Herbert of Bosham

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Herbert of Bosham  (circa 1120 - 1190)

Biographer of St. Thomas Becket,

Herbert was born in Bosham circa 1120 and joined Thomas Becket's household sometime before 1162. He was to give his master advice on the performance of his duties, and to assist and even direct his studies of Scripture. Herbert remained closely attached to St. Thomas during the arduous and troubled years of his episcopacy and exile down to almost the eve of the final scene in Canterbury Cathedral.

Of all the archbishop's followers he was the keenest antagonist of the king and the royal "customs", quite ready on occasion to beard Henry II to his face or to undertake dangerous missions to England. After the martyrdom Herbert seems to have lived mainly on the Continent where the Archbishop had despatched him on the eve of his murder, and he complains that he was neglected by the friends and adherents of the master whom he had served so faithfully; he records, however, a friendly interview with the king himself. We know nothing of him after the year 1189.

As a biographer Herbert had many advantages. He shared St. Thomas's ideals and was an eyewitness of most of the incidents of his episcopacy. He had sat by him, for instance, during the stormy scenes of the trial at Northampton. Herbert was undoubtedly one of the closest advisors of Thomas Becket throughout his career as archbishop, is well known to historians of the life and times of the archbishop. His version of the events of Thomas Becket's life, the Historia Thomae, is cited hundreds of times in the sizable body of modern historiography of his master Thomas Becket.

Herbert's commentary on Jerome's Hebrew Psalter

Herbert also wrote a Commentary on Jerome's Hebrew Psalter, basically about how to interpret the Bible. In 385 A.D. Jerome had gone to Israel and translated the Psalms from Hebrew into Latin. Jerome's interpretation was largely allegorical, for example when Jerusalem is mentioned, it was identified as goodness and and Babylon as evil. This way of understanding the Bible was widespread in the Middle Ages, and continues today in some Christian traditions (some consider it to be anti-Semitic). Herbert argued for a more literal and historical understanding and suggested that Christian should ask the Jews for guidance in order to obtain a better understanding of the Psalms.

Concerning the build up to Becket's death:

Herbert reports that Henry told Becket: “Why don’t you do what I want you to do, for, if you would, I would entrust everything to you.” According to Herbert, the archbishop said he was reminded of the devil’s temptation to Christ, from Matthew 4:9: “All these things will I give thee, if thou will fall down and worship me.”

Here is his Herbert's account of what followed soon after::

The events leading up to the murder of Thomas Becket (December 1170) as recorded by Herbert of Bosham

On the day of our Lord's Nativity, which was, if I mistake not, about the twenty-seventh (actually the 24th) day after our arrival in England, the archbishop mounted the pulpit and preached to the people. At the end of his sermon he predicted that the time of his departure drew near and that shortly he would be taken from them. And when he said this concerning his departure, tears rather than words burst from him. Likewise the hearts of his hearers were beyond measure moved with grief and contrition, so that you might have seen and heard in every corner of the church weeping and lamentation, and the people murmuring among themselves, "Father, why do you desert us so soon, and to whom do you leave us so desolate?" For these were no wolves but sheep who knew the voice of their shepherd and grieved when they heard him say that he would so soon leave this world, although they did not know when, or where, or in what way this would come to pass. Truly, had you witnessed these things, you would have said that you heard with your ears and saw with your eyes that beast of the prophet's vision whose face was that of a lion and of a man. The service ended, the archbishop, who had shown himself so devout at the Lord's table that day, afterwards made merry, as was his wont, at the table of this world. Moreover, as it was the feast of the Nativity, although a Friday, he ate meat, as on other days, thereby demonstrating that on such a festival it was more religious to eat than to abstain.

