Throw your soldiers into positions whence there is no escape and they will prefer death to flight. — Sun Tzu

Story of the English - Helene Guerber

Thomas a Becket

In the beginning of his reign, Henry was often helped by the good advice of a man named Thomas a Becket. A very pretty story is sometimes told about this man's mother. His father Gilbert, it seems, had gone to Palestine on a crusade or as a merchant. In some way he became the prisoner of a Saracen lord, and would have been obliged to remain in a dungeon all his life, had not the Saracen's daughter fallen in love with him. She helped Gilbert to escape; and then, thinking she could not live without him, she too started off for England, hoping to find her lover. She persistently said the word London over and over again until she reached that city. Then she changed her refrain and wandered up and down the streets, crying, "Gilbert!" which was the only other English word she knew. Strange to relate, Gilbert heard her cry, and, rushing to meet her, took her into his house, where she became his wife.

Thomas a Becket, the son of Gilbert and of this Saracen lady, received such a good education that he was asked to teach the king's children. Henry soon became very much attached to him, and he rose from rank to rank until he became chancellor of the kingdom, and keeper of the great seal, an impression of which was placed at the bottom of every royal decree.

Henry II. not only raised Thomas a Becket to a high rank, but also gave him great wealth. The chancellor delighted in fine clothes, had many followers, lived in beautiful houses, and spent his money freely. He was on such good terms with his royal master that they often had friendly disputes.

One day, when the king was riding out with Thomas, a beggar stepped up, asking for alms. Henry slyly asked Becket whether it would not be a very good deed to give the poor man a warm cloak. Becket answered that it certainly would; but when the king laid hands upon the beautiful mantle he was wearing, and tried to pull it off, he resisted. The result was a scuffle, and finally Henry gave so strong a tug that he tore the cloak off the chancellor's back. He then tossed it to the astonished beggar, and rode away, laughing at Becket's dismay.

In the first part of the king's reign, Becket, who was also a priest, helped him in his disputes with the clergy. Because of this, Henry decided that Becket should be named Archbishop of Canterbury. The priest of this cathedral was the primate, or principal clergyman, in the kingdom, and Henry fancied that when Becket was in this position he would go on helping him.

The king was mistaken, however, as he soon found out. No sooner had Becket become Primate of England than he suddenly changed. He no longer wore beautiful clothes or lived luxuriously. On the contrary, he wore the plainest garments, ate simple food, and, instead of leading a merry life, spent all his time in penance and prayer and in doing good.

Henry did not like this sudden change at all; but what made him most angry was that Thomas a Becket, instead of helping him subdue the rebellious priests, now became the most obstinate and resolute of them all. He bitterly opposed the Constitutions of Clarendon, refused to recognize any other master than the pope, and declared that Henry should obey the Church in all things, instead of trying to be sole master in his kingdom.

The quarrel between the king and his archbishop grew more and more bitter, until finally Becket left England and went over to France. Here he stirred up trouble for Henry by persuading the French king, Louis, to invade the English king's possessions there, and by threatening Henry with excommunication, or expulsion from the Church. Henry was, of course, very indignant when he heard this; but a meeting was soon brought about, and king and primate were publicly reconciled. To show the people that he and the priest were again good friends, Henry even held the stirrup of Becket's mule and helped him to mount it when Becket had once thrown himself at the king's feet.


Front Matter

Early Times
The Druids
The Britons
Caesar in Britain
Queen Boadicea
The Great Walls
The Great Irish Saint
The Anglo-Saxons
Brave King Arthur
The Laws of the Saxons
The Story of St Augustine
Three Great Men
The Danish Pirates
King Alfred and the Cakes
Alfred conquers the Danes
A King's Narrow Escape
The King and the Outlaw
The Monasteries
An Unlucky Couple
St Dunstan
King Canute and the Waves
A Saxon Nobleman
Lady Godiva's Ride
The Battle of Hastings
The Conquest
Lords and Vassals
Death of William
The Brothers' Quarrels
Arms and Armour
The "White Ship"
Matilda's Narrow Escapes
Story of Fair Rosamond
Thomas a Becket
Murder of Thomas a Becket
Richard's Adventures
Richard and the Saracens
The Faithful Minstrel
Death of Richard
The Murder of Arthur
The Great Charter
The Rule of Henry III
A Race
Persecution of the Jews
The Conquest of Wales
A Quarrel with France
The Coronation Stone
The Insolent Favourite
Bruce and the Spider
Death of Edward II
The Murderers punished
The Battle of Crecy
The Siege of Calais
The Age of Chivalry
The Battle of Poitiers
The Peasants' Revolt
Richard's Presence of Mind
A Tiny Queen
Henry's Troubles
Madcap Harry
A Glorious Reign
The Maid of Orleans
The War of the Roses
The Queen and the Brigand
The Triumph of the Yorks
The Princes in the Tower
Richard's Punishment
Two Pretenders
A Grasping King
Field of the Cloth of Gold
The New Opinions
Death of Wolsey
Henry's Wives
The King and the Painter
A Boy King
Lady Jane Grey
The Death of Cranmer
A Clever Queen
Elizabeth's Lovers
Mary, Queen of Scots
Captivity of Mary Stuart
Wreck of the Spanish Armada
The Elizabethan Age
Death of Elizabeth
A Scotch King
The Gunpowder Plot
Sir Walter Raleigh
King and Parliament
Cavaliers and Roundheads
The Royal Oak
The Commonwealth
The Restoration
Plague and Fire
The Merry Monarch
James driven out of England
A Terrible Massacre
William's Wars
The Duke of Marlborough
The Taking of Gibraltar
The South Sea Bubble
Bonny Prince Charlie
Black Hole of Calcutta
Loss of the Colonies
The Battle of the Nile
Nelson's Last Signal
The Battle of Waterloo
First Gentleman of Europe
Childhood of Queen Victoria
The Queen's Marriage
Wars in Victoria's Reign
The Jubilee