Thursday, 26 July 2012

George III – A Much Maligned Monarch; Part II

George the Man

George was a collector of books, musical scores, coins, clocks and watches, maps and model ships. George not only collected books but also read them to extract information, rather than for pleasure. He read newspapers but was also an admirer of Henry Fielding and Samuel Johnson, conversant with Shakespeare and the bible. But the majority of George’s time was spent dealing with official papers. He did not have a secretary until 1805.

The king’s library was boosted by a purchase of 30,000 volumes in 1762 from the collection of a bookseller for £300[i]. Three years later the books of Joseph Smith, the British Consul in Venice, were purchased for the king at a cost of £10,000[ii] George allowed himself an annual budget for book purchases, which was often exceeded. The four libraries at Buckingham House, which he had purchased as a home for his family not long after his marriage, were soon being filled with a collection that eventually totalled 65,000 books and 450 manuscripts.

At the same time as George purchased Consul Smith’s book collection he paid £20,000 for the consul’s fine art collection, which included several Canaletto’s. Not a great art connoisseur George liked scenes that told an understandable story or domestic scene, purchasing Vermeer’s Lady at the Virginals. George employed Reynolds and Gainsborough, Beechey and Hoppner among others.

George was a frugal eater and his diet was very simple; he would sup on a cup of tea and bread and butter. He was also religious and took public and private morality very seriously. George was also naive and this was heightened by his immaturity. And during a licentious age, his first official act was to issue a proclamation for

‘the encouragement of piety and virtue, and for the preventing and punishing of vice, profanes and immorality.’[iii]

George the Monarch

Henry Fox
George’s idealism also extended to politics, in a time when political infighters like William Pitt and the Duke of Newcastle, a political wheeler-dealer well-versed in the arts of patronage, jostled for overall control of the administration. George and Bute wished for peace with France. The quest for France brought the resignation first of Pitt and then the following year of Newcastle. In May 1762 Bute became prime minister. Bute had no political skills or experience. He was forced to rely on the Paymaster General Henry Fox, a venial man who made his living from fleecing the administration[iv].

Bute was unable to cope with the realities of 18th century politics and resigned in April 1763, suggesting to George that he be replaced by Fox, who declined the honour. Bute was replaced by George Greville, one of the Secretaries of State. In 1765 Greville’s Stamp Act was one of the goads for the revolution in America, but its potential went unnoticed, while the fear of revolution at home was one of the government’s greatest fears.

John Wilkes by Hogarth
John Wilkes fomented rioting after he had been sent to the Tower, for a scurrilous publication claiming that George had lied to parliament in his speech to MPs in 1763. There were many in England suffering economic distress and they were prepared to support Wilkes, who was intensely disliked by George for his open immorality. A member of the Hellfire Club, Wilkes had published an obscene Essay on Women.

By July 1766 after several failed attempts to create stable ministries George had to turn to William Pitt to form a government. Pitt, by now Earl of Chatham, was too ill to be more than nominal head of the government. He was replaced by the Duke of Grafton. Pitt recovered and went into opposition.

War in America

Lord North
In January 1770 Grafton resigned to be replaced by Lord North. George thought he had found a prime minister after his own heart. But they faced a catastrophe not of their own making. Greville’s stamp act now acted as the spark that set off the loss of the colonies in America. George, a man who treasured peace, was to be embroiled in wars for most of his reign. First there was the twelve years of the American war and then in 1789 the French Revolution caused upset across Europe. By the time peace was established after the battle of Waterloo in 1815, George had long been lost in the misery of his porphyria[v] induced madness.

The colonists objected to not only ‘taxation without representation’ but also the reserving of the lands beyond the Allegheny Mountains for the native population. From the government’s point of view the idea that they could not legislate for the empire was inconceivable. The stamp act was repealed but in 1767 a series of taxes on glass, tea, lead and paper were imposed on the colonies to pay for the administration.

When North took over as Prime Minister he repealed the taxes with the exception of that on tea. The failing East-India Company was given the right to export duty-free tea to America, which allowed it to undercut the price of tea smuggled in by American merchants. The first consignment was dumped into Boston Harbour on16th December 1773.

