On 29 December 1170, four knights of King Henry II stormed into Canterbury Cathedral and murdered the Archbishop, Thomas Becket. His death provoked widespread horror and outrage, soon followed by a popular cult and rumours of miracles. Despite being hailed as a martyr and canonised in 1173, Becket remains one of the most controversial figures in English history.
Born on 21 December 1120 (or 1118, according to some sources), Thomas Becket was the only surviving son of the prosperous London merchant, Gilbert Beket. As a boy Becket was educated at an Augustinian Priory in Merton, Suffolk and later at one of the London grammar schools. Although the youngster mastered the basic curriculum, evidence suggests that he preferred horses and hunting over academia. From 1143 Becket worked as a clerk, securing employment in the house of the great London banker, Osbert Huitdeniers and, in 1145, in the household of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury. This was a huge achievement for Becket and would dramatically change the course of his life.
The Rising Star
Although not as well educated as his colleagues, Becket quickly made friends in his new appointment and found favour with the archbishop himself. He spent a year studying law at Bologna and Auxerre before being sent on missions to the papal curia. By 1154 Becket had secured the archdeaconry of Canterbury and was enjoying the wealth of his many benefices.
The King’s Favourite
Becket may well have played a role in securing the accession of the young Henry FitzEmpress (Henry II) to the throne of England in 1154. Either way, Becket, now serving as the royal chancellor, became a firm favourite of the new king. The two were virtually inseparable and Becket guided the young, hot-headed Henry through the early years of his reign. He played a key role in Henry’s relations with the French King, Louis VII and in the expedition to Toulouse in 1159. When Theobald died in 1161, there was little doubt in Henry’s mind that Becket was the man for the job.
If Henry expected his new archbishop to submit to this authority, he was very much mistaken. Although initially reluctant to take the post, Becket threw himself into his new role and responsibilities. He recruited a large household staff, began studying theology and became particular generous in his alms-giving. But on receipt of his pallium and much to Henry’s disgrace, Becket resigned as both chancellor and archdeacon. Moreover, after attending the general council at Tours in 1163, Becket returned to England with a vow to become the defender of the rights of the English Church.
The scene was now set for their first encounter.
Under the benefit of clergy, any clergymen accused of committing a crime could not be tried and punished by a secular court of law. This privilege infuriated Henry II (pictured) and in 1163 he proposed that these “criminous clerks” be stripped of their clerical protection. Needless to say, his proposal found no support among Becket or England’s bishops.
In January 1164 Henry and his baron met with Becket and his bishops at Clarendon, near Salisbury, to further discuss this contentious issue. There, Henry presented the Constitution of Clarendon, a list of 16 clauses including his proposal for the treatment of criminous clerks. According to the chronicler, William of Newburgh, Becket and the bishops were so terrified by Henry’s ranting that they agreed to his demands and swore to abide by the constitutions. Henry may have felt victorious but, shortly after the meeting, Becket publicly repented the oath and reported the events to the Pope, who refused to confirm the new constitutions.
Henry was determined to punish Becket for his actions. During a land dispute in Pagham, in 1164, Becket was accused of contempt of court and forced to forfeit all his goods. He was next accused of embezzlement and summoned to Northampton. After much discussion, Becket refused to hear the Council’s verdict and, that night, fled to the court of the French King, Louis VII. Becket was given asylum and returned to the Cistercian Abbey at Pontigny with his family and supporters, banished from England by Henry.
Despite numerous attempts, the two men could not be reconciled. In fact, the situation got worse. In 1166, for example, Becket excommunicated all royal servants who had acted against him and Henry appealed to the Cistercians to expel Becket from the abbey. By 1167, even the Pope was growing weary of their dispute. In 1169, Henry made the first move at a serious reconciliation and offered to make several concessions, including the removal of any customs that Becket had previously opposed. But this was not enough for the archbishop and he further exacerbated the situation by excommunicating the bishops of London and Salisbury at Clairvaux in 1169.
A Glimmer of Hope
In May 1170, Henry had his son crowned by the Archbishop of York. Although this was a massive blow to Becket, it put them firmly on the road to reconciliation. But it wasn’t the happy occasion that everybody had previously hoped for. Henry broke his promise to meet Becket on his arrival in England and instead seized the lands of the church at Canterbury. In addition, Henry’s son refused to meet him at Windsor and Becket retaliated by excommunicating the Archbishop of York. At his Christmas court in Normandy, Henry heard of Becket’s latest antic and exploded with rage. It is here that Henry uttered those famous words (there are several variations); ‘Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?’
