Thomas Becket: Duston & Northampton - The Honeymoon Years
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald of Bec, had been in a powerful position after King Stephen’s death, and was anxious to establish his protégée, Thomas of London, in Henry II’s court. After the new king’s coronation, on 19 December 1154, just two days prior to Thomas’ 36th birthday, Thomas, clerk, deacon, recently promoted archdeacon, already wealthy, well versed in the ways of the nobility, the chase, and soldiering, was accompanying Theobald and the Court.
The entourage left Westminster, via Bermondsey, Oxford, travelling north to Northampton, one of the regional seats of government with its magnificent castle, founded by Simon de Senlis 1, in 1084. In the wintry conditions, travelling through the deer forests around Silverstone, which in a few months time would be a carpet of bluebells, the royal party would keep to the high ground, crossing the Watling Street north of Towcester, with its floods, mists, and marshes to use the old Roman road via Tiffield, making for the Duston fords, or the bridge at Kislingbury. Since it was December, it was likely that the notorious river valleys of the river Nene at Northampton, so benign in summer, would be impassable. The western and southern flood plans, being floored with millions of tonnes of gravel, could flood suddenly, as the unseen water could rise up through the gravel bed with little warning. If the northern flood plain, clay based, was also in spate, then any bridge in the valley could soon be swept away, as many would be in later centuries. The river's tendency to change course, and the lengths of bridge needed, would result in cheap structures, or fords across the flood plains. The only bridges of any age, today, are at Kislingbury or, on the northern arm, the Brampton Causeway, both several miles from Northampton.
Reports reached the royal party, as they waited at the old meeting field at Tiffield, that access was indeed difficult. Even the new south bridge across Marsh Island, built by the de Senlis family in 1110, was doubtful, so Kislingbury it would be. Crossing without too much trouble, the large group proceeded along the north bank of the Nene, along the Salt road via Upton with its newly built stone church, whitewashed, shining in the winter sunshine. Thomas could make out the consecration roundels and crosses painted on the outer walls, and the small group of people bowing to the royal party, some even on their knees, and clearly praying. He wondered what Henry was thinking, the journey had been quite revealing. Some places were in celebratory mood, some were clearly anxious, even frightened, one or two were silent, and at one place Theobald was greeted as though he was the ruler, much to his embarrassment. Henry thought it a huge joke and made fun of the incident, at the archbishop's expense.
However, to avoid too many tales of old Cluny, Henry had long ago decided
to avoid the nuns at De La Pre, and the old pal's act at St. Andrew's priory.
Since, not only did Theobald become a monk at Cluny, he was also Benedictine,
so St. James’ it would be regardless of the weather! Henry was thinking,
in fact, how he was looking forward to entering Northampton through its
famous western, and main, gate as king, through walls wide enough to allow
four men to walk abreast, and encompassing an area as large as York. He
also had a message for the Abbot of St. James’, that next time the
Abbot paid the annual £1 for the lands at Duston to Lenton Abbey,
that William Peverel was now persona non grata, and better not be at Nottingham
Castle when he arrived.
On they went, past the Roman town diggings, where the trenches and spoil heaps were evidence of stone retrieval for re-use. Alongside, on the 40-acre site given by William Peverel 1 in 1105, Augustinian monks, and their workmen were constructing the Abbey of St. James’. Everywhere, there was feverish activity, but it would be another 19 years before the great abbey church of St. James’ would be completed. Here the royal party rested, being fed by the monks, while their animals would be refreshed by spring water channelled down from St. James’ spring or Abbey spring, higher up in Duston manor. While their retainers sorted out the baggage train, Henry II, Theobald, and Thomas, examined building progress, and shared a joke about the labourer’s seasonal diet, principally obtained from the great salmon river below the abbey, the Nene. At last, the main royal party left for the grand new castle, a kilometre away across the northern flood plain, leaving the bulk of their retinue and animals to be cared for at the abbey until needed again. So it was at Christmas 1154, surrounded by pomp and splendour that Thomas of London arrived at Northampton Castle.
