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Gilbert Becket, like other merchant-pilgrims from England, may, for the sake of protection, have enrolled himself under the banner of some great Norman knight. While in the Holy Land, he had the misfortune to be taken prisoner by the Saracens, who generally made domestic slaves of the captives of their sword: Gilbert is represented as living in a state of slavery in the house of an Emir or Mohammedan chief ; but, as the romantic story goes, the fair daughter of the Emir fell in love with his handsome person, and assisted him in making his escape ; and when he was gone, finding that she could not live without him, she fled from her father's house and from her own gunny climate, to seek her lover through the unknowu countries of the West ; and knowing only two words that were intelligible to European ears, her lover's name and the name of his birthplace and home, she repeated wherever she went. “ London ! London ! Gilbert ! Gilbert !" Having, after many dangers and strange adventures, reached the English capital, she went from street to street, calling upon Gilbert, and weeping for that she could not find him. Her Eastern dress, her beauty, and her helpless condition drew crowds around her, and excited the sympathy of some good Londoners; and at last her lover was either found out for her, or he met her in the streets as she was calling his name. Such lasting and heroic love could not go unrewarded, and Becket, now a very thriving citizen, resolved to make the Syrian maiden his wife. But first she must renounce Mohammed and the Koran. She was speedily converted and baptized ; and then married to Gilbert. The story struck the fancy of the artists and illuminators, and the baptism of the fair Syrian and her espousals seem to have been delineated and repeated in a good many old manuscripts.
From this romantic marriage proceeded the great Thomas à Becket, who was born in London, in or about the year 1119. The boy was gifted with an extraordinary intelligence, a handsome person, and most prepossessing manners; and his prosperous father gave him all the advantages of education. He studied successively at Merton Abbey, London, Oxford, and Paris. In the French capital he applied himself to civil law, and acquired as perfect a mastery and as pure a pronunciation of the French language as any, the best educated, of the Norman nobles and officers.
While yet a very young man, he was employed as clerk in the office of the sheriff of London, and probably acted as under-sheriff, a post then requiring much knowledge of law, and which was in after times occupied by Sir Thomas More. While in the sheriff's office, he attracted the notice of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, a learned Norman, who had previously been prior of the great Benedictine abbey of Bec. Before this acquaintance with the primate began, the handsome and alert Thomas had become the intimate friend of a great baron who resided near London ; and with this lord he rode, hunted, and hawked, and enjoyed all the other pleasures which were then considered as a monopoly of the aristocracy. He was qualified for the military profession and the honours of knighthood, but Archbishop Theobald, who conceived a great affection for him, advised him to take orders and to continue the study of law, all lawyers and judges being at that time chosen out of the priesthood. Thomas followed the primate's advice, and went to complete his study of the civil law at the then famous school of Bologna. After profiting by the lessons of the learned Gratian, and making himself master of the Italian language, Becket recrossed the Alps, and stayed some time at Auxerre in Burgundy, to attend the lectures of another celebrated law professor. On his return to London, he took deacon's orders, and his powerful patron, the archbishop, gave him some valuable church preferment, free from the necessity of residence and the performance of any church duties. Not long after this, Theobald having some important negotiations to conclude at the court of Rome, sent Thomas à Becket to the pope as the best qualified person he knew. The young diplomatist acquitted himself with great ability and complete success, obtaining from the pontiff a prohibitory bull which defeated the design of crowning Prince Eustace, the son of King Stephen, and which most materially contributed to put an end to the long and destructive civil war, and to place the brave and accomplished Henry II. peacefully on the English throne. Becket's services were not forgotten by the Empress Matilda and the house of Plantagenet. On Henry's accession, in 1154, Archbishop Theobald had all the authority of prime minister, but being old and iufirm, delegated the most of it to the active and able Becket, who was made Chancellor of the Kingdom in 1156, being the first Englishmau since the Conquest that reached any eminent office under government. At the same time, King Henry, who was charmed with his wit, and who already preferred his services and society to those of any other man, whether French or English or of the mixed race, appointed him preceptor of the heir of the crown, and gave him the wardenship of the Tower of London, the castle of Berkhampstead in Hertfordshire, and the honour of Eye in Lincolnshire, with three hundred and forty knights' fees. His revenue, flowing in from so many sources, was immense ; and no man ever spent money more freely or magnificently, or, for that time, with so much taste. He was the Cardinal Wolsey of an earlier and ruder but more picturesque age.
