Saints and Heroes to the End of the Middle Ages - George Hodges



The story of St. Martin and his cloak was repeated one day—with a difference—in the streets of London.

The king and the chancellor were riding together in the cold winter, when they saw, in the way ahead of them, a poor man coming down the road, hugging his tattered coat about him, shivering in the bitter wind. "Do you see that poor man?" says the king. "Yes, I see him," says the chancellor, "he is very cold." "He shivers," says the king, "his clothes are thin and ragged. Would it not be a kind and Christian act to give him a warm cloak?" "Indeed, it would," says the chancellor, "and it is mighty good of your Majesty to think of it." So they came up with the man, and stopped their horses, and the king said: "Friend, you seem very cold; would you not like a thick warm cloak about your shoulders?" And the man, who knew them not, and doubted whether the words were meant in jest or earnest, answered that a thick warm cloak would be a comfortable thing to have. "Then take this one," says the king, laughing, and he began to pull the chancellor's cloak from off his back,—a fine cloak of warm cloth, gray and scarlet. The chancellor held on tight to the cloak, and the king pulled hard, and the knights and nobles of the company came clattering up on their horses to see what all the bustle was about. At last, the chancellor gave way, and the astonished poor man had the cloak.

The king was Henry II., the chancellor was Thomas Becket. This was only one of many times when they played together like boys. The king used to go over to Becket's house to see what he had for dinner, and if it looked better than what he was likely to get at home,—and it did often, for the chancellor lived in splendid state,—the king would vault over the table, and seat himself in the best place, without waiting for an invitation. Sometimes he went for business, sometimes for fun. The two were always together. "Never in Christian times," says an old chronicle, "were there two men more of one mind, or better friends." The king was young, and the chancellor was younger still.

Becket was the son of a merchant who had come from France and had established a profitable business in London. His father had given him a good education, and he had made the most of it. The lad was quick to learn, and what he learned he remembered. He studied law and theology, and was trained also in the exercises of knighthood. He could take his part with grace and strength in the great game of the tournament, with lance and sword. He was tall and slim, with a pale face and black hair, and was most pleasant to look upon. Everybody liked him. To the knowledge of a scholar, he added the manners of a courtier. He had a frank and winning way, and the things which he said, with a bit of a stammer, were good to hear. Wherever he went, he made friends.

Then his father failed in his business, and Thomas came home and went into a lawyer's office, for a time, as clerk. But he was brought to the attention of the archbishop of Canterbury, who took him into his employ. And thus he proceeded from one position to another, entirely on his merits and good looks, serving always diligently and well, till he became archdeacon. Those were days when the clergy had a great many other things to do beside saying prayers and preaching sermons. They were lawyers as well as ministers. An archdeacon was a kind of judge. Thus, by an easy and natural promotion, the archdeacon, having come to the knowledge of the king, was by him appointed chancellor.

Thus Becket became both rich and powerful. He came into possession of great estates. He had charge of the King's seal, and all the royal documents and decrees were signed by him. He was the third person in the realm of England; first, the king; second, the archbishop; third, the chancellor.

One time, he went on a pleasant embassy to France. Henry desired to ask the hand of the French king's daughter in marriage for his son. He sent Becket to represent him. The splendor of the ambassador's retinue amazed the country. First, as they marched came singing boys, two hundred and fifty of them, ten abreast; then the chancellor's hunting dogs, greyhounds in leash, and huntsmen with them; then eight carriages, each drawn by five horses, bearing the furniture of the chancellor's chapel, and of his chamber, and of his kitchen; then sumpter-horses carrying his chests of gold and silver plate, his store of money, the sacred vessels of his private altar, and his four-and-twenty changes of raiment. Under each sumpter-wagon walked a chained dog, big and terrible as a lion, and on the back of each horse rode a tailed monkey. Then came the squires with shields, and knights in shining armor riding two and two, and, last of all, the magnificent chancellor. All the roads were lined with people; all the windows, as they passed, were filled with spectators. And all who beheld the glittering procession said,—as the chancellor intended them to say,—"Marvelous is the king of the English, whose chancellor goeth thus and so grandly!"

Becket went again to France on an errand not so pleasant. There was a war between the English and the French, and he carried over seven hundred knights, with five thousand soldiers behind them, and he at the head, and fought a forty days' campaign, winning great victories. Once, "with horse at charge and lance in rest," he met in single combat a French knight of renown, whom he overthrew. And ever in battle he was among those who dared the most.

One story, in the midst of this courtly splendor and knightly valor, shows that Becket had a mind for other things. A man who had affairs which he wished to bring to the attention of the king sought to lay his matters first,—as the custom was,—before the chancellor. But, getting to London too late in the day for such business, he postponed his errand until morning. He rose early, and, passing a church on his way, he went in to say his prayers. The place was empty, except for one other devout person, who was kneeling by the door. The stranger's attention was attracted by the earnestness of this worshiper's prayer, and he observed him carefully. As he chanced, however, to cough or sneeze, the man who was at his prayers, thus perceiving that he was not alone, brought his petitions to an end, and left the church. When presently, the stranger carried his business to the chancellor's court, there, on the chancellor's bench, sat the person whom he had seen at his devotions.

Now, it was the desire of Henry to bring the nation under his own control. It was a wild, rough time, when many men did as they pleased without regard to peace or justice, and there was need of a firm hand. The king, very properly, felt that it was his business to govern England, and he proposed to do it.

But in those days there were two kinds of law: one law for people in general, and another law for the clergy. There were two kinds of courts: the king's court and the Church's court. And the clergy, who were subject only to the Church's court, included most of the people who could read and write. All the lawyers were clergymen, all the schoolmasters, and most of the men in public office.

