Tuesday 29 December 2015

The Sword that killed Thomas Becket

On 29th December 1170, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, age 52, was murdered in cold blood by four knights in Canterbury Cathedral. The knights had overheard King Henry II's angry outburst whose long-standing feud with Becket has resulted in a desire to rid him of this troublesome priest. The knights travelled to England seeking out Becket at the Cathedral.

Destined for Martyrdom
Thomas Becket had been a favourite of Henry II who made him Chancellor of England in 1155, but all changed when Becket became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. The following year Becket fell out with King Henry II over the king's desire to banish Church courts. The problem was brought to a head by cases such as that of Philip de Brois, a canon of Bedford, who was acquitted in the court of the Bishop of Lincoln of the charge of murdering a knight. After several months of wrangling, both sides met at the Council of Clarendon in January 1164 to discuss the issue. There, Henry presented the bishops with the infamous Constitutions of Clarendon. Becket told the bishops they had no choice but to give in, but then publicly repented his oath.

Becket Window, St Davids
In October 1164, the king had Becket condemned on trumped-up charges of contempt of court over a land dispute and ruled that the archbishop should forfeit all his goods. This was followed up with charges of embezzlement, and Becket was summoned to Northampton to answer for his crimes. When the Council delivered its verdict, Becket refused to hear it, maintaining that they had no right to judge him. That night, he slipped away and fled to exile in France.

The dispute dragged on with claim and counter-claim throughout the years 1165-70, while Becket was in exile at the French court all his money and lands had been sequestered and at least 400 of his dependants were thrown out of the country.

On 1st December 1170 Becket returned to England. Henry's patience must have reached breaking point when at his court at Bures in France he heard that Becket had returned to England and excommunicated his old ecclesiastical opposition including the Archbishop of York who had crowned the heir apparent, Henry the Young King, at York in a direct breach of Canterbury's privilege of coronation.

At news of this Henry is said to have gone into a rage and asked who would rid him of this troublesome priest. Overhearing this the four knights Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Moreville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton (or Brito), crossed the Channel separately and met up in Saltwood Castle, Kent, to plan their attack on Becket.

Shortly after his return to Canterbury, Becket preached a sermon in which he referenced the murder of Saint Alfege, the 29th Archbishop of Canterbury, that had been murdered by the Danes at Greenwich in 1012, as if foretelling his own death. As he walked to the high altar he is reported to have said “one martyr, St. Alfege, you already have; another, if God will, you will have soon.

Clearly Becket knew he had pushed the king too far and anticipated his fate, knowing it would only be a matter of time until Henry sent men to kill him. Indeed, when the four knights arrived one of Becket's own monks Hugh de Horsea, later named as 'Hugh the evil clerk', led the knights into the church to seek out Becket. The knights levied charges against him, but Becket replied calmly that “you cannot be more willing to kill me, than I am to die.

The monks of Canterbury attempted to safeguard Becket from the knights, but he continually walked back into the path of the knights. Refusing to hide from them he made his way to the Chapel where vespers were in process. He sat in the Archbishop's chair and prepared for the suffering of his martyrdom and waited for the knights to arrive.

Edward Grim had arrived at Canterbury only a few days before the murder of Becket. He was an eyewitness to the martyrdom and nearly lost his own life in an attempt to save the Archbishop. After all the clerics and monks had fled from the chapel Grim stood firm with the Archbishop, holding him in his arms. Grim's arm was nearly severed in two by a savage sword blow wielded by one of the four knights which shaved off the summit of Becket's crown.

In Vita S. Thomae Grim recounts, “Then, with another blow received on the head, he remained firm. But with the third the stricken martyr bent his knees and elbows, offering himself as a living sacrifice, saying in a low voice, 'For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death.'”

“But the third knight inflicted a grave wound on the fallen one; with this blow he shattered the sword on the stone and his crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood.”

“The fourth knight drove away those who were gathering so that the others could finish the murder more freely and boldly. The fifth - not a knight but a cleric who entered with the knights - so that a fifth blow might not be spared him who had imitated Christ in other things, 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 Site of Becket's Murder, Canterbury
Saint Thomas
The monks washed the body and interred it in the crypt. They kept the bloodstained clothing as relics. It was not long after Becket's murder that miracles occurred at Canterbury. The first was recorded on 4th January 1171 and Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander on 21 February 1173.