His house was a palace. It was stocked with the choicest hangings and furniture, with vessels of gold and silver ; it was constantly frequented by numberless guests of all goodly ranks from barons and earls to knights and pages and feudal retainers—of which last classes he had many hundreds that were his immediate vassals. His tables were spread with the choicest viands, his cups of silver and gold were filled with the choicest wines, the richest dresses were allotted to his pages and serving men. There was a never ceasing exercise of hospitality ; his feasts were more frequent and more splendid than those of any baron in the land—they were all but equal to those of the king. Mixed with this magnificence of the twelfth century there were of course certain things which would nowadays be considered as capital wants of common comfort. The walls of the room were hung with costly tapestry, the hanging roofs were beautiful and rich, but the floors were strewed with rushes or with hay and straw like stables. Fitz Stephen the minute biographer of à Becket relates that as the number of guests was ofttimes greater than could find place at table, my Lord Chancellor ordered that the floor should be every day covered with fresh hay or straw, in order that those who sat upon it to eat their dinners might not soil their dresses. The chancellor's out-door appearance was still more splendid. Like Cardinal Wolsey he environed the office of chancellor with all possible dignity and splendour, and never went to the court without having an immense retinue with him. On his foreign embassies he travelled like a king, and perhaps with more magnificence than any king in Europe, with the exception of his own master, could have displayed. When he went on his famous embassy to Paris he took with him for his own use twenty changes of rich apparel ; and he was attended by many great barons, two hundred knights, and a host of domestics, all richly armed and attired. As he travelled through France, his train of baggagewaggons and sumpter-horses, his huntsmen and falconers with his hounds and hawks, excited the wonderment of all beholders. Whenever he entered a town, the ambassadorial procession was led by two hundred and fifty boys singing national songs; then followed his hounds, led in couples ; and then eight waggons, each with five large horses, and five drivers in new frocks. Every waggon was covered with skins, and guarded by two soldiers and one fierce mastiff. Two of these waggons were loaded with that wine of Ceres, the generous old English ale, to be given to the people of the country. One carried the vessels and furniture of his chapel, another of his bed-chamber ; a fifth was loaded with his kitchen apparatus;
a sixth carried his plate and wardrobe ; and the remaining two waggons were devoted to the use of his household servants. Some of the grotesqueness of the time entered into this splendour. After the waggons came twelve sumpter-horses, a monkey riding on each, with a groom behind on his knees. Then came the esquires, carrying the shields, and leading the war-horses of their respective knights ; then other esquires (youths of gentle birth nurtured in Becket's house), falconers, officers of the household, knights and priests; and last of all appeared the great chancellor himself, with his noblest and most familiar friends. As Becket passed from town to town in this guise the French people were heard to exclaim, “What manner of man must the King of England be, when his chancellor can travel with so much state."
At home, this exaltation and splendour of a man of the Saxon race, the son of a London citizen and trader, evidently gave satisfaction to the mass of the Euglish people, for he was to all intents their countryman, and in a manner of their own class and condition. At the same time the Angevin-born king encouraged all his pomp and magnificence, though he sometimes twitted the chancellor on the finery of his attire. All such offices of regal government as were not performed by the ready and indefatigable king himself, were left to Becket, who had no competitor in authority and no rival in the royal favour and consideration of the people. Henry and his minister lived together like brothers. According to Peter of Blois, a contemporary, who knew more of Henry than any other that has written about him, it was notorious to all men that he and à Becket were “cor unum et animam unum” (of one heart and one mind in all things). The chancellor was an admirable horseman, and expert in hunting and hawking and in all the sports of the field. These accomplishments, and a never faiļing wit and vivacity, made him the constant companion of the king's leisure hours, and the sharer (it is hinted) in less innocent pleasures than hunting and hawking—for Henry, who had married a princess of a very indifferent character for the sake of the dominions she brought him, was a very unfaithful husband, and the general licentiousness of the time was great. More than once à Becket accompanied Henry in his wars in the south of France, and at several sieges he is said to have displayed his fearlessness and activity in being the first man to mount the breach.
