William de Tracy

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Contemporary drawing portraying the murder of Becket

Sir William II de Tracy, Knt., (died c. 1189) was feudal baron of Bradninch, near Exeter and Lord of the Manors of Toddington, Gloucestershire and of Moretonhampstead, Devon.[1] He is notorious as one of the four knights who assassinated Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in December 1170.


His grandfather, William I de Tracy (d. circa 1136), was an illegitimate son of King Henry I. The king granted William I the feudal barony of Bradninch, Devon, which had escheated to the crown from William Capra, listed in the Domesday Book of 1086 as holding that barony. William I left one daughter and sole-heiress, Grace de Tracy, who married John de Sudeley,[2] son of Harold de Mantes. The connection, if any, to the family of de Tracy, feudal barons of Barnstaple in Devon, is unknown. They had two children: Ralph de Sudeley (d. 1192), the eldest, who became his father's heir, and Sir William II "de Tracy" (d. post 1172), the co-assassin of Becket, who inherited his mother's barony of Bradninch and assumed her family name in lieu of his patronymic. He became a knight of Gloucestershire and held the lands of his brother by service of one knight's fee. He had a son William III de Tracy (d. pre-1194), who left a son Henry, who lost his lands in 1202.[3]

William II appears in a charter of his older brother Ralph de Sudeley (d. 1192) assigning the manor of Yanworth, near Cirencester, to Gloucester Abbey. Two of the witnesses to that charter lived on land held by the Normandy branch of the de Tracys, and two of the English witnesses had previously witnessed a charter for Henry de Tracy to Barnstaple Priory in 1146. In 1166 William held one fee from his brother Ralph.[4]

William III de Tracy made charitable benefactions in France, building and endowing a house for lepers at a place called Coismas, possibly Commeaux. He also made gifts to the Priory of St. Stephen, Le Plessis-Grimoult of lands possessed by the family before they all finally came to England.[5]

Murder of Becket[edit]

William II de Tracy was one of the four knights who, supposedly at the behest of King Henry II, in 1170 murdered Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. His accomplices were Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Morville and Richard le Breton (or de Brito). They afterwards invaded the Archbishop's Palace plundering Papal Bulls and Charters, gold, silver, vestments, books, and utensils employed for the services of the church.[6]

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

Sir William de Tracy was one of four knights who at the instigation of Henry II assassinated Thomas a Becket. The four conspirators, Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Morville, 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 waved the sword over his head, cried, “Strike! strike!” but merely dashed off his cap. Meanwhile Tracy, who since his fall had thrown of 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. He 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. Before Becket died he put a curse on Tracey's family, a water curse. His family will always have too little or too much water. And believe it or not this has always happened to his family, now the Garnetts, Tracys, and Coogans.[7]

Henry failed to arrest the knights, advising them to flee to Scotland. Whilst their lands technically escheated to the crown, they appear to have continued to enjoy use of them after only a short interruption, presumably as a favour from the king. They stayed only a short while in Scotland, returning to the castle of Knaresborough in Yorkshire [8] 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 North Lincolnshire, where, until 1690, an inscribed stone on the chancel recorded the benefaction.[citation needed]

Bovey Tracey[edit]

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, Normandy, 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 significantly rebuilt and added a tower, chancel, and porch to the church of Lapford, Devon, which was then re-dedicated to Becket.

Nymet Tracy[edit]

According to local tradition, Sir William founded a church at Nymet Tracey near Bovey, in penance.[9]

Excommunication and exile[edit]

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.[10]

The departure of the other knights to Rome was delayed until two of them, FitzUrse and de Morville, had taken part in the great Revolt of 1173–74 against the king. The Archbishop's murderers gained their audience with the Pope, who despite their penitence, declared they should be exiled and fight in Jerusalem "in knightly arms in The Temple for 14 years", and then return to Rome.[11]

Death and burial[edit]

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 fictitious sensationalism on Herbert's part. Moreover, Tracy's journey east is confirmed by Romwald, Archbishop of Salerno and by Roger Hovenden, who stated that 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 related further that after their deaths the bodies of the knights were buried at Jerusalem before the door of The Temple, the Templar Round Church built on the site of the Temple of Solomon. This conforms to the tradition that the murderers were buried under the portico in front of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was the refectory of the Knights Templar.[12]

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.

Battle Abbey Roll genealogy[edit]

The Duchess of Cleveland in her work "The Battle Abbey Roll" gives the following account of the wider de Tracy family:[13]

"De Tracy: from the castle and barony of Tracy, near Vire, arrondissement of Caen. "The Sire de Traci" is named in Wace's account of the Battle of Hastings. J. R. Planche stated: "The family does not appear to have been of much importance in England before the time of Stephen, who bestowed upon Henry de Tracy the Honour of Barnstaple in Devonshire; but the first of the name we hear of is Turgis or Turgisius de Tracy who, with William de la Ferte, was defeated and driven out of Maine by Fulk de Rechin, Count of Anjou, in 1073: and who was therefore in all probability the Sire de Traci in the army of Hastings." Henry de Traci is said to have been the only man in Devonshire who stood firm to Stephen against the Empress Maud. He was succeeded in his barony by his son, his grandson, and his great-grandson, but the latter, who died in 1273, left only a daughter, Eve, married to Guy de Brienne.