In defence of King Henry it is claimed he never told the knights to go and kill Becket. They are said to have interpreted the king's words ‘Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?!’ as wanting him dead (there have been many variations of the King's words reported over the years). Indeed, when he realised that the knights had gone to kill Becket, Henry despatched a rider to stop them.

Pope Alexander excommunicated the four knights and prohibited Henry from taking mass until he had made reparation for his sin. These were testing times for Henry; in addition to the feud with Becket and the church, he also faced the crisis with his son, the future Richard I. In 1155, the Pope had asked Henry to invade Ireland to clean up a corrupt and lax Christianity.  But it wasn't until after Becket's murder, in the winter of 1171, that Henry crossed the Irish Sea to the establishment of an Anglo-Norman colony in Ireland. Henry returned to England in 1172.

On Sunday 21 May 1172, Henry performed a ceremony of public penance at Avranches Cathedral, where he swore to provide money for 200 knights to crusade in the Holy Land and restore all property to the church of Canterbury. Henry also agreed not to obstruct any appeals to Rome by the clergy, effectively allowing Church courts to continue.

Henry accepted his part in the death of Becket and in 1174 allowed himself to be whipped on a public pilgrimage to Becket’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral.

Candle marking the former spot of the shrine of Thomas Becket, at Canterbury Cathedral,
where it stood from 1220 to 1538 when it was destroyed by order of King Henry VIII
From Canterbury to Jerusalem
Henry never punished the knights for the murder. They were advised to head north to Scotland for their own safety. But they arrived at Knaresborough Castle, which was held by Hugh de Morville, where they stayed for a year.

All four assassins were excommunicated by the Pope at Easter in 1171 but despite popular demands for their execution the knights were banished to the Holy Land to visit the Holy Places barefoot and in hairshirts and spend the rest of their days on the Black Mountain near Antioch.

There is much speculation as to what then happened to Becket's assassins. Some accounts claim the knights spent the rest of their lives on the Black Mountain and never returned. After their death, their bodies were buried at Jerusalem before the door of the temple. Another account claims they were buried under the portico in front of the Templar Round Church built on the site of the Temple of Solomon. Another tradition claims that the bodies of the knights were returned to Brean Down, Somerset, and buried there.

Although there is general agreement that Fitzurse died and was buried at Jerusalem, another tradition claims he fled to Ireland where he fathered the McMahon clan. Richard le Breton, who is said to have broken his sword when slashing Becket's head, is said to have eventually retired to the island of Jersey, while de Tracy is said to have retired to a hermitage in the Holy Land, yet another alternative account claims he never reached the Levant but died in 1174 of leprosy at Cosenza in southern Italy. There is a tomb in the parish church at Mortehoe, Devon, which bears an inscription to a certain “Sir William de Tracy”; however this is said to be the tomb of a man who died 1322. The fate of the assassins seems very confused to say the least.

Hugh de Morville is said to have left the country on pilgrimage for his part in the murder of Becket but was dead within three years and buried in the porch outside the church of the Templars (afterwards the Mosque el Aksa) at Jerusalem. The tomb would now be inside the building. The Lordship of Westmorland is reported to have passed to Hugh de Morville's sister Maud, in 1174, confirmation that de Morville died in 1173. The Cumbrian knight was one-time owner of Pendragon Castle, in the Vale of Mallerstang near Outhgill in Cumbria along the banks of the River Eden, which according to legend, was built by Uther Pendragon, father of King Arthur, who is said to have unsuccessfully tried to divert the river to provide its moat.

A Hugh de Morville appears in the service of the Crusader-king Richard I and was named as the king's hostage in 1194, when the Lionheart had been arrested by Leopold V, Duke of Austria. This was apparently the same man who provided Ulrich of Zatzikoven with an Anglo-Norman poem which formed the basis of his medieval romance ‘Lanzelet.’ But clearly too late to be the murderer of Thomas Becket if he died in 1173.

The Becket Sword
Following Becket's murder legends soon attached to Hugh de Morville's sword.

The Becket Sword, Carlisle
On display in the south aisle of the choir of Carlisle Cathedral is a replica of one of the swords that was used to kill Thomas Becket. The sword at Carlisle belonged to Hugh de Morville and was passed to the care of the Cathedral. The Becket Sword became an object of veneration and on 22nd June 1307 King Edward I offered seven shillings at the sword of St Thomas the Martyr at Carlisle Priory Church. The sword was still in the city in 1536 when the Royal Commissioners reported that the priory of St Mary had “the sword with which Thomas of Canterbury was martyred”.

