The Becket Mystery
Why was Henry II whipped?
The murder of Becket is a good example of a commonly-taught KS3 topic which can be tricky to relate to other topics. It’s an interesting story (blood, murder, mystery) but that applies to lots of topics so where does it fit in most effectively?
On the surface it’s about religion and its importance but it also tells us a good deal about the power of the monarchy – everything depends on the enquiry question you focus on. Asking ‘Why was Becket murdered?’ or ‘Was Henry II responsible?’ have little wider value but asking ‘Why was Henry II whipped?’ helps pupils understand that a king had huge power but didn’t have complete freedom of action. Becket was murdered in December 1170 but Henry wasn’t whipped until July 1174 – why the gap? Henry needed to buy the Church’s help against rebels amongst his own family and his barons. He wasn’t all-powerful – a quite different conclusion (and one linking helpfully into Magna Carta) from one that is reached by solely studying the events of December 1170.
This activity has two parts – a brief puzzle getting students thinking about the scene in 1174 when Henry was whipped and, hopefully, coming up with the enquiry question themselves and, secondly, a card-sort providing information which enables them to explain why Henry was whipped and then reflect upon what this tells us about both the importance of religion and the power of kings.
1. Put 3 or 4 chairs in a row – place skeleton or skull/bones across seats (apply to Science dept for bones) or a willing volunteer lies on the floor.
2. Have background music ready – e.g. Gregorian chant
1. a) Ask students about the skeleton/body lying down– where do you think we are?
List answers but don’t identify the right answer if you get it.
b) Turn on the music as a clue. This is more likely to get the suggestion that we’re in a church.
2. Place one student kneeling in front of the chairs or body.
Ask – what do you think s/he’s doing?
3. Give the kneeling student a crown to wear
Ask – who do you think s/he is?
Ask – what do you think is happening in this scene? Build up an answer – king or queen is kneeling by a body/tomb and then lead into the correct version – this is Henry II kneeling at the tomb of Becket.
4. Line up the rest of the class – all standing.
Ask – who could you be? what do you think is going to happen next?
5. Explain what happened next – the bishops whipped Henry 5 times each, monks 3 times each.
Ask – what questions do you want to ask? The mystery cards are based on the question ‘Why did the king agree to be whipped?’ so try to steer in that direction!
6. Return pupils to groups and give out mystery cards (see below)
Ask students - before you look at any clues – can they suggest any reasons why Henry was whipped?
7. Now ask them to use the clues to solve the mystery but suggest they take care – not all the clues may be helpful!
Solve the mystery:
- Why did Henry II agree to be whipped?
- Which clues were most helpful in deciding on the answer?
1. Get students to compare answers.
Other Debriefing Options
1. Ask groups to act out the hypothesis process i.e. first pupil in groups identifies the initial clue, the second supplies the question, the third their hypothesis.
Reflect upon the process of doing history:
- What did you do?
- What was the sequence?
- What has been learned from this that you can use in a later investigation in history?
2. Create a zone of relevance (concentric circles) to think about which clues were most helpful/important and which were red herrings.
3. Ask one member from each group to stand on a certainty/uncertainty continuum, indicating how certain their answer is. This is best done two or three times during the whole investigation to chart the development of greater certainty or less uncertainty, whichever way you look at it. Do it first after the physical activity described above, right at the end and once in the middle, after looking at a certain number of clues or after a given length of time.
4. Relate to bigger themes
- What questions does this raise about how powerful kings were in the Middle Ages?
- How important was the church?
- Could anyone control the King?
Therefore this could be the starting point for an in-depth investigation of an aspect of medieval life, not just a one-off topic.
This account of the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was written by Edward Grim, a monk who was with Becket on 29th December 1170.
The murderers came in full armour, carrying swords and axes. The monks shouted to the Archbishop to escape but the Archbishop refused.
In a mad fury, the knights called out “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King and to the country?” The Archbishop, quite unafraid, answered, “Here I am, no traitor to the King but a priest.”
“You shall die this instant,” they cried. They pulled and dragged him, trying to get him outside the cathedral, but they could not do so. Then a knight leapt at him and wounded him in the head. Another knight struck him on the head but still he stood.
At the third blow he fell to his knees, saying in a low voice, “For the name of Jesus I am about to die.”
The next blow cut off the top of his head and blood white with brain and the brain red with blood stained the floor.
Thomas Becket was Henry’s friend and main adviser for many years until Henry chose Becket to be Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162.
Henry quarrelled with the bishops about who was in charge of the bishops and other churchmen in England. He said he should choose the bishops but they said that was the job of the Pope. Henry also churchmen who committed serious crimes should be severely punished by his courts instead of getting light sentences from church courts.
There was a great rebellion against Henry in 1173 and 1174. Henry’s own wife and sons allied with the Kings of France and Scotland and fought against Henry. He was in danger of losing many of his lands.
Henry made Thomas Becket Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Henry thought that Becket would help him to take control of the bishops. Instead Becket sided with the bishops and the two men quarrelled. Becket lived in France from 1164-1169 to escape from the quarrel.
Henry sent some English builders to help build a cathedral at Limoges in France. When the bishop at Limoges heard about Becket’s murder he sent all the Englishmen home because he didn’t want to be linked to Henry after such a horrible crime.
Henry had a terrible temper. One writer said that one day Henry got so angry that he could not control himself. He rolled round on the floor and chewed the rushes that were used then instead of a carpet.
In 1169 Becket returned to England. He was met by cheering crowds. When Henry heard this, he lost his temper and shouted out “Are all my men traitors and cowards? Why do you let this low-born priest treat me with such contempt?” Four of his knights set off for Canterbury.
Henry was a very energetic man and a great soldier. He became King of England when he was 21. He spoke French and Latin and understood some English.
The Pope said that he would pardon Henry for Becket’s murder if Henry gave land and money to the church and showed his sorrow by being punished. If Henry did this then the Pope, the bishops and God would support him against his enemies.
Two days after Henry was whipped, his army captured the King of Scotland. Then he beat the rest of his enemies. Many people said that God gave him the victory because he had shown how sorry he was for Becket’s death.
When Henry heard that Becket had been murdered, he burst into tears. He spent three days shut in his room, not eating or drinking. He said that he had never meant Becket to be killed.
Six years after Becket died, Benedict, a monk from Canterbury, was appointed Abbot of Peterborough. He took to Peterborough a piece of Becket’s bloodstained shirt, a bloodstained flagstone and a tube of Becket’s blood. Pilgrims to Peterborough paid to drink water containing a drop of Becket’s blood and Benedict sold so much water that he could afford to rebuild the church at Peterborough.
- What differences did it make approaching this topic through the mystery opening instead of other approaches? Was this simply about initial interest or did this have a deeper effect on how students thought and tackled the topic?
- Were you able to bring out transferable skills e.g. hypothesising, planning the process of the investigation, working as a team?
- When else in your course can you use this Mystery-style activity and how could you build on what students have learned about investigating a mystery in the future?