The great council that gathered at Northampton Castle on Tuesday 6 October 1164 was a grand theatrical display, the equivalent of a state trial. If Becket refused a second time to submit unequivocally to him and in a form that was legally binding, Henry meant to try him for treason. Almost nothing would be left to chance, as Thomas must have guessed almost as soon as he and his retinue of knights and clerks approached the gates of the outer bailey. A number of his worried servants, sent ahead to prepare his chamber, were waiting there to tell him that his usual quarters at the castle had already been taken by the royal squires. Nothing could be done to evict them that day, since Henry was out hawking. Thomas was forced to find new lodgings for himself and his clerks at the nearby priory of St Andrew, a Cluniac house of about twenty-five monks, founded in about 1100, which had spacious buildings and was situated on the north-west side of the town, abutting on to the town walls and bordering on the River Nene.
Early on Wednesday morning he rode to the castle, where Henry was hearing mass in the chapel. On climbing the stairs to the royal chamber on the first floor, he offered the customary kiss of greeting – but Henry rebuffed him. Without attempting further courtesies, Becket asked that the squires be expelled from his quarters and Henry agreed. The squires, however, did not move out and the archbishop stayed for the remainder of the council at the priory. He then asked Henry for a licence to travel to Sens to consult the pope, but was met with a sulphurous refusal. ‘You shall first answer me,’ the king snarled, ‘for the injury which you caused John the Marshal in your court.’
No such answer could be given that day, since John had not yet arrived at the castle. Purportedly busy in the Exchequer on the king’s affairs, he would in fact never arrive, further suggesting that his case was trumped up. But by Thursday morning the more important barons and prelates were assembled and ready to begin, apart from Richard de Lucy, who was on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela.
Charged first with contempt of court for disobeying the king’s writ on 14 September, Thomas chose not to plead illness or the constraints of his pastoral duties. Still determined to hold his ground, he said only that he did not believe he was legally bound to account in a royal court for his actions as archbishop.
A murmur of disquiet resounded around the castle’s great hall. Although far from unjustified in the circumstances, Becket’s plea smacked of arrogance. William fitz Stephen, a trained lawyer and one of Becket’s advisers throughout these hearings, says, ‘everyone believed that, out of respect for the royal majesty and because of the strict obligation created by the liege homage which the archbishop had done to the king … his defence or excuse was insufficient.’ Indignant that Thomas had disobeyed him, Henry called for judgement and it was decided that the archbishop should forfeit all his movable property.
The first glitch in Henry’s plan then arose. The barons clashed with the prelates as to which of them should deliver the sentence. Keen to involve the clerics in the issue, the barons argued that, since Becket was a churchman, it was for his own colleagues and not for laymen to sentence him. ‘Not so,’ replied a bishop, ‘this belongs rather to your office and not ours, since this is not an ecclesiastical but a secular judgement.’ Angered by the squabble, the king ordered Henry of Winchester to give the sentence. Becket, meanwhile, was sorely tempted to claim immunity from secular jurisdiction and appeal to the pope, but was dissuaded by the bishops, who – Gilbert Foliot apart – stood sureties for a fine of £500.
Called upon next to answer the substance of John the Marshal’s appeal, Thomas pleaded that he had no case to answer since the suit was frivolous. Not only had John signally failed to prove his right to his Sussex lands in the Canterbury court, he had resorted to a subterfuge in complaining to the king, swearing that he had been denied justice in Becket’s court only on a mass-book produced from under his cloak and not on the Gospels or the relics of a saint, as the law required.
Now vigorous nods of assent could be seen all around the hall. Becket’s was a winning argument, because the wily barons could see exactly where this case might lead. If John the Marshal was allowed to appeal to higher authority in a feudal land claim on the strength of an unlawful oath and without even turning up in court to justify his plea, then a precedent would be set for any member of the baronage to lose control over his tenants. To his obvious chagrin, Henry had to let the matter drop, leaving Becket as the victor.
But Henry never allowed an inconvenient setback to deflect him. As he had proved in the Battle Abbey case, this was his court and he intended to condemn Becket one way or the other. He moved quickly on, changing tack by posing new and searching questions about Becket’s fiscal administration as chancellor, showing his intention to level charges of embezzlement and false accounting against him. Thomas was unprepared for this sudden shift of direction – but Henry was: his men at the Exchequer (not least the ubiquitous John the Marshal) had already worked out which fiefs or vacant bishoprics had been granted to Becket and for which he had been legally accountable.