George’s attitude to the revolting colonialists was the same that he took towards disturbances at home; he must be fair but firm, he showed this trait during the anti-Catholic Gordon riots in London in 1780. But the situation in America swiftly slipped out of control and attempts to restore control by besieging Boston merely encouraged further resistance. The states were in rebellion against their far away masters and in September and October held the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

The rebellion was viewed with great indignation in the home country and George’s attitudes towards his rebellious subjects abroad echoed those of his subjects at home. George feared that the loss of the Americas would mean the end of the British Empire and the reduction of Britain to a minor European state. Even John Wilkes, one of the king’s fiercest critics, agreed with this view.

On 23rd August 1775 a royal proclamation declared the states to be in rebellion and on 4th July 1776 Congress declared its independence. The defeat of the English was inevitable, but it was not until 30th November 1782 that peace was agreed between the two parties at Versailles.

The first American envoy was John Adams and George received him saying

‘I was the last to consent to the separation; but the separation having been made and having become inevitable, I have always said, as I say now, that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.’[vi]

There was still much distrust between the two sides that erupted in a further war between the combatants in 1812, when George was suffering from his porphyria induced madness. Throughout the first war the rebellious colonists had vilified the king and George had considered abdication.

Infighting in England

Charles James Fox
The Whig Opposition had supported the American colonists, flaunting rosettes in the colours of Washington’s troops. In 1780 a petition was raised calling for reform of parliament and there were calls for the influence of the crown to be diminished, something which George was not prepared to consider. In March 1782 Lord North resigned. He was replaced by Lord Rockingham. Lord Shelburne and Charles James Fox[vii] were made Secretaries of State. The young William Pitt[viii] was made Chancellor of the Exchequer.

This cabinet introduced a number of reforms. The Northern and Southern Departments were amalgamated into the Foreign Office under Shelburne and the Home Office under Fox. The Irish Parliament was granted legislative autonomy. Rockingham died in July 1782 and George was able to facilitate Fox’s removal from the ministry. George disliked Fox because Fox was immoral and wanted to reduce the powers of the crown. Shelburne was made Prime Minister and Fox went into opposition. When Parliament rose for the summer Fox attacked the Ministry. George commented

‘The mask is certainly cast off; it is no less than a struggle whether I am to be dictated to by Mr Fox.’[ix]

By February 1783 the Ministry was struggling and eventually fell. The unlikely combination of Fox and North now formed a ministry, much to George’s dismay. Fox did not hide his contempt for the king, often calling him ‘blockhead’ in general conversation. Fox sided with the Prince of Wales, during his rows with George over his finances.

Pitt the Younger
Fox wanted to reform the East India Company, a reform long needed, but it was generally assumed that Fox would reap much benefit from the bill. In December 1783 the bill was passed to the House of Lords and George let it be known that those that voted for the bill would henceforth be considered his enemies. The king had come to an understanding with Pitt the Younger. George demanded that North and Fox hand over the seals of their departments and handed the country over to Pitt, his new Prime Minister.

Pitt’s new ministry was given a rough ride in the House of Commons and George dissolved parliament on 24th March 1784. The ensuing elections were a disaster for Fox and his supporters; the country had been voting on whether the government should be appointed by the king or by Fox. Fox had his answer. George’s power and influence were now greater than they had been since shortly after his accession to the throne.


George III – A Personal History – Christopher Hibbert, Viking 1998

The Reign of George III – J Steven Watson – Oxford University Press 1988

George III – Christopher Wright, British Library 2004

[i] Worth in 2010 £34,900.00 using the retail price index £477,000.00 using average earnings
[ii] Worth in 2010 £1,070,000.00 using the retail price index or £15,700,000.00 using average earnings
[iii] George III - Wright
[iv] Fox was one of the most despised politicians of the time and his name was a byword for veniality and cynical jobbery
[v] A disorder of certain enzymes in the blood attacking the nervous system
[vi] George III - Wright
[vii] Son of Henry Fox, the former Paymaster General
[viii] Known as William Pitt the Younger, he was the son of the Earl of Chatham.
[ix] George III - Wright

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

George III – A Much Maligned Monarch


L to R Dr Ayscough, Princes Edward and George
George William Frederick was born on 4th June 1738, the son of the Prince of Wales and Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha. His grandfather King George II had ascended to the throne on 11th June 1727, just under eleven years previously. The House of Hanover had a history of eldest sons failing to get on with their fathers and the relationship between the king and his heir was acrimonious.

