Biographies & Memoirs

4. Paris

Barely had Henry’s body been embalmed at Rouen before burial at Reading Abbey than the barons were quarrelling over his plan that he should be succeeded by his daughter Matilda. She, in any case, was living in Anjou with her husband and their two young sons, Henry and Geoffrey, and was unable to move swiftly. Seeking stability and intensely suspicious of female rule, the Norman barons were still debating the merits of the rival candidates when news arrived from England that Matilda’s cousin Stephen, the man who had disembarked from the White Ship at the last moment suffering from diarrhoea, had dashed across the Channel from Wissant near Boulogne to Dover and usurped the English throne.

Landing in Kent, Stephen had ridden at high speed to London, where his supporters convened a mass meeting of the citizens to ‘elect’ him as king, saying that the kingdom was in danger ‘when a representative of the whole government and a fount of justice were lacking’. ‘Peace’ and ‘justice’ were the slogans used by Stephen’s faction, and if the author of the eyewitness chronicle known as the Gesta Stephani can be believed, the Londoners were ‘persuaded’ by a mixture of bribes and threats to choose a king who would ‘make it worth their while’.

Crowned in a great hurry at Westminster Abbey, Stephen shrewdly courted popularity by issuing a charter of liberties promising to respect all the laws and customs of the realm in force since the time of King Edward the Confessor. He had broken his oath to Matilda after Hugh Bigod, the old king’s steward and the most powerful baron in East Anglia, swore that her father had disinherited her on his deathbed. Armed with this highly spurious testimony, Stephen’s brother, Bishop Henry of Winchester, had played the kingmaker, tricking the magnates into believing that their own oaths to Matilda could be safely ignored too and brokering a deal with his fellow-bishops by which his brother, once he had been crowned, would grant a second charter at Oxford in the Church’s favour as a reward for their support.

But for all his energy and skill in capturing the crown, Stephen lacked the vision and the leadership skills to succeed. A period of risk, passion, argument and hope, his disputed reign quickly descended into failure. Many of his limitations were personal. Outwardly seeming to be generous and brave, smooth and ingratiating, capable of intense activity, inwardly he was cunning, mistrustful and of weak judgement. A stickler for protocol, valuing appearances over substance, he was too easily seduced by the trappings of power to recognize in time that England was only one part of the Anglo-Norman state.

The Church alone profited from Stephen’s usurpation, and then only at first. His Oxford charter, granted in 1136, conceded that ‘justice and power over all ecclesiastical persons and all clerics and their possessions, and over all ecclesiastical appointments, shall be in the hands of the bishops’. That, taken at face value, was a step change, for it seemed to guarantee that the Church would be free to manage its own affairs as never before. New prelates could be chosen without royal interference and would perform no act of fealty even for their lands. Restrictions on appeals to Rome were to be lifted, church councils could be summoned without royal consent and restrictions on journeys to Rome were to be suspended so that the English bishops could travel freely to meet the pope. Or so it seemed at the time.

Stephen’s honeymoon as king was brief. With Matilda and her scheming husband, Count Geoffrey of Anjou, resettling in Normandy, the rival claimants would pitch the leading baronial families against each other. And by allowing the Norman insurgency to run free for fifteen months, Stephen found that when he finally returned across the Channel with an army of Flemish mercenaries, he had lost too much ground. Holding the balance of power was Robert, Earl of Gloucester, Matilda’s half-brother, with whom Stephen had vied for the honour of being first to take his oath to the future queen. Robert was still wavering in his support, deciding whose claim to recognize, but when Stephen clumsily attempted to assassinate him, he made his choice and backed his sister.

