Biographies & Memoirs

14. Archbishop

With Theobald safely resting in his grave, it took Henry a year to get round to choosing a successor. Becket, meanwhile, diverted the revenues of the vacant archbishopric into the royal treasury, while Walter of Rochester, Theobald’s brother, performed the pastoral functions.

All along Henry, who believed he had brought Becket back into line at Toulouse, had it in mind to make him his next primate. But at first he was in no particular hurry, keen for a while to enjoy the additional income and the freedom of having no one of any great importance near on hand to give him moral criticism. At other times the chancellor had urged him to fill senior church appointments promptly, but on this occasion he said nothing, already aware that his own nomination was imminent. That information had never been a secret. As soon as the news of the old archbishop’s passing had reached the royal entourage, all the courtiers ‘immediately began to place their bets, some whispering, some openly declaring that the chancellor would be the late primate’s successor, and the people believed this too’.

But Henry had other things on his mind, skirmishing in Touraine and the Vexin with Louis, who was still in high dudgeon over his infant daughter’s wedding and over the fact that the Angevin king had failed to settle on her the lands and revenues he had promised. During the late spring, when Thomas lay sick at Rouen, both Henry and Louis came to visit him before agreeing a truce in June. For the rest of 1161, apart from a brief visit to England to sit alongside Richard de Lucy in the Exchequer, the chancellor stayed in Normandy, while Henry was called away to smother a baronial uprising in Aquitaine.

For all his ambition and will to succeed, Thomas could not find it within himself to jump at an offer that he knew would shortly come. As his friend John of Salisbury relates, Henry wished him to combine the primacy with the chancellorship ‘so that he could more easily rule the whole of the English Church’. After recovering the lands and castles that had been lost to him during the civil war and supremely confident that he had the new pope in his pocket, the king was turning his mind towards the Church. A cause célèbre arising in the diocese of York had first shifted his thoughts in that direction.

During a visit to Yorkshire three years before, a citizen of Scarborough had brought a petition before him. A rural dean, the man complained, had extorted twenty-two shillings from him by falsely accusing his wife of adultery on the evidence of a single witness. Henry had summoned him to appear before Richard de Lucy, sitting alongside Roger of Pont l’Évêque, the bishops of Lincoln and Durham, and John of Canterbury, now treasurer of York. Under questioning, the dean confessed to accepting a bribe from the woman’s husband to secure an acquittal. When John of Canterbury had insisted that he be handed over to the Church for punishment, Richard de Lucy had cried out, ‘What share, then, in the decision will you allot to my lord the king, whose authority the man has disobeyed?’

‘None,’ replied John. ‘The man is a priest.’

But de Lucy had overruled him and referred the matter to the king, who scornfully denounced all those deans and archdeacons ‘who exercise tyranny, plague laymen with their calumnies and clerics with their unjustified extortions’. And while holding his Christmas court with Eleanor at the castle of Falaise in 1159, he had demanded that the testimony of neighbours enjoying good repute in their localities should be taken into account in all future cases coming before the church courts.

Henry’s desire to restore what he always imagined to be the ‘ancestral customs’ of his grandfather in cases involving the Church was coming to the fore, but a primordial dynastic instinct also drove him on. Increasingly anxious to reduce the time he spent commuting across the Channel and to consolidate his power south of the Loire, he wished to designate his newly-wedded son as his successor in England by crowning him. Deriving ultimately from the nomination by the Roman emperors of a successor or co-ruler who would bear some of the imperial titles, the custom had been unknown in England until King Stephen had attempted to crown Eustace, but was common on the Continent, where rulers, notably in France and Germany, had their chosen heir crowned in their own lifetimes to prevent a future civil war.

Having already placed his young son and heir into Becket’s household to be educated, Henry either planned to make Thomas archbishop of Canterbury as well as chancellor so that he would become a de facto viceroy for England and Wales until the younger Henry came of age, or else aimed to appoint a regency council led jointly by Becket and Robert de Beaumont. In both cases he meant to limit the possibilities for conflicts between Church and State by making his chancellor and the new primate one and the same.

From Henry’s point of view, the plan had the virtue of elegant simplicity. All Thomas had to do was to obey, just as he had always done in the past – even during the Toulouse campaign, when he had disagreed with the king’s plans. The young prince was already forming a close bond with his mentor, so it made perfect sense to depute Thomas as his guardian while his father was abroad. In readiness for his son’s coronation, Henry purchased fifty ounces of gold to make a crown and other regalia. And to provide for every possible contingency, he sought licences from Pope Alexander, one ordering Roger of Pont l’Évêque to crown his son should this happen to be done during the vacancy at Canterbury, and another, which he held in reserve, allowing him to have his son crowned by any bishop he chose.

