One of those historical events that has gained the weight of myth through its extraordinary and complicated circumstances, the murder of Thomas Becket is notable for more than the martyrdom it produced. Instead, the profundity of the experience derives from the themes of Becket's friendship with the English King Henry II, a relationship that in its dissolution touches on themes of class, power, and personality. It is important to understand the general idea of this story to best appreciate Eliot's play, since he would have assumed his audience was familiar with the story.
Thomas Becket was born to parents of moderate means in Cheapside, a poor London neighborhood, circa 1118. The world remained largely feudal at this time, meaning that the king ruled under the pretense of divine right, with the entire society below him organized around financial responsibility to him. The medieval feudal system was strictly hierarchical and the concept of social mobility had barely been breached.
Therefore, Becket's rise to power is extraordinary. His parents insisted he pursue an education, even sending him to a fashionable school in Paris. While this decision might have been inspired by concern over the then-tumultuous political situation in England, it also served to introduce Becket to the study of Latin and the classical texts that he would later rely on to secure his reputation.
The political situation in England was complicated. The royal line of succession had been in question for several years at this point and Henry, the young upstart from the Angevin line, was contending for the crown. Ultimately, through both warfare and characteristic subterfuge, he would both ensure the crown for himself and construct a powerful central authority.
After returning to England, Becket secured a few advantageous apprenticeships that ultimately earned him a post under Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury. In this position, Thomas revealed his political instinct and began to meet members of the highest levels of society and government. While never ordained as a priest, Thomas was introduced to the conventions of the clerical life, and certainly never lost the connection to the Church that he engendered at this point.
After he was crowned King, some of Henry II's most pressing concerns involved England's relationship with France. At the time, England included several provinces in the north of modern-day France. This property increased after Henry wed Eleanor of Acquaintance, who had already been married to the French king Louis but had her marriage annulled when he could not produce children. The many conflicts between Henry and Louis were partially ameliorated by the political advocacy of Thomas Becket.
Thomas was ten years Henry's senior and of a decidedly lower parentage, but their friendship and partnership grew quickly from this point. Henry named Thomas Chancellor, an administrative post that was in many ways second in power only the king, since the chancellor was responsible for enacting the laws and deciding the particulars of the kingdom. Though the extent of their friendship has potentially been exaggerated by time and a historical record influenced by the propagandistic purposes of their later schism, Thomas certainly enjoyed a high post in Henry's rule and was trusted like few others.
One of Henry's primary goals was to reinstate certain ancestral customs that his grandfather had enjoyed as king before the line of succession became confused. Among these customs was a consolidation of power under the King. As it stood, rule and management of England was organized under three classes: the ruling class (Henry and his court), the barons (aristocratic land-owners), and the Church. The medieval Church was extremely powerful, a political institution in its own right, and while the Pope only occasionally used explicit military power, the threat of excommunication stood as the ultimate punishment in this Christian world. To be excommunicated meant one was prohibited from entering heaven, and so rulers and peasants alike feared upsetting the Church's designs.
And yet the bishops of the Church were too free from secular control in Henry's eyes, even having their own courts and system of justice that was completely divorced from the king's courts. Therefore, Henry and Thomas endeavored together to consolidate power, a responsibility Thomas seems to have relished. Meanwhile, Thomas grew to develop fine tastes thanks to the money he had access to. He was known for his efficiency but also for his pride and sanctimony.
When Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Thomas's first mentor, died, Henry decided to nominate Thomas for the post. This was the most powerful religious position in England, the closet to the Pope that an Englishman could get. Thomas would then serve as both Chancellor and Archbishop, which would naturally consolidate the power of those two elements in the kingdom.
It was an incredibly prestigious opportunity for anyone, much less a low-born man like Thomas. And yet within less than a year after being named Archbishop in 1162, Thomas revealed a spiritual prerogative that was in stark contrast with Henry's desire. Whether Thomas was truly inspired by his new spiritual duties or saw a political purpose in opposing the king is open to historical debate. However, the friendship quickly began to dissolve as Thomas resigned the Chancellorship and then began to refuse Henry the access to the church courts that he requested. Thomas continued to claim that he was loyal to Henry above all others except God, which incensed the hothead, impetuous, arrogant king to no end.
