Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England by Alison Weir


  The Pope was now insisting that Becket and Henry make up their quarrel, thus enabling the Archbishop to put right the wrongs that had been done. Henry responded by declaring that he was ready to make peace, and, through the good offices of King Louis and Rotrou of Warwick, Archbishop of Rouen, the King and Becket met at Freteval on 22 July. Throwing his arms around his erstwhile friend, Henry cried, "My lord Archbishop, let us go back to our old love for each other, and let us each do all the good he can to the other, and forget utterly the hatred that has gone before."42 He admitted that he had wronged the Church over the matter of the coronation, and when he asked Becket to return in peace to Canterbury and re-crown the Young King, this time with Marguerite, the Archbishop accepted. The Constitutions

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  of Clarendon were not mentioned, and king and primate retired in a spirit of reconciliation, although Henry had still not given Becket the kiss of peace. That, he promised, would be given to him after he had returned to England.

  The King was unable to put in hand immediate arrangements for the Archbishop's return because, around 10 August, he fell seriously ill at Domfront with a tertian fever.43 His life was despaired of--- in France, it was at one time rumoured that he was already dead-- and he dictated a will confirming the dispositions made under the Treaty of Montmirail. It was the end of September before he was fully recovered, and in thanksgiving he went on a pilgrimage with Eleanor to the shrine of Rocamadour in Quercy.44 On returning through Aquitaine, he spent time attending to administrative business that had fallen into abeyance during Eleanor's long absence, and dealing with local disputes: at the request of the townsfolk of Souterraine, he sent in troops to deal with an unpopular provost.45 Clearly, he was still in overall control of the duchy.

  During this year 1170, relations between Henry and Frederick Barbarossa cooled, and a match between the King's daughter Eleanor and the Emperor's son no longer seemed desirable. Instead Henry sought to extend his influence across the Pyrenees and prevent a Franco-Castilian alliance by betrothing Eleanor to the twelve-year-old King Alfonso VIII of Castile;46 she was to receive Gascony as her dowry, but only on the death of her mother.

  In October, Henry at last issued Becket a formal safe-conduct to return to Canterbury and resume his episcopal duties, and wrote to the Young King, then in England, confirming that the Archbishop's return had his approval:

  Henry, King of England, to his son, Henry, King of England, greeting. May you know that Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury, has made peace with me in accordance with my wishes. Therefore I order that you see to it that he and his followers should have their possessions in peace and with honour. Witness Archbishop Rotrou of Rouen, at Chinon.47

  Soon afterwards Henry and Becket met for the last time at Chaumont near Amboise and reaffirmed their agreement.

  "My lord," Thomas said, "my mind tells me that I will never again see you in this life."

  Henry took offence: "Do you think I am a traitor?"

  "God forbid, my lord," was the answer.48

  Becket was girding his loins for another battle. His anger against

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  those bishops who had connived with the King over the coronation was still simmering, and on 30 November he sent a messenger to England to deliver letters excommunicating them.

  On 1 December, Becket disembarked at Sandwich and rode to Canterbury, where he was accorded a warm welcome by both the clergy and the common people.49 But several royal officers made it clear to him that they resented his return, and the Young King, whom he had once called his adopted son, refused to receive him at his court at Woodstock.50

  On Christmas Day, from his pulpit in Canterbury Cathedral, the Archbishop publicly denounced the renegade bishops and published his sentence of excommunication on them.

  What followed was not only the most cataclysmic disaster of the reign, but also an event that shook Christian Europe to its very foundations.

  The evidence suggests that Eleanor spent Christmas with Henry at his hunting lodge at Bures in northern Normandy51 near Bayeux. Their children Richard, Geoffrey, Joanna, and John were certainly present, and Richard's presence makes it likely that Eleanor was there too. The Young King was for the first time holding his own Christmas court at Winchester.

  On Christmas Day, three of the excommunicate bishops-- London, York, and Salisbury-- arrived at court and complained to Henry of Becket's high-handed conduct.52 Henry and his barons listened to their catalogue of Becket's misdemeanours with mounting indignation.

