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1159, Henry, in right of his wife, laid claim to the earldom of Toulouse, and besieged its capital. This war opened a new career to the versatile and accomplished Becket. He was already illustrious in all the arts of peace, and was not unwilling to show the haughty barons of England and France that he could equal them at their own weapons. He therefore made bis appearance at the siege, with a train of seven hundred knights of his own household. It happened that the French king, who had espoused the cause of his brother-inlaw, the Earl of Aquitaine, in whose territory Toulouse was situated, imprudently threw himself, with a small body of men, into the city. Henry was strongly urged by the chancellor to press the siege vigorously, and secure the person of Louis. But the monarch seems to have been either more chivalrous or more prudent than his counsellor. He refused to do such violence to his liege lord, fearing, perhaps, the effect of so pernicious an example on his own numerous feudatories. The sequel of the chancellor's history affords a strange commentary on this affair ; for the favor of the French king, in Becket's hour of need, was his only shelter from the vengeance of his offended master. Henry, returning to England, left the prosecution of the war to the Earl of Essex and the chancellor. This new-fledged warrior, besides other successes, took three castles before deemed impregnable. At a subsequent period of the war, he maintained, in addition to his household knights, twelve hundred others, and four thousand men besides, at an enormous expense. His troops, with their lord at their head, gained high honor ; and the chancellor himself, “ though a clerk,” in a personal encounter, charged and unhorsed a valiant French knight.
With all this brilliant success, the young leader, we may suppose, was not so much engrossed with his new profession, as to be indifferent to a compliment which was paid him about this time by the greatest scholar of his day. John of Salisbury dedicated to him, in a poetical inscription which yet remains, his elaborate work, entitled, “ Polycraticus, sive de Nugis Curialium.” We shall hear more of this personage anon.
Becket's reputation did not come out of these wars unscathed. The somewhat unseemly union of the archdeacon and the soldier was not overlooked. But his chief offence consisted in advising, or not opposing, the imposition of a
scutage on the nobles and clergy, to defray the expenses of the war. This impost was a commutation of the old military service, and on the whole, perhaps, a wise measure. The clergy, however, murmured at it, as an encroachment upon their rights; and Foliot, Bishop of London, no friendly censor to be sure, accuses the minister of having plunged the sword of state into the bosom of the church. The charge would be hardly worthy of notice, if Becket had not soon after shown himself so high-toned an asserter of church prerogatives.
The reader of history is naturally led to ask, What were the private life and character of this ostentatious minister ? He must have been exposed to temptations of various kinds. His royal companion was a true branch of the Conqueror's stock, whose violent passions, whether of love or hatred, were not always content with lawful means of gratification. We are told that the king was continually laying snares for his favorite's virtue ; but that the chastity of the latter was above impeachment. He is said, also, to have been temperate in the midst of luxurious hospitality. We may believe all this, especially as the multiplicity of his occupations and cares must have left him little time for the vices of a court. That he connived at many of the king's acts, or at least passed them over in silence, is likely enough. The ministers of kings are seldom expected to be their monitors. He is said, indeed, to have received many presents from a lady who held a more flattering than honorable place in the affections of her sovereign. This, too, proves only the desire of a frail woman to obviate the possible opposition of a man powerful enough to loosen her frail tenure of her lover's preference. He seems to have practised those mortifications on which the ancient church laid such emphasis. He used to bare his back to the scourge, and he kept the last days of Lent with an exemplary degree of austerity.
But whence did he derive the means to support his gigantic splendor ? The answer is, that the archdeaconry and the various livings which he held, together with the emoluments of the chancellorship, and the government of the Tower of London, besides his manors and other possessions, must have yielded him a large income. It is impossible to measure the extent of the royal bounty to so honored a servant. If the king's treasury did contribute its share to keep up the princely pomp of the chancellor, there is no proof of embezzlement or peculation on his part, unless we so consider the charges afterwards brought against him by the king. Of vain and wasteful profusion he cannot be acquitted. A true Christian would have despised the treasures which must have been wrung, first or last, from the temporal or spiritual sufferings of the poor. But Becket, thus far, was a very imperfect pattern of a good Christian. He was emphatically a worldly and ambitious man ; and it may fairly be doubted, if any mortal in Europe, when he returned from bis French campaign, could have dreamed that the name of Thomas à Becket would so soon be added to the Roman calendar. *
Before he retired from that stage on which he had played so leading a part, he received another mark of his master's confidence. Henry, while absent on the Continent, employed him to procure from the English barons an oath of allegiance to his son, Prince Henry. Becket, as governor and guardian of the prince, an office with which he had recently been honored, was a very proper person to undertake this commission ; and he executed it with his usual dexterity and success.
