No event shook late twelfth century England as much as the cold-blooded murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket in his own cathedral. The knights who plunged their swords in to him as he clutched at his altar believed they were doing the will of king Henry II, ruler of Normandy and England.
Thomas had been born in the same year the Knights Templar were founded – 1118. He came from a prosperous Norman background and had been mentored as a youth by Theobold, a previous Archbishop of Canterbury. Through him he had met Henry II and the two men had become firm friends. Indeed the hot-headed king had even elevated Thomas to the position of Chancellor – the top secular post in his realm. As Chancellor, Thomas was in charge of all financial matters and he excelled in his duties.
So when Henry wanted to bring the church more under his control, he thought it might be rather a good idea to instal Thomas as Archbishop of Canterbury – the top religious job in England.
The small matter of Thomas not being a cleric was resolved in the traditional medieval manner of a rapid ordination and shortly thereafter he was wearing the bejeweled mitre. However, Thomas went native in his new role – in no time he was defending the church against the king.
Henry operated on a pretty short fuse at the best of times – eating straw off the floor and growling like a dog during some of his worse tempers – and he was soon trumping up charges of financial impropriety against Thomas dating back to his time as Chancellor.
The Archbishop fled the country for several years but was then reconciled to Henry. Everything, the king thought, was going to be sweet from here on in.
But Thomas, who clearly had an obstinate streak of his own, refused to let Henry exert royal control over church courts and in one volcanic fit of fury, Henry wondered loudly ‘who would rid him of this turbulent priest’. A group of knights didn’t need a second prompting and made their way to Canterbury, swords in hand.
The rest, as they say, is history. Bloody history. The knights hacked at Thomas brutally slicing the top off his head. But the now dead Archbishop would have the last laugh (from the grave). His murder turned him in to one of the most revered saints of the Middle Ages and his tomb became a massively popular pilgrimage destination. Chaucer would describe the journey of one group of pilgrims to the cathedral in his ‘Canterbury Tales’. Here is the eye witness account of a monk, the appropriately named Edward Grim, who saw the killing and left us this account:
“The murderers followed him; ‘Absolve’, they cried, ‘and restore to communion those whom you have excommunicated, and restore their powers to those whom you have suspended.’
“He answered, ‘There has been no satisfaction, and I will not absolve them.’
‘Then you shall die,’ they cried, ‘and receive what you deserve.’
‘I am ready,’ he replied, ‘to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace. But in the name of Almighty God, I forbid you to hurt my people whether clerk or lay.’
“Then they lay sacrilegious hands on him, pulling and dragging him that they may kill him outside the church, or carry him away a prisoner, as they afterwards confessed. But when he could not be forced away from the pillar, one of them pressed on him and clung to him more closely. Him he pushed off calling him ‘pander’, and saying, ‘Touch me not, Reginald; you owe me fealty and subjection; you and your accomplices act like madmen.’
“The knight, fired with a terrible rage at this severe repulse, waved his sword over the sacred head. ‘No faith’, he cried, ‘nor subjection do I owe you against my fealty to my lord the King.’
“Then the unconquered martyr seeing the hour at hand which should put an end to this miserable life and give him straightway the crown of immortality promised by the Lord, inclined his neck as one who prays and joining his hands he lifted them up, and commended his cause and that of the Church to God, to St. Mary, and to the blessed martry Denys. Scarce had he said the words than the wicked knight, fearing lest he should be rescued by the people and escape alive, leapt upon him suddenly and wounded this lamb who was sacrificed to God on the head, cutting off the top of the crown which the sacred unction of the chrism had dedicated to God; and by the same blow he wounded the arm of him who tells this. For he, when the others, both monks and clerks, fled, stuck close to the sainted Archbishop and held him in his arms till the one he interposed was almost severed.
“Then he received a second blow on the head but still stood firm. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living victim, and saying in a low voice, ‘For the Name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death.’
“Then the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay, by which the sword was broken against the pavement, and the crown which was large was separated from the head. The fourth knight prevented any from interfering so that the others might freely perpetrate the murder.
“As to the fifth, no knight but that clerk who had entered with the knights, that a fifth blow might not be wanting to the martyr who was in other things like to Christ, he put his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to say, scattered his brain and blood over the pavement, calling out to the others, ‘Let us away, knights; he will rise no more.’”