Biographies & Memoirs

5. A Fresh Start

After a year in which Thomas did relatively little, he took a job as a clerk with one of the citizens of London, a relative named Osbert Huitdeniers (or Eightpence). A banker rather than a merchant, Osbert had succeeded Gilbert Becket some years before as one of the sheriffs of the city. William fitz Stephen believed that rather than working for Osbert personally, Thomas had entered the municipal government of London as a clerk and accountant to the sheriffs, but since Osbert’s term of office as a sheriff had only just expired when Thomas joined his staff, this discrepancy is easily explained. Osbert’s background is shadowy, the nature of his banking operations unknown, but along the way he had built connections to the royal court. Thomas worked for him for two or possibly three years, acting as his secretary and keeping his accounts.

These were tumultuous years in London’s history and the citizens would play a crucial role in the story. The civil war had escalated dramatically while Thomas had been in Paris, as his mother had feared it would. On 30 September 1139 Matilda had landed in Sussex with her half-brother, Robert, Earl of Gloucester. She went into hiding at Arundel Castle under the protection of her stepmother, Queen Adeliza, while he slipped away to Bristol to muster an army. On 2 February 1141, after more than a year of extensive if inconclusive fighting, they defeated and captured Stephen at the battle of Lincoln, imprisoning him in Earl Robert’s fortress at Bristol, where at first he was allowed the freedom to walk within the walls, but was afterwards kept in chains.

Seeing Stephen delivered into the hands of his rival by the god of battles, Henry of Winchester promptly changed sides. At a church council at Winchester specially convened on 7 April, he proclaimed Matilda to be ‘Lady of England and Normandy’ and began preparations for her coronation. Meanwhile, her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, took his opportunity across the Channel, beginning a guerrilla war that only ended three years later when the Norman barons capitulated and invested him as their duke. Seeking to win official recognition of his ducal title from the new French king, Louis VII, as speedily as possible, Geoffrey was to adopt the drastic but totally effective expedient of ceding to him a large tranche of the old Norman Vexin, including the stronghold of Gisors.

But Matilda’s plans suffered a setback for which the Londoners claimed the credit. When she arrived at Westminster at Midsummer 1141, on the eve of her planned coronation, the citizens rallied. Just as she was sitting down to a banquet in the belief that she had triumphed, the bells rang in the city and the Londoners came out of their houses armed to the teeth ‘as swarms of wasps issue from their hives’. The whole city flew to arms, forcing Matilda and her supporters to flee. Like everyone else, the citizens had been wavering in their allegiance to Stephen, but he had bought back their loyalty, recognizing the city as a ‘commune’ and granting it a whole raft of privileges equivalent to those of a northern Italian free city. Soon a Norman bishop could be found saluting ‘the glorious senators, honoured citizens, and all of the Communal Concord of London’. Since these ‘senators’ included all the current and former sheriffs, Gilbert Becket and Osbert Huitdeniers would have ranked among them. Both are very likely to have been among the civic dignitaries sent to demand such generous concessions from Stephen.

Much of this had happened about the time that Thomas’s mother died, so he would have learned the inside story on his return. The citizens had accepted Stephen’s offer because Matilda had insisted that they pay a large arbitrary tax or benevolence. When the sheriffs had begged her to abandon or reduce it, she had flown into a rage, ‘refusing to spare them in any respect or relax her extortion by the smallest amount’. Her ‘mask of reasonableness’ had come off and ‘with piercing eyes, her forehead wrinkled into a scowl, every trace of a woman’s gentleness obliterated from her face, [she] erupted into an unbearable fury’. Ignoring the advice of her councillors, she had berated the Londoners, accusing them of opening their purse-strings wide to succour her enemies.

That was just the citizens’ side of the story. Is it equally possible that Matilda had merely tried to counter London’s opposition to fair taxation with the masculine firmness they had previously accepted from her late father? If so, she miscalculated, creating the impression that she was arrogant and unwomanly. Her apparent unwillingness to take advice, her excessive and unconstitutional demands and her use of emotive language had convinced the citizens that she was a tyrant and that their allegiance should be returned to Stephen. When Henry of Winchester made the same choice, switching back his loyalty to Stephen as easily as he had swung round earlier to Matilda, she had no alternative but to abandon her efforts to be crowned, returning with Earl Robert to Oxford to rally her forces all over again.