On the morrow of the Nativity, that is, on the feast of the blessed martyr Stephen, he called apart the disciple who wrote these things, and said to him, "I have arranged to send you to our lord, the king of the French, to our venerable brother, the archbishop of Sens, and to other princes of that land, to tell them what you have seen and heard concerning this peace, how for us it is a peace which is no peace, but rather turmoil and confusion." The disciple, unable to restrain his tears, made answer, "Holy father, why have you done this? Why act in this way? I know for certain that I shall see you in the flesh no more. I had determined to stay faithfully at your side; truly, so it seems to me, you are seeking to deprive me of the fruit of your consummation, me who have hitherto continued with you in your temptations; nor shall I be, as now I see, a companion of your glory, who have been partner in your pain." Then said the archbishop amid a flood of tears, "Not so, my son, not so; you will not be deprived of the fruit, if you fulfil your father's commands and follow his counsel. Nevertheless, what you have said is indeed true, that you will see me in the flesh no more. Yet I wish you to go, especially since the king holds you in greater suspicion than the others, where the cause of the Church is at stake."

So, on the second day after Christmas, being the feast of St John the Evangelist, in the darkness of the night, for fear of being waylaid, I took leave of my father with lamentation and many tears, again and again begging and receiving his blessing. As he himself had foretold, I never again saw him in the flesh, nor shall see. Yet, and with this I end my history, I pray with my whole heart, with all my soul and all my strength, that him, whom I shall not see again in time, I may be accounted worthy to see in eternity, and may be made partner of his crown, as I was his comrade in the battle. "

Herbert of Bosham's description of the death of Becket

Up to this point in this little historical book I have related faithfully and unswervingly, for the edification of the church of God, for those now alive and for those to come, not what I have received from others, but what I myself saw and heard about such a pillar of the church. Now, because in order to finish the story of this holy man, I have made a place not for what I have myself seen, but for what has been told by others, my fingers begin to grow stiff and the pen begins to move more slowly and to tremble, trembling because it relates haltingly what was heard and seen not by itself, but by others. Indeed we have introduced what was heard and seen by many holy men, and what should undoubtedly be believed, lest God reproach us for our incredulity, as he reproached the incredulity and hardness of heart of those who saw him rise from the dead and did not believe.

Therefore I shall return to what I interrupted above, as I promised. When the three excommunicated bishops (as I said previously) had incited the king to a fury that should be detested by all future generations, so that he was like an oven heated by cooks, unable to contain the fire, openly, in the presence of everyone, and particularly in the presence of his own people in the court, whom he had nourished and upon whom he had conferred honors and many benefits, he complained about the archbishop as though he were an enemy. Inflamed by wrath, speaking in a funereal voice, he often cursed those whom he had nourished, whom he had favored and were indebted to him for their income, for not having avenged the wrongs done to him by the archbishop, who was disturbing him and his kingdom, and sought to undermine his authority and oust him from power. Having heard him repeatedly rage in this manner, four knights of the court decided, on the basis of what they heard him say, thought that they might ingratiate themselves with the king if they killed the archbishop; thus they took an oath to kill the archbishop. I have taken care to insert their names in this history, that they may be eternally damned: Hugo of Morville, Reginald the son of Ursus, William of Tracy, and the fourth was Richard Brito. These soliders of the court, the king's men, although base, were certainly noblemen, well known for the honors they had earned, and leaders among the leaders. These four conspirators immediately set out for England.

When the four of them set out, a strange, even miraculous thing occurred, so that, in the winter, among violent disruptions of earth and sea, despite the fact that they left from different ports and at different times, and despite the fact that they arrived at different ports, nevertheless, on the same day, even at the same hour on the same day, they arrived at the agreed upon place, at the castle whose name we gave above, Saltwood, six miles from Canterbury, which the king had promised by oath to restore to the archbishop, in possession of the church of Canterbury (as we mentioned above). It must have pleased God, whom the winds and the sea obey, to hasten the sacrifice of his priest. Indeed, throughout the night in the castle they plotted the murder of the archbishop, until the next day, which was the fourth day of the birth of the Lord, the day of the sacrifice of the Innocents, they came to Canterbury

First the four previously mentioned soliders haughtily approached the chamber in which the archbishop was seated, towards the close of day, without greeting him in the name of the king (naturally, since his death, not his well-being, was in their hearts); they spoke to him in pride, asking if he had absolved the king's bishops whom he had removed from office and excommunicated. When he graciously replied that he could not and should not dissolve bonds tied by the authority of his lord the Pope, furious with him, they immediately left, collected their men in the garden, and clothed themselves in the armor of the devil.