At the same time it is universally admitted that Becket was an able and honest minister, and that his administration was not only advantageous to his master, but, on the whole, extremely beneficial to the nation. He took a pride in protecting the quiet citizen against the violent man of war; and the experience of his father, and the things he had seen in his father's house and in the city of London in his early days, had given him a sense of the importance of trade and industry. The euvy of the aristocracy only bound him the more to the cause of the people, or of that portion of them who were free men, and who were slowly but gradually and surely forming the broad basis of our tiers état. Most of the excellent measures which distinguished the early part of the reign of Henry II. have been attributed to Becket's advice, discriminating genius, good intentions, and patriotism.
We must not look for perfect legislature in such a period, or expect to find in the twelfth the political or public economy of the nineteenth century ; but during Becket's administration internal tranquillity was restored to a country that had scarcely had a glimpse of that blessing for the space of twenty years, the baronial power was curbed, better judges were appointed, the currency, which had been alloyed and spoilt in the time of Stephen, was reformed, and trade with foreign countries was protected and encouraged. A charter was granted confirming the liberties and privileges of the citizens of London, who had valorously proved in the preceding reign their importance in the state. Fitz-Stephen says that there was
nowhere so much trade, that no city in the world sent out its merchandise to so great a distance ; that the London citizens were distinguished above all others in England for the elegance of their manners and dress, and the magnificence of their tables. There were already thirteen large conventual churches and one hundred and thirty-six parochial churches within the city and suburbs. It was in fact during this reign that London first became decidedly what Fitz-Stephen calls it, the capital of the kingdom of England. But other trading cities were rapidly rising in importance, as Bristol, Gloucester, Winchester, Chester, Dunwich, Norwich, Lyon, Lincoln, and Whitby. Great attention was paid to the commercial navy, which was entirely manned by men of the Saxon or mixed race; and the frequent use Henry was obliged to make of this shipping in conveying his troops and stores to the Continent, and in attacking maritime towns, taught him to consider the naval force of England as an important arm of its strength. The commerce of England had never been so great since the departure of the Romans as it became during the reign of Henry II. And perhaps it had not so flourished even in the best time of the Roman dominion. The enriched citizens of London lived like barons and were frequently called so; and already some of the noblest of the aristocracy contracted matrimonial alliances with them. The two races were now entirely forgetting their old animosities, were coalescing into one undivided and indivisible nation, and under the common name of Englishman they had all English feelings, and were already beginning to show a spirit of resistance to all arbitrary power, and a knowledge and love of free institutions.
64.—THE FALL OF THOMAS À BECKET
THIERRY. In the year 1164, the royal justiciaries, revoking de facto the ancient law of the conqueror, summoned before their assizes a priest who was accused of rape and of murder ; but the Archbishop of Canterbury, as ecclesiastical superior of all England, declared the summons to be null, in virtue of the privileges of the clergy, which were as ancient in the country as those of the Norman kings. He sent some agents of his own to seize the culprit
, who was brought before an ecclesiastical tribunal, publicly beaten with rods, and suspended from all office for several years. This affair, in which justice was respected up to a certain point, but in which the authority of the royal judges was entirely disregarded, gave great offence. Those of Norman descent were divided into two parties, of which the one approved, and the other severely censured the conduct of the primate. The bishops were for him, and the military men, the court, and the king were against him. The king, naturally obstinate, suddenly converted this individual difference into a question of general legislation ; and, convoking a great assembly of all the nobles and prelates, he solemnly exposed to them the numerous offences committed every day by the priests, and added that he had discovered the means of repressing these disorders by following the ancient customs of his predecessors, especially those of his grandfather Henry I. ; he asked, according to the usual form, all the members of the assembly if they did not think it right that he should revive the customs of his grandfather. The laymen replied that such was their desire ; but all the clerks, with Thomas at their head, answered : “ As far as is consistent with the honour of God, and of the holy church.” “ There is venom in those words,” replied the king in anger ; he immediately left the bishops without saluting them, and the affair remained undecided.
