The Canterbury Connection

Murder of Thomas Becket

The 29th December 2020 marked the 850th anniversary of the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.  What possible connection could this have with Bradninch, one may well ask?

The feudal Barony of Bradninch, now held by Prince Charles, Duke of Cornwall, was created and granted by William the Conqueror to one William Capra.  On Capra’s death the Barony reverted to the Crown.  The King was now Henry I (4th son of William the Conqueror) who reigned from 1068 – 1135.  Henry granted the Barony to one of his illegitimate sons, William de Tracy.  We are told that the Barony included extensive estates within Devonshire and that its “caput” (chief Manor) was Bradninch.

Eventually the Barony passed to William de Tracy’s grandson, also William.  By this time Henry II was on the English throne.  Henry II was reputedly a strong and reforming monarch.  The then Archbishop of Canterbury was Theobald.  Thomas Becket was on Theobald’s staff, and so well regarded that Theobald recommended him to the King.  Becket became the Chancellor to Henry II, and also a close friend and confidant of the King.  On Theobald’s death in 1162 Henry decided to appoint Becket Archbishop of Canterbury, thereby planning to exert royal control over the Church.  However, things did not turn out the way the King had intended.

On becoming Archbishop, Becket became a strong defender of the Church, stood up to the King, his former friend, and refused to sign the Constitution of Clarendon, whose terms would have strengthened Royal control over the church.  He was found guilty of treason in 1164 and fled to France, where he was in exile for 6 years.

The Pope (Alexander) threatened to excommunicate King Henry II, who felt it would be in his own best interests to relent and allow Becket to return to England, which he did in early 1170.  Becket promptly arranged for the excommunication of his old enemy the Archbishop of York, and several other bishops who had supported the “coronation” of the King’s young son in York.  It was at this point that Henry is reputed to have cried “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”

Four Knights, Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Morville, Richard le Bret, and William de Tracy, Baron of Bradninch decided they would earn the King’s favour if they disposed of Becket.  They rode to Canterbury, and murdered Becket with great savagery in his own cathedral.  They are said to have sliced the crown of Becket’s head off.

Not unsurprisingly, the Pope excommunicated the four knights.  To earn Papal forgiveness they were ordered to go on a Crusade for 14 years to the Holy Land.  There is uncertainty about their ultimate fate but William de Tracy is supposed to have died in exile in 1189.

It is highly unlikely that de Tracy ever visited Bradninch!  Nevertheless his involvement in Becket’s murder lends a frisson of notoriety to our small town.

G. Garner

(Image from Wikimedia Commons: Original in the British Library)