Part of Herbert of Boseham's description of the death of Becket

 

 

Up to this point in this little historical book I have related faithfully and unswervingly, for the edification of the church of God, for those now alive and for those to come, not what I have received from others, but what I myself saw and heard about such a pillar of the church. Now, because in order to finish the story of this holy man, I have made a place not for what I have myself seen, but for what has been told by others, my fingers begin to grow stiff and the pen begins to move more slowly and to tremble, trembling because it relates haltingly what was heard and seen not by itself, but by others. Indeed we have introduced what was heard and seen by many holy men, and what should undoubtedly be believed, lest God reproach us for our incredulity, as he reproached the incredulity and hardness of heart of those who saw him rise from the dead and did not believe.

Therefore I shall return to what I interrupted above, as I promised. When the three excommunicated bishops (as I said previously) had incited the king to a fury that should be detested by all future generations, so that he was like an oven heated by cooks, unable to contain the fire, openly, in the presence of everyone, and particularly in the presence of his own people in the court, whom he had nourished and upon whom he had conferred honors and many benefits, he complained about the archbishop as though he were an enemy. Inflamed by wrath, speaking in a funereal voice, he often cursed those whom he had nourished, whom he had favored and were indebted to him for their income, for not having avenged the wrongs done to him by the archbishop, who was disturbing him and his kingdom, and sought to undermine his authority and oust him from power. Having heard him repeatedly rage in this manner, four knights of the court decided, on the basis of what they heard him say, thought that they might ingratiate themselves with the king if they killed the archbishop; thus they took an oath to kill the archbishop. I have taken care to insert their names in this history, that they may be eternally damned: Hugo of Morville, Reginald the son of Ursus, William of Tracy, and the fourth was Richard Brito. These soliders of the court, the king's men, although base, were certainly noblemen, well known for the honors they had earned, and leaders among the leaders. These four conspirators immediately set out for England.

When the four of them set out, a strange, even miraculous thing occurred, so that, in the winter, among violent disruptions of earth and sea, despite the fact that they left from different ports and at different times, and despite the fact that they arrived at different ports, nevertheless, on the same day, even at the same hour on the same day, they arrived at the agreed upon place, at the castle whose name we gave above, Saltwood, six miles from Canterbury, which the king had promised by oath to restore to the archbishop, in possession of the church of Canterbury (as we mentioned above). It must have pleased God, whom the winds and the sea obey, to hasten the sacrifice of his priest. Indeed, throughout the night in the castle they plotted the murder of the archbishop, until the next day, which was the fourth day of the birth of the Lord, the day of the sacrifice of the Innocents, they came to Canterbury

First the four previously mentioned soliders haughtily approached the chamber in which the archbishop was seated, towards the close of day, without greeting him in the name of the king (naturally, since his death, not his well-being, was in their hearts); they spoke to him in pride, asking if he had absolved the king's bishops whom he had removed from office and excommunicated. When he graciously replied that he could not and should not dissolve bonds tied by the authority of his lord the Pope, furious with him, they immediately left, collected their men in the garden, and clothed themselves in the armor of the devil.

Now indeed the matter begins to increase, and from this point the style should remain unchanged, so that not with dark letters, but with rosy threads flowing into the golden figures of syllables, and with meticulously precise diction, the glory of the approaching death of the man may be plowed (written). For what was done by a man above men should be articulated not with the tongues of men but rather of angels, and from this point these things will be described. Therefore let us look first and listen to what happened, and then judge if this was not so.

When the knights had armed themselves and collected their supporters, with their swords and clubs, they proceeded to throng through the windows of the palace, since the doors had been shut, out of fright, by members of our household. Those who were seated with the archbishop in his chamber, hearing the crowd and noise outside, became frightened, for good reasons, and advised the archbishop to take refuge in the most sacred and safest place, that is, the church. After he had resisted several times, fearless in the face of death, at last they managed to force him to enter the church. At this moment his gentle face remained entirely unchanged, and no trace of fear showed in his face or in any of his actions. When he had proceeded a short distance and saw that he did not have the cross which he usually carried in front of him, he called for another to be carried before him; truly, unless I am mistaken, he had in mind his Lord, who hastened with a cross to the cross.

However, when he entered the church, many of his people scattered in fear; they fled through the church, hiding themselves from him in the crypts and under the altars, so that he might cry out and offer the lamentation of the head to its limbs: "Like water I am poured forth, and all my bones are scattered," as well as: "You have separated me from my friend and my neighbor, and my acquaintances from misery." He tread the wine-press alone, so that in this narrow place glory might be given not to another, but to him alone. His own glory would be diminshed if another shared it. Therefore it was to the glory of His athlete, as God provided, that he underwent the ordeal alone. However, some of his men, when he had entered the church, soon shut and locked the gates of the cathedral. The murderous soldiers with their supporters, armed with swords and clubs, followed the archbishop on foot, and when they reached the doors of the church, they shouted loudly for the doors to be opened. After a short delay, they set about attacking the doors with iron machines they had prepared. The future victim of Christ, the Christ of the Lord soon heard the noise and clamor at the gates of the church, and he ordered that they be opened immediately adding that it was not appropriate to turn a church into a castle. When the doors were opened, the murderers rushed in immediately, and one of them cried out: "Where is the false leader (seducer, impostor: not Classical word)?" But to this the Christ of the lord said nothing. "Where is the archbishop?" he said. And the Christ of the Lord said: "I am he; what do you want?" And he said loudly: "That you die, that you live no longer." And he said: "And I am prepared to give up my life for my God and for the freedom of the church."

But marvelous to relate, this singularly great warrior of God, singularly magnificent, who had entered the choir, which is reached by a ladder, before the executioners had entered the church, had already climbed the seventh octave step; as soon as he saw swords drawn in the church, he ran quickly to meet them. Not the messenger of his hard death, not the deadly word, not the metal drawn forth for his death, could call him back from the confrontation. And what added to the wonder and shock, he vigorously condemned the gladiators who had entered the church his mother in such a disorderly, profane fashion, seizing one of them with his hand, and striking him so powerfully that he almost knocked him to the ground. This was William of Tracy, as he later confessed about himself.

O how one should admire the ardent zeal of the priest, so eager to defend the house of God, who, alone and unarmed, so bravely, faithfully, eagerly, swiftly, boldly and readily rushed to meet armed men so insanely intent on killing him. In imitation of his Saviour, he did not fear to cast them out of the temple of the Saviour -- in this he followed his Savior and leader, but such an eager soldier of the highest Ruler did not cast out money-changers and pigeon-sellers, but gladiators mad to kill him; apparently without fear, without hesitation, he set about casting them out. Therefore this encounter at such a moment should be admired, the rebuke should be admired, and the attempt to drive them out was admirable, for he did not fear to enrage those already burning to kill him. Without seeking a moment's grace, without asking for any favor, without asking for a delay, driven by priestly zeal and by the love of justice, he provoked rather than placated the wrath of those who were enraged against him. O powerful hand of a daring athlete, oh strength of the man, oh constancy of the martyr, oh purity of soul! Priest and sacrifice, he stood imperiously among the murderers, while they surrounded him with swords drawn. In their midst the priest fulfilled the office of priest; he did not try to calm the gladiators, nor did he humble himself, but (as I have already said) he argued with them and upbraided them.

Lo our intrepid Samson face-to-face with them; lo our Paul ready for debate; lo our christ of the Lord strong in driving them out.

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