Thomas Stearns Eliot and Thomas Becket of Cheapside at the University of King’s College, November 1999

T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral had its first performance in England in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral on the 19th of June, 1935; it was very important to Eliot that his play was being performed within some fifty yards of the actual assassination of Thomas Becket of Cheapside. Becket was initially Archdeacon of Canterbury, then Chancellor of England under his friend, King Henry II, and then finally, but unhappily and at Henry’s insistence, Archbishop of Canterbury from his election in 1162 to his death in 1170.  Indeed, most of his episcopal office was spent in exile, since he fled England in November 1164, and did not return to England (“Seven years and the summer is over”) until the 2nd of December, 1170, which is when Eliot’s drama begins.  As the Chorus so correctly asserts: “you come bringing death into Canterbury”.

This KTS production is of great interest here at King’s College, not only because T.S. Eliot’s famous poem The Waste Land (1922) is a standard item in the Foundation Year Programme repertoire, but also because the play itself raises so many issues relevant to the discussion of the Programme’s Medieval section, which has just concluded earlier in November.


Behind the great conflict between King and Archbishop, between King and former Chancellor lies that conflict loosely referred to as the “Investiture Controversy”, which is to say, who has the right “to invest” bishops with the symbols of their office.  Thomas Becket alludes to this when he says, “Both before and after I received the [bishop’s] ring / I have been a loyal subject to the King.”  At the top of Mount Purgatory, King’s students will remember that Vergil says his farewell to Dante by bestowing upon him all earthly authority in the form of mitre and crown, that is ecclesiastical and civil insignia (Canto xxvii of Dante’s Purgatorio).  For a brief moment Thomas Becket actually embodied this reality in his dual roles of Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of England –combining within his single person both the highest (non-hereditary) sacred and secular offices in England.  But, as we also know from Dante’s De Monarchia, that ancient aspiration for a “royal priesthood” can only find imperfect expression under the heavens: humans, like horses, are held in check by reins and bit, working together.  The chariot of human government requires both church and state working in harmony, and cannot dispense with either the one or the other.


Becket resigned the Chancellorship after his election as Archbishop, for fear that the independence of his sacred office would be compromised by too close an association with the policies of the monarch in whose Kingdom he had been chief executive officer and had now become chief spiritual authority.  In Dante’s terms of the twofold ends of humankind, temporal happiness and eternal bliss, Becket was undoubtedly correct.  But King Henry – incidentally 15 years Thomas’ junior – was not without his wholly legitimate concerns.  The strict independence of the Church from the strictures of civil law led to its own insupportable abuses.  For instance, Henry had been informed that English clerics had committed no less than 100 murders(!) in the six years since his coronation in 1157, and were, through the parallel English ecclesiastical courts, escaping proper retribution for their crimes. Particularly troubling was the case of Archdeacon Osbert of York, who was charged with murder by poisoning of his immediate superior, the Archbishop of York.  Eventually, this wicked cleric was punished by being deprived of his living and his priestly office, but otherwise suffered no further consequences for a dastardly crime, of which he was judged to be the perpetrator.  Becket, upholding the independence of the Church, opposed all forms of “double jeopardy” – as if, in our system, those tried under military court-martial should not thereafter suffer the civil consequences of their actions.


As it happens, students in the FYP are reading Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) in the very week of this production of Murder in the Cathedral; as Becket was transfigured into a saint after his assassination, so his namesake and successor as Chancellor of England, Thomas More, has also been canonized for his defiance of another King Henry, in conscience.   By one of those great ironies, which make a lasting impression on the historical consciousness, More spent his last 15 months in the Tower of London, the very same Tower which Becket undertook successfully to repair during his term as Chancellor.  One of the turning points in the conflict between Henry II and Thomas Beckett was the publication of the so-called “Constitutions of Clarendon” in January of 1164.  In these, Henry asserted his right to bring to trial the criminal acts of priests and clerics; of greater practical interest, however, was the royal claim to the (often considerable) income of vacant episcopal sees (or dioceses).  This issue was also very much to the fore in the time of Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey (More’s immediate predecessor as Chancellor).  Henry was extremely interested in church property as a new source of revenue (I refer you to Henry’s infamous “dissolution of the monasteries” in the 1530s).  Cardinal Wolsey himself had no aversion to accumulating as many ecclesiastical offices as possible.  Just two years before the beginning of the Reformation, he managed to occupy the offices of the  Archbishop of York and Chancellor of England, as well as Bishop of Lincoln, and Abbot of St Albans, and then in succession Bishop of Bath and Wells (1518), Durham (1524) and Winchester (1529).  St Albans was the wealthiest abbey in England and Winchester the wealthiest see, which seemed to be their greatest attraction.  It could be asked just how much pastoral care and oversight Cardinal Thomas Wolsey actually exercised in these far-flung parts of the Kingdom from Henry’s capital city of London.


