We drove this morning from Battle across the Romney Marsh to Dover, where we spent several hours exploring first the medieval castle and then the underground tunnels carved into the famous white cliffs. These tunnels, begun during the Napoleonic wars and then extended during the centuries thereafter, served as the headquarters for the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk back across the English Channel in 1940.
Our visit was fascinating.
Many view Dunkirk as a great British victory. And, of course, in a certain sense it was. Roughly 350,000 soldiers were rescued. Yachts and pleasure boats and small fishing vessels took part in the desperate effort. But it was also a catastrophic defeat. As Churchill (who had come into office as prime minister less than a month before) said, “wars are not won by evacuations.” Paris fell to the Nazis within a couple of weeks. Enough military equipment was abandoned on the Continent to supply eight or ten divisions; England only had sufficient equipment for two divisions when it was over. Hitler was essentially left free to do what he wanted to do with Europe. The war must surely have seemed lost.
I found the medieval aspects of the site equally intriguing, however, and perhaps even more so. The castle was built by Henry II, whose muttered hint (supposedly “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”) in 1170 inspired four of his knights to go to Canterbury Cathedral to assassinate Thomas Becket, whom he had relatively recently appointed archbishop of Canterbury. Henry also had a wonderful family, perpetually squabbling and sometimes trying to kill one another, including Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most remarkable women of the Middle Ages (memorably portrayed by Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter); Richard the Lion-Hearted; and John (of Magna Carta and Robin Hood fame).
We needed, thereafter, to get back across to Heathrow Airport. Fortunately, we had enough time to cram in one last visit to a significant place: Canterbury itself. This was only my second visit to Canterbury, and I confess that I don’t know a great deal about the place except what I’ve read in Chaucer and what I saw in a film many years ago in which Richard Burton portrayed Becket. And, of course, there’s T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral, which was written for a performance in Canterbury and which had a great impact on me when I first read it in high school.
We visited the place in the cathedral’s Trinity chapel where the shrine of St. Thomas stood until Henry VIII had it destroyed in the first half of the sixteenth century. A perpetual flame still burns there, but nothing remains of the shrine. (For some reason, prior to this trip, I hadn’t really grasped the extent of Henry’s depredations during the so-called “dissolution” of the monasteries. Something on the order, really, of the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China, or the Taliban demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001, except that personal greed played a more obvious role in Henry’s case. I’ve never precisely been a fan of his, but, astoundingly, his stock with me is even lower now than it was before.)
On one side, with a marvelous effigy, is the tomb of Edward Plantagenet, the so-called “Black Prince.”
On the other side is the tomb of Henry IV, again with a wonderful likeness, alongside that of his queen. Henry IV lived during the time when the cult of St. Thomas Becket had reached its zenith. He died in 1413; Geoffrey Chaucer, often called the “Father of English Literature,” died in 1400. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales recount the stories supposedly told by pilgrims en route to the tomb of the saint:
. . . from euery shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blissful martir for to seke.
So Henry wanted to be buried as close as he could be to St. Thomas. And, being a king, that meant that he came pretty close.
It was astonishing to me to be standing so near to the tomb of one of Shakespeare’s major historical characters, and to know that I was standing where Henry’s son, Prince Hal, had also stood roughly six hundred years earlier. Prince Hal (aka Laurence Olivier and, more recently, Kenneth Branagh) would soon be crowned as Henry V. So it was particularly gratifying, when we arrived at our airport hotel tonight, to find a brand new 2012 BBC version of Shakespeare’s Henry V on television, starring Tom Hiddleston in the title role. (You may have been him recently in War Horse, or as F. Scott Fitzgerald in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris [which I saw again just a few nights ago], or, if your cultural level sinks as low as mine does, as the Norse god Loki in a couple of recent films.) I thought it quite good. And I there was a clever Shakespearean reference to the white cliffs not only of Dover but of the French coast across the Channel, which were clearly visible today under glorious blue skies. Having seen those cliffs just a few hours ago, it jumped out at me.
The other major association of Canterbury, for me, is with the philosophical theologian St. Anselm, author of, among other things, the Proslogion and the Cur Deus Homo, and originator of the still-provocative and still-controversial “ontological argument” for the existence of God. What a place.
Near Heathrow Airport, England.