We now approach a period in our history which must awaken a peculiar interest in the mind of the English reader. The Anglo-Saxon was giving place to the Anglo-Norman rule both in Church and State. The whole condition of the country was either changed or changing. But the Italian priest was far from being satisfied with the footing which he had under the reign of the Normans. The blooming vineyard of Naboth was coveted, and must be possessed by fair means or foul. England, with all its pride and wealth and power, must be reduced to a state of subserviency to the Roman See. This was her settled purpose, and necessary to the carrying out of her scheme. We will first notice the position of the antagonists, and then the nature and end of the fierce struggle.
During the reign of Alexander III., an able, subtle, and vigilant pontiff, a great contest arose in England between Henry II. and Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, which drew away and absorbed the whole mind of Europe for many years. It resembled in its main features the long war between Henry IV. and Gregory VII., only, if possible, pursued with greater bitterness and obstinacy, and ending more tragically. A more violent collision between the spiritual and the temporal powers had not occurred since the days of Constantine. The personal character and the position of the leaders, no doubt, gave a world-wide interest to the conflict. But it was much more than personal: the whole question of the power of Rome in England, the prerogative of the Sovereign, and the responsibility of the subject, was involved in this new war. Henry, of true Norman blood, was determined to be the king, and to govern his subjects according to the laws and customs of the realm; Becket, a violent churchman, was equally determined to maintain, according to the infallible decrees of Rome, that the hierarchy is a separate and privileged caste in the community, entitled to exemption from trial by civil process, and subject only to its own jurisdiction.
The English reader of the nineteenth century may well be surprised to hear that a decree from the Vatican, sent by the pope's legate, for the purpose of changing the laws and customs of England, should be for a moment listened to, far less yielded to. But this was the way then; and the mightiest monarchs in Europe were made to bow in ignominious submission at the feet of the pontiff. But why this dreadful slavish fear of Rome? Because of the ignorance and superstition of the people generally. "The Romish system, with all its insolent pretensions, was still shrouded in a blood-red halo of superstitious reverence, which scared away thought, or quenched it in the fear of death temporal and eternal." The cunning priest could pretend to shake the keys of St. Peter in the face of his opponent, and threaten to lock him out of heaven and to lock him up in hell, if he did not obey the church. It was their avowed sanctity and their wicked perversion of scripture that gave them such power over the ignorant and superstitious.
From the earliest period, the kings of England were acknowledged both by clergy and laity to have the fullest power in matters pertaining to the external government of the church. Whether touching the property and the endowments of the churches, or the persons of the clergy, the authority of the crown was, by law and custom of the realm, supreme. Edward, the Anglo-Saxon king, told the clergy that "they wielded the sword of St. Peter, he the sword of Constantine." And of William the Conqueror, his biographer says, "All affairs, ecclesiastical as well as secular, were made dependent on his pleasure." But during the twelfth century the country was gradually sinking into a state of deplorable subjection to the Roman See.
At the same time, we must not forget that, although the progress of the church was towards Rome, God in His infinite mercy over-ruled the temporal power of the clergy and the great ecclesiastical establishments of the monks for the protection and blessing of the poor in the land. He ever thinks, blessed be His name, of "the poor of the flock." By the Norman conquest of England, a foreign hierarchy as well as a foreign nobility had been introduced; but the lower offices generally were filled with Saxons, whose language and feelings were in sympathy with the native population.
This gave them an immense power over the popular mind. They were looked upon as the the shepherds of their flocks, and the guides and comforters of the distressed. The Normans, whose language and feelings were still foreign, were hated as their oppressors and spoilers. The English had been sacrificed by William to supply the liberal grants of lands and places of honor, which he bestowed upon his followers; and thus the Saxons, in their turn, were compelled to become the servants or dependents of their conquerors. Whatsoever a man sows that shall he also reap. His sin is sure to find him out. But the feeling of personal wrong was another thing, and sure to mingle in every fresh conflict between the races. This is manifest in the great struggle between the Norman king and the English primate, and may assist us in our judgment of its important results. But we must first notice that which immediately led to the dispute.
