Sunday, July 13

Thomas Becket: The Blood of a Martyr

On July 12 1174, King Henry II of England did public penance in Canterbury for the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket. The infamous murder had taken place in Canterbury Cathedral in the cold and dark of a December evening in 1170.

Henry II doing Penance at the tomb of Thomas Becket
By John Cassell (Internet Archive) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Yet here was Henry, ruler of England and much of France, walking barefoot along the rough cobbled streets in the heat of July, making his way to a tomb in the cathedral. It was Becket's tomb, and the slain Archbishop was now a canonised saint. Thousands of pilgrims had already made their way there but one doubts if anyone that day expected to see the king follow suit.

As if his humble progression was not astonishing enough, Henry then prostrated himself at Becket's tomb and spent many hours in prayer. He begged for forgiveness from Becket for the uttering of his words that had sent a group of knights to murder the archbishop.

© E.M. Powell 

The king had good reason to do so. He was facing the loss of his crown to a rebellion led by his Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, their three eldest sons and King Louis of France. Henry believed that his failure to repent for Becket's death had led him to this point.

Now that he had come to make his belated penance, Henry's public display of humility reached new heights. He removed his upper clothing and was subjected to strikes from over seventy scourge-wielding monks. His royal flesh was torn and his blood flowed freely from his chastisement. While the chroniclers at the time were stunned, more modern interpretations are that the scourging of the king must have been relatively light, for otherwise he could not have survived so many blows.

© E.M. Powell 

If only the assault on Becket had been so forgiving. There are eye-witness accounts of how he died and they are brutally graphic. It will suffice to say that the monks who converged on the dead Becket were able to collect splashed blood and and the results of his massive head wound from the stone floor of the altar.

Yet their gathering of Becket's life-force and his stained clothing were the first acts in propelling Becket along the road to sainthood. It may seem repugnant to some modern sensibilities but blood was seen as an immensely powerful force in medieval society.

This power could be seen to be evil. Necromancers (when summoning demons) followed instructions that they should write their symbols or incantations in the blood of cats, bats and even a hoopoe. There was widespread belief that a murdered corpse would bleed afresh in the presence of the murderer.

© E.M. Powell 
But of course blood was also seen to have the power of good. Devotion to the shedding of Christ's blood and miracles resulting from it had existed since the seventh century. One early reported miracle was the transformation of the host into a bloody finger to convince a woman who doubted her faith.

And so it was with Becket, viewed by all as a martyr who had died for his beliefs.Within hours, a steady stream of people had arrived, looking for cures to all manner of afflictions from Becket's holy blood. Miracles were attributed to him immediately. The cloths stained with his blood brought cures to local women. There are accounts of people dabbing it on their eyes to cure their sight. Holy water containing Becket's blood started to be sold. The story of Canterbury as a place of pilgrimage had begun.

© E.M. Powell 
An astonishing 100,000 people came to pray and visit Canterbury Cathedral in 1171 alone. Becket was made a saint in 1173, making his a very swift canonization. His popularity as a saint grew.The attributed miracles mounted up and in ten years, there were a total of 703 recorded. Becket’s intercession was in healing, casting out demons. He was prayed to by women in childbirth. When Queen Eleanor, the wife of King Henry III was expecting her fourth child, 1,000 candles were lit around Becket’s shrine. 

Myths also grew up around Becket. One woman claimed she had taught a bird to pray to the saint. When the bird was hunted by a hawk, it sang out Becket’s name and was released. A story circulated that while Becket was alive, he needed a woman to mend his clothes while on his travels. The woman that did so in a convent mysteriously disappeared after completing her task. The woman was deemed to be Our Lady.

And what of Henry II, one of Canterbury's most famous pilgrims and repentant sinners? The very next day, as he nursed his wounds from his penance, he received news of important victories for his troops. As far as Henry's subjects were concerned, Saint Thomas Becket had spoken: the penitent king had been granted his miracle. The rebellion was swiftly crushed. 


Guy, John: Thomas Becket, Penguin Books (2012)
Jones, Dan: The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England, William Collins, (2013)
Kieckhefer, Richard, Magic in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press (2000)
Lindhal, Carl et al., Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs & Customs, Oxford University Press (2002)
Warren, W.L., Henry II, Yale University Press (2000)
Weir, Alison: Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England, Vintage Books (2007)
This post or an edited version of it first appeared on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog in July 2014. 

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