Previously on Becket's Murder
Place: Canterbury Cathedral
Becket's tomb in Canterbury Cathedral.
Had the Primate been ignorant of the King's object, it was sufficiently disclosed in the conference which followed between him and the bishops. Foliot, with the prelates who enjoyed the royal confidence, exhorted him to resign; Henry of Winchester alone had the courage to reprobate this interested advice. On his return to his lodgings the anxiety of Becket's mind brought on an indisposition which confined him to his chamber; and during the next two days he had leisure to arrange plans for his subsequent conduct. The first idea which suggested itself was a bold, and what perhaps might have proved a successful, appeal to the royal pity. He proposed to go barefoot to the palace, to throw himself at the feet of the King, and to conjure him by their former friendship to consent to a reconciliation. But he afterward adopted another resolution, to decline the authority of the court, and trust for protection to the sacredness of his character.
In the morning, October 18th, having previously celebrated the mass of St. Stephen the first martyr, he proceeded to court, arrayed as he was in pontifical robes, and bearing in his hand the archiepiscopal cross. As he entered, the King with the barons retired into a neighboring apartment, and was soon after followed by the bishops. The Primate, left alone with his clerks in the spacious hall, seated himself on a bench, and with calm and intrepid dignity awaited their decision. The courtiers, to please the prince, strove to distinguish themselves by the intemperance of their language. Henry, in the vehemence of his passion, inveighed, one while against the insolence of Becket, at another against the pusillanimity and ingratitude of his favorites; till even the most active of the prelates who had raised the storm began to view with horror the probable consequences. Roger of York contrived to retire; and as he passed through the hall, bade his clerks follow him, that they might not witness the effusion of blood. Next came the Bishop of Exeter, who threw himself at the feet of the Primate, and conjured him to have pity on himself and the Episcopal order; for the King had threatened with death the first man who should speak in his favor. "Flee, then," he replied; "thou canst not understand the things that are of God." Soon afterward appeared the rest of the bishops. Hilary of Chichester spoke in their name. "You were," he said, "our primate; but by opposing the royal customs, you have broken your oath of fealty to the King. A perjured archbishop has no right to our obedience. From you, then, we appeal to the Pope, and summon you to answer us before him." "I hear," was his only reply.
The bishops seated themselves along the opposite side of the hall, and a solemn silence ensued. At length the door opened and the Earl of Leicester at the head of the barons bade him hear his sentence. "My sentence," interrupted the Archbishop; "son and earl, hear me first. You know with what fidelity I served the King, how reluctantly, to please him, I accepted my present office, and in what manner I was declared by him free from all secular claims. For what happened before my consecration I ought not to answer, nor will I. Know, moreover, that you are my children in God. Neither law nor reason allows you to judge your father. I therefore decline your tribunal, and refer my quarrel to the decision of the Pope. To him I appeal and shall now, under the protection of the Catholic Church and the apostolic see, depart." As he walked along the hall, some of the courtiers threw at him knots of straw, which they took from the floor. A voice called him a traitor. At the word he stopped, and, hastily turning round, rejoined, "Were it not that my order forbids me, that coward should repent of his insolence." At the gate he was received with acclamations of joy by the clergy and people, and was conducted in triumph to his lodgings.
It was generally believed that if the Archbishop had remained at Northampton, that night would have proved his last. Alarmed by frequent hints from his friends, he petitioned to retire beyond the sea, and was told that he might expect an answer the following morning. This unnecessary delay increased his apprehensions. To deceive the vigilance of the spies that beset him, he ordered a bed to be prepared in the church, and in the dusk of the evening, accompanied by two clerks and a servant on foot, escaped by the north gate. After fifteen days of perils and adventures, Brother Christian (that was the name he assumed) landed at Gravelines in Flanders.
His first visit was paid, November 3d, to the King of France, who received him with marks of veneration; his second to Alexander, who kept his court in the city of Sens.
He had been preceded by a magnificent embassy of English prelates and barons, who had endeavored in vain to prejudice the Pontiff against him, though by the distribution of presents they had purchased advocates in the college of cardinals. The very lecture of the constitutions closed the mouths of his adversaries. Alexander, having condemned in express terms ten of the articles, recommended the Archbishop to the care of the Abbot of Pontigny, and exhorted him to bear with resignation the hardships of exile. When Thomas surrendered his bishopric into the hands of the Pope, his resignation was hailed by a part of the consistory as the readiest means of terminating a vexatious and dangerous controversy, but Alexander preferred honor to convenience, and refusing to abandon a prelate who had sacrificed the friendship of a king for the interests of the Church, reinvested him with the archiepiscopal dignity.
The eyes of the King were still fixed on the exile at Pontigny, and by his order the punishment of treason was denounced against any person who should presume to bring into England letters of excommunication or interdict from either the Pontiff or the Archbishop. He confiscated the estates of that prelate, commanded his name to be erased from the liturgy, and seized the revenues of every clergyman who had followed him into France or had sent him pecuniary assistance.
Continued on Wednesday, July 23rd.