Monday, January 25, 2010

Of Cathedrals and Martyrs

In five days, I hope to be standing in a spot I have thought about for 40 plus years. We are visiting England soon, and among other places we will visit is Canterbury.

Pilgrims all! We will make a day trip to this site that was once one of the most visited places in all Christendom. (Remember Chaucer's Canterbury Tales? Yup, about pilgrims visiting that famous site.)

When I was a young master's student, I selected as my thesis topic the contrast between the historical Thomas Becket and the dramatic presentation of him in two plays: Jean Anouilh's play Becket and T.S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral. In an absolute gift for research, I had a newly published biography of Becket which helped me to sort out man from myth.

Becket was a larger than life character. Educated as a priest, one of the few options available for advancement for a young man without means, he and Henry II, king of England, were grand friends, bar-hopping and whoring together. Then, Becket was named Archbishop of Canterbury, found God, and turned on his friend, the king. In a radical turnabout, he began to block Henry's wishes at every opportunity. Henry was one of those fantastic monarchs who coalesced the power of the monarchy, at that time. But Becket stood in his way, insisting on the ancient powers of sanctuary and the ecclesiastical law.

In a fit of rage, Henry is reputed to have screamed "Will no one rid me of this priest" which four of his nobleman in Normandy (where the English kings resided) overheard. They promptly crossed the English Channel, stormed into Canterbury Cathedral, where they encountered Becket, who had sought sanctuary at the high altar. Perhaps taking their clue from their king, the knights ignored the high holy altar, and with swords raised, hacked Becket to pieces, scattering his brains on the stones. Faithful servants finding the devastated remains of their beloved archbishop gathered up the remnants of his body.

Becket was fast-tracked for sainthood. He was martyred in 1170 and was named a saint in 1173--almost unheard of (then). It was his elevation to sainthood that got all those pilgrims tromping off to Canterbury in the first place.

I too shall soon be standing there, contemplating Thomas the man and the myth. I do not know what I will feel when I stand there, but perhaps in a week or so, I shall be able to give a report.
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Image of Canterbury Cathedral from Wikipedia Commons

Image of Becket at the altar from http://www.nndb.com/people/838/000086580/

13 comments:

Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

Enjoy your own pilgrimage Donna.
I look forward to reading all about it.

Ruth said...

Have a wonderful, safe trip. I look forward to your insights in your travels. I didn't know this story.

Cathy said...

Hello there
This is spoken with tongue in cheek - I think you'll feel cold - cathedrals are not the warmest of places so rug up lol

Lucky you, Canterbury is one cathedral I've never visited and its reputed to be stunning - runs rings round York Minster and Lincoln. Its also been listed as a World Heritage Site.
As others have said, enjoy your time and tell us all about it when you return
Cathy

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Have a safe journey. Enjoy the trip (needless to say) and your Canterbury visit. Buy the books!

And write about it at length when you get back.

Anvilcloud said...

This happened much earlier than I had thought. I'll try not to be envious of your trip.

Donna Henderson said...

Wow. How cool. That's pretty much my comment: how cool. Can't wait to see and read about it when you get back.

Jayne said...

How lovely that you will be able to stand in that place and soak in all the history.

Climenheise said...

Hambe Kahle, Sisi. Enjoy the trip. Canterbury and time with family. Yay!

Africakid said...

You'll enjoy the cathedral even more, knowing all the background information! Have a wonderful visit!

Ginnie said...

There is nothing to match the anticipation and excitement about seeing something that you've read and dreamed about for years. Have a wonderful time.

possumlady said...

I think you must have already left today (seeing as you were working on Farmville around 4:00 this morning!), but just wanted to wish you a wonderful trip and, like others, can't wait to read and see the photos about it.

jeanmac said...

Safe travels and I,too, look forward to your posts after the trip.

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

As with Chaucer's pilgrims, I trust you will have a few bawdy tales to tell as well as your lofty experience at the Cathedral.

When you tell of Thomas's resistance to secular authority and his paying for it with his life I think of others, say Archbishop Romaro.