Biographies & Memoirs

9. Royal Minister

Henry II began his reign as he meant to go on, making his own luck while playing for the highest possible stakes. From the outset he planned to reintroduce what he would always like to call the ‘ancestral customs’ of his grandfather. This involved reversing the losses the crown had suffered during King Stephen’s reign, while repudiating many of the concessions Henry had himself made as part of his succession bid. Once he was enthroned, his resolve was never seriously in doubt, however ingeniously he behaved in seeming to act only with the ‘advice and consent’ of the magnates while in reality playing them off against one another for all it was worth. His own rhetoric considerably understated the case. While he imagined himself as simply returning to the governing ideals of the past, he was as much an innovator as a restorer. Three generations removed from William the Conqueror and brought up in Anjou, he had a fresh vision for the monarchy. He would boast that his grandfather had been ‘king in his own land, papal legate, patriarch, emperor and everything else he wished’. His world view would steadily emerge over a decade and more. Ironically, Thomas Becket as the king’s chancellor would play a crucial role in shaping these pretensions, for he would be at Henry’s side, whether in England or on the Continent, for the whole of the first eight years of the reign apart from a few special assignments rarely lasting more than a few weeks or months.

Becket, too, began as he meant to go on, assisting Henry during his first year with the pacification of England and continuing the work he had begun as Theobald’s fixer. As he rode non-stop around the country with the king, he drafted or witnessed a flurry of charters from places as far apart as London, Lincoln, York, Worcester and Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire that restored lands or castles to their rightful owners. Giving Henry the benefit of the doubt, the chronicler Gervase of Canterbury describes how he wished ‘to eliminate every reason for the resumption of warfare and to sweep away all incitements to mistrust’. His earliest proclamations, which Becket may have drafted, set a time limit for the departure from England of Stephen’s hated Flemish mercenaries and for the demolition of over a hundred illegally built castles. His next moves were to build new fortifications from scratch, beginning with Orford Castle in Suffolk, with its magnificent polygonal keep modelled on that at Gisors, a fortress meant to defend the coast and keep Hugh Bigod in check, and to reclaim lands and fortresses once belonging to his royal predecessors that had slipped into private hands during the civil war.

Faced with such a demonstration of raw power, Hugh de Mortimer, who had illegally occupied Bridgnorth Castle in Shropshire during the civil war, was one of only a small handful of barons prepared to fight. ‘Estimating the king to be a mere boy and indignant at his activity’, he fortified Bridgnorth and refused to obey the proclamation, provoking Henry to lay siege to his three castles simultaneously. After they had fallen one by one, Hugh submitted at a great council attended by the bishops, earls and barons, with Becket handling the paperwork. It was a cautionary tale, and with the prospect of losing his own castles, Bishop Henry of Winchester decided he had had enough and went voluntarily into exile. Last spotted at the royal court in March 1155, he had left for his old abbey of Cluny by Christmas after first sending on ahead his treasure and fine collection of antique sculptures. Although reconciled to the king two years later, his influence would be greatly reduced and on returning to Winchester he would rarely be seen outside his palace or cathedral, where he would occasionally entrance his visitors by showing them Domesday Book and pointing out to them what his ancestor William the Conqueror had achieved.

By Christmas 1155 Henry felt more secure in England than on the Continent, where he was threatened by a revolt led by his younger brother Geoffrey of Anjou and by Louis VII’s refusal to recognize him as duke of Aquitaine. Still resentful over Henry’s marriage to his ex-wife, Eleanor, Louis was intensely jealous of her fecundity with Henry, for the birth of their first son, William, although a sickly child who died within three years, had been swiftly followed by another, named Henry after his father and great-grandfather, bringing to an abrupt end Louis’s hopes that one day his daughters by Eleanor might succeed to her inheritance in Aquitaine. Leaving Eleanor to govern England as regent during his absence, Henry rode with Becket to Canterbury, crossing from Dover to Wissant and finally reaching Rouen on 2 February 1156. Once there, Thomas settled down again to his paperwork, sealing a series of charters, notably one to Merton Priory, where he had first been to school and where he had persuaded Henry to pay for the completion of the nave in the priory church.

The chancellor then set about levying the money needed to finance the king’s campaign against Geoffrey. Wars were increasingly fought by professional soldiers and Henry had thought it wise to hire an army of mercenaries to fight against his brother locally in Anjou rather than summoning the feudal host in England and transporting it across the Channel. To fill his war chest, Becket helped Henry to revive an unpopular tax called ‘scutage’ (or ‘shield-money’). First levied in his grandfather’s reign to pay for mercenaries, scutage amounted to a tax in lieu of military service, allowing tenants-in-chief to pay a set amount rather than provide knights and equipment for the king’s army. But Becket’s war taxation was doubly controversial, since to cut corners he imposed it at a flat rate of twenty shillings, or around £600 today, on each knight’s fee regardless of how many soldiers were owed. While raising more than enough money to pay Henry’s troops, he elicited howls of protest, including one from Theobald, who petitioned for exemption but was refused.

