As when he had been appointed chancellor, the new archbishop’s first letter of congratulation came from the wily Arnulf of Lisieux, ramming home the point that Thomas would now have to learn how to balance a courtier’s role with that of a holy pastor. ‘We beg,’ declared Arnulf sanctimoniously, ‘that he who chose you’ – it is left deliciously ambiguous whether ‘he’ is God or Henry – ‘will so govern the estate of the dignity you have received that your holiness will not dim your grandeur nor your grandeur diminish your holiness, but each with equal steps will keep pace with the other.’
Becket, however, preferred not to linger in a no man’s land where divided loyalties could lay him open to attack from every side. As archbishop, his pastoral responsibilities and obligations to the Church gave him a distinctive identity. He was also experiencing his first taste of power with no one immediately above him except Pope Alexander, himself an exile in France. Soon comfortably settled into the archbishop’s palace at Canterbury, Thomas decided he was no longer willing to go on vacillating between self-assertion and dishonest compliance. He had no further wish to be chancellor and in the autumn of 1162, only some four or five months after his consecration and without waiting for Henry and Eleanor to return from the Continent, he resigned, claiming that his pastoral duties were too onerous for him to occupy both positions.
His worst offence was not to consult Henry first. All that the king thought he knew of Thomas had so far led him to believe he would be unlikely to surrender a highly prestigious, lucrative office that, all over Europe, was routinely held by a bishop. The speed of the decision took Henry completely by surprise. His darkest suspicions were aroused, so that when the archbishop’s messenger first delivered the news, he swore, ‘By God’s eyes’, then flew into a fury, unleashing a diatribe accusing Thomas of betraying him.
That Becket meant to act without fear or favour, signalling his unswerving spiritual commitment, is shown by one of the very first letters he wrote from Canterbury in which he ordered his consecrator, Henry of Winchester, to restore a gold cross he had (allegedly) removed without permission from his cathedral. ‘We know how numerous and serious are the problems which are disturbing and troubling you,’ he began ingratiatingly, before changing his tone and delivering the sternest of rebukes. ‘We have learned that you have alienated the gold cross from your church … We direct you by the virtue of obedience to strive by every means possible to restore it … within forty days from the receipt of this letter failing which you should not put off coming to our presence within two months from that fortieth day to make satisfaction.’
He then announced his intention to resume Theobald’s work by recovering lands or castles pillaged by the marauding barons from the church of Canterbury in King Stephen’s reign, a high-profile campaign closely resembling Henry’s own after his coronation in which Becket had been his hard-nosed assistant. William fitz Stephen, one of the trained lawyers handling this work, claims that Thomas had secured Henry’s blessing for the plan. If so, it did not last long. For Becket’s zeal far exceeded the more politic Theobald’s and it soon appeared to those on the receiving end that he was using the same autocratic methods he had learned as chancellor when fighting Henry’s corner. Roger of Clare, a powerful baron from whom Thomas claimed the honour of Tonbridge in Kent, was among those refusing to yield. After much haggling, he grudgingly gave Becket much of the land he claimed, but refused to do penance or acknowledge any blame, not at all what Thomas seemed to expect.
Among other contested properties were the lands of William of Ros and the castles of Rochester, Saltwood and Hythe. In his efforts to recover Rochester, the new archbishop was able to produce one of Henry I’s charters to back his claim, but in the case of Hythe, he lacked written proof and merely hoped to regain possession of the castle on the basis of his say-so. The case of Saltwood was the trickiest of all: rightfully belonging to Theobald, the castle had been illegally occupied in the closing months of the civil war by the royal standard-bearer Henry of Essex, one of the greatest landowners in Essex who was busily expanding his sphere of influence across the Thames into Kent. But after the standard-bearer’s disgrace for cowardice in north Wales, King Henry gave the castle to his doorkeeper and official whoremaster, Ranulf de Broc. At the time Becket had said nothing, but now he objected that the crown had no right to give away estates that lawfully belonged to the church of Canterbury. The trouble was that de Broc was one of Henry’s cronies. Where he was involved, might was right: the archbishop’s claim led only to angry exchanges of words. Becket would lose this round resoundingly since, backed by Henry, de Broc and his allies remained firmly in control of Saltwood, which rankled like a running sore.
