Biographies & Memoirs

28. Aftermath

The news of Becket’s assassination sent shockwaves throughout Europe, and at the speed that the fastest of couriers could ride. ‘Where shall I begin?’ asked John of Salisbury in a vivid and detailed narrative of the terrifying events he had seen and heard with his own eyes and ears in the cathedral, a document he circulated in multiple copies among his friends. ‘For every aspect of the archbishop’s death-agony conspires to glorify the dying man for ever, to reveal the depravity of his assailants and brand them eternally with shame.’

Accusing the three delinquent bishops, and especially Roger of Pont l’Évêque, of maliciously inciting Henry to order the murder, John was already predicting that the site where Becket had been martyred would become a notable place of pilgrimage. The palsied would be cured there, the blind would receive their sight, the deaf would hear, the dumb speak, the lame walk, those with fevers be restored to health, lepers would be cleansed, devils be cast out.

Roger of Pont l’Évêque instantly retaliated, accusing him of lying, but since rumour already had it that Roger was the main instigator of the story that Becket was ‘plotting’ to depose the younger king, on the strength of which he had advised the elder Henry to summon the great council that had tried the archbishop for treason in his absence, the moral high ground was John’s. Moreover, Roger, a fortnight before the murder in a round-robin to his own subordinates, had accused Becket in writing of behaving with Pharaoh’s pride, so he only had himself to blame when John took his revenge by circulating copies of this incriminating document even as its author was trying to suppress it, also making public the sordid details of Roger’s moral shortcomings as a sodomite and paedophile. Mud sticks, and John would ensure that Roger was pelted with bucketfuls.

Henry was at Argentan when the news reached him around 1 January. Arnulf of Lisieux, in a letter to Pope Alexander, describes the near-panic triggered by its arrival. ‘At the first words of the messenger,’ he began, ‘the king burst into loud lamentation and exchanged his royal robes for sackcloth and ashes. Mourning more, it seemed, for a friend than for a subject, at times he fell into a stupor, after which he would again utter groans and cries louder and more bitter than before.’ For three days he remained shut in his bedchamber, neither eating nor admitting visitors. He was only too aware that his taunts had inspired the four knights to commit their terrible crime; he also knew that his enemies would charge him with complicity in it. But Arnulf’s attempts to paint Henry in the colours of deep mourning for the assassination of an old friend were overblown. Horrified at the enormity of the deed and its consequences for his reputation Henry assuredly was; troubled in his conscience he was not.

In fact, he at first seems to have believed that he could brazen it out, for it would take six weeks at the least for someone to carry the news to Pope Alexander, now settled comfortably at Frascati in the Campania. Believing that his own couriers could get there first, Henry tried to exculpate himself, composing a shameless letter to the pope spinning the tale that Becket had not returned to England in a spirit of peace and reconciliation as he had promised at Fréteval, but with fire and the sword, stirring sedition, excommunicating royal servants right and left, and ‘behaving so impudently that he made some powerful enemies, who had fallen upon him and murdered him’. In short, the blame was Becket’s alone.

Yet Henry’s defiant approach, devoid of surprise at the assassination and with barely expressed grief, was a grave error. So angry and distressed would Alexander become that, for eight days, he would refuse to discuss the affair even with his own cardinals. In any case, Alexander Llewelyn, sent post-haste by Herbert of Bosham from Paris, made the journey to Frascati in record time, so that even when the fastest of the king’s envoys galloped into the courtyard of the papal villa on 3 March, they discovered that the pope had already given orders that no Englishman should be granted an audience under any circumstances, and by the time the slowest arrived on 20 March, the eve of Palm Sunday, there was still little hope of access being granted imminently.

As Maundy Thursday approached, on which day the king’s envoys feared that the pope intended to excommunicate Henry and place all his territories under a general interdict, they dramatically reversed their tactics and humbly offered, through the mediation of those cardinals most susceptible to bribery, to swear an oath on Henry’s behalf that he would submit unconditionally to the pope’s future judgement. According to a report from one of these diplomats, they ‘no longer denied that the king had given cause for the murder by uttering the words which had given the murderers their excuse for killing the archbishop’. So when Maundy Thursday arrived, somewhat mollified and doubtless more than a little relieved since, when confronted by so stark a choice, he was no more anxious than Becket had been to punish the Angevin king, Alexander excommunicated only the murderers and all their aiders and abettors, content once more to await future developments.

