Murder in the Cathedral


‘Murder in the Cathedral’ by T.S. Eliot

We might be so easily tempted to suppose that ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ is simply about a ‘murder in a cathedral’. It isn’t - It is about so much more than that. In its intersection of the 12th and 20th Centuries, T.S. Eliot’s recasting, or recreation even, of the last days and death of St Thomas a Becket has more to say about our age than about Becket’s. The play contains various dimensions: Firstly, there is the life and death of Becket - the historical man, so to speak. And then there is the subsequent history of the figure of Becket. And thirdly, there is the Becket of Eliot’s drama, who is a construct of both. Thus, the characterisation of Becket that we have is a blend of attitudes engendered in history, from old histories, from hagiographies (lives of the Saints), and from the reformation rejection of Becket.

Thomas a Becket was born in Cheapside London – where the Church’s shoe shop now is - an English born Norman, sometime between 1118 and 1120. On June 2nd 1162 Thomas was ordained priest, and the following day was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury: A meteoric rise inconceivable (I hope) today! He was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in December 1170. For some reason, Thomas turned against King Henry II, who thought he had installed a trusty friend in Canterbury . Perhaps Thomas took his ordination and office more seriously than Henry expected him to. He is said to have said that he had changed from being a “patron of play-actors and a follower of hounds, to being a shepherd of souls”. Henry, suffice it to say was not only bewildered, but felt betrayed. Soon the men began to quarrel, notably over what is known as ‘benefit of Clergy’. Until this time a cleric could claim immunity from civil jurisdiction, appealing only to Canon Law for trial and punishment. Henry introduced the Constitutions of Clarendon which stated that criminal clergy (perish the thought of such people!), would be tried in ordinary courts, and then, when and if pronounced guilty, handed over for ecclesiastical punishment. This basic privilege was not abolished until 1827. Becket reluctantly accepted the Constitution of Clarendon in January 1164, but then confused and confounded everyone by trying to wriggle out of the commitment later. In October, Henry brought him to trial at Northampton, but Becket fled to France, where he remained until 1170. Louis VII of France and Pope Alexander urged a reconciliation between the two men, but they no longer trusted one another. In 1170, the Archbishop of York crowned Henry III (Henry II was not dead, his son was the only English king to be crowned while his predecessor still lived). Thomas was furious because it was and still is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s prerogative to crown the king. In order to return to England to sort out his differences with York and those who had crowned the younger King, Thomas patched it up with Henry II and returned to England. A peace was struck up, but a short-lived one. Thomas excommunicated the Archbishop of York, and the Bishops of London and Salisbury. These men complained to King Henry, moaning in Normandy where he then was. Thus four knights from Normandy crossed the channel specifically to kill Becket, spurred on by some angry, and probably unintended words of the king: ‘who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’

Until 1538, when it was destroyed, Becket’s tomb in Canterbury was a scene of great reverence and, of course, pilgrimage. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are of course the tales told by pilgrims on their way to Canterbury to pay homage at Thomas’ tomb. Chaucer’s account of the pilgrimage is fictional - he gathered stories from all over Europe and placed them in the mouths of his pilgrims in order to unify them. According to Chaucer, the Pilgrimage to Canterbury was an annual event in the Spring, when pilgrims would wend their way to Canterbury to the blessed martyr’s tomb, to be cured of sickness. Thomas’ sanctification was never questioned by the people – even though the Pope had never given him unequivocal support – and there is little doubt that Thomas was an imperious, obstinate, violent and ambitious man. But he was canonised by popular demand, and in the light of a brutal murder for which Henry II was publicly penitent. The cult of Becket lasted until the reformation, until which time he was one of England’s favourite saints. Images of him could be found all over English Churches, but were attacked by Henry’s iconoclasts for two reasons: Firstly because all images were frowned upon as papist, and idolatrous; and secondly, because Henry VIII regarded Thomas Becket as a traitor. So, as well as destroying images of Becket, all mention of him was deleted, even in prayer books.

The history of Becket’s history is thus chequered. Shamed and murdered by Henry II, he was immediately made a saintly hero, venerated for four centuries and then disgraced and discredited. Then in our own age he has found favour and interest again through literature. Writers from Tennyson to Jean Anouilh have found inspiration in his life. We, of course, turn to T. S Eliot’s version.

The play begins as Becket returns from France, with an unstable peace struck up with Henry. The opening lines set the scene: “Here let us stand by the cathedral, here let us wait”. This is an advent theme, waiting, but what are they waiting for?

The play opens with this anticipatory line. But there is a brooding, melancholy tone. The women of Canterbury are lamenting the absence of their father in God. Eliot establishes Becket as missed by the people. They are waiting for his return, but there is also a sense that everyone must wait for the inevitable events that are about to unfold. So, while the women lament Thomas’ absence, when his return is announced, they lament all the more his return. They do not want anything to happen - they have succeeded in avoiding notice, ‘living and partly living’. They have seen births, marriages and scandals, but life goes on. So having bemoaned Thomas’ absence, they now entreat him to leave. They don’t want trouble, or hassle. Nor can they bear too much reality, as Eliot puts it.