The fiscal accounting system functioned in such a way that the chancellor had been expected to make fixed annual payments at the Exchequer, but not to file detailed accounts. To fund his independent household, he had been allowed to retain the surplus, should there be one, as often there was, between the revenues he managed to secure and the sums he really owed. He was also allowed to deduct disbursements legitimately incurred on the king’s behalf from the sums he credited at the Exchequer, which is where most of the trouble set in.
Had Thomas been able to produce official receipts for his deposits into the Exchequer and copies of the warrants for his expenditure on Henry’s behalf, all would have been well. But he could not. At the time, such a scrupulous regard for paperwork had seemed unnecessary. In any case, Thomas had almost certainly ‘declared’ his annual accounts verbally and informally to Henry and secured a verbal ‘discharge’. Only now, after the king had quarrelled with him, was a formal, written confirmation of his authority for his financial transactions suddenly, and retrospectively, needed.
Henry began by asking Becket to account for around £300 for the castles of Eye and Berkhamsted. He was testing the waters, waiting to see what Thomas would say, not letting him guess yet that these were specimen charges and far larger demands were waiting round the corner. Becket protested that he had received no warning of these charges and had been summoned only to answer to the suit of John the Marshal. He also protested (apparently correctly) that he had been freed from any outstanding debts relating to his chancellorship when he had been appointed archbishop. But in an effort to mollify Henry, he answered that he could remember spending that sum and a great deal more on building repairs at these castles and at the palace of Westminster. The refurbishment of Westminster Hall alone had been especially costly.
His plea would fail abysmally. In fact, nothing he could say now or subsequently would make any difference, since Henry denied that he had either authorized the expenditure or exonerated Becket from his debts. It was his word against the archbishop’s. Still not seeing clearly where all this was leading and unwilling to pick a fight on what appeared to him to be a side issue, Becket rejoined that he could not allow a dispute over money to undermine their relationship, and found three sureties to guarantee the reimbursement, one being William, Earl of Gloucester, the king’s cousin.
Night had now fallen and the session was adjourned. Becket returned to his lodgings at the priory, where the barons and knights no longer came to visit him. Such was the atmosphere of fear and suspicion that Henry had created, they dared to have no further association with the disgraced archbishop for fear that they would be regarded as his aiders and abettors. They too were likely to owe money to the Exchequer, albeit on a far smaller scale.
On Friday Henry intensified his attack, claiming the sum of 1,000 silver marks which Becket had borrowed during the Toulouse campaign of 1159, half from him and the other half from a Jewish moneylender on his guarantee. As on the previous day, Becket protested that his writ of summons had not mentioned charges like these, but he was willing to answer them off the record. The amounts he conceded, but claimed both sums had been written off, which Henry vehemently denied.
When Thomas was unable to offer any written evidence in his support, a fresh verdict was given in the king’s favour. Once more Henry demanded sureties, and when Becket airily replied that his assets would be more than sufficient to meet the demand but he needed more time to realize some cash, the king snapped back that since the bulk of his wealth had already been confiscated, he must immediately find sureties or go to prison.
The sureties were found, but to little avail. Not after money or a forensic victory in a court of law but out to humiliate and destroy Becket, Henry next showed the full extent of his spite and vindictiveness by requiring him to account for all the other revenues which had passed through his hands as chancellor, however briefly, including those of the archbishopric itself. Since he may have handled in excess of £30,000 in cash in this way, the scope for a shortfall had been vast. And if as a result of yet another judgement he should be bankrupted or fail to find sureties for his fine, then the penalties could be life imprisonment or sequestration of the lands of the archbishopric. If that happened, much of the property belonging to the church of Canterbury could fall into Henry’s hands for many years or perhaps even be forfeited to the crown for ever.
Becket asked for time to consider his response and the court was adjourned while he took counsel. On Saturday all the bishops and abbots came to visit him at the priory. Henry of Winchester, who steered these discussions, began by saying he thought it worthwhile to make the king an offer of 2,000 marks to settle the charges. His idea, unrealistic as it was, quickly gained support and a pause ensued while he rode back to the castle to negotiate. But Henry refused the money, ordering the bishops to be locked up to hurry along their deliberations, so triggering a long and impassioned debate.
Gilbert Foliot began by warning Thomas of the catastrophe that was fast approaching. Should he not consider humbling himself by resigning in the hope that Henry would restore him to favour? Hilary of Chichester seconded him, saying bluntly, ‘Would that you could cease to be archbishop, and become plain Thomas.’ Others agreeing included Robert of Lincoln and (more reluctantly) Bartholomew of Exeter. Since the times were ‘evil’, suggested Bartholomew, maybe it would be better to make a tactical retreat by sacrificing one archbishop rather than selling the whole Church into slavery.