Becket knew of these plans in February 1162, when he met Henry at Rouen and was told bluntly that he was to be sent back to England as a prelude to his election as archbishop and to preside over the prince’s investiture. Henry said he was relying on him, doubtless recalling his part in the negotiations with the barons and King Stephen in 1153, which had made him a guarantor of the dynasty. Prior Robert of Cricklade, usually with his finger on the pulse, says that Henry strove to make Thomas archbishop ‘because he trusted him beyond all men to aid his heirs to the throne in case he himself should be no more’. But for some unknown reason, Henry had decided that speed was of the essence and Becket’s wavering indecision over the offer of the archbishopric caused him to stumble badly. A majority of the bishops of the Canterbury province forcefully objected to a usurpation of the primate’s ancient right of coronation. With Becket’s promotion undecided but plainly in the offing, they refused to participate in a ceremony at which Roger of Pont l’Évêque or another stand-in presided. So to Henry’s fury, the event would have to be downgraded into one of mere homage and fealty to the young prince – far less than he had wanted or demanded.

Unwilling to become archbishop simply on Henry’s say-so, Becket was not easily budged. John of Salisbury suspected that he refused outright at first. ‘Being a man of great experience and well accustomed to measure the future,’ he says, ‘he had carefully considered the dangers of so great a charge, for by long familiarity he had learned what the burden and honour of that office comprised.’ As Theobald’s clerk for nine years, he had observed every aspect of the job – and at a time in Stephen’s reign when the Church had been dragged into political affairs more than ever before. Hardly could he have forgotten watching Stephen pose as a protector of the Church even as his reign degenerated into a tyranny, nor could he have forgotten fleeing across the Channel with Theobald in a fishing smack to attend the Council of Rheims and afterwards seeing the primate narrowly escape assassination at the hands of a dozen of the king’s armed knights.

After serving Henry as chancellor for over seven years, Thomas may already have begun to fear that his royal master might soon end up as another Stephen. ‘He had,’ resumes John, ‘by now learned to understand the king’s character and the wickedness and rapacity of his officials.’ He had concluded that ‘if he were to accept the post offered to him, he would lose either the favour of God or that of the king. For he could not cleave to God and at the same time obey the king’s will or give precedence to the laws of the saints without making an enemy of the king.’

Henry had taken Thomas quietly aside at Rouen and told him, ‘It is my wish that you be archbishop of Canterbury.’ Looking down with a smile at the fine clothes he was wearing, Thomas had retorted, ‘How religious, how saintly is the man you would appoint to that holy see!’ But Henry had made up his mind and refused to listen. The more his chancellor prevaricated, the more insistent he became, until, refusing to be deflected any longer, he proclaimed to the whole court his instructions. Richard de Lucy and the other leading barons were to escort Thomas back to England. Once they had done homage and taken their oaths of fealty to the prince, they were to hasten to Canterbury and convene the monastic chapter in order to secure Becket’s election as archbishop, a task that would tax all their powers of ingenuity, since Thomas was certain to meet resistance as a mere archdeacon who was neither a monk, as all but two of his predecessors were, nor even yet ordained as a priest.

Finally Becket yielded, but only after his lingering scruples were overridden at an interview at Falaise with Henry of Pisa, one of the very same papal representatives from whom Henry had extorted a clandestine licence for his young son’s wedding. The suspicion must be that the elder Henry had extracted another big favour from the pope, since he immediately boasted that he had received official approval for Becket to serve as his chancellor-archbishop. Possibly he was bluffing, intending to seek papal approval for the election once it was a fait accompli. Either way, Becket’s objections were overcome and he boarded his ship for England with de Lucy and the others around the beginning of May 1162.

In its truncated form, Prince Henry’s investiture ceremony went off smoothly enough. Becket presided, leading the barons and bishops in taking the oath of fealty. Young Henry may even have worn a gold circlet for the occasion, but no coronation or anointing took place. From his father’s perspective, therefore, the affair had been seriously bungled – and there was more. For Roger of Pont l’Évêque, already Becket’s jealous rival and smarting at the prospect of deferring to him, petitioned Pope Alexander for the right to have his cross carried before him throughout England and the right to crown the future king. In doing so, he ignited a slow fuse that would smoulder for years, to explode some months before Thomas’s assassination.