By the summer of 1138, when Thomas Becket was staying with Richer de l’Aigle at his castle at Pevensey and out hunting and hawking with him every day, the struggle came to focus on Stephen’s perjury in reneging on his oath to Matilda. While Stephen did not deny he had taken the oath, he claimed it had been exacted by force and was, in any case, conditional: he had only promised (as he maintained) to uphold Matilda’s right ‘to the best of his ability unless her father changed his mind and named another heir’, which Hugh Bigod swore he had. To deflect attention from his perjury, Stephen spread lies that Matilda was illegitimate by canon law, saying that her mother had been dragged from the nunneries of Romsey and Wilton and forced to break a vow of chastity, whereas in reality she had merely been educated there, wearing a veil only to protect herself ‘from the lust of the Normans’, covering her head appropriately ‘with a little black hood’.

With her half-brother Robert’s support, Matilda appealed to the pope to intervene and enforce the oath. Stephen’s utterly disastrous response, beginning in June 1139, was a series of dramatic manoeuvres designed to sweep away most of Henry I’s old officials in favour of his own friends and supporters. To this end, he purged from his court and government all those bishops and bureaucrats whom he felt might oppose him, notably Bishop Roger of Salisbury, who for almost thirty years had served as a chief minister and royal troubleshooter, looting their treasure and confiscating their castles. In so doing he unleashed a civil war.

By then and just a few months before his nineteenth birthday, Thomas Becket had been sent to Paris by his worried mother, joining his fellow-students from all over western Christendom in one of the most glamorous and cosmopolitan cities in Europe. Not yet a university in the accepted sense of the word, still mainly a loose collection of individual masters and students clustering around ‘schools’ or centres of learning within the city and its suburbs, Paris had lately established itself at the top of the ivy league. The nearby schools of Chartres, Laon and Rheims were less fashionable; only those of Bologna and Salerno were equally distinguished, and at Bologna the main subject of study was law, which was not what Thomas had chosen to read. While he was in Paris, around 2,500 students would be living in the city or its environs, slightly over one-tenth of the urban population. But whatever his mother had originally planned for him, the main reason he wanted to be there was to enjoy himself, for Paris boasted an idyllic setting on the banks of the Seine and had a vibrant social scene. Restored once more to its former glory by the Capetian kings after centuries of relative neglect, the city was able to offer its students the luxuries and amenities that few others besides Florence or Venice could rival.

The ancient core of the metropolis was the Île de la Cité, an island in the middle of the Seine connected to the further banks by two stone bridges and dominated by two quarters: that of the archbishop of Paris at the eastern end, including the old basilica of Notre-Dame, where the most respected of the schools was located, and that of the king at the western end, near the modern Palais de Justice. Both king and archbishop had their sprawling palaces, courtyards and walled gardens. In between were crammed the houses of wealthy citizens, taverns and lodgings for students, and churches large and small – several with cloisters, most with towers, their bells vying with each other to be heard amid the constant bustle and rattling of carts. Not all was an earthly paradise on the Île, since the citizens complained of excessive tolls for carrying goods across the bridges and of noxious smells from household waste and from roving goats and pigs. The old Roman paving stones were pitted with potholes in which water and refuse collected, and most of the city walls had either collapsed or been cut away to create new wharves and quays. But amid the squalor was also great wealth and luxury. Slow flat-bottomed barges pulled by horses or mules delivered merchandise to the city along the Seine from Mantes and Rouen, including textiles, spices, livestock, grain, salt, wax and wines. Otherwise the river traffic included fish wherries, ferryboats and occasionally pleasure boats.

In the evenings students could gather together to discuss their lectures or to drink in the taverns (colloquially known as the ‘devil’s monasteries’), where wine was served by the pot. If contemporary satirists are to be believed, sex was often on their minds and might readily be found in the taverns or outside the city walls, where women nicknamed fillettes loitered at night. One of Becket’s sternest critics in later life, Peter of Celle, abbot of St Rémi at Rheims, who had been a student in Paris at more or less the same time, alludes to the dangers and temptations: ‘O Paris, how fit you are for seizing and ensnaring souls! In you there are nets of vices, in you the snares of evils, in you the arrow of hell transfixes the hearts of the foolish.’ The city, Peter warns, is a ‘place of delights’, where ‘pleasures abound in excess, where there is a wealth of bread and wine’. Quite so, but when he spoke of ‘pleasures’ and ‘nets of vices’, the chances are he was thinking of something other than food and drink.

