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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Death of Thomas Becket
By James Anthony Froude (1818–1894)
 
From ‘Short Studies on Great Subjects’

THE KNIGHTS were introduced. They advanced. The archbishop neither spoke nor looked at them, but continued talking to a monk who was next him. He himself was sitting on a bed. The rest of the party present were on the floor. The knights seated themselves in the same manner, and for a few moments there was silence. Then Becket’s black, restless eye glanced from one to the other. He slightly noticed Tracy; and Fitzurse said a few unrecorded sentences to him, which ended with “God help you!” To Becket’s friends the words sounded like insolence. They may have meant no more than pity for the deliberate fool who was forcing destruction upon himself.  1
  Becket’s face flushed. Fitzurse went on, “We bring you the commands of the King beyond the sea; will you hear us in public or in private?” Becket said he cared not. “In private, then,” said Fitzurse. The monks thought afterwards that Fitzurse had meant to kill the archbishop where he sat. If the knights had entered the palace, thronged as it was with men, with any such intention, they would scarcely have left their swords behind them. The room was cleared, and a short altercation followed, of which nothing is known save that it ended speedily in high words on both sides. Becket called in his clergy again, his lay servants being excluded, and bade Fitzurse go on. “Be it so,” Sir Reginald said. “Listen, then, to what the King says. When the peace was made, he put aside all his complaints against you. He allowed you to return, as you desired, free to your see. You have now added contempt to your other offenses. You have broken the treaty. You have allowed your pride to tempt you to defy your lord and master to your own sorrow. You have censured the bishops by whose administration the Prince was crowned. You have pronounced an anathema against the King’s ministers, by whose advice he is guided in the management of the empire. You have made it plain that if you could you would take the Prince’s crown from him. Your plots and contrivances to attain your ends are notorious to all men. Say, then, will you attend us to the King’s presence, and there answer for yourself? For this we are sent.”  2
  The archbishop declared that he had never wished any hurt to the Prince. The King had no occasion to be displeased if crowds came about him in the towns and cities, after having been so long deprived of his presence. If he had done any wrong he would make satisfaction, but he protested against being suspected of intentions which had never entered his mind.  3
  Fitzurse did not enter into an altercation with him, but continued:—“The King commands further that you and your clerks repair without delay to the young King’s presence, and swear allegiance, and promise to amend your faults.”  4
  The archbishop’s temper was fast rising. “I will do whatever may be reasonable,” he said, “but I tell you plainly, the King shall have no oaths from me, nor from any one of my clergy. There has been too much perjury already. I have absolved many, with God’s help, who had perjured themselves. I will absolve the rest when he permits.”  5
  “I understand you to say that you will not obey,” said Fitzurse, and went on in the same tone:—“The King commands you to absolve the bishops whom you have excommunicated without his permission” (absque licentiâ suâ).  6
  “The Pope sentenced the bishops,” the archbishop said. “If you are not pleased, you must go to him. The affair is none of mine.”  7
  Fitzurse said it had been done at his instigation, which he did not deny; but he proceeded to reassert that the King had given his permission. He had complained at the time of the peace of the injury which he had suffered in the coronation, and the King had told him that he might obtain from the Pope any satisfaction for which he liked to ask.  8
  If this was all the consent which the King had given, the pretense of his authority was inexcusable. Fitzurse could scarce hear the archbishop out with patience. “Ay, ay!” said he; “will you make the King out to be a traitor, then? The King gave you leave to excommunicate the bishops when they were acting by his own order! It is more than we can bear to listen to such monstrous accusations.”  9
  John of Salisbury tried to check the archbishop’s imprudent tongue, and whispered to him to speak to the knights in private; but when the passion was on him, no mule was more ungovernable than Becket. Drawing to a conclusion, Fitzurse said to him:—“Since you refuse to do any one of those things which the King requires of you, his final commands are that you and your clergy shall forthwith depart out of this realm and out of his dominions, never more to return. You have broken the peace, and the King cannot trust you again.”  10
  Becket answered wildly that he would not go—never again would he leave England. Nothing but death should now part him from his church. Stung by the reproach of ill-faith, he poured out the catalogue of his own injuries. He had been promised restoration, and instead of restoration he had been robbed and insulted. Ranulf de Broc had laid an embargo on his wine. Robert de Broc had cut off his mule’s tail; and now the knights had come to menace him.  11
  De Morville said that if he had suffered any wrong he had only to appeal to the Council, and justice would be done.  12
  Becket did not wish for the Council’s justice. “I have complained enough,” he said; “so many wrongs are daily heaped upon me that I could not find messengers to carry the tale of them. I am refused access to the court. Neither one king nor the other will do me right. I will endure it no more. I will use my own powers as archbishop, and no child of man shall prevent me.”  13