George was the eldest child of the couple and was born two months prematurely. It was not believed that he would survive and he was christened immediately. The recently widowed king was not impressed. The child’s survival was credited to his wet-nurse, who was later given the post of laundress at Windsor Castle, by her charge.

Later King George was not in favour of the appointment of the tutor of one of his son’s supporters in the House of Commons as his grandson’s tutor. Ayscough was not an enervating teacher, but the young Prince George and his brother Edward’s progress  was satisfactory. By the age of eight George could read and write German and English. Prince Frederick was an interested father encouraging his sons to enjoy reading and to enjoy his interests in art, science, gardening and astronomy, music and amateur theatricals. George was eventually one of nine children.

George II took little interest in his eldest grandson, awarding him the garter only after being advised that not to do so would be used by the Opposition, who supported Frederick against his father, as neglect. The letter George wrote to his grandfather, thanking him for the honour, was not replied to. At around the same time a more suitable tutor was found for the young prince; George Lewis Scott was a barrister, mathematician and a Fellow of the Royal Society. It was alleged that Lewis had Jacobite sympathies and had been recommended by Lord Bolingbroke, who had intrigued with the supporters of the Old Pretender. Lord North was appointed governor to George and Edward.

In 1742 the family moved to Leicester House, in Leicester Square where Prince Frederick set up a court to rival his father’s. In 1751 the two elder boys were set up their own household in Savile House, next door to their parents. Despite mounting debts (a recurring motif in the relationships between Hanoverian kings and their heirs), in addition to a home at Kew, Frederick rented Cliveden, a Thames-side property in the country and purchased another, while renting a house near Epsom. The children spent most of their time in London, with trips to these rural properties.

In 1750 Lord Bute was made Fredericks’s Lord of the Bedchamber. Lord Bute was to be an important influence in George’s life. The even tenor of George’s life was overturned by the unexpected death of his father on 20th March 1751. King George visited the grieving family and Prince George remarked that he

‘should not be frightened any more with his Grandpa.’[i]

On 20th April 1752, a month after his father’s death, George was created Prince of Wales. It was decided that the young prince’s household should now be changed so that supporters of the king, rather than those of his deceased father, should guide George. Lord North was dismissed and replaced with Lord Harcourt, a man whose main interests appeared to be hunting and drinking, such that he appeared to need a governor himself. As Preceptor George was given a Dr Hayter, a zealous Whig, whose task was to root out any Jacobite tendencies implanted by Scott, retained as sub-Preceptor. For a period George was required to go live with his grandfather, where he

‘lacked the desire to please’[ii]

according to the king. Indeed one time George had his ears severely boxed by his grandfather, giving him a dislike of Hampton Court that lasted a lifetime.

Relations between the king and his daughter-in-law, who was still mourning the loss of her husband, were not assisted by George’s refusal to pay his son’s debts. He had retained the Duchy of Cornwall after Frederick’s death, as it was an honour granted to the king’s eldest son. Princess Augusta was aware that the king was therefore better off by the sum of £30,000 per annum[iii]

Augusta Princess of Wales
By 1752 George had a new Governor Lord Waldegrave, following political machinations and investigations into the political leanings of his teachers. In 1755 Princess Augusta appointed Lord Bute as tutor to George. By now Bute was Augusta’s closest political confidant. Opponents claimed that Bute was the princesses’ lover, an unlikely conclusion, particularly considering the friendship that developed between George and Bute. Bute became a surrogate father figure to the lonely Prince of Wales, who believed that he could place all his trust in Bute. Bute had no political abilities.

George was not academically inclined nor outstandingly intelligent. He was however kind-hearted and morally upright, but lonely, insecure and unhappy. His sole companion of his own age, his brother Edward, was his mother’s favourite child. Augusta showed her son little affection but criticised his educational shortcomings. George believed that his governor Waldegrave was spreading stories about his mother’s misconduct.

