There was a commotion at the doors to the archbishop’s hall; shouting and angry voices. Thomas looked up from his plate and quietly whispered a prayer. A young lay clerk, white-faced and nervous, rushed past the diners to the high table. Thomas could see his robes were too short, nearly halfway up his legs; the boy was growing fast, and the tonsure cut into the lad’s thick brown hair needed to be shaved.
‘There are knights, my lord. They demand to see you.’
‘God thank you, Henry.’ Thomas prided himself on remembering even the lowliest lay clerk’s name. ‘They can wait until the hall is cleared.’ Servants were already removing platters and pottery. It was nearly time for vespers. Thomas had promised to attend the service.
‘They are most insistent, Archbishop.’ Young Henry sounded scared.
‘They can wait, Henry.’ Thomas’s voice was calm but firm. He waved for the servants to continue clearing the tables.
The young clerk returned to the doorway but the shouting continued, growing louder, angrier. The monks, priests, and clerics in the hall looked to Thomas; he could see that they were nervous, whispering among themselves. With a sigh he stood up and walked to the threshold of the hall. Edward Grim, one of Thomas’s clerics, hurried to attend to the Archbishop, wiping his hands clean on his habit before taking his place.
The threshold was darker than the torch-lit hall. Five men wreathed in the shadows stood with angry eyes; their lips twisted into snarls as they swore and damned the young clerk. The knights were unarmed, not dressed for battle. Grim breathed an audible sigh of relief as he noted that.
Thomas recognised the men. They were the worst of the King’s dogs: Reginald Fitz Urse, the one they called The Bear, a cruel vindictive bully and whoremonger to the King. He was hulking in size, towering over the others, with wild black hair and beard. Hugh de Moreville was another; William de Tracy was with him, and Richard Brito. Thomas knew them all well, Fitzurse, de Morville, and de Tracy had sworn oaths of fealty to him when he was the King’s chancellor, and Brito was a longstanding enemy – a godless sycophant to the King’s brother. The fifth was a renegade priest that Thomas had disciplined and exiled from Canterbury. These creatures had not come to receive the blessings of the season.
Fitzurse saw the Archbishop first, pushing himself to the front to address Thomas. The others let The Bear speak for them, standing tongue-tied in silence behind his giant frame.
‘God help you,’ said The Bear. ‘We have brought a message from the King Will you hear it in public or private?’
‘Whichever you choose,’ said Thomas.
The monks and clerks, scared of the angry warriors at the doors, began slipping out of the Archbishop’s hall. Thomas called them back. One, John of Salisbury, Thomas’s friend for decades, tried to calm the situation. John knew these men could kill, armed or not, and he knew the Archbishop was too rash and too swift to speak his mind. It was, thought John, the greater problem between Archbishop and King: they were too alike.
‘My Lord,’ he said to Thomas. ‘Let us converse in private.’ He gestured to the appalled watchers in the hall.
Thomas smiled at his old friend but shook his head. He wanted witnesses to the encounter.
‘That would serve no good purpose, John. Such things should be spoken in public not in private chambers.’ He turned back to face the knights.
The Bear jabbed a finger at him. ‘When the King made peace with you he sent you back to Canterbury, but you have broken the peace and in your obstinate pride excommunicated bishops who crowned the King’s son. You would take away his crown too if you had the strength!’
‘Never would I do such,’ said Thomas quietly. ‘As God is my witness, I would not deprive the King’s son nor diminish his power. It was by the Pope’s command that the bishops were excommunicated, not mine.’
‘You were behind it all.’ snarled the Bear.
‘I do not deny that it was done by my hand, but the sentence was that of my superior the Pope, and not in my power to change,’ said Thomas. ‘I made fair offer to the bishops of London and Salisbury, if they repented and accepted the Pope’s verdict, but they rejected it.’ He shrugged. ‘The Archbishop of York is beyond my jurisdiction.’
The Bear was enraged by Thomas’s answers, as were the others.
‘The King’s orders are that you and yours depart this realm. There can never be peace with you for you have broken the peace.’
‘Do not threaten me, Reginald.’ Thomas gave Fitzurse a cold stare. ‘My faith is in the king of heaven. I will not leave this place. Once I fled like a timid priest, but I have returned to my church in obedience to the pope and I will not flee again. Any who want me can find me here.’ Thomas half-turned but the Bear grabbed at his robe. ‘The Lord King himself admitted me into his peace and gave me safe conduct, Reginald. You were there when he did it, all of you.’ Thomas shook himself free. ‘You did not object to me then?’