At Northampton, Thomas would get to know Henry well, become his mentor, confidante, favourite, and his chancellor. Here the pair would hunt in one of the vast deer forests that surrounded Northampton, one of Henry’s favourite pastimes, leaving by one of the several gates through the walls, that encompassed the enlarged town, now one of the biggest in all England. Perhaps, out past St. Giles’ church, one of the nine churches either new or rebuilt, prior to 1130. He would attend services at the castle church of St. Peter, rebuilt in 1123 by Simon de Senlis II, a previous Earl of Northampton, one of the family of wardens that had held the castle. At other times, out over the new south bridge, built by the de Senlis family in 1110, to provide access to the far cottages, to St. Leonard’s hospital, to which Henry granted a Charter of Protection. There would be journeys to London, and on returning via the old London road, Henry or Thomas may well have quenched their thirst at the spring outside the town walls, before crossing the town ditch and entering through Derngate. Being fun-loving, the two would certainly have attended the Church of The Holy Sepulchre, the round church, not far from the castle, not just to attend services, but to listen to the old crusaders tell their tales of life and times in the Holy Land. (Coming events casting their shadow, for Henry’s son Richard would be granting Northampton a charter to pay for his own crusade later in the 12th century). Or out of the town’s main gate, by the castle, and west, up the Roman road through Duston manor, passing St.Margaret’s chapel, St. James’ abbey, and the little whitewashed church of St. Luke, out and up the Nobottle road, to cross the Watling Street towards Winchcombe, at the head of Henry’s army, using the extensive network of Roman roads and byways that still provided the main thoroughfares of late Anglo-Saxon and Norman England, not yet spoiled by the later boundary walls of vast estates, or heavy traffic, in January 1155, having been made chancellor. By the end of the year, Henry would be in control, and the last male Peverel would be in a monastery. So the happy times continued for the pair in scenes such as these repeated up and down the country, as the court moved about from town to town, for the next seven years, until that fateful day in 1162, when Henry made Thomas of London the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Separation at Northampton
Some time in October 1163 (following unresolved disputes at the council of Westminster on 1 October 1163) Henry summoned Thomas to meet him at Northampton. Thomas duly obliged with a large train of followers, which took Henry by surprise. Henry refused Thomas admission to the town on the grounds that his own followers filled it, and that there was insufficient room for both their parties. Thomas then turned aside, with his entourage into a nearby meadow. Since Thomas and his group were coming from the south rather than the west, as before, one probable route would have been via Watling Street, Newport Pagnell, Hardingstone ‘Nunn Mills Road’ aiming to enter ‘Derngate’ (as the last two are named today). The other option, into Bridge Street, seems unlikely given the length of the bridges across the various arms of the Nene, across Marsh Island and the flood plain with such a large party.
Therefore ‘the meadow’ may well have been ‘Beckets Park’ as it is called today, close by Derngate and of course Beckets Well. Henry rode out to meet Becket and the two had a lengthy debate in the open, but could not reconcile their differences. Finally they separated with Henry returning to town while Becket and his party would have resumed their progress, circling the town walls to the east and north, before being accommodated at St Andrew's Abbey, a Cluniac/Benedictine Monastery. Eventually Thomas left Northampton for a second time.
Divorce at Northampton
On Tuesday 6 October 1164, Henry II summoned a great council of the realm at Northampton, directing the sheriff of Kent to summon Thomas to attend. Henry, for his part, enjoying his own journey by ‘hawking along every river and stream’. No doubt in the forests surrounding Northampton, although anywhere would do for the ‘forest law’ now covered almost one third of England, reaching its greatest extent under Henry’s rule.
On Wednesday 7 October 1164 Thomas waited on the king in the antechamber of the castle chapel, to meet Henry, following mass. Thomas, during the conversation, asked that some of the king’s supporters vacate their quarters at the Cluniac Monastery of St Andrews, to make way for his own entourage, and this was agreed.
The council began on Thursday on the lower floor of the two-storied great hall of Northampton castle and continued through Friday. By Saturday and into Sunday Thomas discussed with his bishops the charges made, the accusations, what his position was and the various possible conclusions. That night he fell ill with a kidney stone and was ill throughout the Monday recovering by Tuesday 13 October 1164, on what would be the final day of the council. Thomas said mass in a nearby church. This is presumed not to be the ‘Palace Chapel’ in the castle while St Andrews Abbey church was some distance away (if built by 1164). Since the phrase ‘Thomas entered the church’ does not include ‘chapel’ or ‘abbey’ the probability is that the church referred to is St Peter's close by the castle. The subject of the mass used at St Peter's was ‘the mass of the first martyr, St Stephen’. Then a further day of the trial continued but finally Thomas and some of his supporters left on horses tethered near the bailey gate. Outside, the Northampton townsfolk gave Thomas a rousing and enthusiastic reception, for he was a famous and popular figure. Even now, at this fearful time for him, he gave orders that the motley crowd that followed him were to be fed, once Thomas and his party had arrived back at St Andrew’s monastery.
That night Thomas and three companions rode north via Grantham and reached Lincoln the following morning (Northampton was part of the Lincoln diocese at that time), a journey, at night, in the rain of some 70 miles. Eventually Thomas, set sail, on All Souls day 2 November 1164, from Sandwich, and made landfall on the beach near Gravelines, Flanders, and went into exile. He had left Northampton for the third and last time.
