Biographies & Memoirs

20. Exile

Using the alias of Brother Christian, Becket took a circuitous route to the south coast after leaving Northampton, evading the pursuit by first riding almost 100 miles in the opposite direction to Grantham and Lincoln, and then hiding out in the fens for several days with the assistance of some Gilbertine monks. To make themselves inconspicuous, he and his companions travelled only by night, hiding themselves away by day. Sailing in the cadaverous early-morning light of 2 November 1164 from the tiny port of Sandwich in Kent in a skiff without any luggage, they crossed the Channel, landing at dusk on the seashore at Oye, four miles from Gravelines. Haggard, afraid and distinctly queasy from his buffeting upon the waves, Thomas was unaccustomed to walking on the shingle and fell exhausted to the ground. One of his companions managed to find a packhorse for him to ride, a miserable beast with only a rope of straw around its neck for a bridle, but which enabled him to reach Gravelines an hour or two after nightfall.

He quickly found that keeping himself concealed would be a wise decision, since his disguise was wholly unconvincing. For someone so often castigated by his modern biographers as an ‘actor-saint’, he was an extraordinarily bad actor. No sooner had he sat down to eat a simple meal of bread and cheese, nuts and fruit at a wayside inn than he betrayed himself. His fluent speech and polished diction, his refinement and air of authority, his sophisticated manners, his unusual height, broad brow and thin face, his clean, smooth hands with their long, elegant fingers, all gave him away, for the news of his escape had spread like wildfire and everyone knew he had either landed somewhere along the coast or was shortly about to.

Rising at daybreak, he set out on foot in the direction of St-Omer, once more intending to make a success of his disguise, but again failing abysmally. Not far along the road, he passed a young knight with a falcon on his wrist. A lifelong expert in falconry who had abandoned the sport only when he had resigned the chancellorship, Thomas was famous for being able to spot a prize gyrfalcon at twenty paces. He had only to take a single appreciative glance at the stranger’s fine bird for the knight to see through his disguise and call out, ‘Either that’s the archbishop of Canterbury or his double!’ To which Thomas or one of his companions lamely answered, ‘Do you really think that the archbishop of Canterbury travels in this style?’

Now treading warily for fear of the soldiers of Henry’s cousin Count Philip of Flanders, Thomas made his way in the rain and hail along a muddy road towards the Cistercian abbey of Clairmarais, three miles north-east of St-Omer. There he kept his rendezvous with Herbert of Bosham, who was waiting for him. Unable to lay his hands at Canterbury on more than 100 marks and a few silver cups, Herbert was shocked at the sight of the gaunt, blistered, unshaven, stooping figure who greeted him. They eagerly exchanged news, some of which was alarming, since Becket had discovered along the road that a deputation from Henry to the pope at Sens to plead for his deposition or suspension had crossed the Channel on the same day as he had. Led by Gilbert Foliot, Roger of Pont l’Évêque, Hilary of Chichester and William d’Aubigny, Earl of Arundel, who had been briefly married to Queen Adeliza, widow of Henry’s grandfather, these envoys were even now lodged in the castle at St-Omer. Anxious to avoid them, Thomas fled across the marshes in a rowing boat to a hermitage called Oldminster, where, surrounded by water, he concealed himself for three days. Emerging only when he thought it was safe, he retraced his steps to St-Omer, recovering his spirits at St Bertin’s Abbey, where he was given a hero’s welcome by Abbot Godescal and his monks.

One ugly incident gave a brief foretaste of what was still to come. Hearing a report that Thomas might be found at St Bertin’s, Richard de Lucy, on his way home from his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, came to visit him and begged him in the name of friendship to submit to Henry’s will. Thomas refused, leading to an angry scene in which de Lucy declared that from henceforward he would for ever be his sworn enemy.

Becket answered, ‘You are my vassal and shouldn’t say such things to me.’

‘In that case I’ll take back my homage,’ retorted Richard.

‘It wasn’t meant as a loan,’ Thomas snapped back.