Situated on the more rustic left bank of the Seine, the newest of the schools had recently overflowed into a building adjacent to the Augustinian abbey of St Victor just to the east of the walls of the city before spilling out into the hilly suburb surrounding the abbey of Ste-Geneviève. With the advantage that they were exempt from the archbishop’s jurisdiction, inspirational teachers like Peter Abelard could debate challenging new ideas here. In Abelard’s case, this also meant that his career as a master could briefly survive the scandal of his forbidden love for one of his private women pupils, the beautiful and learned Heloise, a love for which he paid a high price when she became pregnant with his child. After her baby was born, her uncle, who had already caught the couple in bed together, took a terrible revenge by having his servants enter Abelard’s room at night and castrate him.

Hardly any of Thomas’s friends while he was a student can be positively identified, perhaps because he tended to be on the defensive with strangers and was known as a bit of a loner. Everlin, later abbot of the monastery of St Laurence at Liège, would dedicate an altar to him after the murder in memory of their old comradeship in Paris. A minor German chronicler says that Ludolf, later archbishop of Magdeburg, was his pupil, but since Thomas never rose to become a master or tutor, the chronicler may have meant to say that they were fellow-students. The most intellectually gifted Englishman whose student years coincided with Becket’s was John of Salisbury, a man of extraordinary talents who would later become one of his most trusted and influential friends and advisers and be an eyewitness at his death.

Unlike Thomas, who was now as svelte as he was tall, John was physically small and fragile, but gregarious and warm-hearted. A brilliant classical scholar and vivid raconteur, he was never happier than when making light of his own learning and gossiping to his friends over a bottle of good wine. Versed equally in the liberal arts and theology, he would later go on to write a book called the Policraticus (‘The Statesman’) – the most famous treatise on statecraft and politics in the Middle Ages – which he dedicated in verse to Becket, sending a presentation copy as fast as he could to his friend. Blessed with a perfect memory, so confident was John of his mastery of the classical sources that, for sheer bravado’s sake, he once manufactured a supposedly long-lost literary text,The Instruction of Trajan, which he attributed to the Greek historian Plutarch and mischievously cited in books 5 and 6 of the Policraticus, just to see if any of his friends could catch him out.

But although John’s sojourn in Paris, which lasted up to twelve years, overlapped with Thomas’s much briefer stay, the two almost certainly never met there. Despite this, they shared a deep nostalgia for Paris. Returning there in 1164, disguised as a student while making preparations for Thomas’s possible flight from England, John would pen a wistful description of the city for his friend that he knew would strike a chord: ‘I saw such quantity of food; a people so happy; such respect for the clergy; the splendour and dignity of the whole church; the tasks so varied of the students of philosophy. I saw and marvelled at it, just as Jacob marvelled at the ladder whose summit reached to heaven, which was the path of angels going up and down.’ And ever the master of the apposite quotation, John cited Ovid: ‘A happy thing is exile in such a place as this.’

Only by first dispelling the smokescreen created by the hagiographers can we hope to discover what Thomas may have studied in Paris and whose lectures he attended. A writer who generally sticks to the bare facts, Guernes of Pont-Sainte-Maxence, whose ‘life’ of Thomas in Old French verse would appear some four years after the murder and who had sought out everyone he could find who had known Becket personally, reports that he studied chiefly in the arts course and not in theology. One of his masters is likely to have been Robert of Melun, an Englishman turned forty who had studied under Hugh of St Victor and briefly Abelard and begun lecturing in 1137, when he taught dialectic to John of Salisbury. Dialectic, the art of reasoning or ‘disputation’ by question and answer, was taught alongside rhetoric as the prelude to moral and political philosophy.

