Murder in the Cathedral

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Though King Henry II never makes a physical appearance in the play, his presence certainly asserts itself in the characters who do. Challenged by Becket’s spiritual extremism, Henry II’s political power represents the secular, even anti-religious dimension in the play. For Henry II, Becket and the Pope’s condemnation of his rule is merely a rebellious attempt to discount and restrict his power—he does not understand or accept that Becket’s disagreements with his political policies could be sourced in a power higher and more powerful than his own office. Henry II does not comprehend the Church’s criticisms of his power as potential insights into how he can achieve a closer relationship to God, or how he could reframe his political role to better reflect God’s will and power. Ultimately unwilling to concede to the demands of the Church, Henry II (likely, though it’s never explicitly said or confirmed in the play) sends the four knights to coerce Becket into political compliance with his rule. But, shunning the crown in favor of a higher power, Becket doesn’t comply. It’s ultimately uncertain whether T.S. Eliot intends Becket’s murder to be read as a direct order of the king, or a decision made by the knights themselves.

King Henry II Quotes in Murder in the Cathedral

The Murder in the Cathedral quotes below are all either spoken by King Henry II or refer to King Henry II. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power  Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Harcourt edition of Murder in the Cathedral published in 1964.
Part 1 Quotes

Temporal power, to build a good world
To keep order, as the world knows order.
Those who put their faith in worldly order
Not controlled by the order of God,
In confident ignorance, but arrest disorder,
Make it fast, breed fatal disease,
Degrade what they exalt. Power with the King—
I was the King, his arm, his better reason.
But what was once exaltation
Would now be only mean descent.

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker), Second Tempter, King Henry II
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is Becket’s reply to the second tempter, who insists that spiritual power means nothing compared to worldly/temporal political power—the kind of power Becket had when he was Chancellor.

Becket strictly disagrees, calling temporal power a “punier power” than his spiritual command as an Archbishop. Further, he says that worldly power does nothing but “breed fatal disease,” lacking any true connection with the higher, divine dimension of God and fate. Those who invest themselves in temporal power and shirk a genuine relationship with God only cause harm, and degrade the crown they praise and exalt by severing its office from any relation to the spiritual.

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Part 2 Quotes

It is not I who insult the King. . .
It is not against me, Becket, that you strive.
It is not Becket who pronounces doom,
But the Law of Christ’s Church, the judgement of Rome.

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker), First Knight (Reginald Fitz Urse), Second Knight (William de Traci), Third Knight (Hugh de Melville), Fourth Knight (Richard Brito), King Henry II
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Becket addresses the four knights, who’ve accused him of betraying the king, calling him the one who’s ultimately responsible for the king’s condemnation by the Pope.

Becket asserts that he’s not the one who is truly responsible, but that he was just following the orders of the Pope (who was viewed as the direct voice of God). He claims to be the executor of a law higher than his own powers and command, acting as an instrument of a spiritual order of which he’s merely the mouthpiece—it’s not “Becket” who’s giving the commands, but Christ’s Law and the judgment of Rome. This instant is another example of Becket affirming himself as merely channeling the will of God, having submitted himself wholly to Christ.

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King Henry II Character Timeline in Murder in the Cathedral

The timeline below shows where the character King Henry II appears in Murder in the Cathedral. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power  Theme Icon
Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Eternity and Human Understanding Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
...“to their own devices,” and unbothered by the wealthier members of society (barons, merchants, the king) who can lord their power over the Chorus in a coercive fashion. (full context)
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power  Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
...priests enter the scene and discuss a feud which occurred between Archbishop Becket and the king some time ago, before Becket’s departure. The second priest wonders what the Archbishop does now... (full context)
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power  Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
...Archbishop, is in England. The first priest asks if the feud between Becket and the king has been resolved or not—whether Becket comes in war or in peace. The herald replies... (full context)
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power  Theme Icon
Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Eternity and Human Understanding Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
...Canterbury, they can feel confident that they will be guided through whatever political problems the king, barons, and landholders may throw at them, and concludes that they therefore have cause to... (full context)
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power  Theme Icon
Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Temptation Theme Icon
The first tempter, a former friend of both Becket and the king, enters the scene. He says he hopes that, despite the seriousness of Becket’s current situation,... (full context)
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power  Theme Icon
Temptation Theme Icon
Eternity and Human Understanding Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
...that Becket made a mistake when he resigned from the office of Chancellor, to which Henry II appointed him along with the role of Archbishop. This tempter says that the power of... (full context)
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power  Theme Icon
Temptation Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
...it can never be recovered, so there’s no hope for Becket to reconcile with the king. But other “friends,” the tempter says, can be found in Becket’s situation: the country lords... (full context)
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power  Theme Icon
Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Temptation Theme Icon
Eternity and Human Understanding Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
...commends the strength of Becket’s will in rejecting the other tempters’ proposals. He says that kingly rule, and all other political power beneath the king, pales in comparison to spiritual power,... (full context)
Part 2
Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
...enter the scene, and tell the first priest that they have urgent business: by the king’s command, they must speak with the Archbishop. The priest invites them to have dinner with... (full context)
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power  Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
The knights accuse Becket of betraying the king. They say that, as Archbishop, his duty is to carry out the orders of the... (full context)
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power  Theme Icon
Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
Becket says that the knights’ charges are untrue, and claims to be the king’s most loyal and faithful subject in the land. He then asks what the real business... (full context)
Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
...up trouble in France by soiling Henry II’s reputation in the eyes of the French king and the Pope. The second knight adds that the king, out of charity, offered clemency... (full context)
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power  Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
Becket replies by saying it was never his wish to dishonor the king; he says he admires the king and the role of the crown, and that he... (full context)
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power  Theme Icon
Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Eternity and Human Understanding Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
The first knight accepts Becket’s explanation, but says that, regardless, the king’s orders are that Becket and his servants depart from England. Becket rejects this, saying that... (full context)
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power  Theme Icon
Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Eternity and Human Understanding Theme Icon
The doors are opened, and the knights enter, a bit tipsy from drinking. The priests still try to force Becket into hiding, and the knights command that Becket... (full context)
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power  Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
The third knight, Hugh de Morville, argues that Becket utterly lied to the king and betrayed the power he was given. The king had appointed Becket to be both... (full context)