A fascinating exchange, it shows that de Lucy, who had once accepted a sizeable grant of Canterbury land and become one of Thomas’s vassals on account of it, saving only his liege loyalty to Henry, had now defied his lord as feudal custom allowed when relations broke down. Effectively he had declared war on him.

After leaving the castle, Henry’s envoys divided themselves into two groups. While the main party rode directly to Sens to prepare for their meeting with the pope, Gilbert Foliot and the earl of Arundel sought an audience with King Louis at Compiègne, fifty miles north-east of Paris, where they handed him a letter from Henry explaining how Becket, now described as ‘formerly archbishop of Canterbury’, had ‘fled from the kingdom like a felon’. Henry wanted the French king, his feudal overlord, to assist him by denying Thomas refuge. But Louis, despite their dynastic alliance, was still brooding over the manner in which his upstart vassal had double-crossed him over his daughter’s marriage and the recovery of the disputed Vexin castles. He had got over the embarrassment of losing Eleanor of Aquitaine to him, but his marriage to his third bride, Adela, had not yet produced a son and he was in no mood to be compliant. He kept asking who precisely had deposed Thomas if he were no longer to be styled archbishop? And when the envoys appealed to him to write to Pope Alexander on Henry’s behalf, he refused and wrote in Thomas’s favour instead.

After the envoys had departed, Herbert of Bosham, who was doggedly on their trail, arrived to give Louis Becket’s side of the story and obtain a safe-conduct for his onward journey to Sens. Louis, who had always warmed to Thomas and whose piety was shocked at his rough treatment, then rode to Soissons, where the archbishop came and knelt before him, receiving a promise of his goodwill and financial support for as long as he might need it. But despite this generosity, Becket’s position was far from strong. While it might suit Louis to cut Henry down to size, he had no intention of offending him so deeply that he would break their alliance or wage war. A few desultory frontier raids in the Vexin would be as far as he was willing to go. Otherwise, he would blow hot and cold, telling John of Salisbury that as a loyal son of the Church he felt the deepest sympathy for Becket and loved him dearly, but feared that if he were to encourage the pope to quarrel with the English king to the detriment of the Church, he himself would get the blame. In short, Louis would walk a tightrope, granting Becket sanctuary in his territories and offering him fair words and a degree of protection, but no more.

As to what Becket might expect from Pope Alexander, the chief obstacle was the revival of the papal schism, since it did not take Frederick Barbarossa long once he had recovered from malaria to replace the deceased antipope Victor IV with Guy of Crema, who took the name of Paschal III. The entry on to the stage of a fresh rival backed by German silver would greatly limit the pope’s freedom of action. Even though a majority of the German bishops now opposed the schism and the communes of northern Italy would rise in open revolt against the emperor, Alexander worried that Frederick might suborn either Henry or Louis to support Paschal.

In a characteristically unctuous letter to Becket describing the political and diplomatic scene, Arnulf of Lisieux offered the pensive archbishop both a harsh reality check and some of the shrewdest insights into Henry’s psychology that anyone would ever put down on paper. For Arnulf knew that however much Henry would like to outmanoeuvre Louis or the pope in his efforts to rid himself of Becket, he would manage to stay cool and rational. ‘You are dealing,’ he said, ‘with a man whose cunning frightens distant people, whose power overawes his neighbours, whose sternness terrifies his subjects.’ His consistent run of good fortune since his adolescent years had so bolstered his ego that ‘whatever does not yield to him, he considers unlawful’. But if rarely headstrong or impetuous in war or politics, indeed a man who could be patient and relatively humble if approached in the right way, Henry was easily inflamed and difficult to mollify once aroused. Above all, he would never yield to pressure, least of all to force. ‘Whatever he does,’ said Arnulf from almost twenty years of experience, ‘should appear to have proceeded from his will rather than from his weakness.’ If Becket wanted to recover his position as archbishop, he had to offer a solution that Henry believed was really his own, for ‘he seeks fame rather than profit’ and knew he could secure it. Such was the state of play in and around his vast territories that ‘he has neither superior who can frighten him nor subject who can resist, nor is he attacked from outside’. And this, concluded Arnulf prophetically, would become Becket’s problem for the whole duration of his exile if he did not trim his sails to suit the wind. However loyal or committed to his cause his supporters might appear, before long they would simply tire or melt away.