Riding to Winchester in late July at the head of her troops, she planned to repay the turncoat prelate for his treachery. But within six weeks she was encircled and defeated, with her half-brother among the prisoners, cancelling out the advantage she had gained at the battle of Lincoln. Without the aid of superior forces, she could never hope to win another victory, so the two sides agreed to exchange prisoners. Stephen was swapped for Earl Robert, but the result was a stalemate.

Then in December 1142, after over a year of inaction and at more or less the same time as Thomas Becket went to work for Osbert Huitdeniers, Stephen’s army laid siege to Oxford and Matilda, trapped in a high tower, was let down at night with ropes and forced to flee on foot across the snow. One thing she would never lack was courage. Accompanied by a small escort and wearing white cloaks as camouflage, her party crossed the frozen Thames and walked eight miles through enemy lines to Abingdon before riding to Devizes in Wiltshire. But still neither side had sufficient forces to inflict a lasting defeat on the other.

Over the next three years, the fighting would be concentrated south of the Thames and in the corridor between Winchester and Bristol. Stephen and his Flemish mercenaries pursued a ‘scorched earth’ policy in the districts controlled by Matilda, and with both sides resorting to acts of terror, the Londoners’ trade was badly affected. If the Peterborough chronicler is to be believed, ‘Christ and his angels slept.’

Every powerful man built him castles and … filled them with devils and wicked men. Then both by night and day they took those people that they thought had any goods – men and women – and put them in prison and tortured them with indescribable torture to extort gold and silver – for no martyrs were ever so tortured as they were. They were hung by the thumbs or by the head, and corselets were hung on their feet. Knotted ropes were put round their heads and twisted till they penetrated to the brains. They put them in prisons where there were adders and snakes and toads, and killed them like that. Some they put in a ‘torture-chamber’ – that is in a chest that was short, narrow and shallow, and they put sharp stones in it and pressed the man in it so that he had all his limbs broken.

Thousands died of starvation, while the survivors ate grass or roots or killed their horses or dogs for meat. And neither Stephen nor the barons stepped back from sacrilege. When unable to pay their troops, they allowed them to loot churches and monasteries and evict the clergy from their lands.

The young and impressionable Thomas Becket must have been following these harrowing events closely, since in later life he would reflect on them in a letter to Earl Robert’s son, Roger. Describing his father as ‘loyal, prudent, magnanimous and constant’, he praises the earl’s bravery at the battle of Lincoln, when he defeated Stephen and ‘threw him into prison in chains’. What impresses him most is Robert’s determination to honour his sacred oath to his half-sister. ‘So much did he disdain the caprices of fortune, through his faith and virtue,’ he says, ‘that he did not fear to risk any peril in order to make good his religious oath, and finally, after capture, preferred to be imprisoned than allow his sister and his lady to suffer loss of her right.’

A cautionary note should be sounded since by the time Becket wrote this account, in May 1170, Roger had risen to become bishop of Worcester and was one of Thomas’s key sympathizers in his own struggle with the king. Becket’s sentiments appear to be genuine, but came at a moment when he particularly relied on Roger’s support. When he wrote his letter, he would himself be railing against a tyrannical king and his benchmark would not be Matilda, for all her wrangling with the Londoners, but Stephen, whom he depicted as a tyrant whose early affability and concessions to the Church and the Londoners would be wiped out in a trail of blood and destruction. And yet, irrespective of how far he crafts his story to make it seem more palatable to its recipient, his letter proves that he knew the events of the civil war inside out.