Others strongly disagreed, chiefly Henry of Winchester. ‘If,’ he countered, ‘our archbishop and the primate of all England were to follow that advice, resigning the cure of the souls committed to him at the nod and threat of a prince, what can we expect but that the whole state of the Church should be for ever subjected to the king’s will?’
But Hilary, who had taken on the mantle of leader of the royalist party, would have none of this. Rounding on Becket, he issued a chilling warning. ‘The king,’ he said, ‘is reported to have said that there is no place any more for both of you in England, he as king and you as archbishop. It is safer to leave everything to his mercy and so to avoid, God forbid, the king detaining you or laying violent hands on you as his chancellor and one accountable to him … under the laws on extortion, for that would bring great hardship on the Church and disgrace to the kingdom.’
In reply, Bishop Henry urged Becket to stand his ground. Speaking from his own bitter experiences during the civil war in his brother’s reign, he knew that it was a mistake to put one’s trust in princes. He recognized a tyrant when he saw one and with hindsight had come to appreciate Archbishop Theobald’s genius for safely steering the Church through terrible storms. He thought that Thomas, as Theobald’s former fixer and spokesman, should receive the benefit of the doubt. Only fear and old age, he knew, would prevent him from telling Henry so to his face.
Sunday was meant to be a day of rest, but Becket spent it at the priory in earnest, anxious conclave with his clerks. ‘Scarcely,’ reports fitz Stephen, ‘was there a free hour to breathe and take sustenance. The archbishop did not leave his lodgings all day.’ The psychological and emotional pressure was mounting. Thomas, facing the crisis of his life, could not have failed to be deeply apprehensive. As dusk fell, the strain became unbearable and, later that night, his colitis flared up in a highly aggravated form. ‘He was struck by an illness that is called a colic,’ says Herbert of Bosham. ‘His loins were shaking with cold and pain,’ resumes fitz Stephen, ‘and it was necessary to keep his pillows warm and replace them regularly.’
On Monday morning he was unable to ride to the castle, but Henry and the barons suspected a feint. ‘They considered this sickness to be a fiction,’ says Herbert, ‘and sent some of the leading barons to investigate the claim.’ Meanwhile, rumour had it that Henry had been overheard swearing that, if Becket did not yield, he would have him executed or thrown into a dungeon to rot. Whether this was play-acting or merely arose from the febrile atmosphere at the castle over the weekend is unknown. But the story reached the ears of Thomas’s clerks.
Awakening feeling better on Tuesday, the archbishop had barely dressed when the bishops reappeared to report that Henry had resolved to try him that day as a traitor. They begged him to resign or submit unconditionally to the vengeful king. Stunned by their defeatism, Thomas wondered why so few of them were guided by principle or love of the Church; why so many acted simply out of ambition, fear or a mixture of the two. He believed that by interpreting the dispute purely as a personal quarrel between himself and Henry that could be ended by his resignation, as if at the stroke of a pen, his colleagues were missing the point. Even if they did not like him, he was their spiritual leader. If they allowed him to be crushed, they and the Church would go down with him. Henry, he had come to think, wished to subjugate and enslave the Church. His view of the king as a tyrant had recently received what seemed to be the strongest possible endorsement in the shape of a letter from John of Canterbury warning him that, already, Henry was attempting to extend the ‘ancestral customs’ across the Channel to all his continental dominions. He knew that he had to make a stand even if his colleagues deserted him. On no account was he going to allow their counsel of despair to dampen his resolve.
Becket most likely met his fellow-bishops in the Lady Chapel at the priory, a place well known to several of them, since the Benedictine monks of the Canterbury province held their triennial gatherings there. Suddenly finding new reserves of inner strength, Thomas raised himself to his full six feet before addressing them. ‘Brethren,’ he began, ‘as you can see, the world rages against me and the enemy rises, but what I deplore most tearfully … is that the sons of my own mother [i.e. the Church] fight against me. Even though I shall keep quiet about it, future centuries will tell how you have abandoned me in the struggle.’ Twice already, he said, the bishops had joined with the barons in convicting him in a secular court. ‘And I understand from your words that you are now ready to judge me again there, not only in a civil but also in a criminal case.’