‘From whom do you hold your authority?’ said the Bear, ignoring the question.
‘My spiritual authority I hold from God and the Pope. My material possessions I hold from the King.’
‘You hold everything from the King,’ snarled Fitzurse. His hands clenched in fury, white at the knuckles.
‘I render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.’ Thomas was uncowed.
‘I am telling you what the King says,’ said the Bear, going red in the face. ‘You excommunicated royal officers. You should have respected the King’s majesty – submitted yourself to his judgement.’
Thomas stood tall against them. ‘Your threats are in vain,’ he said. ‘Even if all the swords in England were pointed at my head, they would not move me from my observance of God’s justice and my obedience to the Pope.’
The four knights started to jostle the archbishop, pushing at him, grabbing his robes, but Thomas shook himself free again.
‘I tell you now,’ said Thomas loud enough for all in the hall to hear. ‘I shall strike any who violates the rights of the Pope or Christ’s church. I will not spare him; I will not delay in imposing sentence upon him.’
‘You risk your head saying that,’ said Brito, speaking for the first time.
‘Are you come to slay me then?’ said Thomas, mockingly. ‘If so I shall commit myself to the great judge of mankind.’ He shook his head. ‘I am not moved by your threats; find someone else to frighten.’ Thomas turned away from the knights to return to the hall and prepare for vespers.
We are the King’s men!’ shouted Fitzurse at the Archbishop’s back. ‘Seize him!’ he screamed at the monks. Seeing that the stunned clerics did not move, The Bear grabbed one by the robes and dragged the man out of the hall. Brito did the same with another – taking them as hostage. Thomas turned back at that, raising his voice for the first time in anger.
‘Release them! I command you in God’s name! Release them!’
The knights took no notice, contemptuously dismissing the Archbishop, pulling the monks outside into the dark night.
Thomas could hear the cries of ‘King’s men! King’s men!’ coming from the courtyard. He turned back to his terrified clerks and attendants. They crowded around their Archbishop. Some barricaded the door against the knights’ return.
‘Fear not,’ said Thomas, smiling, trying to reassure them with his calm presence.
‘They were drunk,’ said a monk. ‘We are protected here by the King’s peace.’ Some of the others nodded at that.
John of Salisbury stood forward.
‘Look, Thomas, you are doing what you always do,’ John said to his old friend. ‘Acting and speaking on impulse, never asking advice, always saying just what you like. What need is there to exasperate and inflame those butchers?’
Thomas reached out to John and touched his arm. The old scholar was not suited to this confrontation. He was born for the library, for deep conversations over cups of wine, not for this battle. Thomas knew why the knights had come. Pacifying them would not have helped; the end would be the same. Sometimes you have to stand firm in the storm. He shook his head firmly.
‘My counsel is now all taken,’ he said.
‘Pray God that it may turn out well,’ said John, sadly.
‘May God’s will be done.’
A great hammering started up on the doors to the hall. The knights had returned girded for war, in mail coats and bearing swords. Monks panicked, terrified of what was coming, rushing about in distress. They begged the Archbishop to flee, but Thomas would have none of it.
‘Monks are too easily intimidated,’ he told them. ‘Do not be afraid.’
The vespers bell tolled.
The monks, seeing a chance to escape, tried to rush Thomas into the cathedral, into the sanctuary of the church, but he waited for young Henry to bear the cross in front of him. They hurried the Archbishop to the cloister doors, only to find the bolt stuck fast in the cold. John of Salisbury stepped forward, waved his burning torch over the metal and whispered a prayer. Then he shot the bolt back as if it were in liquid glue. Thomas smiled at his old friend, and they bustled him into the cloister leading to the cathedral. Their leather shoes slapped on the marble flagstones as they hurried; one priest even dared to grab the Archbishop’s white robes and pull him along. They entered the cathedral and a clerk turned to bolt the cloister door behind them, but Thomas stopped him.
‘The church is a house of prayer,’ he said. ‘It is not a fortress.’
John of Salisbury sighed in despair. Thomas turned and slowly walked up the steps towards the high altar. Monks were chanting in the choir as he ascended, but hushed when they saw him. The Archbishop’s attendants followed him, step-by-step. Young Henry leading the way bearing the cross.
