Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Pop History Moment: Murder In The Cathedral


Kings, as people, are used to getting what they want, especially the medieval ones; feeling themselves imbued with the blood royal, stalking the Earth as God's representative, it's easy to see how someone could develop a really severe entitlement complex. Provided the King in question was reasonably diplomatic, and his courtiers suitably acquiescent, everybody could get what they want and no one would get hurt. Alas, this sort of thing almost never happened.

Would that Henry II were one particle as diplomatic as his Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket; not that for all his reputation as a holy man, Becket wasn't as capable of towering arrogance and even bluff cruelty as his Lord and Master. It's just that Henry was a general first, and was used to either getting what he wanted or else killing whomever he had to to get it, and then taking it.

One day the King had had enough of Becket's intransigence and, raising his feverish head, from his sickbed called out: 'Will nobody rid me of this troublesome priest?' Not specifically an order, but for four of his knights - Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Moreville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton - already attuned to doing the King's will, it was enough.

Away they went to Canterbury, where they found the priest at prayer amid some monks, and brutally slew him, on this day in 1170; by all accounts, Becket faced his murderers calmly. A clerk named Edward Grim was visiting Canterbury Cathedral at the time, and was slightly wounded in trying to save Becket's life; he later wrote a biography of the slain cleric, including a firsthand account of his murder.

The site of Becket's murder quickly became a shrine for pilgrims; Henry II himself was one of the earliest penitents, which may have set the trend, visiting first as he did in the midst of the Revolt of 1173–1174. Over the next two centuries untold numbers followed in his footsteps; Geoffrey Chaucer's book The Canterbury Tales was the earliest account of this activity, written two centuries hence. Becket's quickly became the richest shrine in England, until it was broken up in 1538 and seized for the treasury of Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

In fact the later Henry's struggles with the Pope over matters of spiritual and temporal authority, which bore fruit upon the creation of the Church of England, may have done so from seeds sown by his ancestor on this day.

Becket's life and death have also been adapted for the stage by T. S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral, Jean Anouilh's play Becket (both later made into films) and in print by Ken Follett's historical novel The Pillars of the Earth.

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