After repeated attempts and repeated failures, on the part of the pope, to introduce a legatine power into England, it was so far accomplished during the troubled reign of Stephen, A.D. 1135. This was an entirely new thing in this country, and a most daring thing on the part of Rome. But as it forms a distinct and important epoch in the history of the English church, we must carefully mark the change. And here, to ensure accuracy, we will quote a few passages from our legal historian, Thomas Greenwood, barrister-at-law, book 12, vol. 5.
"The publication and adoption of the Isidorian Decretals changed the order and distribution of the ecclesiastical powers. Every function of church management became vested in the clergy, or, which was the same thing, in the Pope of Rome as their supreme head. The authority of the state in all matters even remotely connected with the life and conversation, temporal or spiritual, of churchmen, was vehemently denounced and repelled: their possessions were pronounced sacred and inalienable; their duties subject to no censorship but that of their official superiors; their persons exempt from secular jurisdiction or punishment; all interference on the part of prince or secular person in the appointment of bishops, priests, or spiritual incumbents was declared to be of the nature of simony. Although these principles of church legislation had been in few instances fully developed in practice, they had been received without contradiction, and partially adopted by the clergy of France, Italy, and Germany. In Normandy a complete separation of the secular and ecclesiastical jurisdiction had already taken place. In England, however, as yet the only canons known to clergy or laity were those enacted by the national church herself, with the assent and concurrence of the sovereign...The exertions of the Romanizing bishops of England, subsequent to the conquest, were steadily directed to the introduction of the more important articles of the Isidorian code; more especially to the; emancipation of church property and endowments from its dependence upon crown or secular ordinance, and of the persons and causes of clerks from the interference of the king's judges..."
"The earlier ordinances of William the Conqueror for the separation of the ecclesiastical from the lay tribunals were never carried out to the extent of exempting churchmen from responsibility to the law. But it is also true, that both the Conqueror and his successors, down to John, endeavored to steer a middle course between canonism and prerogative. In their solicitude to stand well with the court of Rome, they often took steps which endangered the safety, but certainly never shifted the ancient basis, of the law of the land, or the rights of the crown. In the bitter quarrel between Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury and Henry I., the latter stoutly maintained his right to determine which of the two rival pretenders to the papacy the clergy of his dominions should recognize. And when Anselm, without the king's consent, insisted upon transferring his spiritual allegiance to Urban
II. in preference to his rival Clement III., Henry bluntly informed him that 'he knew of no law or custom which entitled a subject, without the king's license, to set up a pope of his own over the kingdom of England; and that any man who should presume to take out of his hands the decision of that question would have as good a right to take the crown from his head!'..."
"The struggle between Henry and Anselm was long and obstinate. The bishop fled to Rome; the king seized the temporalities of his See. While the contest was still undecided, a papal officer appeared on the coast announcing himself as legate of the court of Rome, entrusted with a legatine power over all England from the pope. But the king held it to be a special prerogative of his crown to accept or reject at pleasure such interferences with the ordinary course of ecclesiastical government by a foreign prince; and the legate was sent away without having been admitted to the presence of the king. About fifteen years afterwards, the same pope made a second attempt to introduce a legate-extraordinary into the kingdom, but with no better success... A third attempt of the same pontiff was equally unsuccessful. It was indeed, by this time, pretty well understood that the law and custom of England repudiated the legative commission, as an illegal interference with the ordinary course of church government, which the common law had placed under the superintendence of the sovereign."
But after the death of the wise and able Henry I., which took place in 1135, the crafty and persevering pope — Alexander III. — was more successful. In the reign of Stephen, a feeble monarch, a legate from Rome made his way into our island. The Anglican prelates fully understood the drift of the movement; and a synod held in London protested, in the face of the legate, against the presumption of a foreign priest in taking the presidential chair above archbishops, bishops, abbots, and the assembled nobility of the whole realm of England. The protest, however, remained without effect. A timid and time-serving spirit was creeping into the heart of the Anglican church. The prevailing ignorance of the mass of the people, the secular character of the clergy, the miserable state of the whole country, during the reign of Stephen, afforded a favorable opportunity for the systematic encroachments of the Romanizing party upon the prerogative of the crown and the liberties of the national church. The Anglo-Norman bishops at the time were barons rather than prelates, their palaces were castles, their retainers vassals in arms: almost all were wearing arms, mingling in war, and indulging in all the cruelties and exactions of war. Such were the prelates of England when Henry II. ascended the throne in 1154. The opposition of Becket to this rich and powerful king, throws a clearer light on the secular ambition of Rome than any of the conflicts we have yet recorded.
