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Thomas Becket vs the King of England: the trial of the millennium held in Northampton

Head of State takes on Head of Church and the result is murder

Thomas Becket depicted in stained glass at Canterbury Cathedral

Mike Ingram takes us step by step through the trial that shook the nation when the church took on the state at Northampton Castle

Northampton has always been a place of Kings and Queens. It was in the town that one of the most controversial and infamous trials in medieval English history took place, that of Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. Not only that, the leader of his murderers also came from the county.

Becket was born about 1119, or in 1120 according to later tradition. He was born in Cheapside, London, on 21 December, which was the feast day of St Thomas the Apostle. At the age of 10, Becket was sent as a student to Merton Priory and later attended a grammar school in London, perhaps the one at St Paul’s Cathedral. Sometime after he had begun his schooling, his father suffered financial reverses, and the younger Becket was forced to earn a living as a clerk.

Gilbert first secured a place for his son in the business of a relative – Osbert Huitdeniers – and then later Becket acquired a position in the household of Theobald of Bec, by now the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1154, Theobald named Becket Archdeacon of Canterbury, and other ecclesiastical offices His efficiency in those posts led to Theobald recommending him to King Henry II for the vacant post of Lord Chancellor, to which Becket was appointed in January 1155.

As Chancellor, Becket enforced the king’s traditional sources of revenue that were exacted from all landowners, including churches and bishoprics. King Henry even sent his son Henry to live in Becket’s household, it being the custom then for noble children to be fostered out to other noble houses. The younger Henry was reported to have said Becket showed him more fatherly love in a day than his father did for his entire life.

In 1162, after the death of Theobald of Bec, Henry II appointed his chancellor as Archbishop of Canterbury. However, shortly after Becket’s consecration, the new archbishop resigned the chancellorship, and changed his entire lifestyle. Previously, Becket had lived ostentatiously, but he now wore clerical robes and lived like a poor priest.

A rift grew between Henry and Becket as the new archbishop resigned his chancellorship and sought to recover and extend the rights of the archbishopric. This led to a series of conflicts with the King, including that over the jurisdiction of secular courts over English clergymen, which accelerated antipathy between Becket and the king.

Becket’s Park

Attempts by Henry to influence the other bishops against Becket began in Westminster in October 1163, where the King sought approval of the traditional rights of the royal government in regard to the church. This led to the Constitutions of Clarendon, where Becket was officially asked to agree to the King’s rights or face political repercussions.

King Henry II not only ruled over England but also the vast Angevin empire in France. He spent much of his time in the saddle moving from town to town especially in France. Throughout his reign, King Henry was a frequent visitor to Northampton, and during his reign he extended Northampton’s castle.

In October 1163 Henry was at Northampton when he summonsed Becket to meet him outside the town, probably where Beckets Park stands today. Becket was refused entry to the town, Henry saying that it was full of his courtiers and servants. As the horses were frisky, the two could not get close enough to talk and so had to change mounts. Henry said to Thomas “Have I not raised you from a poor and lowly station to the pinnacle of rank and honour…you are not only ungrateful but obstruct me in everything”.

The two spoke for over an hour. But Henry finally lost his temper and the two rode off. It was probably at this moment when Becket drank at the well outside the town walls, which has since been incorrectly attributed to his trial.

Becket’s well

The following year, Henry was back in Northampton when he summoned Becket to appear before a great council at the Castle on 8 October 1164. Becket was charged with failing to adequately address a suit brought against him by nobleman John Marshal about lands that Becket had confiscated.

Tuesday 6 October
Becket arrived in the town with a large retinue of monks, chaplains and 40 clerks as well as a military escort. He found his lodgings taken by royal squires, so he moved to St. Andrews Cluniac priory founded around 1100 by Simon Senlis (now under Semilong). The king was out hawking at the time, so nothing could be done about his accommodation.

