Saturday, September 12, 2009

Dover and Canterbury

“But we’re all agreed; there’s no justice in this world.” –Canterbury Cathedral Tour Guide

The clouds are beautiful here—the sun plays between its layers, skimming over and shining through. It only just woke up from its day-long nap around 17:45, which takes me a few moments to figure out is 5:45. I still haven’t figured out how closely people abide by that clock.

By far, Wednesday 9 September 2009 was the best of all the days I’ve been here so far.

I touched a 1st Century Roman Lighthouse within the walls of Dover, and when I think about it, a part of me still races. The old lighthouse is wearing away, its archways and windows nearly gone it seems, but a few steps around the side and in through its nearly non-existent archway and what it once was is suddenly there again. The sun shines through what’s left of its windows and it never seems so dark—as if what they knew and had was and still is more truth than I’ll ever know. The stone is rough, while I nearly expected it to rub off onto my skin, and I realize—could I matter, my outstretched hand against what so many have undoubtedly touched before me, when what I touch is over 19 centuries old? Just stone—and still it speaks louder than I do.

Dover Castle itself is only slightly less amazing. It was begun by William the Conqueror and was added on to by several Kings after him—bettered and refined for hundreds of years. It was used as a military base until the 1950s—through the Second World War—because of the importance of its strategic placement; meaning that William the Conqueror had it right in the 11th Century. However, the Castle at Dover is therefore not on the whole quite as old or out of disrepair as its accompanying Roman lighthouse, having only been out of use for about 60 years. This said with a bit of cynicism, I suppose, because no one has ever cared about anything so long in America to refine it for the better part of ten centuries, still realizing its importance to the cause of a nation. Of course, we haven’t yet had that chance, and—to be fair—our legacy is not the same and never will be the same as the British.

I sat on the beach at Dover on sand-colored rocks, the white cliffs of Dover to my left, the English Channel at my feet, and France within view. The water both threatening and tempting; somehow, no matter where you are, the beach is a little bit like home. The dock was windy and reminded me of San Francisco. It doesn’t make me miss home, but it makes me miss my family; you would all love it here. It’s odd having vacation without you.

Canterbury is another place that was built upon and bettered and rebuilt for longer than America has been in existence: six hundred years, from 1070 to 1670, the Cathedral at Canterbury was improved upon. Henry II left somewhat of a legacy at Dover as he added on to much of the Castle—he was the great grandson of William the Conqueror, so it was fitting—because it was his work at Dover that left the Castle as something recognizable. Henry the II is known for other things as well, however, such as the “scandal” at Canterbury. And since I didn’t know this story before a few months ago, I will enlighten those of you who know little about English history.

(NOTE: Some parts of the story may be dramatized for the mere effect of storytelling.) In A Knights Tale Heath Ledger and his crew come upon Geoffrey Chaucer—NAKED—on the side of the road. Chaucer claims that he could be an amazing author, if only he had the chance and inspiration. Geoffrey Chaucer finds his inspiration, of course, in the story of Thomas Beckett—the murdered archbishop of Canterbury—and the tales of those who make their pilgrimage to the site of his murder.

Henry II, the King of England, was good friends with Thomas Beckett; in fact their friendship was widely known as they were both learned and enjoyed each other’s company. Knowing that Beckett was interested in the church, Henry II offered him the calling of Archbishop of Canterbury, also knowing that having a friend in the “lofty” position would provide Henry II more power within the church.

Becket accepted the appointment gladly, but a funny thing happened during his time in Canterbury—he was converted more fully to the church and little by little, Henry II and Thomas developed differing opinions about how church and state should be run. Becket wanted church courts to have ultimate power over crimes committed in the church, while the King wanted royal courts to hold that power (thereby gaining financially from those crimes). This difference in opinion ended the friendship they both had treasured.

Here is where the legend and story begins to differ—but I prefer the version of the story the tour guide at Canterbury told: While Henry was on holiday in France, surrounded by his knights, he is reported to have said something to the effect of “Will no one rid me of this problem?” referring to Beckett and his heavy opposition to the royal courts having precedence over church crimes. The knights decided to do just that—“rid the King of the problem.” The Knights confronted Beckett, asking him to back down on his opposition, but Beckett refused and sought refuge in the Cathedral at Canterbury. The priests of the cathedral began to bar the doors as the knights prepared to storm the Cathedral, but Beckett refused the barring of the Church, telling the priests that they weren’t to deny anyone entry. Beckett’s refusal to submit to the Kings will moved the Knights to murder; the followed Becket into the cathedral and—for lack of a better word—butchered Thomas Beckett.

According to our tour guide at Canterbury, the King never intended for Beckett to be murdered, and by no means was asking for that when he asked to be “rid of the problem” Thomas Beckett created. My feelings toward Henry II were more at peace then. I prefer believing this over the alternative, because as I stood at Dover, and read the other version of the story—the version that stated Henry II meant for Beckett to be killed so he could get his way regarding church policy—it occurred to me that a man would have to go a long way down the wrong road to have his best friend so brutally murdered. I’d prefer not to believe that about any man.

Needless to say—no matter which version of the story you believe—Beckett was made a Saint for holding firm to his beliefs. People believed that simply by being in Canterbury near Thomas Beckett, they could be saved and forgiven of their sins. The hilt of the sword that killed him was made into a shrine that was kept at Canterbury until Henry VIII desolved the Catholic churches in England. Now there is a stone with Thomas carved into the floor in blood-red—a stone that you can’t really believe Thomas was killed on. A blood stain would be more convincing. But—with a story like that, we can’t have everything, can we?

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