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singing Te Deum.* Multitudes of men and women crowded around him to bless God for his return. Yet the king not only refused to see him, but sent him an order to return to his diocese. He obeyed, but unhappily took an escort of five lances, which gave occasion to a report that he was making military expeditions through the country. Christmas was now come. The archbishop preached on that day from the words, "On earth peace, good-will towards men," which, oddly enough, was a favorite text with him. Some of his clerks happening to make mention of St. Elphage, the martyr of Canterbury, the archbishop remarked, "We may perhaps have another before long."
The excommunicated bishops, meanwhile, had sent to him to demand absolution. The terms on which he was willing to grant it might have been complied with, but for the interference of the Archbishop of York, who had only been suspended. "My coffers," he said, "still contain eight thousand pounds, thank God! and I will spend every farthing of it in beating down Thomas's insolence." Abandoning, therefore, all thoughts of peace, the bishops hastened into Normandy to join the king. The news of Becket's proceedings had gone before them. The king was in just the humor to lend a ready ear to their complaints. One of them, while he declined to counsel his Majesty, artfully added, "So long as Thomas lives, you will never enjoy one day's tranquillity." This was enough to bring on one of Henry's wildest fits of rage. With flashing eyes and a disordered countenance, he exclaimed, “A curse light upon all the false varlets that I have maintained, who have left me so long exposed to this insolence from a priest, and have not attempted to relieve me of him!" Four of these varlets took him at his word, and posted to the coast with all speed.
* Dr. Giles (Vol. II., p. 302) adds this note: "This was when the population of London was about 300,000; at present there are nearly 2,000,000 of people in London; are there 3,000 scholars?" We will not presume to answer this sapient question. But we wonder on what authority he relies for his statistics. Peter of Blois, a contemporary of Becket, sets down the population of London at 40,000. This may be too low. If Dr. Giles adopts Fitzstephen's assertion, that the militia of the city amounted to 60,000 foot and 20,000 horse, a palpably extravagant one, he must reckon the total population at half a million at least.
This was not the only occasion on which Henry had suffered such expressions to escape from him. Three years before, he had called his nobles "a set of traitors, who had not zeal nor courage enough to rid him from the molestations of one man."
The king called a council of barons, and laid before them the conduct of the archbishop. One of these rude advisers spoke very plainly of a halter and the gallows. Another darkly alluded to a pope who had been murdered for his insolence. It was resolved that men should immediately be sent to arrest Thomas. But the four knights had the start. They had arrived, on the 28th of December, at Saltwood castle, the residence of Becket's inveterate enemy, Randolf de Broc. Having spent the night in arranging their plans, they set out the next day with a train of twelve attendants for Canterbury, and immediately on their arrival proceeded to the palace of the archbishop. They entered the palace-hall, and having sent word to the archbishop that they wished to see him, were admitted to an inner chamber, to which he had retired with his clerks after finishing the afternoon meal. They seated themselves without saluting him; and when he greeted them, returned his salutation with abuse. At length, Fitz-Urse, their leader, told him that he brought him a message from the king, to the effect that he should leave his dominions with every thing belonging to him. Becket replied, "No one shall again see the ocean between me and my church; I did not come back to run away again." Passionate words passed on both sides, and the knights left him with scoffs and threats. The archbishop followed them to the door, with the words," Here shall you find me; here will I await you."
The murderers, having armed themselves, soon returned; but finding the doors barred, they went round by a private entrance, and began to hack down a wooden partition which was in their way. The monks, hearing the noise of the axes, urged the archbishop to pass into the church. He refused, until he learned that vespers were about to be chanted; and even then lingered, as if afraid that he should miss the crown of martyrdom, if he took shelter under the sacred roof. The ruffians followed, and entered the church; for the archbishop would not allow the doors to be bolted. He might easily have fled, as several of his clerks had already done. But his choice was made. It was evening, and the knights, not knowing in what part of the church he was, cried out, "Where is Thomas à Becket, traitor to the king and kingdom?" No reply being made, they called out," Where is the archbishop?" At these words, he came down the steps
which led to the altar, and answered, "Here I am; no traitor to the king, but a priest of the Lord; what do you want of me?" and walked towards the altar of the Virgin. Following him, they exclaimed," Absolve those whom you have excommunicated." He replied, "The Pope has excommunicated them; and I will not absolve them." "Then you shall die, as you deserve." "I am ready to die for the Lord; but do no injury to any of these, whether clerks or laymen." After having tried in vain to drag him from the church, Fitz-Urse, provoked by a sharp retort, waved his sword over Becket, as he commended himself to God and the Virgin, and dealt him a mortal blow on the head. His accomplices, following up the stroke, soon completed the work. A fifth associate, named Robert de Broc, who had been excommunicated but a few days before, placed his foot upon the neck of the martyr, and mangled the body in a shocking
Such was the Passion of St. Thomas of Canterbury." The assassins now left the church, crying, as they went, "For the king! For the king!" They did not forget, in their zeal for the king, to rifle the archbishop's palace and stables of all they could lay their hands on.
