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Medieval Sourcebook:
Gervase of Canterbury, d. 1205:
Thomas Becket's Life, from History of the Archbishops of Canterbury

Gervase was a monk of Canterbury and knew Becket.  He died in 1205.

At this time [1160] Thomas was archdeacon of Canterbury and the chancellor of king Henry, being the most influential man in England. He was a native of the city of London, the illustrious issue of parents of middle rank of life, and from his earliest youth he was rich in every grace. His father was named Gilbert, his mother Matilda: of them he was born, and by them educated. Thomas was of a goodly appearance, tall in stature, of a sharp intellect, sweet and pleasant in conversation, amiable in his manners, and of such keen powers of reasoning as to be able prudently to solve abstruse and difficult questions; and so retentive was his memory, that whatever he had once heard or read he could recall whenever he pleased without an effort. From his earliest years, as it pleased him to mention, he had learned from his mother to fear God, and devoutly to invoke the blessed Virgin in every need. He publicly compassionated beggars with his full heart, and aided them with his substance. When his education in the liberal sciences was completed, he betook himself to the occupations of the court; and so far did he gain the advantage over his companions and equals in age, that while the love of faith and splendor was strong in him, he was at the same time in the highest repute among the populace. He was one worthy to be admired and imitated for bodily chastity.
Guided by grace, he betook himself to archbishop Theobald, and, as a reward for his industry, he became on intimate terms with him. I do not purpose on this occasion to reckon up the labors which he endured for the church; how often be was dispatched to Rome for the transaction of business, and how successfully he achieved the matters with which he was entrusted. He afterwards devoted himself to the study of the civil law and the sacred canons, and became archdeacon of the church of Canterbury, at whose bosom he had been brought up. Shortly after this, when Henry, duke of Normandy, had succeeded king Stephen in the kingdom, the archbishop brought it about that, his archdeacon Thomas should be made the chancellor. When Thomas was thus discharging in the king’s palace the office of chancellor, he found such favor in his eyes, that on the decease of this archbishop of Canterbury the king caused him to fill the chief see of Britain; but this he did that thereby he might the more easily rule over the church of England. But Thomas had too great penetration to fail in discovering the dangers of such an office, for he had sufficient experience to know as well the burden as the honor of that dignity; and it required even less observation than he was possessed of to become aware that if he undertook the duties now placed at his disposal, he must abandon either the favor of God or the approval of the king. In consequence of this, he for some time opposed the wishes of his sovereign, and of those friends, who were anxious for his promotion. But God’s election, and that of the holy church of Canterbury, prevailed so much, that he was unanimously chosen at London. So, the bishops and au innumerable multitude having assembled at Canterbury, he was consecrated at Christ’s altar on the second of the nones of July [6th July], being the octaves of Whitsunday, A.D. 1162, by Henry, bishop of Winchester, because at this time the church of London happened to be vacant, and the bishop of Winchester acted for its bishop in performing this and other sacramental rites. Moreover, the bishops were unwilling that the archbishop of York should consecrate him, unless he had previously rendered due profession to the church of Canterbury.

Thomas immediately dispatched messengers to pope Alexander (who at that time was resident in France, for the purpose of avoiding the schism of the Romans), from whom he asked and received the plenitude of power and the pall. Immediately upon his consecration he put off the old man, and put on the hair-cloth and the character of a monk, and appointed fitting masters over himself to correct his excesses. He was ever intent upon prayers and reading; and he performed the service of the altar just as if he saw in the flesh the Lord’s passion enacted. As if to instruct the faith and conversation of the beholders by his own example, he kept his hands clean from all gifts, and entirely banished from his house the filth of avarice. He was deliberate in his counsels, and in ventilating causes he gave a diligent and a modest attention. In his examinations he was a skilful questioner, ready in reply, just in his judgments, and one who most righteously carried out the decisions of the law. He received men of religion with such reverence, that it might appear as if in them he venerated God or the angels. He was so careful to exercise hospitality, that his whole store seemed poured into the common fund for their benefit. He was moderate in eating and drinking. Beneath his splendid robes he was poor in spirit. His outward countenance expressed a contented heart. He preferred abstinence even while sitting at a liberally spread board, and became all things to all men that he might win all to Christ. He was the father of the poor and the comforter of the sorrowful ; and his address was at once powerful by the weight of its sentiments, and pleasing by the elegancy of its diction. He was never wearied in his assaults upon heretics and schismatics; and, fervent in his zeal for justice, he strove to give every one his due, without the remotest regard to persons or bribes. He always abominated the lying lips and the carping tongue. His great object, from his earliest youth, was how to restore and reduce to their primitive state those rights and dignities of the church of which the civil power had deprived her: thence it followed, as a necessary consequence, that he drew down upon himself the hostility of many persons, more especially of those in power. For he demanded from the king the restoration of the lordship of the castle of Rochester, and of the tower of Saltwood and Hethe; and also the land of William de Ros; a service (unless I am mistaken) of seven knights; and other things of the same sort. He demanded from the earl of Clare the homage of the castle of Tunbridge, with the district adjacent, which is commonly styled “the bailie.”

