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Clarendon Palace …

…a visit to ancient ghosts

Constitutional lawyers and historians in English-speaking countries will find the names ‘Clarendon Palace’ or ‘Clarendon Lodge’ familiar. From 1164 to 1166 this medieval palace, some miles east of Salisbury, echoed with heated arguments in Norman French. Those debates marked the birthing pains of what some historians call England’s first constitution. After all was said and written down, the Assize of Clarendon imposed notable reforms on English law, notably introducing circuit courts and twelve man juries.

How is fame laid low. I walked among the ruins of Clarendon Palace once. I was one of sixteen small boys in gray flannel shirts and uniforms, with blue ties and matching caps. We were the choristers of Salisbury Cathedral in the mid-1950s, kept in school to sing Christmas or Easter services after the other boys had gone home for the holidays. During these extra days in school, teachers took us on outings. Hence our day-trip to Clarendon Palace.

Clarendon Palace: ramparts of bramble

My memory of that day has me walking the length of what had been the king’s hall, eight hundred years before. I tried to keep to the few remaining brown floor tiles set with yellow heraldic and beastly designs. Those surviving tiles were interspersed by clumps of bramble big as haystacks, jumbles of nettle, willowherb and ragged-robin.

Clarendon Palace ruins

Clarendon Palace ruins. Photo: Lavinia and Steve Burch, 2008

That picture is gone now. What used to be medieval ruins have recently been cleaned up, with stone and gravel neatly piled and the meadow cut. Nowadays, the ruins resemble, well… cleaned-up ruins. The cathedral spire is visible now that some trees have come down. Bear in mind: the ‘new’ cathedral didn’t exist at the time those debates were raging at Clarendon.

In the twelfth century, Clarendon Palace was indeed a palace. In 1166, King Henry II reformed English justice here. But it is the events of 1164 which trigger memories from history among this decay. At the end hidden under brambles, King Henry II once sat on the king’s bench, shouting invective at his erstwhile friend and chancellor, Thomas Becket, whom the king had foolishly appointed to be his intransigent archbishop of Canterbury.

At Clarendon Palace in 1164, Henry set out to curb the power of Church courts. In one of my books, Power of a Woman, Henry’s queen-consort, Eleanor of Aquitaine, explains: “More than two men in ten pleaded exemption from our royal courts by virtue of their claims to be in holy orders. Rascals of all stripes claimed the Church’s protection. Better a dozen Paternosters than a whipping! Better six hundred Hail Marys than a noose!” The king’s law could be evaded as long as its reach was constrained. “Before the king’s law could be seen to be just,” adds Eleanor, “the mesh in the net had to be of one size.”

The process of law-giving at Clarendon cannot have been easy. Here is my Eleanor of Aquitaine describing her recollections of those years:

‘Barely had we passed Epiphany before Henry removed his person, his scrolls, his lawyers and his anger to Clarendon. Thither he hailed Becket and the bishops, to browbeat them again.

‘I recall Henry pacing, pacing, pacing the floor at Berkhamstead. It gave him special pleasure – how heady is righteous indignation! – to fashion a bridle for Becket in that miscreant’s former hall.

‘The hall was like a market place, a jostling of folk at all hours: lawyers talking, contradicting; Henry smacking his hand on the board and punching his fists in the air; scribes grinding ink while others, black-lipped, tried to suck it faster than reluctant quills could feed it… What relief when they finally fashioned a preamble! The remainder was days in coming, too, but the preamble was finicked to a fault. I remember it as if it were a well-worn ballad:

In the twelfth year of Henry II, most illustrious king of the English, there was made, in the presence of the said king, the record and recognition of a certain portion of the customs and liberties and rights of his ancestors and of others – which ought to be observed and held in the kingdom…

‘For the longest time the sticking point was the word “recognition.” But Henry insisted. It was the word which jurists had also proposed as an instruction to the twelve men sworn to “recognise” a crime.

‘I will say this for Henry: the draft of the Constitutions of Clarendon acknowledged the pope in the preamble. Two years later, Pope Alexander’s aid to Becket moved Henry to such apoplexy that he expunged the pope’s name and office utterly from the Clarendon Assize.

‘I see it still: the wagging finger, hectoring tone; the jurists John of Balliol and Richard of Lucy attempting to speak; lawyers cowed like baggage-mules beneath Henry’s whip of words; scribes writing, striking through and sending urgently for ink and parchment; dust from the floor and smoke from the fire shading the flames as Henry paced:

And on account of the dissension and disputes that had arisen between the clergy and the justices of the lord king and the barons of the realm concerning customs and rights, the recognition was made…” ‘

Which brings us back to modern times

Fifty years after my visit to the ruins at Clarendon Palace, my head began to write her book of memoirs for Eleanor of Aquitaine.

That long-ago day—I refer to King Henry’s and Becket’s presence there in the twelfth century, not to mine in the twentieth—sowed the seed for several tragedies, both constitutional and personal. Henry had insisted that his nine year old son and heir, Young Henry, should sit with him on the king’s bench, as if father and son jointly judged Becket. For his part, Becket was Young Henry’s godfather, tutor, advisor, honorary ‘uncle’, protector and friend; Young Henry and his betrothed had lived for several years in Becket’s household with Becket in loco parentis. Possibly the boy never recovered emotionally from this event. Young Henry’s short life of 15 years mixed arrogance with tragic failings.

Constitutional separation between Church and state found wings on that day, between walls long since levelled. Young Henry’s mother, Eleanor, described another rift: “In that instant Young Henry watched the love between his father and his mentor rend like the veil of the Temple. Poor boy. He never healed. What a sad breach. So signal. So complete. It was there that our Angevin future cankered and started to die.”

For Clarendon Palace, too. The 1160s, the era of Henry II, Young Henry, Thomas Becket, Queen Eleanor and constitutional debates marked the building’s crowning years. After that, a slow, then quickening slide.

In 1965, a decade after my visit, Nikolaus Pevsner wrote:

Today Clarendon Palace is a tragedy. A footpath leads into the wood. One threads one’s way through elder and wild clematis. A solitary old iron notice-board of the Ministry of Works indicates that one has arrived. One crag of walling stands. All the rest is back to its sleeping beauty’.

Enough of Clarendon Palace. For me, its ghosts have flown.

RF/Clarendon Palace/circa 1956