Feast Day of St Thomas Becket – December 29 #ThomasBecket

Feast Day of St Thomas Becket – December 29 #ThomasBecket

This is from 1215 and All That: A very, very short history of Magna Carta and King John

A lowborn cleric

Significantly, Clause 1 of Magna Carta starts by stating ‘that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired’. Central to the conflict of this age was the relationship between the Plantagenet monarchs and the only being more powerful – the Almighty.

It rather goes without saying that during this period the Catholic Church held enormous sway in western Europe, and kings were wise to keep it on side; moreover the respect shown by royalty was generally not just cynical politics. Henry II was a devout man, despite his fidgeting during Mass, and when he swore on his eyes, he expected to go blind if he broke his oath.

Under the Normans, the Holy See had gained greater control over English affairs, but even back in Saxon times the Crown had been obliged to pay an annual fee to the Pope, called ‘Peter’s Pence’ (after the first pontiff, St Peter). With large amounts paid by the Crown and people to the Church, many bishops had become rich and powerful – and were hugely resented.

The Church was more than just a religious institution, and rather like a government in itself. It ran vast areas of life that the state would now consider its problem: schools, hospitals and relief of the poor especially. And, unlike the staid world of the Crown, where positions were inherited and only changed hands at the point of the sword, the Church accepted men of all backgrounds. Within it, a man could even rise up the social ranks, providing he had a decent education, although admittedly finding a good school in the catchment area was a difficult task for the typical twelfth-century serf. And wealthy families often ensured one of their own got a prize job (an illegitimate son of Henry II became Archbishop of York, the number two position in the English Church).

But all this power made the clergy unpopular to some, especially as everyone was expected to hand over a share of their income – a tithe (literally, tenth) – to the Church, a payment that was routinely avoided, and by many accounts considered socially acceptable to do so.

And, human nature being what it is, sometimes the clergy didn’t live up to their own exacting standards. Monks denied themselves meat, as they were supposed to, but they had started to define this as only freshly cut meat from the bone; therefore bacon was technically sort of ok, and they could also eat ‘umbles’, sheep entrails (heart and liver) cooked in breadcrumbs. (Since this was considered far inferior to other dishes, someone forced to eat ‘umble pie’ was seen as suffering an inferior position). Monks were also only allowed wine on feast days, although every third day was a feast day, so they could still easily consume well above the government recommended daily limits and keep their vows.

The Church’s rules against working on holy days also caused resentment. One story from the 12th century has a Londoner being reproached by a priest for labouring on the feast of St Erkenwald, an obscure figure who most people even then had never heard of. The man replied, in a tirade that sounds like something from modern talk radio: ‘You lot grow fat and soft with idleness, you don’t have a real job, your life is just a game or a play. And then you go and bring in some Erkenwald or other to justify your idleness. When we’ve made a bit of money then we have a holiday, and a good time dancing and singing. You keep your festivals, your mouldy old tunes and your Erkenwald to yourselves. Leave us alone.’ … And next we have Barry from Harlow, who wants to talk about immigration.

Despite our image of medieval people living in a world of superstition, abject terror and haunting Gregorian chants, there was also a surprising amount of non-belief. Peter of Cornwall, prior of Holy Trinity, Aldgate, complained in 1200: ‘There are many people who do not believe that God exists, nor do they think that the human soul lives on after the death of the body. They consider that the universe has always been as it is now and is ruled by chance rather than providence.’

The king wasn’t among them, but the biggest problem, as far as he was concerned, was the ‘Benefit of Clergy’, whereby churchmen were tried in religious rather than state courts. Although the earliest surviving record of clerical courts suggest that a large proportion of these were for sex offences, this does not mean it was a land populated by amorous Friar Tuck-types feasting on ale and ogling wenches, since most of these wrongdoers weren’t even priests. Technically a cleric included anyone in Minor Orders, including clerks, doctors and lawyers and almost any literate person (as well as priests and other churchmen in Major Orders). So they weren’t necessarily men of the cloth, just men who worked for the Church, and who were expected to shave the crown of their head, renounce facial hair, colourful clothes, weapons and pubs. All of these people could claim Benefit of Clergy, and by the end of the 13th century there were 40,000 ordained men across England, one in 25 of the adult male population.