Wednesday 7 October
Early in the morning, Becket rode to the castle to see the King. Henry was hearing Mass in the chapel. Becket climbed the stairs to the royal chamber and offered Henry the customary kiss of greeting but was rebuffed. He asked for the squires to be removed from his lodgings, to which Henry agreed, although when it came to it, they did not leave. So, Becket stayed at the priory for the remainder of his time in the town. Becket then asked for permission to go to Sens to consult with the Pope. Henry refused to give his permission saying, “you shall first answer me.”

Thursday 8 October
The barons and prelates assemble in the great hall of the castle. Becket was charged with contempt of court for disobeying a king’s writ. Becket was then found guilty of ignoring a court summons and it was decided that he should forfeit all his movable property. Afraid of what Becket might do, the barons and prelates then argued as to who is going to deliver the sentence, the barons saying it should be a churchman. The prelates refused saying it was not an ecclesiastical issue but a secular judgement. The King ordered Henry of Winchester to deliver it. He was then charged with failing to adequately address a suit brought against him by nobleman John Marshal about lands that Becket had confiscated. It was decided in the archbishop’s favour.

The king, determined to convict Becket of something, then brought charges of embezzlement and false accounting and asked Becket to account for his spending whilst he had been chancellor. Becket protested that he had no warning of the charge and was unable to produce any receipts. He answered the charge saying he had been freed of any debt relating to the chancellorship when he became archbishop. Henry argued otherwise and Becket found three sureties guaranteeing repayment of any debts. By this time, it was dark, and the court was adjourned.

Friday 9 October
The court reconvened in the morning and Henry intensified his attack on Becket. Henry demanded the return of 1,000 silver marks borrowed by Becket during his Toulouse campaign. Becket claimed it had been written off but could not find any written evidence. It was found in the King’s favour. Henry demanded sureties or else Becket would be thrown in prison. Once again, Becket found them, but Henry did not stop there. He then ordered Becket to account for all revenues that passed through his hands whilst Chancellor. This amounted to more than £30,000, which was more than the king’s annual income from all his lands in Europe. If Becket was unable to find surety (which was likely) he was facing life imprisonment or loosing the lands owned by the church in Canterbury. Becket asks for time to consider his response and the court is adjourned.

Saturday 10 October
The bishops and abbots visit Becket at St. Andrews. They decided to offer the king 2,000 marks to settle the charges. Henry refused and ordered the bishops to be locked up to hurry their deliberations. Gilbert Foliot and the other bishops warned of the impending disaster and implored Becket to humble himself and resign. Hillary of Chichester a supporter of Henry said: “The King is reported to have said that there is no place any more for both of you.”
Bishop Henry of Winchester urged Becket to stand his ground.

Sunday 11 October
It should have been a day of rest, but Becket spent the day in conclave with his clerks in the priory. As dusk fell, Becket was stuck with what was believed to be a highly aggressive form of colitis.

Monday 12 October
Becket was unable to ride to the castle due to the colitis. Henry claimed it was a fiction. Rumour suggested that Henry had been overheard as saying that if Becket did not yield he would have him executed.

Tuesday 13 October
Early in the morning the bishops reappeared and in the priory’s Lady Chapel, said to Becket that Henry has resolved to try him as a traitor. They begged him to resign or submit unconditionally. Becket prohibited the bishops from taking part in any further judgement and that if secular men were to lay their violent hands on him they should excommunicate all involved. Around an hour later Becket headed for the castle. On the way, he stopped at either Holy Sepulchre or St Mary’s church. He put on the pallium and said a special mass normally said on St. Stephens Day in honour of the first Christian martyr. He began with psalm 119:23 – “Princes also did sit and speak against me”

He then continued to the castle, before him Alexander Llewelyn carried the archiepiscopal cross. Once in the castle yard, the great gate was slammed shut behind him. Becket took the cross and brandishing it like a weapon approached the Great Hall. Seeing this from the window of an upstairs chamber, Henry flew into a fury. Gilbert Foliot, Bishop of London, tried to wrestle the cross from Becket’s hands. There was a scuffle whilst he was pushed away.

