his utmost arts in his own
behalf. Thus the contest stood, until there was peace between
France and England (which had been for some time at war),
and until the two children of the two kings were married in
celebration of it. Then the French King brought about a
meeting between Henry and his old favorite, so longhis enemy.

Even then, though Thomas a Becket knelt before the king,
he was obstinate and immovable as to those words about his
order. King Louis of France was weak enough in his venera-
tion for Thomas a Becket; and such men ; but this was a little
too much for him. He said that a Becket *' wanted to be
greater than the saints, and better than St. Peter," and rode
away from him with the King of England. His poor French
Majesty asked a Becket's pardon for so doing, however, soon
afterwards, and cut a very pitiful figure.

At last, and after a world of trouble, it came to this. There
was another meeting on French ground between King Henry
and Thomas a Becket; and it was agreed that Thomas a
Becket should be Archbishop of Canterbury, according to
the customs of former archbishops, and that the king should
put him in possession of the revenues of that post. And
now, indeed, you might suj pose the struggle at an end,
and Thomas a Becket at rest. No, not even yet ; foi
Thomas a Becket hearing, by some means, that King
Henry, when he was in dread of his kingdom being
placed under an interdict, he had his eldest son, Prince



Henry, secretly crowned, not only persuaded the pope to sus'
pend the Archbishop of York, who had performed that cere-
mony, and to excommunicate the bishops, who had assisted at
it, but sent a messenger of his own into England, in spite of all
the king's precautions along the coast, who delivered the letters
of excommunication into the bishop's own hands. Thomas k
Becket then came over to England himself, after an absence of
seven years. He was privately warned tha-t it was dangerous to
come, and that an ireful knight, named Ranulf de Broc, had
threatened that he should not live to eat a loaf of bread in
England ; but he came.

The common people received him well, and marched about
with him in a soldierly way, armed with such rustic weapons as
they could get. He tried to see the young prince who had once
been his pupil, but was prevented. He hoped for some little
support among the nobles and priests, but found none. He
made the most of the peasants who attended him, and feasted
them, and went from Canterbury to Harrow-on-the-Hill, and
from Harrow-on-the-Hill back to Canterbury, and on Christmas
Day preached in the cathedral there, ^nd told the people in his
sermon that he had come t» die amo-ng them, and that it was
likely he would be murdered. He had no fear, however, or, if
he had any he had much more obstinacy ; for he, then and there
excommunicated three of his enemies, of whom Ranulf de Broc
the ireful knight, was one.

As men in general had no fancy for being cursed, in their
sitting and walking, and gaping and sneezing, and all the rest
of it, it was very natural in the persons so freely excommunicated
to complain to the king. It was equally natural in the king,
who had hoped that this troublesome opponent was at last
quieted, to fall into a mighty rage when he heard of these new
affronts ; and, on the Archbishop of York telling him that he
never could hope for rest while Thomas a Becket lived, to cry
out hastily before his court, " Have I no one here who will
deliver me from this man ? " There were four knights present
who, hearing the king's words, looked at one another, and went

The names of these knights were Reginald Fitzurse, William
Tracy, Hugh de Morville, and Richard Brito ; three of whom
had been in the train of Thomas k Becket in the old days of his
splendor. They rode away on horseback, in a very secret man-
ner, and on the third day after Christmas Day arrived at Salt-
wood House, not far from Canterbury, which belonged to the
family of Ranulf de Broc. They quietly collected some followers


here, in case they should need any ; and, proceeding to Canter-
bury, suddenly appeared (the four knights and twelve men) be-
fore the archbishop, in his own house, at two o'clock in the
afternoon. They neither bowed nor spoke, but sat down on the
floor in silence, staring at the archbishop.

Thomas a Becket said, at length, " What do you want ? "

" We want," said Reginald Fitzurse, " the excommunication
taken from the bishops, and you to answer for your offences to
the king."

Thomas a Becket defiantly replied, that the power of the
clergy was above the power of the king ; that it was not for such
men as they were to threaten him ; that, if he were threatened
by all the swords in England, he would never yield.

" Then we will do more than threaten ! " said the knights.
And they went out with the twelve men, and put on their armor,
^nd drew their shining swords, and came back.

His servants, in the mean time, had shut up and barred the
^eat gate of the palace. At first, the knights tried to shatter
it with their battle-axes; but, being shown a window by which
they could enter, they let the gate alone, and climbed in tha^
way. While they were battering at the door, the attendants o'
Thomas a Becket had implored him to take refuge in the
cathedral • in which, as a sanctuary or sacred place, they
thought the knights would dare to do no violent deed. He told
them, again and again, that he would not stir. Hearing the
distant voices of the monks singing the evening service, how-
ever, he said it was now his duty to attend ; and therefore, and
for no other reason, he would go.

There was a near way between liis palace and the cathedral
by some beautiful oM cloisters which you may yet see. He
went into the cathedral without any hurry, and having the cross
carried before him as usual. When he was safely there, his
servants would have fastened the door, but he said. No ; it was
the house of God, and not a fortress.

As he spoke, the shadow of Reginald Fitzurse appeared in
the cathedral doorway, darkening the little light there was out-
side on the dark winter evening. This knight said, in a strong
voice, " Follow me, loyal servants of the king ! " The rattle of
the armor of the other knights echoed through the cathedral as,
they came clashing in.

