A Family Penance for a Murder Most Foul

Discover the Thomas Becket Connection…On Our Shelves!

One of the oldest seals of Barnstaple commemorates one of the most infamous murders in English History…the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket on this day in 1170.

The seal belongs to Barnstaple’s Bridge Trust and depicts the Chapel built at the town end of the now grade I listed ancient monument. The wardens and trust were set up to care for and maintain the bridge and there is evidence of this back to at least 1280 or so when it appears in an inquisition dated between 1280 and 1300. The seal is thought to be older than 1400.

Like the early history of the Bridge and the Chapel built at the end of it, the history of the family and their part in the murder of Thomas Becket for whom the Chapel is named is shrouded in mystery.

On the 29th December 1170 four knights travelled to Canterbury Cathedral to confront the Archbishop who had been at loggerheads with the King for many years. The confrontation ended in the brutal murder of the Archbishop and the four knights’ names going down in infamy. There is a description of the events leading up to the murder and the aftermath in Holinshed’s Chronicles of Englande, Irelande and Scotlande of which we have a copy dated 1597.

One of the knights was Sir William de Tracy whose family held several manors and owned land in Devon, including land in Mortehoe and the Manor of Barnstaple. While Sir William didn’t hold the manor, he did hold part of the manor of Bradninch and owned land in Mortehoe and Moretonhampstead. Of the four Knights, it has been said that Sir William was the most honourable (up to that fateful day), unlike his co-conspirators he didn’t put on armour before re-entering the Cathedral and attempting to remove Becket by force. He was also the first to realise the enormity of what they had done.

After leaving the Cathedral the Knights first returned to Saltwood Castle where they had stayed the previous night, before removing to Knaresborough Castle in Yorkshire. Initially the Knights thought their King would protect them from an understandably angry church. However, while he made no attempt to arrest them or seize their lands, they were left to fend for themselves. In the March of 1171, all four of the Knights were excommunicated by the Pope and at some point that year, Sir William went to the Bishop of Exeter to confess and ask his advice.

From here things get somewhat more mysterious. There are at least two stories or legends regarding what happened to Sir William next, both have very similar elements.

The first is that Sir William and the other Knights were advised by the Bishop of Exeter (who may well have been in contact with Rome on their behalf) to go to Rome and ask the Pope for forgiveness. It is thought Sir William may have arrived sometime in the spring or summer of 1172 when the Pope ordered his penance would include a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands and spend time living as a hermit.

Sir William duly set off for the Holy Lands but was turned back by the weather, specifically the wind which kept beating him back and he had to, temporarily at least, abandon his pilgrimage. Two years later in 1174 he had made it to Cosenza in Calabria, Italy where he became gravely ill and very possibly died. It was here he made a grant of some of his lands in Doccombe in Moretonhampstead to the monks at Canterbury “for his own soul and that of his forebears and for love of the blessed Thomas.”  [p. 258, Frank Barlow: Thomas Becket: University of California Press (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1990] This was confirmed by the King in Westminster later that year.

Whether or not Sir William died in Cosenza is up for interpretation, but many believe he more than like died there never making it to the Holy Lands. Others that all four Knights made it to the Holy Lands and were eventually buried there. However, some hypothesized Sir William survived his illness and made it not only to the Holy Lands, but also back home to England.

Closer to home there are other stories as to what happened to Sir William. Three out of the four Knights had connections with the South West, Sir William with Devon and Richard le Bret and Reginald fitzUrse with Somerset.

 “Local tradition goeth that, after the murder, the Pope cursed, banned, and excommunicated him so powerfully, that it made the wind always blow in his face, and the weather always against him, the local proverb running- “The fate of the Tracies-The wind in their faces.” [pages 116-118 Memorials, Descriptive and Historical of the Church of St. Peter, Barnstaple by J.R. Chanter printed by Henry A. Foyster (Barnstaple 1882)]

Some believed Sir William returned to Mortehoe where he became a hermit, living out the rest of his days in penance.

After his death legends have it, he was either buried on Flat Holm Island in the Bristol Channel or at Mortehoe Church. The first story suggests that he and his Somerset counterparts were dug up and re-buried on the Island, but again there is little to no evidence for this. The latter story of his tomb being in Mortehoe Church has been proved to be wrong as the tomb in question belongs to a rector of the church from the same family buried years later. Here the legends take an even more paranormal route.

There has been a longstanding story that Sir William has been made to make rope from the sands at Woolacombe or Braunton Burrows (depending on the story) as penance for his crime and if he ever gets close to completing his task the rope is destroyed so he has to start again.

