Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist


God was supposedly mixed up in it- as God was mixed up with everything in the Middle Ages- but really it was a political quarrel- between two great earthly powers- the power of the Papacy (which was as venal and corrupt and mean-minded as any other power) and the power of the Angevin Empire- with Becket- who had switched sides- caught in the middle. From the perspective of nearly a thousand years, the details of the quarrel have come to be insignificant- as happens with political quarrels over time- and God seems to have nothing to do with it. Should priests who commit criminal acts be subject to the judgement of the King or Pope? Who cares? And why should God have cared even then- unless of course He really is the small-minded, power-crazy loon we've made him out to be?- which of course He isn't.

So Becket ought to be forgotten, but hasn't been. We English are good at remembering things- so good at it that the world relies on our memories- and turns them into icons and avatars- King Arthur, Robin Hood, Henry VIII. And Becket too is remembered- not as he was, not for the minutiae of what he thought he believed in- but as the man of peace in his house of peace- standing up to the men of war.

It's almost as good as the story of Calvary- which it so closely resembles- Here's how that great stylist and shamelessly partisan historian- Hilaire Belloc tells it, remembering his visit to the cathedral on the anniversary of the murder...

"I had thought to discover the hard large face in profile, still caught in the last light from the round southern windows and gazing fixedly; the choir beyond at their alternate nasal chaunt; the battering of oak; the jangle of arms, and of scabbards trailing, as the troops broke in; the footfalls of the monks that fled, the sharp insults, the blows and Gilbert groaning, wounded, and a Becket dead. I listened for Mauclerc's mad boast of violence, scattering the brains on the pavement and swearing that the dead could never rise; then for the rush and flight from the profanation of the temple, and for distant voices crying outside in the streets of the city, under the sunset, The Kings Men! The King's!"

Christ rose again. And so in a fashion did Becket. The shrine that all Christendom attended and went to be healed at is gone- smashed by another Henry in an attempt to finish what his namesake began- but that was only stone and metal and crystal- and memory is stronger than memorials. In the mid-20th century- the age above all (the dead midwinter) of ungodly and all-demanding state power- Becket inspired two good plays- one by the Frenchman Jean Anouilh and the other by the Anglo-American Thomas Stearns Eliot. In 1982 where else should the first regnant Pope to visit England choose to kneel in prayer, with the schismatic Archbishop of Canterbury beside him, but in the so-called Martyrdom- in front of the spot where Becket went down?

The Martyrdom occupies the North West transept of the cathedral. There is nothing very fussy about it. We're English; we can remember things without having to rely on confections of plaster gilt or whatever. On a wall above the murder site is a sculpture by one-time cathedral architect Giles Blomfield- which cunningly combines the three crosses of Calvary with the one man surrounded by four swords. On the floor an otherwise plain stone is incised with the man's given name, Thomas.

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