Now indeed the matter begins to increase, and from this point the style should remain unchanged, so that not with dark letters, but with rosy threads flowing into the golden figures of syllables, and with meticulously precise diction, the glory of the approaching death of the man may be plowed (written). For what was done by a man above men should be articulated not with the tongues of men but rather of angels, and from this point these things will be described. Therefore let us look first and listen to what happened, and then judge if this was not so.

When the knights had armed themselves and collected their supporters, with their swords and clubs, they proceeded to throng through the windows of the palace, since the doors had been shut, out of fright, by members of our household. Those who were seated with the archbishop in his chamber, hearing the crowd and noise outside, became frightened, for good reasons, and advised the archbishop to take refuge in the most sacred and safest place, that is, the church. After he had resisted several times, fearless in the face of death, at last they managed to force him to enter the church. At this moment his gentle face remained entirely unchanged, and no trace of fear showed in his face or in any of his actions. When he had proceeded a short distance and saw that he did not have the cross which he usually carried in front of him, he called for another to be carried before him; truly, unless I am mistaken, he had in mind his Lord, who hastened with a cross to the cross.

However, when he entered the church, many of his people scattered in fear; they fled through the church, hiding themselves from him in the crypts and under the altars, so that he might cry out and offer the lamentation of the head to its limbs: "Like water I am poured forth, and all my bones are scattered," as well as: "You have separated me from my friend and my neighbour, and my acquaintances from misery." He tread the wine-press alone, so that in this narrow place glory might be given not to another, but to him alone. His own glory would be diminished if another shared it. Therefore it was to the glory of His athlete, as God provided, that he underwent the ordeal alone. However, some of his men, when he had entered the church, soon shut and locked the gates of the cathedral. The murderous soldiers with their supporters, armed with swords and clubs, followed the archbishop on foot, and when they reached the doors of the church, they shouted loudly for the doors to be opened. After a short delay, they set about attacking the doors with iron machines they had prepared. The future victim of Christ, the Christ of the Lord soon heard the noise and clamor at the gates of the church, and he ordered that they be opened immediately adding that it was not appropriate to turn a church into a castle. When the doors were opened, the murderers rushed in immediately, and one of them cried out: "Where is the false leader (seducer, impostor: not Classical word)?" But to this the Christ of the lord said nothing. "Where is the archbishop?" he said. And the Christ of the Lord said: "I am he; what do you want?" And he said loudly: "That you die, that you live no longer." And he said: "And I am prepared to give up my life for my God and for the freedom of the church."

But marvellous to relate, this singularly great warrior of God, singularly magnificent, who had entered the choir, which is reached by a ladder, before the executioners had entered the church, had already climbed the seventh octave step; as soon as he saw swords drawn in the church, he ran quickly to meet them. Not the messenger of his hard death, not the deadly word, not the metal drawn forth for his death, could call him back from the confrontation. And what added to the wonder and shock, he vigorously condemned the gladiators who had entered the church his mother in such a disorderly, profane fashion, seizing one of them with his hand, and striking him so powerfully that he almost knocked him to the ground. This was William of Tracy, as he later confessed about himself.

O how one should admire the ardent zeal of the priest, so eager to defend the house of God, who, alone and unarmed, so bravely, faithfully, eagerly, swiftly, boldly and readily rushed to meet armed men so insanely intent on killing him. In imitation of his Saviour, he did not fear to cast them out of the temple of the Saviour -- in this he followed his Saviour and leader, but such an eager soldier of the highest Ruler did not cast out money-changers and pigeon-sellers, but gladiators mad to kill him; apparently without fear, without hesitation, he set about casting them out. Therefore this encounter at such a moment should be admired, the rebuke should be admired, and the attempt to drive them out was admirable, for he did not fear to enrage those already burning to kill him. Without seeking a moment's grace, without asking for any favour, without asking for a delay, driven by priestly zeal and by the love of justice, he provoked rather than placated the wrath of those who were enraged against him. O powerful hand of a daring athlete, oh strength of the man, oh constancy of the martyr, oh purity of soul! Priest and sacrifice, he stood imperiously among the murderers, while they surrounded him with swords drawn. In their midst the priest fulfilled the office of priest; he did not try to calm the gladiators, nor did he humble himself, but (as I have already said) he argued with them and upbraided them.