With his brother Geoffrey protesting against the size of his inheritance and speciously arguing that he alone was rightfully ruler of Anjou, Touraine and Maine according to their father’s will, Henry summoned a family conference at Rouen in an effort to settle their differences. It was very much in his interests to do so, since if his aggrieved overlord, King Louis, were to recognize Geoffrey as count of Anjou while he was still pressing his own claim for recognition as the new duke of Aquitaine by virtue of his marriage to Eleanor, then he could have been forced to defend much of his empire to the south of Normandy in battle.

Fortunately, Louis did not want to fight either. So after messages had been exchanged, Henry met Louis in the Vexin and did him homage for the whole of Normandy, Anjou, Touraine, Maine and Aquitaine, outmanoeuvring and isolating Geoffrey, whose allies promptly deserted him. When at the end of February the king’s younger brother fortified his castles and summoned his retinue to battle, few answered the call, and when Henry surrounded his brother’s fortresses at Chinon and Mirebeau and dug in with more than enough provisions for lengthy sieges, Geoffrey had no choice but to submit, renouncing his claims in return for a generous pension. Only Eleanor seems to have resented this outcome, which she saw as a further move towards absorbing her ancestral duchy of Aquitaine permanently into the Angevin empire.

With his inheritance apparently secure, Henry decided to intervene in the disputed succession in the duchy of Brittany. He was eager to expand his influence westwards into the rich lands that the dukes of Normandy had long claimed as a feudal dependency, especially coveting the port of Nantes, the gateway to the Loire. By skilfully exploiting a civil war begun there after Duke Conan III’s death eight years before, he was able to persuade the citizens of Nantes to elect his brother Geoffrey as their count and the Breton barons to choose one of his own Norman vassals, Conan IV, as their new duke. Gervase of Canterbury reports that the idea of resettling Geoffrey at Nantes had all along been Becket’s. If so, it was a helpful one, giving Henry’s disgruntled sibling an opportunity to redeem himself rather than encouraging him to rebel again by disowning him completely.

In June 1156 Henry’s first daughter was born and named Matilda after his mother, through whom he had inherited his claim to the English throne. Just as soon as Eleanor had recovered from her delivery, she crossed from England to join her husband at Rouen and their combined entourage began a leisurely journey first to Anjou, where they stayed for a while and where the abbot of Battle tracked down Becket with a petition, and afterwards to Aquitaine. There, they ejected a rebellious viscount from his lands and razed his castles before celebrating Christmas at Bordeaux, attended by the barons of Aquitaine, who swore oaths of fealty and paid homage to them jointly, a conciliatory move on Henry’s part since without Eleanor’s consent it is unlikely that these barons would have agreed to acknowledge him as duke. With his reach now extending as far south as Bayonne on the borders of Navarre, Henry had every reason to see his marriage as a great asset. Even so, because he had no intention of allowing Eleanor to rule her ancestral lands in Aquitaine herself, he was storing up trouble for the future.

Becket on this occasion had accompanied the royal family only as far south as Limoges, also shuttling to and from England several times, where he travelled around the countryside hearing legal cases. Among his other more important solo duties around this time was the entertainment of visiting diplomats. William fitz Stephen records how he greeted the ambassadors of the king of Norway, lavishing on them everything they needed for their stay. He then received envoys from the German emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, and from the Moorish king of Valencia and Murcia. Welcoming the Germans who wished to pay their respects to a king who was clearly going to be one of the future arbiters of Europe, Thomas gave them a gift of gold coins together with four prize gyrfalcons. The Valencian ambassadors brought gifts of gold, silk and other precious wares from Africa and the Middle East, hoping to negotiate a league with Aquitaine in a war against the North African sect known as the Almohades, who had conquered Granada and were threatening to overwhelm both Christian and Muslim Spain. Unable to give them an answer on his own, Becket had to send them back across the Channel to Henry, who thrust gifts on them in return but was otherwise non-committal.