The cult continued until the Reformation when such relics were banned by Henry VIII. The sword then disappeared and later efforts to trace it have proved fruitless.

At St Andrew's Church near the village of Aikton, Cumbria, is the De Morville Grave Slab which was dug out of the church during the last restoration in 1869, and is now placed outside on the east wall of the south aisle. The cross head is much too badly worn to be deciphered, but the stem is a well-defined two-handed sword about 3 feet 5 inches long, with a cross piece 8 inches long. The sides of the slab are ornamented with foliage. The sword and foliage are in high relief, some of the leaves closely resemble oak leaves.

Canon Bower, in his account of this grave slab, states: “this is said to be the tombstone of Sir Hugh de Morville, one of the assassins of Thomas â Beckett whose sword is now in the possession of Sir Wilfred Lawson of Brayton Hall.”

However, there is no direct evidence to connect this tomb monument with the De Morville family, but as the character of the carving fixes its date as a 13th century work, and the De Morville's were one of the most important families in Aikton at that time, it is very likely that the tombstone was a memorial to a distinguished member of that family, possibly Hugh de Morville, Lord of Burgh who is often confused with his more notorious namesake and murderer of Thomas Becket. But it is a muddied picture as there were several Hugh de Morville's in Cumbria.

Among the first Norman landowners to arrive in this area was Hugh de Morville, of Kirkoswald, born c.1085 in Normandy. He was father of Guillaume (William) de Morville of Bradpole; Hugh de Moreville, of Lauderdale and Cunningham (Constable of Scotland, d.1162) and Simon de Morville. Simon fathered Hugh de Morville, Lord of Burgh, who died at Knaresborough 1202.

According to K J Stringer (Earl David of Huntingdon, Edinburgh, 1986) in the 1140's King David had settled the lordship of north Westmorland upon his Constable, Hugh de Moreville of Lauderdale and Cunningham (d.1162), son of Hugh of Kirkoswald. But when the northern shires were surrendered in 1157, Henry II would only recognise the Moreville title on the condition that Hugh, the Constable, stood down in favour of his son and namesake, subsequently a member of Henry II's military household, an Angevin royal justice, and one of the assassins of Thomas Becket.

Confusion between Hugh de Morville, Lord of Burgh (d.1202) and Hugh de Morville, the Becket assassin, has led to the incorrect suggestion that the murderer survived into the 13th century. It has also been suggested that when Hugh's castle at Knaresborough was committed to the custody of William de Stuteville by Easter 1173 it was the result of Morville's involvement in the northern revolt of 1173.

However, Roger of Howden asserts that Hugh died while on the pilgrimage to the Holy Land c.1173, and was probably in the Levant, or at least on route, at the time of the revolt. As Hugh died without an heir at least part of his lands in Westmorland passed to his sister Maud in 1174. It seems likely that if Hugh was buried in the Holy Land that some of  his belongings, including his sword, were sent back to his family in England.

It seems the same sword was at one time kept at St Michael's Church at Isel, in the parish of Blindcrake, built c.1130.  As both Isel and Brayton were owned by Sir Hugh de Morville, Lord of Burgh, it is likely it is the same sword that had been moved from one place to the other. After being kept at Isel for a long time the sword was subsequently transferred to the Arundell family. It is said to have been destroyed later in a fire at Brayton Hall.

However, the sword Canon Bower claimed was at Brayton, described as a basket hilted broad-sword, bearing the inscription “Gott bewahrt die aufrecht Schotten” [God preserve the upright Scots] was identified as a much later Jacobite sword. Possibly a remnant from when Jacobite forces captured the city of Carlisle in November 1745. This cannot be the sword that belonged to Hugh de Morville.

According to Benedict of Peterborough, Hugh de Morville was the most eminent of the four knights who participated in Becket's murder, although he did not strike a blow himself.

In the entry for Thomas Becket in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography the details of the assassination suggest that Hugh de Morville played no part other than keeping “the watchers at bay while Fitzurse and de Tracy struck him in turn and Richard le Breton then delivered the coup de grace”.

It would appear that the blade of the sword venerated at Carlisle, and owned by Hugh de Morville, considered a holy relic of Becket's martyrdom, never actually bore the blood of the Archbishop.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

>> The Mystery of Becket's Bones

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