Hence it came to pass that many persons influenced the king’s mind prejudicially against the archbishop, and a disagreement arose between them, and was long protracted. If any one desires to know the cause and beginning of this discord, its progress and its end, let him examine those large volumes which are written upon this subject. that is to say, the life of him penned by master Herbert, who shared with him in all his sufferings, save that of martyrdom; and another written by William, the monk of Canterbury, who appended thereto an account of his miracles. Let him also read the volume of his Letters, which prior Alan compiled. Let him read the miracles penned by Benedict, of which he was an eyewitness, together with that short sketch by John, [of Salisbury] bishop of Chartres. He may also, if he will, pay a passing visit to Gervase, who, reduced into a short chronological narrative the doings of the archbishop. But more of this hereafter.

The disputes between the king and the archbishop grew to an immense height. The lay power acted just as it pleased, and tyrannized over things and persons; while the bishops kept Silence, and the civil law was despised. At the first, the king attempted to win the archbishop over to his will by flatteries, in order that thereby he might wander from the path of justice; but the man of God, founded upon the Rock, would neither be cajoled by fair words, nor terrified by foul. This change in the arrangements of the providence of the Almighty, wicked men attempted to blacken by giving it a perverse interpretation, attributing to superstition the change which had taken place in his mode of life, and the austerities which he now practiced upon himself. His zeal for justice they called cruelty; his efforts for the interests of the church they attributed to avarice; his contempt for worldly favor, with them was regarded as a craving after vain-glory; the magnificence of his court was regarded as pride: if he followed in many respects his own will, which had been instructed from above, they saw therein only tokens of a haughty spirit. He often appeared to pass over the limits of the law as laid down by his predecessors - here was a proof of his rashness. In truth, there was no single thing which he could do or say which the malice of evil-disposed men did not pervert; and so far did their ill-will carry them, that they scrupled not to affirm that if the power of the archbishop should increase, that of the king must assuredly decay.

In the meantime he consecrated two bishops in the church of Canterbury, namely, Roger of Worcester and Robert of Hereford. A discussion, of a grave character and full of threats, took place between the archbishop and the king concerning the enforcement or annulling of the ecclesiastical law. Having commenced at Westminster, it was continued at Clarendon, and completed at Northampton; and by the instigation of the devil it daily increased in intensity ; for if the king was desirous of preserving for himself the ancient customs of the crown, the bishops. and the archbishops were equally firm, and would make -no promise without the reservation of the rights of their order. Many persons, therefore, resolved to overthrow the man of God; but his chief enemies were his own familiar friends. He was induced, however, at length to come to terms. When he was required to reduce his assent into writing, he refused to do so, and kept in his own custody this wicked document. So the king rose up in wrath against him, as did the king’s court, and the bishops accused him of perjury; and to such a height did their cruelty carry them, that many persons became apprehensive that he would either be mutilated or murdered. Whilst he was thus oppressed by all, nothing touched him more keenly than the church of Canterbury, which suffered many a diminution of her power, honor, and usefulness. The courtiers procured a decree against him in a suit respecting money matters, and advanced other claims against him, resolving, to pronounce upon him the sentence of condemnation; whereupon he took in his hands the banner of the cross, invoked the assistance of the public law, and appealed; and then leaving that unhappy court by which he was stigmatized as a traitor, he changed his dress by night and departed. Some few days afterwards he arrived at Sandwich, where, accompanied by only two priests, he embarked in a small boat; and, having crossed over the sea, he arrived at St. Bertin’s. This occurred in the year one thousand one hundred and sixty-four.