Meanwhile, William of Sens, the papal legate for France, had seized the initiative. ‘Of all the crimes we have ever read or heard of,’ he railed in a letter to the curia, ‘this murder easily takes top place, exceeding all the tyranny of Nero, the perfidy of Julian* and even the sacrilegious treachery of Judas.’ Reviling Henry as ‘that enemy to the angels and the whole body of Christ’, William used the powers granted to him by his existing papal commissions to reimpose a general interdict on Henry’s continental lands and begged the pope to approve it ‘that God’s honour and yours may be preserved’.

Hearing of this sentence a few days after Easter, Alexander confirmed both it and the excommunications that Becket had imposed on the three delinquent bishops before he died. He forbade Henry to enter a church or to hear mass until new legates could arrive in Normandy to hear his confession and absolve him, but stopped short of excommunicating him. As to the three bishops, he ruled that the two lesser offenders, Gilbert Foliot and Jocelin of Salisbury, could be conditionally absolved if they swore on the Gospels that never ‘by letter, word or deed’ had they incited the king to violence against his archbishop. Only Roger of Pont l’Évêque was more harshly treated: to secure his absolution he had to wait another eighteen months and employ the services of one of the most distinguished lawyers in Christendom, the same Master Vacarius whom Theobald had invited to England and who was now settled at York. But none of their careers could survive the damage to their reputations caused by Becket’s murder.

Sent as papal representatives to Normandy to absolve Henry were Cardinals Albert de Morra, Becket’s old law teacher from Bologna, and Theodwin of San Vitale, both fair-minded churchmen of excellent repute. To their surprise and dismay, Henry seemed unconcerned whether they absolved him or not, nor did he mean to hang around in Normandy, for even as he approached the age of forty, he could neither rest nor settle in one place. Barely had the cardinals set out across the Alps when he took ship at Milford Haven in south Wales with a large army destined for Ireland, determined to subject the native Irish kings to the authority of the English crown on the death of his old ally Dermot MacMurrough, king of Leinster.

Summoned by the papal envoys to return to Normandy in February 1172, he used such familiar excuses as the long distance, bad weather and the uncertain perils of the Irish Sea to delay his departure until his campaign was all but completed and the Irish kings (or most of them) had come to offer him their fealty. When at last he met the envoys in May, initially at the Cistercian monastery of Savigny, he stormed out after refusing to submit to their unconditional judgement despite his earlier promises to obey them. If he was to be forced to submit to the Church, he said, he expected to be told first exactly how, where and on what terms. But when he had cooled down, a settlement was agreed in only two days by which a ceremony of absolution would take place on 21 May outside the cathedral of Avranches, with a second performance at Caen on the 30th. This was to be ratified by the publication of an official ‘charter of reconciliation for the death of the blessed Thomas’, which was to be sealed by Henry and the papal envoys, with copies sent to the papal curia and to some (if perhaps not all) of the primates in Europe to ensure maximum publicity.

After Henry had knelt before the pope’s representatives in front of the cathedral, they absolved him and led him inside. It was a rare capitulation on his part and the reason is simple. He had no choice. Despite this, he insisted on maintaining his royal dignity, refusing to observe many of the customary rituals used on these occasions, such as walking from the gates of the city to the cathedral in penitential garb or taking off his shoes, nor was he scourged by monks.

Like the delinquent bishops, he first had to exonerate himself from complicity in the murder by swearing a solemn oath with his hands on the Gospels, declaring that he had ‘neither ordered nor willed’ Becket’s death, adding spontaneously for the benefit of his listeners (and possibly said in a back-handed way) that ‘he grieved more for it … than for the death of his own father or mother’. But, as the papal envoys had insisted, he confessed that he had himself been the principal cause of the murder: not that he had expressly ordered it (as an eyewitness reports his words), ‘but that his friends and retainers, seeing his angry face and his burning eyes … made ready, without his knowledge, to avenge his wrongs’.

Henry’s reconciliation to the Church did not come without strings. He had to promise first to allow all future appeals from the church courts to the papal curia without licence or other restrictions. ‘They will,’ he promised, ‘be permitted freely and in good faith, without fraud or trickery.’ Only if it could be proved at the outset that an appeal was malicious could he ask the appellants to give security ‘that they will seek no wrong to me or disgrace to my kingdom’. He then agreed to ‘abrogate utterly the customs that were introduced against the churches of my land during my time’. Although, inevitably, he continued to pretend that no such ‘novel’ customs existed – ‘I reckon them to be few or none,’ he said afterwards – the Church would force him to back down over criminous clerks as well as appeals to the pope. Once again he simply had no choice.