Not taking pause for thought from his mixed success so far, Thomas next revoked summarily those leases of the Canterbury demesne lands that he considered to have been granted out too cheaply or for too long. Rightly believing that Theobald had been coerced into making many of these agreements during the civil war and that they were far too favourable to the beneficiaries, who in some cases were claiming to own church lands by hereditary right, he acted aggressively, expelling either the tenants or their farmers. Then, when sued in the royal courts by those he had dispossessed, he refused to enter a plea in his defence or even to appear in court, claiming that anyone with a grievance should bring their petition to the archbishop’s court at Canterbury.
Although viewed as unfair and dictatorial by those occupying church lands, Becket’s actions were justifiable by canon law. One of the more paradoxical, disruptive consequences of the triumph of the ascetic reform movement in the Church was the fast-evolving idea that in the cause of moral regeneration the ministers of the Church were answerable only to God and the pope. A century earlier the reformers would have relied on secular rulers to assist them, but with the pope and cardinals now regularly deciding lawsuits and hearing appeals from all over Europe, the church authorities had begun to bypass lay rulers completely and assert their immunity from secular jurisdiction. Theobald, who belonged to an older generation that had placed a far higher value on cooperation between Church and State, had trodden warily in his own efforts to recover church property. That said, he had been spectacularly unsuccessful at recovering more than a small proportion of what the Church had lost in Stephen’s reign, and what Becket was now attempting had merit even if it was impolitic.
At first muffled because of the extraordinary favour in which Thomas was still presumed to be held, howls of protest soon reached Henry’s ears in Normandy. His abrupt resignation of the chancellorship, coupled with the reports of the king’s shocked reaction, greatly emboldened these petitioners. Had Thomas thought more carefully about it, he might have delayed resigning until more of the contested church lands had been recovered. By quitting when (and in the manner) he did, he not only incensed Henry but lost a good deal of his authority over the landowners of southern England. Fast making enemies among them, he would shortly discover one of the most threatening was someone well known to him: John the Marshal, a seasoned courtier and veteran of the civil war who had lost an eye fighting for the Angevins.
Serving Henry since the beginning of his reign as the hereditary marshal in the Exchequer, John had sat regularly on the bench in this court just a few places along from the chancellor. A fearless warrior no more fazed by litigation than by battle, he did not stand idle when Thomas demanded back some lands in South Mundham, Sussex, which formed an ancient portion of the archbishop’s demesne manor of Pagham but which John believed were his own. When he sued Becket in the archbishop’s court, his case backfired. Despite claiming he had inherited the lands, he could produce no charter to justify his claim. So Becket threw out his petition, at which John produced a mass-book (a ‘troper’) from under his cloak on which he swore that he had been robbed. Beyond this, for the moment he held his fire. Cool-headed and ruthless, whether in battle or bargaining, he was a man who knew when to attack and when to retreat. ‘Silence or I will slay thee with my own hands,’ he had once famously exclaimed to his blood-spattered comrades while masterminding a retreat. Now he chose to retreat again, but stayed on the alert, awaiting his opportunity for revenge. Henry had clearly not yet made up his mind whether he planned to support Becket or disown him. All eyes were on the king.
Only a series of particularly violent winter gales prevented Henry and Eleanor from returning to England in time for Christmas 1162. After celebrating the festival at Cherbourg, they finally arrived at Southampton on 23 January 1163, where Becket and his young charge Prince Henry, whose relationship was still close, were waiting to greet them. Herbert of Bosham, one of the archbishop’s clerks and an eyewitness, believed nothing was amiss. ‘The king and archbishop,’ he says, ‘kissed and embraced, each trying to outdo the other in giving honour. So much so that it seemed that the king was not effusive enough towards his son, being entirely effusive towards the archbishop.’ Over the next few days, the king and his archbishop met again repeatedly, riding out unaccompanied, dismissing their usual attendants, so that it seemed as if their familiarity was as strong as ever. Seeing and hearing this, the disgruntled barons and petitioners ‘soon made themselves very scarce indeed’.
On the surface, all seemed unchanged, but some could see that the archbishop no longer had the full extent of the king’s love. Not only that, John the Marshal was seen loitering nearby. And within a few days, Henry would demand that Thomas give up the valuable archdeaconry of Canterbury which he continued to hold in addition to the primacy. Only with some difficulty was he persuaded to part with it. All who watched closely could not fail to notice how, step by step, Henry began to withdraw the licence he had previously granted to his chancellor, re-establishing distance between them.
