“Wherever by sea or land they go,
forever the wind in their face shall blow”
King Henry II of England made Thomas Becket, a low born clerk, his Chancellor. He and Becket were friends and the king thought they were in agreement. The Kings of England and The Church of Rome were in a continual power struggle (culminating in King Henry VIII’s breaking from the Catholic church 3 centuries later). In the late 1160s the Archbishop of Canterbury seat became empty and Henry decided to fill it with his friend, Becket, thinking then he would have some power. Becket didn’t want to take the position and fought against it but finally stepped into the position. Here is when the story really starts. Once Thomas became an Archbishop he suddenly believed his loyalty was to the Church and the Pope. This made Henry angry. And Henry was known to fly into rages and throw actual physical temper tantrums. They fought for several years about whether churchmen should be above the state laws – should be tried separately from regular citizens. Thomas at times had to flee for his life. In late 1170 Henry forgave Thomas, thinking that Thomas would become more flexible but soon found out just the opposite and in a rage he yelled, “A curse upon all the false varlets I have maintained! They have left me long exposed to the insolence of this low-born cleric and have not attempted to relieve me of him.”
Four knights heard this exclamation and took it upon themselves to kill the priest.
Reginald FitzUrse, William de Tracy, Hugh de Morville, and Richard Brito. They rode to Canterbury and in the wee hours of December 29th, 1170 they found Thomas Becket in the sanctuary and brutally murdered him. William de Tracy struck the first blow, then each of the others in turn.
Henry, upon hearing the news was filled with remorse and terror. He soon realized that Becket was now a martyr and he was the villain and no amount of penance would change that. Beckets body was entombed at Canterbury. He was named a saint and the people began pilgrimages to his shrine. This is the shrine Chaucer speaks of in “Canterbury Tales.”
The church put upon each of the knights a “miraculous penance”. A forever kind of penance. And they each tried to make a pilgrimage of repentance to the Holy Land. Other than this they weren’t really punished as the King acknowledged his fault and that they believed they were acting on his orders. The miraculous penance given to William de Tracy and his descendants was, “Whether they go by land or water, the wind is always in their faces.