Monday, December 29

The Murder of Thomas Becket

Midwinter in England can indeed be bleak. Iron-hard frosts, smothering snow, torrential rain and gales: all can sweep down on these short days where daylight is gone by mid-afternoon. But at day's close on the twenty-ninth of December 1170, an event occurred that stunned medieval England and all of Christendom. Archbishop Thomas Becket was brutally murdered by four knights in his own cathedral at Canterbury. The knights came to Canterbury following an outburst by Henry II, king of England and much of France. It was a tragedy that had been set in motion many years before.

Canterbury Cathedral
© Shane Broderick Photography 

The son of a London merchant, Becket cut an imposing figure. He was over six feet tall (well above average for the period), with an aquiline nose, a "large brow", and "long and handsome face". He had a quick mind and a particular capacity to absorb and retain huge amounts of information. One chronicler states that he could even detect and react to distant smells and scents! Though he had stammered in his youth, he largely overcame this and was a fluent orator.

Appointed as Henry's Chancellor in 1155, Becket did not disappoint the King. He performed brilliantly in the role and the two men, Henry thirteen years younger than Becket, became extremely close. William Fitzstephen records "Never in Christian times were there two greater friends, more of one mind."


Henry makes Becket Archbishop of Canterbury
Liturgical comb c. 1200
© 2014 E.M. Powell 

One mind, perhaps, but of course Henry was king. And he was a king who was engaged in power struggles with Rome. On the death of Archbishop Theobald in 1161, Henry appointed Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, believing Becket would simply do his bidding and act at all times on his behalf. Henry could not have been more wrong. Becket stood firm against Henry in matters of ecclesiastical law and power. Their disputes dragged on until in 1170 Henry had his son anointed as king by the Archbishop of York, a ceremony that was witnessed by ten other bishops. Becket's response? He excommunicated the bishops from the pulpit at Canterbury Cathedral on Christmas Day. When news reached Henry, he went into one of his legendary rages.

And his rages were indeed legendary. Henry could really let rip when roused. According to John of Salisbury, Henry once became so enraged during a debate about the King of Scotland that he flung off many of his clothes and started "chewing on pieces of straw." John also has Henry describing himself as "a child of anger." One of Henry's charters states that if anyone "should attempt to quash...this grant, he will incur the disfavour, anger and indignation of Almighty God and me."

Canterbury Cathedral
© Shane Broderick Photography 

So it was when Henry was informed of the news of Becket's latest actions. He "struck his hands together and exclaimed against it vehemently", his face "white with fury." His tirade against Becket was about the man's ungratefulness, too: he had raised Becket to a high position, and the only response was treachery. He worked himself up to a frightening pitch, ending with the words: "He has...shamed my realm; the grief goes to my heart, and no-one has avenged me!" Unfortunately, a group of barons who were listening took him at his word. They set off for Canterbury to avenge their king.

And who were these knights? It is unlikely they were part of Henry's intimate circle and acted to increase their favour with the king. William of Canterbury gives us their names and their descriptions. First was Reginald Fitzurse. "Urse" means "bear", and William claims the name indicated the man's savagery. Hugh de Morville's surname translates as "a village of death." William de Tracy is acknowledged as a brave fighter, but had a "sinful way of life." Richard le Bret became the Brute "on account of the depravity of his life." It was these who headed for the cathedral in which the holy man they sought was to be found.

Canterbury Cathedral
© Shane Broderick Photography 
The accounts of events from eight hundred and forty four years ago can often be sketchy. In the case of Becket's murder, we have detail upon appalling detail, as five monks were eye-witnesses to it and wrote their version.

When the knights arrived at Canterbury Cathedral, daylight was fading. They first took off their armour and went to confront Becket who was in the Episcopal Palace. They most likely had come to arrest him but Becket simply refused to comply. That did not help the situation. The knights went back out and started to put on their armour once more. The monks and clerks who were with their Archbishop were extremely concerned by now for Becket's safety. Even if no-one expected murder, they were aware that Becket could be hideously maimed or wounded in such a tense situation. No doubt Becket himself was also aware that this was now a very real possibility. The monks hustled him through to the Cathedral, though he protested throughout.

Carrying on with the rhythm of the day, the Office of Vespers was being sung, the monks voices echoing into the cathedral's high roof with the only light from candles or lamps. Such illumination would hardly have  pierced the chill darkness and cast instead deep shadows. Once the monks saw Becket, they halted their prayers, rejoicing that he was safe. It was only a temporary reprieve. As he walked to the altar, the knights burst in, armed with hatchets and an axe, Fitzurse yelling "Where is the archbishop, the traitor of the King?"