Whether Sir William ever completed his penance for his part in Becket’s death we will never know, however his family seem to have continued to pay penance for their family member’s crime. While we don’t know the exact origins of the long bridge at Barnstaple or the Chapel of Thomas Becket, it is likely that as Lords of the Manor the de Tracy family had a significant hand in getting it built. In the 13th Century Sir Henry de Tracy endowed the bridge with some funds. He “also “bought a pardon to the bridge”. In the year 1272 he was excommunicated, apparently for a matter connected with the church at Tawstock, but was later pardoned, and by his buying pardon to the bridge, any persons who then donated funds to the bridge received a blessing from the Church.” [p6 John B Cruse: The Long Bridge of Barnstaple & The Bridge Trust: Aycliffe Press (Barnstaple, 1982)]

Trouble it seems ran in the family, although Sir Henry’s transgression can’t have been as bad as Sir William’s. According to J R Chanter there is little to nothing known about the establishment of the chapel or its endowments or services. However, most believe it likely the chapel was built by one of the de Tracy family as penance for their ancestor’s role in the murder. This along with the blessings the church gave for anyone giving money to the bridge would make this more likely a de Tracy had a hand in the building of the Chapel. “…occasional mention is made in the Bishop’s register of the Chapel of St. Thomas, the earliest being in 1319, Dec. 19 :-“Bishop Stapleton admitted, on the presentation of Sire William Martyn, Kt., Richard de Stottescombe to the perpetual chantry made in the Chapel of the blessed St. Thomas, near the Bridge of Barnstaple, for the souls of Henry de Tracy, his progenitors and successors.”” [Pages 116-118 Memorials, Descriptive and Historical of the Church of St. Peter, Barnstaple by J.R. Chanter printed by Henry A. Foyster (Barnstaple 1882)]

Section of the 1584 plane of Barnstaple

Thomas Becket’s Chapel may well have been demolished some time after 1584 when there is a plan of the town with a building at the end of the bridge clearly visible, although this may have been the cottage which was built next to it. In the first half of the 19th century Bridge End House was built on the site of the Chapel and cottage. Bridge End was lived in by Edward Roberts the uncle of John Roberts Chanter who wrote in 1882; “During modern alterations at the foot of the bridge, remains of the building were found, including a piscina, nearly perfect, and also many human bones, showing that interments had taken place there; but there is no record when the Chapel was actually demolished.” [pages 116-118 Memorials, Descriptive and Historical of the Church of St. Peter, Barnstaple by J.R. Chanter printed by Henry A. Foyster (Barnstaple 1882)]

In 1961 the Bridge Trust transferred custody of the Long Bridge to the government who subsequently demolished Bridge End House to enable them to widen the bridge. A blank space was left between the bridge and the old Athenaeum building until 2019 when the extension to the museum was built in the remaining space. An archaeological survey was carried out before construction of the extension could take place but nothing of the old buildings could be found.

850 years later the story of Sir William de Tracy’s crime and the death of Saint Thomas Becket live on as does the seal of the Bridge Trust which carries the image of Becket’s Chapel at the end of the Bridge.

A Selection for Further Reading:

Chronicles of England, Scotlande and Irelande by Raphael Holinshed, published in 1597

Memorials of Barnstaple by Joseph Besly Gribble printed by J. Avery (Barnstaple, 1830)

Memorials, Descriptive and Historical of the Church of St. Peter, Barnstaple by J.R. Chanter printed by Henry A. Foyster (Barnstaple 1882)

Reprint of the Barnstaple Records published by J.R. Chanter & Thomas Wainwright printed by A.E. Barnes (Barnstaple, 1900)

Legends of Exmoor by Jack Hurley published by The Exmoor Press (Dulverton, 1973)

The Long Bridge of Barnstaple & The Bridge Trust by John B Cruse Aycliffe Press (Barnstaple, 1982)

Tawstock and the Lords of Barnstaple by James Coulter published Edward Gaskell (Bideford, 1996)

Lives & Legends of English Saints by L M Short published by Methuen & Co Ltd (London, 1914)

Lives of the Saint’s Volume IX by Alban Butler published by JS Virtue (London)

Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury, volume II by Walter Hook published by Richard Bentley (London, 1862)

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Thomas Becket by Frank Barlow published University of California Press (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1990)

…Barum Athena

One Reply to “A Family Penance for a Murder Most Foul”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: