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Well nigh seven hundred years hare passed away since the fresh blood of Thomas Becket stained the steps of St. Benedict's altar at Canterbury. The proud line of the Plantagenets has been succeeded by the Tudors, the Tudors by the Stuarts, the Stuarts by the Guelphs; and the Cathedral where, during twelve generations, St. Thomas was installed far above "our ladye " now echoes with the chants of a Protestant service, and dignitaries, chosen solely by the royal will, now minister at her altars. Still, the strife of the regal and ecclesiastical powers—typified so vividly by Plantagenet and Becket has not ceased; and here, in the year 1860, two portly volumes claim our notice; the one by a clergyman of the Church of Borne, elevating Becket, of course, into an immaculate saint and martyr; the other by Canon Robertson, who—as member of a Church which, not content with rendering to "Casar the things which are Caesar's," has most lavishly rendered him "the things which are God's"—also can do but scant justice to his hero, so profound is his reverence for " Church and Statue."
For ourselves, as heartily opposed to royal authority in matters of religion as to priestly domination, and belonging to neither Church, we wdl take a view of Becket and his contest from a Nonconformist standpoint, and going over more at length the history of his earlier life, and marking the various influences and associations by which he was surrounded, endeavour to form a just estimate of his character. It were easy to make the story of Becket as dull as a Chancery report, but thus treated, and in the light of bis own stirring times, it is an interesting episode in our history, and not without its moral.
Little can be ascertained respecting Becket's family save that his father was a citizen of London; and tradition has reported that he was a goldsmith. But the pretty little romance—how Gilbert Becket set forth with his fellow croises to the far east, and was taken captive, and released by the Soldan's fair daughter; how the fair Mathild found, when the Christian soldier was gone, that he had taken her heart with him; and then how she fled, and wandering to Acre with only the two English words on her lips, " Gilbert" and "London " she sought passage over the sea, and arrived in London, and stood desolate in the streets, asking for " Gilbert," while the crowd gazed wonderingly on her strange garb and her strange beauty; untd, guided to Gilbert's home, she there, after being like Harold the Dauntless, "christened and wed," became the mother of St. Thomas. This pretty tale we regret to say we must give up, for
* "Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury: a Biography." By James Craigie Bobertsou, il.A., Canon of Canterbury.
not even an allusion to it is to be found in the narratives of the four contemporary writers who have supplied us with the most authentic information ; and it is first told in the chronicle of " fabling Brompton."
Although in this case, reluctantly agreeing with Canon Robertson, we cannot allow that Bccket was of Norman parentage. His father at one time during his life held high office in the city—according to FitzStephen, that of "portreve," an office subsequently merged in the higher dignity of lord mayor. Now, most unlikely was it that in a community so thoroughly Saxon as London, the representative of East Anglia, and the capital of the kingdom of Mercia, a stranger of Norman birth should have been thus honoured. His election must have taken place some time during the thirty-five years of Henry's reign; and his charter, granted on his accession, expressly secures to the citizens the proud right of choosing both their sheriffs and magistrates. Tradition asserts, too, that Becket's father was a goldsmith. Now, this alone, and it has never been contradicted, would prove that he was of Saxon race, for we have no instance whatever until late in the history of our city guilds of a Norman belonging to the fraternity of " St. Dunstan, of the goldsmiths." Becket's answer, however, to his great enemy, Gilbert Foliot, who seems to have taunted him as being of low origin, is, we think, conclusive on this subject. "For, if you refer to my descent and to my forefathers, truly they were London citizens, dwelling, without blame, among their fellow-citizens, nor by any means among the lowest." It is difficult to imagine any one, save a Saxon inhabitant of London, using words like these within a century after the Norman "conquest.
The year 1118, and the 21st December, whence his name, has been given as the date of Becket's birth. We are told that both father and mother in piety resembled Zacharias and Elizal>ot!i; and that his mother carefully instructed him from infancy, and early placed him under the protection of the Virgin, directing him " to cast all his trust upon her after Christ," for Mary was not as yet "Queen of Heaven." It affords a suggestive trait of those times so characterised by abundant almsgiving, when we find one of his biographers relating that the mother was from time to time accustomed to weigh her boy, filling the opposite scale with money, food, and clothing, which were afterwards duly distributed among the poor. He does not appear to have had any brothers; but three sisters are mentioned, one of whom, subsequently to his death, became Abbess of Barking.
