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Monday, 21 March 2016

Edward Grim: a brave witness of Beckett's murder




Very little is known about Edward Grim, either before or after the event that is the reason why he is known about at all, but the document he left behind offered a perspective on that event that is well worth remembering.

The event in question was the murder of Thomas Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December 1170. This was one of the most traumatic moments in English medieval history, not only for the horrific nature of the event itself, but because it showed what could happen when the interests of Church and State collided, with the Church becoming the eventual winner mainly through the shocked reaction of the ordinary people of England. It was an early indication that the power of the monarch was not absolute, and can be seen as a precursor of 1215, when the king at that time (King John) was forced into signing the Magna Carta that placed a limit on his powers.

The story of the murder of Beckett is well known, with the quarrel between King Henry II and the Archbishop leading to the king’s exasperated cry of “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” and the response of four of his knights who promptly journeyed to Canterbury to act, as they saw it, as Henry’s “hitmen”.

Edward Grim was from Cambridge and a held a minor religious post that gave him the title of “clerk”. He may have been a student at a religious house that would have developed after his time to become one of the colleges of Cambridge University. On the day of the murder he happened to be visiting Canterbury and was in the Cathedral while the monks were singing Vespers (evening prayers).

The fact that there was bad blood between King Henry and Thomas Beckett was common knowledge, and all sorts of rumours were flying around Canterbury, including one that the Archbishop had already been killed. When Beckett entered the cathedral, some of the relieved monks stopped praying and rushed to greet him. They tried to persuade him to bar the doors of the cathedral, as protection against the attack that they now expected, but Becket would have none of it, maintaining that it was not seemly to turn a “house of prayer” into a fortress. However, the monks shepherded him away from where he could be seen easily, in an effort to hide him.

It is thanks to Edward Grim that the following events are well known today, because, of the five eye-witness accounts that have survived, his is the only one by someone who stayed with the Archbishop throughout his last moments. There are suspicions that some of the details have been embellished by later scribes, but the basic story stands up to scrutiny.

When the four armed knights strode into the cathedral the singing stopped and everyone stood still, looking on with horror.  The knights demanded to know where they could find Beckett, at which the Archbishop refused to stay hidden and stepped forward to meet the knights. They demanded that he absolve those people whom he had excommunicated, but he refused to do so. They then declared that they would kill him where he stood.

Beckett called on the knights to spare the lives of his supporters, but they, apart from Edward Grim, were soon well out of harm’s way. At first the knights attempted to drag Beckett away, so that they would not spill any blood within the cathedral walls, but Beckett held fast to a pillar in the north transept and made it impossible for the knights to do what they wanted.

The first sword blow cut off the top of Beckett’s head and also cut the arm of Edward Grim, who was trying to protect Beckett by throwing his arms around him. Another blow injured Grim’s arm so severely that he was forced to let go, after which he could only watch as further blows rained down on Beckett.

The final blow was struck by a knight who placed his foot on Beckett’s neck as he lay on the floor and smashed his head open so that his brains were scattered across the flagstones. It was all very gruesome, and Grim’s account spared his readers none of the details.

As mentioned above, there are doubts as to how much of the account was original to Edward Grim and how much was added later. For example, he was apparently careful to note that exactly five blows hit Thomas Beckett, the significance of this being that Christ had suffered five wounds on the Cross (nails to hands and feet and a lance in the side). However, it is entirely possible that medieval attention to symbolism may have prevailed over the recorded details.

Be that as it may, there is little doubt that Edward Grim did display remarkable bravery and must have had every expectation that he would die alongside the Archbishop, whom he did not know personally. As it was, his arm was very nearly severed and he would have suffered the consequences of that injury for the rest of his life. He deserves to be remembered for that fact alone, as well as for the eyewitness account that he passed down to later generations.

© John Welford