Sometime in 1145 Becket would make one of the most critical choices of his entire life. Clearly finding his duties as Osbert’s secretary too humdrum, he opted for a fresh start by joining the household of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury. Typically he got this second chance through influence rather than his own merits. His new employer had been born close to Gilbert Becket’s family home in Thierville, near Bec Abbey, and the two men may have been distantly related. Two brothers from Boulogne, Archdeacon Baldwin and Master Eustace, both friends of Theobald, lodged with the Beckets whenever they visited London. Seeing Thomas obviously underemployed, they suggested he seek out the archbishop’s preferment. Visiting him at his manor of Harrow, a few miles north of London, Thomas was quickly offered a post as one of his ten or so clerks – to his evident surprise, since the archbishop’s staff included some of the ablest scholars in the country. A variant of the story is that one of Theobald’s officials, who also used to stay in London with Gilbert, had marked Thomas out and urged him to speak to the archbishop. After a brief conversation, Theobald was so impressed by his charm and intelligence that he offered him a job on the spot. Edward Grim identifies this intermediary, calling him ‘the clerk with the hatchet’ or ‘hatchet man’. And among Theobald’s staff, there was indeed a marshal, a commoner called ‘Baillehache’, who appears as a witness to one of the archbishop’s charters.

Elected as archbishop in 1139, when he was approaching the age of fifty and at a time when Stephen’s authority was already crumbling, Theobald, like his two most distinguished predecessors, Lanfranc and Anselm, had built his career at Bec Abbey, where he had been prior and later abbot. Matilda, taking after her grandfather the Conqueror, was a generous benefactress of the abbey and asked to be buried before the high altar there in her will. Stephen, on the other hand, had little or no connection with the place and does not seem to have known anything of Theobald before he was recommended to him by a visiting papal envoy.

When in 1141 the civil war had first become deadlocked, Theobald had declared himself neutral, winning adherents on both sides. Honest and devout, practical and sure-footed, his long experience in the ways of the world had taught him to measure carefully his responses to the bullying tactics of his superiors. With his inferiors he could be far less benign. Impatient, even brutal with his Christ Church monks when they formed cabals to undermine his authority, he happily likened them to dogs. Never much of a scholar himself, but a generous patron of learning, he spared no expense in equipping his circle of high-flyers with a library regarded as one of the finest in the whole of Christendom. Becket was fortunate to be admitted to his inner circle and once there must have found it a struggle to keep up. William fitz Stephen makes no attempt to hide the fact that, in comparison to those around him, ‘Thomas was not so well learned.’ The gold standard would be set by John of Salisbury, who joined the archbishop’s household in 1147, two years after Thomas, arriving with a letter of recommendation from no less a luminary than St Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux.

Theobald’s one significant vice was that he was prone to nepotism. Not content with appointing his brother, Walter, to the lucrative senior post of archdeacon of Canterbury, he would employ his own nephews in a variety of junior positions. Such influence was typical of the age and clearly suited Thomas. Scarcely could he have survived for very long without it in such an intellectual hothouse – this not least because the archbishop’s clerks were expected to work as a team. Suppressing ambition as far as they could, they were meant to be collegial and mutually supportive, whereas Thomas was naturally competitive, flamboyant and hungry to succeed. Under normal circumstances his character and temperament might have ruled him out, but the stalemate in the civil war gave him a unique opportunity, obliging Theobald to become as much a politician as a pastor. Although lynx-eyed and far-sighted, the archbishop lacked confidence as a negotiator and was a weak public speaker, whereas Thomas – already conquering his stammer – was a natural communicator, making up in silver-tongued oratory and deft footwork for what he lacked in learning.

Soon Becket’s quick reactions and easy, winning manner had become as invaluable to his new employer as John of Salisbury’s genius for drafting letters. ‘The archbishop,’ says Prior Robert of Cricklade, who knew him well, ‘was a simple man, somewhat quick of temper, and not as wary of word, if his mind was stirred, as the rule of meekness utmost demandeth.’ Sometimes he could be either too blunt or too rash; at other times too easily cowed by the powerful into understating his case. ‘Against either failing Thomas setteth his good will and wisdom in such a manner that, if in any matter the [arch]bishop happened to wax wrath, Thomas giveth forth answers all the meeker … on the other hand, if the speech of the archbishop happened to fail him … [he] hastened to succour him, and clothed it in clerkdom in such a way that at once the discourse appeared like a text with a fair commentary to it.’

