Murder in the Cathedral – Historical Background


Murder in the Cathedral – Historical Background

Murder in the Cathedral - Historical Background

Murder in the Cathedral – Historical Background


T.S. Eliot’s play “Murder in the Cathedral” serves as a profound exploration of historical events and the intricate socio-political landscape of the 12th century. The narrative unfolds around the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170, within the confines of Canterbury Cathedral. To grasp the historical background of the play, it is imperative to delve into both the life of Thomas Becket and the socio-political context of the era. Let’s examine the historical backdrop of the play in detail.

Thomas Becket and his Relationship with King Henry II:

Thomas Becket, initially a close confidant and chancellor to King Henry II, ascended to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. The amicable alliance between Becket and Henry underwent a significant transformation as Becket shifted from a royal chancellor to a fervent defender of the Church’s autonomy. This ideological shift marked a pivotal moment in England’s political landscape, introducing a profound struggle between secular and religious powers.

The Conflict between Church and State:

At the heart of “Murder in the Cathedral” lies the poignant conflict between the Church and the State. Becket’s staunch commitment to safeguarding the Church’s rights clashed vehemently with Henry’s ambitions to wield control over the clergy. The play vividly portrays this tension, accentuating the power struggle and the conflicting loyalties between religious and political authorities.

The Constitutions of Clarendon and Becket’s Exile:

The Constitutions of Clarendon, enacted in 1164, aimed to delineate the relationship between the Church and the State in England. This legislation sought to curtail the influence of ecclesiastical courts and establish the king’s authority over clerical matters. Becket’s refusal to endorse these statutes resulted in his six-year exile in France.

Becket’s Return and the Murder:

Upon Becket’s return in 1170, tensions between him and King Henry persisted. Becket escalated the conflict by excommunicating bishops who had supported the king against the Church. The culmination of these events culminated in Becket’s tragic murder by four knights inside Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170.

The Impact of Becket’s Death:

The shocking murder of Thomas Becket reverberated across Europe, inciting widespread outrage. His demise elevated him to martyrdom in the eyes of the Church, and his shrine in Canterbury Cathedral became a revered pilgrimage site. The events surrounding Becket’s life and death left an indelible mark on history, leading to his canonization as a saint by the Catholic Church.

Eliot’s Depiction in ‘Murder in the Cathedral’:

T.S. Eliot’s play intricately captures the essence of the historical events surrounding Becket’s life and death. It delves into Becket’s internal struggles, spiritual dilemmas, and the political upheavals of his time. Eliot’s portrayal of Becket as a nuanced and multifaceted figure mirrors the historical tensions and moral complexities of the era.


Murder in the Cathedral” emerges not only as a historical narrative but also as a profound philosophical exploration. Eliot, through his lens, magnifies the historical significance of Thomas Becket’s life and death, offering a poignant examination of power, sacrifice, and the enduring conflict between worldly and spiritual authority. The play stands as a timeless reflection on themes of power, martyrdom, and the enduring struggle between Church and State. 0 0 0.

Murder in the Cathedral – Historical Background

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