Becket then waited for Henry in a small anti-chamber adjacent to the Great Hall on the ground floor. Roger of Pont l’Eveque, the Archbishop of York arrived at the castle also carrying a cross before him, despite having been banned by the Pope from doing so in front of Becket.

The court was reconvened, and Henry summoned the bishops upstairs. They were bitterly divided. Henry intended to convict Becket of embezzlement and false accounting before charging him with perjury and treason for prohibiting the bishops from sitting in judgement and appealing to the Pope without royal assent. For the remainder of the council, Henry refused to confront Becket face to face – possibly in fear of excommunication.

Becket waited in the small anti-chamber. Henry sent down a delegation of barons and bishops to ask if he was ready to produce accounts and whether he was responsible for the prohibition and appeal to the Pope. Remaining seated, Becket said he was doing everything he could. He emphasized he had been exonerated of his worldly obligations when he became archbishop. After they heard his response they returned upstairs to the King’s chamber. The barons lost their patience and called on the bishops to obey their king and some suggested Becket should be castrated or thrown in a pit.

Northampton Castle was popular with Henry II and his son King John

A delegation of bishops, some in tears tried to persuade Becket to withdraw his prohibition. At one point, Roger of Pont l’Eveque and Becket raised their crosses at each other like at a tournament. Eventually the bishops were excused from sitting in judgement and Henry summoned the knights and sheriffs to reinforce the barons.

Whilst Becket waited downstairs, they carried out the trial and pronounced sentence. None of the sources give the exact sentence but Becket was probably condemned to life imprisonment.

When they came downstairs to pronounce the judgement, Becket refused to stand. As Robert de Beaumont began to speak, Becket forbade anyone else from pronouncing sentence. Just as Beaumont began to pronounce sentence, Becket leapt up and shouted “It is not for you to judge your archbishop for a crime”.

Reginal of Cornwall tried to continue with the sentence but fluffed his lines. Becket strode towards the door carrying his cross. He passed through the Great Hall to the cries of perjurer and traitor, stumbling over a pile of firewood. Once in the castle yard he mounted his horse but found the gates of the outer bailey locked. The porter who was said to be beating a boy, left the keys hanging on a wall. Taking them Beckett fled the castle and through the town followed by his clerks. An admiring crowd also followed, cheering him as a hero and praising God for his safe deliverance.

On reaching the priory, Becket said vespers then walked around the cloister to the refectory to eat. One by one his military retinue asked to be discharged. After supper, he wrote to the king asking for safe conduct to Canterbury. Henry replied by return, saying he would decide the next day. Becket decided to escape. Letting it be known he intended to spend the night in prayer at the priory chapel.

Wednesday 14 October
The monks made up a bed for him by the high altar where he pretended to be asleep. Then, around an hour before dawn, during a torrential downpour that disguised the sound of the horse hooves, he fled disguised as lay brother, with three trusted members of his retinue, he left by the nearby north gate. When Henry found out, he reportedly said “We’ve not finished with this wretched fellow yet. ”

Thomas took a ship to the continent on 2 November 1164, eventually reaching a resting spot at Sens, where both sides presented their cases to Pope Alexander.

In late spring 1166, Becket began to threaten the king with ecclesiastical punishments if he did not settle with him. On Whitsun 1166, Becket excommunicated a number of Henry’s advisers and clerical servants, including Josceline de Bohon, the Bishop of Salisbury. Becket and the king finally came to terms on 22 July 1170, allowing the archbishop to return to England, which he did in early December.

During Christmas 1170 Henry was at his castle at Bures, Normandy, when he was informed that Becket had excommunicated a number of bishops supportive of the king, including the Archbishop of York. Edward Grim, who was present at Becket’s murder and subsequently wrote the Life of St. Thomas, quotes Henry as saying in response to the news “What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!”