Meanwhile, the fatal news had spread through the city, and the people crowded in great numbers to the church. The poor pensioners of the archbishop's bounty threw themselves on his mangled body, and kissed his hands and feet. Some brought phials, and filled them with his holy blood. Others tore their garments and bathed the shreds in it. The monks kept watch that night around the body. The next morning, they were driven by the threats of the De Brocs to hurry the burial, for fear that the corpse would be seized and thrown to the dogs. With maimed and hasty rites they placed the body of their murdered father in the crypt of the cathedral, in a tomb in which never man had been laid. For a while they kept the place concealed with great care, till the fame of the martyr made it a holy and a precious spot.
The report of this horrible tragedy reached full soon the ears of King Henry, and was received with undisguised dismay. He put on sackcloth, and shut himself up for three days in his chamber, where he would take no food. Sometimes he would burst into loud lamentations, and then sink into a stupor of grief. He might well be confounded. For,
even if he had had no immediate hand in Becket's death, he knew that the world would not hold him guiltless, and he could not deny that his intemperate passion had been the occasion of the impious deed. It was something to have to face the curses and contempt of Christendom. It was more, to a prince of Henry's character, to find himself exposed in a tenfold degree to all the evils which he had feared from his enemy while he was yet living. The dead martyr was a far more formidable foe than the live archbishop. Only one course was now open to the king. He must make his peace, at every sacrifice, with the church. Humiliating, indeed, it must have been for this proud monarch to purchase the forbearance of the Papal court by the abandonment of those very constitutions which he had so stoutly and angrily maintained during an harassing struggle of six years. But he was reduced to it. Within six months after Becket's death, he took a solemn oath before the legates of the Pope, that he had never commanded or wished that Becket should be put to death, and that, when he heard of the murder, he rather grieved than rejoiced. He also swore to renounce the unlawful statutes of Clarendon, to make full restitution to the church of Canterbury, to send a company of knights to the Holy Land, and, if need were, to undertake a crusade in person against the infidels in Spain. The bystanders were doubtless highly edified by the meek demeanour of this mighty king. The cardinals, when they heard him say, "My lords the legates, I am wholly in your hands, and shall do whatever you tell; I will go to Rome, to Jerusalem, or to Saint Jago, if you wish it," were probably too polite to remind him of a complimentary remark of his, some three or four years before," I hope to God I may never set eyes again on a cardinal.”
The pious contemporaries of Becket dwell with much complacency on the miserable fate of his assassins. They set out, as the story goes, for the Holy Land; and all, within the space of three years, "most miraculously and undoubtedly" perished. The worthy chroniclers, however, deserve credit for a charitable acknowledgment of their "real and fruitful penitence."
For a year after Becket's death, the Canterbury cathedral was left defiled and neglected. No service was celebrated at the altar, and no care was taken to efface the marks of
the murder, or to cleanse the church from the dust of the thousands of feet by which it was visited. That portion of the consecrated edifice in which the archbishop was slain is called to this day "the Martyrdom"; and a semicircular projection at the upper end of the building is known by the name of "Becket's Crown." The miracles of the new martyr soon began to be noised abroad; the blind received their sight, the maimed were made whole again, and even the dead were raised. The court of Rome soon became sensible of the expediency of giving Saint Elphage a companion in the calendar. A bull of canonization was accordingly issued in 1173, rather more than two years after the martyrdom, and Thomas à Becket rose at once to the first rank among the English saints.
Dark days, meanwhile, fell upon King Henry. The coronation of his son, that measure on which he had set his heart, puffed up the mind of the prince and made him his father's rival. Family quarrels and parricidal wars seem to have been the destiny of the Norman race of kings. Henry's last days were embittered by the rebellion of his sons; and it was almost in the act of cursing one of them that he breathed his last. He had, however, long before, made his peace with the martyr. It must have been with a strange conflict of emotions that he presented himself barefooted at the shrine of Saint Thomas, and offered his back to the scourges of the monks. The pious credulity of the age acknowledged, in the signal victory which his army that day gained over the Scots, the seal of reconciliation.
Thus ended one of the most remarkable controversies in the history of Europe. The church was indeed victorious, but Becket was the Curtius who threw himself into the gulf to secure that victory. Henry lost the day, because the time was not ripe for his purposes. So long as the Pope was acknowledged as the head of the church, the strife, however adjusted in this instance, must have recurred. If Henry had conquered in this struggle, it would not have rescued his son John from the grasp of Innocent the Third. Henry was right in theory, but Becket, though wrong in the abstract, was practically right. The state still needed the church, and was too weak to declare its independence; nor was it till after the lapse of three centuries and a half, that a king of England dared, by subjecting the church to the throne, to make all rivalry between them impossible.