By comparison, the new archbishop’s election went like clockwork. Richard de Lucy, his brother Walter, abbot of Battle, Hilary of Chichester and the other bishops and barons whom Henry had commissioned as his agents, did their job to perfection, winninground the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, and fighting off some spirited resistance. As they explained it, the case for Thomas was that the English Church would be assured of a safe and lasting peace ‘with such a welcome mediator between the king and the clergy’. The case against him, as the monks countered, centred (aside from the obvious fact that he was not a monk) on the prospect of the king pillaging the Church through his chancellor-archbishop. How could it be right, they asked, that a man who had fought in wars and loved nothing better than to ride out with hounds and hawks, a man ‘with the appetite of a wolf’, should become the shepherd of Christ’s flock? But after voicing such objections, the monks did what was required of them and voted to a man for the chancellor.

Becket’s election was ratified at a council held at Westminster Abbey on the Wednesday before Whit Sunday (23 May 1162). In the presence of the younger Henry, whom his father had appointed as his surrogate, the meeting was opened by Henry of Winchester, lately returned from his voluntary exile at Cluny after making his peace with the king. Following prayers and a short speech, the prior of Christ Church was asked to step forward to announce the chapter’s choice and affirm that ‘by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Thomas, the chancellor of the realm, had been unanimously and canonically elected’. After the king’s representatives had duly confirmed the vote, a majority of those present nodded their assent, and the prince, although just seven years old, solemnly approved the decision in his father’s name.

But not before a lone voice had spoken loudly in opposition. Gilbert Foliot, the bishop of Hereford and a former prior of Cluny and abbot of Gloucester, was a distinguished theologian, a strong-minded, traditional churchman and a strict vegetarian. The scion of a noble Norman family, a former ally of Theobald and one of the most active supporters of the claims of Matilda and the Angevin succession during the civil war, it might seem surprising that he now sought to frustrate the king’s commands, but he believed that he acted purely out of principle. Although exactly what he said would be airbrushed out of the records, the gist appears to have been that it was sheer presumption that someone hardly fit to hold an oar should take the helm of the Church. A brief summary of his speech by an anonymous Canterbury monk makes it likely that he also cast doubt on Thomas’s display of reluctance to accept the primacy, calling it a sham.

Foliot’s objections to Becket’s appointment stemmed from his intense distaste at the prospect of being governed by a man whom he regarded as low-born, smooth, gauche, mealy-mouthed, materialist and a lightweight. A dedicated professional who felt he had served his time, Foliot was consumed by a burning jealousy of a gifted and more successful younger man whom he regarded as unqualified. ‘The current opinion,’ almost all of the chroniclers and early biographers agree, ‘was that he himself had for a long time aspired to the archbishopric.’

But he was shouted down. When a cry rang out, ‘the voice of God and not man’, he abandoned his protest, even if he was afterwards still heard grumbling that Henry ‘had wrought a miracle by transforming a warrior and a man of the world into an archbishop’. And yet his hostility may not have been untypical. In the ‘Thomas Saga Erkibyskups’, the Icelandic author relates how the pope’s representative, Henry of Pisa, had attended the assembly in an advisory capacity at the king’s special request, sitting in the place of honour beside Prince Henry and ready to deal with any potential troublemakers. And far from his role being negligible, he had been forced to intervene more than once by hinting at the likely consequences should any of the malcontents go too far. ‘And now,’ says this anonymous author, ‘through his guidance they all say now “yea” to Thomas being elected, although the hearts of some of them went right another way.’

Taking all the evidence together, it appears that a deep unease scarred the procedure for Becket’s election, an unease covering a wide range of emotions from seething resentment to cowed compliance. If the extract from the ‘Thomas Saga’ is a fair reflection of the general mood, as it purports to be, it would also seem likely that opposition to the new archbishop would be bound to resurface later in one form or another.

A closer look at Foliot reveals that he was ten years older than Thomas and an ally of Roger of Pont l’Évêque. Trained under Peter the Venerable, one of the shining lights of the ascetic reform movement in the Church, his personal life was as upright as would be expected of a former prior of Cluny, a position to which he had been appointed at the remarkably young age of twenty-five. Unlike Thomas, who still showed occasional traces of his youthful stammer when under pressure and who had always preferred to ride or hunt in his spare time, Gilbert – an expert in logic and rhetoric besides theology – was a skilled Latin orator: on first becoming abbot of Gloucester, he had been famous for giving regular pep talks to his monks. The one blemish in his otherwise exemplary character is that he had written to Pope Eugenius III testifying to his friend Roger’s sound morals, disregarding the evidence to the contrary.

Becket would sincerely attempt in the early months of his archiepiscopate to reconcile himself to Foliot. Both he and Henry may have felt that some form of consolation prize was owed to him, and within a year Thomas would recommend him for the vacant bishopric of London, at which he promptly jumped. If, however, the new archbishop thought that he might somehow appease Foliot and win him over to his side, he seriously miscalculated. Whatever his hopes for a rapprochement may have been, when Thomas most badly needed his support, Foliot – far from reciprocating – would step forward to lead the opposition. By then he had become Becket’s most deadly and effective rival, the ‘Judas’ in his life.