The Murder of Thomas Becket
Public Domain

Becket kept his composure, replying: "Here I am, not a traitor of the King, but a priest. Why do you seek me?" The knights were not so calm. They surrounded Becket, in a shouting, clamouring group, their lethal weapons ready and raised. Grabbing hold of Becket, they tried to manhandle him away but he grabbed for one of the stone pillars and refused to move. Then the Archbishop delivered an insult to Fitzurse, calling him a panderer or a pimp and challenged Fitzurse to kill him. This seemed to tip Fitzurse over into murderous rage, and he roared at de Tracy to strike. Becket bent his head in submission. He knew he was going to die.

Chasse showing the Martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket c1190
© 2014 E.M. Powell 

De Tracy's first strike took off the top of Becket's skull and glanced off, injuring Brother Edward Grim. The watching appalled monks fled in panic, as Becket took another blow to the head but still remained standing. He must have been in unspeakable agony and shock, yet managed to speak for the last time: "For the name of Jesus and the good of the Church, I am ready to embrace death." De Bret thrust his sword through Becket's head with such force that the sword shattered on the altar stone. A cleric who had accompanied the knights scattered the Archbishop's brains, declaring, "He won't get up again." It was over. The knights left the cathedral and went to the Episcopal Palace, where they ransacked Becket's possessions.

Becket's body lay cooling on the altar as the traumatized monks made their way back in. Over the next few hours, people converged on the cathedral in horrified disbelief. Those who came dipped their fingers in the blood of their martyred Archbishop, daubed their clothes with it, and collected as much as they could. Terror still filled the air, with rumours flying around that the murderers were coming back to take the body, or to slay others. It was feared that the knights would defame Becket's corpse, and pull it across the city behind a horse, or display it on a gibbet. This could not be countenanced. The monks decided to bury Becket in the crypt as quickly as possible.

Canterbury Cathedral
© Shane Broderick Photography 

The miracles began that very night. A man who dipped part of his shirt into Becket's blood went home to his paralysed wife. As he wept in his telling of the murder, she asked to be washed in water containing some of the blood. She was cured immediately. A shrine was erected to Becket in the cathedral. An astonishing 100,000 people came to pray and visit Canterbury Cathedral in 1171 alone. 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.

Reliquary casket with scenes of the martyrdom c1173-80
© 2014 E.M. Powell 

And what of Henry, the king whose supposed utterance of "who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?" set the murder in motion? Henry had to give in on the matter of church courts. He also performed a number of acts of penance for the man who had once been his dear friend. The most extreme was on the streets of Canterbury on 12 July 1174, where he was scourged by eighty monks before spending the night praying at Becket’s tomb. (You can read my post on those events here.) In death, Becket had been victorious.

Canterbury Cathedral
© Shane Broderick Photography 

Saint Thomas Becket was a venerated saint for the next four hundred years. Until the arrival of another King Henry, Henry VIII. This Henry was going to take on the church. And win. When he achieved his aim of total control of the church, Henry VIII denounced Becket as a traitor. Becket’s shrine was destroyed, his bones were burned and the mention of his name was outlawed.

Canterbury Cathedral
© Shane Broderick Photography 

But Henry didn’t manage to erase the memory of Becket. People continued in their devotion to him as a saint. Today, Canterbury Cathedral still marks the place of Becket’s martyrdom and thousands continue to visit every year. Think of him today, at day’s close.

References:
Photographer Shane Broderick specializes in studies of castles, churches and places of pilgrimage. To view more and to see his other work, please visit his Facebook Page at Shane Broderick Photography. You can also view his video here for more on Canterbury Cathedral. His photographs on this post have been used with his generous permission.

Abbott, Edwin A.: St. Thomas of Canterbury: His Death and Miracles, A & C Black (1898)
Cathedral: Murder at Canterbury, BBC TV (2005)
Gervase of Canterbury: Thomas Becket's Death, from History of the Archbishops of Canterbury, Internet Medieval Sourcebook, Fordham University
Grim, Edward: The Murder of Thomas Becket, Internet Medieval Sourcebook, Fordham University
Guy, John: Thomas Becket, Penguin Books (2012)
Jones, Dan: The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England, William Collins, (2013)
Staunton, Michael (ed.): The Lives of Thomas Becket, Manchester University Press (2001)
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)
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I first wrote this post or an edited version of it for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog in December 2014.

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