Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170. The events leading up to his death, and the question of King Henry’s involvement in the murder are somewhat unclear.
In December Henry was at the royal court in Normandy, where he was approached by Roger of York, Gilbert of London and Jocelin of Salisbury (the former Archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury). Together they complained to the king about their excommunications.
The king was said to have been outraged. He is also supposed to have uttered the now famous line “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest”, although this is probably a later addition to the story. It is not known whether Henry ever specifically ordered some kind of retribution for Becket’s actions.
Nevertheless, Henry’s anger did inspire four knights in his court – Reginald FitzUrse, William de Tracy, Hugh de Morville and Richard le Bret – to travel from Normandy to Canterbury Cathedral in search of Becket. Like Henry, the knights’ motives are unclear: they may have been intent on killing Becket, or they may simply have wanted to arrest him to take him back to the King.
The most detailed account of Becket’s murder was written by his biographer, a monk named Edward Grim. Grim was by Becket’s side when he was killed, and was even wounded himself in the attack.
Grim reports that when the four knights arrived at the Cathedral, Becket was in his personal quarters in the Archbishop’s Palace. He was persuaded by the monks to seek refuge in the church, but the knights followed. The monks attempted to bar the doors of the church, but Becket told them to leave it open, saying “It is not proper that a house of prayer, a church of Christ, be made a fortress.”
The knights entered the Cathedral, demanding to see the Archbishop. Becket met them in the North West transept, where the knights requested that he withdraw his excommunication of the Archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury. Thomas refused, and they tried to drag him out of the Cathedral. Becket held onto one of the church columns to prevent them taking him.
It was at this point that one of the knights raised his sword for the first time, bringing it down on Becket and “shaving off” the crown of his head, whilst also wounding the nearby Grim’s arm. The other knights then started to attack Becket, while the other monks fled.
The third blow of a sword brought Becket’s life to an end. Grim describes how, by the end of the attack, Thomas’ crown had “separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain [and] the brain turn red from the blood”. Becket’s blood and brains spilled onto the stone floor beneath him, so that it “purpled the appearance of the church with the colours of the lily and the rose”.
The knights were also accompanied by a clerk, named Hugh de Horsea. Before the knights left, he is said by Grim to have:
“placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr and (it is horrible to say) scattered the brains with the blood across the floor, exclaiming to the rest, “We can leave this place, knights, he will not get up again.”
The knights then fled, leaving Becket’s body in the Cathedral.