In April 1163 Becket sailed from Romney in Kent to Gravelines on his way to a church council that Pope Alexander had summoned to meet at Tours. The capital of Touraine, Tours lay in a fertile plain on the left bank of the Loire just inside the Angevin dominions and directly across the frontier from France. With a general council of the Church meeting for the first time on his territory, Henry’s influence over the pope would never be stronger. Unlike his experience in 1148 when he had crossed the Channel ignominiously with Theobald and John of Salisbury in a fishing smack to attend the Council of Rheims, Thomas would travel to Tours at the head of an entourage whose splendour, if not perhaps its size, echoed that which had accompanied him on his embassy to Paris in 1158.
Halting at all the more important towns and villages as he rode through Normandy and Maine, he was received by the nobles and leading citizens with as much honour as if he were a king himself. ‘Approaching Tours,’ says an eyewitness, ‘the city was immediately roused.’ Even the cardinals came to join the crowds thronging outside the gates to welcome him, before escorting him to the temporary papal residence at St Martin’s Abbey. There, Alexander, ‘who seldom got to his feet for anyone, came to meet the archbishop and hastened to show him reverence’.
With the pope himself stepping forward to greet him, Becket became the most feted prelate at the council, not for his own merits, as he may naively have supposed, but because he was still judged by the world to be Henry’s man, the most trusted confidant of the most powerful ruler north of the Alps and the one most conspicuously seen to be supporting Alexander in his struggle against Frederick Barbarossa and his antipope. The assembly at Tours was about to become a carefully choreographed showcase for Alexander, but it would also become one for Henry, in whose mind a model of a regional church by papal concession under royal control was fast coming into view. His language proves it, since – with one eye on what he believed to have been the established norm in his grandfather’s day and using words that would soon become mantras in his dealings with Becket – he had already cautioned the pope that, whatever else happened at the forthcoming council, the ‘dignity’ of his kingdom should in no way be diminished and ‘no new customs’ enacted.
For unbeknown to the English chroniclers, perhaps unknown even to Thomas himself, secret negotiations had taken place between the pope and Henry before he and Eleanor had returned from Anjou and Normandy. On leaving his safe haven at Montpellier, the pope had ridden by way of Clermont to the Benedictine abbey of Notre-Dame du Bourg-Dieu at Déols, near Châteauroux, where for three days in September 1162 he had conducted face-to-face talks with Henry. No one revealed what was said between them, but clearly the pope was emollient. Showered with gifts and bribes, he and his cardinals were led in a grand procession into Tours, continuing on briefly to Paris, and returning to Tours for the opening session of the council.
With Henry invisibly pulling the wires and laying down his terms in secret, it was a foregone conclusion that the business of the council would be minimal. Once prayers and a Gospel reading had been said, a decree excommunicating the antipope’s supporters was pronounced. Otherwise, some jurisdictional disputes between monasteries and their local bishops were settled and two further decrees passed tightening up the procedures for recovering church property embezzled by the laity, a move of which Becket would strongly have approved.
But Thomas’s role at the council was restricted to lobbying – vigorously but unsuccessfully – for the privileges of his own church of Canterbury and for his distinguished predecessor Anselm’s canonization. In a failed bid to whip up votes for the man who had defeated Henry’s grandfather in the struggle over ‘lay investiture’, Becket laid before the cardinals a ‘Life of Anselm’ specially compiled for the occasion by John of Salisbury, but there were already too many candidates for sainthood and Anselm’s case was ignored. Pope Alexander was so wary of irritating Henry, he may even have vetoed the proposal.
Undeterred, Becket basked, as he believed, in Anselm’s reflected glory. At the suggestion of Henry of Pisa, who lionized him if only out of deference to Henry, he was seated at the pope’s right hand and from this prominent position was able to build up useful connections among the seventeen cardinals and over a hundred bishops who attended. And yet he was still somewhat out of his depth. Stephen of Rouen, a monk of Bec whose verse history of the house of Anjou gives one of the fullest accounts of the council’s proceedings, says that when Alexander suddenly turned to Becket and invited him to give one of the opening addresses, he had embarrassingly to decline because his impromptu Latin was not yet sufficiently fluent.
