History Book – A murder in Canterbury

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, December 28th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Next up: the WORLD History Book. 

This week, a murder in Canterbury, a medical advancement in Georgia, and an air raid in London. Here’s WORLD senior correspondent Katie Gaultney.


KATIE GAULTNEY, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Tertullian wrote less than 200 years after Christ’s birth that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” The murder of Thomas Becket on December 29, 1170, certainly galvanized the 12th century church. 

In the Middle Ages, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s shrine became a popular pilgrimage destination in Europe. 

BBC: The immediate impact was a genuine, popular, grassroots reaction to it. Shock at what had happened. One of the most famous people in England, the leader of the Church, had been killed in the mother church of England, by people who claimed they had been acting as representatives of the king….

Biographers immortalized him shortly after his death, and a cult sprang up around his memory. Centuries later, the Canterbury Cathedral where he died became the destination of poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims in his Canterbury Tales. Becket’s death was also the subject of an Oscar-winning film, and the inspiration for T.S. Eliot’s verse drama “Murder in the Cathedral.” 

This scene—recorded by Caedmon Records—is Eliot’s depiction of the moment of Becket’s death at the hands of four knights who thought they were carrying out the will of England’s King Henry II.

CLIP: For my Lord I am ready to die, that his church may have peace and liberty. Do with me as you will, to your hurt and shame; But none of my people, in God’s name. Whether layman or clerk, shall you touch. This I forbid./ Traitor! traitor! traitor! traitor!

Although previously allied, Henry II and Becket began to clash after the king appointed Becket archbishop of the important see of Canterbury. Their main differences concerned the power of church versus the state. But Henry was grieved over Becket’s execution, insisting he hadn’t wished for his old friend to die. He publicly prayed for Becket’s soul and paid penance. Today, the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion both consider Becket a saint. 


Jumping ahead nearly 700 years now, to a medical advancement many mothers around the world are thankful for. On December 27, 1845, Dr. Crawford Long of Jefferson, Georgia, welcomed a child—and, for the first time, administered anesthetic to a woman in labor—his wife.  

AUDIO: [Crying baby]


He had Mrs. Long inhale ether while she was giving birth. He published details of the technique in 1849, and the method caught on shortly after. But Mrs. Long wasn’t his first patient to receive anesthesia. He used it three and a half years earlier when he removed a tumor from a patient’s neck. 

Susan Deaver is the former director of the Crawford W. Long Museum in Jefferson. She explains how a New York internship—and seeing patients in pain—motivated him. 

DEAVER: And when he was working in New York City hospitals and seeing people suffer from pain of surgery, it was his wish, as it was of most medical people at that time, to find a method to allay pain, but the usual statement was, “There isn’t anything to relieve pain and there never will be.” 

Ether fell out of popularity in the 1960s, but Long’s pioneering techniques provided more than a century of pain relief in surgery. As a doctor, Long was strongly convinced of his calling to serve humanity. He told a colleague, “My profession is a ministry of God to me.”

Turning now to World War II and one of the most destructive air raids of the Blitz: The city nicknamed “The Smoke” lit up on December 29, 1940 with the Second Great Fire of London. The British Ministry of Information offered this report at the time. 

NEWSREEL: From shortly after 6 o’clock until half past 10, the German army carried out one of the most devastating, fire-raising raids of the war. 

About 100,000 bombs—from 136 German bombers—fell on the city that night. All told, 160 people died in the blazes, and 250 more were injured. Firefighters faced plenty of headwinds: The primary water-main was bombed out. It was a blustery night. And many of the buildings were warehouses, sawmills, and timber factories, containing highly combustible materials. Getting water to the area under attack proved challenging. 

NEWSREEL: Most of the water had to be relayed from the River Thames up to a mile away. It was made all the more difficult by the fact that it was dead low-water at the time, and the relay crews had to get their hose ashore, across the treacherous mudflats from fireboats in midstream…

The economic devastation was so severe that some historians point to The Second Great Fire of London as one reason the British Empire declined in the second half of the 20th century. But there were symbolic victories that night. Churchill pleaded with fire crews that St. Paul’s Cathedral “be saved at all costs.” The flames encroached on the historic church, and on the criminal court building known as the “Old Bailey.” Heroic efforts kept the fire from overtaking those structures. 

NEWSREEL: However many of our stations are bombed and broken up, our spirits will never be broken! Look out, Hitler… We saved the Old Bailey that night! 

That’s this week’s History Book. I’m Katie Gaultney.

(Illustration/Getty) Murder of Thomas Becket

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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