All attempts to fit Thomas Becket into a mold that echoes the interests or prejudices of the writer fail to do justice to the man or to the complexities of his situation. Once he was appointed archbishop of Canterbury, for good or ill, it was his responsibility to protect the interests of the English church against the schemes of a ruthless, manipulative, and very powerful king, at a time when the pope was in exile in France and dependent on the charity of the French church and kings like Henry II and Louis VII. Once he had made the conscientious decision to resign the Chancery, Thomas knew that he would be persona non grata. As chancellor he had the mental and physical accoutrements to live up to the king’s expectations, but he knew also that he was at the king’s mercy. The king had made him; he could just as easily break him. As the clouds gathered, and Henry made his play to extend his control over the English church by revising the “customs of his grandfather” or “customs of the realm,” Thomas was in the eye of the storm.
Dan Hitchens’s summary of Becket’s behavior at Clarendon (“Becket and His Critics,” January) requires adjustment. Although all the bishops resisted the plans for punishment of “criminous clerks” at Westminster in October 1163 and similarly resisted the “customs of the realm,” which Henry substituted, that unanimity did not last, for the king was able to secure the approval of some of the bishops individually (York, Lincoln, Chichester). Simultaneously, no less than three times between October and December, he sent two of his ablest clerks (Bishop Arnulf of Lisieux and Richard of Ilchester) to seek Alexander III’s approval for the “customs of the realm.” They were rebuffed, but, anxious to retain Henry’s support, the pope sent the Cistercian abbot Philip of l’Aumône with letters from himself and the cardinals to persuade Thomas to find a way to placate the king. Alexander had been reassured that Henry wanted only to preserve his honor and was not seeking to injure the Church. In response to this, Thomas went to the king at Woodstock around Christmas 1163 and gave his oral approval to the still unspecified customs.
That should have been the end of the matter. But Henry wanted more. He summoned a council to Clarendon for the end of January. There he demanded that the prelates repeat in public what some of them, including Thomas, had said in private: namely, unreserved acknowledgement of the still undefined “customs of the realm.” That took two or three days of threats and intimidation (25, 27–28 January). Two earls (Cornwall and Leicester) and two Templars (Richard of Hastings and Hostes of Saint-Omer) threatened dire consequences for the bishops if they held out. Four prelates (York, Chichester, London, and Salisbury) told Becket baldly that he would be treated as a traitor if he did not comply.
Under pressure from all sides, Thomas gave the required assent to the “customs” on his word as bishop, and ordered the bishops to follow suit. And so it was done. This was another verbal agreement. Even that did not satisfy the king. Henry ordered a written record of the customs to be drawn up by his clerks and “the older and wiser nobles”—significantly without the counsel of the bishops—and they produced a document containing the sixteen clauses of what became known as the Constitutions of Clarendon. It was drawn up as a solemn tripartite chirograph, naming all the bishops and nobles present as recognitors of “a certain part of the customs, liberties, and dignities of his ancestors, that is of King Henry his grandfather, and of others, which ought to be observed and held in the realm.” This was as close to legislation as contemporary practice could get. Becket asked for time, and, since daylight was fading, the matter was held over to the next day. On the next morning, understanding the gravity of the situation, Thomas accepted his part of the chirograph but refused his seal. In this way, he stalled the king’s plan but also focused the king’s opprobrium on himself. Two attempts to flee the country failed, and he faced the full weight of the king’s anger alone, at Northampton, in October. This travesty of a trial and the subsequent expulsion of some four hundred of the archbishop’s clerics and relatives at Christmas 1164 demonstrated the reality of the threats made at Clarendon.
Anne J. Duggan
king’s college london
london, united kingdom
As a Londoner, I read Dan Hitchens’s “Becket and His Critics” with interest. Certainly Becket is a conundrum; he appears to be a stubborn, almost stupid man, one with a death wish. Yet I too believe that we must rehabilitate his reputation. The key, it seems to me, is to understand what drove him on and what tripped him up.
Becket was not of nobility. Reportedly born near the corner of Cheapside and Ironmonger Lane, Becket was from merchant stock, hence his revered place in The Mercers’ Company. I believe he would have been regularly reminded that he wasn’t “quite the ticket”; and yet, this is what makes him so admirable. He really was “a David facing down Goliath.” He was a self-made man—the kind of “self-madeness” that London specializes in. The temptation, therefore, to paint him as an enemy of liberty is a gross simplification. He was a person who achieved more than he should have. For this reason Becket was, and always will be, London’s great saint.