The consequence was that the king was the ruler of only a part of the nation. The real ruler of the other part was the pope in Rome. And this made great confusion, and was constantly in the way of the king's purpose to bring the whole land under one strong law. A man might be a most dangerous citizen, and guilty of most serious offenses, but if he belonged in any way to the estate of the clergy, if he was a monk or even a sexton, the king could not touch him.

So when the archbishop of Canterbury died, the king saw an opportunity to end this confusion, and so bring the Church under the law of the State. He appointed Becket in his place. "Now," he said to himself, "Becket and I will work together." The splendid chancellor, the king's friend, loving power and wealth and luxury, would be the very man to compel the Church to obey the king's will.

St. Thomas a Becket


But there was a quality in Becket which the king had never noticed. He had a strong sense of loyalty to whatever master he served. He had been devoted to the king, and at his bidding had already disregarded what seemed to be the interest of the Church. He had compelled churchmen to pay taxes which they had not been used to pay. He had served the king completely. But that was because he was the servant of the king. Now, as archbishop, he considered himself the servant of the pope. The man was made that way. That was how his conscience worked.

He begged the king not to appoint him. He looked down at his splendid dress, and said, "I am not the man to be set in this holy office. I know, too, that if I take it, the pleasant friendship between us shall surely end in bitterness. You will demand what I cannot grant." But the king insisted.

Then Becket changed his life. He put off his gay apparel. He fasted and prayed. He gave himself to the Church, as he had previously given himself to the court.

The king called a council which passed laws bringing all men, whether clergy or not, under the control of the king's judges. He restored the old custom of investiture against which Anselm had contended. He required every bishop to confess to himself the "king's man." And, especially, he decreed that whenever anybody was convicted in the Church court, he must be sent at once to the king's court for punishment. Against the enactments of this council Becket protested. He was honestly convinced that the welfare of the nation rested on the independence of the Church.

Thus it was Becket against Henry, Church against State. All the king's fine plans for good government were stopped. The strife divided England for the moment into two nations: on one side, Henry and the barons; on the other side, Becket and the pope. Each was trying to control the other; each was contending for independence. So it went on for six years. Henry attacked the Church by taking away its lands; Becket attacked the State by excommunicating those who were against him. At that time, people believed that excommunication placed men in peril of everlasting punishment. They were afraid of it. Becket, who had fled to France, refused all compromise. He would not agree to any proposition of the king except with the reservation, "saving the honor of my order." That meant that he would not yield in the slightest degree the independence of the Church. Even those who were on Becket's side grew weary of the sound of the words. "Come up," cried one, as his horse stumbled,—"saving the honor of my order."

At last, the king and the archbishop met in France, and a sort of peace was made between them, and Becket returned to Canterbury. Immediately, he began the fight again. The king's young son had been crowned, during Becket's absence, by the archbishop of York. But a royal coronation, according to the custom, was the business of the archbishop of Canterbury. Becket excommunicated the bishops who had been concerned in it. Thus nothing had been gained. The king was as far from his great plans as ever.

The news of these doings came to the king of France. And one of those who stood about him said, "My lord, while Thomas lives, you will not have peace or quiet, or see another good day." And the king answered in fierce anger, "I have nourished and promoted sluggish and wretched knaves," he said, "who are faithless to their lord, and suffer him to be tricked thus infamously by a low clerk."

Thereupon four knights of the king's household departed straightway from his presence, saying no word to any man, and made their way to England. On the fourth day after Christmas they came to Canterbury and confronted the archbishop. "You have presumed," they said, "to excommunicate the bishop by whom the king's son was crowned. You have made yourself a traitor to the prince and to the king. Now take back these curses, or else depart out of the land." And when he refused either to change his curses into blessings, or to depart, they threatened his life. They would go and arm themselves, they said, and come back and kill him. "Here," he answered, "here shall ye find me."

And there, indeed, they found him. The bell rang for vespers. In the choir of the great church the monks began to sing the service. The archbishop joined them in their prayers. There came a great battering of swords and lances at the door, and the four knights entered. In the late afternoon, and at the season when the days are short, the church was dark, except where candles glimmered in the choir. "Where is Thomas Becket?" cried the knights. "Where is the traitor to the king and realm?" And when the service suddenly ceased, and the frightened monks begged Becket to take advantage of the dark and hide himself, they cried again, "Where is the archbishop?" Then came Becket forth. "You shall die," they shouted. "I am ready to die," he answered, "for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace." Then they struck him with their swords, and escaped into the night.

The murder of Becket horrified all Christendom, but nobody was more filled with horror than the king. He put off his royal robes, and put on sackcloth. Such was his grief that those about him feared that he would lose his reason, or his life. He submitted himself to the judgment of the pope. He agreed to send a hundred knights to fight in the Holy Land against the Saracens, to restore the lands which he had taken from the Church, and to repeal the laws against which Becket had contended. And one day, at Canterbury, he laid himself down on the church floor and directed the monks to beat him, each with a rod.

As for the martyr, extraordinary things began to happen at his tomb. Sick people were made sound, and the lame began to walk, and the blind to see. The pope placed the name of Becket among the saints. A golden shrine was erected over him, which year by year grew in magnificence. The glory of the magnificent chancellor was eclipsed by the splendor of the saint. Gold and precious gems surrounded him. Pilgrims came from far and near to say their prayers beside him, hoping that he would add his prayers to theirs. Chaucer's pleasant company, telling the Canterbury Tales, was but one of the thousand groups of men and women who came to see the place of the martyrdom of Becket.