Great Englishmen - M. B. Synge

Thomas Becket (1117-1170).

There is a very romantic story told of Thomas Becket's father and mother. It seems that Gilbert Becket, his father, when fighting in the Holy Land, was taken prisoner by one of the Saracen chiefs. This chief, who treated him very kindly, had one daughter, who soon fell in love with her father's young prisoner. She helped him to escape to England, and before long followed, bent on finding and marrying him. But she only knew two words in English, and these were "Gilbert" and "London."

When she got down to the sea shore, she cried "London!" "London!" over and over again, until the sailors understood where she wanted to go. When she arrived in London she cried "Gilbert!" "Gilbert!" for many days, but in vain. One day, Gilbert Becket was sitting in his counting-house in London, when he heard a great noise in the street. On going to the window he saw the foreign lady in her foreign dress walking slowly up and down the street, calling sadly, "Gilbert! Gilbert!" He recognized her, ran into the street, and caught her, fainting, in his arms. They were soon married. In the year 1117 their only son, Thomas, was born.

At the age of ten he was sent to a school in Surrey. He was a gay and clever boy, but not much given to learning. His handsome face and gentle manners made him very popular, and he was noticed by several great men, who saw him at his father's house. A certain Norman baron was especially charmed with the boy, and used to take him out hawking. Another friend was the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, taken by his graceful and winning ways and uncommon cleverness, persuaded him after some time to become a clergyman. He was soon after made Archdeacon of Canterbury. This was a very important post, but Becket showed great talent, and gained the confidence of the archbishop.

When the new king, Henry II., was crowned, Thomas Becket was presented to him. The king was a youth very little over twenty, he delighted in clever men, and soon liked Becket very much. The archdeacon was next made chancellor. He had to appoint clergymen to attend the king, to take care of the king's chapel, and to attend meetings. He was very much at court, and wrote all the king's private letters for him, and it is said that, when the work of the day was done, the king and chancellor used to play together like two schoolboys. Becket was very, very rich; his house was furnished with gold and silver vessels; he had most costly meat and wines; he dined with earls and barons, and often, when a merry meal was going on in his house, the king would ride into the hall, jump off his horse, leap over the table, and join in the fun.

Once, when Becket went to France on the king's business, he was preceded by two hundred and fifty singing boys; then came eight waggons, each drawn by five horses; two waggons, filled with costly presents to be given away; twelve horses, each with a monkey on its back, and lastly the chancellor, with his splendid garments flashing in the sun.

"How splendid must be the king of England, if this is only the chancellor !" cried the French people, as they watched the procession.

The king and Becket were riding together through the streets of London, on a cold winter day, when the king saw a poor old man shivering in rags.

"Would it not be kind to give that aged man a comfortable, warm cloak?" said the king.

"Certainly it would," answered Becket, "and you do well, sir, to think of such Christian duties."

"Come," cried the king, "you shall do this act of charity—give him your cloak!"

So saying, the king tried to pull off the beautiful crimson cloak, trimmed with rich ermine. Becket tried to keep it on, and both were nearly falling off their horses, when the chancellor gave in, and the king gave the cloak to the beggar, who walked off in great delight with his prize.

About this time the Archbishop of Canterbury died.

"I will make this chancellor of mine archbishop," thought Henry; "he will then be head of the Church, and able to help me against the clergy."

So the king asked Becket to be archbishop. He did not wish it.

"If I am archbishop, I know full well that I must either lose the king's favour, or set aside my duty to God," answered Becket.

However, he was made Archbishop of Canterbury, and the friendship between him and the king was at an end. "You will soon hate me as much as you love me," he said to Henry on one occasion. The king had mistaken his man; Becket could not go against his conscience, even to please the King of England.

Outwardly the behaviour of the archbishop was much the same, but in private he had changed. He rose early, spent most of the morning in prayer, next his skin he wore hair-cloth, he drank water, ate coarse food, and daily washed the feet of thirteen beggars.

