The acquisifion of Becket’s body gave Canterbury, already superior in rank to other English churches, clear supremacy in sanctity as well, especially among those lusty optimists, the pilgrims of Chaucer’s. Canterbury Tales. Becket dead was worth more to his city and see than Becket alive and intemperate. A great golden shrine was planned for the mangled body, just east of the choir, and the whole form of the cathedral’s eastern end was altered to make possible the most splendid presentation of this, the richest relic of them all.
Who was Becket, before death brought him even greater honors than those he’d known in life? A London-born Norman of great wit and charm, he became the trusted friend of the temperamental Henry II, and Chancellor of England. Henry pushed Becket into the archbishopric against his will and over his stern warning. As the king’s friend he was the king’s man. As Archbishop he was, to a great extent, God’s man—and, to some extent, his own. He dressed elegantly, but under his embroidered silk often wore coarse hair shirts or burlap tunics, dirty and louse-infested. Arrogance and humility shared Becket’s soul. But he was always a fighter, and fought to defend the role and realm that had been forced on him.
Becket had to die. “Are there no caitiffs who eat at my table who will rid me of this low-born clerk?” roared Henry in a fit of Angevin pique. Four knights in his company decided that the word “caitiff” (coward) did not properly describe them, and set off to Canterbury to do the king’s apparent bidding.
What happened then has made books and plays and films, and nothing of lesser scope can fully describe it. In brief:
The four killers came into Canterbury on a dank December day, picking up a few of Becket’s local enemies on the way. After a tempestuous meeting with Becket in his palace they left, shouting “To arms!” A little later, Thomas and his attendants entered the cathedral for Vespers.
His companions tried to close the door, but Becket stopped them. “The Church of God is not to be made into a fortress,” he said. The murderers came calling for Becket, “traitor to the king.” And he answered his enemies, “Here am I; no traitor, but a priest of God.”
The killers shuffled and clanked, for a moment subdued by the dimness of the great interior. Then, with raised swords, they crowded in upon their victim. Thomas stood firm, fearless, disdainful. “I am ready,” he said. “I die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace.”
The first stroke sliced through his scalp, but still he prayed. Three more blows, and he lay silent. One of his enemies reached down with a sword point and spilled his brains onto the stone floor, saying, “He will rise no more.”
Nor did he. But Christendom did, in horror and fury. Only the lords of the Church stood between the people of Europe and the kings and barons who so often abused them. In their eyes one of the greatest of the Lord’s servants had been cut down near God’s altar, for protecting the Church that protected them.