In 1756, when George reached the age of 18, the government proposed that George would move to live with Edward at St James’ Palace with Lord Waldegrave as his Groom of the Stole. George refused to consider the proposal, suggesting in his turn that he stay at Savile House with Lord Bute as Groom of the Stole[iv]. The politicians had to give way.

‘What! Has the King granted me both my requests? He has always been extremely good to me. If I have ever offended him I am extremely sorry for it. It was not my own act or my own doing....’[v]

In the same year the beginning of the Seven Years’ War exacerbated George’s relations with his grandfather. The religious young George was already offended that his grandfather was living openly with his German mistress. Bute and George supported the Duke of Newcastle’s ministry prosecuting the war.

In November 1759 the Prince of Wales took his seat in the House of Lords, but he longed to be involved in military exploits like his brother Edward. George requested a command in the war, which was refused by his grandfather. At the same time George had fallen in love with the beautiful Sarah Lennox, daughter of the Duke of Richmond. He was warned against the match by Lord Bute. George now resigned himself to marrying a German princess, having already turned down one proposal from his grandfather. But a marriage had not been arranged by the time of the king’s death.

King and Marriage

George III in his coronation robes
George II died on 25th October 1760, leaving an immature grandson to inherit the throne. At 22 George III was guided by the inexperienced Bute. William Pitt[vi], Secretary of State for the Southern Department and a consummate politician, was demanding that there be no change in the conduct of the war. If there was to be such a change (George had wanted the war prosecuted in such a manner as

‘to bring an honourable and lasting peace’[vii])

he, Pitt, would resign. Pitt was determined to direct the policies of the administration. Bute was given a seat in the Cabinet and in March the following year was made Secretary of State for the Northern Department.

The search for a wife for the king was now intensified and the choice of 17 year old Princess Sophie Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was received by George without much enthusiasm. They were married on 8th September 1761 at the Chapel Royal. George seemed very happy with his new wife, despite her plain face and her predilection for snuff, which made him sneeze. George was, according to his brother William

‘Delighted with having entirely under his own training a young innocent girl of 17.....and determined that she shd be wholly devoted to him alone, and should have no other friends or society.’[viii]

Queen Charlotte
The queen was given a horror of politics by her husband’s insistence on the dangers of women becoming involved in them. Charlotte led a very restricted life, seeing few people other than courtiers and the ladies of her bedchamber and wardrobe.

George was crowned king on 22nd September 1761 along with his new wife.

‘Born and educated in this country I glory in the Name of Britain, and the peculiar happiness of my life, will ever consist in promoting the Welfare of a people whose Loyalty and warm affection to me, I consider as the greatest & most permanent Security of my Throne.’[ix]

George inserted these lines into his coronation speech in his own hand, intending to emphasise his Englishness, rather than his family links to far away Hanover. His Grandfather and Great-Grandfather had both been criticised for the preferential treatment given to the little kingdom of Hanover.


George III – A Personal History – Christopher Hibbert, Viking 1998

King George II and Queen Caroline – John van der Kiste, Sutton Publishing 1997

The Reign of George III – J Steven Watson – Oxford University Press 1988

George III – Christopher Wright, British Library 2004

[i] George III - Hibbert
[ii] King George II and Queen Caroline – van der Kiste
[iii] Worth £3,680,000.00 in 2010 using the retail price index or £50,400,000.00 using average earnings
[iv] Senior courtier
[v] George III - Hibbert
[vi] Later Earl of Chatham
[vii] George III - Hibbert
[viii] Ibid
[ix] George III - Wright

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Four Wives of Philip II

Philip II of Spain was the only male child of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles, who reigned over an empire stretching from Germany to Spain, V to reach adulthood. Born in Valladolid on 21st May 1527 Philip was early schooled in statecraft and remained dependent upon his father into adulthood. In 1543, at the age of 16 Philip was appointed regent in Spain.

In 1548 Charles prepared a comprehensive review of all the problems facing him throughout the empire and its neighbours and rivals and sent a copy to Philip. Philip was urged to make the defence of the Catholic faith his primary responsibility. Throughout his life Philip used this ‘political testament’ as a blueprint for statesmanship. He claimed that when he followed his father’s suggestions matters went as planned. It was when he diverted from the testament that his plans went awry. The testament recommended avoiding war where at all possible, an ironic message given that across all of Philip’s domains were completely free from fighting during a six month period in the late 1570s.