If it seems surprising that an archbishop would select Thomas as his spokesman, it is worth remembering that a religious vocation was unnecessary for the role. Theobald’s clerks were not priests, even if the upper parts of their heads were shaved (or ‘tonsured’) to create a circular patch on the crown like those of the clergy and monks. When Becket returned to London to visit his father or sisters and walked along Cheapside, he might momentarily have been confused with a priest. But to take up his new post, he was at most ordained as a sub-deacon and far more likely as a reader or acolyte, the lowest degrees of orders, which meant he was not bound to celibacy or any other religious vow and could not assist at the altar or in the sanctuary beyond reading the Epistle, lighting or bearing candles, or carrying the offertory at the mass. As far as the clergy were concerned, he was little more than a glorified altar boy, and would not be ordained even as a deacon until he was granted a church living or archdeaconry.

That he moved away from London on entering Theobald’s service is certain, for just like the king’s, the archbishop’s household perambulated between his palace at Canterbury and nearby castles at Saltwood and Rochester and his many manor-houses in Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Middlesex. The archiepiscopal estates were huge, mostly concentrated in east Kent but scattered widely across southern England, and it was possible for Thomas to ride from London to Canterbury without straying from them more than a mile or two. Shortly before 1100 Anselm had acquired the use of a comfortable manor-house at Lambeth, on the south bank of the Thames, convenient for the royal palace of Westminster and the abbey on the opposite bank. But Lambeth was not yet the archbishop’s habitual place of residence: more often he would lodge at Harrow or Croydon when he needed to be within riding distance of London.

No longer was Thomas’s world that of his fellow-Londoners, citizens, merchants and their families and employees, but one of bishops, clergy, church courts and their officials. Besides his fellow-clerks, his immediate colleagues included the archbishop’s cross-bearer, a chancellor, two monk-chaplains, a butler, a dispenser, a chamberlain and a steward. Below stairs were a master cook, an usher, a porter, a marshal and numerous minor functionaries such as grooms, purveyors, janitors, bakers, carters, washerwomen and carriers – the last moving the archbishop’s coffers from place to place and at Christmas and Easter delivering his traditional gifts of hens and eggs. Since Theobald was an important feudal landowner, he also needed a treasurer, an auditor and several receivers to collect his rents, as most of his estates were not cultivated directly but leased out to farmers.

Elements of Becket’s character would gradually emerge from the way he dealt with his fellow-clerks. Two of them, Roger of Pont l’Évêque and John of Canterbury, had been recruited to Theobald’s staff at roughly the same time as he had. Both, like him, were clever and ambitious, and both would come to play important parts in his story, although along profoundly different lines. No sooner had the three newcomers found their feet than they made a mutual pact to advance each other’s interests. And since one of them was normally on duty, little or nothing escaped their gaze. But after a few years, realizing that Thomas was becoming Theobald’s favourite and the man he relied on most, the other two became jealous. Roger would soon turn into a dangerous rival, telling tales and twice orchestrating Thomas’s suspension from his duties. But on each occasion Becket came back fighting. An instinctive politician, he spotted – and ruthlessly manipulated – Theobald’s partiality for his own relatives, persuading Walter the archdeacon, who like himself adored hunting with hawks and dogs, to intervene with his brother to reinstate him.

Over the next nine or so years, Thomas Becket would come to witness – and in part help to shape – a fundamental change in the relationship of king and archbishop that would influence him for the rest of his life. Exploiting his political talents to the full, he was about to become a mover and shaker; a man who could exude disruptive energy and had a clear vision of change shaped by the stalemate in the civil war; a man privy to the quarrels of kings, barons and popes; a courtier and diplomat navigating his way around Rome, Paris and elsewhere.

But before his new career could fully take off, he had to learn the craft of an archbishop’s right-hand man, which meant serving an apprenticeship in the usual way.

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