On 29 December 1170, Thomas à Becket, archbishop of Canterbury was assassinated inside Canterbury Cathedral by four knights at King Henry II’ bidding. Soon after his death, he was canonised by Pope Alexander III and his shrine in Canterbury Cathedral became an important focus for pilgrimage.
He is venerated as a saint and martyr by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church.
TS Eliot dramatized his assassination in “Murder in the Cathedral”, first performed in 1935
It is a verse drama in two parts, with a prose interlude: a sermon given by Becket on Christmas morning in 1170.
In the first part Thomas Becket, who was once a powerful and well-regarded chancellor, has just come back from his exile in France where he spent seven years owing to his quarrel with the king, who was his former friend and associate. In England he made many enemies as Archbishop because he excommunicated several bishops.
In Canterbury, he is visited by four tempters who offer him worldly pleasures, lasting power as chancellor, recognition as a leader of the barons against the king, and eternal glory as a martyr, trying to play on his past frailties. But he rejects all of them.
In the second part of the play, which takes place on 29 December 1170, four knights in the service of the king approach him and order him to leave the kingdom. He refuses because “Seven years a mendicant on foreign charity I lingered abroad: Seven years is no brevity. I shall not get those seven years back.”
When they return, they slay him at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral, and later justify their deed to the audience
The interest of the play does not lie in the action but in the examination of the Archbishop’s internal struggle, his ideals and motivations, contrasted with those of the priests, the tempters, and the murderers.
Unreal friendship may turn to real
But real friendship, once ended, cannot be mended.
Sooner shall enmity turn to alliance.
The enmity that never knew friendship
Can sooner know accord.
La falsa amicizia può diventare vera,
ma una vera amicizia, una volta finita, non può più rinnovarsi.
È più facile che sia l’inimicizia a diventare alleanza.
L’inimicizia che non conobbe mai amicizia
può trovare più facilmente un accordo.
Image: Wikimedia Commons – Thomas Becket Altar in Canterbury Cathedral