The Benefit of Clergy plea evolved so that eventually anyone able to show proof of literacy could use it to mitigate their sentence, and even as late as 1613 it cropped up when two men were convicted of burgling the Earl of Sussex’s house. The judge passed down his sentence: ‘the said Paul reads, to be branded; the said William does not read, to be hanged’. Fifteen years earlier the playwright Ben Jonson had used the technicality to escape serious punishment after killing a man in a duel in Hoxton. The part of the Bible people were expected to recite – Psalm 51 – therefore became known as ‘the neck verse’ because it would save you from hanging.

During Henry’s time there were four especially scandalous cases that angered the king, among them one of a cleric in Worcestershire who had raped a girl and stabbed her father; all he got was lifelong penance in a monastery, which outraged public opinion. Despite such deplorable cases of injustice, Pope Gregory VIII said that clergy were immune to layman’s law, and so they could not be prosecuted in ordinary courts.

Henry had a different view of the relationship between Church and state. When the Bishop of Chichester said in his presence that only the pope could hire and fire bishops, Henry replied: ‘Quite right, a bishop can’t be deposed’, and then, gesturing with his hands, added, ‘but he can be ejected with a good shove.’ Henry once sent a note to the monks of St Swithin’s Priory, stating: ‘I order you to hold a free election; nevertheless I forbid you to elect anyone save Richard my clerk’.

This was all a big problem for Henry, so the king thought he could solve it through cronyism. Thomas Becket was about the least likely person to be put in charge of the Church, being a nouveau riche merchant’s son with brains and ambition. He had become a knight and then a clerk, his financial skills helping him climb the corporate ladder, and he also did well financially out of Henry’s various small wars on the continent. Like any cockney (the word, from the term cock eggs, i.e. rotten eggs, emerged in late medieval times), Becket was extremely flash about his appearance, wearing the finest clothes and jewellery; he even kept a pet monkey and some wolves, which he trained to hunt other wolves.

Through his work Becket had become the king’s boozing pal, though their friendship had a macho rivalry to it that, were it shown in a gangster film, would obviously suggest things would end violently. They were once seen wrestling over Becket’s coat as the royal carriage went through London, after Becket had pointed out a poor man’s coat-less condition and the king suggested he give him his. The king won, but then kings tended to.

So when Archbishop Tedbald of Canterbury died in 1161, Henry could think of no one better suited to the job of leading the nation’s spiritual heath than his old cockney wheeler-dealer friend. Becket was quickly ordained a priest, and the following day, made Archbishop.

But if Henry thought he would have a pliant yes-man working for him, he was sadly mistaken – his worldly buddy turned into a bigger pain than previous archbishops. To the king’s fury, Becket refused to allow clerics to be tried like laymen, and this came to a head in 1163 when the Canon of Bedford was accused of murdering a knight. The canon refused to recognize the court and gave the judge an insulting brush-off, which the judge reported to the king.

Becket would not help try the canon in court, and he had also begun to show disturbing signs of actually taking the job seriously, shouting ‘whoremonger’ at the king’s assistant (who, to be fair, was a sort of pimp, his job being to find his boss mistresses), and publicly disavowing luxury. He even started wearing a rough goat’s hairshirt infected with lice, a sign of extreme piety and, stranger still, began to walk around with a massive crucifix around his neck. Becket’s enormous ego grew larger, a condition reflected in his personal copy of the Bible, which had a picture of himself below that of Christ. The king’s cunning plan had completely backfired.

With their relationship in tatters, the archbishop attempted to leave the country in 1164, leading Henry to ask ‘Don’t you think the country is big enough to hold both of us?’ But later that year the king expelled him, and Becket spent the next six years in France, no longer on speaking terms with his old friend and with no sign of reconciliation in the air. Becket must have had an inkling that it would not be a happy ending; in November 1166 he dreamed that four knights were murdering him. Well, as they say, sometimes dreams do come true.

