The Assassination of Thomas Becket

Henry stared at the assemblage surrounding him in the great hall. His expression was one of outrage mixed with contempt as he slowly turned and looked into each face. Every man and woman in the room cringed when his cold gaze fell upon them, knowing that they would be remembered, singled-out sometime in the future, and they were terrified at the prospect. Earlier he had screamed at them all, condemned them all, saying that he had befriended evil men, given them his bread, his lands and in return they cared not how he suffered and how he grieved. He had stormed out of the hall, trailed by his servants and several favored courtisans, and gone to his private rooms where he tried to subdue his rage. An hour later he returned to the hall only to find them standing and sitting in small groups, gossiping and rumour-mongering among themselves. His outraged returned and he screamed at them again, chastising each of them for their lack of concern and for their treachery.

Henry's rage was once again focused on the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, the man, the once dear and loyal friend, who had betrayed him time and time again. The man who with deliberation and malice recommended that the Pope excommunicate many of his loyalist subjects. The man who refused to obey him. The man who fought him at every turn. Henry raised a clenched fist upward and bellowed “This is a man who has eaten my bread – a man who came to my court with nothing! I raised him high and for that he draws up his heel to kick me in the teeth! He has shamed my kin – he has shamed my realm - and the grief goes to my heart!” He paused, nearly in tears, “ And yet no one has avenged me!” He turned slowly, accusingly, “Why has no one avenged me?!”

His rage did not fall on deaf ears. Four knights, standing in the back of the hall, listened intently and watched the King. They had already talked about this problem among themselves and knew that, if they were to call themselves men and loyal subjects, they must act and act decisively. They knew that the time was at hand – the time to return to Canterbury and prevent this madman from harassing their King any further. They looked around the hall and knew that these cowards would do nothing. No....they were the only knights at court with the loyalty and courage to defend their King. To right this terrible wrong.

The pact between Reginald Fitz-Urse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton, and Thomas Becket's fate, were sealed when the King stood away from them all and roared “Won't anyone rid me of this troublesome priest?!”.

Early the following morning they saddled their war horses, scabbarded their broadswords and war axes and rode to the coast where they found boats to cross the channel, two going to Dover and two to Winchelsea. From there they rode to Saltwood and the castle of Sir Ranulf de Broc who lodged them for the night and helped them complete their plan. Sir Ranulf sent riders to gather all of the loyal knights in the area and had them meet the next day on the road to Canterbury. The small army then rode on together and arrived at Canterbury where they circulated through the town telling everyone, “If anyone tries to hide the Archbishop we will burn the Cathedral”.

It was the evening of December 29th, 1170, the four knights, fully armoured and riding their war horses, rode to the Cathedral at Canterbury to confront Thomas Becket. They rode into the courtyard, dismounted and walked resolutely into the hall where they were greeted by the Archbishop's personal knight who then took them to Becket's rooms where he was dining and talking to several of his clerks. Angered by a cold reception from the Archbishop they confronted him, saying he had committed acts against the crown and he had disgraced England. They demanded he return to Normandy with them, where he could answer to the King. Outraged at their insolence, he refused, saying that they had no right to give him orders, particularly without the King's endorsement. The four knights arose and stormed out of his chambers, vowing that he would leave or die.

They went back to the courtyard where they talked among themselves, their tempers rising as they thought about Becket's arrogant refusal. William de Tracy raged, “The man is a traitor and a fool! We must stop him here and now! He is against our King and he is against God!” Reginald Fitz-Urse wanted to avoid killing the Archbishop if possible but he knew that de Tracy was right. He looked at the group and knew that there would be only one likely outcome. They took off their armour and tunics, the tunics with their family coats of arms, and laid them across their saddles. With their broadswords and hatchets they went back to the hall door, only to find it now locked. The locked door served to enrage them even more and they cursed loudly as they pounded on the oak with the hilts of their swords. When, after several minutes of cursing and pounding, a conspirator from within the church came to them through the back garden, Thomas Becket's fate was decided. The four knights were outraged beyond reason and they wanted the Archbishop's blood. The traitor led them through the garden to an open rear door that led into the back of the hall. They burst into the room screaming, “Where is Thomas the traitor?!”.

Thomas Becket knelt in the sanctuary, praying and awaiting the four knights. He had been told they were coming and knew their intentions but he firmly believed that his clerks and his loyal subjects would rise up and stop these men, stop them from kidnapping him or, worse, stop them from murdering him. He waited for the assassins and he waited for help. The four, their swords drawn, advanced further into the hall and demanded that the traitor to the King be turned over to them! Becket tried to shrink into the darkness behind a pillar but they quickly found him. Reginald grabbed him by his cloak and the Archbishop shouted hysterically, “If you're looking for me, Reginald, you've found me”. He jerked his cloak away from the knight and gave him a shove, sending him tumbling backwards. He looked at Fitz-Urse and pleaded, “Reginald! I have done you many kindnesses! Why do you come armed against me in this holy place?”

