Charing Shocked by Local Murder

The Death of St Thomas à Becket 29th December 1170

By Amy Myers

Charing is near enough to Canterbury for the news of the Archbishop’s murder to have travelled fast and by the next morning its villagers – perhaps then fewer than four hundred [1] – would have been well aware of the outrage committed in Canterbury Cathedral and equally well aware of who was ultimately to blame. It would be the king, Henry II, whose feud with Becket had resulted in four of his knights brutally murdering Thomas à Becket on 29th December 1170.

The shock would have been immense for Charing’s inhabitants. His palace at Charing is said to have been one of Becket’s most favoured retreats, and so not only did the villagers ‘know’ the archbishop from his visits to his palace but a great many of them would have been indirectly his tenants. The manor of Charing was part of the archbishop’s domain but its arable land had long been leased to one family (with special arrangements if the Archbishop came to stay in his palace). The current holder was Adam of Charing, a man of some status [2].

Adam must have heard the news with guilt as well as shock. When Becket had decided to leave England for France six years earlier, Adam had been aboard the ship. When they were well on their way, however, he was one of those who chickened out, fearing repercussions from the king when he discovered that Becket had fled. The ship turned round and headed back to port. In later years Adam was to found a leper hospital in Becket’s honour.

From prosperous knights down to humble serfs, many Charing residents must have faced the future with trepidation after hearing the shocking news of Becket’s murder, as its effects were not long in making themselves apparent. The four murderers, Reginald fitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton, had long since made their escape from Canterbury to Saltwood Castle, but the castle’s owner, Ranulf de Broc (or rather occupier as the true owner was Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury) was still very much present at the crime scene [3].

De Broc was Archbishop Becket’s bitter enemy, not least because during Becket’s long exile from England, the king had appointed him administrator of Becket’s domain followed by Becket duly excommunicating him. Sparks had flown with a vengeance when Becket returned less than a month before his murder. Becket, it is said, was not known for his patience.

By the morning after the murder de Broc had organised a band of armed men who were gathering outside the city wall. The people of Canterbury had been gathered at the Cathedral for Sunday vespers when the murder took place and so news of the crime had rapidly spread. Rumours flew around the neighbourhood that these armed men were there to seize the archbishop’s body. If so, the monks had forestalled them, for Thomas’s body had been placed in a marble coffin in the cathedral crypt.

It’s possible however that this gathering was of the armed men whom de Broc had assigned to another job. He was determined to limit the damage that Becket’s murder would bring to the authority of the crown (and thence to himself) for the outcry was gaining momentum. Although many of the monks were not Becket fans, the people were. They saw Thomas as their champion against an unjust world. De Broc acted promptly, positioning his bully boys on the approach roads and bridges in Canterbury and its nearby villages [4]. There they intimidated and took the names of those who spoke well of the archbishop or were making their way to Canterbury Cathedral. The Lenham to Ashford road at that time could well have passed slightly to the north of Charing church [5], thus forming a crossroads with the current High Street – which would have made an ideal spot for a bully boy or two to make their presence felt.

Whether openly or secretly, Charing must have been buzzing with the story, even though conspiracy theories were somewhat redundant as everyone would have thought they knew who was behind this murder. All that spring no one dared speak freely, but at Easter 1171 the monks opened the crypt where Thomas’s body lay [6]. The floodgates were open for the crowds to venerate the late archbishop and amongst them there would have been many coming from Charing, both its inhabitants and those who had lodged there overnight having come from further afield.

Contemporary reports had no doubt as to who these crowds were: ‘It was the poor, and at first the poor of Canterbury and the neighbourhood, whose imaginations and affections went out towards the martyr as their champion and father and who persisted so to speak in being cured at a time when such cure was unfashionable or was dangerous. It was for the most part the lower class who in the earliest days reverenced Sir Thomas as a martyr and prepared the way for the conversion of the prelates, the barons and ultimately the King himself.’ [7]

Thomas à Becket was canonised in 1173, and by that time hundreds of miracles had been ascribed to him, reviving Kent’s long tradition of miracles ascribed to the Anglo-Saxon saints. The records are confusing as to when the miracles attributed to St Thomas actually began. The contemporary records suggest that they began almost immediately [8], but as the crypt was not opened for the public until Easter, the timing of those claiming to have occurred at his tomb is in doubt. Many miracles however took place far away – one three days after the murder took place in Sussex. ‘All that spring,’ though, ‘no one dared to mention the miracles abroad ’[9] . Once open for business, the monks organised the procedure carefully. A monk was stationed at the grave to ‘receive offerings’ and record details of the apparent miracle; this monk might have been Benedict himself, who was later to set down his own story of that terrible evening in December 1170.

John of Salisbury, a friend of Becket’s, was present in the cathedral during the murder, although not at the scene of the crime. Later he was accused, perhaps falsely, of running away through fear during Becket’s ordeal. He wrote later of the miracles that ‘paralytics are cured, the blind see, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the lame walk, lepers are cured… and the dead are raised.’

Having physical contact with the shrine or something that had belonged to Thomas was an alchemy that led to the cure (or otherwise, as it wasn’t always successful).Other marvels occurred, however, both to those who managed to reach Canterbury and actually touch the shrine and to those further afield. Water associated with St Thomas was another path to receiving his blessing. St Thomas’s well, ‘a fair and desirable spring’ emerged through the stones of the crypt and its waters were sold by the monks. Another well is named for him at Otford.

