Sometimes time is the enemy of truth. The facts are passed down, often from mouth to ear, and somehow take on a different form in the retelling. As a result, lovers of history are often left to ponder the frustrating question of “what really happened?” The more time that passes between the event and present time, the more cloudy the details become until at some point all we are left with is an outline – the skeleton with no flesh.
It could be argued that this is indeed what has happened with the story of how Thomas Becket’s brains ended up scattered on the paving stones of Canterbury Cathedral almost 850 years ago. First it is important to understand who Thomas Becket was as a man. The fact that he was smart, charismatic, and ambitious isn’t hard to believe. After all he rose from being a London merchant’s son to begin trusted advisor and close friend of King Henry II and ultimately, Archbishop of Canterbury. He did this in an age that didn’t suffer fools easily, but he did have the advantage of his father’s connections.
King Henry II, the man that would make and eventually break Becket, was every bit as ambitious and driven as Becket. Perhaps more so. Known for being downright ruthless when necessary, Henry could also be stubborn, very passionate in his outbursts, and have the ability to pierce the bravest of men with his stare. Imagine Becket, Henry, and Queen Eleanore of Aquitaine all together in the same place. The atmosphere around them must have crackled with electricity in both good times and bad. When things were good, they were very good, but when they turned bad….
Bad they did turn when Becket became Archbishop. He had a new king to obey and the old one couldn’t seem to come to terms with it. Henry still tried to pull Becket back into his political maneuverings, but Becket would have nothing of it. And not only would he not back Henry, at times he defied him in the most gloriously bold manner. This tug of war was brought to a head by the act of four knights in December 1170.
How it happened is somewhat legendary, but also uncertain in its certainty. What exactly did Henry say during an outburst that led four of his knights to the doors of Canterbury Cathedral? Did Henry really order them to murder Becket and then recant afterwards, claiming a misunderstanding? Did the knights simply want to prove themselves to their king and take it upon themselves to perpetrate murder in an effort to please him? Or most salacious of all, did Henry order it outright and later play the role of penitent king to appease the outcry of the Christian world?
Truly, we may never know for sure. And that’s the hook of history isn’t it? The not knowing for sure. Sure, we like to think what is written in black and white in a history book is fact. Some of it is undoubtedly, but all? In this particular case, only five men really ever knew the truth of what prompted murder – Henry and the four knights.
And they took that real truth to their graves.
Cover image courtesy of New Historian.