On this day in 1170 Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in his cathedral by followers of King Henry II of England. It was the culmination of years of legal and verbal conflict between King and Archbishop and the Pope.
When finally the exasperated King expressed his frustration, some of his courtiers interpreted this as a wish that Beckett be killed. Four knights took it upon themselves to go to Canterbury and confront the archbishop, who was about to start the service of vespers in the Cathedral. Beckett refused to listen to them and, incensed with rage, they grabbed their weapons and brutally slew him in front of the congregation. Under the rich vestments, Beckett was wearing a hair shirt.
The murder shocked Christendom; Henry and the knights were forced to do penance.
Here is Chaucer’s prologue to his famous Canterbury Tales:
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
And many little birds make melody
That sleep all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.
And specially from every shire’s end
Of England they to Canterbury wend,
The holy blessed martyr there to seek
Who helped them when they lay so ill and weak
Today I reflect on arrogance and the need for true humility.