Such encounters, however glamorous, were soon to be eclipsed by the crucial part Becket would come to play as a peacemaker with France. When Henry and Eleanor returned north from Bordeaux in January 1157, there was still unfinished business with King Louis. This centred over control of the perennially disputed frontier territories of the Vexin, for Louis had been given firmly to understand that Henry had paid him unconditional homage for his continental empire only on the condition that the old Norman lands ceded to France by the Angevins during their struggle against King Stephen would one day be restored to him. When the royal couple were greeted by Becket at Falaise, the preliminary negotiations with Louis had already begun. Becket and Eleanor crossed the Channel to England during February, leaving Henry to follow with the rest of the court in early April. At first the diplomacy with France went slowly. The breakthrough came in the spring of 1158, when Louis and his second wife, Constance of Castile, had a daughter whom they christened Margaret.

Barely was she out of her cradle when Becket led a magnificent embassy to Paris. His instructions were to forge a dynastic alliance by betrothing the infant to Henry’s son and heir, the younger Henry, still under four, on the understanding that her dowry would be the lands of the old Norman Vexin. After debating the betrothal with his barons, Henry deputed his chancellor to arrange everything. And for his part, Thomas meant to spare no expense in demonstrating to the world all the luxury and ostentation that the Angevin empire could provide – a display of splendour and opulence worthy of a king who ruled territories stretching a thousand miles from Northumbria to Gascony.

With over 200 mounted followers in his retinue, including knights, clerks, stewards, servants, esquires and young pages, all fitted out in costly apparel each according to his rank, Thomas travelled to Paris in style, equipped with twenty-four changes of clothes. Most of these he wore only once or twice and then gave away as either presents to Louis’s councillors or gifts to the poor. Very few of his possessions escaped this extraordinary exhibition of philanthropy – neither his rare furs, rich silks and expensive cloaks, nor his tapestries, carpets and bed-hangings. For his own recreation and further to impress his hosts, he also took with him several packs of hunting dogs, together with falcons, hawks and exotic birds of every kind from his mews and aviaries.

To transport the mountain of baggage needed for such a spectacle, every one of the departments of Becket’s household was allocated its own wagons, each drawn by five horses comparable in size and strength to warhorses. Each horse had its own groom walking alongside the wagons, sporting a brand-new tunic, and each wagon had its own driver and guard. Two were laden with the finest English beer, others with clothes, furniture, cushions, bed linen, food and drink, kitchen equipment and so on. And each one had chained to it a great mastiff as strong as a lion or a bear, fierce enough to frighten away thieves or marauders.

Behind them in the caravan came twelve packhorses, each once again with its own groom and with a monkey on its back. These packhorses bore bundles containing the most valuable items: the ornaments and vestments of Becket’s chapel, rare books and manuscripts, gold and silver plate, money, vases, bowls, goblets, flagons, basins, salt-cellars, spoons and plates.

Whenever the cavalcade approached a French village or castle, it would form itself into a procession to impress the gawping onlookers, to whom free English beer would be distributed. First walked the footmen, around 250 of them in groups of six or ten or more, filling the width of the road and singing as they went. Behind them were Becket’s hunting dogs and greyhounds on leashes and chains with their keepers. Then came the wagons, covered with hides to protect the luggage, followed by the packhorses, now ridden by their grooms. The incredulous villagers would flock from their houses to see what the approaching din was all about and to whom this astonishing retinue belonged.

Becket always had a well-developed theatrical streak to match his talents as a power broker. Little did the wide-eyed villagers know as they turned their heads towards what they believed to be the rear of the parade that the star of the show was still to come. A short distance behind the main column came the esquires carrying the shields of their knights and leading their chargers; next came their young pages; then the falconers, each with a hawk on his glove; after them the clerks, stewards and lesser functionaries of Becket’s household riding two by two. Last of all, flanked by a small group of bodyguards, the chancellor himself. Then, when the villagers asked who this great man could be and were answered that it was the English king’s chancellor going on an embassy to their own king, they all exclaimed, ‘If this is the chancellor and he travels in such great state, how much greater must the king himself be!’

Nor was this the full extent of Becket’s dramatic art. It was the custom of the Capetian kings to offer unstinting hospitality to their guests and as Thomas approached Meulan in the French Vexin, some thirty miles from Paris, Louis issued a proclamation forbidding the sale of any victuals whatsoever to the chancellor or his servants during their stay since he would provide them. Determined to upstage his hosts, Becket sent his purveyors ahead in disguise, using false names, to all the markets and fairs in the vicinity of Paris. There, on his instructions, they bought up such a supply of bread, meat, fish and wine that, when he arrived at his lodgings at the Temple, he found it stocked with three days’ provisions for 1,000 men.