It was so dark in the lofty aisles and among the stately pil-
lars of the church, and there were so many hiding-places in the
crypt below and in the narrow passages above, that Thomas \
Becket might even at that pass hav^ saved himself if he would


But he would not. He told the monks resolutely that he would
not. And though they all dispersed, and left him there with
no other follower than Edward Gryme, his faithful cross-bearer,
he was as firm then as ever he had been in his life,

The knights came on through the darkness, making a ter-
rible noise with their armed tread upon the stone pavement of
the church. *' Where is the traitor 1 " they cried out. He made
no answer. But when they cried, " Where is the archbishop ? "
he said, proudly, " I am here ! " and came out of the shade, and
stood before them.

The knights had no desire to kill him, if they could rid the
king and themselves of him by any other means. They told
him he must either fly or go with them. He said he would do
neither ; and he threw William Tracy off with such force, when
he took hold of his sleeve, that Tracy reeled again. By his re-
proaches and his steadiness, he so incensed them, and exasper-
ated their fierce humor, that Reginald Fitzurse, whom he called
by an ill name, said " Then die ! " and struck at his head. But
the faithful Edward Gryme put out his arm, and there received
the main force of the blow, so that it only made his master
bleed. Another voice from among the knights again called to
Thomas a Becket to fly ; but with his blood running down his
face, and his hands clasped, and his head bent, he commended
himself to God, and stood firm. Then they cruelly killed him,
close to the altar of St. Bennet ; and his body fell upon the
pavement, which was dirtied with his blood and brains.

It was an awful thing to think of the murdered mortal, who
had so showered his curses about, lying all disfigured in the
church, where a few lamps here and there were but red specks
on a pall of darkness ; and to think of the guilty knights riding
away on horseback, looking over their shoulders at the dim
cathedral, and remembering what they had left inside.

Part the Second.

When the king heard how Thomas k Becket had lost his
life in Canterbury Cathedral, through the ferocity of the four
knights, he was filled with dismay. Some have supposed that
when the king spoke those hasty word&, " Have I no one here
who will deliver me from this man ? '' he wished and meant
\ Becket to be slain. But few things are more unlikely ; for,
besides that the king was not naturally cruel (though very
passionate), he was wise, and must have known full well that
any stupid man in his dominions must have known, namely,


that such a murder would rouse the pope and the whole Church
against him.

He sent respectful messengers to the pope, to represent his
innocence (except in having uttered the hasty words) ; and he
swore solemnly and pi^blicly to his innocence, and contrived in
time to make his peace. As to the four guilty knights, who
fled into Yorkshire, an^ nev^r ag In dared to show themselves
at court, the pope excomn. :r.! at id them ; and they lived miser-
ably for some time, shunned by all their countrymen. At last
they went humbly to Jerusalem, as a penance, and there died
and were buried.

It happened fortunately for the pacifying of the pope, tha:
an opportunity arose very soon after the murder of k Becket,
for the king to declare his power in Ireland ; which was an ac
ceptable undertaking to the pope, as the Irish, who had been
converted to Christianity by one Patricius (otherwise St. Patrick)
long ago, before any pope existed, considered that the j)ope had
nothing at all to do with them, or they with the pope, and" ac-
cordingly refused to pay him Peter's Pence, or that tax of a
penny a house, which I have elsewhere mentioned. The king's
opportunity arose in this way.

The Irish, were at that time, as barbarous a people as you
can well imagine. They were continually quarrelling and fight-
ing, cutting one another's throats, slicing one another's noses,
burning one another's houses, carrying away one another's
wives, and committing all sorts of violence. The country was
divided into five kingdoms, — Desmond, Thomond, Connaught,
Ulster, and Leinster, — each governed by a separate king, of
whom one claimed to be the chief of the rest. Now one of these
kings, named Dermond MacMurrough (a wild kind of name,
spelt in more than one wild kind of way), had carried off the
wife of a friend of his, and concealed her on an island in a bog.
The friend, resenting this (though it was quite the custom of
the country), complained to the chief king, and, with the chief
king's help, drove Dermond MacMurrough out of his do-
minions. Dermond came over to England for revenge ; and
offered to hold his realm as a vassal of King Henry, if King
Henry would help him to regain it. The king consented to
these terms ; but only assisted him with what were then called
letters-patent, authorizing any English subjects, who were so
disposed, to enter into his service, and aid his cause.

There was at Bristol a certain Earl Richard de Clare, called
Strongbow, of no very good character, needy and desperate,
and ready for anything that offered him a chance of improving


/lis fortunes. There were, in South Wales, two other broken
knights of the same good-for-nothing sort, called Robert Fitz-
Stephen and Maurice Fitz- Gerald. These three, each with a
small band of followers, took up Dermond's cause j and it was
agreed, that, if it proved successful, Strongbow would marry
Dermond's daughter Eva, and be declared his heir.

The trained English followers of these knights were so
superior in all the discipline of battle to the Irish, that they
beat them against immense superiority of numbers. In one
fight, early in the war, they cut off three hundred heads and
laid them before MacMurrough, who turned them every one up
with his hands, rejoicing, and coming to one which was the
head of a man whom he had much disliked, grasped it by the
hair and ears, and tore off the nose and lips with his teeth.
You may judge from this what kind of a gentleman an Irish
king in those times was. The captives, all through this war,
were horribly treated ; the victorious party making nothing of
breaking their limbs, and casting them into the sea from the
tops of high rocks. It was in the midst of the miseries and
cruelties attendant on the taking of Waterford, where the dead
lay piled in the streets, and the filthy gutters ran with blood, that
Strongbow married Eva. An odious marriage company those
mounds of corpses must have made, I think, and one qui'-e
worthy of the young lady's father.

He died, after Waterford and Dublin had been taken, and
various successes achieved ; and Strongbow became king of
Leinster. Now came King Henry's opportunity. To restrain
the growing power of Strongbow, he himself repaired to Dublin,

Online LibraryCharles DickensA child's history of England → online text (page 8 of 38)