In January 1164 Henry summoned a council of nobles and bishops to Clarendon Palace in Wiltshire, in an attempt to bring Becket under control. His aim was to enforce a series of 16 legal articles known as the Constitutions of Clarendon.
A number of the articles in the Constitutions seriously restricted the church’s rights over legal proceedings. Henry specifically wanted to address how errant clergy were tried at court. Whilst the everyday person was tried at the royal courts, where in the most extreme cases they could be charged with mutilation or death, churchmen were tried in an ecclesiastical (church) court. Here, the most severe punishment was being dismissed from priesthood. The Constitutions of Clarendon requested that if a member of the clergy were found guilty at the ecclesiastical court, they would be sent to the royal courts to be tried.
Initially, under significant pressure from the king, Becket agreed to support the Constitutions, but refused to attach his seal to the documents – a sign that he did not officially want to sanction them. Shortly after, Pope Alexander III condemned the articles, and requested that Becket and the bishops withdraw their support.
Having been obstructed yet again by Thomas, Henry attempted to deter him through the courts. In October 1164 Becket was summoned to appear before the king’s council in Northampton accused of various charges, including denial of justice over the granting of land and contempt of court. He was found guilty and ordered to forfeit all his personal property and pay a large fine.
Becket refused to accept the terms of his punishment, protesting that he had been brought to court on false pretences. Fearing further repercussions from the king, Becket fled to France.
Sculpture by Giles Blomfield of Truro in the North West Transept, depicting the four swords of the four knights that killed Becket.
Exile in France
Becket fled from Northampton with a small group of loyal companions on 15th October 1164. To avoid being pursued, they travelled up to the Gilbertine monastery of Chicksands in Bedfordshire, where Becket was disguised as a Gilbertine monk and given a false name. From here the group made their way down the coast to Sandwich, where they took a boat to Oye on the Flemish coast and travelled to France.
King Henry quickly sent his own group of supporters to France in an attempt to persuade the French King Louis VII that Thomas was treasonous and should not be granted safe travel through his land. However, Louis was not Henry’s ally, and he decided to offer Becket his support. This meant Thomas was able to find safe lodging and even financial assistance during his exile in France.
For most of his exile, Becket stayed at a monastery at Pontigny, near Sens in central France. From here, he wrote many letters to cardinals, bishops and even the Pope in an attempt to raise support for his plight.