Sent on ahead to Sens by Becket and arriving a few hours after Henry’s envoys had regrouped there, Herbert of Bosham met Alexander in private and again rehearsed the archbishop’s side of the story while the pope listened intently and sympathetically, nodding from time to time.

Next morning, the king’s men appeared before the cardinals in a full consistory, but Herbert had done his work well. When Gilbert Foliot, who spoke first, criticized Becket, Alexander sharply rebuked him, accusing him of spite, so that he became confused and gave way to Hilary of Chichester, who fared no better. As in the Battle Abbey case, he got carried away in the heat of the moment, showing off his Latin and making elementary mistakes in his verb conjugations that caused the cardinals and their clerks to fall about with laughter. Roger of Pont l’Évêque spoke less pretentiously, but no more effectively. The earl of Arundel, who admitted that he knew no Latin and spoke in colloquial French, did the best, avoiding criticizing Thomas directly and emphasizing in velvet tones how valuable it would be for Alexander to retain Henry’s friendship.

Following their instructions to the letter, the envoys proposed that – if the pope was unwilling to depose or suspend Becket – special legates should be appointed to judge his case in England without any right of appeal. But their petition was roundly rejected. ‘When he is to be judged,’ said Alexander, ‘he shall be judged by us: for it were against all reason to send him back to England to be judged by his adversaries and among his enemies.’ The bishops’ vitriol had undone them, for Alexander could plainly see that Becket would never be allowed a fair hearing in England. And he greatly resented Henry’s insistence that on no account should the main case against the archbishop be decided at Sens, which he believed was prejudicial, arrogant and insulting.

Disappointed at their failure and after spending three days vainly distributing gifts and offering bribes, the envoys had no choice but to pack their bags and set out home for England.

On the following day Thomas rode into Sens on a great white charger lent to him by Miles of Thérouanne, an Englishman by birth. His theatrical instinct had come to his aid and he had mustered a following, even if William fitz Stephen’s claim that it included a detachment of 300 horsemen, presumably lent him by King Louis, must be rejected as hyperbole. Evading Henry’s spies, Alexander Llewelyn, the archbishop’s cross-bearer, Robert of Merton, his confessor, Master Ernulf, his secretary, and another twenty or so of his clerks and attendants had made their way from Northampton or Canterbury to join him and all were found lodgings in the town.

After a preliminary interview with Alexander and some debate among the exiles as to who should be the archbishop’s advocate, Becket decided to plead his case before the consistory in person. This was an arena in which he already had some experience as Theobald’s spokesman and in which he knew he could shine; he meant to deliver a virtuoso performance.

Early the next morning, Thomas gave a full explanation to the pope and cardinals of the reasons for his flight at a conclave in the papal chamber. His actual words are recorded in a copy of a rough draft of the speech that he had put together on the previous night. ‘I lamented,’ he began, ‘that the liberty of the Church was gradually being destroyed and its rights dispersed to the avarice of princes, and I believed that the coming assault should be resisted.’ He believed that if the Church’s freedom was to be restored, then no alternative had been open to him other than to resist the king at Clarendon and Northampton, and then to flee from a ruler who had been misled by his lay barons into becoming a tyrant. Mindful of John of Salisbury’s advice, he knew that the prudent course was always to blame the ‘untamed beasts’ of the court if he could, rather than criticize Henry directly. ‘I am not surprised,’ he concluded, ‘that evil laymen have constructed such a plot against the clergy.’ What had shocked him most was the lack of support he had received from his fellow-bishops, who had been prepared to side with the courtiers. ‘Nothing of this,’ he avowed, leaving the door firmly open to a settlement, ‘should be imputed to the lord king, for he is the servant of this conspiracy rather than its author.’

