Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Plantagenets - An Intractable Quarrel

Thomas Becket – Man or Saint? Henry II – King or Sinner?

Thomas Becket was born in circa 1118 of a middle-class Norman family. Becket was the son of a merchant who served a term as sheriff of London. Thomas was educated at Merton Priory, and later attended school in London and studied for a while in Paris. After schooling Thomas worked as a clerk and accountant for the sheriff’s office. At some point in his youth Becket made a vow of chastity. He joined the household of Archbishop Theobald. Formerly Abbot of Bec, Theobald had been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by King Stephen in December 1138.

Stephen had been in conflict with his cousin Matilda (also known as Maude) since the death of Matilda’s father Henry 1 in December 1135. Both had claimed the crown and the country was divided in a civil war that lasted until 1153. The period was described at the time as a period ‘when Christ and his saints slept’

Matilda’s son Henry had taken up the reins of the fight from Matilda in 1149 at the age of 16. His father Geoffrey of Anjou was by that time already de facto Duke of Normandy, but had offered to hand the dukedom over to his son as soon as he was old enough to take over the responsibility inherent in ruling. At some point between November 1149 and March 1150 Geoffrey made good on his word and Henry Plantagenet was made Duke of Normandy. The King of France, who had only just returned from a crusade, was not prepared to confirm Henry in his dukedom, especially as there was the prospect of his being made King of England.

Geoffrey advised his son to part with the lands known as the Vexin to assure royal recognition of his dukedom. Peace was made in Paris in August 1151. Henry paid homage to King Louis and was invested as Duke of Normandy. On 7th September Geoffrey, Count of Anjou died suddenly and Henry had to journey to Anjou to be invested as its count.

Henry’s Marriage

Eleanor's marriage to Louis
On 18th May 1152 Henry, Duke of Normandy, married Eleanor of Aquitaine, daughter and heiress of the Duke of Aquitaine and former Queen of France. They were married eight weeks after a council of French clergy had agreed with King Louis’ wishes to be parted from his wife. Louis had loved his wife, although they were two very different characters – she was outgoing and enjoyed flirtations while Louis as ascetic. The marriage had produced two daughters and Louis needed a son to inherit his throne. It is believed that this was the reason for the divorce.

Henry was eleven years Eleanor’s junior but was the most eligible of those wanting to marry this exceptionally rich heiress, whose vast estates (nearly half of France) were not directly controlled by the French crown. Eleanor avoided being waylaid by the Count of Blois and an ambush by Henry’s younger brother Geoffrey on her journey to Poitou where she married Henry

His Grandfather’s Heir

It was not until November 1153 that Stephen finally met with the son of his adversary at Winchester, in an attempt to resolve the question of inheritance of the throne of England. Stephen's elder son Eustace had already died suddenly earlier int he year. Now Stephen agreed to make Henry his heir, dispossessing his son William. Henry agreed to allow Stephen to reign for the remainder of his life, providing that the king, bishops and other magnates would swear to allow Henry to become king without denial after Stephen’s death. Henry also agreed to allow William all the honours his father had bestowed upon him.

Stephen died on 25th October 1154 and on 7th December Henry and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine set sail from Barfleur. Theobald crowned the couple king and queen of England at Westminster Abbey on 19th December. Henry was twenty-one, the first of the Angevin monarchs of England.

England’s Chancellor

Full extent of Angevin Empire
Theobald entrusted Thomas Becket with several missions to Rome and sent him to Bologna and Auxerre to study canon law. In 1154 Becket was made Archdeacon of Canterbury and given several benefices. In 1155 Theobald recommended Becket to Henry as Lord Chancellor. Henry had already appointed one of Stephen’s men as head of the administration – Richard de Lucy and created one of his own supporters, Robert de Beaumont, his co-justiciar. Robert had been energetic in attempting to bring both sides of the civil war together, but his support was given to Duke Henry. Henry accepted Theobald’s recommendation, giving him Theobald’s support and that of the English church.

As Chancellor Thomas was much in the company of Henry and the two men became friends, as much as any man could with the peripatetic king, whose realms stretched from the far north of England to the Pyrenees. He was the companion of a young and relatively inexperienced king. But even as a young man Henry was able to extract deference from those around him. Barons and bishops bowed down before Henry’s wrath and or intransigence.

Becket’s chancellorship was partly notable for the state that he kept, displaying an eagerness for marks of status and the privileges of rank. Henry’s tastes were far simpler and his household was far less impressive. On a visit to France in 1157 Becket travelled with a great entourage, while the king’s visit was on a far smaller scale. Becket had the king’s confidence and was entrusted with matters above and beyond those normally given to a chancellor.

Archbishop of Canterbury

Theobald died on 18th April 1161 and Henry pressed the suit of his friend Thomas as candidate to the Archbishopric. An unsuccessful campaign in Toulouse had led to a waning of Thomas’ influence on Henry. Henry was apparently warned against the appointment, including by Thomas himself who said that the appointment could lead to a breach in their friendship.

But Henry was loyal to his friends and hoped to have some influence on church affairs through his friendship with Thomas. However Thomas as Archbishop seemed to go out of his way to insult the king, never a sensible option with a man of Henry’s temper. Rather than follow his predecessor’s more subtle approach Thomas may have been trying to impress his new subordinates, to prove that he was his own man, rather than the king’s.

When he received the Pope’s approval to his appointment Thomas resigned as Chancellor, much to Henry’s surprise. The joining of two posts was not unusual and the emperor of Germany had an archbishop as chancellor. Thomas claimed that he could not manage the two roles. Thomas was also provocative in other matters, demanding homage from one of Henry’s barons for a castle within the jurisdiction of Canterbury. If the case had been taken to the royal court he may have been successful, but his strategy merely inflamed the Angevin temper.

Criminous Clerks

Henry was set on reforming the English legal system and it is for this work that his reputation should be based on, rather than for the unfortunate events that followed his quarrel with Thomas. The introduction of the system of trial by jury was Henry’s triumph. The anomalous position of members of the clergy who committed crimes was an issue that Henry wanted resolved.

As many as one on six of the population were clerks in minor orders, most of whom would never be ordained as priests. But they all claimed the privilege of clergy; to be tried by the religious rather than secular authorities for any crimes. As a result ‘clerks’ were getting away with rape, murder and worse courtesy of the church. Henry wanted to ensure that criminous clerks were brought to justice. Becket wanted the church to retain secular immunity for crimes committed.

Early in his reign Henry had allowed Theobald to try and punish an Archdeacon accused of poisoning his Archbishop. This was an action Henry no doubt now regretted. It was however a precedent for Thomas to use. Notorious abuses of the clerical courts were brought to the king’s attention and there can be little doubt that the secular officials, irritated by the over 100 murders by clerks reported to the king along with numerous cases of theft and robbery with violence, were supportive of a change to the law.

Thomas did realise that some cases were too flagrant breaches of law and did try to impose harsher sentences, but in doing so he encroached upon the royal prerogative.


Henry II – WL Warren, Yale University Press 2000

Eleanor of Aquitaine – Alison Weir, Jonathan Cape 1999

1 comment:

  1. An unnecessarily irritating man, Thomas....