A Note on Historical Background
Note: In the following commentary, all page numbers refer to the Harvest Book (Harcourt, Inc.) edition of T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. Eliot's text makes many allusions to Scripture; this analysis quotes the Bible to help illumine the text. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations in this analysis are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
While Murder in the Cathedral is set in December 1170 and alludes to various historical circumstances surrounding the death of Thomas Becket, Eliot's concern is not to teach history but to present an examination of power and faith in a poetic and dramatic form. Some factual knowledge about Becket, therefore, is necessary in order to fully appreciate Eliot's work.
Thomas Becket was born in the house of his father, Gilbert Becket, in Cheapside, London, sometime between 1115 and 1120. As a young man, Thomas studied ecclesiastical law and served as a close confidante of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury-Canterbury being the most important English "see," or seat of church authority-who ordained Thomas a deacon and appointed him Archdeacon of Canterbury in 1154, a post in which Thomas oversaw the see's temporal affairs.
The next year, King Henry II, founder of the Plantagenet line (reigned 1154-1189), appointed Thomas as England's chancellor. "The king's chancellor in England during the Middle Ages was given a variety of duties, including drawing up writs that permitted the initiation of a lawsuit in one of the common-law courts and deciding disputes in a way that gave birth to the system of law called equity. His governmental department was called the Chancery" (West's Encyclopedia). Thomas thus wielded great political power as chancellor. He was a close aide to the king; indeed, according to the Dictionary of National Biography, "An extraordinary intimacy sprang up between him and his sovereign. Henry's policy was his own, and. Thomas was simply the chief instrument in its execution-[but] an instrument of such exceptionally perfect and varied capabilities that those who watched its operations well nigh lost sight of the hand by which it was directed." Thomas helped Henry quell a rebellion in Anjou, France in 1156; in 1158 he served as ambassador to France-an occasion on which he traveled in such majestic style that King Louis VII and his subjects are reported to have thought, "If this is the English chancellor, what must not the king be!" (Dictionary of National Biography)-and, in 1159, he levied an unfairly heavy tax on the church to fund King Henry's military campaign in Toulouse. In addition to his political power, Thomas possessed military might. "When all the great barons refused the task of securing the conquered territory [of Tolouse] after Henry's withdrawal, Thomas and the constable, Henry of Essex, undertook it, and performed it with signal success. Thomas afterwards defended the Norman border for some months with troops whom he paid at his own cost and commanded in person; he led several forays into France, and once unhorsed a famous French knight in single combat" (Dictionary of National Biography).
After the death of Archbishop Theobald in 1161, Henry elevated a reluctant Thomas to the post. Thomas knew that his ideas about ecclesiastical authority would not be easily reconciled, if at all, to Henry's desire to consolidate the crown's control over the church. Very quickly, the two came into conflict. Thomas tried to reclaim property from Henry that the see of Canterbury had lost; he prohibited a marriage of Henry's brother because it violated church law; and he denied the crown's jurisdiction over criminal clerics. As Archbishop, Thomas also established himself as a champion of justice for the common people; most notably, he led "the first case of any opposition to the king's will in the matter of taxation" in Britain (Dictionary of National Biography) when Henry tried to deny local sheriffs compensation for their services.
A great financial dispute between the crown and Canterbury, during which Thomas refused to yield what he felt belonged to the church, led to Thomas' departure, in disguise, from England in 1163. He left after having celebrated "the mass of St. Stephen"-the first Christian martyr (Acts 7)-"with its significant introit, 'Princes did sit and speak against me'." (Dictionary of National Biography). Thomas would not return to England until 1170, after a reconciliation between him and the king could be arranged-a reconciliation that was to have included a ritual "kiss of peace" but no resolution of the monetary dispute that had caused the heart of the conflict.
Further conflict arose, however, when Thomas and the Pope learned that Henry planned to have his oldest son's coronation performed by Roger of Pont l'Eveque, Archbishop of York-a privilege always formerly reserved to Canterbury. (The coronation did, in fact, take place in York in June of 1170.) The Pope ordered the suspension of York and any other bishops who took part in the irregular ceremony. Consequently, Roger of York, in league with the bishops of London and Salisbury and the sheriff of Kent, plotted to intercept Thomas upon his planned landing, in order to take the papal letters of suspension he would bring with him. Thomas thus sent the letters ahead of him. He landed at Sandwich on December 1, 1170 "and proceeded, amid much popular rejoicing, to Canterbury" (Dictionary of National Biography).
Thomas refused the king's request to absolve the suspended bishops. On December 29, four knights-Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, Reginald Fitzurse, and Richard le Breton-came to Canterbury to make the demand again, in person. Thomas again refused, citing papal authority. The knights left after a brief fight, only to return with a larger force. Thomas' aides took the Archbishop into Canterbury Cathedral; three priests stayed with Thomas while the rest hid. Thomas did not allow them to bar the cathedral doors. The four knights and a cleric entered. The Dictionary of National Biography recounts what happened:
To the cry "Where is the traitor, Thomas Becket?" he returned no answer; but at the question, "Where is the archbishop?". [he answered], "Here I am, not traitor, but archbishop and priest of God; what seek ye?" "Your death." "Slay me here if you will, but if you touch any of my people you are accursed." They again bade him absolve the bishops; he returned the same answer as before. They tried to drag him out of the church; but he and Edward Grim, now his sole remaining companion, were more than a match for the five. In the struggle fierce words broke from the archbishop; but when his assailants drew their swords to slay him where he stood, he covered his eyes with his hands, saying, "To God and the blessed Mary, to the patron saints of this church, and to St. Denys, I commend myself and the church's cause," and with bowed head awaited their blows. The first blow made a gash in the crown of his head, and then fell sideways on his left shoulder, being intercepted by the uplifted arm of Grim. Probably this wound compelled Grim to relinquish the archbishop's cross, for it is expressly stated in a contemporary letter that Thomas himself had the cross in his hands when he was smitten to death... He received another blow on the head, with the words, "Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit;" at a third he fell on his knees, and then, turning towards the altar of St. Benedict on his right hand, and murmuring "For the name of Jesus and for the defence of the church I am ready to embrace death," dropped face downwards at full length on the floor. One more sword-stroke completed the severance of the tonsured crown from the skull.
Thomas was quickly acclaimed as a martyr and a saint by the people of England; the Pope proclaimed Thomas' canonization on February 21, 1173. He is commemorated in many shrines and churches across England-including some ostensibly named for Thomas the apostle-and his story has been told in many literary forms, including not only Eliot's play but also dramas by Tennyson (Becket, 1884) and Jean Anouilh (Becket; or, The Honor of God, 1961).