Then, falling on his knees before Alexander, he spread out before him the parchment chirograph of the disputed ‘ancestral customs’ devised by Henry and his lawyers at Clarendon. ‘See,’ he said pointing with his finger to the crucial passages, ‘what the king of England has set up against the liberty of the Catholic Church.’ He read aloud the disputed customs one by one, explaining the iniquity of each in turn, after which Alexander condemned those he found ‘obnoxious’ for a second time. He also – as Becket afterwards reminded him – absolved the archbishop from his obligation to keep the customs and ‘forbade that we should ever again bind ourselves to anyone in a similar case, except saving God’s honour and our order’. A bishop, Alexander had insisted, ‘should not make any undertaking, except saving God’s honour and his order, even to save his life’.

The theatrical effect of laying out the chirograph for the cardinals to see was considerable. Several were reduced to tears at the thought of the archbishop’s ordeal. ‘They who earlier seemed to disagree about this case,’ he said, ‘were now united in one opinion that they ought to come to the aid of the universal Church in the person of the archbishop of Canterbury.’

Becket had a secret audience with Alexander and the cardinals on the following day at which he made a shorter, even more compelling speech, cutting the ground from under his opponents’ feet by admitting his faults and volunteering to resign. ‘I willingly confess,’ he began, ‘that these troubles have befallen the English Church through my own wretched fault.’

Although I accepted this burden unwillingly, nevertheless it was the will of man and not the will of God which induced me to do so. What wonder then if it has brought me to this misfortune? Yet, had I, at the threat of the king, renounced the jurisdiction of episcopal authority conferred on me as my brother bishops urged me to do, it would have been an evil precedent … I therefore delayed to do so until I should appear before you. But, recognizing that my appointment was far from canonical and dreading lest the issue should become even worse for me … I now resign into your hands, father, the archbishopric.

To the utter dismay of those of his clerks who were watching from the back of the room, Thomas then pulled the archiepiscopal ring from his finger and gave it to the pope.

Alexander withdrew to an inner chamber with his advisers, where some of the cardinals – Alan of Tewkesbury calls them ‘the Pharisees’ – strongly urged him to accept Becket’s resignation, seeing it as the best way to achieve a speedy reconciliation with Henry. Could Thomas not be moved, they argued, to a different position in the Church and another, more experienced primate appointed?

But after considering the matter at some length, Alexander rejected Becket’s offer. Summoning him before him, he said, ‘Now at last, brother, it is plain to us what zeal you have shown, and still show, for the house of the Lord, with how clear a conscience you have stood as a wall against adversity, and how pure a confession you have made since your appointment: these things can and ought to wipe away all blame of wrong.’ But while reinstating Thomas as archbishop, the pope forbade him to return to England until the dispute with Henry had been settled. Instead, as John of Canterbury had initially proposed, he was to live in seclusion with just a few of his closest friends and companions at the abbey of Pontigny, where he would have to learn to live without the affluence and luxury that he had enjoyed for the last ten years. In exile among the Cistercians, as Alexander clearly thought but did not say, he would encounter hardship and have plenty of time for quiet contemplation and reflection. With luck he would soon even see himself that reconciliation with Henry was essential for the sake of peace. Otherwise, he could be in exile for a very long time.

Set in what was then a densely forested area of northern Burgundy in the winding valley of the Serein, a tributary of the Yonne, the abbey of Pontigny had been founded in 1114 by Hugh of Mâcon, another disciple of St Bernard. Only twelve miles to the north-east of Auxerre, where Thomas had studied canon and civil law as a young clerk in Theobald’s household, it was an area he already knew quite well. After staying at the papal curia for just over a fortnight, he and a dozen or so of his followers reached the place on St Andrew’s Day (30 November), and would remain there for almost two years. It was an isolated spot, for the Cistercians sought to return to a strict observance of the Rule of St Benedict, choosing lonely sites in which to settle where they could be self-sufficient. Ideally they wished to create small islands set apart from the world, where they could worship God both as a community and as individuals, shielding themselves from the cares of everyday life. Whenever possible, they chose a deserted river valley where there was a ready supply of fresh water and firm, dry ground on which to build their large, plain abbey-church in which all pomp and pride would be avoided. Their dress was of the simplest kinds: habits of unbleached wool, vestments of the plainest white fustian or linen unembroidered. Their rituals too were unadorned: no precious metal was allowed except a few silver vessels such as chalices or incense boats for use at the Eucharist. Wall paintings, carvings or other decorations were forbidden in their churches; the windows were to be of the simplest, geometric shapes, similar in scale to those of early Gothic churches but filled with clear glass, and no high towers were to be erected.

