The Story of England: The King and the Archbishop

In the twelfth-century conflict between Church and State, Henry II found his most determined opponent in his formerly devoted servant, Thomas Becket, as Arthur Bryant continues his Story of England series.

Yet at Canossa the papacy had tasted blood. Throughout the twelfth century the initiative lay with the canon lawyers who, seeking to organize the Church as a completely self-governing institution, tried to free it from all secular control. Even in England, where during Stephen’s reign it was able to bargain with rival claimants to the throne, it established the right of clerical appeal to Rome and the freedom of papal legates to exercise independent powers within the realm. And its courts, with their superior procedure and unique advantage of a written code, extended their jurisdiction, not only over churchmen and church property, but over a wide range of matters affecting laymen, including marriage, divorce, adultery, defamation of character, testamentary disposition and, in certain cases, breaches of contract. For these, it was contended, involved the moral, and therefore ecclesiastical, offence of perjury.

The Church also won for its members almost complete exemption from the processes of criminal law. If a cleric—even a church-sweeper or poor ragamuffin student—committed a murder, burglary or other breach of the peace, it claimed the exclusive right to try and punish him. And as the canon law forbade the use of mutilation and the death sentence, and as the keeping of prisons was costly, it relied for punishment mainly on penance and spiritual penalties. Any malefactor who could read or mumble over a Latin text from the Bible—the common test of clerical status—and so claim “benefit of clergy,” could escape the king’s judges. The worst that could befall him was a fine or a brotherly scourging or, in the last resort, defrocking, in which case he still remained free to repeat his offence.

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