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An Execution and a Miracle

An Execution and a Miracle - origins

What was life like at the time the story was set?

Medieval farming
  • Medieval Farming
  • Life in the 12th and early 13th centuries was very different from today. People mainly lived in villages and farmed the land. Farms were much smaller than today and the villagers or peasants did not own the land they worked on, it was held from someone more important.

    For peasants, this was usually the Lord of the Manor. At the top of the social ladder sat the Barons, who held very large areas of land, and the King.

    The peasants would work a strip of land or maybe several strips. This is why medieval farming was known as strip farming. It was hard, backbreaking work; farming tools were simple. There were sickles (with curved blades) and scythes for harvesting, metal tipped ploughs for turning over the soil and harrows to cover up the soil when seeds had been planted.

    Villagers often helped one another to make sure vital farming work got done. Many tenants would rely on the help of those people in the village who had no land, paying them a small amount of money for their help. These landless people were at the bottom of the social ladder and usually very poor. They lived in basic huts made of wattle and daub (branches stuck together with mud). To cheat someone out of the small amount of pay for their help on the land, as in the story, would be thought a very wicked thing to do.

    Why was Ailwood's punishment so severe?

    Medieval punishment - the stocks
  • Medieval punishment - the stocks
  • Law and order in Medieval England was very harsh. It was thought that people would only behave, if they were afraid of what would happen if they did not. Even the 'smallest' crimes had harsh punishments. The Beadle was the person who had to keep law and order in a village; judges were sent out from London to listen to cases. Each accused person had to go through an 'ordeal'.

    There were three ordeals. Ordeal by fire - where the accused was made to hold a red hot iron bar and walk three paces. After three days, if the wound was getting better, they were innocent, if not, they were guilty.

    Another ordeal was by combat. Noblemen mainly used this. The accused would fight with his accuser and the person who won was right.

    The third ordeal was by water. An accused person was tied up and thrown into water. If you floated, you were guilty of the crime you were accused of.

    Those found guilty of a crime could expect to face a severe punishment. Thieves had their hands cut off. Murderers were hung. Those found guilty of treason were hung, drawn and quartered. There were very few prisons, as keeping prisoners cost money. It was cheaper to execute someone, or punish them and then let them go.

    Who was St Thomas Becket and why was he murdered?

    The murder of Thomas Beckett
  • The murder of Thomas Becket
  • The murder of Thomas Becket, in 1170, was one of the most shocking events in the churches history, for, at the time, Beckett was Archbishop of Canterbury.

    In Medieval times there were two very powerful influences in the country, the King and the church. The church had its own laws, lands and taxes. Priests ran the churches. The priests were appointed and controlled by Bishops, the Church's equivalent of noblemen. They owned large, wealthy estates and had their headquarters in cathedrals. Then, as now, the Archbishop of Canterbury headed the church in England.

    King Henry II appointed Thomas Becket to this position in 1162. He was a friend of the king. However, when the king demanded to control the power of the church, Thomas Becket defied him. In a fit of anger, the king was supposed to have said something like, "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?"

    His words were interpreted as a command by four of the King's knights. They went to Canterbury and, when Thomas Becket would not accompany them, they murdered him where he stood, in the chapel of Canterbury Cathedral.

    After his murder, it was reported, 'a terrible storm cloud developed, rain fell suddenly and swiftly and the thunder rolled round the heavens, then the sky turned a deep red in token of the blood which had been shed.'

    Within three years, Pope Alexander III had made Becket a saint. Shortly afterwards, King Henry II humbled himself with public penance at Becket's tomb, which became one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in England, until it was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1538 to 1541).

    Why was the story told? Could it be true?

    Pilgrims travelling to the Shrine of St Thomas
  • Saint Thomas Becket - Pilgrims travelling to the shrine
  • In Medieval England, most people could not read and write. So the church used stories, often about the lives of the saints, to show the truth of the gospels and to remind people how they should behave.

    Unlike many of the early saints, there are a lot of true records about the life of Thomas Becket. The church stories, however, were not only about the lives of the saints but also about miracles they did, after they were dead. In the Middle Ages, many people believed they saw visions of angels, dead saints, martyrs and the Virgin Mary and many stories are about how those visions can help people who worship them. This is one such story.

    Each saint had their own saints' day and, in Medieval times, on the anniversary of some of these days there were feasts and parties. This made a break in the hard work of most people's lives. As in the story, St Thomas's feast day is 29th December. This story is set about 20 years after the murder of Thomas Becket. By this time Becket had already become an important saint and many local legends or stories had grown up around him.

    Many years ago, people were certain the story was true. Now, many people argue that the story became exaggerated over time with the telling. They say that there may well have been a person who was punished for stealing by losing a hand and then mended his ways. Indeed it could have been a belief in the saint that made him change his life. However, the miracle was not likely to have really happened. Others, however, still say that the power of faith and belief is very strong and a miracle really did happen!

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