While intermediaries tried to bring the two together, the king grew impatient; in 1170 he needed an archbishop around because he was desperate for his eldest son, Henry, to be crowned (wary of what happened when Henry I died, the king wanted his heir ready as co-ruler). The king made the Archbishop of York, England’s second most senior priest, do the honours, and he blocked all ports, so any disapproving message from the pope couldn’t reach him (like putting your fingers in your ears and shouting ‘la-la-la’, but on a very large scale).

When the two enemies met on July 22, 1170, at the ill-named site of Traitor’s Field by the Loire, they hugged and made up. But then Henry told Becket about the coronation performed without him, and the archbishop exploded in a rage, his mood worsened by the extremely uncomfortable hairshirt underwear he now insisted on wearing.

Becket returned to England later that year, but on Christmas Day 1170 he again slammed the king from the pulpit of Canterbury Cathedral, throwing a candle to the floor and saying of those who had taken part in the coronation: ‘May they be damned by Jesus Christ!’

When he heard this Henry was naturally furious, and went on one of his many rants, but he never said, ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’, as he is commonly misquoted. What he actually shouted was the much angrier: ‘What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and promoted in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a lowborn cleric?’ Four young knights in attendance, eager to impress the boss, rode to the Channel to confront Becket at Canterbury. The men, led by Reginald FitzUrse (literally ‘bastard son of a bear’), were severely hungover by the time they arrived in England the following day, and having picked up another 12 men on the way, were pumped up for a fight.

When they arrived at the cathedral, Becket, with characteristic tact and diplomacy, shouted ‘Pimp!’ at FitzUrse. Insults were traded, and the ensuing horseplay had obviously got way out of control by the time one of the knights sliced off the top of Becket’s head, his blood and brains spilling all over the cathedral floor. ‘That escalated quickly’, as the saying goes.

Understandably the nation was shocked. Archbishops weren’t supposed to be murdered, especially not in cathedrals, and by the king’s men. Rather than going to ground for a couple of months and then reappearing in public to say he was ‘ battling his demons’ or citing his father’s lack of love, in those days public figures who messed up were expected to wear sackcloth and have themselves whipped in public, which is exactly what the king did at Canterbury Cathedral – five from each of the dozen bishops in attendance and three from each of the 80 monks. The murderers were sent off to the Holy Land to do penance, a virtual death sentence anyway, and some of them didn’t even make it that far. The king was also ordered to go to Jerusalem, but after repeated promises and procrastination, eventually the matter was dropped.

Becket was quickly canonised, to the smirking cynicism of his contemporaries. His main enemies, the bishops of London and York, who’d long wished him dead, took the lead roles in his canonisation. ‘An ass he always was, and an ass he’ll always be,’ was the Bishop of London’s strictly off-the-record view.

But whether he deserved his sainthood, and whatever effect the murder had on the roles of church and state, it certainly turned Canterbury into a first-rate tourist resort, with every sort of Becket gimmick now on sale, including Canterbury Water, a mixture of normal water and the saint’s blood, which was supposed to cure blindness and heal cripples, and T-shaped badges showing Thomas on his ship returning from exile.

All sorts of miracles were attributed to the site: there was ‘Mad Henry’ of Forthwick, who came out of the tomb sane; a blind woman who touched her handkerchief into the martyr’s bloody eyes and dabbed it on her own, restoring her sight; and another blind woman who, while visiting the shrine was run over by yet another blind person on horseback, and had her eyesight restored after praying to Becket (no one commented on the fact that a blind man was allowed to wander the kingdom on a horse).
So, tragic though Becket’s death was, it was a huge boost for the city, which now vied with some of Europe’s top religious sites as a centre for mystical nick-nacks. You couldn’t buy that sort of publicity. Even though demented radical Protestants destroyed most of the tat four centuries later, there are still 45 boxes of the Archbishop’s relics floating around today.

What do you think?

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