The struggle persisted until Henry successfully manipulated Becket into signing a document that reinstated the ancestral customs during a meeting in Clarendon. Mortified at having been beaten, Thomas quickly organized those bishops loyal to him and tried to rectify the mistake, even though this meant maligning Henry's intentions. When Henry made clear he would use force to enact his will, Thomas gathered a few loyal subjects and fled the country for France, with whose king he remained close.
Not only was the friendship now gone, but it had devolved into hatred. For seven years, a series of political intrigues subsisted, with Thomas always seeking the support of Pope Alexander and the French King Louis, and Henry refusing to budge on his requests. Both had much to gain from a reconciliation: Henry's country stood in an ambiguous relationship to the Catholic Church, and Thomas no longer had access to the lands and income to which he had grown accustomed. During this period, Thomas's lifestyle grew far more ascetic, an element that contributed to his hagiography: many see him as growing more spiritual in turning away from the temptations of the physical world.
Ultimately, Henry felt that Thomas was an ungrateful, disloyal brat, while Thomas considered Henry a vicious tyrant whose desires to control the Church were sacrilege. When the political situation found Thomas with the upper hand, he used his power of excommunication to attack many of those who had betrayed him in England. Though he never explicitly excommunicated Henry, he did engender a situation whereby Henry was not officially able to have his son and heir coronated. This threat to the Angevin line of succession was a personal affront, since Thomas had been close to the prince from the latter's birth, and it brought Henry to the negotiating table.
A compromise was reached through the mediation of King Louis, but by the time Thomas set sail for England, he knew Henry would not honor his end of the bargain. Henry was certain to withhold the church lands he had seized, and would surely continue to press for control over church courts. Therefore, Thomas had to sail and travel incognito, not revealing his identity until he reached Canterbury to a great and raucous welcome from commoners who gathered at the risk of their own safety.
Immediately, Thomas raised the stakes, excommunicating more of Henry's close advisors with the Pope's blessing. Henry, realizing that both his pride and the legitimacy of his son's coronation were being questioned, uttered some version of these famous words during a meeting: "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?!" Though this was not an explicit order, and certainly in line with his documented temper, four of his lower-ranked knights heard this sentiment and set out to bolster their reputations by directly and forcefully confronting their liege's greatest professed enemy.
The four knights first confronted Thomas at the cathedral of Canterbury in a political argument, during which Thomas was openly contemptuous of them, despite their obvious drunkenness. They left and soon returned with more men, and when Thomas refused to leave with them, they brutally murdered him inside the cathedral, a great sacrilege considering the cathedral was holy ground.
In the aftermath of the murder, Thomas was quickly canonized as a saint and the spot of his murder became a near-instant pilgrimage site. Henry himself, though likely only concerned about his reputation and the potential of excommunication in the midst of his own unrelated political struggles, traveled there to be flogged in penance. He acknowledged both publicly and privately that his words inspired the murder, though he never admitted to officially giving the order. The number of eyewitness accounts to his spontaneous exclamation makes it likely that he did not intend Becket to be killed in this way. However, the fact that Henry would later imprison his own wife Eleanor for ten years shows that he was not disposed to show mercy.
The four knights all fled England within a few years, were excommunicated by the Pope, and eventually banished by Henry. The time it took him to banish them suggests that Henry had little personal remorse for the death of his old friend.
Since Becket's death, the cathedral at Canterbury has remained a pilgrimage site. In Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, the storytellers meet on their way to the site of Becket's murder, where they hope to secure mercy from God. Over time, Becket's body has been moved to a beautiful and impressive tomb in the cathedral.
The complicated personalities and exciting reversals of fortune that characterize this tale certainly leave some of its facts open to skepticism. Were Henry and Thomas really as close friends as dramatists would have us believe? Was Thomas really a holy, committed figure, or was he more of a rebellious iconoclast with a temper to match Henry's? Regardless of how one answers these questions, the story deserves attention as a symbol and a myth, which is very much what would have attracted a writer like Eliot to it.