When ten years old Thomas was sent to the Augustine priory at Merton, but he was soon after brought back to London, where he attended school—very probably, we think, the old cathedral school at St. Paul's; but being by no means given to study, and probably being early taken under the protection of Richer de l'Aigle, a noble who owned the proud castle of Pevensey, and who lodged at Gilbert Becket's house, as was customary with barons when the king held his court in London, and had taken a strong liking to the boy, he seems to have received no farther education, but to have become a kind of page in De l'Aigle's household. With his lord, young Thomas, a remarkably handsome and clever youth, became a great favourite. He hunted and hawked with him, and doubtless then contracted those habits of luxurious extravagance for which he was subsequently censured. From some cause, not stated, he quitted his patron; and his mother having died, and his father becoming reduced in circumstances, Thomas, now about twentyone, set out for Paris, but not to attend the lectures of learned men—not like his friend and eulogist, John of Salisbury, studying grammar with William de Coenobriem, and logic and divinity with Magister Gilbert, but apparently to finish his wholly secular education by taking lessons in French, according to the Parisian mode of pronunciation; and, as Lord Campbell expresses it, to get rid of his English accent.
A short time would suffice for this, so he soon after returned; and then we find him in the service of a rich kinsman, named Osbern Huitdeniers, as clerk and accountant. This Osbern is termed a merchant; but from his name—evidently a nickname— (eightpenny), and from Becket being represented as his accountant, we have little doubt that his trade was that of a usurer—a veiy lucrative, though a much and justly-abused trade at this time. Subsequently we find him filling a simdar, but more miserable, situation under the sheriffs of Loudon. Thus, up to at least his twenty-sixth year, no thought of entering the Church—even by those half orders which would entitle him to write " Clericus" after his name, and to plead, if necessary, "benefit of clergy "—seems to have occurred to Becket's mind. The bold, handsome page, skilful in the sports of the field, had become the clever man of business, the quick arithmetician, busy with tallies, and the counters that aided the imperfect calculations of an age to which the Arabic numerals were unknown.
There was much, however, at this period to awaken ambition in the mind of a young man. England had been the scene of constant civd*war for the last seven years; and although there was now some prospect of coming tranquillity, still everything was unsettled, and no one could tell what the next year might bring. These are jurit the times for the active and enterprising, and when, too, such are eagerly sought after; we therefore think it very probable that the talents which Thomas had already shown in his office under the sheriffs, combined with his political capabilities, marked him out— although, subordinately, he might have owed the first introduction to a kind friend—for a higher station; and this he found in the service of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the year 1144.
We are told that at this time Thomas Becket was tall and handsome in person, quick and eloquent of speech, of readiest apprehension, so that the deficiencies of his early education were scarcely perceivable; a skilful chess-player—an important accomplishment in the twelfth century—and unrivalled in hunting and hawking, and every manly exercise. A young man thus gifted must indeed have
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been a pleasant inmate at the aged archbishop's residence at Harrow, where the sports of the merry greenwood would often present to the younger members of that immense household a welcome relief from the dull routine of a semi-claustral establishment. But Becket won favour in the eyes of the primate, too; and although twice compelled to leave, through the misrepresentation of a learned clerk, one Roger Pont d'Eveque, who probably scorned him for his want of learning, twice he returned, to stand higher each time in the favour of his patron. We think it was probably about this time, in order that he might profit by the liberality of the primate, that Becket took orders; for although deacon's orders did not permit him to perform church ceremonies, they allowed him to claim church emoluments; and so we find that in a short time the living of St. Mary-le-Strand, and that of Otford in Kent, together ■with prebends belonging to St. Paul's and Lincoln, were bestowed on the fortunate young deacon. It was then that Becket seems to have been determined to improve his defective education, and obtaining leave from Archbishop Theobald, he repaired to the continent for the benefit-of its schools.
