As the sun is setting, four horsemen, cloaked and somber, are approaching the Canterbury Cathedral. They move in silence, standing in the shadows, with sword and armor hidden between their robes. They have a dark purpose when they entered the great church, but their purpose is not theirs alone, but the reflection of a tense political situation which was bound to explode violently. A fight is having place in the middle of England’s Government: the King and his former Lord Chancellor, now at the head of the Church of England were not happy with each other. Henry II was seeking control over the church, so for him the appointment of Becket, at the time Lord Chancellor and a man who had served him well, even against the church if needed, was an obvious solution. Trouble was that, in fact, Becket was a God’s man, and installed again within the Church where he had some responsibilities before, he decided to defend it against royal pretensions.
Thomas Becket, as a man of the Church, was not willing to abide to the King’s wishes. As he was getting ready for the Vespers he was probably thinking on it, now that he was back after years of exile in France. All that pressure put upon him, the damned (please God forgive me) Constitutions of Clarendon, that stupid scheme to undermine his authority bestowing other Bishops, more lenient, to play His Majesty’s game crowning the Young Henry, which was his prerogative. Trouble, fighting, an endless war to keep hold of the Church or gain its control. “I’m so tired of all this” he probably thought “yet it is my mission to establish and defend our Lord’s Church independence from the King”. He may have looked through the void and silent cathedral, thankful for a moment of peace before joining the community for the Vespers.
Then, something creeks. A door. There is someone in the shadows. Four figures move close and closer. They are cloaked. They are at your side. They want you to go to Winchester and pledged guilty and accept your King’s will. And it has to be now. That is what the King wants to forgive you and settled your dispute. They do not sound very convincing though, there is something in their voices that makes you feel cold. But it will not be now or never, you are simply not yielding, Thomas, and that make the four ghosts furious. They are mad at you and before you can understand what is going on, you are beaten once, twice…and everything turns black.
And there he lies, bleeding to death, in his own see, the Archbishop of Canterbury, his blood dripping in sacred soil, his “brains scattered about the pavements” in the words of Edward Grim, an eyewitness. Thomas Beckett had been murdered, embracing martyrdom. Surrounding him, four knights: Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton. They had come to Canterbury allegedly to convey the Archbishop to Winchester, but in the end, to kill him with extreme violence in his own church, handing their swords and armor against a Prince of the church. It was the Vespers hour, 29 December 1170.
But why four knights of the realm had committed so terrible a crime against their own religious leader, thus against the Holy Church and against God? The story says that guilt must be put in a sentence uttered by the King of England in a moment of fury. That sentence, which could well be apocryphal, was seemingly “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest” though scholars like Simon Schama have shown their disagreement with this particular formulation. Anyway it seems quite clear that King Henry was no particularly happy with Becket attitude and deeds and he was fuming his malcontent in public. Thence, some of his knights thought probably that it would be a good idea and a nice way of clearing their way through the Court just if they satisfied their King’s wishes. So they went to Canterbury and entered in the History of murder as the assassins of a would-be-saint.
It is ironic their bad timing, killing a priest in the Christmas season. Their bad judgment on the King’s wishes, or their good judgment but brutal and excessive implementation could also be a matter of discussion. They didn’t get any helpful advice from their King and, in the end, were banned to fight in the Holy Land for fourteen years. Poor reward for such a service. Becket’s was much better apart from the fact that he was dead: he was promoted to sanctity. In the end, there is something cruelly humorous about the whole scene: it gives another meaning to Christmas as a time to reconciliation as the knights reconcile Becket with His Father. But their ways were surely not welcome in Heaven.