William de Tracy

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Contemporary drawing portraying the murder of Becket

Sir William de Tracy (died c. 1189) was a knight and the feudal baron of Bradninch, Devon, with caput at the manor of Bradninch near Exeter, and was lord of the manors (amongst very many others) of Toddington, Gloucestershire and of Moretonhampstead, Devon.[1] He is notorious as one of the four knights who assassinated Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in December 1170.


His grandfather, William de Tracy (died c. 1136), was an illegitimate son of King Henry I and the king granted him 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 left one daughter and sole-heiress, Grace de Tracy, who married John de Sudeley,[2] son of Harold de Mantes. They had two children: Ralph de Sudeley (d. 1192), the eldest, who became his father's heir, and this William "de Tracy", 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.

William de Tracy appears in a charter of his older brother Ralph de Sudeley (died c. 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 to Barnstaple Priory in 1146 for Henry de Tracy, who had married a daughter of Juhel de Mayenne as permitted by Stephen, King of England. In 1166 William held one fee from his brother Ralph.[3]

Murder of Becket[edit]

William 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.[4]

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,[5] the possession of Hugh de Morville, one of the assassins.


He executed a charter granting to the Canons of Torre, in the county of Devon, all his lands at North Chillingford.[6]


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. William de Tracy 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, William de Tracy founded a church at Nymet Tracey near Bovey, in penance.[7]

Excommunication and exile[edit]

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

William de 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, he was present when the charter recording the transaction was offered up on the High Altar at Winchcombe Abbey. Scutage was paid on de Tracy's lands that year.[8]

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.[9]

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, de 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.[10]

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.

Relatives and descendants[edit]

William de Tracy had a son, also called William, who 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.[11] He died before 1194, leaving a son Henry, who lost his lands in 1202.[12]


  1. ^ Sudeley, Lord, Becket's Murderer William de Tracy, in The Sudeleys – Lords of Toddington, London, 1987, pp: 77–78, 82, 88, OCLC 82268496
  2. ^ Sanders, I.J., English Baronies, Oxford, 1960, p. 20, Bradninch
  3. ^ Sudeley, Lord (1987) pp. 76–78, and opposite p. 100
  4. ^ Sudeley, Lord (1987) p. 82
  5. ^ Sudeley, Lord (1987) pp. 82–83
  6. ^ https://www.archive.org/stream/conquerorhiscomp02planuoft/conquerorhiscomp02planuoft_djvu.txt Excerpt: TRACIE, "Sire de," 1. 13,605. The Norman family of Tracy does not appear to have been of much importance in England before the reign of Stephen, who bestowed upon Henry de Tracy the honour of Benstable (Barnstaple) in Devonshire; but the first of the name we hear of is Turgis, or Turgisins de Tracy, who with William de la Ferte was defeated and driven out of Maine by Fulk le Rechin, Count of Anjou, in 1073, and who was therefore in all probability the Sire de Tracy in the army at Hastings. Tracy is in the neighbourhood of Vire, arrondissement of Caen, and the ruins of a magnificent castle of the middle ages were and may still be seen there. In 1082 a charter was subscribed at Tracy by a William de Traci and his nephew Gilbert (Gallia Christina, xi. Instrum. p. 107), one or the other being most likely the son of Turgis, and the father of Henry of Barnstaple. The name of Tracy– is principally known to the readers of English history from the unenviable notoriety of a William de Tracy, one of the cowardly murderers of Thomas & Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1170; but his connection with the inain line is obscure, as in his charter granting to the Canons of Torre, in the county of Devon, all his lands at North Chillingford, he writes himself William de Traci, son of Gervase de Courtenay, whose name I do not find in the pedigree of that house. Publication: THE CONQUEROR AND HIS COMPANIONS. Author: James Robinson Planché, Somerset Herald. Publisher: Tinsley Brothers, 8, CATHERINE STREET, STRAND, LONDON. Year: 1874.
  7. ^ Arthur Mee, The King's England, Devon: Cradle of our Seamen
  8. ^ Sudeley, Lord (1987) p. 85
  9. ^ Sudeley, Lord (1987) pp. 87–88
  10. ^ Sudeley, Lord (1987) pp. 90–91; The site has been the place of several buildings over time
  11. ^ Sudeley, Lord (1987) p. 78
  12. ^ Sanders, p. 20