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The "Constitutions of Clarendon" mark an important epoch in English History. An English King (Henry II) who was a wise and accomplished statesman, strong in the possession of nearly despotic power, and a most fearless and proud ecclesiastic (Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury) mighty in intellectual strength, and fortified by the papal support, come in conflict in regard to the proper administration of government in the realm. The assertion has been made that nearly one hundred homicides had in these times been perpetrated by priests then living, and these murderers were shielded from due punishment by the fact of their being ecclesiastics, notwithstanding any degree of atrocity in their crimes.
The king called an assembly of the highest clergy at Westminster, and earnestly asserted the public necessity of putting an end to the abuses of the Church power. The demands of the monarch were met by the resistance of the Archbishop who refused to surrender any of the privileges of the Clergy. But Becket, at the instance of the Pope, ultimately gave his assent to the king's righteous demand.
King Henry then called a great council at Clarendon, near Salisbury, and here gathered the eminent men of the realm, both lay and ecclesiastic, and this early parliament passed a series of resolutions, which eventually had the force of a law, providing for the effectual restraint of the clergy from serious crimes, by ordaining their trial in the civil courts for matters cognizable there, and then requiring their transfer to the ecclesiastical court concerning that which was cognizable there. Questions of the tenure of property between ecclesiastics and laymen were also to be decided in civil courts, and the king's consent was made requisite for confirming the filling of vacant bishoprics and abbacies.
Sacerdotal fury — the maledictions of the Church — were the weapons of the archbishop, and the energetic and earnest king kept as steadily to his purpose of curbing arbitrary clerical power in the interests of justice and good government. For five years the contention continued, until in 1170 Becket, who had fled to France, returned to England, still opposing his ecclesiastical to the civil authority, till he was at length slain at the altar of his cathedral, and became a canonized saint of the church.
During this later part of the 12th century when great movements were in progress, it is interesting to note how far the England of that day was from any assertion of religious liberty. Both ecclesiastical and secular authorities were prompt to punish and extirpate heresies.
"In 1166 A. D., a synod was convened by Henry, at Oxford, to inquire into the proceedings of some families who had come over from Germany, in all about thirty men and women, and had settled at Oxford, having a sort of leader in temporal and spiritual affairs of the name of Gerard. Their lives were perfectly blameless; and their opinions, whatever they might be, were not very attractive, for they had obtained only one English proselyte, a woman of humble station. These inoffensive people were brought before the synod and were required to make a solemn profession of their faith. They replied, by their leader, that they were Christians, and venerated the doctrines of the apostles. But, upon minute questions as to the articles of their belief, they answered perversely and erroneously concerning the sacraments! In these poor foreigners we recognize the precursors of the Albigenses, the Waldenses, and other sects, who gradually spread through Europe, and were persecuted by imprisonment and death, under inquisitions, and by terrible massacres by bigoted princes. The Germans of Oxford were condemned as obstinate heretics, and were delivered over to the king for punishment. They appear to have had one advocate in John of Oxford, whom Becket excommunicated on that account. This was the first ebullition of heresy since the differences of the days of Augustin. An example was to be made, and the wretched exiles were branded, scourged, and turned out naked and bleeding into the fields in the depth of winter. None dared to succor them, none to pity, and they all miserably perished." ~Knight's England
Hume says, of these humble seekers after truth, that while they could give no satisfactory account of their religious profession, they declared themselves ready to suffer for the tenets that they conceived to embody the Divine Wisdom. It seems strange that so acute and powerful an ecclesiastic as Thomas Becket, should have deemed it needful to proceed to their condemnation for heresy; or that a king so correct in many of his ideas of government, should have destined these innocent confessors to torture and death.
Doubtless their patient protest against all the pretenses of artificial or ecclesiastical Christianity was foreseen to have a mighty power at its root, destined eventually to overthrowthe man-made systems of divinity which intruded themselves between mankind and the universal fountain of Wisdom and Light. The destruction of these witnesses for the indwelling Deity did not really prevent the steady advance of the cause of that simple and spiritual cult which alone is in accord with the Divine Wisdom. Says Hume: "We are ignorant of the particular tenets of these people, for it would be imprudent to rely on the representations of them by the clergy, who affirmed that they denied the efficacy of the sacraments and the unity of the church. It is probable that their departure from the standard of orthodoxy was still more subtle and minute. They seem to have been the first that ever suffered for heresy in England."