Charles abdicated as Holy Roman Emperor on 25th October 1555, having given his Spanish Dominions to Philip. Charles’s ensured that his brother Ferdinand was his successor, retaining a Hapsburg on the throne of the Holy Roman Empire.

Maria Manuela of Portugal

Born on 15th October 1527 Maria Manuela of Portugal was married to her cousin Philip. The two cousins shared identical sets of grandparents. Maria Manuela was the daughter of the King John III of Portugal and his wife Catherine, a Spanish infanta.

Maria died on 12th August 1545 a few days after giving birth to Don Carlos, who was deformed. Carlos died at the age of 24, having been imprisoned by his father for mental instability.

Mary Tudor

Philip waited another nine years before marrying again, which is surprising given the high rates of infant mortality throughout most of recorded history.

Philip’s marriage to the new queen of England was a match proposed by his father, still very much a controlling influence in his life. Charles V had originally thought of marrying Mary himself to safeguard his lands in the Low Countries (he was only 16 years older than Mary). He then had a change of heart and suggested to Mary that Philip should be the bridegroom. Charles was a child of the Netherlands, but Philip had been brought up a Spaniard. Philip accepted his father’s instruction to marry his cousin Mary, who was eleven years older than himself.

Mary I was the oldest child of Henry VIII of England and succeeded to the throne on the death of her brother Edward VI. Mary’s mother was Katherine of Aragon whose parents, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, were Philip’s great-grandparents on both the maternal and paternal side of his family.

Mary had been brought up a Catholic by her mother and had the greatest distaste for Protestantism. The split with Rome in England enabled Mary’s father to divorce her mother, to marry her stepmother Anne Boleyn. Mary is known in England as ‘Bloody Mary’ as a result of the large numbers of her subjects, including an archbishop, killed for refusing to recant their beliefs. Following her ascension to the throne Mary initially proposed that she would not impose her religion on her subjects. But this sensible course of action was soon overturned.

In 1554 Philip was made king of Naples and inherited his father’s claims to the kingdom of Jerusalem. This was to make him a king in his own right and Mary’s equal. The couple married in July 1554, a year after Mary’s accession to the throne. Philip became King of England as Mary’s husband. The marriage was very unpopular with the English (the announcement of the marriage brought insurrections in the county). Mary loved Philip with all the desperation of a not very attractive woman, who may have believed her husband desired her younger and more attractive half-sister Elizabeth.

Philip must have seen supporting Mary to return her country to the true faith as a God-given task. He had already been enjoined by his father to be a defender of the Catholic faith. This support was to be fatal to Mary’s desire to be loved by her subjects. Support for her half-sister swelled as the arrests and burnings increased in an attempt to force the truth of the Catholic church’s teachings on an increasingly rebellious population.

Mary and Philip spent much of their marriage apart, although Philip spent some time in England when they were first married. In September 1554 Mary stopped menstruating and she exhibited all the symptoms of pregnancy. Philip was to be regent if Mary died in childbirth. Mary is believed to have suffered a phantom pregnancy and the symptoms did not fade away until July 1555.

In 1557 Mary believed she was pregnant again following a visit from Philip, but again there was no child. She is believed to have had uterine cancer or ovarian cysts. Mary’s died in the absence of her beloved husband on 17th November 1558, possibly from influenza that was sweeping the country, while suffering some form of cancer. She had finally realised that her only heir was her sister Elizabeth.

Elisabeth de Valois

In 1559 Philip married the daughter of Henri II of France, who was originally betrothed to Don Carlos, as part of the conditions of the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis, ending the animosity between France and Spain, which had been rumbling on since before Philip’s ascension to the throne in 1555. The two countries were fighting in Italy and the treaty required the French to depart from the Duchy of Savoy, but they received Calais from the English as part of their spoils.

Elisabeth de Valois was 14 when she married Philip, but she seems to have been happy enough with her husband, who was over twice her age.

When Elisabeth came to Spain a number of her father’s subjects made the journey too. In the 1560s, in the Toledo area, a number of these immigrants were accused of heresy by the Inquisition.

