Murder in the Cathedral, written by T.S. Eliot in 1935, is a tragedy that examines the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket by King Henry II in 1170. It was out of loyalty and love for his faith that the Archbishop accepted his fate with grace. Strange and incomprehensible as this choice to die seems, Eliot’s play seeks to illuminate the redeeming value of martyrdom and suffering for Christians.
T.S. Eliot (1888–1965) was a British-American poet and playwright best known for his 1935 play Murder in the Cathedral. The play is a Christian tragedy that recounts the final month of the life of Archbishop Thomas Becket, who was murdered by order of King Henry II. T. S. Eliot based the play largely on Edward Grim’s first-hand account of Becket’s murder.
Canterbury, England, the country’s religious capital, serves as the backdrop for the play. The story begins in 1170 CE, when Henry II of England is king. Thomas Becket had a cordial relationship with King Henry II, who appointed him to the position of Chancellor of Canterbury.
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Later, he was appointed as Archbishp by the king. Disagreements began to develope because Becket stood out for the rights of the Catholic Church and the King desired more authority for himself. It was debated between the two individuals whether or not the Church and the Crown had the authority to deal with the criminal acts of clergy.
Unfortunately for the King, his speculation was completely wrong. Becket’s roles as Archbishop and Chancellor were distinct from one another. Formerly a worldly politician, the Chancellor has now become a religious leader and ascetic monk. In his role as Chancellor, he was the King’s most trusted advisor. Now he needed to think like a Church member, a member of the holy society in which even the lowest ranking officer ranked above the most influential layman.
Henry, a man of strong will, grew frustrated with Becket, and their arguments escalated swiftly. At Clarendon in 1164, Henry attempted to convince Becket to sign a “Constitution” that detailed the king’s authority over the English Church. A moment of weakness caused Becket to accept, but he quickly came to his senses and backtracked. In a fit of rage, Henry summoned Thomas to a Council meeting in Northampton, where he levelled accusations of dishonesty against him during his time as Chancellor.
Several ideas and assumptions were at play in this heated argument, showcasing the gap between church and state perspectives. A sour shift in a once-close friendship was another tragic element. Henry felt deceived and disappointed by Becket, who he believed had failed to live up to their trust.
Becket seems to have had a lot going on inside his head: as Archbishop, he did not want to be seen as the King’s tool, and he wanted to prove to everyone—including himself—that he was going to take the role of Archbishop seriously.
When the King had his son anointed by the Bishop of York in 1170, the situation reached a critical point and Thomas escaped to France. Becket, with the backing of the Pope, has now threatened to end all religious services in England. Henry realised the serious implications this move would have had on a mediaeval state and set up a meeting with Becket as a result. There was a cold and formal reconciliation as a result.
Becket soon after declared the excommunication of all who had participated in the Prince’s coronation. Few days later, four knights killed Becket at the Cathedral altar. No one knows how much direct responsibility Henry bore for the crime. He was rumoured to have acted irrationally when angry and could have been the one to issue the command.
The populace at large placed the responsibility on the king. After waiting four years, he publicly repented at the murder scene and funded a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Summary of Murder in the Cathedral
The book is split into two sections. The first section describes what happened on December 2, 1170, inside Archbishop Thomas Becket’s hall. Thomas Becket had spent seven years away in France. His absence throughout this time is revealed by the chorus. His return, the expansion of temporal authority, and the potential for conflict in the days ahead and Becket is preparations to accept his impending “martyrdom,” which he sees as highly probable is also revealed by the chorus.
When King became concerned about the rise in crime and people began going to church courts rather than royal courts since church courts administer spiritual punishments, the conflict between King and Becket began.
This infuriated the King, who passed a statute allowing for punishment in royal court if found guilty in church court. People had to decide whether to support the King or the Church in this tough confrontation between the monarch and the archbishop. Becket departed England after refusing to abide by the new law.
Becket encounters the four tempters when he comes back. In response, Becket declares his resolve to resist the urge to give in. He specifically criticises the final temptation, which resembles doing something admirable with malicious purpose.
The book’s two halves are separated by an interlude. The interlude was a Christmas morning sermon by Becket. His serenity and commitment to accept death without pursuing sainthood are reflected in the sermons.
The second part of this play is set on December 29, 1170, when four knights of the king come in Canterbury with the goal to assassinate Becket. The king’s frustration with Becket was audible to the knights. They examined this expression to determine that he wanted to kill Becket.
The knights demand that Becket pardon everyone he excommunicated; Becket refuses, and they attempt to attack him, but the priest defends him. To protect Becket, the priest shut the church’s gate, but Becket persuaded them to open it because he was prepared to die.
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Becket was brutally slain by the four knights with their swords as soon as they opened the gate. When Christians learned of Thomas Becket’s passing, they were horrified. He came to represent the Christian rebellion against the ruler. In Canterbury, there is a shrine built in his memory.
The Knights stood up to defend their course of action as the chorus laments his passing. The killing is acceptable because Church should not challenge governmental authority.