If that were not enough, Roger of Pont l’Évêque then stood up, determined to pursue his vendetta. Now his claim was that, since he had been consecrated as an archbishop before Becket, he should take precedence over him in the official seating plan. Since he and Thomas were beyond English shores, right was on his side, however petty or technical his grievance, but he wrong-footed himself by speaking on the topic at excruciating length, so that everyone shouted him down.
No sooner was he silenced than Gilbert Foliot, the newly-consecrated bishop of London, caused an ugly scene. Still burning with jealousy, he was refusing to make the usual profession of subjection to Becket as primate, claiming that in his earlier capacity as bishop of Hereford he had already made one to Theobald. And Pope Alexander, to whom the matter was referred, promptly backed him to gratify Henry, ruling that it was not the Church’s custom to demand a profession of obedience to be repeated, a decision that left Thomas feeling wounded and humiliated. Was he yet aware that Henry had already sent for Foliot and appointed him to be one of his spiritual confessors, inviting him into his inner circle as an adviser on church affairs? So rapid an ascent to favour for a man who, scarcely a year before, had caused considerable embarrassment and inconvenience to Henry by his blistering attack on Becket at the ceremony ratifying his election as archbishop surely illustrates the direction of the king’s thoughts.
On returning to Canterbury, Becket must have felt decidedly let down. Superficially his appearance at the council had been a resounding success. He had been seated in a place of honour: his name and face would now be known to the entire college of cardinals and other dignitaries of the Church. When in the following year his quarrel with Henry would lead to his sudden flight into exile, his cause would come to electrify those who had seen him there. On the other hand, he must have felt deeply dissatisfied at his own shortcomings and more than a little unsettled by the sniping of his two most senior subordinates. If he ever felt himself a newcomer and an outsider trying to become an insider, this would have been the moment.
The first of a fresh series of squabbles began on 1 July 1163 at a great council summoned to meet in the ‘new hall’ at Woodstock in Oxfordshire, built by the king’s grandfather to transform one of his favourite hunting lodges into a royal palace not far from where he had created a menagerie of exotic wild animals, including leopards, lions, camels, lynxes and a porcupine. Henry’s youngest brother, William, was there, as were Richard de Lucy, Richard de Humez and many of the other leading barons. Gilbert Foliot, as bishop of London, joined Becket at the head of the Church’s delegation, and all went smoothly until Henry raised the issue of taxation. He had refused to replace Becket as chancellor and was managing his own finances, ingeniously attempting to develop a new system of taxation that could be levied in peacetime and not simply in times of war or revolt. The new tax was designed to replace an old Anglo-Saxon tax known as the ‘Danegeld’ originally levied annually in peacetime to buy off the invading Danes. This ancient levy had been continued by William the Conqueror, but although once lucrative, it fell mainly on the peasantry and so raised a maximum of only £5,000 before deducting the expenses of collecting it.
Henry’s new tax was to be levied at the rate of two shillings for every hide (roughly 120 acres), enough to buy a team of oxen and 200 pigs, which potentially could have raised three or more times as much revenue in total as the old one. But so as not to increase the overall tax burden, he wanted it to subsume the customary ‘sheriff’s aid’ collected annually by the sheriffs for their own expenses. Under the king’s plan, taxpayers would pay exactly the same to the sheriffs as before: the losers would be the sheriffs themselves, since they would have to pay the full amount of the new tax into the Exchequer, leaving them to fund the genuine costs of local administration out of their own pockets.
Becket led the opposition. As the son of a former sheriff of London and the secretary to another for just over two years before entering Theobald’s service, he knew the likely impact of stripping the sheriffs of their only legitimate source of funds. He told the king that the Church would continue to make its usual payments to the sheriffs on a voluntary basis, but if the money were to be appropriated as royal revenue, then not a penny would be paid in future. To this Henry angrily retorted, ‘By God’s eyes, it shall be given as revenue and written down as such in the royal records.’ To which Becket swore back in a fit of pique, ‘By the eyes by which you swear, never while I am living will this money be given from my land.’
