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Who was William de Tracy?

Updated: May 9, 2023

De Tracy depicted at Sudeley Castle - on a drainpipe hod!

Much of his life has been shrouded by myths. As the leading authority on Becket’s murderers has opined: ‘The Tracy descent is a veritable mare’s nest, from which few genealogists have emerged entirely unscathed.' 1 Fortunately, the assiduous research of Professor Nicholas Vincent in the English and French archives has gone a long way to clarifying the Tracy descent. 2

1] Bischofsmorder im Mittelalter ed. By Natalie Fryde & Dirk Reitz, p231, Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, Göttingen, 2003 2] Much of what follows on de Tracy is based on Professor Nicholas Vincent’s chapter entitled ‘The murderers of Thomas Becket’ in the above reference. See also his ‘Becket’s Muderers’, The Friends of Canterbury Cathedral, 2002. He was also kind enough to come to Moretonhampstead to give MHS a lecture on ‘Who killed Becket’ as part of our research project on Doccombe manor.

In the 1130s Henry de Tracy, recently arrived from France, was promoted at court as royal castellan and military commander to defend Stephen’s interests in the West Country against the supporters of Empress Matilda. This came from pre-existing links between Stephen, Count of Mortain before 1135, and the Tracys, a large part of whose Norman estate was held from the honour of Mortain. Several charters show that Henry’s family probably owed their name to the hamlet of Tracy, near Vire – a strategically important area between Normandy, Maine and Brittany that gave opportunities to a family if they backed the right side. Turgis de Tracy, probably William's grandfather, had been William the Conqueror's seneschal there in the 1070s. Henry de Tracy in turn obviously served Stephen well in England as he obtained lands in Devon at Barnstaple (a half was surrendered back in 1158) and Great Torrington following their confiscation from rebels against Stephen. 1

1] Gesta Stephani’ p 52/3 & p95

It was probably also through Henry de Tracy that William de Tracy gained Bradninch. He was a close kinsman of Henry but Professor Vincent is not sure how close; could he be the son of Turgis, Henry’s elder brother? 1 In 1172 Turgis and William de Tracy are in control of the principal family holdings in France. 2 William figures in a number of royal and ducal records in the years immediately before the murder, especially as a witness to settlements and charters as Henry sought to consolidate his position after the ‘nineteen long winters’ of Stephen’s reign. The royal favour was also shown in two pardons for scutage charges for his Devon barony. 3

1] See also ODNB article by R M Franklin at 2] Red Book vol II p639 3] Pipe Rolls 11 Henry II p80. Pipe Rolls 14 Henry II p128

William knew, however, that he was lucky to keep lands secured from Stephen when Henry II became king in 1154 as they should have been restored to their former lords His tenure remained insecure and hence perhaps his desire to do Henry’s bidding as were two of the other murderers, Fitz Urse and Morville, for similar reasons when Henry seemed to finally lose patience in his power struggle for control of the church with Archbishop Thomas Becket.

Tracy was certainly at Henry II's court at Bur-le-Roi, near Bayeux, at Christmas 1170, where Becket's conduct, and above all his excommunication of the bishops who had crowned Henry, the Young King, earlier that year, was angrily discussed. The king's famous outburst, ‘What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and promoted in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk1, which later oral tradition renders simply, ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’, prompted the departure of Tracy with Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Morville, and Richard Brito on their ill-conceived journey to Canterbury and subsequent murder of Becket.

1] J. C. Robertson & J. B. Sheppard, eds., Materials for the history of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, 7 vols., Rolls Series, 67 (1875–85) Vol II p429

De Tracy depicted on a roof boss in Exeter Cathedral striking the fatal sword blow to Becket.

Tracy seems to have been the first to come to his senses: in a confession to Bartholomew, Bishop of Exeter, apparently made in Devon shortly after the murder, he said that his heart sank and he feared that the earth might open up and swallow him alive. 1 His grant of land at Whipton to the nuns of Polsloe Priory just outside Exeter was later confirmed by the King 2 but it was not enough expiation for the bishop who advised him to go to Rome where the Pope ordered him to continue his journey on a penitential pilgrimage to the Holy Land that was currently in dispute between Western crusaders and the supporters of Islam.

The last certainly established action of his life took place at Cosenza in southern Italy, presumably on his way to Jerusalem, where he executed a charter witnessed among others bythe abbot of St Euphemia 3, where, according to Herbert of Bosham, Tracy lay dying. Herbert gives horrific details of Tracy's death, and although there is an alternative tradition that he did reach the Holy Land, his account of events is to be preferred. 4

1] ibid. Materials vol. III (Bosham) pp512-13 2] Queen’s College, Oxford ms. 152, fo. 137v (MayX November 1175) 3] The abbey of St Eufemia d’Aspromonte in Regio di Calabria, Italy is about 18 miles from Cosenza. 4] ibid.Materials vol. III pp535-8 & vol. VII pp511-12 no. 769

Henry II acknowledged William de Tracy’s lordship over Moreton manor and affirmed the grant of part of it called Doccombe to Canterbury sometime between April 1173 and 6 October 1174.

This evidence of Tracy’s lordship of Moreton is complimented by a document 1 a century later, following the death of the then lord of Moreton, in which the manor’s tenantry testified:

‘DEVON Morton. The manor, tenure unknown; for, William de Tracy who held the barony of Braneys & Morton of the king in chief, took part in the martyrdom of St Thomas of Canterbury..’

1] Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem vol II London 1906 no.153 p96. The inquest was for lands of John fitz John, grandson of Geoffrey fitz Peter and was held in November 1275.

Doccombe manor remained a property of Christ Church Priory until 1540 when the monasteries were dissolved and it passed to the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral until 1863. Its alienation meant that Moreton manor lost about 1450 acres, including two-thirds of Mardon Common and one third of its Teign Valley woodlands; that left Moreton manor with about 3000 acres or 40% of the land in Moreton parish. 1

1] Tithe Apportionments from IR 29/6, 9, 10, 30 (The National Archives)

But what happened to the manor of Moreton after the murder of Becket? The same Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem referred to above tell us that de Tracy’s lands were escheated to the crown. King Richard I (1189-1199) restored custody of the Tracy estates, not to Henry (‘le bozu’) 1 de Tracy, William’s son, but to his nephew, Hugh de Couterne who answered for Tracy scutage in 1194 and 1196. 2 Hugh retained his custody of William’s lands until the death of King Richard in 1199. King John effectively put them up for sale as competing ‘fines’ for their lordship are recorded from the Tracy’s of Barnstaple and from Henry de Tracy, the natural heir. 3 Henry was given brief possession but had to agree to grant away the manor of Moreton, ‘one of his father’s principal possessions4, to the King’s Justiciar, Geoffrey fitz Peter.

‘... William [de Tracy] had a son Henry de Tracy le Bozu born in Normandy, who long after came to Geoffrey son of Peter, chief justice of England, grandfather of John son of John, praying him to aid him in recovering his inheritance & for so doing he gave him the said manor of Morton to be held to him....’ 5

1] Le Bozu is a descriptive yet derogatory French term for a person who has severe kyphosis or abnormally excessive convex curvature of the spine. 2] Pipe Roll 6 Richard p171. 3] Pipe Roll I John p198; Rotuli de Oblatis, pp 15-16 – pace N Vincent, ibid. Bischofsmorder p260. 4] ibid. Bischofsmorder p260. 5] ibid. Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem ...


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