Lo our intrepid Samson face-to-face with them; lo our Paul ready for debate; lo our christ of the Lord strong in driving them out.

Continued by Gervase, a monk of Canterbury who knew Becket.

While he was [thus] speaking, behold! the executioners having ransacked the bishop’s palace, rushed together through the cloisters; three of whom carried hatchets in their left bands, and one an axe or a two-edged glaive, while all of them brandished drawn swords in their right hands. But after they had rushed through the open door, they separated from each other, Fitz-Urse turning to the left, while the three others took to the right. The archbishop had already ascended a few steps, when Fitz-Urse, as he hurried onwards, asked one whom he met, “Where is the archbishop?” Hearing this, he turned round on the step, and, with a slight motion of the head, he was the first to answer, “Here am I, Reginald. I have conferred many a benefit on you, Reginald; and do you now come to me with arms in your hands?” “You shall soon find that out,” was the reply. “Are not you that notorious traitor to the king?” And, laying hold on his pall, he said, “Depart hence;” and he struck the pall with his sword. The archbishop replied, “I am no traitor; nor will I depart, wretched man!” and he plucked the fringe of his pall from out the knight’s hand. The other repeated the words, “Flee hence!” The reply was, “ I will not flee; here your malice shall be satisfied.” At these words the assassin stepped back, as if smitten by a blow. In the meantime the other three assailants had arrived; and they exclaimed, “ Now you shall die!” “ If,” said the archbishop, “you seek my life, I forbid you, under the threat of an anathema, from touching any one of my followers. As for me, I willingly embrace death, provided only that the church obtain liberty and peace at the price of my blood.” When he had said these words, he stretched forth his head to the blows of the murderers. Fitz-Urse hastened forward, and with his whole strength lie planted a blow upon the extended head; and he cried out, as if in triumph over his conquered enemy, “Strike! strike!” Goaded on by the author of confusion, these butchers, adding wound to wound, dashed out his brains; and one of them, following up the martyr, (who at this time was either in the act of falling, or had already fallen) struck the pavement with his sword but the point of the weapon broke off short. They now returned through the cloister, crying out, “Knights of the king, let us go; he is dead!” And then they pillaged whatever they found in the archbishop’s residence. See here a wonder. While he was yet alive, and could speak, and stand on his feet, men called him a traitor to the king; but when he was laid low, with his brains dashed out, he was called the holy Thomas, even before the breath had left his body.

This blessed martyr suffered death in the ninth year of his patriarchate, on the fourth of the calends of January [29th Dec.], being the third day of the week, A.D. 1170, while the monks were singing their vespers. His dead body was removed and placed in the shrine before the altar of Christ. On the morrow it was carried by the monks and deposited in a tomb of marble within the crypt. Now, to speak the truth - that which I saw with my eyes, and handled with my hands - he wore hair-cloth next his skin, then stamin, over that a black cowl, then the white cowl in which he was consecrated; he also wore his tunic and dalmatic, his chasuble, pall, and miter; Lower down, he had drawers of sack-cloth, and over these others of linen; his socks were of knitting wool, and he had on sandals. If any one (as he ought) desires to know more of this martyr, let him read those books or writers which I have mentioned above, namely, Herbert, John, William, Benedict, and Gervase: and let him not omit the letters of the same saint. Others there are who probably have written respecting him; but even if it be so, they cannot tell all that ought to be known about him.

After his martyrdom the church of Canterbury was vacant for two years and five months. That he is alive in Christ is proved by the miracles which are performed throughout the whole world.

Source: Public Domain - The Church Historians of England, volume V, part 1, pp. 329-336. Translated by Joseph Stevenson. London: Seeley’s, 1853.