CHAPTER VII. THE STRIFE WITH THE CHURCH
News of all these things travelled fast to the king in Normandy. The excommunicated bishops, falling at his feet, told him of the evil done against his peace; rumour, growing as it crossed the sea, said that the archbishop had travelled through the country with a mighty army of paid soldiers, and had sought to enter into the king's fortresses, and that he was ready to "tear the crown from the young king's head." Henry, "more angry than was fitting to the royal majesty," was swept beyond himself by one of his mad storms of passion. "What a pack of fools and cowards," he shouted aloud in his wrath, "I have nourished in my house, that not one of them will avenge me of this one upstart clerk!" A council was at once summoned. Thomas, the king said, had entered as a tyrant into his land, had excommunicated the bishops for obedience to the king, had troubled the whole realm, had purposed to take away the royal crown from his son, had begged for a legation against Henry, and had obtained from the Pope grants of presentations to churches, which deprived knights and barons as well as the king himself of their property. The council fell in with the king's mood. Thomas was worthy of death. The king would have neither quiet days nor a peaceful kingdom while he lived. "On my way to Jerusalem," said one sage adviser, "I passed through Rome, and asking questions of my host, I learned that a pope had once been slain for his intolerable pride!"
But while the king was still busied in devising schemes for the punishment or ruin of Thomas, came news that he was rid of his enemy, and that the archbishop had won the long looked-for crown of martyrdom. Four knights who had heard the king's first outburst of rage had secretly left the Court, and travelling day and night, had reached Canterbury on the 29th, and had there in the cathedral slain the archbishop. Henry was at Argentan when the news of the murder was brought to him. So overwhelming was his despair that those about him feared for his reason. For three days he neither ate nor spoke with any one, and for five weeks his door was closed to all comers. The whole flood of difficulties against which he had so long fought desperately was at once let loose upon him. In England the feeling was indescribable. All the religious fervour of the people was passionately thrown on the side of the martyr. The church of Canterbury closed for a year. The ornaments were taken from the altar, the walls were stripped, the sound of the bells ceased. Excitement was raised to its utmost pitch as it became known that miracles were wrought at the tomb. The clergy were forced into hostility; they dared no longer take Henry's side. The barons saw the opportunity for which they had waited fifteen years. Henry had himself provided them with a ready instrument to execute their vengeance, and the boy-king, consecrated scarcely six months ago, and already urged to revolt by his mother and the king of France, was only too willing to hear the tale of their accumulated wrongs and discontents. All Christendom had been watching the strife; all Christendom was outraged at its close. The Pope shut himself up for eight days, and refused to speak to his own servants. The king of France, - who had now a cause more powerful than any he had ever dreamt of, - Theobald of Blois, and William of Champagne, the Archbishop of Sens, wrote bitterly to Rome that it was Henry himself who had given orders for the murder. The king's messengers sent to plead with the Pope found matters almost desperate. Alexander had determined to excommunicate him at Easter, and to lay an interdiction on all his lands. In their despair, and not venturing to tell their master what they had done, they swore on Henry's part an unreserved submission to the Pope, and the excommunication was barely averted for a few months, while a legation was sent to pronounce an interdiction on his lands, and receive his submission. Henry, however, was quite determined that he would neither hear the sentence nor repeat the oath taken by his envoys at Rome. Orders were given to allow no traveller, who might intend evil against the king, to cross into England; and before the legates could arrive in Normandy Henry himself was safe beyond the sea. On the 6th of August, as he passed through Winchester, he visited the dying Henry of Blois, and heard the bishop's last words of bitter reproach as he foretold the great adversities which the Divine vengeance held in store for the true murderer of the archbishop. But England itself was no safe refuge for the king in this great extremity. Hurrying on to Wales, he rapidly settled the last details of a plan for the conquest of Ireland, and hastened to set another sea between himself and the bearers of the papal curse. As he landed on Irish shores on the 16th of October, a white hare started from the bushes at his feet, and was brought to him as a token of victory and peace. Here at last he was in safety, beyond the reach of all dispute, in a secure banishment where he could more easily avoid the interdict or more secretly bow to it. The wild storms of winter, which his terrified followers counted as a sign of the wrath of God, served as an effectual barrier between him and his enemies; and for twenty weeks no ship touched Irish shores, nor did any news reach him from any part of his dominions.