  "My lord, while Thomas lives, you will not have peace or quiet or see good days," declared one lord.53 The King "waxed furious and indignant beyond measure, and, keeping too little restraint upon his fiery and ungovernable temper, poured forth wild words from a distracted mind."54

  "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?" he is supposed to have cried, although no contemporary source quotes these words. Edward Grim, a monk of Canterbury, says that Henry railed at the cowardice of his vassals, snarling, "A curse! A curse on all the false varlets and traitors I have nursed and promoted in my household, who let their lord be mocked with such shameful contempt by a low-born priest!"55

  This was too much for four knights of his household, Reginald FitzUrse, William de Tracy (Becket's former chancellor), Hugh de Morville (who had served the King in the north as an itinerant justice since his accession), and Richard de Brito; without confiding their intentions to anyone, they quietly slipped away from Bures and made haste to England.56 When Henry discovered they had gone, he realised in alarm

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  what they had in mind and sent messengers to summon them back, but it was too late. 57

  On the afternoon of 29 December, the four knights confronted Becket in his study at Canterbury, making all kinds of wild accusations against him and threatening him with dire punishment if he did not leave England.58

  "Stop your threats and stop your brawling," commanded Becket. "I have not come back to flee again."59 The knights withdrew into the courtyard, muttering insults, and began putting on their armour.60

  Edward Grim has left an eyewitness account of what happened next. That evening, when the monks went in procession into Canterbury Cathedral for Vespers, "the four knights followed them with rapid strides. When the holy Archbishop entered the church, the monks stopped Vespers and ran to him, glorifying God that they saw their father." Then, fearful of the four knights who were advancing menacingly, the monks "hastened, by bolting the doors to the church, to protect their shepherd from the slaughter." But Becket "ordered the church doors to be thrown open, saying, 'It is not meet to make a fortress of the house of prayer, the church of Christ.' And straightaway [the knights] entered the house of prayer with swords sacrilegiously drawn, causing horror to the beholders with their very looks and the clanging of their arms."

  Everyone watching was "in tumult and fright" except Becket, who retained his composure. He must have guessed the knights' purpose, and his behaviour suggests that he welcomed the chance of martyrdom.

  "Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King and realm?" cried the knights.

  "I am here, no traitor to the King but a priest," replied Becket. "Why do you seek me? I am ready to suffer in His name, who redeemed me by His blood." So saying, he turned away and began praying. The knights closed in on him.

  "Absolve and restore to communion those whom you have excommunicated!" they demanded.

  Becket refused.

  "Then you shall die!" was the reply. Becket remained calm.

  "I am ready to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may find liberty and peace," he declared.

  "Then," Grim's account continues, "they laid sacrilegious hands on him, pulling and dragging him that they might kill him outside the church."

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  "Touch me not, Reginald!" Becket thundered at FitzUrse. "You and your accomplices act like madmen."

  FitzUrse, possessed by blood lust, raised his sword. Becket immediately assumed an attitude of prayer, lifted his
hands, and commended his cause and that of the Church to God, St. Mary, and the blessed martyr St. Denis. At that, FitzUrse leaped at him and sliced the skin off the top of his head with his sword. As it descended Edward Grim sprang to the Archbishop's defence, but the blade nearly severed his arm. His brother monks fled, but Grim remained by Becket's side, his uninjured arm supporting him. Seeing the Archbishop still on his feet, clinging to a pillar, the knights struck again, but a second blow on the head failed to prostrate him. At the third blow, Becket fell forward onto his knees and elbows, muttering, "For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death."

  As he lay there on the ground, "the third knight [Richard de Brito61] inflicted a terrible wound, by which the sword was broken against the pavement and the crown was separated from the head, so that the blood white with brain and the brain red with blood dyed the surface of the Virgin Mother Church."