Rev. Steve Morris
london, united kingdom
Dan Hitchens replies:
I’m honored, if slightly terrified, to learn that my essay was read by the greatest Becket scholar on the planet. In her letter, as in her authoritative biography, Anne Duggan defends Becket’s conduct at the Council of Clarendon, where he changed his policy toward the king’s proposals. I suggested that the archbishop made a fool of himself by flip-flopping. By contrast, Duggan—if I understand her right—believes that Becket had to adjust his position because the situation changed, and because King Henry was an explosive adversary who needed careful management.
Under normal circumstances, I would no more challenge Duggan’s interpretation than I would step on court with Roger Federer. But when it comes to Clarendon, I am relying on Becket’s own judgment: He was ashamed of his actions at the council, saying it was his fault that the Church had been “reduced to slavery,” and afterward fasting in sackcloth and ashes. Maybe that was over the top; one day I hope to ask him.
Greetings to another Londoner! Rev. Steve Morris is of course right to claim Becket as one of our own. I like to think, when crossing London Bridge, about how there was once a stone bridge here built around a chapel in Becket’s honor; and it was striking that last April, when the prime minister became seriously ill with coronavirus, he was rushed to St. Thomas’s hospital.
The Spanish Civil War
The Spanish Second Republic is much mythologized in Spain and elsewhere, particularly by those who advocate a Spanish Third Republic. Stanley G. Payne provides a succinct but characteristically penetrating analysis of the demise of the “not very democratic democracy” (“The Road to Revolution,” January). He helpfully reminds us that the majority who proclaimed the Republic on April 14, 1931, were interested in revolution, not reform; the socialists, who had cooperated with the Primo de Rivera dictatorship in the 1920s, saw the “bourgeois” Republic as a preliminary step toward a socialist regime. Similarly, their partners in government, the left republicans, demanded nothing less than the creation of a new Spain after centuries of “feudalism.” Ironically enough, the most significant exception was Spain’s largest republican movement, the Radical Republican party under the veteran Alejandro Lerroux, which called for a republic for all Spaniards. As Roberto Villa García’s magnificent new biography of Lerroux shows, this inclusive vision of republican democracy was denounced as treachery by the left, and the Radical leader became an antifascist hate-figure, especially after his rigorous defense of the constitutional order in October 1934. Fortunately for Lerroux, when the civil war began in July 1936, he was able to flee to Portugal and thus escape certain death in Madrid.
Payne’s article also rightly points to the fact that the republican revolution, like the Russian and Mexican ones before it, was profoundly anticlerical in nature. In retrospect, it is astonishing that in the first year of its existence, the Republic sought to impose on Spain measures against the Catholic Church that the French Third Republic thought impossible for a generation. It is curious that the Spanish left, a keen student of French revolutionary history, ignored its most elemental lesson: The quickest way to create counterrevolutionaries is to attack the foundations of organized religion. This was a mistake that the left would repeat in the civil war itself as the slaughter of seven thousand priests and religious in 1936 turned a failed military coup into a “crusade” and dealt a heavy blow to the Republic’s international reputation.
For over half a century, Stanley Payne has stood as a bulwark against the romanticization of the left in the 1930s, and nowhere is this more evident than in his analysis of communism. It is remarkable that even today there are those who claim that Stalinist antifascism was a defense of liberal democracy. One has to take seriously that communists said they were determined to create a “new type of democracy” that had no place for “fascists.” It is one of the tragedies of republican democracy in the 1930s that this exclusive view of politics was not restricted to the communists.
university of edinburgh
edinburgh, united kingdom
Stanley G. Payne replies:
Many thanks to Julius Ruiz for his generous comments. Readers of First Things should know that he is a leading historian of the civil war repression in Spain, having done careful research on major aspects of the atrocities by both sides.
Concerning his broader point, it is reasonable to say that there is still greater distortion regarding the Spanish Civil War than with any other major episode of the history of twentieth-century Europe. The reasons for this are several and multi-generational. They include the reality of foreign intervention on both sides, which served to disguise the war as primarily a Spanish conflict; the great success of republican and Comintern propaganda in camouflaging the revolution that both precipitated and characterized the conflict; the immediate onset of World War II in Europe; the long duration of the Franco dictatorship; and the unending permutations of “antifascism” as political discourse. This last reason is the subject of a major book by Paul Gottfried that will appear very soon.
