Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Story of an Alleged Poisoning

These are some notes on the alleged poisoning of John of Canterbury, bishop of Poitiers in 1166.

John of Canterbury [also known as John Belmeis or Jean Bellesmains (Bellemayns) or John of the Fair Hands].

He was a friend of Becket. When they were young when they were clerks together in the household of archbishop Theobald, and along with Roger de Pont L'Évêque, the three had made a pact to help each others' careers. They were the stars of Theobald's entourage: all three eventually advanced far becoming archbishops. Later he became treasurer of York, archbishop of Poitiers and finally archbishop of Lyons.

Becket's friends, John of Salisbury and John of Canterbury, had been helping to organise Becket's exile in France following his escape from the Council of and Trial at Northampton.

Around 1158 John of Canterbury appears to be acting in a very prominent part in the well-known Scarborough case of clerical extortion, that seems to have determined Henry II to make an attack on ecclesiastical privileges. On this occasion as the treasurer of York, John appears as the chief maintainer of the rights of his order, and advised that the money should be restored and the offender left to the mercy of his bishop. The king, he urged, had no claim in the matter. John had made an enemy of Henry by doing so.

Arnulf of Lisieux described king Henry II thus. He said, he was feared by everyone because he was so unused to criticism.

In May 1166/June 1 King Henry summoned a great council to meet at Chinon castle in the Touraine, France to consult with his barons by what means he should resist the hostilities of Becket, whom, he told them, desired to destroy both his body and his soul.  It was at about this time Becket sent his Desiderio Desideravi  letter to king Henry. In this letter Becket states  "But Otherwise, Know For Certain That You Shall Feel The Vengeance Of God."

King Henry was capable of acting ruthlessly, one contemporary writer describing his whole family as a tribe of tyrants.  For example in 1169 fearing that an interdiction might be placed on his himself and his whole kingdom, that he might be excommunicated, in order that the papal orders would not reach England, nor any obedience paid to it if it were to arrive. He sent over orders that all the ports should be watched diligently, and that if any ecclesiastic was found to have brought over such letters, he should be punished with mutilation of his members; and if any layman, with death. He also commanded, that if any of the bishops, for fear of such interdict, should depart out of the kingdom, he would not be permitted to carry anything with him, except his staff: and that all students abroad should speedily return into England, or be deprived of their benefices and banished for ever. All priests, who should refuse, in consequence of the interdict, to perform divine service, were to be castrated; and for any rebellious act they were to be punished with the loss of their benefices.

A similar decree had been drawn up in 1165

Whether or not Henry had issued such decrees, they wer well within the spirit of the times. It is fully clear that Henry was fully capable of acting ruthlessly as were all the Norman and Angevin kings.

In June 1166, John of Salisbury wrote a letter to John of Canterbury, the bishop of Poitiers, because he had heard a report that the bishop had been poisoned, and was either seriously ill or dead. John of Salisbury suggested that if this was the case, it might be because of the situation in Poitiers, where king Henry II, as overlord, had been trying to reduce the liberties of the Church, by attempting to enforce the Constitutions of Clarendon there in the bishop's diocese, which the bishop had not taken kindly to. He was also concerned that this might lead to confiscation of the bishop's goods, and that he might also be forced into exile, as Becket had been.


John of Salisbury and His Correspondents:
A Study of the Epistolary Relationships Between John of Salisbury and His Correspondents, Volume 2
by Yoko Hirata, Ph.D Thesis University of Sheffield 1991

Belmeis, John (DNB00) - Wikisource,
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Belmeis, John

Coffey, P. (1910). John of Salisbury.
In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography John of Salisbury

George Lyttelton (1767). The History Of The Life of King Henry the Second. Sandby and Dodsley. pp. 435–.

Michael Staunton (7 December 2001). The Lives of Thomas Becket. Manchester University Press. pp. 144–. ISBN 978-0-7190-5455-6.

Rogerus (de Hoveden) (1868). Chronica. Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer. pp. 233–.

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