Thus driven into banishment, this confessor of Christ was honorably welcomed by pope Alexander at Sens, and by him recommended to the monastery at Pontigny. But the king of England dispatched to the pope an embassy, consisting chiefly of those bishops and nobles whom he knew to be most decidedly opposed to the archbishop; and with many promises, and more bribes, he entreated that legates might be dispatched into England to decide the cause without the power of any appeal whatever. But when the messengers returned, and announced that this petition had been rejected, the king gave orders that the church, and all the goods of the archbishop and his adherents, should be confiscated. Besides this, he proceeded to a length unprecedented in any history. He proscribed and drove into exile all the archbishop’s kindred, and all who were associated with him by friendship, or, indeed, in any way whatever, making herein no distinction of rank, or order, or condition, or fortune, or age, or, sex. For he banished women yet lying in childbed, and children who still were being rocked in the cradle. This mad fury proceeded yet further, and broke out into cruelties shocking to religious ears. For while the catholic church prays for even heretics and schismatics, and unbelieving Jews, the king ordered that none should help the archbishop with their prayers. The ministers of the public authority compelled all grown-up people to swear that they would visit Pontigny, thinking that even by this means they would distress the archbishop; for there this holy man afflicted himself with long-continued fastings and prayers, in which he continually supplicated God for the church, and for the king and realm of England, until the king contrived to drive him thence, through the instrumentality of the Cistercian order, who had assembled, each from his own country, to hold a general chapter. But before his departure thence he had a revelation from heaven, that he should return to his own church with renown, and then depart to the Lord with the palm of martyrdom.. Unwilling, however, that his presence should occasion any damage to the inmates of Pontigny, or, indeed, to any other person whatever, be departed of his own free will, and betook himself to Louis the king of the French, by whom he was reverently received, and who most kindly supplied him with all he required, until peace should be restored. The kings had several interviews - first, at Montmirel, and next, at Montmartre - to discuss the terms of peace, which the king of France endeavored to bring about between the king of England and the archbishop. But because the latter would not consent to pass over in silence the honor due to God and to his order, they departed from each other without being reconciled. Shortly after this the bishops, and prelates, and nobles, were summoned to meet at London, in order that one and all might appeal against the mandates of the archbishop and pope Alexander. The monks of Canterbury were cited for the same purpose; but by God’s mercy it so came to pass that no appeal was made by them. It was arranged, moreover, that they should abjure their obedience to pope Alexander, and that all England should be involved in this schism. Taking pity upon this desolation of the church of England, William, archbishop of Sens, (by the permission of the king of the French) went to the apostolic see, and obtained from the church of Rome that the king of England should be placed under anathema, and the kingdom under interdict without any power of appeal, unless peace were restored to the church of Canterbury.

In the meantime those persons who were hostile to the peace of the church had planned that Roger, archbishop of York - even within the province of Canterbury, and after prohibition, violating thereby the dignity of the church of Canterbury, and its ancient customs - should presume to crown Henry, the king’s son; while the suffragans looked on, and entered no protest for the rights of the church of Canterbury. Thus, while injuries were multiplied, and Christ’s patience was being more and more abused by these perverse men, who grew worse and worse, a vengeance manifold, and certain, and, speedy, was about to overtake the king and his adherents. The day was now at hand beyond which the sentence could be delayed no longer. Under the pressure of this canonical severity, the king at length yielded his consent that the church of England should enjoy peace. And thus the king came rejoicing to congratulate the archbishop, and spoke with him as lightly as if there had been no previous heart-burnings; yet he would not give him the kiss of peace. When the king wished to carry the archbishop off with him, in order that the peace into which they had entered might be indisputable, the latter observed, “I should appear to be ungrateful, did I not say farewell to my kind friends.” So the archbishop made ready to return into England, and dispatched his own messengers, provided with the royal letters, to make the necessary arrangements for his arrival, and provide what was requisite. When they heard this, the principal of his enemies hastened to the sea-coast to meet him; and there, while they were laying snares for him, the archbishop of York was suspended from his episcopal office by the command of pope Alexander. Gilbert, bishop of London, and Jocelyn, bishop of Salisbury, were involved in the sentence of anathema. This severity, when it became publicly known, tended to exasperate the king’s mind yet more powerfully against the arrival of the holy Thomas, and gave to the poisoned tongues of his slanderers a yet additional power of harming him. The champion of Christ was exposed to renewed injuries, and to insults yet more grievous, even beyond measure and number; and he was prohibited by a public decree from passing the precincts of his own church. Any one who looked pleasantly on either him or any of his friends was reckoned a public enemy. But when he came to Canterbury he was received with the kiss of peace, with unspeakable joy, and with a flood of tears by his children, the monks of that church; and there he joyfully celebrated the solemnity of the Lord’s nativity.


The Church Historians of England, volume V, part 1, pp. 329-336.   Translated by Joseph Stevenson.  London:  Seeley’s, 1853.

For ease of readability, I have altered the original paragraph divisions.  I believe this translation is now in the public domain.  The electronic form of this presentation is ©1998 by Scott McLetchie and may not be reproduced for any commercial purposes whatsoever.  It may be reproduced for non-profit educational purposes.

Etext file created for a class by Scott Mcletchie [], and used by permission here.

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© Paul Halsall, October 1998


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