THOMAS A. BECKET AND HENRY II
The birth and parentage of Becket are unknown. The obscurity of his origin was probably concealed by his biographers. But some say that he was born about the year 1119. According to Du Pin he commenced his studies in London and finished them in Paris, the best school for Norman French.
Soon after his return to England, he was strongly recommended to Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, who employed him in the management of his affairs. Becket was now on the high road to preferment. Theobald, who suspected that the young king Henry was tainted with his father's opposition to the pretensions of Rome, was anxious to place near his person one who might counteract this perversity. The sagacious primate had discerned in his archdeacon, not only great abilities for business, but the elements of a lofty, a determined, and devoted churchman. Through his recommendation Becket was raised to the dignity of chancellor. "He was now the second civil power in the realm, inasmuch as his seal was necessary to countersign all royal mandates. Nor was it without great ecclesiastical influence, as in the chancellor was the appointment of all the royal chaplains, and the custody of vacant bishoprics, abbacies, and benefices." But as Thomas A. Becket has come down to us in school and storybooks of English history, as a saint and a martyr, let us briefly glance at him, in the first place, as a man of the world.
By the affability of his manners, the apparent pliancy of his disposition, the acuteness of his senses, and the attractions of his person, he soon gained the confidence and affections of the king. He made him his constant companion in all his amusements and pleasures; but it was in the graver affairs of government that Henry derived great advantage from the wisdom and prudence of his chancellor. His abilities, it is said, as an accomplished courtier, as a superior military leader, and as a practiced statesman, were unrivalled. To the reader of the present day, an ecclesiastic, who held a number of clerical benefices, being a brave military general, sounds unaccountably strange. But such was the far-famed saint. One of his biographers remarks, "In the expedition made by King Henry to assert his right to the dominions of the Counts of Toulouse, Becket appeared at the head of seven hundred knights who did him service, and foremost in every adventurous exploit was the valiant chancellor. At a period somewhat later, he was left to reduce certain castles which held out against his master, and often distinguished himself for valor and personal prowess: he returned to Henry in Normandy at the head of twelve hundred knights and four thousand horsemen, raised and maintained at his own charge." Another observes, "Who can recount the carnage, the desolation, which he made at the head of a strong body of soldiers? He attacked castles, razed towns and cities to the ground, burned down houses and farms without a touch of pity, and never showed the slightest mercy to any one who rose in insurrection against his master's authority."
Grave and serious churchmen, even in those days, would no doubt mourn over such things in the Archdeacon of Canterbury; but the practice was too common to excite much surprise. Secular dignity, alas! had become the grand object of ambition with nearly all the clergy, so that many more would be found to admire the course of Becket, than to grieve over it. His wealth, magnificence, and power, exceeded all precedent. He was king in all but name. The world, it was said, had never seen two friends so entirely one. But like the friendship of the world, or of two selfish, ambitious, unscrupulous men, it lasted just as long as it served their interests. This we shall now see and in a way which has been seldom witnessed.
About a year after the death of Theobald, Becket was by the King named, Archbishop of Canterbury and primate of all England. Before his elevation to the throne, he had feigned to be wholly devoted to the interests of his royal master; but from the moment that his election had been made known to Alexander III., and especially after their meeting at the Council of Tours, his whole heart and soul became completely changed towards his sovereign. He returned from Tours to Canterbury, the professed, the inflexible, vassal of Rome, an enemy to his king and the laws of his country. Such was, and is, and ever must be, the spirit of popery. The intentions of the King to limit the growing power of the church were well known to Becket, who had presided in his privy council. But these intentions must be opposed at all costs; and thus the battle began.
