Chaucerâ€™s world was a religious world The Middle Ages
was the time of the church, of saints and relics, and of
pilgrimages to holy sites associated with them. The most
important route for pilgrimage in Chaucerâ€™s time was from
London to Canterbury, site of the shrine to St.Thomas Becket.
Becket had been archbishop of Canterbury, the highest-
ranking ecclesiastical position in England at the time. He had
been appointed to his post by his friend King Henry II. The
two men headed the two great axes of power in Englandâ€”the
secular government and the churchâ€”and perhaps it was
inevitable that they would come into conflict.
Henry wanted to be absolute ruler of his domains and was
determined to do away with the special privileges of the English
clergy, which seemed to undercut his authority. The power
struggle created a rift between the two friends when Becket
refused to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon calling for a less
independent clergy and a weaker connection with Rome.
Henry summoned Becket to appear before a great council at
Hampton Castle to answer charges of contempt of royal
authority. Becket fled to the Continent.
Tensions between the two increased to the point at which
Henry is said to have asked, â€œWill no one rid me of this
troublesome priest?â€� Four knights who overheard him were
eager to comply. Riding to Canterbury, they attacked Becket
at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral, hacking him to death with
Henry did public penance for his part in the deed. Within three
years of his death, Becket was canonized (made a saint) by
Pope Alexander III, and the faithful throughout Europe began
to venerate him as a martyr.
The route of his last journey, from Southwark near London to
Canterbury, became an important route of pilgrimage. This
was the route being taken by the pilgrims in Canterbury Tales.
Relatively short and safe, it was convenient and affordable for
a broad variety of people. The pilgrimage was so successful
that London Bridge was rebuilt, first in timber and then in
stone, with a chapel dedicated to Thomas on it. That was
where pilgrims began and ended their journey.
The dramatic story became the theme of T. S. Eliotâ€™s play,
Murder in the Cathedral, and of Jean Anouilhâ€™s play
Becket, with Laurence Olivier playing the role on Broadway
and Richard Burton starring in the movie version.
The struggle between the archbishop and the king represents a
tension that has plagued Christianity since its beginning--the
relative role of church and state in a believer's, a congregation's
and a fellowship's life. Do we serve God or Caesar? What
should be rendered to each? What do we do if God's law and
civil law come into conblict?