Murder in the Cathedral
Four knights – William de Tracey, Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Morville and Richard Brito – took Henry’s famous words to heart. They arrived in England on 28 December and travelled together to Canterbury Cathedral. A little after 2am on 29 December, Thomas Becket was dead. (Pictured is a depiction of Thomas Becket’s murder from the Book of Hours held at the British Library. Click to enlarge).
Whether or not Henry wanted Becket dead, he took much of the blame for his murder. Pope Alexander excommunicated the four knights responsible and banned Henry from taking Mass until he had completed penance. For this, Henry promised to provide money for 200 knights to go on Crusade, return all property to the church of Canterbury, abolish all customs deemed negative to the Church and to never interfere with the clergy’s appeals to Rome. He made these concessions publicly at Avranches in 1172 and, in return, secured England’s reconciliation with Rome. Henry was now absolved of Becket’s murder and continued to reign until his death in 1189.
The murder of a twelve-year-old boy is a tragedy in any circumstance. However, it was the historical circumstances surrounding the murder of a twelve-year-old boy named William in the twelfth century that catapulted him to the status of a saint and instigated a new form of antisemitism that lasted for centuries.
It is uncertain who actually murdered William (probably not a Jew), but in the court of public opinion at the time there was little doubt that Jews were responsible — a claim that likely had more than one driving force.
The events surrounding William’s death are not entirely clear and are largely based on an account by a monk called Thomas of Monmouth, a contemporary of William’s. Thomas’ chronicle was completed later in the twelfth century within the monastery at Norwich. The generally agreed upon date of William’s death is 22 March 1144. He was last seen alive on the preceding day. On 26 March 1144, the body of William was discovered in a heath in Norwich, bloodied and mutilated — seemingly tortured. William’s family initiated a search for him and his uncle, brother, and cousin discovered his body.
William had been an apprentice skinner in the community for several years. On 21 March, William left his home to seek additional employment as a scullion for the archdeacon of Norwich. It was on this outing that William was supposedly lured into a Jewish home. It was reported that the Norwich Jews then ritually murdered William on 22 March in the home of a Jew named Eleazar, just days before Passover. As has become the pattern with tales of blood libel, William was supposedly murdered to acquire his blood to celebrate Passover. Various interpretations of Jewish texts at the time were said to indicate that this was a long-standing tradition among Jews.
No formal action was ever taken against anyone in the case of William’s death. The local officials refused to bring charges against the accused Jews because of the lack of any evidence against them. This inaction stoked anger among the local populace. William came quickly to be viewed as a martyred saint and was venerated for several centuries. (The picture of ‘Saint’ William, above, is from the Church of St Peter and St Paul in Eye in Suffolk).
The death of William is the first known instance of the accusation of “blood libel.” According to this accusation, Jews were supposed to have sacrificed a gentile boy each Passover because the blood was necessary for religious ceremonies. (Pictured is an example taken from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. Click to enlarge). Several decades later, in 1190, following the massacres of Jews in other English cities, the Jews of Norwich were also massacred.
Anger toward the Jewish community was at a boiling point for several reasons. During his reign, King Stephen took various measures to protect Jews throughout England from persecution. Anger toward King Stephen, due to the civil war with Matilda, was directed at Jews who were seen as being in collusion with Stephen. Additionally, the First Crusade had ended in 1099 and the Second Crusade started soon after William’s death in 1145. Crusading fervor usually occurred in tandem with antisemitic violence. So, as unrest grew toward another Crusade in the Holy Land, so did anger toward Jews in Europe. (The Third Crusade began in 1189—the year before the massacre of Jews in Norwich.)
The episode of William of Norwich was just one of many in an increasing antisemitic attitude in England and Europe. Jews were eventually expelled from England in 1290. Most of these Jews settled in Spain, Italy and France. When the Black Death appeared in the mid-fourteenth century, these new communities of Jews suffered enormously from antisemitic violence. Indeed, this violence was fueled by continued accusations of blood libel and other alleged conspiracies such as host desecration and well poisoning. Blood libel accusations against Jews have continued through recent history, though most reports of it now occur within the Middle East.
It is possible that the saint cult that appeared in and around Norwich following William’s death was at least partially economically motivated. The pilgrimage of religious adherents in many parts of Europe during this time provided an economic boon to communities of religious significance. In fact, William’s uncle and cousin (who discovered his body) became officials at the monastery soon after his death. William was never formally canonized, but the Norwich area received an influx of pilgrimage (and income).
At least six other blood libel “saint” cults are known to have grown up around boys who were purportedly murdered by Jews in the Middle Ages including Hugh of Lincoln, Robert of Bury, and Harold of Gloucester. Therefore, it was a growing anger toward Jews fuelled by the Crusades and King Stephen that caused the murder of a boy in Norwich to become a new chapter in antisemitism.
