The Templars and the Murder of Becket

The Templars and the Murder of Becket

King Henry II of England and Thomas Becket began to fall out in 1163. On one level their row developed over the relationship between the church and the English crown and their respective rights.

But it was also far more emotional than that: this was a clash of two extremely talented and strong-willed personalities.

The Templars were once more needed as mediators. They knew that such vicious infighting would distract all parties from the needs of the crusading movement and impair their ability to provide military aid to the crusader states. They were proved to be all too correct in their assessment.

The Templars tried hard to heal the breach. After Becket broke his promise to abide by the Constitutions of Clarendon, issued at the beginning of 1164, both the current and previous masters of the order in Britain intervened – Richard of Hastings and Osto of Saint-Omer went down on bended knees to persuade the archbishop to step back a little. They begged Becket not to precipitate another confrontation. The incongruous sight of these proud military monks kneeling in supplication produced the desired effect – Becket relented, for a while at least.

But the underlying problem remained. Becket eventually fled to France rather than face trial at the Council of Northampton. He stayed there for six years, firstly at the Cistercian abbey near Pontigny and latterly at Sens; the rift between church and state festered.

The king used the prospect of a crusade as a tantalising political lever with which to get the papacy, and the Templars, on his side. The Becket problem, he suggested, was such a distraction that it needed to be resolved (in the crown’s favour, of course) before any crusade could be launched. This cleverly cast Becket in the role of the villain – the man whose stubborn behaviour was single-handedly preventing aid from reaching the Holy Land.

Throughout this gruelling conflict, and partly as a result of these manoeuvrings, the influence of the Templars at the English court grew. A high-ranking Templar official, Geoffrey Fulcher, played a significant role in making peace overtures during the affair. He was one of the order’s most senior diplomats and was clearly respected by both parties.

The important role played by the Templars was recognised by other players in the process. John aux Bellesmains, the bishop of Poitiers and a cleric trusted by both Becket and the king, acted as a go-between. The bishop was clear in his opinion that the British Templars were embedded at the heart of the royal policy and that they were trying to get the rift between Henry and Becket resolved quickly. In one of his reports from 1165, for instance, he made comments about the security issues that needed to be addressed if the archbishop and the king were to meet in person. Bishop John wrote that he wanted to have a number of Templar brethren present, ‘because it is said that the king now listens to their counsel very much’. John even went so far as to suggest that the Templars were effectively in charge of the process of mediation and that the negotiations were ‘led through the said brothers.’

Given the nature of their role and their desire for another crusade, the British Templars were inevitably suspected by some of taking a partisan position in favour of Henry. We know that in June 1170 Becket was warned, anonymously, that ‘he should not trust the Templars, who would not dwell in simplicity and would rather be eager to prove the king’s will than Becket’s and they would tell him nothing but the lies of the king’.

But these suspicions were never proven and any overt treachery by the order towards Thomas Becket or the English church as a whole was never uncovered. On the contrary, and despite John aux Bellesmain’s misgivings, the Templars retained the trust of both parties. Becket used them as confidential couriers and acted as a benefactor to the order. At one point Becket even wrote that he had appealed to the king, as directly as he could, through the good offices of Templar diplomats and messengers.

If Becket had any suspicions about the British Templars, it was more a fear on his part that they had been used as dupes by Henry rather than because of their own failings or treachery.

A fragile truce was established but none of the diplomatic work by the Templars and others was sufficient to stop the matter ending in bloodshed. In a single tumultuous event which did indeed, as the Templars had rightly feared, impinge directly on the crusading movement.

Canterbury in December was bitterly cold. The stone of the cathedral was as hard and grim as the events that were about to take place. Four English knights, fresh from King Henry’s court, paced the cloisters. They were in a dangerous state – angry, drunk and heavily armed. These were entitled men who were looking to settle an argument that they were intellectually incapable of winning with words. The priest they had been arguing with was their social inferior, just a jumped-up cleric from Cheapside. This London parvenue, with his patronising ripostes and self-righteous, stubborn manner, needed a lesson.

The cleric walked off into the cathedral. He thought he had won the debate and put them in their place. The knights followed. They argued with him more forcefully this time. If their weak logic and slow wits could not win the argument, maybe a few shoves and pushes would do the job instead.

They tried to bundle the priest out. He resisted. A scuffle ensued. Someone knocked the priest on the head. Blood flowed. The drunken knights were overcome by a toxic mix of alcohol and panic, rage and frustration. They pulled their swords and finished the job, barely aware of what they were doing.

Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury and the leading prelate of the English church, died on the dark afternoon of 29 December 1170.

The murderers tried to make their penitence more tangible by giving lands to the Templars. Two of them went on pilgrimage to the East. There were even suggestions that they joined the order so that their violent inclinations could be put to better use. But the Becket affair did not end with the archbishop’s death or with the supposed contrition of his killers.

The shock of the murder rippled out across Europe. Henry’s problems got exponentially worse. Once again, the Templars were at hand to try to stabilise matters. At least one Templar brother was in a delegation sent by Henry to appease the pope in France. These emissaries followed a previous group of English diplomats who had been negotiating with the pope’s chamberlain, who was himself also a Templar knight. Connections counted and particularly so in the delicate world of medieval international relations.

Henry had to buy his way out of the PR morass caused by the disastrous Becket affair. Regular payments from the English crown to the crusading cause started in 1172. These shipments provided a growing war chest (literally) for the beleaguered Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Once again, the Templars were central to this process. Although the order, as warriors of the papacy, was as outraged by the assassination of Becket as the rest of Christendom, they put its consequences to good use. In 1172, at the conference of Avranches, Henry agreed to pay huge sums of money to the Templars to assist in the defence of the Holy Land – enough to pay for the upkeep of 200 knights for a year.

Although this figure does not sound overly generous by current standards (and the size of modern armies), it is worth noting that the entire knightly contingent of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, the main Frankish state in the region, consisted only of some 700 knights, excluding the military orders. Henry was single-handedly offering to increase the number of their fighting elite by almost a third.

The British Templars, fierce soldiers in the East, were remorseless peace-mongers in the West, if only because it suited them to be so. The order’s mission was, at its simplest, to transform the energy of Europe into the resources needed to engage in the war with Islam in the East. Inevitably, they wanted good relations to be re-established between Becket and the king and between church and state. When that became impossible, after Becket’s murder, they pursued the next best thing. They wanted to make peace between Henry and the papacy. And they wanted to use the moral outrage generated by the incident as leverage with which to extract as much money as possible from the English crown for the use of the crusading movement.

They succeeded on both counts – but only up to a point.