The reader need scarcely be reminded that this was the era of the revival of the canon and civil law; and that this new study had become so popular as almost to supersede both logic and grammar. Archbishop Theobald, we find, had been so interested in this new study that he imported copies of the Pandects, and invited Magister Vaccarius to lecture upon them at Oxford. King Stephen had. however, shortly after silenced the professor, and ordered the books to be destroyed—a step which was followed by the usual consequence of making the study more popular than ever; but as the leoturer had retired from England, the students were compelled to seek instruction in the continental schools. At this time the celebrated Gratian lectured at Bologna, and thither Becket repaired to study the canon law; and then, after a shorter stay at Auxerrc, but pursuing the same study, he returned to England.
Ere long, Becket was raised to a very high position in the jrVchbishop's service. He was entrusted with difficult and delicate missions connected with the affairs of the see; and in 1152 is said to have " paved the way for the succession of Henry II., by prevailing upon Eugenius III. to forbid the coronation of Eustace as his father's colleague, although King Stephen had sent the Archbishop of York to urge his suit at the papal court." Theobald, the Archbishop, had been long at variance with Stephen, and therefore was anxious for the succession of young Plantagenet, hence the efforts mode by Becket; and we may here remark that however much Henry might talk of the gratitude due to him from Becket, there evidently was no slight claim on Becket's side, of gratitude due from the king.
From this time, Becket's rise in station and influence was singularly rapid; additional Church preferment was lavished nj>oii him; even the archdeaconry of Canterbury, when the death of the Archbishop of York elevated Becket's old foeman, Roger Pont l'Eveque, to the vacant see. Indeed, so enormous a pluralist had he become through the partiality of his patron, that when subsequently taunted with the favours Plantagenet had conferred upon him, he could reply, that what with his archdeaconry, and "plurimca ecclesice, prebeiidw rutfinidlm, el alia etiam nonpauca!" he was in possession of a right royal income years before Henry ascended the throne. In reviewing this part of Becket's life, we must still bear in mind that he was viewed as a layman; that he hunted, and hawked, and gave splendid feasts, and clothed himself in the most gorgeous attire, without blame, even without the surprise of his contemporaries, for "deacon's orders " involved no clerical duties—far less anythinglike the mortification of the cloister. It was an age of great luxury, and of splendid observances, and Archdeacon Thomas bore himself as gallantly among his friends as the wealthiest noble.
It were much to be wished that we had more specific records of Becket's life at this time, for there seems little doubt that he was actively engaged in promoting the cause of the young prince, who was so soon to wear the crown. Had Becket been a devoted servant of the Church, he must have looked forward to that event with anxious forebodings. Young Henry's grandfather kept a high hand over his clergy; his mother's first husband had held Pope Paschal II. in captivity, while his father sprung from a race remarkable for their hostility to churchmen—who in return told the story how his grandmother had been carried off through the roof of a Church, after the prim fashion of the old woman of Berkeley—had distinguished himself by most outrageous conduct towards the clergy of Anjou; and from all accounts, young Henry himself appeared likely enough to follow these goodly examples. Even Archbishop Theobald seems rather to have feared; and with a view to provide a counteracting influence, he is said to have introduced the handsome, eloquent, clearsighted archdeacon to the notice of the future monarch. At the period of his accession, Henry was in his twenty-second year, Becket in his thirty-sixth. Thus, while Becket had considerable advantage over the king in point of years, he was still a young man who could share in his pastimes—and Henry was a keen lover of the sports of the wood and the field—as well as participate in his counsels, and conduct his political ncgociations. We have referred, rather at length, to these events of Becket's early years, because, without bearing them in mind, it is impossible to form a correct opinion of his subsequent conduct.
Rapid as had been the rise of Becket in the aged archbishop's favour, even more rapid was the progress of his favour with the yonng king. He was raised to the dignity of chancellor in the very first year of Henry's reign; "a second Joseph set over the land of Egypt," as Grim remarks, while so great, and so obvious was the partiality already expressed by the king, that Archbishop Theobald himself writes to him, " It sounds in the ears, and is in the mouths of the people, that you and the king are of one heart and of one soul."