Work on the great abbey-church at Pontigny had begun in 1140, replacing an earlier, smaller building. Some 390 feet long with a transept 190 feet long and sixty-five feet high, it was designed for several hundred monks. One of the largest Cistercian edifices still standing in France and radiantly white inside, it is a place of quiet, haunting beauty. Built of limestone brought by river and ox-carts from Tonnerre, some eighteen miles to the east, it was still under construction when Becket was there. The rectangular porch, wide nave and side aisles, where the architect achieved a perfect balance of line and light, had largely been completed by 1164, but the chancel and ambulatories with their fine ribbed vaults and monolithic pillars would not be finished until 1185. Fresh from enjoying the lavish hospitality of the papal court, Herbert of Bosham would be shocked, despite the warmth of the welcome he received from Abbot Guichard, a good friend of John of Canterbury, to find much of the place a building site, with stones and building debris lying everywhere and the living quarters unheated despite the onset of winter. John of Salisbury would not even visit Pontigny, preferring to stay in his comfortable lodgings in Paris until his lease expired and advise Thomas from a distance.

Within a week, the exiles had been found small, individual cells scattered across the conventual buildings – Herbert called them ‘little rooms in Noah’s Ark’. The majority quickly adjusted themselves to the daily routine of the monastery, but Herbert never felt that he belonged there. Following the Rule of St Benedict, the monks did not eat meat, preferring fish, cereals, vegetables, dairy products and exceptionally honey. In Lent and Advent they avoided eggs and dairy products; in winter, which they interpreted as running from mid-September to Easter, they ate only one meal a day. Abbot Guichard generously allowed his guests to vary this frugal diet, permitting them to be served meat and some other delicacies. But for Herbert, a man who enjoyed his creature comforts, everything was a struggle. Soon he was complaining that he had been ‘banished’ to live ‘in solitude among the stones and the monks’, and took himself off on a visit to Auxerre, where he cheered himself up by dining with friends and buying a fine green tunic and long matching cloak, which ‘he wore after the German fashion, from his shoulders down to his ankles, with suitable adornments’.

Becket, in contrast, seems to have regarded the privations of the cloister as the penance for his perjury at Clarendon. Never inclined to half-measures when he felt he had something to prove, he insisted on sharing the same food as the monks and undergoing the same physical and spiritual trials. He ate only vegetables and ordered the meat and delicacies laid before him in the refectory to be given to the poor. He wore a hair-shirt and monastic underclothes, almost certainly for the first time: Abbot Guichard is said to have invested him with them at a secret ceremony witnessed only by Alexander Llewelyn. Regularly saying mass and helping to sing the daily offices with the monks, he also kept vigil at night in prayer and contemplation, often rousing his confessor, Robert of Merton, at midnight with orders to scourge him, and plunging himself at daybreak into an icy stream that ran beside the workshops of the monastery. Soon he made himself ill, developing an infection that led to abscesses and mouth ulcers. Finally, he became delirious, experiencing a series of hallucinations in which he found himself pleading his case before the pope, this time with ‘the Pharisees’ attempting to gouge out his eyes with their fingers as he spoke.

At last persuaded that his abstinence was the cause of his decline, he resumed his normal diet. Herbert of Bosham led the way, artfully producing a sermon on the evils of excess and how extreme penances could be the work of the devil. And once Thomas was eating and resting again, he gradually recovered his strength and, instead of assigning himself more tasks of physical endurance, returned to his books, ‘giving himself wholly over to the study of literature and especially theology’. To this end, he made a special study of the Psalms and the Pauline Epistles, asking Herbert to prepare for him a complete edition of Peter Lombard’s Great Gloss on these books. A complete edition was needed, because Peter, once Abelard’s pupil, had died before he could finish his own and Becket knew that Herbert was the ideal man to do it. As one of Peter’s former pupils, he knew his work extremely well.