In 1564 Elisabeth was miscarried of twin girls. In 1566 Elisabeth gave birth to a daughter Isabella and the following year had another daughter Catherine. Elisabeth died on 3rd October 1568 as the result of a miscarriage, having gained a lot of weight which greatly concerned her mother Catherine de Medici. Elisabeth left Philip with two young daughters in addition to the increasingly unstable Don Carlos, who believed himself in love with his step-mother. After her death Philip was offered her sister Marguerite; an offer he refused as he believed that marrying his dead wife’s sister was against canon law.

The Netherlands rose in revolt against rule from Spain in 1568, only finding complete freedom eighty years later. The question of religion for the Protestant citizens of the north of the Low Countries was also an issue.

Anna of Austria

Instead of Marguerite de Valois Philip contracted to marry Anna of Austria. Anna was Philip’s niece and cousin. Born in 1549 Anna had been proposed as a bride for Carlos. Instead she married Philip, 22 years her senior, in a proxy ceremony in May 1570. The Pope had objected to the marriage, but his objection would appear to have been withdrawn. Anna was born in Spain but at the age of four was moved to Vienna.

Anna and Philip had a relatively happy marriage. Anna had five children, her sons Charles and Ferdinand predeceased her, while her son Diego died two years after her death. Only Philip survived both parents. Anna was a good stepmother to her predecessor’s two daughters.

Anna died of heart failure eight months after the birth of her fifth child, Maria who died within three years of her mother’s death. 

The Death of Philip

Philip died of cancer in 1598 at the age of 71, an absolute monarch as he had been since the abdication of his father. His death was incredibly painful and at the end Philip was in such great pain that he could not be moved even to be cleaned. A hole had to be cut in the mattress of his bed to allow the removal of urine and faeces.

He outlived all four of his wives, a not unnatural occurrence at a time when many married women died in childbirth. Queens were under enormous pressure to provide heirs for their adopted countries. Of all the children produced by Philip’s four wives he was survived by Isabella sovereign of the Netherlands, one of his daughters by Elisabeth of Valois; and by his son Philip by his wife Anna, who was to rule Spain as Philip III.

But Philip and Anna both carried the fatal taint of Juana la loca (who spent much of her reign as Queen of Castile interned in a nunnery suffering from insanity) and the intermarriages within the Hapsburg family exacerbated this trait. This madness manifested itself most strongly in the incompetent reign of Carlos II, whose death in 1700 precipitated the Seven Year’s War, leading to an extension of the Bourbon interests in Europe.


The Mediterranean – Fernand Braudel, Fontana 1975

Catherine de Medici – Leonie Frieda, Phoenix 2005

The Spanish Inquisition – Henry Kamen, Phoenix 1998

The Grand Strategy of Philip II – Geoffrey Parker, Yale University Press 1998

Mary Tudor – HFM Prescott, Phoenix 2003

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The Plantagenets - An Intractable Quarrel II

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

Pope Alexander III

The Split

In 1163 Henry allowed all his bishops and archbishops to attend a council in Tours, called by Pope Alexander III, who had been thrown out of Rome by the German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Henry could have forbidden attendance at the council, as his uncle Stephen had in 1148 on a similar occasion. The result of Henry’s compliant attitude was a message of support from the Pope

‘That on account of this no detriment or disadvantage ought to come upon him or his successors. Nor by reason of this should a new custom be introduced into his realm, or the privilege of the realm be diminished in any degree’.[i]

In October 1163 Henry summoned a royal council to meet at Westminster. He listened to the bishops and then wondered why the church had impinged on royal authority in the matter of his legal powers. He was obviously referring to the message from the Pope. The church was now taking upon itself to deal with criminal cases internally rather than handing accused over to the courts. Becket spoke against Henry’s proposals, suggesting that it was improper under canon law to hand over criminous clerks to the king’s justice. He was supported by his bishops.

However the bishops realised that Becket’s stance vis a vis the king was unhelpful to the church’s cause. The majority felt that his attitude was hardly likely to improve the church’s standing. The Pope was also not impressed with Thomas’s intransigence which was disrupting the church in England. He counselled restraint and pliancy.

