29 December 1170: Henry II’s knights scatter Thomas Becket’s “brains and blood”

Canterbury attack makes a martyr of the king’s former ally


Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, was on his way to Vespers when the four knights caught up with him. They had ridden from the court of Becket’s old patron, Henry II, who had become infuriated by his protégé’s defence of the church’s privileges. Once the two men had been friends; Henry supposedly remarked that Becket showed him more affection in a day than his father had done in his entire lifetime. But now Henry’s patience had run out. When they asked Becket to come to meet the king at Westminster, he refused outright.

Moments later, Henry’s knights exacted a terrifying penalty. Whether they really were acting on the king’s orders, we will never know.

According to the monk Edward Grim, who was hiding near the altar, the knights launched their attack near the stairs leading to the cathedral choir. The first blow caught Becket’s head, slicing open his scalp. “Then he received a second blow on the head but still stood firm,” Grim wrote. “At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living victim, and saying in a low voice, ‘For the Name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death.”’

A fourth blow smashed Becket’s skull, so that, in Grim’s words, “the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral”. Then a clerk, who had accompanied the knights, put his foot on Becket’s neck, and “horrible to relate, scattered the brains and blood about the pavements”. “Let us away, knights,” the clerk said, “this fellow will rise no more.” | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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29 December 1890: The Sioux are cut down at Wounded Knee

Up to 300 Native Americans are killed in one of the most notorious massacres in US history

By the winter of 1890, the Lakota Sioux had reached a grim nadir. After decades of expansion by white settlers, with their bison herds hunted almost to extinction, most were now confined to reservations in North and South Dakota. Alienated and frightened, many were attracted to the new Ghost Dance movement, which claimed that through an esoteric circle dance, the Native Americans could expel the settlers and recapture their lands.

For the American authorities, the Ghost Dance movement threatened a wider Native American uprising. Mutual suspicion hung in the air when, on 28 December 1890, a party of 7th Cavalry troopers intercepted a group of around 350 Lakota Sioux en route to the Pine Ridge Reservation, and escorted them to Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota.

As dawn broke the next day, the troopers ordered the Sioux to surrender any weapons. With tempers rising, a medicine man, Yellow Bird, began to perform the Ghost Dance. When another Sioux, Black Coyote, who was deaf, refused to give up his rifle, troopers tried to take it by force. Nobody quite knows what happened next: there was a scuffle, a gunshot – and then the firing began.

Only when the last shots died away was the extent of the slaughter clear. At least 25 troopers had fallen, many to friendly fire. But up to 300 Sioux had been cut down, including women and children. As one US army veteran recalled: “The white hot fury of this mad melee defies my attempts at description.” His comrades, he admitted, “simply went berserk”. The result was one of the most notorious massacres in American history. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook


29 December 1911

Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-Sen became the first president of the Republic of China.

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