The pretensions of the sacerdotal order as a separate caste of mankind, from the highest to the lowest, had become extremely perplexing to the civil government, and a great obstruction to its administration. The church demanded complete exemption from the control of secular law. It was boldly maintained, that the persons and property of the clergy should be placed beyond the reach of the ordinary tribunals, responsible only to their own superiors, and directly subject in life and property to the decrees of Rome. But lawlessness leads to violence; and the result of this papal aggression in England was a fearful increase of crime, to the imminent peril of the life and property of the subject. "For example," says our barrister, "it was proved that, since the commencement of the reign of Henry II., no fewer than a hundred murders had been committed by clerks in orders with almost absolute impunity. Rape, arson, robbery, theft, were excused or sheltered under the frock of the priest or the cowl of the monk; no penalties known to the Canon law existed adequate to the repression and punishment of crimes of so deep a dye; and King Henry was at length driven to put the significant question, 'Whether the ancient laws and customs of the realm were to be observed or not.'"
The King, determined to bring these great questions to an issue, summoned a parliament at Westminster, and demanded a plain answer to his question. The answer given by the clergy to the King's question was that the ancient laws and customs of the realm ought to be observed and kept, "saying always the privileges of their order." This reply, although it had the appearance of an evasion, was really a refusal. The King, in a state of great consternation, broke up the assembly, left London, and began to deprive Becket of his power, and of the privilege and honor of educating his son. The bishops taking alarm, knowing the pride and power of Henry, entreated their primate either to withdraw or change the offensive answer. But he at first declared that if an angel from heaven should counsel such weakness, he would hold him accursed. He at length, however, yielded: some say through the influence of Pope Alexander, as Henry had threatened not to pay Peter's pence. And thus, all through the long quarrel, the pope sided with the king when he needed money, and with Becket when he could do without it.
But, having received an answer in the affirmative from the hierarchy, the king summoned a great council of the realm to Clarendon, a royal palace near Salisbury, to ratify the concession. The King's object was peace. The law of the land was everywhere set at defiance by the church, the exercise of justice interrupted, and the country threatened with an internecine war. The King had the laws and customs drawn up in due legal form to be signed by the lay barons and bishops, in the hope of settling the contest between the crown and the church. Whether from fear of the King's rage, or from policy, or treachery, it is difficult to say; but the archbishop took the oath and signed the celebrated "Constitutions of Clarendon." He was followed by the rest of the bishops. They thus escaped out of the hands of the King and the barons. But it is perfectly plain that Becket never for a moment intended to obey the laws which he had so solemnly sealed and sworn to keep to the King's honor. He knew his remedy for the basest perjury. Not a moment was to be host; he made known to the: pope what he had reluctantly done; and within a month he received a formal condemnation of the "Constitutions," with letters "absolving him from all engagements contrary to the canons, and a mandate to all the bishops and prelates of the kingdom without scruple to break through any promises of the like nature they might have contracted."
Could perjury be more deliberate, or dissimulation more coolly perpetrated? And that by one who stood highest in the church and nearest to the person of his royal master? The heart sickens as the pen transcribes such daring unblushing wickedness. Surely there is no iniquity so great as that which cloaked itself under the name of Jesus, and of Christianity. Such revelations give us the most distressing ideas of the evil spirit of popery. The worst of crimes towards both God and man are justifiable if they further the worldly power and greatness of the church. When, and in what circumstances, we may ask, with such double dealing before us, is the real papist to be trusted? Thankful we are that we are not his judge, but God will judge mankind.
"Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that Man whom He hath ordained; whereof He hath given assurance unto all men, in that He hath raised Him from the dead." (Ac 17:31.)
The archbishop, who had won the confidence, and made himself familiar with every feeling of the King's heart, kept the pope fully informed of all that passed between them; so that he well knew when to humor the King and when his zealous minister. But surely this is the basest of all treachery on the part of a servant, and the most unrighteous conduct on the part of his spiritual guide. But no man can serve two masters. He must be traitor to one; and so it was in the case before us; and one of the darkest complexion on record. No sooner had the primate appended his seal to the "Constitutions of Clarendon," than Alexander had notice both of his repentance and his renunciation. "The poison was no sooner swallowed than the antidote was at his lips."