Reginald FitzUrse from Bulwick which is around six miles north-east of Corby, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton—returned from Normandy to Canterbury, with the intention of forcing Becket to withdraw his excommunication, or alternatively, taking him back to Normandy by force.

29 December 1170
According to accounts left by the monk Gervase of Canterbury and eyewitness Edward Grim, they placed their weapons under a tree outside the cathedral and hid their mail armour under cloaks before entering to challenge Becket. The knights informed Becket he was to go to Winchester to give an account of his actions, but Becket refused. It was not until Becket refused their demands to submit to the king’s will that they retrieved their weapons and rushed back inside.

The door where knights burst into Canterbury Cathedral in an attempt to capture Becket

The four knights, wielding drawn swords, caught up with him in a spot near a door to the monastic cloister, the stairs into the crypt, and the stairs leading up into the quire of the cathedral, where the monks were chanting vespers. But when he could not be forced away from a pillar, Reginald FitzUrse grabbed him. Becket pushed him off calling him ‘pander’, and saying, “Touch me not, Reginald; you owe me fealty and subjection; you and your accomplices act like madmen.’

FitzUrse struck him with his sword, cutting off the top of his crown. Then he received a second blow on the head but still stood firm. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living victim, and saying in a low voice, “For the Name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death.”

Then the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay, by which the sword was broken against the pavement. The fourth knight prevented anyone from interfering so that the others might freely perpetrate the murder.

The steps at Canterbury Cathedral where Becket was murdered

Becket’s assassins fled north to Knaresborough Castle, which was held by Hugh de Morville, where they remained for about a year. De Morville held property in Cumbria and this may also have provided a convenient bolt-hole, as the men prepared for a longer stay in the separate kingdom of Scotland. They were not arrested and neither did Henry confiscate their lands, but he failed to help them when they sought his advice in August 1171. Pope Alexander excommunicated all four. Seeking forgiveness, the assassins travelled to Rome and were ordered by the Pope to serve as knights in the Holy Lands for a period of fourteen years

King Henry II continued to visit Northampton often with his youngest son who would go on to be King John. In April 1171, he brought his illegitimate son, Geoffrey to Northampton where he studied canon law at the fledgling university until the following March. When his sons including the future King Richard I, the Lionheart led a revolt against him in July 1173 – Henry secretly travelled back meeting his Barons at Northampton to order an offensive on the rebels.

In May 1174, a rebel army led by Ansketill Malory, Constable of Leicester attacked Northampton and a battle took place under the walls of the town, probably in the area of the modern Regents Square. The Burghers of the town were beaten with 200 killed and 200 taken prisoner. Soon after, William Lion, King of Scotland was captured at the Battle of Alnwick and he was brought to Northampton as a prisoner and held there for several months before being taken to Normandy. Henry also accepted the surrender of all the English rebels in the castle.

Henry returned again in January 1176, where he held the Assize of Northampton in the town which was very important in the development of English Common Law. The assize instructed six groups of justices were to be appointed to tour the country. It gave additional powers to the authorities by creating new offences that a judge could examine, including arson and forgery, and set down new and severe punishments that could be handed down including the loss of a right hand and foot. On 11 February 1188, Henry was once again in the county, this time at the royal hunting lodge at Geddington. It was here that he began to plan for the first crusade. There he also discussed a tax of 10% on revenues and movable properties to fund it, known as the “Saladin tithe.“

Northamptonshire seems to have become the favourite place to plan or launch crusades from, as Richard I organised the third Crusade from Pipewell Abbey near Corby, and both the seventh and ninth crusades were launched at Holy Sepulchre Church in Northampton.

Henry died on 6 July 1189, aged 56 buried at Fontevraud Abbey. Whilst his eldest surviving son, Richard rarely visited the town, It would be King John’s favourite castle in England and he visited the town over 30 times. But that is another story for another time.

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