Thomas’s canonisation was a further step to the growth of Canterbury as an established and important shrine to be visited, especially after King Henry II saw the way the wind was blowing and in 1174 paid public penance for his outburst of anger that had sent four of his knights scurrying to murder Becket.

Charing would have played its part in overnight lodging and feeding of passing pilgrims to Canterbury, whether under their roofs or in barns and open fields. Its biggest challenge as a host village, however, came fifty years after the archbishop’s murder, when the Church decided to play its ace. The translation of Becket’s bones from the cathedral crypt to a newly restored Trinity Chapel took place on 7th July 1170. A magnificent shrine adorned with all the precious jewels donated by kings and monarchs over the years awaited the saint’s remains. This major event in Catholic Britain had been announced two years in advance to give dignitaries time to make their travel plans and the Pope declared an indulgence of two years’ penance [10] for those who could visit Canterbury within two weeks of the Translation.

It was an enormous success with pilgrims naturally anxious to be part of this spectacular event and take a step towards their own salvation. So many people flooded the area that not only Canterbury itself but all the nearby villages were swamped with visitors sleeping under the stars or in barns if they were lucky [11]. One of them would surely have been Charing, especially as it boasted St Thomas’s favoured retreat, the Palace.

Chaucer’s fictitious pilgrims to Canterbury in the fourteenth century probably travelled from London by the Roman Watling Street route through Shooter’s Hill, Rochester and Harbledown, as would vast numbers of real life pilgrims. The route from the west, along the line of the North Downs past Otford, across the Medway between Maidstone and Rochester, then down to Boxley and along to Hollingbourne, Harrietsham, Lenham and Charing, which must regularly have been used as an overnight stop.

Special attractions in the form of chapels and churches along the way provided helpful diversions from the track now known as the Pilgrims’ Way; they could be used for prayer and shelter – and alas, as the fashion for pilgrimages grew in the 14th and fifteenth centuries, also as tourist traps. Donations were eagerly collected by the monks, who in return might offer cult experiences, such as the Rood of Grace at Boxley Abbey, a cross on which a figure moved his hands to bless the penitent, with the help of monks behind the scenes manipulating the necessary levers.

Charing church too had its cult offering for those on the way to Canterbury. In the time of King Richard II, it possessed, it is said, a block of stone on which John the Baptist was beheaded [12]. Situated next door to the archbishop’s palace, of which the pilgrims might have only had glimpses owing to the high walls, Charing’s St Peter and St Paul church would have been quite a draw.

Canterbury itself surpassed all these offerings, however. There pilgrims could buy pieces of St Thomas’s bones, phials of his blood or water from his well and many other items that would bring them closer to his sanctity. At least in the early days of pilgrimages these items were bought not as souvenirs but in the belief that contact with St Thomas’s holiness could help their own souls in the afterlife. A major source of revenue however became pilgrims’ badges, made of lead and decorated with colourful motifs of St Thomas, some simple ones, some very ornate indeed. The badges weren’t so much reminders of a good holiday, but proof of their presence in Canterbury, like keeping train tickets for the taxman today. Many pilgrims were travelling as a penance imposed on them for their sins [13].

After Becket’s murder there was an interregnum before a new archbishop was appointed and it wasn’t until 1174 that the prior of Dover became the next archbishop and owner of the Archbishop’s Palace at Charing. Charing must have awaited his first visit there with some concern. As well as a useful overnight stop, would the Palace become a favourite retreat for the new archbishop as it had for Dunstan before the Norman Conquest and for Becket himself or would it lay virtually ignored? [14]

Charing need not have feared. It had over three hundred years ahead in which to entertain both archbishops and kings.

  1. Estimated figure of 280–350 based on the Domesday book, given in A History of Charing by the Charing and District Local History Society.
  2. The Lordship of Canterbury, F R H DuBoulay, Nelson, 1966 and ‘Two Notes of Guernes de Pont Sainte-Maxence; vie de Saint Thomas’ by William Urry, Archaeologia Cantiana Vol.66 1953
  3. St Thomas of Canterbury: his death and miracles, Edwin Abbott, 1898, from Materials of the History of Thomas Becket published under the direction of the Master of the Rolls and containing extracts from texts contemporary to the murder including those of Benedict and William of Canterbury.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Sarah Pearson, ‘The Archbishop’s Palace at Charing’, Archaeologia Cantiana, Vol, 121, 2001
  6. Early Medieval Kent 800-1200 ed Sheila Sweetinburgh, ‘Saints, Pilgrimage and Landscape’, Hilary Powell, Kent County Council, Boydell Press, 2016
  7. St Thomas of Canterbury: His death and his miracles, op cit.
  8. Ibid.
  9. St Thomas of Canterbury, op cit.
  10. Early Medieval Kent op cit.
  11. Ibid
  12. Black’s Guide to Kent, 1885
  13. Bygone Kent, vol XI, ‘Canterbury Badges by Carson Ritchie
  14. The Lordship of Canterbury, op cit.

Main image: British Library 059413, detail/© British Library Board 2017