Thursday, 27 September 2012

Central Issue behind the Constitutions of Clarendon

The central issue consequent upon the Constitutions of Clarendon was Libertas Ecclesiae, the Freedom and Honour of the Church from state or temporal interference. This was what Becket claimed he was fighting for.

The Church claimed the right to the salvation of the souls of everyone in Christendom, which meant controlling their behaviour and thoughts. The state claimed authority over all temporal matters. Becket believed he was protecting the Church from the tyranny of Henry II. Henry declared Becket to be a traitor in respect of his feudal rights as king to be the supreme authority in his kingdom.

The historian, Lyttelton, a strong believer in the rights of Parliament, took a contrary view to Becket's efforts in this direction.
Extract from

Nor had the cause he maintained the least connexion with their liberty we suppose that their liberty consisted in the church and all churchmen independent on state according to the principles of Gregory the Seventh. This most evidently appears from  the account I have given of the whole process of long dispute with the crown on the authority of his letters and those of his friends and the companions of his exile. But as some persons think any opposition to a king a struggle for liberty so others wish to recommend this prelate in that light to the esteem and favor of those who would not respect him as a martyr for popery in its most extravagant claims. A late writer more ingenious than accurate or impartial speaks of him as a guardian of rights of the subject and standing in the breach against an arbitrary power which would have ever turned them. One should imagine from these words that the Constitutions of Clarendon had been ordinances imposed not by the whole legislature but by the arbitrary power of King Henry the Second. Whereas they not only were enacted by the advice and authority of parliament but after a strict enquiry into what was the law and custom of the land before that time which these statutes did no more than revive and confirm. The preamble to them says 

in præscentia ejusdem regis facta est ista recordatio vel recognitio ejusdam partis consuetudinum et libertatum et dignitatum antecessorum suorum videlicet, regis Henrici avi sui et aliorum qua observari et teneri debent in regno. 

What Becket opposed even after this act of parliament to which he had consented is here declared by the voice of the whole legislature to be a recognition of customs and liberties and dignities of the king's ancestors namely of King Henry the First and others which ought to be observed and maintained in the realm. It was therefore the authority of the law and of the legislature of England not the lawless will or the arbitrary power of the king against which Becket directed that opposition for which he has been sainted. The great Charter [Magna Carta] does indeed begin with a confirmation of the rights and liberties of the church 

Imprimis concessimus Deo et hac præsenti carta nostra confirmavimus pro nobis et hæredibus nostris in perpetuum li quod Anglicana ecclesia libera fit et habeat omnia jura sua integra et libertates suas illæsas. 

But it must be supposed that these rights and liberties of the church were defined and limited by the laws and customs of the realm and by that right which is inherent in the supreme magistrate of every civil society to administer justice impartially to all his people. That under the notion of ecclesiastical liberty the clergy meant dominion appears undeniably from numberless facts in those times and is plainly declared by a clergyman contemporary with Becket who speaking of the agreement between King Stephen and Henry Plantagenet which as it was made by the mediation of the bishop of Winchester he supposed would confirm the pretensions of the church in their whole extent cries out with a kind of rapture Clerus mine demum dominabitur. But Henry in concurrence with the whole legislature at the council of Clarendon opposed the accomplishment of this prediction and as far as it could be done without an entire reformation from popery resisted that dominion.

On what foundation the abovementioned writer affirms that the whole nation at the accession of King Henry the Second was in the utmost consternation lest he should avail himself of the title of Conquest and set aside the rights of the people in imitation of the founder of the Norman line I am at a loss to discover. Not one of the many contemporary writers says any thing like it but all their histories are full of the national joy on that event. His treaty with Stephen was an unsurmountable bar to any title by conquest if he had ever thought of setting up so wild a claim which it was impossible he could do as he had not even a victory on which to ground it. While he was in arms against Stephen he had been chiefly supported by the English themselves and after the death of that king the whole nation unanimously submitted to his government without a blow being struck against his right of succession.


Constitutions of Clarendon: Libertas Ecclesiae

W. L. Warren (1977). Henry II. University of California Press. pp. 242–. ISBN 978-0-520-03494-5. 

Christopher Harper-Bill; Nicholas Vincent (2007). Henry II: New Interpretations. Boydell Press. pp. 7–. ISBN 978-1-84383-340-6.  

Why Religious Liberty (and Thomas Becket) Really Matters - Online Library of Law & Liberty 

Andrew Lythall (2009). How Did the Murder of St. Thomas Becket Affect the Relationship Between Church and State in England 1170-1215?. GRIN Verlag. ISBN 978-3-640-45817-2.

William Stubbs (1867). Gesta regis Henrici Secundi Benedicti abbatis: the chronicle of the reigns of Henry II. and Richard I. A.D. 1169-1192; known commonly under the name of Benedict of Peterborough. Was Henry II a Tyrant?: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer. pp. 22–.

R. Jason Richards, A Primer on the Origins and Implications of The Thomas Becket Affair, 1 LINCOLN MEM’L U. L. REV. 145 (2014). 
A Primer on the Origins and Implications of The Thomas Becket Affair  


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