War was now publicly declared between the prerogative of the crown and the pretensions of the church. The same battle, which was fought between Henry IV. of Germany and Gregory VII., was to be fought over again on English ground by the King and the archbishop. Becket resigned the chancellorship and returned the seals of his office. He withdrew from the pleasures of the court, the chase, the banquet, the tournament, the war, and the board of council; and became all at once an austere and mortified monk. He wore a monk's frock, a haircloth shirt, and flogged himself with an iron scourge. All his fine establishments were broken up; he fasted on bread and water, lay on the hard floor, and every night with his own hands he washed the feet of thirteen beggars. This assumed unapproachable sanctity was his strength for battle. Secular hands may not touch the holy man of God — the Lord's anointed high priest. Becket knew his man; he had studied every fold of his character.
Henry was astonished, uneasy, disappointed. He had raised his favorite minister to the still higher position of Archbishop of Canterbury, that his services might be more effectual against the Romanizing party in England. It was no question, be it observed, as to the proper legal privileges of the church of England; Henry had shown no disposition to encroach upon them. But the church had shown, through the instructions of the pope, the most resolute purpose to encroach on the liberties of the crown and the whole people of England. And the King knew no man in all his dominions so able to contend in talent and acuteness with the emissaries of Rome as his gay chancellor and boon-companion.
Now, he thought, we have one at the head of the Church, as well as the State, who will do good battle for the liberties of the crown and the people of his native land. But it was not for these worthy objects that Becket had accepted the ring and crosier. From the moment that he touched his episcopal crucifix, he was the sworn vassal to death of the Roman See, and the avowed enemy of every man and principle that opposed the interests of the chair of St. Peter. And Henry soon found that his able and pliant chancellor, "from whom he had expected support and victory, had turned against him with the most ruthless animosity, and pushed the pretensions of Rome to a pitch they had never reached before."
It is not difficult to suppose with what feelings the proud and injured Plantagenet received the news of his primate's behavior. Besides possessing wealth and power above any monarch of his time, he was a man of great ability, decision, and activity. After various but fruitless attempts to bring the refractory priest to repentance, orders were given that he should be tried as a traitor. Becket, knowing the temper and power of Henry, reasonably concluded that his best chance of personal safety lay in immediate flight. He was received by the King of France, not as a fugitive, but as a distinguished guest worthy of all honor. The archbishop was now proclaimed a traitor; his personal friends and relations and friends were banished; and severe measures were adopted to prevent communications with his partisans in England. Becket, in retaliation, excommunicated all his opponents. And thus the storm and strife raged for seven long years; during which time, many sovereigns, popes and anti-popes, prelates and dignitaries of every kind, were mixed up with it. But into that maze of falsehood, treachery, and unrighteousness, we must not follow.
Having examined with some care the great questions of Church and State — and not without a measure of national interest — which led to this unseemly contest, we feel that our work is done. The details of these seven years would be tedious and unprofitable to read, and most painful to write. The worst passions of our fallen human nature were abundantly displayed. Besides, such disputes can have no termination unless it be in the death of the priest or the submission of the King. According to papal principles the priest can never be wrong and can never yield.
This was Becket's ground, and he inflexibly maintained it. But at last, through the intercession of the French king and the pope, he was allowed to return from his exile. The sincerity of Henry he much doubted, but his return he considered a glorious triumph over the King. He was as haughty and unyielding as ever. He demanded the immediate restitution of the estates of his See, and peremptorily refused to absolve the bishops and others whom he had excommunicated.
As from the beginning of the strife, his bearing was insulting and defiant. The conduct of Becket since his return was detailed to Henry by the bishops who implored his protection for themselves and the clergy of the realm. One of them incautiously said, "So long as Thomas lives, you will never be at: peace." The King's mind was greatly troubled and sought relief. Chafed to madness by the unconquerable firmness and arrogance of Becket, the secret wish of his heart burst from his lips — "I am an unhappy prince: will none revenge me on a single insolent priest, who gives me so much trouble, and endeavors by every means to make void my royal authority? "
It is by no means certain that there was any deadly purpose in the mind of the King when he uttered these hasty words, but those around him put their own interpretation upon them. Four knights, chamberlains of the King, fierce and warlike men, resolved on the desperate service. Reginald Fitz-Urse, William de Tracy, Hugh de Morville, and Reginald Brito, disappeared from the court, then at Bayeux. Fearing the intention of the absent knights, the King despatched with all speed the Earl of Mandeville with orders to arrest the primate, and to recall the four knights. But the murderers hurried across the channel, and before the King's messengers could overtake them, the archbishop was assassinated.