Subsequent clauses of the official ‘charter of reconciliation’ required him to make full restitution to the church of Canterbury and to the exiles, restoring everything that they had possessed a full year before Becket had gone into exile and not merely three months before, as he had previously offered. He was to grant an amnesty to all the returning exiles and was to perform certain acts of prayer and fasting which were kept confidential to spare his honour. He was to maintain a contingent of 200 knights for the defence of Jerusalem for a year, the costs to be assessed by the Knights Templar, and to take the cross himself by the following Christmas, staying for at least three years and departing for the Middle East by the summer of 1173 unless excused by the pope. Lastly (and something he always wanted to forget) he swore an oath of allegiance to ‘Pope Alexander and his Catholic successors’. According to the ‘charter of reconciliation’, it said, ‘You have sworn that you will not withdraw from the lord pope Alexander and his Catholic successors as long as they regard you as a Christian and Catholic king like your forebears.’

During the repeat ceremony at Caen, the junior King Henry was brought centre stage and compelled to accept terms similar to his father’s, swearing oaths denying his culpability in Becket’s murder and to Pope Alexander and his successors, and promising to allow appeals to the pope, to abrogate the offending ‘customs’ and make restitution of its property to the Church. Possibly he also did the same at Avranches – for it appears that the intention was always to bring him over from England in time – but the exact date of his arrival is uncertain. The repeat ceremony at Caen may have been conducted chiefly to ensure that he too was securely bound into the settlement. The pope did not want the hard-wrung agreements to lapse when the younger king took over.

Herbert of Bosham later claimed that some of the offending practices would still be observed regardless of Henry’s oaths. But while the precise boundaries between the jurisdictions of Church and State would continue to be disputed on an almost infinite number of points of detail until the Tudor Reformation, the concessions wrung from Henry meant that Becket (and Pope Alexander) had finally gained their main aim. If Henry’s project had all along been to cut off the English Church from the incursions of papal authority and canon law by creating a regional church under royal control, enclosed within the ring fence of the coast, and with himself as the final court of appeal, he had failed abysmally.

Henry was also forced to make good on the amnesty he had granted, even allowing Becket’s relatives to return home. The dead archbishop’s eldest sister, Agnes, and her family recovered their land and position in London, and in 1173 Henry grudgingly made Mary, Thomas’s youngest sister, abbess of the great nunnery of Barking in Essex. A year later he granted their sister Rose a pardon and provided her and her two sons with an annuity of ten marks as alms. And in 1179 he allowed the Christ Church monks to present Agnes’s son, John, to the vicarage of Halstow in east Kent and his cousin John, Rose’s son, to the living of St Mary Bothaw, a parish tucked away in a narrow lane within a stone’s throw of the family’s old house in Cheapside, London. Becket would surely have appreciated that very much.

Such concessions apart, the idea that Henry was ever truly penitent is romantic and absurd. When Bishop Hamo of Saint-Pol de Léon, one of his sworn vassals, was assassinated in Brittany in January 1171 at the behest of his elder brother Guihomar, Henry would take strong and speedy reprisals – but only because it suited him to do so, marching into Brittany, annexing the most important of Guihomar’s castles and destroying the rest. The Norman chronicler Robert of Torigni cheekily makes no direct reference to Becket’s murder in his annal for 1170, reporting Hamo’s in its place and only later inserting verses referring to Thomas in the margin of his manuscript.

But if Henry hunted down Hamo’s killers, he did very little to Becket’s, at least at first. After sharing out their spoils at Saltwood, the four knights retired to one of Hugh de Morville’s castles at Knaresborough in Yorkshire, where they hunted with impunity in the royal forests and were entertained by sheriffs and royal constables. Only after Pope Alexander excommunicated them did the consequences of their terrible deed begin to catch up with them. William de Tracy showed some remorse by confessing his sins to Bartholomew of Exeter, his local bishop. He then went to Rome to seek absolution, briefly visiting Henry’s court at Argentan before beginning his journey, where the king urged all four knights to seek penance from the pope.

Of course, advising the knights to obtain absolution from the Church in no way prevented Henry from severely punishing them himself had he wanted to. He did not: when prominent churchmen advised him to act, he simply ignored their advice or made feeble excuses. Such was his warped sense of justice, he took the view that if Becket and the Church had chosen to claim jurisdiction over criminous clerks, it was up to the Church to punish criminous laymen who had murdered or injured priests – they could not have it both ways.

