William de Tracy

William de Tracy

Sir William de Tracy, Knt., (died c1189) was Lord of the Manor of Toddington, Gloucestershire, feudal Baron of Bradninch, near Exeter, and Lord of Moretonhampstead, Devon. [ Sudeley, Lord, "Becket's Murderer William de Tracy", in "The Sudeleys - Lords of Toddington", London, 1987, pps:77-8, 82, 88, ISBN 0261-1368 ] He is notorious as one of the four knights who assassinated the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket in December 1170.


William de Tracy's parentage is unclear, but he appears in a charter of his older brother Ralph de Sudeley (d. 1192) assigning the manor of Yanworth, near Cirencester, to the monks of Gloucester Abbey. Two of the witnesses to that charter lived on property owned by the Normandy branch of the de Tracys, and two of the English witnesses witnessed a previous charter for Henry de Tracy to Barnstaple Priory in 1146. In 1166 William held one feu of his brother, Ralph. [ Sudeley, Lord (1987)p.76-8, and opposite p.100 ]

William de Tracy made charitable benefactions in France, building and endowing a house for lepers at a place called Coismas. In addition he made gifts to the Priory of St. Stephen, Plessis-Grimoult, lands possessed by the family before all finally came to England. [ Sudeley, Lord (1987) p.78]


Tracy was one of the four knights who, at the behest of King Henry II murdered Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury and who afterwards invaded the Archibishop's Palace plundering Papal Bulls and Charters, gold, silver, vestments, books, and utensils employed for the services of the church. [ Sudeley, Lord (1987) p.82]

The following is a late 19th century account of the murder of Thomas Beckett:

Sir William de Tracy was one of three knights who at the instigation of Henry II assassinated Thomas a Becket.... [T] he four conspirators, Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Moreville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Brey, entered the cathedral....The three knights...struggled violently to put him on Tracy’s shoulders.....In the scuffle Becket fastened upon Tracy’s shoulders, shook him by his coat of mail, and, exerting his strength, flung him down on the pavement....Fitzurse, glowing with rage...wav [ed] the sword over his head, cried, “Strike! strike!” but merely dashed off his cap....Meanwhile Tracy, who since his fall had thrown of [f] his haubeck to move more easily, sprang forward and struck a more decided blow. Grim, the monk, who up to this moment, had his arm around Becket, threw it up, wrapped in a cloak, to intercept the blade, Becket exclaiming, “Spare the defence !” The sword lighted on the arm of the monk, which fell wounded or broken, and he fled, disabled....The next blow, whether struck by Tracy or Fitzurse, was only with the flat of the sword, and again on the bleeding head, which Becket drew back as if stunned, and then raised his clasped hands above it.... [H] e said, “Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” At the third blow, which was also from Tracy, he sank on his knees, his arms falling, but his hands still joined as if in prayer.In this posture, he received from Richard Breton, a tremendous blow...aimed with such violence that the scalp or crown of the head, which it was remarked was of unusual size, was severed from the skull, and the sword snapped in two on the marble pavement....This story differs from those of the several writers of English history, insomuch, that Tracy simply put his hand on him, and arrested him in the name of the king, but did not strike him; but he was killed by Fitzurse. [ Tracy, N.B., "Historical Address before the Fourth Annual Reunion of the Tracy Family at Gouldsboro, ME", August 19, 1899, published 1900.]

Henry failed to arrest the knights, advising them to flee to Scotland, and it is clear also that whilst he had an escheat of their properties for a short while, they nevertheless retained them. They stayed only a short while in Scotland, returning to the castle of Knaresborough in Yorkshire [ Sudeley, Lord (1987) p.82-3 ] the possession of Hugh de Morville one of the assassins.


It is known that Hugh de Morville, Richard de Brito, and William de Tracy built a church at Alkborough, near Scunthorpe in South Humberside, where, until 1690, an inscribed stone on the chancel recorded the benefaction.