The particulars of this dark deed of blood are well-known to most of our readers, and need not be dwelt upon here. But we may add, as well-authenticated history, that it does not appear that the four knights had deliberately determined on the murder of the primate without first endeavoring to obtain a promise of obedience to the King, and to absolve the bishops. Hence they entered his chamber unarmed. But their imperious demands, and his haughty defiant answers, roused the worst passions of those feudal lords, who had a strong sense of the subject's allegiance to the sovereign. They became furious, rushed out and called for their arms. The gates were closed behind them. It was some time before they could break in. Every one knew what must follow. The archbishop might have escaped but he would not; the victory was already his, it would be greater if he were martyred. The bell was toiling for vespers. He walked into the church in solemn state with his crosier carried before him. The noise of armed men was heard in the cloister; the affrighted monks fled. "Where is the traitor? " shouted one; no answer. "Where is the archbishop? ... Here I am," he answered. Again the knights demanded the absolution of the bishops, and an oath of allegiance to the King. He refused. A fierce altercation followed, which ended in blows, and the archbishop was slain at the altar. The murderers fled, first to Rome to do penance, then to Jerusalem, where, according to the pope's orders, they spent the remainder of their days in penitential austerities.
The King was greatly troubled on hearing the appalling news of the sacrilegious murder. A feeling of horror ran through Christendom, and the King was branded as an irreligious tyrant, and Becket was worshipped as a martyred saint. His death was attributed to the King's direct orders. For three days and nights the unhappy monarch shut himself up in solitude, and refused all food and comfort, till his attendants began to fear for his life. At the close of his penance he sent envoys to the pope to clear himself of all participation in the crime. Alexander was so indignant at first, that he would listen to nothing, or even permit the execrated name of the King of England to be uttered in his presence. He threatened to excommunicate the King by name, and to pronounce with the utmost solemnity an interdict on all his dominions. "Mediators, however, were always to be found," says Greenwood, "for a proper consideration at the papal court. Certain cardinals were cautiously sounded, and found not inaccessible to the arguments with which the envoys were, as usual, abundantly supplied. Thus introduced, the pope permitted himself to be propitiated." Terms of reconciliation were talked of; but the pope had now his foot on the King's neck and he was determined to have papal terms before he relieved him. His personal triumph over the headstrong King was as complete as could be desired.
Two cardinals were despatched by Alexander with legatine power to meet Henry in Normandy, inquire more fully into the whole case, and substantiate the King's penance. Henry swore on the Gospels that he had neither commanded nor desired the death of Becket; that he had not grieved so deeply over the death of his father or his mother; yet he confessed that words uttered in his anger against that holy man might possibly have led to his death; for which cause he was prepared to do penance as the pontiff might see fit to exact. The Holy See then demanded and Henry stipulated:
"1. To maintain two hundred knights at his own cost in the Holy Land.
Having duly sealed and attested the formal deed, the King was reconciled to the pope in the porch of the church, on May 22, 1172; but he was not yet out of the hands of the inexorable priests; his degradation was not yet complete.
The clergy preached from their pulpits, and the people were ready enough to believe, that certain family trials which befel the King about this time were the judgments of God for the persecution of His saint. The people were also led to believe that the saint had been fighting the battles of the poor against the rich — especially of the poor and oppressed Saxons against the cruel and avaricious Normans. Depressed by misfortunes, accused of complicity with the murderers, and haunted by superstitious fears, the unhappy prince was prepared to make a full atonement for his sins. Nothing short of a public humiliation, he was assured, could appease offended heaven and the martyred saint. The scenes of Canosa must be enacted over again. Such is the true spirit of the relentless priesthood of Rome. If they cannot shed the blood of their victims, they will force him to drink the bitterest dregs of humiliation.
