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William of Newburgh:
Henry II and Thomas Becket, from History of England

William was a historian of the late 12th century and he wrote this account of the conflict between the king, Henry II, and the Archbishop of Canterbury after Becket had died. This account is unusual in that it is relatively objective and favors neither party, eventhough it was written in a time in which most everyone who took sides in the matter, came down on the side of the martyred Thomas.

Book II, Chap. XVI
Before the year had expired in which the council was held, the displeasure of the king of England waxed hot against the venerable Thomas, archbishop of Canterbury, the unhappy source of the numerous and excessive evils which ensued. This Thomas was born in London; he was a man of acute understanding and competent eloquence as well as elegant in person and manner; he was second to none in despatch of business; he had been conspicuous in the service of Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury, and had received from him the archdeaconry of Canterbury, on the promotion of Roger to the see of York. But when Henry the second, on the demise of Stephen, (as it has been before observed,) succeeded to his hereditary kingdom, he was unwilling to be without the services of a man fit to stand before kings, so he made Becket his royal chancellor. Being elevated to this office, he executed it with such reputation, and gained at the same time such high regard and distinctions from his prince, that he seemed to share the government with him. Some years had elapsed in his secular services, when, behold, he was enlisted in ecclesiastical warfare and obtained, through the royal pleasure, the see of Canterbury. After a time, considering piously and sagaciously the responsibility of so high an honour, he on a sudden exhibited such a change in his habit and manners, that some observed, "This is the finger of God," [Exodus 8:19] and others, " This is a change effected by the hand of the Most High." [Psalm 76:11 Vulg] In the second year after his advancement, he was present at the council of Tours, where, as it is reported, being pricked by remorse of conscience, he privately resigned into the pope’s hands the primacy, having, as it were, received it not regularly and canonically, but by the agency and hand of the king. The pope, approving of the transaction, restored to him his pastoral office by virtue of his ecclesiastical power, and healed the wounded conscience of the scrupulous prelate. The bishops having returned from the council to their several sees, the royal and the priestly powers began to be at variance in England, and no small commotion arose concerning the prerogatives of the clergy. For it was intimated by the judges to the king, (who was diligently occupied in the concerns of the state, and who had ordered all malefactors to be indiscriminately banished,) that many crimes against public order, such as thefts, rapines, and murders, were repeatedly committed by the clergy, to whom the correction of lay jurisdiction could not be extended. Finally, it was declared, in his presence, that during his reign more than a hundred murders had been committed by the clergy in England alone. Hereupon the king, waxing extremely indignant, enacted laws, in the heat of his passion, against ecclesiastical delinquents, wherein he gave evidence of his zeal for public justice, though his severity rather exceeded the bounds of moderation. Still, however, the blame and the origin of the king’s excess in this point attaches only to the prelates of our times, inasmuch as it proceeded entirely from them. For since the sacred canons enjoin that not only flagitious clerks, that is, such as are guilty of heinous crimes, but even such as are only slightly criminal, shall be degraded, - and the church of England contains many thousands such, like the chaff innumerable amid the few grains of corn, - what number of the clergy have there been deprived of this office during many years in England? The bishops however, while anxious rather to maintain the liberties or rights of the clergy than to correct ant root out their vices, suppose that they do God service, and the church also, by defending against established law those abandoned clergy, whom they either refuse or neglect to restrain, as their office enjoins, by the vigour of canonical censure. Hence the clergy, who, called into the inheritance of the Lord, ought to shine on earth, in their lives and conversation, like stars placed in the firmament of heaven, yet take licence and liberty to do what they please with impunity; and regard neither God, whose vengeance seems to deep, nor men who are placed in authority; more especially as episcopal vigilance is relaxed with respect to them, while the prerogative of holy orders exempts them from all secular jurisdiction.