The other three cautiously surrounded the Archbishop, threatened him with their swords and hatchets. Reginald, angry from being humiliated when he fell, struggled to his feet and bellowed, “You traitor! Your are a traitor to the King! You will come with us and you will answer to Henry!”

Becket, now terrified, turned and ran to an alter, holding on as tightly as he could. The knights grabbed him and dragged him, screaming and kicking, as far as the other alter, the one that was consecrated to the mother of God. He again pulled free and ran to a large pillar, grabbing it and holding fast.

One of them yelled “Absolve those you've excommunicated and the men you've suspended! That's the only way you'll save yourself!”

The Archbishop was now foaming at the mouth and muttering unintelligibly but he held his ground and finally shouted his answer, “I'll do what I did for them... they'll get nothing more from me!”

The four knights raising their weapons menacingly as William deTracy snarled, “Come with us now or die!”. He held tight to the pillar and shouted through his tears, “I'm ready for martyrdom, if that has to be! I'm not afraid of your threats!”

Hugh de Morville, eyeing the gathering crowd of witnesses, moved toward them and stood with his sword high in the air and threatened them, “Stay away!”. The witnesses backed away and watched in horror as the grisly drama unfolded.

Thomas Becket held firmly to the pillar, crying and moaning, while the four knights, growing even more angry and frustrated, tried to pry him loose. Still he held fast, resisting all of their efforts, praying and crying, increasing their rage. Finally, one of the Archbishop's clerks, Edward Binns, rushed in to try to help his master. He wrapped his arms around Becket and held him tightly, doing his best to cover his head to protect him.

William de Tracy roared, “Enough!”. In a rage he rushed forward, raised his great broadsword over his head, and brought it down a glancing blow to the head of Edward Binns, slicing the top of his scalp and cutting into his left shoulder. The clerk screamed in pain and was forced to release Becket. He fell to the floor, severely injured and bleeding badly. de Tracy was no fool. He knew they must all be a party to the act if they were to avoid unpunishment. He turned and shouted at the others, “Strike! Strike!”. Reginald Fitz-Urse stepped forward and rather timidly brought his sword down on Becket's back, inflicting a deep wound, but the Archbishop held onto the pillar and did not fall. Then de Tracy, his temper now uncontrollable, shouldered the others aside and rushed forward, striking again. Becket finally fell, a lifeless heap on the floor. Richard le Breton stepped forward, as if aroused by the blood that was now running across the stones. He held his sword with both hands and brought it down on the prostrate head of Becket. The powerful blow shattered the blade and sent it flying off into the corner.

Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, friend and enemy of King Henry II, lay dead on the floor, his skull fractured, his blood bright red against the grey stones. An archer who had accompanied the knights to Canterbury stepped forward from the rear of the hall, giggling nervously. He put his foot down on the neck of Becket in a gesture of triumph. He laughed and shouted “He won't be getting up again!”

The four stepped back from the grisly scene and stood for a moment as their tempers cooled. They glanced nervously at each other and nodded without speaking. They then turned and walked back through the cloisters, stopping to shout and wave their swords at the horrified onlookers. As they went through the massive oak door they all waved their broad swords high over their heads and shouted “We are the King's Men!”

Epilogue:

It is doubtful that Hugh de Morville, Richard le Breton, William de Tracy and Reginald Fitz-Urse felt any pangs of sorrow for the death of the Archbishop or for their actions. They later bragged about the affair and were heard retelling the gruesome details many times over. Because King Henry II was not directly involved, and because they had acted on their own, they each did their penance, although what their penance was is unknown. It is known that Reginald Fitz-Urse fled to Scotland but we don't know if he returned to England or when and we do know that the family retained their lands. The King wore sackcloth and ashes for a time and he apologised to the Pope but, again, he was not directly involved and so he escaped relatively unscathed.

Even though Thomas Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury it was common knowledge that England, and most certainly Henry, were better off without him. Nonetheless, he was quickly canonised in 1173 and even more quickly became just another footnote in English history.

My interest?:

Reginald Fitz-Urse was the brother of my 21st Great-Grandfather, Richard Fitz-Urse (born about 1150), and the brothers were the sons of Richard Fitz-Urse, the Elder, my 22nd Great-Grandfather.

The family name changed from Fitz-Urse to Fitz-Urse de Bereham about 1175, to de Bereham about 1225, to simply Bereham about 1375, to Berham about 1400, and finally, to Barham about 1500.

Charles Barham, my 6th Great-Grandfather, came to the Virginia colonies in 1653 with his uncle, Henry Filmer, aboard the John & Ambrose. He was the progenitor of nearly all Barhams living today in the United States.

Dan Barham 2006



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