In December 1170, the archbishop of Canterbury – Thomas Becket (often referred to as Thomas a Becket) – was assassinated at the altar of his cathedral. Four knights stormed in and cut him to pieces with their swords. One account even has the poor man’s brains spilling out on the ground.
Thomas had been a friend of the English king, Henry II. It’s fair to say that both men had strong tempers. But earlier on they had been the firmest of allies. When Henry ascended to the throne, Thomas became his Chancellor – the highest office in the land. And they were both bold reformers.
Thomas Becket disappoints his friend the king
So, Henry rather imagined that if he put his old mate Thomas into Canterbury as archbishop – the top cleric in England – then the church would be pretty much under his control. But the moment Thomas felt the mitre firmly on his head, he transformed into a staunch defender of church interests. Henry was horrified.
As things degenerated, Thomas was exiled then allowed to come back – which he repaid by ramping up his conflict with the king. Henry was beside himself and is supposed to have cried out: “Will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest?” Well, four knights overheard Henry and took him at this word.
Off they went to Canterbury were they murdered Thomas while he was officiating at the high altar of the cathedral. Now, even by medieval standards, that was a brutal and sacrilegious act. And the pope in Rome was going to make sure that the English king did a whole heap of penance for this appalling act.
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King Henry does penance for the murder of Thomas Becket
Having been scourged at the tomb of Thomas – soon to be declared a saint – the humiliated king was absolved by the pope. But there were conditions. He was ordered to fund the upkeep of some 200 Templar knights in the Holy Land. This would have been an eye watering sum for any European monarch. It does appear that a significant amount of money was deposited with the Templars in London at that time.
The four knights who had killed the archbishop were meanwhile packed off on crusade to the Holy Land on what was in effect a 14 year prison sentence imposed by the pope. Some accounts say they were forced to live as hermits on the Black Mountain outside Antioch while one online source claims they became Knights Templar. None of the four assassins seems to have survived much more than three years in the Middle East.
It was also impressed on king Henry that he might want to pack his bags and go on crusade either to Jerusalem or Santiago de Compostela (modern Spain). These were two parts of the world where Christians and Muslims were engaged in bitter warfare. Other princes had ventured out there, so why not Henry?
But he was less than enthusiastic. There was always the worry that his rebellious sons Richard (the future Lionheart) and John (of Magna Carta fame) would try to overthrow him the moment he left English shores. So Henry declined to go on crusade.
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The king may also have tried to renege on that pledge to fund 200 Templar knights. Instead, I’ve read that he offered the Templars land in newly acquired Ireland. Another Irish connection to this story is that one of the four murderers, Reginald FitzUrse, left the Holy Land at some point and ended up in Ireland.
There, he founded the McMahon clan (by ways I know not). Obviously being a McMahon myself – I find this most intriguing!
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