Born at Cheapside London on 21 December 1118.
Mother was Matilda from Rouen (Norman immigrants),
Father was Gilbert from Thierceville (merchants).
Thomas became Archbishop of Canterbury 23 May 1162, ordained Saturday 2 June 1162, and consecrated 3 June 1162. The first Sunday after Whit Sunday and promptly declares it to be Trinity Sunday, a new festival in the Christian calendar.
Surnames did not exist as such, and free villagers would not have had rights to those developing among the upper classes. Gilbert presumably would have been known as Gilbert ‘The Merchant’ while Thomas gathered a multitude of identities as he progressed in life. Thomas ‘Of London’, Thomas ‘The English’ (when in Paris), Thomas ‘The Clerk’, Thomas ‘The Deacon’, Thomas ‘The Archdeacon’, Thomas ‘The Chancellor, Thomas ‘The Archbishop’, and, finally, Thomas of Canterbury.
Theobald his predecessor as Archbishop came from Thierceville, as did Thomas’ father which probably accounts for Thomas initial employment as clerk by Theobald.
Theobald ‘Of Bec’ or Theobald ‘The Monk’ gets his names because Theobald took holy orders as ‘a monk’ at the abbey at Cluny, and was later Abbot ‘Of Bec’.
Becket translates into ‘Little Stream’ and there may be a play on words here. One of the many legends connected with Thomas, is that he fell into a millstream and miraculously survived. As a researcher I have come across three different versions so far.
- As a child he fell into a millstream, the miller hearing his cries miraculously saves him.
- Out hawking, his hawk dives into a mill leat and Thomas saves him ‘miraculously’.
- Crossing a narrow plank bridge on his horse on a frosty morning, his horse slips, Thomas is thrown into the millstream, but is miraculously saved.
No doubt there are other versions. Even a claimed mill for the event is recorded, Thundridge near Ware, Hertfordshire (possibly Wade's mill on the A10 [Ermine Street], however Duston at this time sported three watermills, so Thundridge may have had others in the 12th century). Whatever the truth in this, Thomas became forever associated with water, following his beatification and canonisation. Often his hospitals would be built on bridges over water as at Canterbury and Northampton. Bridges, and wells would also be so named.
During one of Thomas’ and Henry’s heated discussions at Northampton, Henry points out that Thomas is merely the 'son of one of my villeins'. I find difficulty in accepting that the surname Becket could have belonged to his father Gilbert, from Thierceville, at this early time, and passed to his son.
- ‘Forest Law’ a technical term covering the rules applying to ‘Forest’ in feudal times. (Forest does not mean woodland or jungle).
- The 12th century landscape of Northampton dictated three entry points from the south, the main west gate, the old southern approach (Derngate), and the new Bridge Street gate. Visitors from the west were accommodated at St James abbey in Duston. Visitors arriving from most other directions were accommodated at St Andrew's abbey. This was a normal procedure for highly placed personages, unless staying in the castle at the invitation of the monarch, or the earl of Northampton in his absence.
Meadow is a technical term and is to be found in early nursery rhymes such as ‘Little boy blue come blow up your horn the sheep in the meadow, the cows in the corn’. Meadow was generally flood meadow, which grew rich grass in spring to be cut as hay. The last thing wanted was sheep in it, which grazed short (nor did you want cows eating the corn). Later the meadow would dry out and be grazed in late summer, early autumn. The horn was blown to alert the Hayward to come, round up the errant beasts and place them in the local pound, fining the owners on collection.
At Northampton ‘Cow Meadow’ was between St Thomas hospital and Becket’s well and thus the most likely meadow used by Becket’s party in October 1163 when refused entry to the town. Given the high ground close to Northampton, with ‘the meadows’ in the flood plain it would have been the place for Henry to ride out and meet Thomas, just outside the town walls.
Simon De Senlis (1) died c1113. His widow married David Earl of Northumbria and by this marriage, became Earl of Huntingdon, and held Earl of Northampton title for a time, as guardian of Simon De Senlis (2) (See St Margaret of Scotland). The De Senlis trio, all Simons, founded the priory of St Andrew as a dependency of the Abbey of St Mary De Caritate on the Loire. Built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (1100 – 1108), the town walls, the new south bridge (c1110) rebuilt St Peters Church (c1123 onwards) and endowed St Andrew's Priory with all nine churches within, and without the town walls. By this move, St Michael's Church at Upton (as a satellite of St Peter’s) had a direct connection with the Abbey and Northampton, (as did the church at Kingsthorpe, also a satellite). The De Senlis line died out 1185. Similarly the Peverel family trio, all Williams, founded Lenton Abbey at Nottingham, St James’ Abbey at Duston and endowed St James’ Abbey with St Luke’s church, many other churches and water mills. (See William Peverel on this site.)