Robert was regarded as a stimulating teacher and a probing mind, even if his knowledge of Cicero – John’s favourite classical author – was sparse. Since none of his own manuscripts survive, what he taught must be worked out from his students’ notes, and if he followed the example of his own master, Hugh of St Victor, he would have made sure that his ideas were recorded accurately. Only after Thomas had become thoroughly conversant with the topics is it likely that Robert would have allowed him to begin taking notes, and even then, he insisted on checking his wax tablets every week. Like many teachers, he believed that his work came alive chiefly through the minds of his students and that rather than break fresh ground himself in any one branch of knowledge, his duty was to master and communicate all the various strands – theoretical, practical, logical and philosophical – one by one in the hope of achieving a balanced and compatible knowledge of each, from which a valid world view would emerge.

Despite his scholarly caution, Robert had an ace up his sleeve, being a rare example of a master who allowed his politics to enter the classroom. One of the earliest theorists to justify active resistance to a tyrant by the ministers of the Church, he criticized the prevailing superstition of the divine-right ruler, challenging the idea that since kings and emperors ruled in the image of God, they could do no wrong and their subjects had an unwavering duty to obey them. Said to be accountable only to God, rulers – anointed by bishops at their coronations with holy oil on their upper body and with chrism on the crown of their heads – claimed mystical, otherworldly powers like the Old Testament or Visigothic kings.

During the bitter contest over ‘lay investiture’, Pope Gregory VII had claimed that the pope alone could absolve a ruler’s subjects from their allegiance, an argument Robert set out to expand on and critique. Following St Ambrose, one of the early Church Fathers, he was prepared to defend active resistance to tyrants by the ministers of the Church on moral grounds, claiming that a bad ruler’s power comes from the devil. He offers no opinion as to the right of laymen (as opposed to priests) to resist tyrants – and Thomas had no intention yet of becoming a priest or monk. But his questioning of received wisdom and insistence that evil should not go unpunished, however powerful its perpetrators, must have made a deep impression on his young and susceptible audiences.

Other masters whose teaching may have struck a chord could not have included Abelard, who had left the schools to become a monk at the abbey of St-Denis immediately after the attack on him. Plausible candidates might include Master Alberic, Gilbert de la Porrée and Robert Pullen, another Englishman. By far the likeliest, Pullen was able to weave together the most recondite passages from Scripture in ingenious ways to support his arguments, a trick Becket would himself learn to master one day. Afterwards rising to become a cardinal and head of the papal chancery, Pullen – an ordinary man from a humble Dorset family – must have been singularly astute, and Thomas could not have failed to marvel at how such a commoner was able to elide seamlessly from a cathedral school in Exeter to the schools in Paris and onwards to a political career. Might this perhaps explain why, later and in the very same year as Pullen gained his spectacular promotion, Thomas would himself choose to enter the household of an archbishop as a trainee clerk?

Two years after Thomas had arrived in Paris, and when he was about twenty-one, a messenger came with the distressing news that his mother had died. Despite returning home at once, it is unlikely that he would have been back in time for the funeral. The best he could have hoped for was to pay his respects at her tomb and pray for her soul to the Blessed Virgin Mary, as she would have wished. Rather than resuming his studies in Paris afterwards, he stayed in London and loafed about at home. Perhaps he had never intended to finish the whole arts curriculum, but only to sample as many lectures as took his fancy. Perhaps without his mother at his elbow pushing him to study, he felt he had already heard enough and decided to drop out. Or quite possibly he found it hard to concentrate after his bereavement, since his bond with his mother had been so close.

The second of these alternatives seems the likeliest. William of Canterbury says that he decided to take what today would be called a gap year, while Herbert of Bosham, a genuine scholar reputed to be the finest Hebraist of the age, depicts him as foolish and vain. ‘He was intent,’ he says, ‘on the kinds of things that are sweet and fashionable … and so that he would stand out from the others, he cultivated clothes and an appearance more refined than those of others.’ Given the pressure to say otherwise at the time both were writing, such opinions should carry some weight.

