My Ancestor Murdered the Archbishop of Britain

My 27th Great-Great Grandfather is Sir William de Tracy (1135-1189). He is a murderer. He didn’t murder just anyone. As they so, “Go big or go home.”  He murdered Saint Thomas Becket the Archbishop of Great Britain.  This is one of the most infamous events in British history. It is also a very interesting story.

Who Represents God, The King or the Pope?

Sir William Tracy was one of the lead knights and royal bodyguards of King Henry II.

In the 1160’s, King Henry II got into a power struggle with Catholic Archbishop Thomas Becket.

Basically, King Henry II ruled by “the divine right of kings.” As king, he was God’s representative on earth. He expected Archbishop Becket to obey him

Archbishop Becket believed that the Pope was God’s representative on earth. The Archbishop’s loyalty was to the Pope, not the King.

In 1164, King Henry II presided over a national assembly to decide the issue. Of course, everyone agreed with the King that he was in charge, and that Archbishop Becket was answerable to the King. 

Archbishop Becket disagreed, and he refused to sign the documents.  King Henry was outraged. 

Power struggle, and game of strategy, between King Henry II and Archbishop Becket

The power struggle turned into a game of strategy — a “chess match.” For the King’s first move, he issued a royal summons for Archbishop Becket to appear to answer the charges of “contempt of royal authority.”  Check!

Archbishop Becket was no dummy.  Instead of complying with the summons, he fled to France where he was granted sanctuary. Plus, he took the most sacred religious relics with him. Check!

This angered King Henry even more. He countered by punishing Becket’s friends and allies. Check!

Archbishop Becket retaliated. He used the “nuclear option.” Becket persuaded the Pope Alexander to allow him to excommunicate every man, woman, and child in Great Britain. This meant that every person in England, Wales, and Scotland, including the King and everyone close to the King, would burn in hell forever. Checkmate!

Alarmed by the prospect of national excommunication, and a world war with all of Europe, King Henry allowed Archbishop Becket to return to England safely.

King Henry II vents about Archbishop Becket

One day, frustrated with Archbishop Becket, King Henry II blurted out the infamous words that have been debated for over a thousand years. He said either:


  • Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”, or
  • Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”, or
  • Who will revenge me of the injuries I have sustained from one turbulent priest?”, or
  • Will none of the knaves eating my bread rid me of this turbulent priest?” or even,
  • What a band of loathsome vipers I have nursed in my bosom who will let their lord be insulted by this low-born cleric!”

The King’s bodyguards interpret his complaints as an order to murder Archbishop Becket

Whatever the King said, my Great Great Grandfather Sir William de Tracy, Sir Reginald Fitzurse (“Fitz” means “son of” just like Mac or Mc.), Sir Hugh de Moreville, and Sir Richard le Breton, interpreted the statement as a royal command to assassinate Archbishop Becket.

Becket is stabbed to death while praying

So, on December 29, 1170, while Archbishop Becket knelt at the altar in Canterbury Cathedral, saying his evening prayers, Sir William and his mates stabbed Becket to death.

Archbishop Thomas Becket becomes a martyr and saint. Catholics throughout Europe immediately began to venerate Becket as a martyr to the faith. Barely three years after his death, Beckett was canonized by Pope Alexander.  He became Saint Thomas Becket.     

King Henry II is forced offer humiliating public penance    

King Henry II was forced to humiliate himself with public penance, while wearing sackcloth and ashes, at Becket’s tomb in Canterbury.  (Centuries later, erratic King Henry VIII, avenging his ancestor Henry II, destroyed Saint Thomas’ tomb, scattered Becket’s bones, and ordered that all mention of his name be obliterated.)      

The King threw his royal bodyguards “under the bus” and they fled and tried to make penance  

King Henry II quickly threw his knights “under the bus.” He claimed that he never ordered the assassination. The knights were adamant that he did.

Sir William fled to Scotland. He then returned to his castle in Devon, in southwest England

As hopeful penance, Tracy rebuilt the town’s Catholic Church.

The Pope excommunicated my ancestor and placed a curse on my family

However, in 1171, Pope Alexander excommunicated Sir William and his companions. 

Moreover, the Pope placed a curse on the Tracy family.  “Wher’er the Tracys shall go, the wind in their face shall blow.” Feisty, Sir William responded, “Then so much the better, we can fight in cool weather.”   

The Pope summoned the knights to the Vatican and sent them to fight in the Crusades

Five years later, Sir William and his fellow knights were granted an audience with the Pope. Despite their repentance and penance, the Pope declared that they should be exiled from Britain and fight in the Crusades, alongside the Knights Templar, in Jerusalem, for fourteen years. Afterward, they were to return to the Vatican.

Sir William Tracy’s death and burial

At this point, the story fades. We do not know whether Tracy returned to Rome or whether his excommunication was dissolved. The location and circumstances of Sir William’s death are also in dispute.  Most scholars believe he was buried in Devon, England around 1190.

(Sources: Ancestry.com;  A Synopsis of the Peerage of England, by Nicholas Harris Nicholas, p. 467; Transactions of the Exeter Diocesan Architectural Society, Vol. 6, p. 188; “Bovey Tracey – Devon,” http://www.devon-online.com; “William de Tracy,” “Thomas Becket,” Wikipedia; “Descendants of Halfdan the Old,” http://www.armidalesoftware.com

(Other Articles: http://www.londonedition.net)

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