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A Canterbury Tale

On our first trip to England Robert and I traveled from London to Kent. While there we visited Canterbury Cathedral. All these years later, I remember little of the building’s architecture, just that it was replete with all the requisite embellishments of a Medieval cathedral — flying buttresses and gargoyles outside, soaring columns and statuary inside, and space. Lots of space.

We attached ourselves to a tour group led by a middle-aged woman in a plaid skirt, cardigan and sensible shoes. She led us through the main floor, naming the various shrines and explaining that the interior had once looked very different from what we were seeing. All the somber stone surfaces would have been painted in brightly colored designs— color to rival that of the glowing stained-glass windows.

Next, she led us down a flight of stone stairs to the crypt, a huge space with sweeping arches overhead. The air was dank, the light dusky, and the atmosphere rife with the spirits of the dead. We were led to the tomb of Thomas à Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury whose story our guide was about to relate. 

In 1155, King Henry ll appointed Becket Chancellor of England, a post well suited to his intelligence, charm, and natural authority. The two men became friends, and Becket used his position to amass great wealth and power. Seven years later, in an effort to gain greater authority over the Church, Henry appointed his friend Becket Archbishop of Canterbury.

“Things didn’t quite work out the way Henry had planned,” the tour guide told us. “As soon as Becket assumed the role of archbishop, he embraced it completely. He renounced his worldly habits and took to fasting and wearing sackcloth. Even more troubling for Henry was Becket’s insistence that the church, as an instrument of God, did not answer to the Crown.” She paused. “Needless to say, this did not set well with Henry, and he is reputed to have said, ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’”

  Apparently, there were knights ready to do just that. When they arrived at the cathedral, Becket took refuge underground. “The king’s knights came down those stairs,” our guide said, pointing. The group turned as one as if we fully expected to see a hoard of armed knights descend on us. “And we’re standing on the very spot where they sliced the top of the Archbishop’s head off.” A collective groan rose from the group. I shivered. The guide laughed.

This is the story I have carried with me since our visit to Canterbury Cathedral all those years ago. In researching this piece, I discovered that the story now being told on the tours differs significantly. Now, visitors hear that Becket was accosted on the main floor and hung onto one of the columns when they tried to remove him from the cathedral. The two stories agree that the top of his head was sliced off and his brains scattered on the stone floor.

  In the absence of video footage and given that the murder took place almost a thousand years ago, I’m sticking to the crypt story. I mean, what Archbishop in his right mind would hang around the nave when he could seek refuge underground? Throughout history, people have sought safety in subterranean spaces — caves, trenches, bunkers, bomb shelters, and basements. Wouldn’t Becket have done the same?

Of course, just because we seek safety doesn’t mean we actually find it. People get electrocuted in caves during lightning storms. Bomb shelters can be blown to smithereens. Soldiers drown in the mud of trenches. And if the King’s knights are on a mission to kill a pesky Archbishop, they’ll do it. So, pick the story you like best. Whether the murder was perpetrated in the sanctuary or the basement, the brains of Thomas à Becket were unquestionably spilled in Canterbury Cathedral on the 29th of December in the year of our Lord 1170.


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