Thereafter, Becket showered every imaginable courtesy upon his hosts. Each member of the French court, from the grandest aristocrat to the humblest serving-man, received a token of his wealth and generosity. Knowing no bounds, his gestures of liberality included gifts to all the masters and students in the ‘schools’ where he had once been a student. Such was his desire to make a splash that everyone would remember, he even included the landlords and creditors of all the English students in his largesse.

When Louis promised his daughter’s hand to Henry’s son and the terms of a dynastic treaty were agreed, Becket’s efforts and colossal expenditure were rewarded. Such was the increasing rapport between Thomas and Louis, the Capetian king could not see that the English chancellor was beguiling him into believing that a rapprochement with the Angevins would increase his security. By the terms of the marriage treaty, Becket secured a written undertaking that the lands and castles of the whole of the Norman Vexin would be restored to Henry on the day of his son’s wedding and in return Margaret would receive a settlement of £2,000, the revenues of the cities of Lincoln and Avranches, and lands sufficient to support 500 knights in England and Normandy. Thomas also obtained confirmation of Henry’s ancestral claim, as count of Anjou, to be hereditary high steward of France, a brilliant move that within a few weeks would prepare the way for the near-annexation of Brittany. On his journey back to England, Thomas had an unexpected opportunity while out hunting to show off his riding skills by chasing after and capturing an incorrigible Norman rebel, Guy of Laval, who had so far evaded Henry’s clutches and whom Thomas put in chains. When he greeted Henry on his return to Westminster, his prestige had never been higher.

On 27 July 1158 Henry’s younger brother Geoffrey died at the age of twenty-four, throwing the Bretons into turmoil. Conan IV, the vassal whom Henry had imposed as duke of Brittany, promptly seized the county of Nantes, usurping his overlord’s right to dispose of it as he thought fit and reneging on their pact made two years before. Henry’s retribution would be swift, for this amounted to a declaration of war. Leaving Eleanor as regent in England, a furious Henry set sail for Normandy. But to avoid jeopardizing his treaty with France, he first consulted Louis. Meeting Henry between Gisors and Neufmarché on 31 August, Louis charged him as his hereditary high steward to pacify the Bretons and arbitrate the rival claims as he saw fit. It was a virtual invitation to conquer Brittany and at Argentan, on 8 September, Henry summoned the feudal host of Normandy to muster in three weeks. Meanwhile, he rode to Paris, where he was feted by Louis and the betrothal was ratified. Two weeks later, Henry secured the guardianship of the infant French princess, who was placed in the household of Robert of Neubourg, the high steward of Normandy, and his wife, where she was to be brought up until she reached a marriageable age.

In a striking contrast with Becket’s recent embassy, Henry avoided pomp and show, declining much of the lavish entertainment that Louis thrust upon him and presenting himself as a pillar of moderation and self-restraint. He had no desire for a protracted stay. All he wanted was to obtain the guardianship of his son’s future bride and then turn his mind to conquering Brittany. As it turned out, a conquest would not be necessary, since when the feudal host of Normandy duly assembled on 29 September, Conan IV surrendered. Realizing that he stood no hope of defeating Henry in battle, he threw himself on his mercy and was confirmed as the client-duke of Brittany in return for ceding the town of Nantes. Already Henry’s liegeman for his lands in Normandy and heavily outnumbered by his vastly superior forces, Conan had no choice but to yield.

After taking possession of Nantes in October, Henry went on to besiege Thouars, where its castellan had rebelled against him. In November he met Louis again at Le Mans and escorted him on a triumphal progress around Normandy. Resting overnight at Bec Abbey on their way to Mont-St-Michel, they were greeted by the monks and led in a solemn procession to mass, when Louis was overheard to say that there was no one he so highly esteemed as the king of England. ‘Mirabile dictu’ – ‘wonders never cease’ – observed the Bec Abbey chronicler sardonically. So stunned was Gervase of Canterbury by this new-found amity, he reported that ‘an earthquake was felt in various places in England and in London the Thames dried up, so that it was possible to walk across it without getting wet feet’. In the minds of the chroniclers, political events of seemingly cosmic significance were always associated with miracles or unexplained phenomena such as comets or earthquakes, ghostly apparitions or monstrous births.

Now back in Normandy and accompanying the two kings on every stage of their circuit of the duchy, Thomas Becket confidently believed that his intimacy with Henry had never been stronger. And as he stood beside the two kings at the abbey of Mont-St-Michel, he may even have believed his international standing to be secure. In December, after Louis had returned to Paris, Thomas spent Christmas with Henry and Eleanor, and when the queen retraced her steps to England to resume her duties as regent, he rode with Henry to Rouen.

Little did he know that unpredictable, dramatic events would shortly occur that would throw his position and all his achievements so far dangerously into jeopardy.

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