Or at least that was his view until it suited him to think differently about it, for, almost exactly as John of Salisbury had predicted, a cult grew up around the tomb of the murdered archbishop with breathtaking speed. The cathedral was reopened to visitors during Easter week in 1171, and on 21 December, Becket’s birthday and a week before the first anniversary of the murder, the services resumed when, in response to eager public demand, the monks – unwillingly at first – opened up the crypt where the dead archbishop’s body was interred. No sooner had they done so than miracles began to occur.

Stemming initially from the hero’s welcome accorded to Becket on his return from exile, the popularity of his cult came to focus on the blood and brains that Ernold the monk had scooped up from the paving stones. Even when diluted heavily with water, they were said to perform legendary acts of healing, requiring the secondment of one, then two of the Christ Church monks as full-time guardians of the shrine.

Soon operating on a fully commercial basis, the shrine quickly built up a lively trade in what turned out to be inexhaustible supplies of watered-down blood known as ‘the water of Canterbury’, a liquid said to be so potent, it was able to perform up to as many as ten cures a day. Sold first in small wooden boxes lined with wax, the liquid leaked out so easily that the boxes were soon replaced by small phials moulded out of tin or lead which could be worn loosely around the purchaser’s neck on a chain or piece of twine.

To match the pilgrims’ rising expectations, the monks boxed in the original plain stone coffin by covering it with a heavy marble slab and surrounding it with marble side walls, held together with iron rivets and sealed with lead, to create an elaborate tomb monument. Holes were carefully positioned in the sides of the tomb, allowing pilgrims to insert their heads and kiss the coffin before they purchased their souvenirs, a move that could occasionally backfire, as when a man called Edward from Selling in Kent managed to slither his whole body inside the monument and lie with his head next to the martyr’s feet and his feet next to the head. The monks feared they would have to dismantle the entire edifice to get him out, but fortunately he managed to wriggle free.

Naturally given the cash cow that had so unexpectedly come their way, the monks petitioned Pope Alexander to canonize Thomas as a saint, which he swiftly did, issuing the necessary decree at Segni on Ash Wednesday 1173. After that, the shrine’s fame was unstoppable. At first it had attracted chiefly paupers and priests, rather than the affluent. This began to change in 1172, when the junior King Henry visited the tomb in an attempt to show he was his own man, deliberately seeking to score points off his father by marketing himself as a defender of the liberties of the Church. His visit became his cue to quarrel with his father: crowning his eldest son in his own lifetime would turn out to be one of the worst decisions of the elder Henry’s reign. Tall, blond and charming, the younger man was also vain, idle and a spendthrift. His father had unwisely encouraged his regal aspirations, giving him his own royal seal and the title ‘Henricus Rex’ and even sometimes waiting upon him at dinner, serving his food and wine, but denying him power, leaving him smouldering with discontent and resentment.

After his eighteenth-birthday celebrations in 1173, the younger Henry demanded to control the lands and revenues settled on him at Fréteval, and when his father refused, he countered that it was his father-in-law, King Louis, who had suggested it. The youth was playing with fire. Quickly escalating into a threatening revolt, the clash drew in Eleanor, her younger sons, Richard and Geoffrey, and a significant proportion of the baronage, all of whom sided with the junior Henry, triggering a civil war joined by King Louis, the king of Scots and Count Philip of Flanders, who circled the scene like vultures, hoping to dismember the Angevin empire and divide it among themselves.

By the beginning of July 1174, Count Philip had been defeated on the battlefield, but with Normandy under siege from the French, with Aquitaine, Anjou, Maine and Brittany still in turmoil, and with much of northern England, the Midlands and East Anglia ravaged by revolt or invasion, the elder Henry landed at Southampton and ordered his courtiers to prepare to ride to Canterbury. Struggling to fight on multiple fronts, he found that he needed the charismatic power that could come only from his association with a canonized saint and St Edward the Confessor was not good enough. Since he could not compete with the newly-emerging Becket cult, Henry knew he would now have to join it.