St Andrew’s Abbey - Conjectural
Probably started life inside the town walls, in the northwest corner of the Norman town, just north of the castle, but then is claimed to have occupied a new site outside the town walls, but in a similar position. This suggests an expansion rather than a move incorporating the Norman town wall line, but expanding northwards. Probably the new north boundary wall fronting onto Mill Lane, Mill Road, with a boundary wall somewhere in the region of today Hampton Street /Uppingham Street, placing the abbey buildings around lower and upper Priory Street. The abbey site may have covered an extensive site, (St James’ Abbey had 40 acres). The boundary outline may have been St George’s Street, Hampton Street, St Andrew’s Road (south), perhaps as far as Scarletwell Street, with an eastern boundary of Grafton Street, Little Cross Street, Crispin Street, and Harding Street, thus crossing the Norman town walls, at this section.
This may go some way to explaining the discrepancies over the town wall line, and whether Thomas Becket needed to flee through the north gate, or was ,in fact effectively outside the town walls, once inside St Andrews Priory Grounds.
The meaning of words used in this article, and their historical construction.
Kislingbury. The hard K is Scandinavian from the Danelaw period but the derivative is ceseling berie in 1086 breaking down to:
- cisel, ceosol (OE) – gravel shingle
- ing – a place belonging to
- bury burh/byrig (OE) fortified place, stronghold. Thus the fortified place belonging to the dwellers on the gravel.
Probably transposed from the Duston Roman town earthworks, from which the original Anglo-Saxons came, to establish Kislingbury.
Derngate. Derne, dierne (OE) hidden, overgrown with vegetation and gata (O. scard from the Danelaw period) road, street. Thus Derngate, the hidden street. Derngate is sunken several feet below the natural soil level outside the town gate; on the old road (pre Norman) leading to the river and across to London.
River Nene. There are few examples of places beginning with nen or nan probably because its derivative could be grand, great or famous in the middle English (nan) or Celtic – nan- valley, or nana, nanna (I) – a protective nurse from which derives nanny, nan – grand mother. The writer likes the idea of great mother river which would fit, since it was navigable to Duston in Roman times, to Chapel Brampton in Viking times ,and afforded entry to middle England with access to the north Welland valley, south Thames valley and, critically, gave access to the Bristol Avon to the west. With its flints in the gravel, salmon runs, vegetation, wildlife and access via the wash, it would have been extremely important to early peoples. The pronunciation nen at Northampton, neen, lower down suggests a dialect problem, so nan or nen could be interchangeable. However the word nene cannot be etymologically proved.
OE Old English
I Indian Languages
The writer would like to thank Nottingham Library Service, the library inter-loans system, the English Places Names Society, the Northants Record Office, Ordnance Survey, Northants Archaeology Unit, Northants Archaeological Society, various local history colleagues, and finally Tony Allen, for their unstinting assistance and help with this article.
- This article draws heavily on ‘Thomas Becket’ by Richard Winston, Constable, London 1967. Richard Winston quotes an extensive bibliography.
- Additional material has been sourced from Fred Golby’s Duston History Series 1991 and 1992.
- Derek Buchanan ‘Northampton The 1st 8000 Years’ volume 1 1990.
- Doomsday Book to Magna Carta 1087 to 1216 Austin Lane Poole, Oxford Clarendon Press 1951.
- Wetton’s Guide to Northampton Edward Pretty C1847/49 reprinted 1969.
- The Kwik Fit site Bridge Street/Victoria Promenade Northampton SP754600 Dr Thomas C Welsh 31/10/1969 (unpublished).
- Northampton St Thomas Hospital and Sir John Langhams Almshouses Bridge Street Northampton. David Blackburn August 2000 (unpublished).
- Henry II of England Wikipedia the free encyclopaedia pages 1 to 7.
- British History on line. Victoria County History/Hospitals St Thomas Northampton.
- Thomas Becket Circa 1120 to 1170 Archbishop – Saint – Martyr. See www.Canterbury.co.uk.
- Becket sought refuge in Pontigny Abbey c1164-1170. See Wikipedia: Pontigny_Abbey.
- Local Heritage Initiative Northampton Castle and the Boroughs. See www.lhi.org.uk .
- Google maps Thundridge Ware Herts SG12. See http://maps.google.co.uk.
- Local studies collection
- Northampton library Dryden collection microfiche reel 18 frames 35 onwards
- Northampton Arch. Society report 1841/2
Article written and kindly donated by local historian Dave Blackburn. © David Blackburn 2007