At the same date, while these German Christians were being harried to death on English soil, a seed was being sown in France, from which has grown a body of noble Christian disciples who have for seven centuries kept up a continual protest against priestly domination and ecclesiastical cruelty — the Vaudois or Waldenses of France and of the Alpine valleys of North Italy. Cruelest persecution could not finally crush this faithful church — Israel of the Alps.
Peter Waldo, a citizen of Lyons in France, (A.D. 1160), is by some writers considered the originator of the Waldensian body. They brought back their people to the purity and faithfulness of the apostolic times, made holy living and Christian love the badge of discipleship, and by their nonconformity to what they deemed false and even blasphemous, brought upon themselves condemnation and most bitter persecution by the Romish Church.
In France too, in these stormy mediaeval times were contests between King and Church, and the same pontiff (Alexander III) who contended with Henry II of England against the Constitutions of Clarendon, vexes the soul of the Seventh Louis of France, sends forth the Second Crusade and contends bitterly for power with the great Frederic Barbarossa of Germany. It was the age of Guelph and Ghibelene. The powers of State and Church were contending angrily for supremacy, and amid the stern tumults of the dark and troublous times the Eleventh General Council of the Church is summoned (1178) to pronounce condemnation and doom upon the Waldenses of the mountain valleys; for it is all important in the eyes of the powers of the earth, that no unorthodox teaching must be tolerated in the land, even though a sovereign pontiff proceed to replenish his war-wasted cotters, by a sale of indulgences. Gather in the gold and hire every idle sword in Europe for the service of Holy Church, for the Vaudois mountaineers have turned to the records of their faith and are detecting the emptiness, the pride, the cruelty of the hierarchy of Rome. While bishops are yet discussing doctrines, and admonishing the heretics, an army with banners descends upon the hamlets and sanctuaries of the Vaudois, and a harvest of death is reaped by the Crusaders of the Alps (1204). It has been estimated that upwards of 200,000 of these innocent Christian people were ruthlessly slain by the champions of priestly domination. Was there then rest for the remnant? Far otherwise. For upwards of three hundred years inquisitorial persecution raged, and according to the best authorities, upwards of 1,500,000 of the Israel of the Alps were slain by orders of the Papal Church. Reinerius, the Inquisitor general, sent against the Waldenses about 1240 A.D., declared that these sectaries were most dangerous heretics, and that they had existed in some form or other ever since the days of primitive Christianity, handing on their simple faith from generation to generation.
Irrepressible heretics are these. No suffering, no reproaches, no devastations can suffice to convince them of the divine authority of the Roman-hierarchs of whom venality, tyranny and avarice are the leading characteristics. They look forward to a better day with prophetic hope, and we may well believe that in all their sore trials and tribulations they could realize the blessed faith "There remaineth a rest for the people of God!"
Councils decree monstrous doctrines, the chains of superstitious observance are redoubled, and wars deluge Christendom with blood. The reign of righteousness seems ended on earth, but gradually and insensibly the principles of human right and of the Divine beneficence get standing room in the world. The mills of the Gods are grinding evermore, and a nobler day dawns. The blood of the martyrs is the fruitful seed of the true church. Even the wrath and cruelty of dissolute and spiritually blinded kings become the levers of a nation's elevation, and of the overthrow of terrible and time dishonored wrong.
The morning dawns, and the light comes gradually with liberty and righteous law as its hand maidens. The day advances and a host gathers for a vast onward progress, and then it is seen that time not only has its revenges, but its glorious compensations. The noon-tide comes and we mount in hope to Pisgah heights, and look forward to the still brighter day advancing, and backward in wonder toward that grim past:
"Where mighty clamors, wars and world noised deeds
Are silent now in dust,
done like a tremble of the huddling reeds
Beneath some sudden gust;
Old forms and creeds have vanished,
Tossed out to wither like unsightly weeds
From the world's garden banished."
What means this vast upheaval of religious belief now going on? Why have tongues that have long been silent now broken into utterances that startle the world? It means that human souls could no longer bear the burden of false doctrines; that the light of our age has melted off the hindrances to freedom of speech; that a wave of honest thought is sweeping over the deep seas of the Church. Timid men, men alarmed at this overwhelming tide of liberal sentiments, now rolling in toward them, may shout the warning far and near that we have only fallen on an age of skepticism; but we who have long watched and prayed for this day feel that the world has touched at last upon a period of faith.— J.H. Tuttle