Thomas then uttered the words that would dictate the future shape of his collision with the king and alter his relationship with his colleagues for ever:
By virtue of your obedience and at the peril of your order, I prohibit all of you from taking any further part in any future judgement where my person is at stake, and to make sure that you abide by this, I appeal to the Roman Church, our mother and the refuge of all the oppressed. And if, as it is already said among the people, it should come about that secular men lay their violent hands upon me, I order you by virtue of your obedience to me that you shall excommunicate those responsible … Know this, that although the world rages, the enemy rises, the body quivers and the flesh is weak, I shall, God willing, never give in shamefully or commit the offence of abandoning the flock that is entrusted to me.
No sooner had he finished than his enemy Gilbert Foliot made a counter-appeal to the pope. A committed royalist who had been one of the king’s spiritual advisers for over a year, it is likely he had already prepared for this eventuality and obtained Henry’s encouragement, since the ‘customs’ codified at Clarendon dictated that no appeal to the pope could be begun without express royal consent. With matters at a stalemate and Thomas now a pariah for making his appeal, the bishops left hurriedly for the castle, apart from Henry of Winchester and Jocelin of Salisbury, who lingered for a while to talk things over further.
Setting out himself for the castle an hour or so later, Becket stopped at a nearby church, possibly St Peter’s close to the castle, where, somewhat provocatively, he put on the pallium, the defining symbol of his office as primate, and said the special mass used on St Stephen’s Day in honour of the first Christian martyr, in which the Introit was a passage from the Psalms beginning, ‘Princes also did sit and speak against me’ (Psalm 119:23). After the service, he continued on to the castle, carrying secretly in a pocket of his cloak a wafer of the Eucharist, arming himself with the holy body of Christ for the fight he knew was about to begin. Before him, bearing his archiepiscopal cross, rode the faithful Alexander Llewelyn.
As soon as their horses were inside the castle-yard, the porter slammed the great gates behind them. Dismounting, Becket took the cross in his own hands and, brandishing it like a weapon, strode boldly towards the doorway of the great hall, as if he were once again a warrior riding into battle in Quercy or the Vexin. His audience was thunderstruck, believing that he intended to challenge Henry in some unforeseen way, perhaps even to excommunicate him.
Observing his arrival from the window of an upstairs chamber, the king flew into a fury. As Becket approached the entrance to the great hall, one of his clerks said to Gilbert Foliot, ‘My lord bishop of London, how can you stand by while he carries his own cross?’ Gilbert answered, ‘My dear fellow, he always was a fool and always will be.’ All the same, he rushed forward and tried to wrest the cross from the archbishop’s hands. There was an undignified scuffle as Thomas pushed him away.
‘If the king were to draw his sword as you have now done with your cross,’ Gilbert jibed, ‘what hope can there ever be of bringing about peace between you?’
‘The king’s sword is an instrument of war,’ Becket retorted, ‘but my cross is a sign of peace for myself and the English Church.’
While Thomas sat in a small antechamber adjacent to the great hall on the ground floor of the castle waiting for Henry to descend down the staircase, Roger of Pont l’Évêque arrived, deliberately late for the day’s hearing so that he might not be suspected of plotting against Becket with the ‘untamed beasts’ upstairs. His cross too was carried before him – illegally, since Pope Alexander had forbidden him to flaunt it in front of the primate.
A crier then announced the resumption of the court and Henry summoned the bishops upstairs. He had originally meant to revisit the matter of criminous clerks, but advised (probably by Foliot) that this would be the one and only issue capable of reuniting the bishops with their primate had decided to get Friday’s unfinished business out of the way first. Now his aim was to convict Becket of embezzlement and false accounting, before charging him with perjury and treason for prohibiting the bishops from sitting in judgement on their archbishop and appealing to Pope Alexander without prior royal assent, thereby breaching his promise to observe ‘in all good faith’ the customs published at Clarendon.
And yet Henry cannot have been totally confident. Waiting anxiously downstairs, Becket’s clerks could hear angry voices quarrelling in the chamber above, and while this terrified them, it also gave Thomas a glimmer of hope. So awesome was the power of religion or the threat of an archbishop’s curse, so potent was the cross as a symbol, that for the remainder of the council Henry refused to confront Becket face to face in open court, fearing that he might excommunicate him. Excommunication was precisely the course of action recommended by Herbert of Bosham, who was spoiling for a fight, but a worried fitz Stephen took a more cautious line, still believing the dispute could be settled by compromise and negotiation. From his viewpoint, there was still everything to play for.
