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Murder in the Cathedral

by T.S. Eliot

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Although T.S. Eliot is a modern author, his play Murder in the Cathedral fits in the Medieval Reading List because it focuses on the martyrdom of Thomas a Becket, a twelfth century Archbishop of Canterbury.

Thomasís life provides ample subject matter for drama: before he served as Archbishop, he was the Chancellor under King Henry II. As Chancellor, he wielded political power second only to the king, and he flaunted his wealth and power at every opportunity. Henry was so pleased with his work that he added the office of Archbishop to his duties in 1162. And then everything changed.

Thomas quickly resigned his position as Chancellor, and began to zealously pursue the interests of the Catholic Church. In those days, the Church and the State both claimed jurisdiction over legal and political matters, so Thomas necessarily came into conflict with his king. When Thomas repudiated elements of a charter that Henry wanted him to embrace, the rift between the two men grew so wide that Thomas was forced to flee to France. He lived in exile for six years.

After the pope threatened England with various sanctions, Henry allowed Thomas to return to Canterbury in 1170. The time in exile had not mellowed Thomas; he promptly excommunicated some bishops and noblemen that were faithful to Henry. The king was furious; in his rage, he purportedly suggested that it would be better if Thomas were dead. Four knights took this as their cue, and murdered Thomas in his own cathedral on December 29th of that same year.

Eliotís play about Thomas, though largely ignored today, will eventually receive the recognition it deserves as a modern masterpiece. Its architecture is every bit as complex and orderly as that of a cathedral. Central to this architecture are the characters known as the four Tempters, mirrored later by the four Knights. The Tempters each offer Thomas something that the historical Thomas was tempted by at a stage in his life, with each temptation becoming progressively more appealing.

Ironically, the last temptation, which Eliot has his Thomas overcome, is the temptation to be a martyr. It seems unlikely that the historic Thomas was quite so stout-hearted.

by Jeff Baldwin