December 29, 1170
Kent, Kingdom of England
Thomas of Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, is assassinated by knights, his head cut open with swords until “the blood white with brain … dyed the floor of the cathedral”
In 1163, a Canon was accused of murder. The Church at the time had the power over its clergy and, after a trial, was acquitted. The public was outraged and demanded justice, and the King attempted to expand his rule into the jurisdiction of the Church, hoping his friendship with and appointment of Thomas Becket as Archbishop would put things in his favor. Becket refused, and was subsequently accused by Henry of the misappropriation of a large sum of money. Becket, fearing Henry was out for vengeance, fled the country.
In 1170, the two reunited in Normandy and Becket returned to England. However, his stance had not changed and he excommunicated several high-ranking church officials which angered Henry. The king reportedly exclaimed his disgust, shouting something along the lines of rhetorically asking who would rid him of the priest (sources vary as to the exact phrasing), and four knights wishing to curry favor set out to meet Becket.
The knights found Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. They hid their armor under cloaks and stored their weapons beneath a tree to talk Becket into submitting to the king’s will. When he refused, the group retrieved their weapons from outside and attacked Becket. A witness to the attack named Edward Grim, who was also wounded during the incident, wrote of the murder:
The wicked knight leapt suddenly upon him, cutting off the top of the crown which the unction of sacred chrism had dedicated to God. Next he received a second blow on the head, but still he stood firm and immovable. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living sacrifice, and saying in a low voice, ‘For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.’ But the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay prostrate. By this stroke, the crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral. The same clerk who had entered with the knights placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to relate, scattered the brains and blood about the pavements, crying to the others, ‘Let us away, knights; this fellow will arise no more.’
When Henry heard of Becket’s assassination, the knights responsible were disgraced. Becket was immediately considered a martyr and within 2 years was canonized as a saint. Four years after Becket’s assassination, as a sign of penance, Henry walked barefoot and clad in a sackcloth as 80 monks flagellated him with branches, then spent the night in Becket’s crypt.