Thus, when the king had enacted certain statutes against the chaff of the holy order, that is to say, for the examination or punishment of the guilty clergy, in which perhaps (as it has been said) he exceeded the bounds of moderation, he conceived that they would be fully ratified could they be confirmed by the consent of the bishops. Therefore, having assembled the prelates, to procure their sanction by any means whatsoever, he so allured the whole of them with the exception of one, by blandishments, or terrified them with alarms, that they deemed it necessary to yield to and obey the royal pleasure, and set their seals to the enactment of these new constitutions - I say, with the exception of one, for the archbishop of Canterbury was alone inflexible, and remained unshaken by every assault. Upon this, the king’s fury became more vehemently incensed against him, in proportion as he appeared more indebted to the royal munificence for what had been given and received. Hence the king became hostile to him, and, seeking every occasion to attack him, demanded an account of everything he had formerly done in the kingdom, in his office as chancellor. The archbishop, with intrepid freedom, replied, that having discharged his secular duties, he had been completely transferred to the church by the prince in whose service he had been engaged, and that matters of bygone date ought not to be urged against him, but this more for a pretext than for truth. While the causes of the king’s anger became daily more aggravated, on the day when the archbishop was to answer at large to the allegations against him, he ordered the solemn office of St. Stephen - " The princes sat and spake against me, and sinners persecuted me" - to be duly chanted before him at the celebration of mass. Afterwards he entered the court, carrying in his hand the silver cross, which was usually borne before him; and when some of the bishops present wished to undertake the office of carrying the cross before their metropolitan, he refused, and, although entreated, he would not allow any other to bear the cross in that public assembly. The king, being already enraged beyond measure at these circumstances, had an additional incentive to his fury; for in the following night the archbishop secretly escaped, and passed beyond the sea, where, being honourably received by the king, the nobility, and the bishops of France, he took up his residence for a time. The king of England, consequently, was furiously enraged at his absence; and, giving way to unbridled passion more than became a king, took an unbecoming and pitiful kind of revenge, by banishing all the archbishop’s relations out of England. Now, though many persons indeed generally, led by fond affection, but little prudence, do approve everything done by those whom they love and commend, yet I by no means deem that these actions of this venerable man are worthy of commendation, however they might proceed from laudable zeal, - because no benefit would result therefrom, and they only the more inflamed the royal anger, and melancholy results are known to have ensued from them, - any more than I commend the actions of the blessed prince of the apostles, now at the summit of apostolical eminence, in compelling the Gentiles to Judaise after his own example, in which the teacher of the Gentiles declares him to have been reprehensible, though it is manifest that he did it from motives of laudable piety.

Chap. XXV - Of the Coronation of Henry the Third, and the murder of St. Thomas

In the year one thousand one hundred and seventy from the delivery of the Virgin, which was the seventeenth of the reign of Henry the second, the king caused his son Henry, yet a youth, to be solemnly anointed and crowned king at London, by the hands of Roger, archbishop of York. For the king not being yet appeased, the venerable Thomas, archbishop of Canterbury, was still an exile in France, though the Roman pontiff and the king of France had interested themselves extremely to bring about a reconciliation. The moment Thomas heard of this transaction, jealous for his church, he quickly informed the pope of it (by whose favour and countenance he was supported), alleging that this had taken place to the prejudice of himself and his see; and he obtained letters of severe rebuke, for the purpose of correcting equally the archbishop of York, who had performed the office in another’s province, and the bishops, who, by their presence, had sanctioned it. The king, however, continued but a short time in England after the coronation of his son, and went beyond sea; and when urged by the frequent admonitions of the pope, and the earnest entreaties of the illustrious king of France, that he would, at least, condescend to be reconciled to the dignified exile, after a seven years’ banishment, he at length yielded; and a solemn reconciliation took place between them, which was the more desired and the more grateful in proportion to the time of its protraction. While the king, therefore continued abroad, the archbishop, by royal grant and permission returned to his diocese, having in his possession, unknown to the king, letters obtained from the pope against the archbishop of York, and the other prelates who had assisted at that most unfortunate coronation; which was the means of breaking the recently concluded peace, and had become the incentive to greater rage. These letters, for the suspension of the prelates, preceded him into England; and he followed them himself, burning with zeal for justice, but God knows whether altogether according to knowledge; but it is not allowed to my insignificance, by any means, to judge hastily of the actions of so great a man. I think, nevertheless, that the blessed pope Gregory, during the slight and yet fresh reconciliation of the king would have acted with more mildness, and would have deemed it proper, (considering the time and terms of their reunion,) to have winked at things, which might have been endured without injury to the Christian faith, according to the language of the prophet, "The prudent shall keep silence at that time, for it is an evil time." [Amos 5:13] Therefore, what was done by the venerable pontiff at this juncture, I neither think worthy of commendation, nor do I presume to censure; but this I say, that, if this holy man, through rather too great a fervency of zeal, was guilty of some little excess, yet was it all purged out in the fire of that holy suffering which is known to have ensued. Therefore, although holy men are to be loved and commended by us, who are so sensible of our great inferiority, still we are not bound to love or praise them for actions, in which they either do, or have shown the weakness of their human nature; but merely, for such as we are bound implicitly to imitate. For who can say that they should be imitated in all things - when the apostle James asserts, "that in many things we offend all?" [James 3:2.] Wherefore, they are to be applauded, not in all their actions, but with prudence and caution, that God’s prerogative may be kept inviolate, in whose praises, indeed, none can exceed, how much soever he may attempt it.