On Friday 12 July, after dismounting at a leper hospital two miles outside the city, he put on penitential clothes beneath his cloak – a woollen smock, says Gervase of Canterbury; a green smock over a hair-shirt, says Guernes of Pont-Sainte-Maxence – and set out on foot for the chapel of St Dunstan immediately outside the walls, where he took off his shoes and walked barefoot to the cathedral. There, in the presence of his dumbfounded courtiers and the monks, he knelt before the tomb in the crypt and repeated his earlier confession that his ‘incautious words’ had been the principal cause of Becket’s murder. Then, after placing four marks of pure gold and a silk covering on the tomb, while pledging to endow the cathedral with enough land to pay for candles or oil lamps to illuminate the shrine in perpetuity, he removed his cloak, leaned forward and placed his head inside one of the holes in the marble walls. He was then lightly scourged (probably with rods of birch or elm bound together in a bundle), receiving five strokes each from the bishops present and three from each of a hundred or so Christ Church monks. Afterwards, he stayed motionless in prayer and fasting before the tomb, keeping vigil until Saturday morning, when he attended mass and joined in a conducted tour of the many side-altars, tombs and other relics kept in other parts of the cathedral.

With so many strokes delivered, Henry’s scourging cannot have been severe and was more symbolic than real. The public humiliation was, however, the same, which for a royal penitent was the true penalty. And the dividends were immediate, for miracles, as it now seemed to all the world, could really happen at the shrine of St Thomas Becket. On this same Saturday, perhaps even while Henry was still in the cathedral, the unlucky king of Scots was ambushed in a meadow near Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, in the early-morning mist and captured, an event triggering the collapse of the revolt in England. On the Continent, it took Henry until the end of August to regain control, but he comfortably managed it with the aid of a large force of mercenaries, obliging King Louis to sue for peace.

After that, it would be only a matter of time before his unruly sons fell into line, although they would continue to stir up trouble for him until the younger Henry died from dysentery in 1183, when yet another succession crisis propelled his surviving children into a rebellion against their father and a war against each other, allowing him no peace until his death in 1189 at the age of fifty-six. Eleanor, whom his forces had intercepted in 1173 as she attempted to flee to join the rebels disguised as a man, he never forgave. Blaming her more than their sons for instigating the civil war, he set about airbrushing her out of history, taking as his mistress Rosamond Clifford, for whom, if the colourful fourteenth-century chronicler Ralph Higden is to be believed, he built a luxurious villa and pleasure garden at Woodstock designed around a spring from which the water ran through a series of rectangular pools surrounded by cloistered courts. Eleanor, by early 1174, was back in England, taken under close guard to Salisbury, where she was imprisoned, if in modest luxury, for over ten years. The fact that Henry could do this to his wife meant that, psychologically, it would have been well within his capabilities to have done the same to Becket had his own agents reached Canterbury (as he had originally planned) to seize Thomas before he could be killed by the four knights.

The one genuine shift in Henry’s attitude after his reconciliation to the Church was to the four knights themselves. Whereas earlier he had left it to Pope Alexander to punish them, now he sought them out himself in subtle, increasingly punitive ways. When William de Tracy returned home from the papal curia to settle his affairs after receiving a sentence of fourteen years in exile in the Holy Land, he found portions of his Devon estates and other lands he held in Maine to be mysteriously forfeit to the crown. Taking the hint, he made his way to Sicily to find a passage to the Middle East. Hugh de Morville would be next at the papal curia, followed by Reginald fitz Urse and Richard Brito. According to one of the Canterbury monks, Henry had ordered them to lie low in Scotland, but if they did actually go there, they were quickly expelled on pain of hanging. Their infamy ensured that, without Henry’s protection, there was nowhere for them to seek asylum.

By the eighteenth century, a Jesuit scholar could report that all four knights had ended their days as hermits in Flanders, while in Devon and Gloucestershire rumour had it that William de Tracy’s ghost haunted the land. As late as 1986 an eminent medievalist could claim that Hugh de Morville had died in his bed in 1202 at Burgh by Sands in Cumberland after marrying a rich widow. All such tales are false. The four knights had arrived in the Holy Land by Easter 1173, where, reports the Italian chronicler Romuald of Salerno, they visited Jerusalem barefoot and in hair-shirts, giving alms to the Templars and the Lazarites for distribution to the poor. Before Romuald wrote his account in about 1182, all four had died, probably at a place known as the Black Mountain near Antioch, where ‘they had spent out their lives in fasting, vigils, prayers and lamentations’. As their extraordinary notoriety required, they were buried before the gate of the Temple in Jerusalem as an example to others. Sometime in 1190 or 1191, the chronicler Roger of Howden visited their graves and recorded their epitaph, carved in stone: ‘Here lie those wretches who martyred the Blessed Thomas, archbishop of Canterbury’, words still perhaps legible until the city walls were rebuilt by the Ottoman Turks on the orders of Suleiman the Magnificent between 1537 and 1541.

For the chroniclers as much as for Becket’s earliest biographers, it was an edifying and suitable end.

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