The Murder of Saint Thomas Becket

Saint Thomas Becket QuoteThe Murder of Saint Thomas Becket (emphasis added)

“No more certain is the state of Thomas’s mind. The memorialists believed unanimously, although with varied insistence and consistency, that he was prepared, even anxious, for martyrdom. In such a case he should not flee from city to city, but given an example to his flock. He wished to follow the royal road, that trodden by his Lord Jesus Christ and the Apostles. However that may be, he was undoubtedly not prepared either to go tamely into captivity or be pushed around and arrested by soldiers who were of only middling baronial rank. Henry himself had, more realistically, entrusted the task to earl, William de Mandeville. It was sacrilege to touch God’s anointed; and there was Thomas’s pride and dignity. This being so, only the utmost restraint on the part of the barons could spare him from injury or death. And that patience and forbearance were not forthcoming – in the circumstances were out of the question.

Yet it does not seem that their original intention, as they are supposed to have confessed later, was to capture Thomas and use greater force only if he resisted arrest, and that their immediate aim was merely to remove him from the Church. According to Edward Grim, and he should have known, the barons, when they caught up with the archbishop, demanded once more that he abrogate his sentences on the prelates, and, when he refused on the grounds that they had given no satisfaction, threated him with death. Thomas replied that he himself was willing to die, but forbade them to harm any of his men, whether clerks or laymen. They then tried to arrest him. Benedict and fitzStephen believed that one of the assailants, identified by Guernes as Reginald fitzUrse, shouted, ‘Run away: you are a dead man!’ And, when Thomas refused, menaced him with his sword and, with the point, dislodged his cap from his head. Then one of them, this time almost certainly Reginald, grabbed him by the border of his cloak with the help of others, pushing and tugging, tried to hoist him on to William de Tracy’s back. Thomas was outraged. Not only did he lash Reginald with bitter charges of ingratitude and shameful conduct, he even called him, according to Grim, a pimp (leno). He also resisted physically, shaking him off so fiercely that Reginald almost fell to the ground. With Edward Grim holy on tightly, Thomas could not be moved. Herbert of Bosham rhapsodizes over this feat of strength. Thomas was a second Samson, Paul, Jesus Christ in the temple, boy David!

In Grim’s view the barons wanted to get the archbishop out of the church either to kill him in a less sacred place or to carry him off as a prisoner. But the plan failed. Thomas’s resistance and the increasing number of onlookers, including townsfolk coming to evensong, made his rescue possible. The situation had got out of hand. While Hugh de Morville kept the watchers at a distance, the others struck in turn. When Thomas realized that he was close to death, he adopted a submissive pose, his head bent forward, his arms stretched out and his hands joined as in prayer. ‘I commend myself to God, the Blessed Mary, St. Denis and the patron saints of this Church,’ he said. Perhaps he also named St. Aelfheah, the martyred archbishop.

Grim believed that it was the baron whom Thomas had addressed as Reginald who struck the first blow. And he was most likely right. FitzUrse had been the leader all along, had clashed physically with the archbishop and had been called foul names. Grim thrust out his arm to ward off the blow. But the swung sword sliced off the top of the archbishop’s head. And cut through the clerk’s arm to the bone. Later that night at Saltwood William de Tracy is supposed to have claimed that he had cut off John of Salisbury’s arm. If he did say this, it would seem that he was doubly deceived. In the heat of the affray the baron’s could see no more than the onlookers. He was, however, probably the one who felled the archbishop to the ground, either, as fitzStephen and Benedict thought, at his first attempt, or, as Grim, followed by Guernes and Anonymous I, believed, with his second blow. Thomas subsided to his knees and then his hands, and finished flat on his face, with his head to the north and the altar of St. Benedict to his right. Grim alone reports that, as he collapsed, he murmured, ‘For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death.’ While he lay there, a third knight, identified by fitzStephen and Guernes as Richard le Bret, delivered the coup de grace. He struck the archbishop such a fierce blow to the head that he completed the severance of the crown and also broke his sword in two on the pavement. As he struck, he shouted, ‘Take this for love of my lord William, the king’s brother!’ Finally, the subdeacon, Hugh of Horsea, put his foot on the victim’s neck, thrust the point of his sword into the open skull and scattered blood and brains on the floor. ‘Let’s be off, knights,’ he cried. ‘This fellow won’t get up again!’ Some of the biographers note, and it was a disturbing feature, that the only one who tried to help and protect the victim was a complete stranger to them all.”

– Frank Barlow, Thomas Becket – 


– Lucas G. Westman

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