  “You will lay the realm under interdict, then, and excommunicate the whole of us?” said Fitzurse.  14
  “So God help me,” said one of the others, “he shall not do that. He has excommunicated over-many already. We have borne too long with him.”  15
  The knights sprang to their feet, twisting their gloves and swinging their arms. The archbishop rose. In the general noise words could no longer be accurately heard. At length the knights moved to leave the room, and addressing the archbishop’s attendants, said, “In the King’s name we command you to see that this man does not escape.”  16
  “Do you think I shall fly, then?” cried the archbishop. “Neither for the King nor for any living man will I fly. You cannot be more ready to kill me than I am to die…. Here you will find me,” he shouted, following them to the door as they went out, and calling after them. Some of his friends thought that he had asked De Morville to come back and speak quietly with him, but it was not so. He returned to his seat, still excited and complaining.  17
  “My lord,” said John of Salisbury to him, “it is strange that you will never be advised. What occasion was there for you to go after these men and exasperate them with your bitter speeches? You would have done better, surely, by being quiet and giving them a milder answer. They mean no good, and you only commit yourself.”  18
  The archbishop sighed, and said, “I have done with advice. I know what I have before me.”  19
  It was four o’clock when the knights entered. It was now nearly five; and unless there were lights the room must have been almost dark. Beyond the archbishop’s chamber was an ante-room, beyond the ante-room the hall. The knights, passing through the hall into the quadrangle, and thence to the lodge, called their men to arms. The great gate was closed. A mounted guard was stationed outside, with orders to allow no one to go out or in. The knights threw off their cloaks and buckled on their swords. This was the work of a few minutes. From the cathedral tower the vesper bell was beginning to sound. The archbishop had seated himself to recover from the agitation of the preceding scene, when a breathless monk rushed in to say that the knights were arming. “Who cares? Let them arm,” was all that the archbishop said. His clergy was less indifferent. If the archbishop was ready for death, they were not. The door from the hall into the court was closed and barred, and a short respite was thus secured. The intention of the knights, it may be presumed, was to seize the archbishop and carry him off to Saltwood or to De Morville’s castle at Knaresborough, or perhaps to Normandy. Coming back to execute their purpose, they found themselves stopped by the hall door. To burst it open would require time; the ante-room between the hall and the archbishop’s apartments opened by an oriel window and an outside stair into a garden. Robert de Broc, who knew the house well, led the way to it in the dark. The steps were broken, but a ladder was standing against the window, by which the knights mounted, and the crash of the falling casement told the fluttered group about the archbishop that their enemies were upon them. There was still a moment. The party who entered by the window, instead of turning into the archbishop’s room, first went into the hall to open the door and admit their comrades. From the archbishop’s room a second passage, little used, opened into the northwest corner of the cloister, and from the cloister there was a way into the north transept of the cathedral. The cry was “To the church! To the church!” There at least there would be immediate safety.  20
  The archbishop had told the knights that they would find him where they left him. He did not choose to show fear; or he was afraid, as some thought, of losing his martyrdom. He would not move. The bell had ceased. They reminded him that vespers had begun, and that he ought to be in the cathedral. Half yielding, half resisting, his friends swept him down the passage into the cloister. His cross had been forgotten in the haste. He refused to stir till it was fetched and carried before him as usual. Then only, himself incapable of fear, and rebuking the terror of the rest, he advanced deliberately to the door into the south transept. His train was scattered behind him, all along the cloister from the passage leading out of the palace. As he entered the church, cries were heard, from which it became plain that the knights had broken into the archbishop’s room, had found the passage, and were following him. Almost immediately Fitzurse, Tracy, De Morville, and Le Breton were discerned in the dim light, coming through the cloister in their armor, with drawn swords, and axes in their left hands. A company of men-at-arms was behind them. In front they were driving before them a frightened flock of monks.  21
