While there was no shortage of dysfunction in King Henry II of England’s relationship skills, (let us not forget his on again, off again marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, nor the desire of his three sons, Richard, Geoffrey and John wishing him dead at various junctures), the soap opera-ish saga between Henry and his best friend-turned persona non grata, Thomas Becket, is legendary. On this day 843 years ago, Becket who would become the most revered saint in England, was brutally murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by four of Henry’s knights who perhaps, misunderstood the message behind Henry’s supposed outburst, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest!” (or words to this effect)
Most accounts agree that Becket was murdered in the late afternoon around dusk, which might have been(given the time of year) around 4 p.m. or during the Office of Vespers. The knights having hot-footed it(or rather, hot-sailed) from France across the Channel arrived at the Cathedral demanding that Becket travel to Winchester to account for his actions(there seemed to be a question having to with with the use of Henry’s money) and to reinstate those whom he’d excommunicated. Becket refused, which was not a surprise, intransigence being one of his characteristics.
The following is an ‘eyewitness’ account from Edward Grimm who may have been a monk(sources vary on this point). Initially Grimm observed the attack from a hiding place near the altar before becoming involved and himself, wounded. Although his account was written some time later, it wouldn’t be a stretch to believe that Grimm’s lens was influenced by Becket’s subsequent elevation to sainthood. Nevertheless, his ‘eyewitness report’ is often referenced and therefore we can assume some accuracy to his words.
“The murderers followed him[Becket]; ‘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.’
Abbot, Edwin A., St. Thomas of Canterbury (1898); Compton, Piers, The Turbulent Priest (1964); Hollister, Warren C., Medieval Europe: a short history (1975)
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