Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post by E.M. Powell, Author of The Canterbury Murders (A Stanton and Barling Mystery Book 3)

13 January 2021

Special Guest Post by E.M. Powell, Author of The Canterbury Murders (A Stanton and Barling Mystery Book 3)

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Easter, 1177. Canterbury Cathedral, home to the tomb of martyr Saint Thomas Becket, bears the wounds of a terrible fire. Benedict, prior of the great church, leads its rebuilding. But horror interrupts the work. One of the stonemasons is found viciously murdered, the dead man’s face disfigured by a shocking wound.

There has been a cathedral in Canterbury for more than 1,400 years. Saint Augustine consecrated the first cathedral there not long after his arrival in the year 597. There is no trace of the original building, as a fire in 1067 destroyed it and it had to be completely rebuilt. 

Archbishop Lanfranc oversaw much of the construction, but it was his successor, Archbishop – and later Saint – Anselm, who built the ‘glorious quire’ and the enormous crypt. That choir was destroyed by fire but the atmospheric crypt is still intact. 

Canterbury Cathedral (Wikimedia Commons)

The cathedral’s most famous archbishop is another saint: Thomas Becket, who was murdered there on 29 December 1170. He was slain by four knights acting on one of King Henry II’s legendary outburst of temper. Readers of my Fifth Knight series will know that I took this event and added a fictional extra man to the group.

The knights’ original intention may have been to arrest Becket, who had been engaged in a monumental power struggle with the King for several years. But the situation quickly deteriorated, and Becket was hacked to death on one of the altars. The Martyrdom is still maintained in the cathedral and one can stand at the very spot. 

Becket's body lay cooling where it fell as the traumatized cathedral monks tried to regroup. Over the next few hours, people converged on the cathedral in horrified disbelief. Those who came dipped their fingers in the blood of their martyred Archbishop, daubed their clothes with it and collected as much as they could. 

Terror still filled the air, with rumours flying around that the murderers were coming back to take the body, or to slay others. It was feared that the knights would defame Becket’s corpse, and pull it across the city behind a horse, or display it on a gibbet. This could not be countenanced. The monks decided to bury Becket in the crypt as quickly as possible.

The miracles began that very night. A man who dipped part of his shirt into Becket's blood went home to his paralysed wife. As he wept in his telling of the murder, she asked to be washed in water containing some of the blood. She was cured immediately. Word quickly spread and the devotion to Becket the Martyr began, with his tomb becoming a major site for pilgrimage. An astonishing 100,000 people came to pray and visit Canterbury Cathedral in 1171 alone. He was canonised in 1173.

Pilgrimage is of course still done today by millions of people of different faiths across the globe. Every individual will have their own personal reason for embarking on one. For medieval people, going on pilgrimage could be done to show piety or to carry out a penance. The less virtuous went for the rich pickings that could be had or to have a really exciting holiday. 

The hope of a cure of mental or physical illness brought people to shrines in their droves. The reports of so many miracles must have given many great hope and comfort, even if they did not get their cure. People also travelled to shrines to give thanks for prayers answered. Pilgrim badges were a common, cheap souvenir of a trip to a shrine, worn either on one’s person, clothing or pilgrim staff. 

While medieval people sought aid from the saints for illness and disability, they also looked to medical practitioners. The twelfth century had a remarkable selection from which people could choose, from expensive physicians and surgeons to cheaper barber-surgeons and midwives. 

Herbalists were also much in demand. But, overall, the twelfth century medical profession was not viewed as a specialism. Practitioners engaged in a wide variety of medical interventions as well as a number of other trades. It was not unusual to find a doctor who was a bailiff, an ale-taster who specialised in fixing people’s bad feet or a practitioner who would treat dogs as well as people. 

A further group who could offer help from afflictions were the exorcists. There was a widely held belief that illness could be caused by demonic possession. Exorcism, the casting out of devils, was practiced by clergy at all levels. Lay people also performed these rites. Herbs could cure demonic possession too. The important aspect of exorcism was that it was the saints who were invoked. 

Necromancy was its sinful cousin. Demonic magic was a perversion of religion, practised it was believed by those who had turned away from God and instead to the devil. It was, like seances and other more recent rituals that claim to summon the dead, or invoke demons or the devil, a sham. 

The conjurations relied heavily on props, sleight of hand and illusions to convince an audience and to make them part with their money. The realisation of fraud is not a modern one. John of Salisbury, secretary to Thomas Becket, wrote in 1154 of the belief in evil nocturnal assemblies ‘only poor old women and the simpleminded kinds of men who enter into these beliefs.’

E.M. Powell 

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About the Author

E.M. Powell’s historical thriller Fifth Knight novels have been #1 Amazon and Bild bestsellers. She is a contributing editor to International Thriller Writers’ The Big Thrill magazine, blogs for English Historical Fiction Authors and is the social media manager for the Historical Novel Society. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she now lives in North-West England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. Find out more by visiting You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter @empowellauthor

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