The miracle of Thomas Becket’s elbow and Robert Donat’s voice

On 29 December 1170, four knights loyal to King Henry II of England murdered Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the city’s cathedral.

More than eight centuries later, a bone fragment believed to be from Becket’s elbow was temporarily brought from Esztergom Basilica in Hungary, where it had been kept for centuries, to the site of his assassination.

Henry II appointed Becket Archbishop of Canterbury in 1161 because he wanted an ally in his disputes with the church. But, by the end of the decade, Becket had become overly pious, wearing a sackcloth shirt, consuming only bread and water, spurning riches and staunchly defending the faith. The poet T. S. Eliot explored that transformation in his play Murder in the Cathedral, first performed in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral on 19 June 1935.

Becket and the king clashed over the supremacy of church and state (premonitions here of the later argument between Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey) and Becket went into exile in France after being accused of treachery. In 1170, he returned to England but soon angered Henry by excommunicating the Archbishop of York, who had sided with the king against Rome. It was then that Henry is supposed to have shouted, “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?”

Carrow-Psalter.jpgOn 29 December, four knights entered Canterbury Cathedral and hacked Becket to death in front of the high altar. Edward Grim, a monk, observed the attack from a hiding place and later wrote down what he saw. Two years later Becket was canonised and his shrine began attracting pilgrims from across Europe. Becket’s martyrdom is depicted in the mid-13th century Carrow Psalter, held at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

In 1220 Becket was reburied and relics from his body, said to bring about miracles, were dispersed across Europe, with part of his elbow ending up in Esztergom. Three centuries later, during the Reformation, Henry VIII – upstaged by the cult of St Thomas – ordered his shrine to be destroyed and his remains obliterated.

On its recent journey, the fragment of Becket’s miraculous elbow was temporarily reunited with a piece of  his skull – kept at Stonyhurst College in northern England – before stopping at Rochester Cathedral and Canterbury Cathedral. It was then returned to Hungary.

Donat-BecketEliot’s verse drama Murder in the Cathedral was commissioned for the 1935 Canterbury Festival. Eliot must have read Edward Grim’s eyewitness account of the murder, since he uses some its language in his play. In 1953, the Old Vic Theatre in London invited one of Britain’s finest actors, Robert Donat, to play the part of Becket in a new production directed by Robert Helpmann. It was an enormous challenge for the ailing actor, who had long suffered from crippling bouts of asthma and who would die five years later from a brain tumour after collapsing on the set of The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.

On the first night, unknown to the audience, there were two oxygen tanks in the wings just in case, but they were not needed. Donat’s appearance on stage was greeted with a wild burst of cheering and, after what everyone agreed was an astonishing performance, there were twenty curtain-calls. Ironically, Becket’s opening lines include:

“They know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer.
They know and do not know, that action is suffering
And suffering is action.”

Donat’s celebrated performance was recorded at London’s Abbey Road Studios in May 1953. The original tapes were remastered and issued on CD by EMI in 2006. The recording, well worth seeking out, captures what The Daily Telegraph critic, Campbell Dixon, called “A voice of magical charm and effortless authority which only a clod could hear unmoved.”

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