If with Becket we look forward to the “reforming” political sensibility of More’s Utopia, we should not forget also to look backward to Becket’s companionship with John of Salisbury (d.1180), almost Becket’s exact contemporary.  Both Thomas and John were attached to the household of Becket’s immediate predecessor as Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald.  In another striking coincidence, Theobald himself had also occupied the office of Abbot of Bec, here imitating one of his great predecessors, the speculative St Anselm (d. 1109), who had been in his time, both Abbot of Bec and Archbishop of Canterbury.  Under the direction of Archbishop Theobald, Thomas Becket studied both civil and canon (ecclesiastical) law in Italy at the University of Bologna.  The institution there founded in the late 11th Century has often been credited with the distinction of being the very first instance of higher learning which we may truly, even here at King’s, designate as “the mother of a university”.  Becket’s study of both civil and canon law was a potent, fateful premonition and foreshadowing of his own ill-starred attempts to combine the demands of civil and ecclesiastical justice.  John of Salisbury was actually present at the “Murder in the Cathedral” – since he served as secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury both under Theobald and Thomas.  John, students will remember, is the political theorist who argued, in part, that “the place of the head in the body of the commonwealth is filled by the prince, who is subject only to God and to those who exercise His office and represent Him on earth…” (1159; my italics).  This, in a nutshell, is the essence of the whole conflict: “subject only to God and those who… represent Him on earth”.  As Dante would have it: “Caesar therefore owes to Peter the piety which a first-born son owes to his father.”  Herein lies the grotesque impiety which is the subject of Murder in the Cathedral.  After Thomas’ assassination, John was concerned to preserve the memory of his master and collected his correspondence.  In the end, John became the Bishop of Chartres; his episcopal office, therefore, was exercised in the city, which in due course has been associated with the greatest glory of Gothic architecture, Chartres Cathedral.


As students of Dante will know – and T.S. Eliot was certainly one of them, since there are both traces and specific references to Dante everywhere in Eliot’s poetry – the frozen lake of Cocytus is that particular region of the Inferno – and the City of Dis – reserved for those vassals who betray their liege-lords.  This theme is picked up in Eliot’s play by Thomas both as the King’s “most faithful vassal in the land”, and when Thomas Becket addresses the leader of the assassins, Reginald Fitz Urse.  Thomas denounces him according to the representation of the three-headed vision of Satan, into whose three mouths are stuffed those who committed the ultimate act of treachery against their liege-lords, Caesar and Christ, respectively: Brutus, Cassius and Judas.  Here is the threefold offence, perversely reflecting the threefold division of Satan, as Thomas Beckett charges:

You, Reginald, three times traitor you:

Traitor to me as my temporal vassal,

Traitor to me as your spiritual lord,

Traitor to God in desecrating His Church.

Here, once again, we hear the baleful blast of Roland’s horn, the Oliphant, and also the cock crowing twice, before Thomas shall be denied thrice.  The desecration is complete, Reginald betrays his liege-lord in both his secular and sacred office, and compounds the offence by the desecration of God’s hallowed ground.


As it happens, students of the FYP will be aware that sacred places are favourite locations for assassinations and conspiracies; the so-called Pazzi conspiracy against Lorenzo de’Medici, Lorenzo the Magnificent, the leading citizen of Florence, was arranged for Sunday, April 26th, 1478 (that is to say Easter Sunday in the year 1478)!  The conspirators needed to kill Lorenzo and his brother, Giuliano, together, so that all threat of reprisal might be eliminated.  Where better than in Florence’s Duomo during the singing of an Easter mass: the brothers would be in devoted prayer and most vulnerable to an unexpected attack.  One of the conspirators actually walked into the church of Santa Reparata arm in arm with the brother they managed to kill, Giuliano.  As the Psalmist would have it: “Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread…” (41:9), he it was who betrayed me with a kiss.   True to form, the conspirators waited for the most sacred moment of the mass, the consecration of the host, to complete their treachery.  Human hatred and envy makes human beings capable of the most heinous crimes, and so the conspirators, including the Archbishop of Pisa, and the two priests(!) who tried to stab Lorenzo unsuccessfully were all hanged from the windows of the conspirators’ homes (and from Florence’s Palazzo della Signoria).