But even had Thomas wished to continue his studies, it may have been impossible. Gilbert Becket, by now retired from trade and living on the income from the rental properties he had accumulated over the years, had seen his wealth slowly dissipate after a series of disastrous fires. One of the worst had begun in the house of a man called Ailward near St Swithin’s Lane when Thomas was fifteen. Spreading eastwards towards Aldgate and the Tower and westwards towards St Paul’s, it had wreaked havoc in Cheapside. Gilbert may just have been recovering from it when other, smaller fires broke out. He was forced to economize – may even have had to withdraw his son’s allowance. It cost £3–4 a year to support a student in Paris, a sum similar to the amount that could be secured in annual rent from several London properties, and that assumes Thomas was in France only to study, whereas he loved the good things of life and was determined to enjoy himself. With Richer de l’Aigle he had acquired tastes that his father could perhaps no longer afford, notably hunting and falconry.

And there may have been more. John of Salisbury, who while Becket’s lifelong friend was always also one of his most candid critics, says that as a younger man his character had been far from blameless. He had ‘indulged in the rakish pursuits of youth and was unduly eager to be noticed … he was proud and vain, and silly enough to show the face and utter the words of lovers’. All too aware of his readers’ expectations after his friend’s canonization by the pope, John hastily adds that ‘for chastity of body, on the other hand, he was admirable, indeed a model’ – but unfortunately John does not specify which period in his life he means. Thomas would be nearly thirty before John first met him. He could not possibly know how chaste his friend had been before then, and if, as seems likely, his ‘rakish pursuits’ had taken place in his student days or shortly afterwards when Thomas first began to learn ‘worldly prudence’, then a lot may have been left unsaid.

Truth and hagiography do not mix well and Becket’s student years would give his contemporary biographers considerable difficulty. Many of the less able students regarded lectures as drudgery fit only for swots. A student wag explains:

Learning that flowered in days of yore

In these our times is thought a bore.

Once knowledge was a well to drink of;

Now having fun is all men think of.

Did this sum up Thomas’s outlook too? By the time he left Paris, he should have been able to debate fluently in extempore Latin, but would be embarrassed by his inability to do so. Stephen of Rouen, a monk of Bec, would gleefully mock him for such failings – except as Stephen despised Becket and all his works, the remark may be a smear.

When it suited him to make an effort – whether in a crisis or because his career depended on it – Thomas, later in life, would prove that he could digest huge amounts of difficult material with remarkable speed and precision. His fellow-Londoner William fitz Stephen describes him as a weak scholar in his youth but ‘one of the most learned afterwards’. Having watched him develop intellectually after quarrelling with the king, Roger of Pontigny, to whom Thomas would tell his life story in exile, concurs: ‘He could easily grasp anything as soon as he heard it, and once he had learned it, he could recall it without difficulty whenever and as often as he wished. In figuring out difficult ideas and disentangling perplexing questions he seemed to surpass many important and learned men with the sharpness of his fertile mind.’

If we picture someone likely to become a late developer, the evidence falls into place. Becket had potential as an adolescent, but his quick ear and keen eye could not compensate for his laziness: at that stage he appears to be no more than a dilettante. Good-looking, smooth and ingratiating, he could be headstrong and a show-off. A Londoner born and bred, who considered the freedoms that he associated with civic life as a passport to get him from where he was to where he wanted to be, he had ambitions to put himself among the ruling class, most likely after encountering Richer de l’Aigle. In his twenties and early thirties he would still be little more than a charmer: verging on the gauche, lacking ideals, mingling with the great and the good, imagining himself to be a young aristocrat whereas in reality he was a newcomer and an outsider aspiring to be an insider. But somewhere along the way, he would find within himself the capacity for rigorous hard work he had always lacked. Many years would elapse between his studies in Paris and the moment when he would unlock his hidden talents, but that time was coming.

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