Henry II - tomb at Fontrevault
On 13th January 1164 Henry presided over an assembly of churchmen at Clarendon Palace. He aimed to reduce dependence of the church in England upon Rome and to reduce clerical independence. He demanded that the bishops acknowledge an explicit statement of customs of the past to be adhered to in the future and to accept that these would be kept in good faith. They were to place their seals on the document. Becket suddenly capitulated and advised his bishops to do likewise. After leaving Clarendon he repented of his action and took penitent’s garb.

There were many objections to the Constitutions of Clarendon, many of the bishops were unhappy that unwritten custom was now to be given the force of law. Henry immediately applied for Papal approval of the conditions, and was unhappy when this was not forthcoming.

Following dismissal of a claim in the archbishop’s court, one of Henry’s household, made complaint of injustice. Both Henry and Thomas acted in a petty manner and Thomas was finally arraigned before the royal council meeting at Northampton on a charge of contempt of court. The court declared that Thomas’s goods and chattels were forfeit. Henry now made claims of embezzlement during Thomas’s reign as Chancellor and demanded that Thomas account for the revenues of vacant bishoprics and abbeys administered by him as Chancellor.

On 12 October 1164 Becket attended the council at Northampton, but he and Henry did not meet. His bishops revealed to the king that Becket had reprimanded them for giving judgement against him, appealed to Rome against the judgement and forbidden them to judge against him on the embezzlement case, breaching both the Constitutions of Clarendon and the archbishop’s oath of allegiance; tantamount to treason. The bishops now felt trapped between their loyalty to their king and their loyalty to their archbishop. The following day Becket had gone, taking himself into a self-imposed exile.


King and Archbishop

Louis gave Becket refuge in France. Here was chance to pay back an over mighty subject for the many slights and transgressions committed by Henry. Henry sent a deputation to the Pope now at Sens, and Thomas took his case to the Pope in person. Over the next six years the Pope attempted to persuade the two parties to compromise. But Becket was determined that only the public abasement of Henry would be sufficient to appease his overweening pride. Henry for his part stated that Thomas had left of his own free will.

In 1166 the Pope made Thomas Papal Legate to England. Thomas wrote three letters to Henry, the first was friendly but the third letter progressed to threats of divine vengeance. In June Becket spoke against the ‘depravities’ contained in the Constitutions of Clarendon. Henry responded by threatening to withdraw his allegiance to the Pope. He had been flirting with the idea of an allegiance with Frederick Barbarossa.

Alexander was able to stall the two protagonists and by the end of 1168 Henry was beginning to lose his bargaining power. He wanted his eldest son Henry to be crowned joint king with himself, hoping to make peace with his French overlord by dismembering his empire amongst his sons. And the crowning of kings was the prerogative of the archbishop of Canterbury. Meanwhile Thomas was wearing out his welcome in France. Louis’ daughter was married to the future Young King.

In January 1169 a conference at Montmirail was used to try and end the conflict between king and archbishop. Both men were prepared to reconcile, but neither was prepared to lose face. Becket’s intransigence ensured that the reconciliation failed, despite the obvious unhappiness of King Louis and the French and English barons present at the meeting.

In the autumn of 1169 after excommunicating the bishops of London and Salisbury Becket threatened to excommunicate Henry and to interdict the kingdom. Henry sealed all ports and forbad any communication with Becket or the Pope. The bishops refused to take an oath to observe the decrees Henry had issued. But in turn the Pope refused to confirm some of Becket’s excommunications. Henry and Becket were brought together in November 1169 by the papal legates, again the meeting was unsuccessful in solving the differences between the two protagonists.

In 1161 Alexander had given Henry permission to have his son crowned by the bishop of his choice and further wrote to the Archbishop of York to undertake the coronation

‘We command you by apostolic letter that whenever the king our son shall request it you shall place the crown upon the head of his son aforesaid on the authority of the apostolic see’.[ii]

The Young King
On 14th June 1170 Henry the Young King was crowned by the Archbishop of York, much to Becket’s fury at this attack on his prerogatives. The monks of Canterbury were never to forgive Becket for the precedent now set. It also reduced the power of Becket’s claim to the overseeing of the archbishopric of York and the Celtic churches; claims that were contrary to the trend within the church of centralisation and control from Rome.

