The Constitutions of Clarendon were issued by Henry II in 1164. This document became the bone of contention between Henry II and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was also his former chancellor and friend, Thomas Beckett. The quarrel between these two men eventually led to Thomas’s murder and then elevation to sainthood, as well as a papal interdict against England.
The development of national kingdoms during the Middle Ages often led to clashes between kings and the church particularly over the appointment and discipline of clergymen. The church argued that it had exclusive jurisdiction to try clergy who committed crimes and also should have full authority to elect bishops and abbots without royal interference. The reality was that the papacy often agreed to royal appointments. Ironically, Henry II had nominated Thomas Beckett to be the archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Thomas had been Henry’s chancellor and was close to Henry – presumably Henry had backed Thomas as archbishop in anticipation that his leading churchman would advance his agenda for tighter control over the English church. That Thomas should have defied the king undoubtedly added a note of personal bitterness to the fight.
The Constitutions of Clarendon have been variously seen either as an innovation by Henry to control the church in England or an attempt to reassert controls that had been established as a result of the Norman Conquest. Norman Cantor in his book, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, argues that William I had established firm control over the church in England: “through lay investiture and and the vassalage of bishops and abbots he completely controlled the affairs of the English church.” This meant that the bishops and abbots were given their land and positions by the king and so owed him greater loyalty. It is useful to remember that bishops of this time period were great landowners and feudal lords in their own right. For Cantor, Henry II is primarily reasserting the control over the church following a tradition which had been established under his great grandfather, William. The introduction to the Constitutions bears out this construction: “this memorandum or inquest was made of some part of the customs and liberties, and dignities of his predecessors, viz of King Henry his grandfather and other, which ought to be observed and kept in the kingdom.” This inquest is being carried out because of “discords” which had arisen between the clergy, the king’s justices and the barons.
Thirteen of the sixteen clauses in the document, cover various aspects of church relations in England. Clause 3, which was to be one of the bones of contention between Henry and Thomas Beckett, concerned procedures for “clerks [clergyman] charged and accused on anything” (clerical immunity). Clause 3 overturned this principle and ordered that clergy accused of secular crimes should be delivered to the king’s court for sentencing and punishment.
Clause 4 tends to support Cantor’s argument that Henry was really reasserting previous established controls over the English church – although this clause too was another sticking point for Thomas. This clause directed that clergy could not leave the kingdom without the king’s permission which harks back to a decree by William forbidding his clergy to travel to Rome, or to appeal cases to the pope with royal permission.
Although Henry claimed the document was merely laying out customs sanctified by history, clause 7 is likely to have arisen out a quarrel between Henry and Thomas Beckett the previous year. In July 1163, Thomas had enraged the king by excommunicating a royal vassal without first obtaining the king’s permission. Clause 7 avers that this action is firmly against the ‘customs’ of the kingdom: “No one who holds of the king in chief, and no one of his demesne servitors, shall be excommunicated, nor shall lands of any one of them be placed under an interdict, unless first the lord king, … be asked to do justice concerning him;” It is possible this was a custom from time immemorial, but it is also certain that in this document it was a re-assertion of royal prerogative.
The Constitutions also contained innovations in procedures. Thomas J. McSweeney in his article Magna Carta and the Right to Trial in Magna Carta: Muse & Mentor points out that clause 9 represented a new procedure for handling disputes between clergy and laity about land ownership when the church contended the land had been donated to them (free alms). Henry decided that in cases where there was a dispute as to whether land had been donated to the church should be heard in the royal court: “If a dispute shall arise between a clerk and a layman or between a layman and a clerk, in respect to any holding which the clerk desires to treat as free alms but the layman as lay fee, it shall be determined by the recognition of twelve lawful men through the deliberation, the presence of the king’s chief justice, whether the holding pertains to free alms or to lay fee.” Mr. McSweeney argues that Henry would have had a number of possible inspirations for the use of a jury to help determine the facts in a case – both from Anglo-Saxon and Norman precedents.
The introduction to the Constitutions also states that the customs listed in the document have been recognized by various archbishops, bishops, counts and barons and other elders of the kingdom. Thomas Archbishop of Canterbury is listed as one who recognized the customs listed in the Constitutions. This was not the case. After an acrimonious meeting with the king in October 1164, Thomas fled to the continent, appealing to the pope and French king for help in his quarrel with Henry. Thomas did not return again to England until December 1, 1170 and 29 days later he was murdered in his cathedral at Canterbury. However, the Constitutions largely survived. The controversy between king and pope was settled by the Compromise of Avranches which absolved Henry from responsibility for Thomas’s murder; provided for the free appeal of cases to Rome (clause 4); and the promise by Henry that he would ‘abolish all evil customs prejudicial to church which he had instituted.’ It did not however, specify which were the evil customs and the use of a grand jury to investigate land disputes remained in place.