CHAPTER XIII. KING AND ARCHBISHOP
Thomas Becket, who thus became the head of the English Church, was probably in his forty-fourth year, for he seems to have been born on December 21, 1118. All his past had been a training in one way or another for the work which he was now to do. He had had an experience of many sides of life. During his early boyhood, in his father's house in London, he had shared the life of the prosperous burgher class; he had been a student abroad, and though he was never a scholar, he knew something of the learned world from within; he had been taken into the household of Archbishop Theobald, and there he had been trained, with a little circle of young men of promise of his own age, in the strict ideas of the Church; he had been employed on various diplomatic missions, and had accomplished what had been intrusted to him, we are told, with skill and success; last of all, he had been given a high office in the state, and had learned to know by experience and observation the life of the court, its methods of doing or preventing business, and all its strength and weakness.
As Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket became almost the independent sovereign of a state within the state. Lanfranc had held no such place, nor had Anselm. No earlier archbishop indeed had found himself at his consecration so free from control and so strong. The organization apart from the state, the ideal liberty of the Church, to which Anselm had looked forward somewhat vaguely, had been in some degree realized since his time. The death of Henry I had removed the restraining hand which had held the Church within its old bounds. For a generation afterwards it was free - free as compared with any earlier period - to put into practice its theories and aspirations, and the new Archbishop of Canterbury inherited the results still unquestioned and undiminished. Henry II had come to the throne young and with much preliminary work to be done. Gradually, it would seem, the reforms necessary to recover the full royal power, and to put into most effective form the organization of the state, were taking shape in his mind. It is possible, it is perhaps more than possible, that he expected to have from his friend Thomas as archbishop sympathy and assistance in these plans, or at least that he would be able to carry them out with no opposition from the Church. This looks to us now like a bad reading of character. At any rate no hope was ever more completely disappointed. In character, will, and ideals, at least as these appear from this time onward, sovereign and primate furnished all the conditions of a most bitter conflict. But to understand this conflict it is also necessary to remember the strength of Becket's position, the fact that he was the ruler of an almost independent state.
What was the true and natural character of Thomas Becket, what were really the ideals on which he would have chosen to form his life if he had been entirely free to shape it as he would, is a puzzle which this is not the place to try to solve. Nor can we discuss here the critical questions, still unsettled, which the sources of our knowledge present. Fortunately no question affects seriously the train of events, and, in regard to the character of the archbishop, we may say with some confidence that, whatever he might have chosen for himself, he threw himself with all the ardour of a great nature into whatever work he was called upon to do. As chancellor, Thomas's household had been a centre of luxurious court life. As archbishop his household was not less lavishly supplied, nor less attractive; but its elegance was of a more sober cast, and for himself Thomas became an ascetic, as he had been a courtier, and practised in secret, according to his biographers, the austerities and good works which became the future saint.
Six months after the consecration of the new archbishop, King Henry crossed from Normandy to England, at the end of January, 1163, but before he did so word had come to him from Becket which was like a declaration of principles. Henry had hoped to have him at the same time primate of the Church and his own chancellor. Not merely would this add a distinction to his court, but we may believe that the king would regard it as a part of the co-operation between Church and State in the reforms he had in mind. To Thomas the retention of his old office would probably mean a pledge not to oppose the royal will in the plans which he no doubt foresaw. It would also interfere seriously with the new manner of life which he proposed for himself, and he firmly declined to continue in the old office. In other ways, unimportant as yet, the policy of the primate as it developed was coming into collision with the king's interests, in his determined pushing of the rights of his Church to every piece of land to which it could lay any claim, in some cases directly against the king, and in his refusal to allow clerks in the service of the State to hold preferments in the Church, of which he had himself been guilty; but all these things were still rather signs of what might be expected than important in themselves. There was for several months no breach between the king and the archbishop.