About three years after the death of Becket, the King visited his tomb at Canterbury. When he came within sight of the church where the archbishop lay buried, he alighted from his horse, and for three miles walked in the habit of a pilgrim with bare and bleeding feet along the rough road. He threw himself prostrate before the tomb of the now canonized saint. After lying in that position for a considerable time he prayed to be scourged by the monks; an operation which they were not unwilling to perform. So, from one end of the church to the other, the pride of the monks was gratified, by each one inflicting a few stripes on the back of the haughty Norman. He then passed all that day and night without any refreshment, kneeling upon the bare stones.
The triumph of the spiritual over the temporal power, in the person of the King, and well nigh over the law of the land, was complete. And thus the ambitious purposes of the papacy were better served by the death of their champion than they could have been by
By way of helping the reader to form a fair judgment on this long and bitter contest, we offer a few reflections. Nothing, we believe, can give the protestant reader so just an estimate of the real spirit of popery as a history of its ambitious designs, and its unscrupulous means of attaining them.
If we inquire, What was the real object of the great and tragic struggle, what answer can be given? Was it for the spiritual liberties of the church of God, that she might be privileged to worship and serve Him according to the teaching of His holy word? Had the primate or the pope in view, the civil and religious liberties of individual Christians, or the welfare of mankind at large? Or did they even raise the voice of remonstrance against the King or his court for their open and flagrant violation of the laws of God, and warn them of judgment to come? All who have taken pains to examine the details of the controversy must admit, however sorrowfully, that none of these worthy objects had any place in their thoughts. Their object was one, and only one — priestly power! Every thing — truth, Christianity, the peace of the church, the peace of the nation, to say nothing of the glory of Christ, or the realities of eternity — all were sacrificed on the altar of the deified claims of the clergy. Becket was the representative of these claims. He demanded for the persons and property of the clergy an absolute inviolable sanctity. "From beginning to end," says Milman, "it was a strife for the authority, the immunities, the possessions of the clergy. The liberty of the church was the exemption of the clergy from law; the vindication of their separate, exclusive, distinctive existence from the rest of mankind. It must be acknowledged by all, that if the King would have consented to allow the churchmen to despise all law — if he had not insisted on hanging priests guilty of homicide as freely as laymen — he might have gone on un-reproved in his career of ambition; he might un-rebuked have lived in direct violation of every Christian precept of justice, humanity, conjugal fidelity; extorted without remonstrance of the clergy any revenue from his subjects, if he had kept his hands from the treasures of the church."
Such is the solemn and weighty judgment of a church dignitary, who will not be accused of prejudice against his own class, but whose criticisms are considered most valuable and just, as his history is in other respects most reliable.
We not only agree with all the Dean says, but would add, that no language, however weighty and solemn, could adequately express the depths of evil which were sheltered and propagated by the papal system. We speak not thus, be it observed, of the Catholic church, or rather of the church ecclesiastically considered as distinct from the papacy; but of the secular ambition and unscrupulous policy of the popes, especially from the time of Hildebrand. But there have been, notwithstanding, during the darkest period of her history, many dear saints of God in her communion, who knew nothing of the evil ways of the bishop of Rome and his council. This the Lord Himself intimates, in His address to Thyatira. "But unto you I say, and unto the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine, and which have not known the depths of Satan." Here we find a believing remnant connected with a system which is characterized by "the depths of Satan." (Re 2:24.)
Before taking our leave of this already long story, we would further add, that the tragical death of Becket was immediately and diligently improved by the disciples of his school. Biographies and memoirs of the martyr, we are informed, were multiplied and scattered abroad with surprising industry. The strong element of idolatry, which has ever been in the church of Rome, now became manifest in England. Pilgrimages to the tomb of the martyr for the remission of sins became fashionable; and the saint himself became an object of popular devotion. Pilgrims from all parts flocked to his shrine, and enriched it with the most costly gifts and offerings. A large trade was done in articles said to have been in contact with his person, and were now invested with miraculous virtue. As many as one hundred thousand pilgrims were. registered on one occasion in Canterbury. Even Louis VII. of France made a pilgrimage to the wonderworking tomb, and bestowed on the shrine a jewel which was esteemed the richest in Christendom. But Henry VIII. dared to pillage the rich shrine, ordered the saint to be raised, his bones to be burnt, and his ashes to be thrown to the winds.
Chapter 23 - The Theology of the Church of Rome