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29.12.07

Feast of St. Thomas Becket

Thomas Becket, stained glass, Canterbury CathedralOn December 29, Thomas Becket (1118-70), Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in his cathedral by soldiers, as described by an eyewitness, Edward Grim. He had been appointed to the position by his old friend, King Henry II, whom he had previously served as Lord Chancellor. A worldly clerk, educated at Merton Abbey and in Paris, who had traveled to Rome and many other places, he took his episcopal appointment to heart and gave up his old pleasure-loving life at court. The king, outraged that his archbishop did not simply approve of his plans for the English church, quickly became frustrated with Becket and may have directly or indirectly provoked the soldiers to murder him.

Becket's grave in Canterbury Cathedral quickly became an important pilgrimage site, drawing the 30 pilgrims of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in the 14th century. Becket even got an entry in the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, popularity that inevitably led to the destruction of the saint's remains and famous tomb at Canterbury by the Protestants. Becket has fascinated modern minds, too, inspiring plays by Lord Tennyson (Becket, 1884), Jean Anouilh (Becket ou l'honneur de Dieu, 1959), and T. S. Eliot's modern masterpiece Murder in the Cathedral. The latter examines Becket's opposition to authority in the month before he was killed (the Burnt Norton part of Four Quartets was originally written as part of the play). Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968) even wrote an opera based on Eliot's play, Assassinio nella cattedrale (La Scala, 1958).

Image: Detail of stained glass window, St. Thomas Becket, Canterbury Cathedral

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