Thomas does return, and is greeted warmly by many - his return is described in a way that is reminiscent of Palm Sunday. Immediately, Thomas is tempted by the tempters. He is not Christ, even if we, or he, thinks he might be. He is tempted by pleasure, advancement and praise. Thomas kind of expects three temptations, like Jesus. But then comes the final tempter, unexpected, unpredictable, who tempts him with his future, not his past - the temptation to attain to attain glory by tricking God: to obtain Glory through deliberate martyrdom. He had few friends and plenty who would do away with him. So he could plead the moral high ground by sticking to ecclesiastical grounds. But there is a betrayal of the gospel, in seeking glory, in pretending false humility, in manipulating and encouraging others’ sin.

On the other hand, there is the apparent integrity of his situation - he is not popular with the King, and risks murder at every step. But should he compromise - should he betray his mission, his purpose, and his God? He is trapped between betrayals - betray himself, or his principles. It calls into question his every action. As Becket says in the play: “The last temptation is the greatest treason - to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”

Eliot’s agenda comes through strongly in Thomas’ response to temptation - the tempters join together as forces of negative influence to persuade Thomas that life is a cheat and a disappointment. They say that man’s greatest enemy is himself, because everything is delusion and illusion. His fellow priests stand on the other side, telling Thomas to evade the ‘intractable tide’, of pessimism which thinks this way. But it is tempting isn’t it? - for there is a certain randomness to our lives, a certain uncertainty - ‘a man may climb the stair by day and slip on a broken step’. Winning the lottery, getting cancer, being run over by a bus, are all random events, more or less statistically probable. Eliot leaves this as an open question at the end of the first act - Thomas consciously resists the three tempters, but lays open the possibility that he has succumbed to the fourth, to seek or allow martyrdom.

Between the acts comes a sermon - a genuine transcript of the last sermon Thomas gave, less than a week before being murdered. Real life history, and drama blend here - Eliot inserts the real thing just as Robert Bolt draws heavily on the real trial of Thomas More in his play ‘A man for all seasons’. When fiction stands back to allow historical record to take the limelight the effect can be very powerful. The crux of Thomas’ sermon, in which he discusses the death of martyrs, is that there is weeping and rejoicing at the same time. Like the women of Canterbury, we are fundamentally confused. Our lives our made up of celebration and lament. Tears of pain and joy. There is wealth and poverty in all areas of life, often going from one to the other. An outward appearance often conceals the up and down-ness of our daily existence. We mourn and rejoice at the same time, forever balancing our emotions, trying not to let ourselves or others down. Even a great man like Becket experienced this dichotomy.

Thus for Act 2, the scene is set, the tragedy primed. The play is effectively over. We watch the inevitable happen. Thomas is set on a collision course with the King, with the knights, with God, perhaps, and even with himself. Thomas is killed at his own altar, and is seen to not resist, even to deliberately anger the knights who attack him. But then the real act is shrouded in unreality as the knights step forward, to address the audience. Their reality as real life people and the unreality of the way the murder is presented, intersect. One by one they plead that they were disinterested in their action - they had no personal grudge. That Thomas overstepped his station, and was therefore acting against national interest, hence that the soldiers have done all of us a favour. Thirdly, that Thomas effectively committed suicide by angering them into killing him when he could have fled. It is a parody of the English legal system. In this section of the play we see Eliot as a master of dramatic manipulation - the play sets Thomas up as a kind of hero victim. Perhaps he is a tragic hero, murdered in the Cathedral for his fatal flaw - pride, or an arrogant fool who gets his comeuppance. Although in one sense he gets what he wants. We cannot simply take Thomas’ side, and cheer for the underdog because we are English, for the knights argue very convincingly that Thomas was justifiably got out of the way. The knights’ appeal to English decency is ironic, they being French.

In one sense, this is a play in which nothing happens. It is just a murder in the cathedral. The interest lies in what goes on in the minds of Thomas, the knights, and more importantly what goes on in our minds. At one point one of the knights says that we – the audience – we killed Becket – it is our fault. We are sucked in, involved. The play is a mirror to us and our society even today. Eliot holds us a mirror to see ourselves in the minds of his characters, but he moves it and catches different rays of light, so that we become confused, like the women of Canterbury, who, like a chorus line, are always watching, and waiting. Eliot manages to convey the ordinariness, the irrelevance of this death alongside the deep significance of a murder of an Archbishop.

Eliot would not have known about bombs on tube trains (although he would have read Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, which is another modernist work that shouts very loudly in our liberal western faces). The idea that religion and politics don’t, or shouldn’t intersect is an old one: we bemoan the terror on our streets today, but there is a straight line all the way back: religion and terror have always been connected, and martyrdom is a very modern concept, not leastly because – as Eliot would not have known – there were more Christian martyrs in the twentieth century than in all the other centuries put together. Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, among others made martyrs by the million. Unlike Becket, it would seem, they did not have a choice.

With all these questions and little resolved, Eliot leaves us with the Te Deum slightly rewritten. In their confusion, doubt and wonder, the priests and people praise the Lord. Like Job, they say “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord!”. It is our only valid response, really. The same people who said they did not want anything to happen, conclude by admitting their part in the sin of the world. It makes us wonder what has changed? Perhaps they have, and that is the important thing. And we too can be changed by these events, even if we know not how. The drama enacted before them has not only been before them, but in them. In us too. We are all, like they, representative of the Common man and woman. Our experience of life is fundamentally the same. That is how Eliot’s twentieth century rendition of a 12th century tale is now a twenty-first century phenomenon – and therein lies its greatness. As a commentary on history itself, it is dateless – timeless. And then there’s Becket himself: he is different - however we may feel about his actions, motives and thoughts, he has risen above the commonplace, to make a difference. Was it worth it?

The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 17/9/17