The two men then clashed over another marriage licence. One of the richest heiresses in the kingdom, Countess Isabel de Warenne, the only surviving child of William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, had been widowed when her husband, King Stephen’s younger son, had fallen mortally sick on his way home from the Toulouse campaign. Still relatively young and childless, the countess was being wooed by Henry’s brother William, who was head over heels in love with her. His suit was supported by his brother, who relished the thought that on the strength of a simple exchange of wedding vows, the Angevins would be able to recover control of the vast Warenne estates in England and Normandy. The only obstacle was that the couple were third cousins and within the prohibited degrees of marriage. William had to obtain a licence to marry her, but Thomas opposed the request, following canon law to the letter as he had done before as chancellor in the case of Mary of Blois. His decision could not reasonably be criticized, except that coming hard on the heels of his resistance to the revamping of the ‘sheriff’s aid’, he was taxing Henry’s patience to the limit.
On this occasion, Henry bided his time, waiting until he was able to recover the Warenne estates by a different route a year or so later, when he arranged for Isabel to marry his illegitimate brother, Hamelin of Anjou, since in his case consanguinity did not arise. But if the king was satisfied with the outcome, his brother William was not. From this moment onwards he and his close friends, like John the Marshal, harboured a grudge against the new archbishop that would fester until the day it could be avenged.
Henry and Becket, meanwhile, had begun arguing over the Church’s claims for the immunity of the clergy from secular jurisdiction. First visible in his searing attacks on Hilary of Chichester during the Battle Abbey case, before resurfacing in the case of the citizen of Scarborough from whom a bribe had been extorted, the king’s distaste for what he saw as the unaccountability of the clergy to himself and his judges was on the point of exploding into a major quarrel. Fuelled by the spiralling breakdown of his intimacy with Becket, this was the moment at which what so far had seemed like tit-for-tat, after the new archbishop had begun his high-profile campaign to recover lost church lands, would gradually turn into a major clash over fundamental issues of principle.
The crux was how to deal with criminous clerks (priests, deacons and others in minor orders such as sub-deacon or acolyte) who were convicted of a serious crime against the king’s peace such as murder, robbery, larceny or rape, for which, if the offender were a layman and not a clerk, the punishment would be death or mutilation. According to Henry, the royal judges had complained that over a hundred homicides by those who claimed exemption from trial in the secular courts had gone unpunished on account of their holy orders. Church courts did not inflict capital or corporal punishments ‘lest in man the image of God should be deformed’, preferring to impose unfrocking, imprisonment in a bishop’s prison, confinement to a monastery, penances or pilgrimages, either alone or in various combinations.
On the king’s side was the fact that the Church’s claims for immunity from royal justice were a relative novelty. There had been little such exemption before the later years of his grandfather’s reign, but the rise of the ascetic reformers in the Church, combined with the uncontrolled reception of canon law in England during the anarchy of Stephen’s reign, had changed all this. In particular, Gratian’s Decretum, now the standard textbook in the church courts, included a clutch of canons forbidding the accusation or trial of churchmen before a secular magistrate and insisting that no punishment could be inflicted upon them without the Church’s consent.
By far the greatest myth surrounding this topic is that the church courts were a soft option. That this need not be true is proved by one of the first cases in which Henry took an interest, that of a priest accused of homicide in Bishop Jocelin of Salisbury’s court. The priest denied the charge and was unable to prove his innocence, but neither could the accusers prove his guilt, so the bishop sought Becket’s ruling. His decree, which he published as a precedent for his whole province, was that in such a case a clerk was to be unfrocked, stripped of his living and imprisoned in a monastery, where he should do penance in relation to the gravity of his crime. In this instance, Becket envisaged a harsher sentence than would have come from a trial in a secular court, where if an accused person was unable to prove his innocence but could not be convicted he had to be acquitted, since it was a rule of English common law that a prisoner was always to be judged innocent unless convicted by a jury.
Henry then actively intervened in the case of a priest caught stealing a silver chalice from the church of St Mary-le-Bow in London. On Becket’s orders, the priest had been unfrocked and stripped of his living, but Henry wanted mutilation or the death penalty. Although the church courts rejected capital or corporal punishments, canon law allowed an unfrocked priest in a few exceptional cases to be returned to the secular power for punishment at the bishop’s discretion. Henry knew this rule and demanded that it be applied to the priest even though the mere theft of a chalice was not at all the type of crime envisaged in the canon, which was meant to apply only to cases so notorious that the spiritual welfare of an entire community was judged to be at risk, such as heresy or witchcraft. ‘In order to placate the king’, Becket on this occasion gave in, agreeing to hand the priest over to the sheriff to be branded as a convicted felon. But soon he would have second thoughts.