At last Henry sent a deputation of barons and bishops led by Robert de Beaumont and Reginald of Cornwall to treat with Thomas, asking him whether he was ready to produce his financial accounts as chancellor and whether he was responsible for the prohibition and appeal to the pope of which the bishops had complained. Becket answered confidently, doing everything he could to recover some of his dignity and authority by making the sign of the cross and deliberately sitting down while the others were left standing so as to underscore the distance between them.
‘Men, brothers, earls and barons of the lord king,’ he began. ‘I am certainly bound to our liege lord the king by homage, fealty and oath, but the principal attributes of the priestly oath are justice and equity.’ He again protested that his trial was an abuse of legal procedure, since the king’s writ had summoned him only to defend himself against John the Marshal’s accusation. He emphasized once more that he had been exonerated of his worldly obligations as chancellor by Prince Henry and Henry of Winchester at Westminster Abbey when his election as archbishop had been ratified in 1162. ‘Although,’ he continued, ‘the king now denies this, it is known clearly to many among you and to all the clergy of this kingdom.’
As to the prohibition and appeal that he had made that morning, he meant to stand by them. ‘I admit,’ he said, ‘that I told my fellow-bishops that they condemned me with undue severity and contrary to custom and precedent, and for this I have appealed against them and forbidden them, while this appeal is pending, to judge me again in any secular suit, including one arising from the time before my assumption of the archiepiscopal office. I still appeal, and I place both my person and the church of Canterbury under the protection of God and the lord pope.’
With the gauntlet thrown down, Thomas ended his speech. A resounding piece of oratory, it had reduced half the deputation to complete silence and provoked the others to cry out, ‘Behold, we have heard the blasphemy proceeding out of his own mouth.’ After the members of the deputation had trooped back upstairs, the debate continued in the king’s chamber. ‘King William who conquered England,’ said some of the barons, ‘knew how to tame his clerics.’ They suggested that Becket be castrated or thrown into a pit, but Henry was more concerned that the bishops should ignore the archbishop’s prohibition, since for the sake of legitimacy he badly wanted them to join with the barons in pronouncing judgement on Thomas for daring to appeal to the pope. With the bishops onside, it would be harder for Pope Alexander to retaliate or for Becket’s supporters to call the king a tyrant.
But the bishops (as they themselves said) were between the hammer and the anvil. To obey the king would be to contravene canon law and their own convictions, while to defy him would be to risk sharing in the archbishop’s fate. They were also bitterly divided, with some sympathetic to Thomas and others determined that he should resign or be deposed. Tempers rose as the barons lost patience and called on the bishops to end their bickering and obey the king. In an effort to break the deadlock, a delegation of bishops went downstairs, some in tears, hoping to persuade Becket at least to withdraw his prohibition and appeal.
As the delegation entered the lower chamber, a scene of black comedy ensued as Roger of Pont l’Évêque and Thomas raised their crosses against each other like lances in a tournament. But before they could come to blows, Hilary of Chichester rounded on Becket, saying that all this trouble had started when he had ordered them to follow his lead at Clarendon and then changed his own mind. The result was that he was now ordering them to go against their promise to the king. But Thomas refused to budge: whatever had happened at Clarendon and whatever mistakes he may have made there, the disputed customs had afterwards been condemned as ‘obnoxious’ by the pope. ‘If we lapsed at Clarendon, if the flesh is weak, we must take heart again and with the strength of the Holy Spirit fight the old enemy who hopes that those who stand will fall, and those who have fallen will not get up again.’ Hilary, bruised and battered in the Battle Abbey case, had become a turncoat and Thomas had no time for him any more. Looking him straight in the eye, he told him that no one was bound to keep an oath he should not have taken in the first place. ‘If we yielded and in good faith swore what was untrue or made unjust promises, you well know that an unlawful oath is not binding.’
After more scurrying to and fro of courtiers up and downstairs, some carrying rods and sticks, Gilbert Foliot finally broke the deadlock, suggesting that if the king would excuse them from sitting in judgement on the archbishop, they would lodge a joint appeal to the pope against him, this time asking Alexander to depose him for perjuring himself at Clarendon. A flimsy idea, it was just enough to satisfy the bishops, who returned upstairs.
Henry by this time also wanted to draw a line under the secondary issue of who sat as judges in his court. Aiming to destroy Becket, not to make enemies of all his bishops and the pope at the same time by forcing them to judge him, he accepted Foliot’s proposal, sending the bishops back downstairs to rejoin Thomas, who sat motionless as if turned to stone, awaiting his trial by the barons alone in the upstairs chamber and in his absence.
