« PreviousContinue »
from Rouen to London. The termination in et is indicative of French nativity; and though Thierry regards the name of Becket as only Beck with an affix, the town of Bec in Normandy is perhaps as good evidence of foreign extraction.* The best evidence for Becket's Saxon blood is found in a letter, quoted by Lyttleton, in which he says that his father and ancestors had been citizens of London. But emigration from Normandy to England had begun at least as far back as the time of Edward the Confessor. In fact, there was even then a rage at court for Norman words and fashions. Gilbert must have been a man of some consideration, if, as we are informed, he was sheriff (vicecomes) of London.
The history of Matilda, our saint's mother, is one of the prettiest legends which have come down to us from the Middle Ages. According to the story, she was the daughter of a Saracen or Turkish chief, named Amurath. She fell in love with Gilbert Becket, who, on his way to the Holy Sepulchre, had been captured by her father and reduced to slavery. The slave, however, having gained the favor of the parent, unknowingly stole away also the heart of the child. The heart-sick maiden, unlike patience on a monument, told her love, and offered to become a Christian, if he would pledge himself to take her to wife. He seems to have been more anxious himself to join the company of believers than to have her do so ; for, on the first opportunity, he made his escape by night to Christian territory, without taking leave of Amurath or his daughter. The candid damsel followed. Finding in the land of the Christians a ship about to transport some merchants, who knew her language, to England, she embarked with them, and on her arrival set out at once for the metropolis, whither she found her way by repeating her only English word, “ London, London.
* The first few lines of Thierry’s ninth book, in which he introduces Becket, are an ingenious piece of mosaic.
“ Among the throng of Englishmen who, for want of the means of subsistence, attached themselves to the rich Normans, in the capacity of esquires and attendants (gens de service), was, in the time of King Henry the First, a man of London, called by the historians Gilbert Becket. It appears that his true name was Beck, and that the Normans, among whom he lived, added to it a familiar diminutive and made it Becket, as the Saxons in the first years of the twelfth century called it Beckie. Gilbert Beckie or Becket fol. lowed his lord of foreign race to the crusade, and went to seek his fortune in the kingdom of Jerusalem.”
No authority is adduced to prove that Gilbert was ever a dependent on a Norman lord. On the contrary, nearly all the testimony in the case goes to show that he enjoyed an easy competence. Brompton is cited in attestation of his Saxon birth His words are, — “ Anglicus et Londoniarum incola civi. tatis.” One would infer, that this was the chronicler's assertion; whereas it is Gilbert's supposed answer to a supposed question put to him by a Saracen maiden, into whose father's hands he is supposed to have fallen. But if the words indicate the chronicler's opinion, the adjective Anglicus is an answer to an inquiry about Gilbert's country, and proves nothing as to his race. The other authority, the Vita Quadripartita, we have not been able to consult. The passage, however, agrees with Brompton, as Dr. Giles quotes the same words from the Quadripartite Compilation. The conjecture about the diminutive is supported by two lines from two old ballads, in one of which “ Young Beckie," and in the other “Young Beichan,” are named. One of these ballads is downright Scotch, and the other is sprinkled with Scotch words. We are bound to infer, therefore, according to Thierry's reasoning, that “Annie" proves the Saxon origin of Ann, and “ Susie," which actually occurs in one of the ballads, a similar fact as to Susan, though both are Scripture names. The 6 lord of foreign race seems to be a sheer invention. The legend which relates the journey of Gilbert to the Holy Land, so far from attaching him to the person of a superior, declares that he took a serving-man named
Richard with him.
London, London.” After straying awhile about the streets, the laughing-stock of the crowd, she was recognized by Gilbert's serving-man, Richard, who had accompanied his master to the Holy Land. The judicious Gilbert, not deeming it wise to take her to his own house, placed her with a widow, who lived hard by, and went to take ghostly counsel of six bishops, who happened to be in session at St. Paul's. They saw the hand of God in this thing, and advised him to marry the girl, if she would be baptized. To this she assented, still insisting on matrimony as the quid pro quo. The rite was performed, and the pair were married. The next morning, our whimsical husband was seized with a violent desire to revisit Palestine. But he was unwilling to leave his young wife alone in a land of strangers. His uneasiness aroused her curiosity, and she soon drew from him the secret. Like a true heroine, as she was, she besought him to obey his conscience. Leaving Richard behind, he set out for the Holy Land, where he made a short stay of three years and a half.
When he returned, he found in his house a beautiful boy, who called him father, and himself Thomas Becket. So endeth the tale of the loves of Gilbert and Matilda.