The Pope now felt that he had no other weapon to solve the impasse other than to support Becket in his excommunications. But having got his own way as far as the coronation of his son was concerned Henry now intimated that he was ready to make peace with Becket. He offered terms which Becket accepted on 22nd July 1170. Henry had promised that Becket could re-crown the Young King and his wife.

Murder in the Cathedral

When Becket returned from his exile the situation on both sides had hardened. Busy on the continent Henry apparently did little to prepare his supporters for his volte face. And they were the ones who would have to carry out the intricacies of the agreement. Becket was demanding full reparations for any losses and he too relied on subordinates as he was unwilling to return to England until all matters were settled. The hostilities were being ramped up again on both sides by subordinates and by Thomas. The Pope and Thomas expected Henry to be more involved in the arrangements than he was able to spare time for. Henry was preoccupied by affairs in Normandy and Anjou and fell very ill in August; so much so he was persuaded to make a will.

Thomas was in November eager to return to England. Henry had intended to accompany him, but his overlord was threatening his interests in Berry. So it fell to John of Oxford, one of Henry’s most trusted subordinates to accompany Becket on his return. Landing in Kent Becket was met with a hostile reception from the sheriff of Kent, Thomas was rescued by John of Oxford, a man whom Becket had reviled in the past.

The Young King refused to meet Becket at Windsor. Becket was not innocent either in the altercations that followed. Before taking ship he excommunicated the Archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury, all involved in the Young King’s coronation. He had permission from the Pope for his actions and Henry had agreed that Thomas had the right to punish his bishops; but it was the timing of his actions which were hardly those of a man prepared for reconciliation. The three prelates decided to lay the issue before Henry, spending Christmas at Bures in Normandy.

Henry was informed that Thomas was

‘Careering about the country at the head of a strong force of armed knights’ [iii]

having learnt nothing in the intervening years. Henry undoubtedly made some comment on Thomas’ behaviour, although he denied wishing for his death. Whatever he did say resulted in four of his household departing for England, making for Canterbury. These four were not men of great intelligence. If they had been they would hardly have taken a course of action so likely to bring their monarch into further dispute with the church. A dispute in which Henry was placed at such disadvantage that he had to abase himself before the prelates.

Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury was murdered on 29th December 1170, in the cathedral of his Archbishopric, still in dispute with his king. He could have escaped death, he was surrounded by his household, so it can only be assumed that he decided to die a martyr.

It was the hangers on, of little worth to the church, who gained much from Thomas’ support and brought the church into disrepute. All that was overturned with the death of Thomas; a martyr for a very unworthy cause. Now the church could dictate to the king, who for political reasons accepted the imposed penance. And also possibly from a feeling of guilt; that his temper had wrought so infelicitous an ending to the relationship with his former friend.

Saints or Sinners?

Neither man comes out of the final quarrel between them unscathed. Both were men of great pride, but much of the blame must lie with Thomas’ insistence on defending what appears to modern eyes, and to the king, as indefensible. Henry lost prestige and his legal reforms were adversely affected by the aftermath of Thomas’ death. The behaviour of both men can bear a lot of criticism. A thwarted Henry pursued Thomas with a petty streak of vengeance, while Thomas could not refrain from exacerbating the situation.

Henry had always been one for sudden rages and the anger he displayed on the occasion of his last quarrel with Becket was characteristic of the man. However whenever his temper cooled it was possible to strike bargains with the king. But Becket’s pride would not allow such a course of action. Indeed he often seemed to be adding insult to injury, to inflate his own sense of self-importance.

Becket’s intransigence over indefensible church privileges was an anathema to Henry. Becket’s defence of the indefensible has often appeared romantic to some historians. Indeed it took a long time for the overturn of ingrained church ‘privileges’ to be enacted.

Thomas was made a saint as a result of church politics, rather than because of any intrinsic goodness in the man. He was ‘martyred’ for standing up for church privileges, which were being badly abused. Rather than attempt to correct the abuses Thomas preferred to insist on defending all who took advantage of the church’s immoral position.


Henry II – WL Warren, Yale University Press 2000
Eleanor of Aquitaine – Alison Weir, Jonathan Cape 1999

[i] Henry II – WL Warren, 2000
[ii] Ditto
[iii] Ditto