Murder in the Cathedral

by T. S. Eliot

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What is the universal message of Murder in the Cathedral?

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Hello! 'Murder In The Cathedral' highlights the controversial enmity between King Henry II and Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket's eventual murder at the hands of knights loyal to the king propels him to the status of martyr. Even though Becket initially struggles with the idea of martyrdom for self-glory, he eventually comes to the conclusion that he would rather die in good conscience for the glory of God.

The universal message of 'Murder In The Cathedral' lies in the controversy between king and Church. Power corrupts absolutely, regardless of who wields the scepter of rule; therefore, the separation of church and state is an essential bedrock of true freedom. King Henry was well-known for his autocratic personality: he expected those he ruled to do exactly as they were told. He tolerated very little dissent (if any at all) during his rule. Becket was initially Henry's Chancellor. However, Henry was enthusiastic about ordaining Becket as the Archbishop of Canterbury because he felt that Becket was his man, and that the Archbishop would basically let the king run the Church by proxy if Henry set him up as Archbishop. Alas, Henry was wrong. The Archbishop would not agree to Henry claiming jurisdiction over lay clergy. In regards to serious crimes, Henry wanted the clerics to answer to his own secular courts instead of the ecclesiastical courts. Becket however, balked, fled to France, and in a seeming fit of gall, proceeded to excommunicate the Bishops of London and Salisbury. Stubbornly refusing to absolve the bishops even after he returned to England, Becket set the stage for the famous lines from Henry:

"What sluggards, what cowards have I brought up in my court, who care nothing for their allegiance to their lord. Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest."

In 'Murder In The Cathedral,' the four Tempters goad Becket into betraying his conscience, but Becket eventually states that the true martyr is the 'instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in his submission to God.' He is adamant that the king knows his place; the king is also adamant that the Archbishop knows his. The four knights purporting to be doing the will of the king hack Becket to death. Historically, Henry never did admit to ordering the murder: in an act of penance four years after Becket's death, Henry walked barefoot through the streets of Canterbury. Monks flogged him with branches as he walked to Becket's crypt to spend the night. 'Murder In The Cathedral' highlights the struggle for separation of church/state and the debate on conscience, religion and political power.

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