Friday, December 29, 2006

December 29

On this date in 1170, Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Moreville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton -- four knights in the service of the English crown -- slew Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, inside the walls of Canterbury Cathedral. Becket was martyred in retaliation for his near decade-long efforts to insulate the Church from all forms of secular authority. His increasingly dangerous personal confrontation with Henry II -- an old friend and drinking companion from his less pious days as a courtier -- led to Becket's flight from England in 1164, only two years after his appointment as archbishop. Henry and Becket were at odds not merely over matters of power and authority, but over money as well. Henry accused his former friend of embezzling 30,000 English pounds during his tenure as the king's Lord Chancellor; he was also angry about a personal debt of 500 pounds that Becket refused to repay.

From exile in France, Becket urged Pope Alexander to excommunicate the English king, efforts that had nearly born fruit in 1170 when the archibishop returned to England. Several days after delivering a Christmas sermon in which he allegedly spoke of the physical peril he would soon face, Becket was assaulted by the four knights, who believed they were acting on behalf of the King's wishes. According to Edward Grim, a Cambridge clerk who lost part of an arm in the attack, the conspirators struck Becket at least three times with their swords, severing the top of the archbishop's head. As Grim described the scene in an account published a decade after the murder, the brains and blood of the victim "purpled the appearance of the church with the colors of the lily and the rose, the colors of the Virgin and Mother and the life and death of the confessor and martyr." As Becket's skull emptied itself onto the stone floor of the cathedral, one of the knights stirred the mess with his sword and announced that the archbishop was not likely to get up again. The knights then stole his horses and bulls.


On the 720th anniversary of Becket's death, soldiers from the United States 7th Cavalry slaughtered roughly 300 Miniconjou Sioux on the banks of Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. The victims of the massacre -- mostly women, children and elderly -- were on their way to the Pine Ridge Reservation, where they hoped to escape arrest and forcible relocation as punishment for their adherence to the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance, a syncretic and enthusiastic religious movement that began in 1890 as a mixture of messianic Christianity and Native American spirituality, promised to restore of land and game lost over the previous centuries; to some of its devotees it also envisioned the obliteration of whites, who would be buried underneath the replenished soil of the new prairie.

The attack at Wounded Knee, part of a campaign to suppress the Ghost Dance movement and disarm the Sioux nation, pitted the unarmed Miniconjou against the 7th Cavalry, which arrayed machine guns and Hotchkiss cannons against the refugees. The precise cause of the battle has remained in dispute ever since 1890, but the outcome was an unambiguous atrocity. Most of the victims died within the first half hour, although many wounded Miniconjou perished of exposure to the extreme cold weather and blizzard that descended upon the ravaged encampment that night. In the days that followed, more than 100 frozen bodies were dumped into a massive burial pit while the nation celebrated the vanquishing of the Ghost Dance.

In recognition of their bravery in killing defenseless men, women and children, two dozen US soldiers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Recent efforts by American Indian activists to have those medals rescinded have been unsuccessful.