CHAPTER V. THE CONSTITUTIONS OF CLARENDON
On hearing the message the king at once ordered bishops and barons to proceed to the trial of the Primate for this new act of contempt of the King's Court. "In a strait place you have put us," Hilary broke out bitterly to Thomas, "by your prohibition you have set us between the hammer and the anvil!" In vain they again entreated Thomas to yield; in vain they begged the king's leave to sit apart from the barons. Even the Archbishop of York and Foliot sought anxiously for some escape from obeying Henry's orders, and at the head of the bishops prayed that they might themselves appeal to Rome, and thus deal with their own special grievances against Thomas, who had ordered them to swear and then to forswear themselves. To this Henry agreed, and from this time the prelates sat apart, no longer forced to join in the proceedings of the lay lords; while Henry added to the Council certain sheriffs and lesser barons "ancient in days." The assembly thus remodelled formally condemned the archbishop as a traitor, and the earls of Leicester and of Cornwall were sent to pronounce judgment. But the sentence was never spoken. Thomas sprang up, cross in hand, and passionately forbade Leicester to speak. "How can you refuse to obey," said Leicester, "seeing you are the king's man, and hold your possessions as a fief from him?" "God forbid!" said Thomas; "I hold nothing whatever of him in fief, for whatever the Church holds it holds in perpetual liberty, not in subjection to any earthly sovereignty whatever.... I am your father, you princes of the palace, lay powers, secular persons; as gold is better than lead, so is the spiritual better than the lay power.... By my authority I forbid you to pronounce the sentence." As the nobles retired the archbishop raised his cross: "I also withdraw," he said, "for the hour is past." Cries of "Traitor!" followed him down the hall. Knights and barons rushed after him with bundles of straw and sticks snatched up from the floor, and a clamour rose "as if the four parts of the city had been given to flames and the assault of enemies." He made his way slowly through the weeping crowd outside to the monastery of St. Andrews. That night he fled from Northampton. The darkness was "as a covering" to him, and a terrible storm and pelting rain hid the sound of his horse's feet as he passed at midnight through the town, and out by an unguarded gate to the north. At dawn of day the anxious Henry of Winchester came to ask for news. "He is doing well," Thomas's servant whispered in his ear, "for last night he went away from us, and we do not know whither he has gone." "By the blessing of God!" cried the bishop, weeping and sighing. When the news was brought to the king he stood speechless for some moments, choked by his fury, till at last catching his breath, "We have not done with him yet!" he exclaimed.
It seemed, indeed, as though the Council of Northampton had brought nothing but failure and disaster. The king's whole scheme of reform depended on the ruin or the submission of the Primate, who was its open and formidable opponent. But Thomas was free and was now more dangerous than ever. The Church was alarmed, suspicious, perplexed. It was not ten years since Henry had made his first journey round the kingdom with Archbishop Theobald at his side, as the king chosen and appointed by the spiritual power to put down violence and repress a lawless baronage. But now he could no longer look for the aid of the Church; all dream of orderly legislation seemed over. Amid all his violence, however, the king's sincere attempt to maintain the outward authority of law made of the Council of Northampton a great event in our constitutional history. It showed that the rule of pure despotism was over. A new step was taken too in the political education of the nation. Thrown back on the support of his own officials and of the baronage, Henry used the nobles as he had once used the Church. Greater and lesser barons sat together in the King's Council for the first time when Henry summoned sheriffs and knights from the hall of Northampton Castle to the inner council chamber. He taught the nobles their strength when he called the whole assembly of his barons to discuss questions of spiritual jurisdiction. It was at Northampton that he gave them their first training in political action - a training whose full results were seen half a century later in the winning of Magna Charta.