Did Chicksands peak too early?

Int Corps logo

Exploring the exfiltration of Thomas Becket through the Gilbertine Priory in October 1164

The Friends of the Intelligence Corps Museum recently supported a series of events commemorating the 850th anniversary of the escape of Archbishop Thomas Becket, an escape greatly assisted by the Gilbertine Order. It is not often that Chicksands can celebrate the visit of a future saint and the study day explored an early documented record of timely assistance and hospitality in the highly successful exfiltration of a VVIP. The dramatic events of October 1164, just a few decades after the establishment of the Gilbertine Priory, offered an unique opportunity for study.

‘Operation Becket’s Flit’, a Friends of the Chicksands Priory Study Day, drew expertise and interest from Bedfordshire and far beyond. Over the weekend of 11th /12th October 2014 it was orchestrated across the Chicksands site and wider. Transport logistics, equipment, documentation, orientation, briefings and victualling were coordinated to a precision timetable with assistance from the Chicksands community.

In the steps of Becket

Gp Capt Mike Hart DISC Commandant extended a warm welcome to the capacity audience gathered in the Blue Room of the Priory overlooking a river Flit that Becket might have recognised. Revd Clive Larrett, Chaplain to the Intelligence Corps and incumbent of the St Gilbert of Sempringham Garrison Church, offered a characteristically incisive framing for the day. Revd Larrett had led recent Corps commemorations of the Great War centenary which had included members of the Military Intelligence Museum Friends. The commemorations focused around ceremonial and remembrance events near Rouen. In August serving and former serving members of the Corps travelled from Chicksands down to Kent, via the former home of the Corps at Ashford, thence by boat and into Normandy, a journey very much in the steps of Becket.

Gilbertine Convocation

More than sixty people attended the study day and organisations with local, Gilbertine, Becket and heritage interests were represented. Insights came from Lincolnshire and from the organisers of previous study days. Church, military, medical, geological, museum and musical interests were reflected in the discussions.

Participants included the Master of the Worshipful Company of Mercers Mrs Debby Ounsted CBE and Past Master Richard Walker- Arnott. The Becket family home in the City of London, where Thomas was born in 1120, is today the site of their Livery Hall and unique Chapel. Becket’s father is believed to have been a City Sheriff in the early twelfth century and Colonel Brian Kay OBE, who currently has shrivel responsibility for an area adjacent to the City, was also present.


Dr John Williams MBE delivered the keynote morning presentation which focused upon his work on Northampton and Canterbury in the 12th and 13th centuries. It was reinforced with University and historical contributions from Northampton representatives. The city had organised a full programme of events in connection with the Becket anniversary. The Friends had been represented at several occasions including the presentation by Professor Anne Duggan (King’s College London) to a capacity audience in Northampton’s Catholic Cathedral of St Thomas of Canterbury.

Thomas Travels

Guided tours of the Priory with the Friends experts had set the scene in the morning and offered unique medieval insights. Lunch alongside the Flit a little downstream offered a new setting for the afternoon programme.

In the Church of St Gilbert of Sempringham, as light filtered through the dramatic stained glass, Professor Anne Duggan gave the keynote afternoon address. She described the escape and the journey from Northampton’s North Gate in the early hours of 14th October 1164. Becket’s small party, intent on putting distance between him and the King, had set off on war horse chargers first to Grantham and then Lincoln, reached in just two days. Becket is likely to have met Gilbert of Sempringham and the assistance of the Gilbertines, their local knowledge and the placing of their network of houses at Becket’s disposal, greatly aided his successful escape.

From Lincoln travel was by boat through the Fens as well as on foot, dressing inconspicuously and avoiding known byways. Thwarted at the port of Boston, Becket probably turned inland to arrive at Chicksands. In the dull habit of a Gilbertine lay brother Becket, under the alias of ‘Brother Christian’, is thought to have stayed for a few days before his small group left, augmented by a Gilbertine Canon Gilbert.

Chicksands 850 years ago must have played a crucial part in the escape as Becket left the relative safety and anonymity of the Fens and prepared to travel through the more closely controlled southern part of England. King Henry II may have anticipated travel by way of Watling Street but Becket probably opted for a less conspicuous route via Essex and across the Thames avoiding London and Canterbury.


The Chapel of St Thomas at Meppershall, believed to have been erected just a decade later and following soon upon Thomas’ canonisation, certainly points to the contemporary importance of Becket to the Chicksands Gilbertines. At the end of the study day, by kind permission of the owner of Chapel Farm, visits were made to see the chapel building that still stands with its magnificent Norman doorway.

Professor Duggan concluded her presentation with an early fourteenth century illustration of the small skiff that on 2nd November 1164 carried Becket across the Channel to Oye. The head- wear of one companion depicted in the boat indicated that we were looking at the same Canon Gilbert: perhaps for the first time since at least the Reformation, Becket’s comms officer was welcomed back to Chicksands.

On Sunday 12th October Becket was remembered at the morning Service in the Church which featured hymns chosen and played by Roger Ward Chairman and Historian of the Friends of the Chicksands Priory.

Commemorating a military centennial

In a year marking the centenary of the Great War it is interesting to wonder whether anything similar might have been on the minds of those involved in Becket’s escape and evasion drama 850 years ago. October 1164 was the first anniversary of a newly designated day for St Edward the Confessor. In 1163 St Edward’s commemoration had, with great ceremony, been moved to 13th October. To this day it continues to be observed on the eve of the Battle of Hastings anniversary. In 1164 the first centenary of ‘1066’ was fast approaching. King Henry II will have appreciated the value conferred by the juxtapositioning of this saint’s day which, through Henry’s ancestral links to Edward, further validated his kingship.

The year 1164 was the centenary of the oath made by Harold in Normandy before Duke William. The oath made in 1064 was held to justify William’s invasion and his right to the throne. Thus around October 1164 a heightened preoccupation might have been forgivable amongst the Norman elite. Becket made his escape from Northampton in the early hours of ‘Hastings Day’ 14th October, following elaborate preparations and distractions in connection with night prayers on the newly designated Feast of St Edward the Confessor.

Lester Hillman

Event Organiser and Member of the Friends of the Intelligence Corps Museum.

14th   October 2014