William de Tracy, who became notorious as one of the murderers of Thomas a Becket (see Fitz Urse), had extensive estates in Devonshire and Gloucestershire, and was the second son of John de Sudeley and Grace de Traci, heiress of another William, believed to be a natural son of Henry I. He probably succeeded to his mother's inheritance, as he took her name, and is described by the monkish chroniclers as a brave soldier, but of parricidal wickedness. After the bloody tragedy at Canterbury, he and his three accomplices sought refuge at Knaresborough Castle, from whence they went to throw themselves at the feet of Pope Alexander III at Rome. He sentenced them to expiate their sin in the Holy Land, and they accordingly set out together on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Dean Stanley related the legend: "Tracy alone, it is said, was never able to accomplish his vow. The crime of having struck the first blow — primus percussor — was avenged by the winds of heaven, which always drove him back. According to one story, he never left England. According to another, and, as we shall see, more correct version, he reached the coast of Calabria, and was seized at Cosenza with a dreadful disorder, which caused him to tear the flesh from his bones with his own hands, calling, 'Mercy, St. Thomas!' and there he died miserably, after having made his confession to the bishop of the place. His fate was long remembered among his descendants in Gloucestershire, and gave rise to the distich that: 'The Tracys have always the wind in their faces'. Such is the legend". But William de Tracy certainly did not die in Calabria. There is evidence to show that he actually set out on his pilgrimage, and he probably got as far as Cosenza; for, in the charter by which, he grants Doccombe [14] to the Chapter of Canterbury, as an oblation to make some amends for his crime, the first of the witnesses is described as Abbot of Euphemia. "There can be little doubt that this Abbey of St. Euphemia was the celebrated convent of that name in Calabria, not twenty miles from Cosenza, and about sixty miles north of the Straits of Messina. Thus it would seem most likely that he was detained by a severe illness at Cosenza, and believing himself to be on his deathbed, sought to make atonement to the Church by this deed of gift. It is plain that he must have lived to return home. Within four years of the murder he appears as Justiciary of Normandy; he was present at Falaise in 1174 when William, King of Scotland, did homage to Henry II, and in 1176 was succeeded in his office by the Bishop of Winchester. This is the last authentic notice of him. There exists, however, a generally received tradition that he retired to his estates in the West of England, where "he lived a private life when wind and weather turned against him", and according to the local history of his native county of Gloucester, reached the good old age of ninety. His residence was at Mortehoe, close to Woollacombe Bay, and the worthy folks of Devonshire aver that his tormented spirit may, even now, be heard moaning and lamenting on the Woollacombe sands, where it is doomed to wander restlessly to and fro, toiling to "make bundles of sand, and wisps of the same" for all time to come. They also believe that for a fortnight after the murder, he lay concealed in the Crookham Cavern, on the coast between Morthoe and Ilfracombe, and that his daughter, the only person entrusted with the secret, used to steal out thither at night to bring him food. He was, it is said, buried at Morthoe, where an effigy, by some believed to be his, remains in the church. But even in his grave he was not left in peace. "Morthoe," says Westcote, "is the place where for a time he rested at ease; untill some ill-affected persons seeking for treasure, but disappointed thereof, stole the leaden sheets he lay in, leaving him in danger to take cold." Woollacomb-Tracy, Bovey-Tracy, Nymet-Tracy, Newton Tracy, and Bradford-Tracy, still bear his name in Devonshire.

His daughter (an only child,) married Sir Gervase Courtenay, and their son Oliver called himself De Tracy, as did all his descendants. They were prosperous country gentlemen, seated at Toddington in Gloucestershire, and constantly to be met with on the lists of Sheriffs and knights of the shire. Sir William Tracy, who died about 1530, was one of the earliest champions of the Reformation, and having declared in his will, "I bestow no part of my goods to that Intent, that any man shall say or do to help my Soul, for therein I trust only to the promises of Christ," the document was condemned in the Bishop of London's Court, and his body taken out of the grave and burned by the Chancellor of Worcester. From his eldest son, William, came the Irish Viscounts Tracy; and Richard, the second—whom he had endowed with the manor of Stanway, a part of the domain of Tewkesbury Abbey granted to him by the Crown—was the ancestor of five baronets of the name. The last died in 1677, and Stanway passed to Ferdinando, second son of the third Viscount Tracy, and through Ferdinando's granddaughter to the Earls of Wemyss.

