§ 33. The Martyrdom of Thomas Becket. Dec. 29, 1170.
On the murder of Becket we have the reports of five eye-witnesses, Edward Grim (a Saxon monk of Cambridge), William Fitz-Stephen (Becket’s chaplain), John of Salisbury (his faithful friend), William of Canterbury, and the anonymous author of a Lambeth MS. Two other biographers, Herbert of Bosham and Roger of Pontigny, though absent from England at that time, were on intimate terms with Becket, and took great pains to ascertain the facts to the minutest details.
Four warlike knights of high birth and large estate, chamberlains to the king,160— Sir Reginald Fitz-Urse ("Son of the Bear," whom Becket had originally introduced to the court), Sir William. de Tracy (of royal blood), Hugh de Moreville (judiciary of Northumberland and Cumberland), and Sir Richard le Bret or Breton (commonly known as Brito161), eagerly caught at the king’s suggestion, and resolved to carry it out in the spirit of passionate loyalty, at their own risk, as best they could, by imprisonment, or exile, or, if necessary, by murder. They seem to have had no premeditated plan except that of signal vengeance. Without waiting for instructions, they at once departed on separate routes for England, and met at the castle of Saltwood, which belonged to the see of Canterbury, but was then occupied by Randulf of Broc. They collected a band of about a dozen armed men, and reached St. Augustine’s abbey outside of the walls of Canterbury, early on the 29th of December, which was a Tuesday.
On the morning of that fatal day, Becket had forebodings of his death, and advised the clergy to escape to Sandwich before daylight. He attended mass in the cathedral, confessed to two monks, and received three scourgings, as was his custom. At the banquet he drank more freely than usual, and said to the cupbearer, "He who has much blood to shed, must drink much." After dinner he retired to his private room and sat on his bed, talking to his friends, John of Salisbury, William Fitz-Stephen, and Edward Grim. He was then still in full vigor, being in the fifty-third year of his age, retaining his dignified aspect and the lustre of his large eyes.
At about four that afternoon, the knights went to the archbishop’s palace, leaving their weapons behind, and concealing their coats of mail by the ordinary cloak and gown. They demanded from him, in the name of the king, the absolution of the excommunicated bishops and courtiers. He refused, and referred them to the pope, who alone could absolve them. He declared: "I will never spare a man who violates the canons of Rome or the rights of the Church. My spirituals I hold from God and the pope; my temporals, from the king. Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s." The knights said, "You speak in peril of your life." Becket replied: "Come ye to murder me in my own house? You cannot be more ready to kill me than I am to die. You threaten me in vain; were all the swords in England hanging over my head, you could not terrify me from my obedience to God and my lord the pope. I defy you, and will meet you foot to foot in the battle of the Lord." During the altercation, Becket lost command over his fiery temper. His friend, John of Salisbury, gently censured him for his exasperating tone. The knights quitted the room and called their men to arms.
A few minutes before five the bell tolled for vespers. Urged by his friends, the archbishop, with his cross carried before him, went through the cloisters to the cathedral. The service had begun, the monks were chanting the psalms in the choir, the church was filled with people, when two boys rushed up the nave and created a panic by announcing that armed men were breaking into the cloister. The attendants of Becket, who had entered the church, shut the door and urged him to move into the choir for safety. "Away, you cowards!" he said, "by virtue of your obedience, I command you not to shut the door; the church must not be turned into a fortress." He was evidently prepared and eager for martyrdom. He himself reopened the door, and dragged the excluded monks into the building, exclaiming, "Come in, come in—faster, faster!" The monks and priests were terror-stricken and fled in every direction, to the recesses and side-chapels, to the roof above, and the crypt below. Three only remained faithful,—Canon Robert of Merton, Chaplain William Fitz-Stephen, and the clerk Edward Grim.162 One of the monks confesses that he ran with clasped hands up the steps as fast as his feet would carry him.
Becket proceeded to the high altar and archiepiscopal chair, in which he and all his predecessors from time immemorial had been enthroned. There, no doubt, he wished to gain the crown of martyrdom. It was now about five in the winter evening; the shades of night were gathering, and the lamps on the altars shed only a dim light in the dark cathedral. The tragedy which followed was finished in a few minutes.
In the meantime the knights, clad in mail which covered their faces up to their eyes, and with drawn swords, followed by a motley group of ruffians, provided with hatchets, rushed into the cathedral and shouted: "Where is the traitor? Where is the archbishop?"163 Becket replied, descending the steps of the altar and facing his enemies, "Behold me, no traitor, but a priest of God!" They again demanded the absolution of the bishops and his surrender to the king’s justice. "I cannot do otherwise than I have done," he said, and turning to Fitz-Urse, who was armed with a sword and an axe, he added; "Reginald, you have received many favors at my hands: come you to me and into my church armed!" The knights tried to drag him out of the sanctuary, not intending to kill him there; but he braced himself against the pillar between the altars of the Virgin, his special patroness, and St. Benedict, whose rule he followed, and said: "I am ready to die. May the Church through my blood obtain peace and liberty! I charge you in the name of God Almighty that you hurt no one here but me." In the struggle, he grappled with De Tracy and threw him to the pavement. He called Fitz-Urse (who had seized him by the collar of his long cloak) a miserable wretch, and wrenched the cloak from his grasp, saying, "Off, thou pander, thou!"164 The soldier, maddened by the foul epithet, waving the sword over his head, struck the first blow, and dashed off his cap. Tracy, rising from the pavement, aimed at his head; but Edward Grim, standing by, interposed his arm, which was almost severed, and then he sank back against the wall. Becket received blow after blow in an attitude of prayer. As he felt the blood trickling down his face, he bowed his neck for the death-blow, clasped his hands, and said in a low voice: "I commend my cause and the cause of the Church to God, to St. Denis, the martyr of France, to St. Alfege, and to the saints of the Church.165 In the name of Christ and for the defence of his Church, I am ready to die. Lord, receive my spirit."
These were his last words. The next blow felled him to his knees, the last laid him on the floor at the foot of the altar of St. Benedict. His hands were still joined as if in prayer. Richard the Breton cut off the upper part of his skull, which had received the sacred oil. Hugh of Horsea, the subdeacon, trampled upon his neck, thrust his sword into the ghastly wound, and scattered the blood and the brains over the pavement.166 Then he said, "Let us go, let us go; the traitor is dead; he will rise no more."
The murderers rushed from the church through the cloisters into the palace for plunder; while a violent thunder-storm broke over the cathedral. They stole about two thousand marks in gold and silver, and rode off on Becket’s fine horses in the thick darkness of the night.
The body of Thomas was buried in the crypt. The remains of his blood and brains were sacredly kept. His monkish admirers discovered, to their amazement and delight, that the martyr, who had once been arrayed in purple and fine linen, wore on his skin under his many garments the coarsest haircloth abounding with vermin. This seemed to betray the perfection of ascetic sanctity according to mediaeval notions.167 The spot of his "martyrdom" is still shown close to the entrance of the cathedral from the cloister.