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Milling through the ages: Medieval times

Rohesia, sister of Thomas Becket

(Credit: Jake Banyard, Garfield Weston Foundation intern at the Mills Archive)

Thomas Becket’s murder is perhaps one of the most famous episodes of English medieval history. His death as he knelt at the altar of Canterbury cathedral has been painted and written about countless times. Whilst this seems like it could not be further from the world of flour milling, there is an intriguing link to the history of women in milling.

As part of Henry II’s penitence, which involved a display of humiliation at Becket’s tomb in Canterbury, the king gifted a watermill to none other than Thomas Becket’s sister. In 1174, Rohesia received the King’s Mill, also known as Eastbridge mill, from Henry II as he sought her forgiveness. The mill was to bring her an income of 10 marks a year. Records show that she collected money from the mill until 1188, from which point on the money went to her son John.

Information about this small piece of history comes from an early medieval text. Written in old French by Guernes de Pont-Sainte-Maxence, Vie de Thomas Becket (The life of Thomas Becket) was completed in 1174 when Guernes travelled to the site of Becket’s death in Canterbury. The text details the life of Becket and is seen as being relatively historically accurate, Guernes himself states that he strove for accuracy. Part of the joy (and misery) of researching medieval history through literary texts is the constant battle to discern fact from fiction. Writers had a tendency to exaggerate and mythicise historical events, however, given the financial records as well, it seems this story of an unlikely woman miller is true!

Rohesia, sister of Thomas Becket

A plaque at the site of the King's Mill in Canterbury
(Robert Cumming Collection, the Mills Archive Trust)

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