Herbert’s magnificent manuscript, in four volumes, still survives, split today between Oxford and Cambridge libraries. By the imaginative use of coloured inks and tinted line drawings, fine illuminated initial letters with the heads of lions or snakes set into them to grab the reader’s attention, his scribes succeeded in making the text attractive and accessible. Other wonderful and costly books that Thomas commissioned at Pontigny, borrowing the money to pay for them, include copies of the Gospels, the Old Testament Prophets and the Book of Isaiah. Full of coloured pages decorated with expensive, sparkling gold initials and using the purest blue pigment made from lapis lazuli, they illustrate among other things a tonsured man at a writing desk with his inkhorn, penknife and ruler; a monkey reading a book; another monkey blowing a horn beside a man playing a rebec (a three-stringed instrument played with a bow); a mysterious blue man wrestling with a lion; and a naked man wrestling with a bear.

Thomas also began a fresh study of canon law, choosing as his teacher a learned canonist of Piacenza, a man called Master Lombard, who had reputedly been with him at Northampton and followed him into exile. What emphasis he brought to Becket’s studies is not recorded, but to supplement the archbishop’s working copy of Gratian’s Decretum, he commissioned from Herbert of Bosham a de luxe edition of this classic text, perhaps the brilliantly illuminated manuscript now at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, or perhaps a broken manuscript from which important fragments survive at the Municipal Library at Auxerre and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

At Pontigny, Becket was quickly to become a connoisseur of the fine illuminated manuscripts for which its scriptorium was renowned. He had books copied from all over France, adding to those the exiles had by now recovered from among his personal possessions left behind at Canterbury. Hearing of his friend’s sudden zest for learning, John of Salisbury begged him to spend more time on the Psalms and works of moral philosophy and less on canon and civil law. He recommended St Gregory’s Moralia, a difficult commentary on the Book of Job that emphasizes the liberating nature of adversity and exile, but Thomas appears to have restricted himself to that author’s easier Homilies and potted extracts from it compiled by Garnier of St Victor. In this respect, his old habits would die hard. He did, however, buy St Ambrose’s On the Duties of Ministers on John’s advice, which gave a strong Christian emphasis to Cicero’s classic handbook of moral and political philosophy, De Officiis. And he secured copies of Seneca’s moral essays, especially De Clementia, which was dedicated to the Emperor Nero and discussed in depth how a good ruler should behave and an honest citizen conduct himself under tyranny.

The topicality of such works for an embattled refugee cannot be overemphasized. Whereas Cicero and Seneca had placed a community of good citizens at the heart of their ethical models, St Ambrose placed the Christian Church there. It followed, as Becket’s old tutor Robert of Melun had long ago argued in his lectures, that the responsibility for disciplining a tyrant on moral grounds lay with the ministers of the Church. St Ambrose had also discussed the nature of true friendship, concluding that ethically it should always give place to honesty. No man should favour his friend when he is in the wrong. Just as he ought to vindicate him when he is innocent, so he must rebuke him when he is in error. With an uncanny resonance to Becket’s current attitude to Henry, he had said that nobody can be a true friend to someone who attacks or defies the Church.

When Thomas chose to read and acquire his own copies of works like these, far more was involved than a basic desire for learning. At Pontigny and with the help of his friends, he set about equipping himself with all the books and information he thought he might need to carry on the fight against a king he had come to regard as no better than any of the biblical or classical tyrants. He meant to reinforce his sense of values, and thereby equip himself to fight his corner while simultaneously guiding his flock, for he had no intention of abandoning the charge that had been laid upon him. If Pope Alexander could govern the Roman Church from the sanctuary of Sens, then why could Thomas not govern the English Church from Pontigny?

At the very least, he was going to try. He would not let his enemies stand in his way if he could help it.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!