A few days after Henry II. called separately to his presence Roger, archbishop of York, Robert de Melun, bishop of Hereford, and some other English prelates, whose Dames by their French nature sufficiently indicate their origin. By promises, long explanations, and, perhaps, insinuations about the Englishman Becket's supposed designs against the nobles of England, in short, by several arguments which historians do not particularize, the Anglo-Norman bishops were nearly all won over to the king's side ; they promised to favour the re-establishment of the alleged customs of Henry I., who, to say the truth, had never practised any except those of William the Conqueror, the founder of the ecclesiastical privileges, and of the papal supremacy in England. The king further applied to the pope, for the second time since his dispute with the Archbishop; and the pope, compliant to excess, at once sided with him, without examining into the rights of the affair ; he even deputed a special messenger, with apostolical letters, enjoining all the prelates, and especially him of Canterbury, to accept and observe all the laws of the king of England, whatever they might be. Standing alone in his opposition, and deprived of all hope of support, Becket was forced to yield. He went to the king at his residence at Woodstock, and promised, like the other bishops, to observe with good faith, and without any restrictions, all the laws that should be made. In order that this promise might be renewed in an authentic manner, in the midst of a solemn assembly, king Henry convoked, in the village of Clarendon, three miles from Salisbury a great council of the Anglo-Normans, archbishops, bishops, abbots, vriors, eails, barons, and knights.
The assembly of Clarendon was held in the month of March, in the year 1164, John, bishop of Oxford, presiding. The king's orators made a statement of the reforms, and entirely new arrangements which he was pleased to entitle the ancient customs and liberties of his grandfather, Henry I. The bishops gave their solemn approbation to all they had heard ; but Becket refused his, accusing himself, on the contrary, of folly and weakness in having promised to observe without reservation the laws of the king, whatever they might be. The whole Norman council was in an uproar. The bishops supplicated Thomas, and the barons menaced him. Two knights of the Temple implored hini, with tears, not to dishonour the king ; ard whilst this scene was taking place in the great hall, there might be seen in the adjoining apartment men buckling on their coats of mail, and girding themselves with their swords. The archbishop was alarmed, and gave his word to observe without reservation the customs of the king's grandfather, declaring, huwever, that, not being so quick as his colleagues, he had need of time to examine these customs before he could verify them. The assembly appointed commissioners to draw them up into articles; and admitting the archbishop's pretext of ignorance, adjourned the final decision of this affair to the following day.
The next day, the ancient customs, or constitutions, of Henry I. were produced in writing, divided into sixteen articles, containing an entire system of dispositions, which were quite contrary to the earliest made by the Anglo-Norman kings, that is to say, the ordinances of William the Conqueror. There were besides, some special regulations, one of which forbade the ordination as priests, without the consent of their lord, of those who in the Norman language were called natifs or naïfs, that is to say the serfs, who were all of the indigenous race. The bishops were required to affix their seals in wax at the foot of the parchment which contained these sixteen articles ; they all did so, with the exception of Thomas, who demanded a greater delay, and a copy of the new laws to examine. But the want of the archbishop's consent did not prevent the new constitutions from being promulgated. Letters were dispatched from the royal chancery addressed to all the Norman judges or justiciaries in England, and on the continent. These letters ordered them in the