Previously on Becket's Murder
Place: Canterbury Cathedral
Becket's tomb in Canterbury Cathedral.
The next day (December 29th), about two in the afternoon the knights abruptly entered the Archbishop's apartment, and, neglecting his salutation, seated themselves on the floor. It seems to have been their wish to begin by intimidation; but if they hoped to succeed, they knew little of the intrepid spirit of their opponent. Pretending to have received their commission from Henry, they ordered the Primate to absolve the excommunicated prelates. He replied with firmness, and occasionally with warmth, that if he had published the papal letters, it was with the royal permission; that the case of the Archbishop of York had been reserved to the Pontiff; but that he was willing to absolve the others on condition that they previously took the accustomed oath of submitting to the determination of the Church. It was singular that of the four knights, three had, in the days of his prosperity, spontaneously sworn fealty to him. Alluding to this circumstance he said, as they were quitting the room, "Knowing what formerly passed between us, I am surprised you should come to threaten me in my own house."
"We will do more than threaten," was their reply.
When they were gone, his attendants loudly expressed their alarm: he alone remained cool and collected, and neither in his tone nor gesture betrayed the slightest symptom of apprehension. In this moment of suspense the voices of the monks singing vespers in the choir struck their ears; and it occurred to someone that the church was a place of greater security than the palace. The Archbishop, though he hesitated, was borne along by the pious importunity of his friends; but when he heard the gates close behind him he instantly ordered them to be reopened, saying that the temple of God was not to be fortified like a castle.
He had passed through the north transept, and was ascending the steps of the choir, when the knights with twelve companions, all in complete armor, burst into the church. As it was almost dark, he might, if he had pleased, have concealed himself among the crypts or under the roof; but he turned to meet them, followed by Edward Grim, his cross-bearer, the only one of his attendants who had not fled. To the vociferations of Hugh of Horsea, a military subdeacon, "Where is the traitor?" no answer was returned; but when Fitzurse asked, "Where is the Archbishop?" he replied: "Here I am, the Archbishop, but no traitor. Reginald, I have granted thee many favors. What is thy object now? If you seek my life, I command you in the name of God not to touch one of my people." When he was told that he must instantly absolve the bishops he answered, "Till they offer satisfaction I will not!"
"Then die!" exclaimed the assassin, aiming a blow at his head.
Grim interposed his arm, which was broken, but the force of the stroke bore away the Primate's cap and wounded him on the crown. As he felt the blood trickling down his face he joined his hands and bowed his head saying, "In the name of Christ and for the defence of his Church I am ready to die." In this posture, turned toward his murderers, without a groan and without a motion, he awaited a second stroke, which threw him on his knees; the third laid him on the floor at the foot of St. Bennet's altar. The upper part of his skull was broken in pieces, and Hugh of Horsea, planting his foot on the Archbishop's neck, with the point of his sword drew out the brains and strewed them over the pavement!
Thus at the age of fifty-three perished this extraordinary man, a martyr to what he deemed to be his duty, the preservation of the immunities of the Church. The moment of his death was the triumph of his cause. His personal virtues and exalted station, the dignity and composure with which he met his fate, the sacredness of the place where the murder was perpetrated, all contributed to inspire men with horror for his enemies and veneration for his character. The advocates of the "customs" were silenced. Those who had been eager to condemn, were now the foremost to applaud, his conduct; and his bitterest foes sought to remove from themselves the odium of having been his persecutors. The cause of the Church again flourished: its liberties seemed to derive new life and additional vigor from the blood of their champion.