The Odd Story Before the Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales, authored by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century, is one of the most important works of English literature, and most of us will recall bits and pieces from our high school or college days. Written in Middle English, this collection of stories ranges from the gallant combatants of The Knight's Tale to the bawdy story we find in The Wife of Bath's Tale.

The setting of The Canterbury Tales is England, and the story features a group of pilgrims traveling from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. As you likely recall, Thomas Becket had been Archbishop of Canterbury, and was murdered inside his church. His death was an outrage, and in just a few years he became a saint, and was revered across Britain and the continent.

In college I had an advanced English class that had a strong focus on stories such as The Canterbury Tales, Gawain and the Green Knight, Beowulf, and that type of tale. My professor was an expert on Middle English, and required us to memorize the prologue to The Canterbury Tales. I loved that class, and even today remember quite a bit of what I learned.

A few weeks ago I found an opportunity to reacquaint myself with the story of Thomas Becket, and in the oddest fashion. While buying a ticket to tour Lewes Castle, the lady asked if I was interested in a combination ticket that would let me visit the Ann of Cleves House, which is also in Lewes. She explained that the house was part of the divorce settlement between Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves, but that Anne may have never even visited there. I was interested, but wasn't sure I had time, and told her so. Then she mentioned something else, something inside the house, that I might really want to see. And that sold me.

Thomas Becket had been murdered by four knights, thinking that they were fulfilling a wish of King Henry II, who had disagreements with Becket. The murder was particularly brutal, it happened inside the cathedral, and there were witnesses. The knights immediately understood the gravity of their crime, and fled to a house near Lewes. Upon entering the home they placed their swords and trappings on a heavy table made of Sussex marble, and then began warming themselves by the fire. There was a sudden crash and a terrible noise, and they discovered that the table had apparently rocked itself until their arms had been thrown to the floor. The attendants replaced the knights' swords, but the table rocked itself again, and once again everything was cast off. There was no earthly explanation for what had happened, and the knights knew that their swords had done such sacrilege, that not even this table would allow them to touch it.

Today that table stands in Anne of Cleves house, and it was the thing that sold me on the ticket - the one thing that I just had to see. I stood there and marveled at what was ostensibly the table that refused the swords of the murderous knights. The four men fled England and were excommunicated by Pope Alexander, but were given forgiveness after serving as knights in the Holy Lands for 14 years. They had done penance for their deeds.

But that day I stood there in disbelief, and I tried to lift that table. It's so heavy that I couldn't make it budge, and I just had to wonder. Is it possible that this table once refused to play a part in one of the most famous murders of all time? I'm not sure, but I know that the story of the recalcitrant table is good enough to have been told by one of Chaucer's pilgrims on the way to Canterbury. Why not?

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