To give the court’s verdict a greater semblance of legality, Henry summoned the knights and sheriffs of the shires to the upstairs room to reinforce the barons, then called on them all to make haste as the day was almost past. The climax was fast approaching. None of the sources says precisely what the sentence was, but Becket was condemned, almost certainly to life imprisonment. He was still seated and holding his cross when the barons and knights came down the stairs for the last time, leaving Henry alone upstairs. As they entered the lower chamber, Thomas refused to rise and sat stony-faced waiting for Robert de Beaumont to do his worst.
Robert began haltingly, reminding Thomas of Henry’s generosity to him as chancellor and of the great debts and obligations he owed him for raising him up from nothing. But Thomas had heard all this before. He had also often sat in court beside Robert himself and knew him as well as anyone. He could read in his face his disquiet at what he had been asked to do, and meant to turn it to his own advantage. Before the earl had got properly into his stride, he interrupted him and forbade him or anyone else present to judge him. Visibly shocked, de Beaumont falteringly resumed, but quickly began to ramble. Becket waited until it appeared that he was going to be sentenced. He then leapt to his feet, raising his cross high above his head and exclaiming, ‘It is not for you to judge your archbishop for a crime!’
Uproar ensued as some barons shouted ‘perjurer’ and others ‘traitor’. Reginald of Cornwall tried to carry on with the sentence, but he too fluffed his lines. Attempting to assert control, Hilary of Chichester cried out that the treason was clear and Thomas must hear the sentence. But Becket was having none of it. Rising to his feet, he stood up and strode towards the door, carrying his cross. Further hoots and cries of ‘perjurer’ and ‘traitor’ greeted him as he passed back through the great hall, where, not paying attention, he stumbled over a pile of firewood. Regaining his balance, he heard Henry’s cronies Ranulf de Broc, the royal whoremaster, and Hamelin, the king’s bastard brother now married to Isabel de Warenne, joining in the chorus. Rounding on them, he shouted back, ‘If only I were a knight, my own fist would give you the lie.’
In the castle-yard he swiftly mounted his horse, scooping up Herbert of Bosham into the saddle behind him, but the gates of the outer bailey were still locked. The porter was absent from his post – he was said to be beating a boy – but a bunch of keys was seen hanging from the wall. One fitted, and the archbishop, closely followed by the rest of his clerks, escaped through the town. As they rode back to the priory, Thomas veered wildly from side to side: he could scarcely control his horse and carry his cross at the same time. But he was euphoric. Not only had he escaped from Henry’s clutches, but an admiring crowd was also following him in triumph from the castle-gate to his lodgings, cheering him as a hero who had resisted a tyrant-king and praising God and the saints for his safe deliverance.
On reaching the priory, he immediately said vespers with his clerks, then walked round the cloister to the refectory, where his retinue were eating their meal. On seeing him sit down to eat, many of them came to his table one by one, asking to be discharged from his service for fear of the king, prompting Herbert of Bosham to jest that ‘A friend is someone who eats your food, but does not stay on in the hour of need.’
After supper, Thomas sent a message to Henry asking for a safe-conduct for his journey back to Canterbury. The reply, delivered by return, was that a decision would not be made until the following day. The tone of this communication aroused Becket’s worst fears. Henry was said to have proclaimed that he was not to be molested within the precincts of Northampton, but the risk of arrest elsewhere was high. Taking no chances, he decided to put John of Salisbury’s escape plan into immediate effect. Only three trusted attendants from his retinue, whom he chose as guides, were let into the secret besides the loyal Herbert, whom he sent to Canterbury to gather as much cash and silver plate as he could find before travelling to St-Omer for a rendezvous. To allay suspicions at the castle, Becket declared his intention of spending the night in the priory chapel in vigil and prayer. The monks made up a bed for him behind the high altar and later saw him there, pretending to be asleep, when they passed by to sing their night offices in the choir.
An hour or so before dawn, still in pitch darkness and during a torrential rainstorm which cloaked the clatter of the horses’ hooves, Thomas, disguised as a lay brother, rode out of the priory with only his three guides as companions. Mounted on borrowed chargers, they made their escape through the north gate of the town, which they already knew to be unguarded. When early the next morning Henry of Winchester called at the priory to ask the archbishop’s chamberlain how Becket was, he received the reply, ‘He is doing rather well, since he left late last night in a hurry and no one knows where he has gone.’
The king’s answer would be very different. ‘Nondum finivimus cum isto,’ he barked. ‘We’ve not finished with this wretched fellow yet.’