As Ruiz observes, the same holds for the failure to recognize the struggle as the principal example of a war of religion in recent European history. A major difference between Spain and Russia was that, as a number of historians have pointed out, in the latter Lenin astutely avoided launching his principal assault on the Orthodox Church until after the civil war had been completely won.
Peter J. Leithart poses a number of critiques of my book (“Rethinking Religious Freedom,” January). I do not disagree with most of them, but I view these “flaws,” as Leithart describes them, from a different perspective. The book’s empirical cross-national data approach has advantages and disadvantages. Perhaps the greatest advantage is that this methodology facilitates mapping the levels of discrimination against 771 religious minorities in 183 countries worldwide between 1990 and 2014 and empirically assessing that discrimination’s causes. I agree with Leithart that defining anything limits it, but empirical social science is impossible without definitions.
While the study’s results certainly have normative implications, empirical studies are poor vehicles for normative discussion, much less for addressing the theological issues Leithart raises. Leithart asks: “Why can’t a country give preference to the religious beliefs of a majority?” I do not address this question in the book, but I do find that countries that give such preference are more likely to discriminate against religious minorities than those that remain neutral toward religion.
This can be seen as an empirical answer to Leithart’s normative question, but that is not my intention. The book’s purpose is to empirically examine the patterns and causes of restrictions placed by governments on the religious practices or institutions of minority religions that are not also placed on the majority religion. While few would disagree that this type of discrimination is a violation of religious freedom, I make no claim that it is the only type.
In fact, I agree with Leithart that government-based restrictions on the majority religion in a country would be a violation of religious freedom. I give more attention to that issue in my book Political Secularism, Religion, and the State, which also addresses cases similar to Leithart’s example of Canada’s denial of a law school charter to Trinity Western University over its stance on LGBTQ+ issues.
In sum, the book is an empirical study of a very specific topic. While I very much hope that others will apply the findings to wider issues—indeed, I do so myself in other forums—there is only so much that can be accomplished in any one book. Nevertheless, I thank Leithart for his insights.
ramat gan, israel
As the mother of Sarah, the youngest of our ten children, who has Down syndrome, I appreciated Matthew Hennessey’s article about his daughter (“Magdalena,” January). Thanks to prenatal testing, children with Down syndrome are increasingly being aborted. Our Sarah, now an adult, has her individuality too. Her favorite saying: “I love my life.” Her worst screaming terror: kittens, puppies, any animal with fur or hair—but not snakes. As our older children move away for jobs and families, Sarah stays and helps us cope with aging. Her siblings keep in touch, largely to see what Sarah is doing. In many ways, she holds our family together.
We live in Tennessee, which has recently passed an anti-discrimination law that prohibits medical providers from aborting the unborn for reasons of gender, race, or disabilities like Down syndrome. Within an hour of Gov. Lee signing the bill into law, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU had a single federal district judge sign an order prohibiting enforcement of the law. A three-person appeal court panel of the Sixth Circuit overruled the District Court, and the case will proceed, possibly to the Supreme Court. Planned Parenthood, despite its disavowal, acted in accord with the eugenic and racist views of its founder, Margaret Sanger. The politics are so predictable.
oak ridge, tennessee
Matthew Hennessey replies:
All families need holding together, and someone willing to do the holding, so Sarah has inherited one of the more important positions in the sibling hierarchy. I wish her luck (and a complete absence of kittens and puppies) as she keeps tabs on her nine brothers and sisters. Because Down syndrome is correlated to maternal age, the extra copy of the twenty-first chromosome that heralds its existence frequently lands in the lap of the baby of the brood. This has always struck me as an intentional blessing.
Jan Hicks’s frustration with politics is understandable. She should count herself lucky that she lives in a state where anyone in high office considers defense of the unborn a priority. In my neck of the woods, the lives of people like Sarah and Magdalena are held cheaply and frequently disposed of to the sounds of faint cheering from the abortion industry and its allies in government. Politics is a bitter business, but imagine where we would be without politicians like Gov. Bill Lee and Tennessee’s Republican legislators. They may lose eventually. Perhaps they will win. Who knows? At least they can say they stood for life.
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