The heart of Eliot’s play is the sermon which Thomas is represented as delivering on Christmas Morning, just four days before his brutal murder; this is a masterpiece and a timely antidote as we make our way towards Advent Sunday.  By tradition, Christmas morning is accounted as the happiest time of the Christian year, but here Thomas urges his congregation to use the solemnity of Christmas in order to enter into its deeper insight. He reminds his congregation that they are celebrating the “mass” of Christ, that Christ-mas is incomplete without the Holy Communion that lies at heart of Christian devotion, and that this Holy Communion is not so much about Christ’s birth, as it is a recollection of “the Passion and Death of Our Lord”.  Becket implores his hearers to remember that it is for this “Passion and Death” that Christ is born into the world, as surely as it is the purpose of an acorn to develop into an oak tree.  Therefore, Becket explains, at Christmas, we “both mourn and rejoice at once and for the same reason”, almost as if we were attending a christening party and a wake simultaneously.  Two of our authors who match this profundity are Montaigne and Shakespeare. On the one hand, Montaigne urges us to remove from death “its greatest advantage over us… let us deprive death of its strangeness; let us frequent it, let us get used to it… We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere.”  (Even on Christmas morning.)  And in Shakespeare’s incomparable turn, he seems actually to be speaking for Becket in Measure for Measure.  Here we find a formula[*] which cannot be surpassed:

To sue to live, I find I seek to die,

And seeking death, find life. Let it come on.

So, too, says Eliot’s Becket: “Let it come on.”


The great historical interest in the character of Thomas Becket as a person revolves around his apparently inexplicable conversion from loyal friend and servant of the King to implacable opponent and enemy of the King’s policies.  We can be certain that nothing like this was anticipated by Henry’s insistence that Thomas take up the office of Archbishop, but it is foreshadowed by Thomas’ extreme reluctance actually to occupy this highest ecclesiastical distinction.  The episcopal see of Canterbury remained vacant for nearly a year after the death of Theobald.  (“While I ate of the King’s dish / To become servant of God was never my wish.”)  Thomas Becket has been compared to the Biblical Joseph in the court of the Egyptian Pharaoh.  Thomas enjoyed Henry’s complete confidence: as it says in the Book of Genesis: “And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph’s hand” (41:42), thus investing him with the symbol of his office, as is the case with episcopal investiture.  After finally taking possession of the see of Canterbury, Thomas changed his appearance and disposition.  He was now governed – against all expectation – by something higher than the royal imperative; remember Thomas had been a priest all along.  It is hard here not to see some parallel with Eliot’s equally “baffling” conversion away from the poetry of the “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917), The Waste Land and “The Hollow Men” (1925) – but the premonitions are also very strong.  “To lead you to an overwhelming question… Do I dare to eat a peach?” (Prufrock); “But what is there to do? what is left to be done?” (Thomas); “The Waste Land” begins with the assertion that “April is the cruellest month”; Murder in the Cathedral provides the necessary echo: “Ruinous spring shall beat at our doors.”   “The hope only / Of empty men…. Life is very long” (“The Hollow Men”);

Yet we have gone on living… Living and partly living;

The terror by night that ends in daily action…

(Canterbury Chorus).


After its premiere in Canterbury, Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral transferred to the Mercury Theatre in London for an opening on All Saints’ Day, 1935.  It played there for 225 performances before going on a provincial tour, and then returning again to London.  Since theatre is a living reality, Eliot, during rehearsal, excised some of the lines which impeded the flow of the play.  These lines we now know (cf. Peter Ackroyd’s biography) formed the basis of Eliot’s culminating vision in the Four Quartets.  The first of these is “Burnt Norton” (1936), named after an English manor house constructed on top of the charred remains of an earlier manor which had fallen victim to a conflagration – no doubt a veiled reference to the extreme hiatus in the personalities and histories both of Thomas Becket and Thomas Eliot.  The beginning of “Burnt Norton” picks up the pieces in a remaindered speech from Murder in the Cathedral; the opening sentence of this poem reads like a kind of motto for the Foundation Year Programme – from whose cornucopia so many of us have benefitted:

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.



[*] Shakespeare’s use of the verb “to sue” is here best understood in the sense of “to entreat, to plead, to beg”.

Please follow me: