Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Tracy, William de
TRACY, WILLIAM de (d. 1173), murderer of Thomas (Becket) [q. v.], belonged to a family which in the twelfth century held considerable property in Devonshire and Gloucestershire; but his place in the pedigree has never been ascertained. The version given in Britton's ‘Toddington,’ and generally accepted by later writers, has no evidence to support it; Dugdale is more wisely content to leave the matter undetermined. ‘William de Tracy’ witnessed an agreement between Henry II and the Count of Flanders in 1163 (Rymer, i. 23; Liber Niger, i. 35), and figures also in the ‘Liber Niger’ (pp. 115, 121, 168; cf. Red Book, pp. 248, 254, 295) and in the pipe rolls of 1165, 1168, 1169, 1172, and 1173 (Pipe Roll, 11 Hen. II p. 80, 14 Hen. II p. 128, 15 Hen. II p. 53, 18 Hen. II p. 102, 19 Hen. II p. 148); but there were evidently living during this period at least two men who bore the name, and it is impossible to distinguish with certainty between them, or to decide which of them is to be identified with the subject of this article.
This last is described by a contemporary as ‘one who, though he had borne himself bravely in many a fight, yet in his manner of life was such that his sins must needs drag him down in the end to the lowest depths of crime’ (Materials for Hist. of Becket, i. 129). He had been the ‘man’ of Thomas when the latter was chancellor (ib. iii. 135), and was one of the four conspirators who, on Christmas-eve 1170, vowed to slay him. When they entered the archbishop's chamber on the afternoon of Tuesday, 29 Dec., Tracy was the only one whom Thomas greeted by name (ib. iv. 70). When they came to the church an hour later to slay him, Tracy first, according to the Thomas Saga (i. 539), ‘strideth forward to the archbishop, saying, “Flee! thou art death's man;”’ then, as Thomas refused to flee, ‘the knight seizeth the mantle with one hand, and with the other smiteth the mitre from the archbishop's head, saying, “Go hence, thou art a prisoner; it is not to be endured that thou shouldest live any longer.”’ William of Canterbury, however, who is probably a better authority, ascribes this action to Reginald Fitzurse [q. v.] (Materials, i. 133). After some further altercation the knights determined to drag Thomas out of the church. Tracy was the first to approach him for that purpose, but Thomas seized him by the hauberk and shook him with such force that, as he himself owned afterwards, he fell nearly prostrate on the pavement (ib. iii. 492–3), whereupon he threw off his hauberk, ‘to be lighter’ (Garnier, p. 194). According to William of Canterbury (Materials, i. 133), FitzStephen (ib. iii. 141), Garnier (l. c.), and the Saga (i. 543), it was Tracy who struck the first blow which wounded the archbishop, and which nearly cut off the arm of Edward Grim [q. v.]; but there is some confusion on this point, for Grim himself (Materials, ii. 437) seems to imply that the blow was struck by Fitzurse, as is actually stated by another contemporary (ib. iv. 77); while Garnier adds that Tracy, by his own account afterwards, thought it was John of Salisbury whose arm he had cut off. Tracy certainly struck the archbishop twice, and his last blow cleft the crown of Thomas's head (Garnier, l. c.)
After the murder Tracy went and confessed himself to his diocesan bishop, Bartholomew (d. 1184) [q. v.] of Exeter (Materials, iii. 512–13; Gir. Cambr., Vita S. Remigii, c. xxviii). Gerald of Wales says his confession included a statement that he and his three comrades had been compelled by the king to bind themselves by an oath sworn in Henry's presence to slay the primate. The story, however, is doubtful. Tracy shared the adventures of his fellow-murderers in Scotland and at Knaresborough [see Fitzurse, Reginald and Morville, Hugh de, d. 1204]. He was first of the four to surrender himself to the pope's mercy (Materials, iv. 162), but last to set out for Holy Land (ib. iii. 536; Thomas Saga, ii. 39), where Alexander III bade them serve under the Templars for fourteen years, in addition to a lifelong penance of fasting and prayer. The last dated notice of him as living is in 1172, when he was at the papal court (Materials, vii. 511). The statement which some modern writers have adopted from Dugdale, that he was steward or seneschal of Normandy from 1174 to 1176, is founded on two passages of the so-called Bromton (Twysden, cols. 1105 and 1116), where ‘Tracy’ is a scribe's blunder for ‘Courcy’ (Gesta Hen. i. 99, 124, 125; Rog. Hov. ii. 82). Equally baseless are the legends which tell either that Tracy never started on his pilgrimage at all, or that he returned secretly and lived for many years hidden in some lonely spot on the Devonshire coast. A letter written between 1205 and 1230 relates the history of a grant made to Christ Church, Canterbury, by one William de Thaun, ‘when he was setting out for Holy Land with his lord, William de Tracy’ (Stanley, Memorials of Canterbury, App., note F). Tracy, however, got no further than Cosenza in Sicily. There he was smitten with a horrible disease, his flesh decaying while he was yet alive, so that he could not refrain from tearing it off with his own hands, and he died in agony, praying incessantly to St. Thomas. Herbert of Bosham [q. v.] relates this on the authority of the bishop of Cosenza, who had been Tracy's confessor during his sickness (Materials, iii. 536–7; cf. Thomas Saga, ii. 39–41). By a charter without date of place or time, William de Tracy granted the manor of Doccombe (Devon) to the chapter of Canterbury ‘for the love of God, the salvation of his own soul and his ancestors' souls, and for love of the blessed Thomas, archbishop and martyr, of venerable memory.’ The first witness is the abbot of ‘Eufemia,’ i.e. doubtless Santa Eufemia, a monastery some eighteen miles from Cosenza; and the grant was confirmed by Henry II in a charter whose date must lie between July and October 1174 (Stanley, note F). Evidently Tracy's charter was drawn up at or near Cosenza during his fatal illness, and brought home by his followers after his death, which a comparison of dates thus shows to have occurred, as Herbert says (Materials, iii. 537), within three years of his crime, i.e. in 1173.[Authorities cited; cf. Dr. E. A. Abbott's Death and Miracles of Thomas à Beckett, 1898.]