The bishops, on account of the offence before mentioned (which I could wish to have remained unnoticed at the time), being suspended, at the instance of the venerable Thomas, from all episcopal functions, by the authority of the apostolic see, the king was exasperated by the complaints of some of them, and grew angry and indignant beyond measure, and losing the mastery of himself, in the heat of his exuberant passion, from the abundance of his perturbed spirit, poured forth the language of indiscretion. On which, four of the bystanders, men of noble race and renowned in arms, wrought themselves up to the commission of iniquity through zeal for their earthly master; and leaving the royal presence, and crossing the sea, with as much haste as if posting to a solemn banquet, and urged on by the fury they lad imbibed, they arrived at Canterbury on the fifth day after Christmas, where they found the venerable archbishop occupied in the celebration of that holy festival with religious joy. Proceeding to him just as he had dined, and was sitting with certain honourable personages, omitting even to salute him, and holding forth the terror of the king’s name, they commanded (rather than asked, or admonished him) forthwith to remit the suspension of the prelates who had obeyed the king’s pleasure, to whose contempt and disgrace this act redounded. On his replying that the sentence of a higher power was not to be abrogated by an inferior one, and that it was not his concern to pardon persons suspended not by himself, but by the Roman pontiff, they had recourse to violent threats. Undismayed at these words, though uttered by men raging and extremely exasperated, he spoke with singular freedom and confidence. In consequence, becoming more enraged than before, they hastily retired, and bringing their arms, (for they had entered without them,) they prepared themselves, with loud clamour and indignation, for the commission of a most atrocious crime. The venerable prelate was persuaded by his friends to avoid the madness of these furious savages, by retiring into the holy church. When, from his determination to brave every danger, he did not acquiesce, on the forcible and tumultuous approach of his enemies, he was at length dragged by the friendly violence of his associates to the protection of the holy church. The monks were solemnly chanting vespers to Almighty God, as he entered the sacred temple of Christ, shortly to become an evening sacrifice. The servants of Satan pursued having neither respect as Christians to his holy order, nor to the sacred place, or season; but attacking the dignified prelate as he stood in prayer before the holy altar, even during the festival of Christmas, these truly nefarious Christians most inhumanly murdered him. Having done the deed, and retiring as if triumphant, they departed with unhallowed joy. Recollecting, however, that perhaps the transaction might displease the person in whose behalf they had been so zealous, they retired to the northern parts of England, waiting until they could fully discover the disposition of their monarch towards them.

The frequent miracles which ensued manifested how precious, in the sight of God, was the death of the blessed prelate, and how great the atrocity of the crime committed against him, in the circumstances of time, place, and person. Indeed, the report of such a dreadful outrage, quickly pervading every district of the western world, sullied the illustrious king of England, and so obscured his fair fame among Christian potentates, that, as it could scarcely be credited to have been perpetrated without his consent and mandate, he was assailed by the execrations of almost all, and deemed fit to be the object of general detestation. Upon hearing of this transaction of his adherents, and learning the stain cast by them upon his glory, and the almost indelible brand on his character, he was so grieved, that, it is related, for several days he tasted nothing. For, whether he should pardon those murderers or not, be was sensible that people would be inclined to think evil of him. Moreover, should he spare these nefarious wretches, he would seem to have lent either daring or authority to such a crime; but, should he punish them for what they were supposed to have done not without his command, he would, on every hand, be most flagitious. In consequence, he thought it best to pardon them; and regarding equally his own credit and their salvation, he ordered them to be presented to the holy see, to undergo a solemn penance. This was done accordingly, and they, wounded in conscience, proceeded to Rome, and by the sovereign pope were ordered, by way of penance, to go to Jerusalem, where, as it is said, they all closed their lives, signally executing the appointed measure of their atonement, but of this hereafter.