  From the middle of the transept in which the archbishop was standing, a single pillar rose into the roof. On the eastern side of it opened a chapel of St. Benedict, in which were the tombs of several of the old primates. On the west, running of course parallel to the nave, was a Lady chapel. Behind the pillar, steps led up into the choir, where voices were already singing vespers. A faint light may have been reflected into the transept from the choir tapers, and candles may perhaps have been burning before the altars in the two chapels; of light from without through the windows at that hour there could have been none. Seeing the knights coming on, the clergy who had entered with the archbishop closed the door and barred it. “What do you fear?” he cried in a clear, loud voice. “Out of the way, you coward! the Church of God must not be made a fortress.” He stepped back and reopened the door with his own hands, to let in the trembling wretches who had been shut out among the wolves. They rushed past him, and scattered in the hiding-places of the vast sanctuary, in the crypt, in the galleries, or behind the tombs. All, or almost all, even of his closest friends,—William of Canterbury, Benedict, John of Salisbury himself,—forsook him to shift for themselves, admitting frankly that they were unworthy of martyrdom. The archbishop was left alone with his chaplain Fitzstephen, Robert of Merton his old master, and Edward Grim, the stranger from Cambridge,—or perhaps with Grim only, who says that he was the only one who stayed, and was the only one certainly who showed any sign of courage. A cry had been raised in the choir that armed men were breaking into the cathedral. The vespers ceased; the few monks assembled left their seats and rushed to the edge of the transept, looking wildly into the darkness.  22
  The archbishop was on the fourth step beyond the central pillar ascending into the choir, when the knights came in. The outline of his figure may have been just visible to them, if light fell upon it from candles in the Lady chapel. Fitzurse passed to the right of the pillar, De Morville, Tracy, and Le Breton to the left. Robert de Broc, and Hugh Mauclerc, another apostate priest, remained at the door by which they entered. A voice cried, “Where is the traitor? Where is Thomas Becket?” There was silence; such a name could not be acknowledged. “Where is the archbishop?” Fitzurse shouted. “I am here,” the archbishop replied, descending the steps, and meeting the knights full in the face. “What do you want with me? I am not afraid of your swords. I will not do what is unjust.” The knights closed round him. “Absolve the persons whom you have excommunicated,” they said, “and take off the suspensions.” “They have made no satisfaction,” he answered; “I will not.” “Then you shall die as you have deserved,” they said.  23
  They had not meant to kill him—certainly not at that time and in that place. One of them touched him on the shoulder with the flat of his sword, and hissed in his ears, “Fly, or you are a dead man.” There was still time; with a few steps he would have been lost in the gloom of the cathedral, and could have concealed him in any one of a hundred hiding-places. But he was careless of life, and he felt that his time was come. “I am ready to die,” he said. “May the Church through my blood obtain peace and liberty! I charge you in the name of God that you hurt no one here but me.”  24
  The people from the town were now pouring into the cathedral; De Morville was keeping them back with difficulty at the head of the steps from the choir, and there was danger of a rescue. Fitzurse seized him, meaning to drag him off as a prisoner. He had been calm so far; his pride rose at the indignity of an arrest. “Touch me not, thou abominable wretch!” he said, wrenching his cloak out of Fitzurse’s grasp. “Off, thou pander, thou!” Le Breton and Fitzurse grasped him again, and tried to force him upon Tracy’s back. He grappled with Tracy and flung him to the ground, and then stood with his back against the pillar, Edward Grim supporting him. Fitzurse, stung by the foul epithet which Becket had thrown at him, swept his sword over him and dashed off his cap. Tracy, rising from the pavement, struck direct at his head. Grim raised his arm and caught the blow. The arm fell broken, and the one friend found faithful sank back disabled against the wall. The sword with its remaining force wounded the archbishop above the forehead, and the blood trickled down his face. Standing firmly, with his hands clasped, he bent his neck for the death-stroke, saying in a low voice, “I am prepared to die for Christ and for his Church.” These were his last words. Tracy again struck him. He fell forward upon his knees and hands. In that position Le Breton dealt him a blow which severed the scalp from the head and broke the sword against the stone, saying, “Take that for my Lord William.” De Broc or Mauclerc—the needless ferocity was attributed to both of them—strode forward from the cloister door, set his foot on the neck of the dead lion, and spread the brains upon the pavement with his sword’s point. “We may go,” he said; “the traitor is dead, and will trouble us no more.”  25
  Such was the murder of Becket, the echoes of which are still heard across seven centuries of time, and which, be the final judgment upon it what it may, has its place among the most enduring incidents of English history. Was Becket a martyr, or was he justly executed as a traitor to his sovereign? Even in that supreme moment of terror and wonder, opinions were divided among his own monks. That very night Grim heard one of them say, “He is no martyr, he is justly served.” Another said—scarcely feeling, perhaps, the meaning of the words,—“He wished to be king and more than king. Let him be king, let him be king.” Whether the cause for which he died was to prevail, or whether the sacrifice had been in vain, hung on the answer which would be given to this momentous question. In a few days or weeks an answer came in a form to which in that age no rejoinder was possible; and the only uncertainty which remained at Canterbury was whether it was lawful to use the ordinary prayers for the repose of the dead man’s soul, or whether, in consequence of the astounding miracles which were instantly worked by his remains, the Pope’s judgment ought not to be anticipated, and the archbishop ought not to be at once adored as a saint in heaven.  26
 
 
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