Sarah Jane Bodell.
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History does not remember King William Rufus very fondly. This immoral, vain and ill-tempered man, the younger son of William the Conqueror, came to the throne in 1087 and on August 2nd 1100, died while hunting in the New Forest. Was his death a tragic accident or was he the victim of a fatal conspiracy?
Our fullest account of that day comes from Orderic Vitalis. He tells us that Rufus was in a good mood that morning and that he had dined with the hunting party, made up of William’s youngest brother, Henry, and Gilbert de Clare and his younger brother, Roger of Clare. Also present was Walter Tirel who was married to Richard de Clare’s daughter, Adelize. While getting dressed for the hunt, a smith presented Rufus with six arrows of which he kept four for himself and gave the other two to Tirel.
According to Orderic, Rufus said “it is only right that the sharpest arrows go to the man who knows how to inflict the deadliest shots.”
A Bad Omen?
Before the party set off, a letter arrived from the Abbott of Gloucester. It warned of a monk’s vision of the king’s death. Rufus dismissed the letter, saying that he had no interest in the “dreams of snoring monks.” With that, the party made their way into the forest.
Accident or Murder?
The party split off into groups, leaving Rufus and Walter Tirel together. Tirel took a shot at a stag coming towards them but his arrow missed and landed in the King’s chest. Rufus was dead within minutes and Tirel fled the scene and returned to France.
Rufus’ younger brother, Henry, galloped to Winchester to secure the crown, while Rufus was carted back by his servants “like a wild boar stuck with spears.”
It is certainly possible that Rufus’ death was an accident. Perhaps Tirel fled the scene because he feared that he would take the blame. It was not unheard of to die in such a way; Rufus had lost his elder brother and one of his cousins from an arrow in the New Forest. But doubts still remain about this theory. The young Henry had much to gain from his brother’s death and, once he had been crowned, he was particularly generous to the de Clare family. Was this a reward for helping him to murder Rufus?
An act of divine punishment?
In her 2005 biography, Dr Emma Mason argues that Rufus was assassinated by a French agent, Raoul d’Equesnes, who was in the employ of Walter Tirel. She maintains that Rufus was assembling an army on the south coast of England with plans to invade France. On hearing of this, the French king arranged to have Rufus assassinated and replaced with his younger, and less-threatening brother, Henry. The fact that Henry cancelled the plans for invasion shortly after his coronation certainly lends weight to her argument.
Contemporary writers believed that Rufus’ death was an act of divine punishment. He had been an evil king, he had mocked the Church and so he paid the ultimate price. But accident, murder or act of God, Rufus’ death continues to catch our imaginations as one of the greatest medieval mysteries.
“In his anger at the English barons, William commanded that all crops and herds, chattels and foods should be burned to ashes, so that the whole of the North be stripped of all means of survival. So terrible a famine fell upon the people, that more than 100,000 young and old starved to death. My writings have often praised William, but for this act I can only condemn him.” Orderic Vitalis
Although it only took William of Normandy and his army one day to defeat the English at the Battle of Hastings, it took far longer to secure his position as King of England. Sporadic rebellions and threats of foreign invasion were hallmarks of the early years of William’s reign and prompted his greatest act of cruelty, known as the Harrying of the North.
The Rebellious English
The Anglo-Saxon brother and earls, Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria, are notorious figures of medieval history. They had unsuccessfully defended the north of England at the Battle of Fulford Gate in September 1066, narrowly escaping death in the ensuing slaughter. In the aftermath Morcar was replaced as the earl of Northumbria which is probably why neither earls fought at Stamford Bridge or at Hastings. In early 1067, shortly after William’s coronation, Edwin and Morcar swore loyalty to their new king but they did not keep their promise for long…
In 1069, possibly because of William’s fiscal demands, or Morcar’s loss of claim to Northumbria, the earls were in rebellion. They joined forces with a Danish fleet and with England’s other claimant to the throne, Edgar the Aetheling. Together, the rebels took York, sacked the city and attacked the Normans who had recently settled there.
William Strikes Back
The Harrying may have had the desired effect but there is evidence to suggest that William may have deeply regretted the severity of his actions. According to Orderic, William bared all on his deathbed:
“I persecuted the native inhabitants of England beyond all reason. Whether nobles or commons, I cruelly oppressed them; many I unjustly disinherited; innumerable multitudes, especially in the county of York, perished through me by famine and sword…I am stained with the rivers of blood that I have shed.”