The English Saint and former Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket is one of the most important figures in the traditional version of English history taught to school children in the United Kingdom. His piety and ‘the many before the few’ attitude has won him many friends, which was heightened by the perception that Becket died a martyr. When Henry II’s Knights Richard le Breton, Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville and William de Tracey confronted and then murdered Becket on the steps of the high altar in Canterbury Cathedral allegedly on the implicit or explicit orders – depending who you believe - of the King.
What isn’t known about Becket however is that he was an also a foe of the jews and more specifically of the jewish moneylenders that increasingly dominated England during his lifetime. Who Henry II had turned into a means to raise money by placing an unbearable burden of taxation on to his people and forcing them to use jewish moneylenders to pay what they owed to the Crown. (1)
Henry II was the first to implement this system of tallage (2) and formalised the already extent principle of royal ownership of the jews. (3) That jews dominated the kingdom of England’s financial system at this time is evidenced by the fact that they were the kingdom’s wealthiest citizens, (4) principle moneylenders to both Church (5) and State (6) and also effectively ran the all-important Royal Mint. (7)
During both his secular and ecclesiastical career Becket consistently opposed the jews and sermonised against them. Despite the fact that in order to support Henry II’s military campaigns in France – such as that around Toulouse in 1159 – he negotiated with jewish moneylenders on the King’s behalf. (8) He took the success of these campaigns so personally that he was prepared to put aside his own personal views on the iniquity of the jews and suffer to deal with them on the King’s behalf as well as incur half the debts in some cases in his own name for the sake of the kingdom. (9)
The fact that Becket was killed – likely on Henry’s explicit orders despite the common belief that this an implicit or even accidental request – while opposing King Henry’s attempt to subject the Catholic Church in his domains to the same jewish-dominated taxation system that had already begun to ruin England’s barons and gentry – and which would in time trigger a massive revolt against King John and famously lead to the signing of Magna Carta – (10) necessarily suggests that Becket may have even murdered at the behest of the jews.
Since the four knights concerned were likely themselves in heavy debt to jewish moneylenders – as were most in the kingdom of England at that time – and thus would have been easy for their creditors to manipulate into assassinating their most powerful opponent in the kingdom.
(1) Ralph Turner, 2003, ‘Magna Carta: Through the Ages’, 1st Edition, Pearson Longman: New York, p. 44
(2) See Richard Huscroft, 2006, ‘Expulsion: England’s Jewish Solution’, 1st Edition, Tempus: Stroud, pp. 61-62; Ralph Turner, 2005, ‘King John: England’s Evil King?’, 2nd Edition, Tempus: Stroud, pp. 68-74
(3) Robert Chazan, 2006, 'The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom, 1000-1500', 1st Edition, Cambridge University Press: New York, pp. 160
(4) Cecil Roth, 1941, 'A History of the Jews in England', 1st Edition, Oxford University Press: London, p. 15
(5) Rodney Hilton, 1975, 'The English Peasantry in the Later Middle Ages', 1st Edition, Oxford University Press: New York, p. 183
(6) Christopher Dyer, 2002, 'Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850 – 1520', 1st Edition, Yale University Press: New Haven, pp. 148; 178
(7) John Guy, 2013, ‘Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim’, 1st Edition, Penguin: New York, p. 7; Leon Poliakov, 2003, , 'The History of Anti-Semitism', Vol. I, 1st Edition, University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, p. 77
(8) Guy, Op. Cit., pp. 113; 202
(9) Ibid, p. 202
(10) Turner, ‘King John’, Op. Cit., pp. 168-169; Marc Morris, 2015, ‘King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta’, 1stEdition, Windmill: London, p. 244