  The fourth knight, Hugh de Morville, had prevented the monks from returning "so that the others might freely perpetrate the murder." Their accomplice, a treacherous subdeacon called Hugh Mauclerc, who had accompanied them, now came forward, "put his foot on the neck of the holy martyr"62 and "extracted the blood and brains from the hollow of the severed crown with the point of his sword,"63 scattering them all over the pavement and "calling out to the others, 'Let us away, knights; he will rise no more.' "64

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  12. "The Cubs Shall Awake"

  News of the murder of the primate of England sent the whole of Europe into shock. Some declared it was the worst atrocity since the crucifixion of Christ. William, Archbishop of Sens, asserted that it surpassed the wickedness of Nero, the cruelty of Herod, the perfidy of Julian, and even the sacrilegious treachery of Judas,1 while King Louis wrote to the Pope: "Such unprecedented cruelty demands unprecedented retribution. Let the sword of St. Peter be unleashed to avenge the matryr of Canterbury."2 "Almost everyone laid the death of the blessed martyr at the King's door,"3 and Henry was reviled throughout Christendom. His reputation never fully recovered.

  Soon it became apparent that Becket dead was infinitely more powerful than Becket alive. No sooner had he fallen than he was being revered as a martyr-- the people of Canterbury came hurrying to smear themselves with his blood, take it away in bottles, or snip off pieces of his vestments 4-- and the cult of "God's doughty champion"5 soon spread with remarkable speed throughout Christendom. By Easter 1171 it was being claimed that miracles were taking place at his tomb.

  The King had suffered two days of unbearable tension at Bures, waiting for news of the knights. Then, abandoning the Christmas festivities, he dismissed his vassals and retired to Argentan. It was there, on 31 December 1170 or 1 January 1171, that he was informed of Becket's murder.

  Henry was almost paralysed with horror and remorse. Arnulf, Bishop of Lisieux, an eyewitness, informed the Pope:

  The King burst into loud lamentations and exchanged his royal robes for sackcloth and ashes, behaving more like a friend than the sovereign of the dead man. At times he fell into a stupor, after which he would again utter groans and cries louder and more

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  bitter than before. For three whole days he remained shut up in his chamber and would neither take food nor admit anyone to comfort him, until it seemed from the excess of his grief that he had determined to contrive his own death. So in consequence we began to despair of the life of the King, and so by the death of the one we feared in our misery that we might lose both.6

  For six weeks Henry remained in seclusion, refusing to attend to business, take any exercise, or indulge in recreational activities. In vain did the Archbishop of Rouen, summoned for the purpose, offer him spiritual comfort. In his misery, the King called upon God to witness, "for the sake of his soul, that the evil deed had not been committed by his will, nor with his knowledge, nor by his plan. He directly submitted himself to the judgement of the Church and, with humility, promised to undertake whatever it should decide."7

  He sent envoys to protest to the Pope that he had never desired Becket's death, but Alexander refused to speak to them for a week.8 However, having placed Henry's continental domains under an interdict, which was soon afterwards lifted, the Pontiff behaved towards him with commendable moderation. For many months he deliberated as to whether or not he should excommunicate Henry, as most people expected him to do, or extend the interdict to England. In the meantime, he simply forbade the King to venture onto consecrated ground until he had been absolved of his guilt.

  At Winchester, the Young King professed himself relieved that none of his liegemen had been involved in the murder.9

  On Easter Day the Pope excommunicated the four knights, those "satellites of Satan"10 who had carried out the murder. For a year they remained holed up in Knaresborough Castle in Yorkshire. Henry's ill-judged failure to punish them convinced many that they had acted on his orders. Later, Hugh de Morville made a penitential pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he received absolution; he was afterwards restored to royal favour, dying in 1204. William de Tracy granted his manor in Devon to the cathedral chapter of Canterbury to expiate his sin, and in 1173 also went on pilgrimage, but died before he could reach Jerusalem.

  Was it the murder of Becket that turned Eleanor against Henry? Certainly, between the Christmas of 1170 and that of 1172, something occurred to turn her feelings for her estranged husband into revulsion. Prior to Becket's murder, there is nothing to suggest that their separation was anything but amicable; indeed, Eleanor had spent most of the year supporting Henry's policies.

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  Although there is no record of Eleanor's reaction to Becket's murder, the fact remains that this event had the effect of turning most of Europe against the King. Eleanor seems to have supported Henry throughout his quarrel with Becket, but while quarrelling was one thing, the brutal murder of an archbishop was quite another-- an outrage that inspired extreme revulsion in most God-fearing people. Even though there were other, contributory factors, it might not be too fanciful to conjecture that the murder went some way towards alienating Eleanor from Henry.

  The Queen was certainly not on hand to console her husband in his anguish. Either she could not bring herself to do so, or (which is more likely), she had already returned to Poitiers. Details of her movements at this time are virtually nonexistent.

  In 1171 the Lord John was approaching five years old, and the King changed his mind about dedicating him to the Church. He had received an envoy, Benedict, Abbot of Chiusa, from Count Humbert of Maurienne (later Savoy and Piedmont), who ruled over a wide domain between Italy and Germany. Humbert was, however, by no means wealthy, and he had no son to succeed him. Desirous of gaining a powerful ally, he now offered the hand of his eldest daughter, Alice, to the Lord John, who was the only one of Henry II's sons as yet unbetrothed. As Alice was Humbert's heiress, John would in time inherit the Count's domains and the Angevins would gain the desirable strategic advantage of controlling the western Alpine passes. Henry was happy to enter into negotiations with Humbert, but for various reasons the matter dragged on for many months.

  In the summer of 1171 the Pope sent two cardinal legates into Normandy to hear Henry's case and discuss with him the terms under which he might receive absolution for the murder of Becket, but the King, fearing excommunication, did not wait to meet with them. On 6 August he returned to England,11 having decided that this would be a good time to embark upon the conquest of Ireland, which had been granted to him by Pope Adrian IV in 1155. On 16 October he set sail with an imposing army from Milford Haven, landing the next day at Waterford and riding north to Dublin, where he established his winter headquarters. He was to remain there, isolated by foul weather, until the next spring. This tactical withdrawal from the continental political arena allowed hostile tempers to cool, so that when the subject of Becket's murder was next raised, it would be approached in a more rational manner.

  The Irish were not so amenable. They were resentful of Henry's

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  distribution of land around Dublin to his followers, and remained in a constant state of rebellion against him. Nevertheless the King managed to impose his authority over a substantial area and, in an astute bid to regain the Pope's favour, instituted reforms of the Church in Ireland, bringing it more into line with that of Rome.

  On 17 April 1172 Henry returned from Ireland to learn that the papal legates were prepared to negotiate a reasonable settlement, and on 12 May he returned to Normandy with the Young King and Marguerite of France. Ten days later, in Avranches Cathedral, having declared on oath that he had neither wished for nor ordered Becket's death, but that he had, unwittingly and in anger, uttered words that had prompted the four knights "to avenge him,"12 Henry was formally absolved by the Archbishop of Rouen of any complicity in the murder of Becket and was reconciled with the Church.13 Afterwards, stripped of his outer garments and clad-- to the astonishment of onlookers-- in a hair shirt, the King knelt on the pavement outside the cathedral and was flogged by monks, as the Young King and the cardinal legates watched, the latter weeping with emotion.14

  Henry then began making reparation. Among other things, the conditions of absolution required him to restore to the See of Canterbury the possessions he had confiscated, to make restitution to those who had suffered as a result of their support of Becket, and to take the Cross for a period of three years with the intention of leading a crusade against the Infidel. However, the Pope excused him from this last obligation in return for his promise to found three religious houses.15

  The King was also required to do penance at some future date and to renounce any laws he had introduced that were detrimental to the Church; subsequently he revoked the two most contentious articles of the Constitutions of Clarendon. Yet although it seemed that Becket, in the end, had won the moral victory, Henry did reserve to the crown the right to protect its interests if threatened by the processes of the Church, and this liberty eventually became enshrined in English law.

 
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