The elder line lasted for something less than another century and a quarter. Though Sir John Tracy of Toddington received in 1642 the title of Viscount Tracy of Rathcoole in Ireland, it does not appear that they were ever resident in that country, nor did they once intermarry with the Irish. The last and eighth Viscount left an only child, Henrietta, who on his death in 1797, inherited Toddington, and married her cousin, Charles Hanbury, who took her name and arms, and was created Baron Sudeley of Toddington in 1838. The family is now, however, extinct, and more than one claimant for the Viscountcy has laid his case before the House of Lords.

Tracies, in the parish of Newington, bears the name of its owners "in very early times," whose coat of arms "had a near affinity to that of the Tracys of Gloucestershire."—Hasted's Kent.

14th-century tomb at Mortehoe[edit]

Arms of De Tracy, feudal barons of Barnstaple, adopted at the start of the Age of Heraldry, c. 1200-1215: Or, a lion passant sable between two bends gemelles gules

There is a tomb in the south transept of the parish church at Mortehoe, 10 miles NW of Barnstaple in Devon, which carries a ledger-line inscription to a certain "Sir William de Tracy". The upper slab of black or dark grey granite or marble is incised with the life-size figure of a priest in full vestments, holding a chalice to his breast. The inscription is much defaced, but was recorded thus by Tristram Risdon (d.1630):

"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 base of the tomb are sculpted in relief three escutcheons, now devoid of any colourings, listed from east to west :

  • The first, showing three lions passant in pale, is possibly for Camville. Geoffrey de Camville (d.1308) was the second husband of Maud de Tracy (d.pre-1279), granddaughter and sole heiress of Henry de Tracy (d.1274), feudal baron of Barnstaple.[15]
  • The second, two bars, possibly for FitzMartin. Maud de Tracy's first husband was Nicholas FitzMartin (d.1260), feudal baron of Blagdon, Somerset. Their son William I FitzMartin (d.1324) inherited Barnstaple.[16] The Victorian stained glass shield in the window of the south transept shows this shield as Azure, two bars argent, whilst the arms generally attributed to the Martin family are Gules, two bars argent
  • The third, a saltire, charged with five roundels. The Victorian stained glass shield in the window of the south transept shows this shield as Argent, a saltire gules charged with five bezants A further shied is shown in the Victorian window: Or, two bends gules, in a canton an escallop sable, the purported relationship of which to the tomb is unclear.

On the same north side of the base at the west end, beneath plain canopies, are effigies representing possibly St. Catherine with her wheel, and St. Mary Magdalene, with long flowing hair. The south side of the tomb-base is divided into seven compartments, filled with Early Decorated gothic tracery; the Crucifixion forms the subject of the relief sculpture at the west end of the tomb-base, showing Christ on the cross with two standing figures either side.[17] Lord Sudeley insists this is the tomb of William de Tracy (d. 1322) who is known to have been the incumbent of St Mary's Parish Church at Mortehoe [18] and 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.[19]


In 1969 the Master of the Rolls presented Merlin Hanbury-Tracy, 7th Baron Sudeley to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother as a descendant of de Tracy.

The Most Rev. Frank Tracy Griswold, former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, is said to be a direct descendant of Tracy.[20]


  1. ^ Sudeley, Lord, Becket's Murderer William de Tracy, in The Sudeleys - Lords of Toddington, London, 1987, pp: 77–8, 82, 88, OCLC 82268496
  2. ^ Sanders, I. J., English Baronies, Oxford, 1960, p.20, Bradninch
  3. ^ Sanders, p. 20
  4. ^ Sudeley, Lord (1987) p.76-8, and opposite p. 100
  5. ^ Sudeley, Lord (1987) p. 78
  6. ^ Sudeley, Lord (1987) p. 82
  7. ^ Tracey, N.B., Historical Address before the Fourth Annual Reunion of the Tracy Family at Gouldsboro, ME, August 19, 1899, published 1900.
  8. ^ Sudeley, Lord (1987) pp. 82–3
  9. ^ Arthur Mee, The King's England, Devon: Cradle of our Seamen
  10. ^ Sudeley, Lord (1987) p. 85
  11. ^ Sudeley, Lord (1987) pp: 87–8
  12. ^ Sudeley, Lord (1987) pp. 90-91; The site has been the place of several buildings over time
  13. ^ http://www.1066.co.nz/library/battle_abbey_roll3/chap00.htm
  14. ^ The manor of Doccombe, Daccombe, or Dockham, in the parish of Moreton Hampstead in Devonshire, still formed part of the possessions of the church of Canterbury in the 19th century
  15. ^ Sanders, I.J., English Baronies, Oxford, 1960, p.104, Barnstaple
  16. ^ Sanders, p.104
  17. ^ Transactions of the Exeter Diocesan Architectural Society, vol. 6, p. 188
  18. ^ Framed list of Rectors and Vicars displayed in church
  19. ^ Sudeley, Lord (1987) p. 91
  20. ^ Which Episcopal bishop is a descendent of a murderer of an Archbishop of Canterbury