The name of the town of Bovey Tracey is derived from the river Bovey which passes through the town, and from the 'de Tracey' family - from Traci near Bayeux - who settled in the area after the Norman Conquest of 1066. Sir William rebuilt the town's church of St Peter, Paul and Thomas after 1170 as part of his penance for his part in the Archbishop's murder. In addition he added a tower, chancel, and porch to the church of Lapford, Devon, which was dedicated to Becket, and, according to local tradition, founded a church nearby at Nymet Tracey in penance. [Arthur Mee, "The King's England, Devon: Cradle of our Seamen"]

Excommunication and exile

The benefactions failed to impress Pope Alexander III and he excommunicated Tracy and the other murderers on Maundy Thursday, March 25, 1171.

Tracy set out for Rome after the end of September (but before Henry II's expedition to Ireland in October) when he made appearances in the Shire Court of Oxford, attesting a quitclaim relating to land of Winchcombe Abbey at Gagingwell, near Enstone, north of Oxford. In addition, Tracy was present when the charter recording the transaction was offered up on the High Altar at Winchcombe Abbey. Scutage was paid on Tracy's lands that year. [ Sudeley, Lord (1987) p.85 ]

The departure of the other knights to Rome was delayed until two of them, FitzUrse and de Morville, had taken part in the great rebellion against the King of 1173-4. The Archbishop's murderers gained their audience with the Pope and who, despite their penitance, declared they should be exiled and fight for a number of years "in knightly arms in The Temple for 14 years" in Jerusalem, and after the given time return to Rome. [ Sudeley, Lord (1987) pps:87-8 ]

Death and burial

There is speculation as to what happened next. Herbert of Bosham says that de Tracy did not reach the Holy Land but died as early as 1174 of leprosy at Cosenza in southern Italy. After much examination the present Lord Sudeley dismissed this story as Herbert wishing to give Tracy a sensational end. Tracey's journey east is confirmed by Romwald, Archbishop of Salerno and Roger Hovenden, who says the Pope instructed the knights, once their duties were fulfilled, to visit the Holy Places barefoot and in hairshirts and then to live alone for the rest of their lives on the Black Mountain near Antioch, spending all their time there in vigils, prayers, and lamentations. It is thought that de Tracy retired to a hermitage there. Roger Hovenden continues that after their death the bodies of the knights were buried at Jerusalem before the door of The Temple. But this does not conform to the tradition that the murderers were buried under the portico in front of the Aqsa mosque, which was the refectory of the Knights Templars. [ Sudeley, Lord (1987) p.90-91 ]

Another tradition is that the bodies of the knights were returned to the island of Brean Down, off the coast of Weston-super-Mare and buried there.

There is a tomb in Mortehoe Church, near Ilfracombe in Devon which carries an inscription to Sir William de Tracey. The upper slab of black or dark grey marble, has incised in it the figure of a priest in full vestments, with a chalice on his breast. The inscription is much defaced, Risdon says:—

"On whose mangled monument I found this fragment of a French inscription, in this ancient character 'Syree Williame de Trace-Il enat eeys-Meercy'."
On the north side of the tomb are three shields; the first, with three lions passant, in pale for Camvill; the second, two bars (Martyn); and the third, a saltire, charged with three plates. On the same side, beneath plain canopies, are effigies representing St. Catherine with her wheel, and St. Mary Magdalene, with long flowing hair. The south side of the tomb is divided into seven compartments, filled with Early Decorated tracery; the Crucifixion forms the subject of the carving at the west end of the tomb. [ "Transactions of the Exeter Diocesan Architectural Society", vol. 6, p. 188 ] . Lord Sudeley insists this is the tomb of William de Tracy who endowed a chantry at Mortehoe in 1307/8 and died in 1322. The priest is described as 'Sir' because this was an oft-used prefix for priests in mediævel times. [ Sudeley, Lord (1987) p.91]


In 1969 the Master of the Rolls presented Lord Sudeley to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother as a descendant of de Tracy.


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