Svend Estridsen. Wikipedia/ John Lee

The Story of Henry II and Thomas Becket – Retold as a Moral Exemplum by Saxo Grammaticus

The story by Saxo of a murder, prompted by the Danish King, Sven Estridsen, in the Cathedral in Roskilde ca. 1160, echoes the events a hundred years later, when Henry II had Thomas Becket murdered

Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1160 – c. 1208) wrote one of the great chronicles of the twelfth century, the Gesta Danorum. He was a scion of one of the ruling clans, who seem to have lived out his life as a clerk in the service of Absalon, who – following upon Eskil – was elected as Archbishop of Denmark in the second half of the 12th century, during the reign of Valdemar I and his son Cnut VI. Saxo’s work is a contemporary but also biased comment upon the life and times of the 12th-century rulers with whom he must have been quite familiar. As is customary, his stories reach back into the murky fables of the earliest rulers. Read carefully, though, many of the earlier histories may be read as commentaries to contemporary events. One of the more fascinating stories is about Sven Estridsen (c. 1019 – 1074), which Saxo uses as a prism to comment upon the events in Canterbury in 1170 when four knights murdered Thomas Becket in front of the altar; a story, which was apparently not played out to the satisfaction of the governing idea in Denmark of how the conflict should have been handled. At least, this is how it spells out in the rewriting of events by Saxo, who uses the story to write a theological treatise on the proper way for the church to handle wayward kings. What it takes, apparently, is steadfast courage and righteousness. Could the murder have been avoided in Canterbury? It appears, this outcome was debated among the Danish elite in the years following 1170. The text may profitably be compared to the fourteen different vitae of Thomas Becket, which circulated in Europe in the early years after 1170. Which one Saxo knew, we cannot know.

The story reads:

Valdemar the Great. From the Petri Portal at Schlewig Cathedral. Source: wikipedia
Valdemar the Great. From the Petri Portal at Schlewig Cathedral. Source: wikipedia

At the beginning of the rule of Sven [Estridssøn], bishop Aveke of Roskilde died. He was followed by Vilhelm, a former clerk and priest employed in the chancellery of Cnut the Old [Great]. Although he was English, he was perfectly educated and with full knowledge about how to fulfil the duties of a bishop…

The following event is the most beautiful witness to the Bishop’s willpower and the humility of the King. Once, the King celebrated the circumcision of Jesus by throwing a party for his men. During the feast, he heard some of the men growling against him and voicing their opinion of him less respectfully. The King presumed they had happened in their drunken madness to reveal a secret rebellion against him, and in a rage, he sent some of his people to kill these men in the morning, when they would enter the Church of the Holy Trinity [the Cathedral in Roskilde] to pray – as if this sacrosanct house was an especially well-chosen place to murder somebody. Not only did the King sin against his guests, but he also added the sacrilege to the crime and transformed the sacred abode for piety to a workbench of cruelty, without the slightest regard to the place nor time.

Naturally, the bishop was shocked by this violation of the church, but at first, he kept a stone-face: e received the tidings without revealing his indignation in front of his people. Instead, he waited for an appropriate time to take his revenge. It came, when he in his capacity as bishop was to celebrate mass: not only did he not greet the King at the door to receive him in a dignified manner; no, when Sven was about to enter the church, he was stopped at the entrance by the bishop dressed in full church robe, and without regarding their friendship he blocked the way for the King by his crozier. He declared him unworthy to enter the House of God, which sacrosanct character he had defiled with the blood of his people, which was a gross and disgraceful breach of the peace. The bishop now abolished the use of the King’s title and called him not a king but a human butcher. Further, he did not settle for chastising the guilty; he also placed the end of his crozier against his breast and taught the King’s hardened mind to repent the murders he had ordered.

Vilhelm placed the respect for the Catholic church above his private friendship, as he was perfectly aware of the difference between what you owe your friends and what you have to do as a priest to punish misdeeds, whether they are committed by slaves, lords, free or serfs. Furthermore, even though the expulsion might have sufficed, he excommunicated the King, and he was not afraid to proclaim the sentence face-up. After this surprising show of contempt for death, we cannot tell which hit the King the hardest: the hand or the words, when he was forced to his knees by such violent allegations. While first punishing him with words, and secondly with his right hand, the Bishop was able to attack the evil spirit in a heart where beforehand he had cultivated the good…

When – following this – a group of knights attacked him, he was able to preserve his calm while ignoring the swords they held to his neck. He showed the same greatness now when he was confronting danger, as he had when he was provoking it… the King now intervened and prevented his death. He now acknowledged that it was not a moment’s excitement, but rather a confidence in the need to uphold justice in public, which had driven Vilhelm; [with this in mind] the King was overwhelmed by shame and bad conscience, and that which plagued him the most was shame over his crime, and not so much the act of shunning. He immediately returned to the royal hall, where he – after the humiliating reprimand –proceeded more cautiously: now, with no objection, he listened to the same critical yet dignified words.

The King then exchanged his royal outfit for an old, worn garment: now he wanted to testify to his sorrow with an ugly dress rather than show pride through magnificence. Thus, the grim verdict had shaken him to his core that he no longer could abide by his royal splendour but threw all the dignified symbols aside to dress in the garb of a penitent. Yes, while laying his costume away, he set his power aside, and the blasphemous tyrant ended up as a man who keeps faith. Now, he walked barefoot to the square in front of the church, where he threw himself down, humbly kissing the ground, while letting reverence and self-effacement censure the sorrow, which is overwhelming when caused by mortification…

Saxo Grammaticus, Book 11, ch. 1-9. Translation: Karen Schousboe

Featured Photo:

Sven Estridsen was buried in Roskilde Cathedral. His face has been reconstructed. Wikipedia/John Lee


The Lives of St Thomas Becket and Early Scandinavian Literature
By: Haki Antonsen
In: Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni  (2015) Vol. 81 No 2, pp. 394-413