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Chapter Two of Backgrounds to Chaucer, Peter G. Beidler, Lehigh University


2. Thomas Becket

It is impossible to understand the motivation for pilgrimages to Canterbury without understanding something of the life--and the death--of Thomas Becket. Born in 1118 in London, Thomas was the first native-born Englishman in a hundred years to be named the Archbishop of Canterbury, primate of the mother church of all England. His avenue to that position of importance may seem a strange one to us.

After being educated in London schools, young Thomas went abroad to study something like "the law," probably as preparation for an administrative career in government, court, or church. After Thomas had put some years of service in a merchant's business, his father prevailed upon an old friend, Theobald, who had been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, to find a place for his son Thomas. Theobald did so, and Thomas quickly proved his abilities as an administrative assistant in managing the various business affairs of the cathedral.

At the death of King Stephen in 1154, the 21-year-old Henry II was crowned. Determined to rule strongly, the young king asked Archbishop Theobald if he could recommend an able administrator. Theobald recommended Thomas, then in his mid-thirties, and Henry named Thomas his chancellor. Originally hired to be little more than a kind of super-secretary, Thomas hit it off so well with the new king that he was soon Henry's principal adviser and friend, one of the two or three most influential men in England. He accompanied the king on several military expeditions and was his trusted emissary on several important diplomatic assignments.

When Theobald died in 1161, Henry decided that he wanted Thomas to become archbishop. He thought that Thomas would, by serving both as the king's chancellor and as archbishop, join the powers of church and state firmly in the grip of the king. Thomas was reluctant, in part perhaps because he had come to enjoy the pomp and perks that went with civil power. In the end Henry prevailed, and he persuaded both the pope and the monks at Canterbury to accept Thomas as archbishop. That they ultimately did is not as surprising as it may seem, for Thomas had taken minor orders earlier, and was known and respected by several of the religious personnel at the cathedral. Also, they thought that, by being so friendly with the king, Thomas might use his influence to advance the cause of the church. Thomas was consecrated as archbishop in 1162.

Thomas took his new duties seriously and soon had made the transition from the business of civil administration to the business of saving souls. Because he took the latter seriously, it was inevitable that he should ultimately find himself in some conflict with Henry. To avoid the most obvious manifestations of that conflict, he very soon decided that he must give up being Henry's chancellor so that he could properly devote himself to his new duties. Henry was displeased, but could not force Thomas to remain as his chancellor.

The most serious conflict between the two strong-willed men arose over the question of who had judicial authority over errant churchmen. As king, Henry claimed the right to try all civil crimes in lay courts and to have these courts determine guilt and assign punishments. As archbishop, Thomas insisted that ecclesiastical courts had the right to try all clerics, for these clerics answered ultimately not to the king but to the pope. In arguing his case, Henry said to one bishop: "You, on behalf of the pope's authority which is given him by men, fancy that you can strive with your clever subtleness against the authority of the royal power which has been given me by God." Those were remarkable words from a remarkable king, and they left little room for compromise. The king did not always win. For example, when a certain clerk in the Wooster diocese was accused of raping a young woman and murdering her father, Henry insisted that the man be brought to trial in a lay court. Thomas, however, ordered the bishop not to release him. The bishop in this case, even though he was a relative of the king, decided to obey the archbishop instead.

Attempts to settle these jurisdictional questions were not successful, for neither man would back down on the basic issue. To punish Thomas for his lack of obedience, Henry began to demand from Thomas sums of money which he had given him in earlier days when Thomas was his chancellor. Thomas, saying that those sums were gifts offered as compensation, refused to pay, and rumors were rampant that the conflict would result either in Henry's imprisoning Thomas or in Thomas's asking that the pope excommunicate Henry. In the end, Thomas fled to France and stayed there in exile for six years.

During those six years several attempts at reconciliation were made, but with little success. Meanwhile, another cause for argument arose. Henry decided that, because he himself was abroad so much, he should have his eldest son Henry proclaimed king, both to assist him in the duties of the kingship and to assure the succession of the throne to his son. Now, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as head of the English church, always officiated at royal coronations. Because Thomas was in exile, however, Henry called in the Archbishop of York to do the proper honors, assisted by two bishops. Thomas, outraged by this open insult and threat to the traditional primacy of Canterbury as the mother church of England, secured from the pope a suspension of the Archbishop of York and excommunications for the other two bishops, reserving to himself the right to set these actions in motion at his own pleasure.

Thomas and Henry met in France and made one last--and somewhat successful--effort to reconcile their differences. Some accommodations were made, and Thomas agreed to return to England. He did not, however, tell Henry about the suspension and the excommunications.

In December of 1170, Thomas set sail for England, having sent the documents ahead to the Archbishop of York and the two bishops, all three of whom were then in Dover. The documents enraged the three men, who took the matter immediately to the king. Enraged himself at the audacity of Thomas's actions, Henry proclaimed--or muttered--in the presence of a number of his knights, "Will no one free me of this wretched priest?"

Four of his knights took him at his word. Apparently without Henry's explicit direction, and perhaps without his consent or knowledge, they decided to rid their king of his recalcitrant archbishop. They hastened to Canterbury. Thomas learned from his monks that his pursuers were at hand, but refused to hide or to lock the doors of the church. The four knights soon found Thomas and demanded that he withdraw the suspension and the excommunications. Thomas refused to do so until proper satisfaction had been made. The knights said that he must do so, or die. Thomas replied that he was ready to die for his Lord. One of the knights grabbed him. Thomas called him a pandar and a madman, and shook him off. Thomas then bowed his head as in prayer, commending his cause to Mary and to the martyr St. Denis.

The knights struck Thomas with their swords. Thomas received two severe sword-blows to the head and fell to the ground. A third blow of the sword not only cut off the top of Thomas's skull, but broke the sword. When they saw his brains splattered on the church pavement, Thomas's assailants took their hasty leave. Henry was horrified when he heard the news. He wept at the messenger's report, then went into seclusion for several days. He refused to eat, full of grief and horror at what had happened and at his part in his friend's murder. He was ultimately to make a personal pilgrimage to Canterbury to do penance. The last half mile or so he walked barefoot, clad in a simple woolen garment, and prayed before the tomb of Thomas for a full day and a night. Then he submitted to lashes from the prelates and the monks in the cathedral.

Meanwhile, Thomas became the most revered figure in England. Immediately after his death certain miracles were reported. A blind man who came to the cathedral, for example, had his eyes touched with the martyr's blood and regained his sight. A paralyzed woman drank some water in which a piece of Thomas's bloody garment had been rinsed, and was immediately cured. Other miracles, both in the cathedral and far away, were reported and ascribed to the influence of Thomas. Almost immediately the visits to his tomb began, by people from all classes and occupations. Within a few years Thomas was proclaimed a saint, and for the next several centuries his tomb was the destination of vast numbers of pilgrims, from all parts of England and from across the channel as well. The holy blissful martyr--Englishman, soldier, priest, and saint--symbolized for medieval Christians the manliness, goodness, grace, and mercy that were possible for them all. Three centuries later Chaucer's countrymen--including his king--were making frequent and devout pilgrimages to Thomas's tomb. They went in search of a cure for physical or spiritual illness, in search of guidance, in search of peace.

  • Primary source: C. Eveleigh Woodruff and William Danks, Memorials of the Cathedral and Priory of Christ (London: Chapman and Hall, 1912).

Chapter Two of Backgrounds to Chaucer, Peter G. Beidler, Lehigh University

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