The first cause of dispute between Becket and the king was this. Henry said, when a clergyman did anything wrong he should first be deprived of his office—that is, he should no longer be considered a clergyman at all—and then should be punished as other people. Becket said this was not fair, as a clergyman would thus be punished twice over for the same offence.

Becket was next called upon to agree to a code of laws that had been drawn up in public with regard to the clergy. The archbishop entered the hall, holding in one hand a cross. Bishops and priests were present begging him to submit, agree with the king, and sign the code of laws. Still he firmly refused. Charges were then brought against him, and his very life was said to be in danger. But his courage rose, and he angrily refused to sign the paper. The bishops entreated him, and a door was thrown open, showing a room of armed soldiers, to threaten him.

At last he gave in, signed it, and retired amid cries of "Traitor! traitor!"

He turned round. "Were I a knight," he said fiercely, "I would make that coward repent."

That night the Archbishop of Canterbury fled in disguise to France. When the king heard of his flight, he seized his possessions, and banished his servants.

Becket was still in France, when Henry had his son crowned by the Archbishop of York. Now it was one of the privileges of the Archbishop of Canterbury to crown the king. So you may imagine Becket's rage when he heard that his rights had been infringed.

He wished for an interview with the king, and it was granted. The meeting was very cordial. As soon as Becket appeared, Henry rode to meet him with his cap in his hand; he dismounted, embraced and begged him to return to England and resume his duties. They parted, and Becket prepared to return from his exile. Near Christmas time he set sail for England.

"There is England, my lord," said one of the monks who had been with him in exile.

"You are glad to see it," replied Becket sadly; "but before many days have passed, you will wish yourself anywhere else."

With great joy was the archbishop welcomed from his seven years' exile; the bells pealed merrily, the roads were strewn with flowers, anthems were sung in the churches, and all the pastors came forth from their village homes to receive a blessing from their archbishop.

Becket then went to London to visit his old pupil, the young king, but he was not allowed to see him.

Meanwhile complaints of Becket came pouring in from the bishops.

As long as the Archbishop Thomas lives you will have no peace," said one.

"Have I no one who will deliver me from this man?" cried the king angrily.

Four knights were present. They looked at one another, and left the court in silence. They had a quick discussion outside, then, mounting their horses, rode away to Canterbury. There they arrived in a few days, and made their way to the house of Thomas Becket. They found him writing.

"What do you want?" asked the archbishop, as they entered.

"We want you to answer for your offence against the king," replied one.

"Never !" was the firm reply.

"Then we will do more than threaten," said the knights, and going out they put on their armour.

Hearing the distant voices of the monks chanting in the cathedral, Becket said it was his duty to attend. He went in by the old cloisters, and entering the dim cathedral, made his way up the aisle. Suddenly the shadow of an armed knight appeared in the doorway, and a voice asked, "Where is the traitor, Thomas Becket?"

The service ceased, and the terrified priests threw themselves down in great alarm. It was growing dark.

"Where is the archbishop?"

"I am here," he answered proudly.

Some of the priests begged him to escape or fight, but he only answered, "In the name of Christ I am ready to die."

One of the knights struck him, then another, until in the dim light of the cathedral, under an altar, over which burned the freshly lit lamps, the Archbishop of Canterbury fell down dead. The guilty knights turned, mounted their horses, and rode away into the gathering darkness.

The priests and monks spent the night in the cathedral, watching the body of their beloved master with sorrow and anxiety, and bestowing on the martyr the title of saint.

When the king heard of the crime he was in an agony of grief, he shut himself up alone, and refused food. Never did man repent more bitterly of his hasty words!

The following year he wont himself to Canterbury, taking nothing but bread and water on the way. He walked through the streets barefoot, and threw himself prostrate on the ground in the cathedral. He was then beaten eighty times with a knotted cord at his own request, and spent the night alone by the tomb of Thomas Becket, the man who had once been his playfellow, his friend, and his adviser.