It’s rare to know what was happening on this day 842 years ago. It’s even rarer to know what was happening at a specific time of day. But we do. For on 29 December 1170, as Vespers were being sung in Canterbury Cathedral, a group of knights forced their way in and brutally murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. My novel, The Fifth Knight, is based on this infamous historical event.
In the course of writing my novel, I researched Becket’s life and found an intriguing individual. Born around 1118 to Norman French parents, he rose to archdeacon in the church. He was known for his brilliant mind, described as ‘winning…in his conversation and frank of speech in his discourses.’ He had a slight stutter, particularly when his emotions were aroused. He had a gift for managing delicate negotiations. When King Henry II was seeking a new chancellor, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald, recommended Becket.
Theobald had hoped that Becket would be a strong ally for the church, but Becket took to court life with great flair, keeping apartments that were finer than Henry’s. He demonstrated skill in hunting and loved to wear the finest of clothes. More importantly, he became the closest of friends and allies with the younger (by twelve years) Henry. It is recorded that people spoke of them having ‘one heart and one mind.’
When Theobald died in 1161, Henry appointed Becket to be his new Archbishop of Canterbury. In doing so, he passed over far more experienced clerics and it is believed he appointed Becket to increase his own influence and hold over the church. But Henry, like Theobald before him, was to be disappointed. Becket was nobody’s pawn. Instead, he threw himself into his new role in the church. Within weeks, he had resigned as chancellor. He began to work as hard in his role in the church as he had at court. He wore a hair shirt under his robes (discovered after his death), took cold baths as penance and washed the feet of 30 paupers every day.
It wasn’t long before Becket came into conflict with Henry. The justice system of the time meant there were two courts of law: one for the church, one for the state. Clerics were tried in church courts, which did not have the death penalty, even for murder. And the church, through its independence, could criticise the monarch. Becket resisted royal demands for change, a decision that cost him his life.
In my novel, I follow many of the records of Becket’s death. These scenes were very difficult to write, for by then, I had come to know and admire so much about Becket. His death was particularly savage, with his skull carved in two, shattered from a knight’s sword blow. But if I, over 800 years later found it hard to re-tell, it is even harder to fully grasp the shock and outrage of society at the time. People’s belief in the church was absolute. The idea of the archbishop being murdered was difficult enough, but for it to happen in his own cathedral was unthinkable.
Becket’s murder was viewed as martyrdom, that he died defending his faith. Miracles were attributed to him immediately. The cloths stained with his blood brought cures to local women. The monks brought Becket’s body to the crypt and kept guard over it, fearful that the king would try and have it removed. As people came to see the body, the monks recorded any miracles attributed to Becket. The archbishop’s broken skull was put on view. An astonishing 100,000 people came to pray and visit Canterbury Cathedral in 1171 alone. The attributed miracles mounted up and in ten years, there were a total of 703 recorded. Becket’s intercession was in healing, casting out demons. He was prayed to by women in childbirth. When Queen Eleanor, the wife of King Henry III was expecting her fourth child, 1,000 candles were lit around Becket’s shrine.
Becket was canonized in 1173 and his popularity as a saint grew. Canterbury became hugely popular for pilgrims. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his famous ‘Canterbury Tales’ about pilgrims, and he calls Becket the ‘holy, blessed martyr’. Myths grew up around Becket. One woman claimed she had taught a bird to pray to the saint. When the bird was hunted by a hawk, it sang out Becket’s name and was released. A story circulated that while Becket was alive, he needed a woman to mend his clothes while on his travels. The woman that did so in a convent mysteriously disappeared after completing her task. The woman was deemed to be Our Lady.
And what of Henry, the king whose supposed utterance of ‘who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ set the murder in motion? Henry had to give in on the matter of church courts. He also performed a number of acts of penance for the man who had been his dear friend. The most extreme was on the streets of Canterbury on 12 July 1174, where he was scourged by eighty monks before spending the night praying at Becket’s tomb. In death, Becket had been victorious.
Saint Thomas Becket was a venerated saint for the next four hundred years. Until the arrival of another King Henry, Henry VIII. This Henry was going to take on the church. When he achieved his aim of total control of the church, Henry VIII denounced Becket as a traitor. Becket’s shrine was destroyed, his bones were burned and the mention of his name was outlawed.
But Henry didn’t manage to erase Becket. People continued in their devotion to him as a saint. Today, Canterbury Cathedral still marks the place of Becket’s martyrdom and thousands continue to visit every year. Think of him today, at day’s close.
Note: The Fifth Knight can be found on Kindle Serials. At this time, only US customers can purchase the serialized format. The book will be released in complete format by Thomas & Mercer in 2013.