CHAPTER V. THE CONSTITUTIONS OF CLARENDON
The punishment might seem severe enough, but Henry would accept no compromise. With a burst of fury he declared that just judgment for murder was refused because the offender was in orders. Resolute that the question should once for all be settled, he summoned a council at Westminster on October 1. There he demanded, "for love of him and for safety of the kingdom," that accused clerks should be tried by the common law, and that if proved guilty, they should be degraded by the bishops, and given up to the executioner for punishment. He complained of the exactions of the ecclesiastical courts, and urged that in all matters concerning these courts or the rights of the clergy, the bishops should return to the customs of Henry the First. Such a course would have left them at the king's mercy, and the prelates wavered in their sore distress. The king's friends contended that a guilty clerk deserved punishment double that of a layman, and urged the need of submission at this moment when the Church was torn asunder by schism; and the bishops frankly admitted a yet more pressing consideration: "For if we do not what the king wishes," they said, "flight will be cut off from us, and no man will seek after our souls; but if we consent to the king, we shall own the sanctuary of God in heredity, and shall sleep safely in the possession of our churches." On the other hand, the archbishop had no mind to resign without a contest all the results of the great tide of feeling which had swept the Church onward far past its old landmarks. For him there was no going back to a traditional past from which the Church had shaken itself free, and in which, though king and barons might see the freedom of the State, he saw the enslaving and degradation of the clergy. He vehemently asserted that the "customs" of the Church were of greater authority than any "customs" of the kingdom, that its canon law claimed obedience as against all traditional national law whatever; and with keen political insight he insisted on the dangers that would follow if once they allowed the charm of prescription to be broken, or the ecclesiastical liberties to be touched. He boldly led the way in his answer to the king: "We will obey in all things saving our order;" and as the bishops were asked one by one, they took courage to follow, and "one voice was in the mouth of all of them." Such a phrase had never been heard in England before, and Henry, with ready indignation, at once demanded the withdrawal of the words. When Thomas refused, he broke up the council in a burst of anger, and suddenly rode away from London, instantly followed by the whole body of trembling bishops, who hurried after him in abject terror, "lest before they should be able to catch him up, they should already have lost their sees." Thomas was left alone - "there was not one who would know him," - while the prelates, coming up in time with their terrible lord, agreed henceforth to guide their words by his good pleasure.
From this moment all the elements of strife were prepared, and there was but outer show of harmony when king and archbishop, a few days later, joined at Westminster to celebrate with solemn pomp the translation of the remains of the sainted Confessor. In declaring war upon local jurisdictions, whether of clergy, or nobles, or burghers, or independent shire courts, Henry was defying all the traditions and convictions of his age, - an age when local feeling was a force which we are now quite unable to measure. The nobles, the guilds, and the rising towns had already won long before, or were now seeking to win as their most cherished privilege, the right to their own justice without interference from any higher power. They naturally looked with sympathy on the rights exercised by the clergy within their own body; they felt that whatever had been won by one class might later be won by another, and that liberties which were enjoyed by so enormous a body as the clerical order were a benefit in which the whole people had a share. If the king was determined to wage war on "privilege," clergy and people were equally resolute to defend "liberty." Moreover, in attacking the special jurisdiction of the Church, Henry had to encounter a force to which there is no parallel in our own time. An English king had doubtless less to fear from the Church than had any continental ruler. Abroad the bishop-stool, the abbey, the Church, were oases in the midst of perpetual war, - the only spots where peace and law and justice spoke in protest against the chaos of the world. But England was, in comparison with the rest of the western world, a country of peace and law. There the Church was less powerful against the State because the State had never handed over its duty of maintaining justice and law and right to the exclusive guardianship of the Church. None the less it was a formidable matter to rouse the hostility of a body which included not only all the religious world, but all the educated classes, and penetrated even to the despised villeinage and the poor freemen whose sons pressed into its lower ranks. The Church with which Henry had to deal was no longer the same that the Conqueror had easily bent to his will. It had received its training and felt its strength in political action; it had developed a close corporate spirit; it had an admirable organization; it possessed the most advanced as well as the most merciful legal system of the age. Its courts had strong claims to popular regard. Their punishments were more merciful than the savage sentences of the lay courts; and they held out great advantages to the rich, since the penances they inflicted could be commuted for money. Their system of law, moreover, was far in advance of the barbarous rules of customary law; and they were backed by all the authority of the Roman Curia and of the religious feeling of the day.