The cloister door burst open behind them. The Bear stood there armed for war; the other knights were with him, naked blades to hand. They looked bigger in their armour, faceless metal demons exuding power and hatred. The sanctuary of the church was defiled. Priests, clerics and monks scattered in terror at the sight of the armed men. Even John of Salisbury ran and hid himself in the crypt rather than face them with Thomas. Only Edward Grim and two others stood at the Archbishop’s side.
‘Where is Thomas Becket traitor to the King and kingdom?’ shouted The Bear.
The Archbishop could have fled with his attendants; he could have saved himself.
‘Here I am,’ said Thomas. ‘What do you want from me? I am no traitor to the King but a priest.
The knights saw him, rushed at him brandishing their weapons. ‘Absolve them,’ they screamed at Thomas. ‘Restore to communion those you have excommunicated; restore powers to those you have suspended.’ Their voices boomed out in the great open space.
The Archbishop turned to face them down, holding onto a stone pillar as if for support.
‘There has been no satisfaction, and I will not absolve them.’ Thomas still spoke quietly and calmly in response to their shouts.
‘Then you shall die,’ said the Bear, ‘and get what you deserve.’
‘I am ready to die for my Lord,’ said Thomas. ‘In my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace. But in the name of Almighty God, I forbid you to hurt my people whether clerk or lay.’
They grabbed at him again, trying to drag him from the pillar but Thomas would not yield. The Bear was frothing at the mouth in anger, spittle flying as he snarled, ripping at Thomas’s raiment. The Archbishop pushed the Bear away.
‘Whoremonger,’ said Thomas. ‘Touch me not, Reginald; you owe me fealty and subjection; you and your accomplices act like madmen.’
That sent the Bear into apoplexy. He waved his sword at Thomas’s head, tipping off the Archbishop’s cap.
‘Neither faith, nor subjection do I owe you against my fealty to my lord the King!’ Fitzurse spat in Thomas’s face.
The Archbishop bowed his head and joined his hands together. He could see the high altar from where he stood. It was all lit up with candles, surrounded by a saint’s halo. He began to pray.
‘I commend my cause and that of the church to God, to St. Mary, and to the blessed martyr Denys.’
Fitzurse struck out at Thomas with his sword. Edward Grim, one of the three who had stayed to watch over the Archbishop, reached out to stop the blow. Fitzurse’s sword cut through the man’s limb to the bone. Grim fell back screaming, bleeding, and the blade smashed on into Thomas’s crown. There was blood streaming from the archbishop’s head, staining his white robes red. Another knight slashed at Becket but the Archbishop stood firm. At a third blow he fell to his knees, his lips still moving in prayer.
‘For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death.’
Roger Brito stepped forward and swung at the prone priest, striking so hard with his sword that sparks flew up and his blade shattered against the stone floor.
‘Take that, for the love of my lord William, the king’s brother!’ shouted Brito.
Becket’s crown was cut from the back of his skull. He collapsed to the ground; a pool of dark blood spread out over the white marble. One of the murderers’ companions, the renegade priest who had long hated Thomas, stood on the dying archbishop’s neck. With the tip of his dagger he scraped out the brain and scattered it on the pavement.
‘Let us away, knights,’ he said when he finished the gruesome task. ‘This one will rise no more.’
The knights fled, white-faced and in terror, with the dawning realisation of what they had done that night; miserable drones that would be forever haunted by their act. Monks and clerics emerged from their hiding places and fell to the marble floor. Mopping up Thomas’s blood with their clothes, scooping up brain and bone into vials and chalices. There would be no need to wash the body for burial. The martyr had been sanctified by his own blood.
John of Salisbury understood that better than most. He stood there watching over Thomas’s broken corpse; a witness to the horror. Watching as they bound up Becket’s head and stripped off his torn bloodied white robes; watching as Grim was carried away; watching over young Henry, struck dumb in shock. John realised that the King was beaten by Becket’s sacrifice; the church was saved by his martyrdom. When the attendants revealed a coarse hair shirt crawling with lice under the Archbishop’s rich clothing, John wondered if he had not misjudged his old, reckless, friend.
The Blandford Candy Series is available onAMAZONfrom Sharpe Books.