We have now reached the close of the second period of Becket's life. We have dwelt at such length on the earlier part of his career, because this is the least known. The remaining period, though by far the most eventful, we must despatch in a more cursory manner. This is the more easily done, as this portion occupies a prominent place in every history of the twelfth century. While the master and his servant were of one accord, the former, as representative of his realm, absorbed the latter. But when a change of circumstances had set them at odds, each began to play his own part ; and the greater man claims the greater share of history. Though we are now on ground often trodden, it may not be uninteresting to take a hasty review of the period which remains, paying less regard to the absolute and intrinsic importance of events than to the illustration they afford of individual character.
* It will not do, of course, to try a character of the twelfth century hy the standards of the nineteenth. Hawking and hunting archdeacons were no prodigy, if we may judge by a bull of Alexander the Third, issued in 1182, the object of which was to exempt the clergy of Berkshire from fur. nishing their archdeacon with a present of hawks and hounds. But the scandal of these indulgences was not altogether overlooked. Peter of Blois, in two of his letters, berates a bishop and an archdeacon for their love of hunting. Military clergymen and prelates, though in much worse odor, were not without precedent. Becket himself, however, at a later period, looked back on his gay chancellorship with shame and contrition.
In April, 1161, the life of the venerable Archbishop Theobald was brought to a close. In anticipation of his expected death, public conjecture had doubtless fixed on his successor. The passage from the chancellorship to prelacy was a beaten road. But if we are to believe one or two anecdotes which have been preserved, Becket himself, foreseeing an unavoidable collision with the king, was not ambitious of the distinction. So easily forged tributes to his sagacity and moderation are a little suspicious. Be that as it may, King Henry had fixed upon his worldly courtier to be the head of the Anglican church. After the lapse of a year, he sent Becket from Normandy into England to prepare the way
for his own election. But difficulties intervened. The bishops and monks were, it is supposed, as on other occasions, at issue upon their respective rights. Some opposition, too, was made to the king's wishes, led, probably, by Gilbert Foliot, then Bishop of Hereford. Royal influence, and perhaps menaces, finally prevailed ; Foliot withdrew his objections, and Becket was solemnly chosen. Prince Henry, now nine years old, who had recently been acknowledged as the future successor of the king, was present at the ceremony, and, in connection with the great justiciary of the realm, at the request of Henry of Winchester, delivered over the primate elect to the church, free from all suit and accusation on any past matter whatsoever. On Whitsunday of the year 1162, Archdeacon Thomas à Becket received priest's orders ; and on the following Sunday, he was consecrated archbishop by Henry of Winchester, amid a brilliant concourse of nobles and prelates, and with the acclamations of an immense multitude of the common people. Messengers, among whom was the archbishop's intimate friend, John of Salisbury, were despatched to Pope Alexander, then in France, to demand of him the pallium, or pall, which was regarded as the “ mystic badge” of the office. The Papal court very readily granted the request; the pall was deposited on the high altar of the church of Canterbury, where it was assumed by Becket, who took at the same time the solemn oath usual on such occasions. He was now in the forty-fourth year of his age ; his royal master had not yet reached the age of thirty.
Much has been said of the sudden and total revolution that took place in the archbishop's way of life. Thierry tells us, that " he cast off his rich garments, unfurnished his sumptuous mansion, broke with his noble guests, and made friendship with the poor, with beggars, and with the Saxons. It was for these only that his feasting-hall was open and his money lavished.”
But there seems to be more of fancy than fact in this description. We are told, indeed, that he wore sackcloth, and even put on a garment covered with vermin ; that in his cell he washed the feet of thirteen beggars daily ; that his diet was most abstemious, and the like. But we find little proof that he cast off his noble guests, or courted the Saxon race. Indeed, Dr. Giles, who quotes Mr. Froude at length on this point, takes great pains to show that the splendor of the archiepiscopal palace did not suffer in his hands ; that his too great devotion to legal rather than spiritual studies drew on him the censure of John of Salisbury; and that the change in his life was not greater than the transition from civil to ecclesiastical eminence required. In the anxiety of some persons to acquit the prelate of hypocrisy, they are obliged to question his sanctity. And, in fact, it is difficult to believe that a man who afterwards fought so stoutly for the rights of the church would have shorn her highest office of that splendid hospitality which, in the eyes even of the Saxon multitude, was not without its effect. That he at once cast off the levities of a courtier, and the gayeties of the boon companion of a young and merry king, is not unlikely; and history is full of instances to show that the violence of the plunge into asceticism is in proportion to the previous worldliness of the character. A man begins to see the error of his ways; but his heart, long steeped in irreligion and ungodliness, cannot keep pace with his desire to amend. Impatient of the slow process of conversion, he rushes into external acts of penance and mortification, hoping to impose on his uneasy conscience by the exhibition of the fruits of that righteousness to which he has not yet attained. But “nemo repente venit sanctissimus,"
any more than " turpissimus," as Becket's history is sufficient to show.
Almost the first act of the new archbishop was to resign the great seal, - a proceeding which evidently surprised and of