Once Becket’s election as archbishop had been confirmed, he set out with his clerks and a large retinue for Canterbury, following the same road that he had first taken as a young man of twenty-four on his way to join Theobald’s household. The crowds were already thronging around the precincts of the cathedral to welcome him, among them fourteen bishops and a large presence of abbots, monks and barons. Prince Henry too was keen to see his mentor consecrated as primate and insisted on attending.

As Thomas approached the gates of the city, the bishops came out to meet him, ‘acclaiming him with a heartfelt joy and high honour’ and leading him inside the walls. The primate elect, however, paid little regard to the pomp and ceremony laid on for him, dismounting and entering the city on foot like a poor pilgrim. First impressions matter and he was anxious to create the right one.

But before he could be enthroned, he had to be properly ordained as a priest. This was done on Saturday 2 June by his old ally and protector Walter of Rochester. As to his consecration, with the vacant bishopric of London not yet filled by Foliot, there could be no agreement as to which of the bishops had seniority. Both Walter and Roger of Pont l’Évêque staked their claims but lacked enough support, leaving Henry of Winchester to officiate. Next day, Trinity Sunday, the day already chosen by the Christ Church monks to be their patronal festival, the ancient ceremony took place.

The order of service can be rediscovered in the pages of a surviving fragment in the British Library. At an early hour, and in full view of a large congregation gathered in the nave of the cathedral, the air thick with incense as the monks chanted the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (‘Come Holy Ghost’), Thomas came out of the vestry, wearing a black cope and a white surplice as befitted a humble priest. He moved slowly up the steps of the choir to the high altar, where he knelt quietly in prayer. From there he was led back to the steps of the choir, where he was released from all secular obligations in the name of the church of Canterbury. With this part of the service completed, Bishop Henry began the solemn rite of consecration, in which he laid his hands on Thomas before giving him his pastoral staff, mitre, ring and gloves, acclaiming him as the archbishop of Canterbury and primate of all England.

Only one glitch marred the proceedings. It was traditional for a newly-consecrated bishop to have a copy of the Gospels opened and held on his head and neck, after which a verse would be chosen at random that would serve as an omen (or ‘prognostic’) of his future achievements. For example, at a consecration service conducted by Lanfranc in 1077, the first words to catch his eye had been, ‘Bring hither the best robe and put it on him.’ Unfortunately, the random text chosen at Becket’s consecration was a well-known passage from St Matthew in which Christ had cursed a barren fig tree: ‘Never shall fruit be born of thee throughout eternity; and it was forthwith cast into the fire.’ At this, Foliot could not contain his glee: in fact, our only information about the mishap comes from a vituperative attack he delivered against Becket four years later. Since, however, the text was read from the Latin Vulgate Bible, perhaps only the clergy and monks in the choir and those sitting at the front of the nave who understood Latin would have been aware of it.

After the consecration, the final step was to ask Pope Alexander to grant the pallium, the insignia of a metropolitan bishop that took the shape of a ‘stole’ or long scarf of white wool to be placed around the shoulders. Usually a suppliant travelled to obtain it in person, but Henry forbade such a visit for reasons that he took to the grave. As his proxies, Thomas sent John of Salisbury and John of Canterbury to the papal curia, now hounded out of Rome by Frederick Barbarossa and at Montpellier in the county of Toulouse on its way to seek refuge in France. With the pope’s entourage constantly on the move, it took the two Johns six weeks to track it down, but the job was done by the beginning of August, when they carried the precious garment home to Canterbury.

On the 10th, Becket again mounted the steps of the choir in his cathedral, this time with bare feet. Approaching the high altar, he took up the pallium with his own hands and waited until it was carefully placed around his neck by the monks. A low-key affair to the few onlookers, the bestowal of the pallium marked the moment that Thomas’s spiritual powers came fully into effect and was of the highest significance for him, for it was a day on which he can only have felt he stared God directly in the face. The question in so many minds as they watched him on that warm summer day was, how would it change him? Would he be able to juggle the rival claims of Church and State? Or would he sooner or later end up frustrating either Henry or the pope in the same way that he had ended up disappointing Theobald?

There would be ample time to find out, for the new primate was not yet quite forty-two. To the hundred or so Christ Church monks packed into their stalls in the choir on 10 August 1162, it must have seemed as if Becket would be their pastor and spiritual leader for at least the next twenty years, perhaps even longer.

How wrong they were.

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