Whilst almost all persons then attributed the death of this holy man to the king, and more especially the French nobles, who had been jealous of his good fortune, were instigating the apostolical see against him, as the true and undoubted author of this great enormity, the king sent representatives to Rome, to mitigate, by submissive entreaty, the displeasure which was raging against him. When they arrived at Rome, (as all men joined in execrating the king of England,) it was with difficulty that they were admitted. Constantly affirming, however, that this dreadful outrage was not committed either by the command or concurrence of their master, they, at length, obtained, that legates a latere from the pope, vested with full power, should be sent into France, who, on carefully investigating, and ascertaining the truth of the matter, should admit the king either to the purgation of his fame, or punish him, if found guilty, by ecclesiastical censure, which was done accordingly. For two cardinals being despatched from the holy see - that is to say, the venerable Albert, who afterward presided over it, and Theodinus - they arrived in France; and a solemn meeting being summoned in the territory of the king of England, consisting of prelates and nobles, they formally undertook the purgation of this same prince; there, humbly making his appearance, and firmly protesting that what had sullied his fame had taken place without his wish or command, and that he had never been so much afflicted with any transaction before. Indeed, he did not deny that those murderers had, perhaps, taken occasion and daring to their excessive fury from some words of his too incautiously uttered; when, hearing of the suspension of the prelates, he became infuriated, and spake unadvisedly. "And, on this account," said he, "I do not refuse the discipline of the Church: I will submit devotedly to whatever you decree, and I will fulfil your injunction." Saying this, and casting off his clothes, after the custom of public penitents, he submitted himself naked to ecclesiastical discipline. The cardinals, overjoyed at the humility of so great a prince, and weeping with joy, while numbers joined their tears, and gave praise to God, dissolved the assembly, - the king’s conscience being quieted, and his character in some measure restored. Richard, prior of Dover, then succeeded the blessed Thomas in the see of Canterbury.

Chap. XXXV - Of the memorable penance of the King of England, and of its consequence.

[In 1173, Henry's sons, aided by the king of France, revolted; the king of Scotland also took the opportunity to invade England from the north.  In July 1174 Henry sought divine aid against the rebels.]

King Henry the second had now come into England from Normandy, to throw the strength of his presence against his son, who was expected to arrive with the Flemish forces; but remembering how much he had sinned against the church of Canterbury, he proceeded thither immediately he had landed, and prayed, freely shedding tears, at the tomb of Thomas, the blessed bishop. On entering the chapter of the monks, he prostrated himself on the ground, and with the utmost humility entreated pardon; and, at his urgent petition, he, though so great a man, was corporally beaten with rods by all the brethren in succession. On the following night, in a dream, it was said to a certain venerable old monk of that church, "Hast thou not seen today a marvellous miracle of royal humility? Know that the result of those events which are passing around him will shortly declare how much his royal humility has pleased the King of kings." I learned this from that most reverend and simple-minded man, Roger, abbot of Byland, who, while relating it, said that he had heard it from a trustworthy person, who was accidentally staying at that very time in Kent. He who touches the mountains and they smoke, [Psalm 144:5] soon after clearly made known, by a notable proof, how much He valued hat devotion of that smoking mountain; for on that day, and, as it is said, at that very hour in which that mountain gave forth smoke at Canterbury, the divine power overthrew his most mighty enemy the king of Scots, in the extreme confines of England: so that the reward of that pious work might not seem to have followed the work itself, but rather to have attended it, so that no man might be suffered to be in suspense on this point. This prince, departing from Canterbury, hastened to London, and having sent his military forces forward against Hugh Bigot, he made a short stay there, having been let blood. When lo! in the middle of the night, a very swift messenger, sent by Ralph de Glanville, knocked at the gate of the palace. Being rebuked by the porter and the guards, and ordered to be quiet, he knocked the louder, saying that he brought good news on his lips, which it was positively necessary that the king should hear that very night. His pertinacity at length overcame them, especially as they hoped that he came to announce good tidings. On being admitted within the door, in the same manner he over-persuaded the royal chamberlains. When he was introduced into the royal chamber, he boldly went to the king’s couch, and aroused him from sleep. The king, on awaking, said, "Who art thou?" To which he replied, "I am the attendant upon Ralph de Glanville, your faithful liegeman, by whom I have been sent to your highness; and I come to bring good tidings." "Ralph, our friend! Is he well?" asked the king. "He is well, my lord," he answered; "and, behold, he holds your enemy the king of Scots, captive in chains at Richmond." The king astonished at his news, said, "Say on ;" but he only reiterated his words. "Have you no letters ?" he asked; on which he produced sealed letters, containing a detail of what had been done. The king, instantly inspecting them, leaped from his bed, and, with the deepest emotion, rendered thanks, moistened with pious tears, to Him who alone does wondrous things. He then summoned the people of his household, and made them partakers of his joy. In the morning came also other messengers, reporting the same; but only one, that is, he who had come first received the gratuity. The good tidings were immediately made public, amidst the earnest acclamations of the people, and the ringing of bells in all parts of London.

Source: The Church Historians of England. Vol. IV - Part II. Translated by Joseph Stevenson. London: Seeley’s, 1856; pp. 465-7; 478-81; 493-5.

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Reproduced by kind permission of The Medieval Source Book