What lay at the heart of Henry’s objections is that where an offending priest was found to be guilty of a serious crime, the church courts would spare his life while the royal courts would not. In the next case over which he and Becket quarrelled, the archbishop refused to allow the royal judges to try a priest accused of murdering a Worcestershire man in order to sleep with his daughter. Instead, he put him in the bishop’s prison until he could be tried in a church court where, if and when convicted, he was to be unfrocked and dismissed, imprisoned, exiled or sent on a lengthy pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Regardless of what other punishments he received, his life would be spared. Only if he committed felony again once he had been unfrocked could he be hanged, since an unfrocked priest became a layman again. If he reoffended, he would no longer be a priest and could be tried for any future offence in the secular court.
Today the debate would most likely be couched in terms of the merits of capital punishment, but for Becket the type of punishment meted out was not the point. In his mind, the only issue at stake was the liberty of the Church. From Henry’s standpoint, this was an affront to royal justice, an abuse hindering the execution of his coronation oath to do justice; from Becket’s, it was a cardinal rule of canon law to which he now owed fealty as archbishop. And far from earning opprobrium for merely casting around for a convenient way of dressing up a personal vendetta against Henry, he would be loudly supported in the earlier stages of the quarrel over criminous clerks by his bitterest rivals, Roger of Pont l’Évêque and Gilbert Foliot, both of whom ardently believed that churchmen were exempt from trial and sentence in any other tribunal on earth except a church court until they were unfrocked. Had Thomas been speaking merely out of pique or self-interest, such jealous rivals would never have backed him as they did.
Although Henry, who claimed to have consulted his own canon lawyers, strained every nerve to create the impression that he was occupying the high moral ground, his motives appear far less savoury when a landmark case buried deep in the papers of John of Salisbury is considered. Dating back to 1156, these documents prove that before he began quarrelling with Becket, Henry had himself forcefully defended the Church’s exclusive right to try criminous clerks for their first offence. The documents relate to the alleged poisoning of King Stephen’s unpopular nephew, William fitz Herbert, the deposed archbishop of York. Osbert of Bayeux, his archdeacon, stood accused of the crime, and Theobald was bracing himself for it to be heard in the king’s court. To his delight and astonishment, Henry, after debating the point at exhaustive length with his barons and lawyers, had decided that the canon law took precedence and so Osbert would be tried in the church court.
Having once set the precedent, Henry now sought to overturn it. For this he was warmly applauded by the lay barons, whom John of Salisbury says had fiercely resisted such concessions to the Church all along. But if the king had really felt so strongly about criminous clerks as an issue of principle as he now claimed, he would surely have allied with these barons and sought to reintroduce the so-called ‘ancestral customs’ of his grandfather into the Church much earlier in his reign. Now, after allowing such an important precedent to be put on record as the trial in the church court of Osbert of Bayeux, it would be harder for him to turn the clock back. In short, the punishment of criminous clerks in the royal courts – however much a no-brainer by modern ethical standards it may appear – was always going to be an exceptionally difficult battle for Henry to win when the rest of Christendom stood against him. In choosing this as the ground on which he meant to fight Becket, he was unconsciously exposing how personal their quarrel was fast becoming.
Had Henry only approached the matter in a more balanced frame of mind, for example by suggesting a compromise by which unfrocked priests, after conviction in the church courts, could be handed over to the secular power for punishment in the most heinous cases with the Church’s consent, his argument would have had some valid foundation in canon law. Then he might first have isolated Thomas before following his usual tactics of divide and rule. But this is not what he intended to do. For after his new archbishop’s return from the Council of Tours, he was not thinking straight. Demanding all or nothing, he was spoiling for a fight. It seemed as if his former chancellor could do nothing right and that the issue of criminous clerks was the stick that he had chosen to beat him with.
For his part, Thomas, fresh from sitting at the pope’s right hand and in awe of his new spiritual responsibilities, intended to defend the liberties of the Church, great or small. He was eager to prove himself a champion of the Church, and after resigning the chancellorship his hands were free.
He would not have long to wait.