Of this pleasant bit of romance, Dr. Giles seriously remarks, - « There seems no reason to doubt the facts which it relates.” We think, on the contrary, that it has more than one internal mark of improbability. What Fitzstephen says, and omits to say, is strong evidence against it. He simply reports, that “ Becket's father and mother were both citizens of the middle class.” *
It was impossible, of course, that so illustrious a saint should come into the world without some precious scraps of ante-natal history. His mother's dreams and visions are recorded with laughable minuteness. The sagacious midwife, when she listed in her arms the new-born babe, exclaimed, “I have raised from the ground a future arch
But she seems to have kept the secret very well. His mother is said to have brought him up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. She was wont, it is related, to use
According to Thierry, who cites Brompton, the girl found her way to Becket's house by crying, “ Gilbert, Gilbert”; no very likely means, in a city of forty or fifty thousand inhabitants, of finding the dwelling of an individual. In Dr. Giles's account, this part of the anecdote does not appear, and we cannot find it in Twysden's edition of Brompton. The ballads to which we alluded in a former note afford but slight presumption of the truth of the legend on which they are founded. One of them places the scene of Becket's adventure in France, where he falls in love with the king's daugh. ter, “ Burd Isbel” by name. He is thrown into prison, but is released by the princess, who had stolen the key. She found the captive in sad plight,
“ For the mice but and the bald rattons
Had eaten his yellow hair.” But she soon set him to rights; for
“ She's gotten him a shaver for his beard,
A comber till his hair ;
To spend, and nae to spare.” The story ends, as in duty bound, with Isbel's going to seek Beckie, and marrying him. The other ballad is more to the purpose, though sufficiently grotesque. The description of the heroine begins thus :
6 The Moor he had but ae daughter,
Her name was called Susie Pye." Her love is dashed with a mercenary touch:
"O have ye any lands,' she said,
Or castles in your own countrie,
From prison strong to set you free?'" Susie Pye, after liberating her lover, and waiting as long as she could, s6 set her foot on good shipboard,” and arrived in London just as Gilbert had taken another bride. But the news of her arrival changed all that. With surprisingly agile affection, he ran down to meet her:- Of fifteen steps he made but three.” The “ forenoon bride” was sent home again, and, after kissing Susie's “red rosy lips " and calling her “ jewel,”.
“He's ta’en her by the milk-white hand,
And led her to yon fountain-stane ;
And he's called her bis bonny love, Lady Jane."
to the poor.
him in a very whimsical way, as the measure of her charity
She would occasionally weigh “ the future archbishop,” putting into the opposite scale bread, meat, and clothing enough to balance the boy, all of which were given to the poor. The recipients of this eccentric bounty might, with peculiar fitness, address him in the Oriental form of salutation, “ May your shadow never be less !” He spent the years, we are told, of his infancy, childhood, and youth, in the frugality of his father's house, and in frequenting the schools of the city. But it appears that he was destined from his infancy to the spiritual warfare, and his parents took measures accordingly to give him a liberal education." He was committed to the charge of Prior Robert, to be educated in the religious house of the canons of Merton. An attractive and probably flattering portrait of the youth represents him as “modest and agreeable in speech, tall and elegant in person, easily led by good example, prudent beyond his years, combining the personal beauty of youth with the gravity of a more advanced age.” of his progress in learning we hear little. He seems, however, at a very early period, to have acquired that taste for hawking which he turned to good account in his subsequent career as a courtier. On one occasion, he came near losing his life in attempting to save a drowning falcon, - an opportunity sure to be improyed by his biographers for interpolating a miracle.
But the homely instruction of a monastic school was not thought enough for so promising a youth, and when he had grown nearly to man's estate, he was sent to Paris. Here he had every facility for laying the foundation of those courtly accomplishments which were to grace the high station he was destined to occupy. Among these, doubtless, was the use of “ French of Paris,” the choicest dialect of a Norman court. The schools of Paris were at this time in high repute. The name of Abelard was not forgotten there, and crowds of scholars from every part of Europe flocked to hear the lectures of his pupils and successors. We are not told whether Becket exhausted all the learning of the trivium and quadrivium. But we may conjecture that the young aspirant found much to study in the manners of the diverse races which came under his notice in that great metropolis. He returned to England when he had nearly attained his majority. The times were stormy ; and for a while he was content with the office of clerk to the sheriffs of London. He may have acquired in this employment much of that knowlledge of business for which he was afterward so eminent. We next find him domesticated with one Osbern, a rich relative of his, in the character of manager of his finances and companion of his sports. His time was divided between this gentleman's country residence, where he had every opportunity to follow his favorite pursuits of hunting and hawking, and his father's house. His studies seem to have been thrown overboard.
But he was at length fortunate enough to attract the notice of two clerical guests at his father's house, who insisted on introducing him at the court of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury. Here Thomas at last found himself in a congenial atmosphere. This court formed the head-quarters of the learned men of the day, most of whom were of the ecclesiastical order. Becket, feeling his inferiority to many of the scholars about him, devoted himself with great assiduity to his studies, and especially to the canon and civil law, the most useful sciences to a candidate for secular or ecclesiastical preferment. The court of Canterbury rivalled in splendor, and surpassed in refinement, that of the monarch. The
young Londoner was here quite at home. He seems to have been endowed by nature with a graceful and winning address, which his experience abroad had probably perfected. This happy gift, set off as it was by untiring diligence and stanch fidelity, soon attracted the notice and won the favor of the primate. The only obstacle to the progress of Becket was the enmity of Roger Dupont, who held a high place in Theobald's esteem. This hostility, the cause of which does not clearly appear, twice caused his disgrace. He had, however, secured a friend in Archdeacon Walter, Theobald's brother ; and by his intercession recovered his position. Desirous of perfecting himself in his studies, he now obtained leave of his patron to travel, and studied civil law for a year at Bologna, its fountain-head, and at Auxerre in Burgundy. He had already received several preferments from the archbishop. A mission to Rome having become necessary, on an affair of_great importance and delicacy, Theobald, in whose favor Becket was now firmly established, and who had discerned his rare talents for diplomacy, determined to intrust him with the business. He discharged this commission with uncommon skill and success; and