The Magazine

Becket Today

Not turbulent but consistent and coherent.

Aug 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 45 • By J. J. SCARISBRICK
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Becket had initially yielded, or had been tricked into yielding, too much to the king, and quickly repented with typical vigor. A few months later, in October 1164, he faced what was essentially a rigged state trial at Northampton. Rightly sensing that his vengeful master was about to destroy him, he did what more than one previous archbishop of Canterbury had done: He fled the land—overnight, in his case—after grabbing a few possessions and racing to a channel port.


He spent some six years in austere exile, refusing to withdraw what he had said at Northampton or the excommunications of traitorous brother-bishops (especially the archenemy, the bishop of London, who loathed him), refusing to call off the threat of papal excommunication of the king or even of a papal interdict on the whole land, which would have closed churches and brought out the clergy on strike, refusing to agree to a “kiss of peace” if ever he and the king were somehow to meet again. 

Eventually, in the summer of 1170, a reconciliation of sorts was brokered by the king of France. Henry had been forced into a tactical retreat. Probably knowing full well that the latter was not acting sincerely, and full of foreboding, an emaciated, pale Becket, long suffering from chronic colitis, returned to England and Canterbury to a hero’s welcome. A few weeks later, he was hacked to death in his cathedral. After he had fallen, and a final stroke had taken off the top of his skull, his brains were scooped onto the floor with the point of one of the assassin’s swords.

Henry had not uttered those famous words, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” That story is apocryphal. Rather, he had shouted out at his barons something much more provocative—along the lines of, “Why are there so many cowardly, useless drones around me and not one willing to avenge the insults and contempt I have received from a low-born ingrate who has shamed my kin and realm?” That was enough for the four thuggish knights who promptly set out to commit murder.

Guy writes with sparkle and gusto—too much, perhaps, for some—and he certainly overdoes the end-of-chapter one-liner of the “little did he know that.  .  .” kind. But this is an exciting book. Would that some of the intricate diplomatic and genealogical detail, which sometimes clogs the narrative, been reduced. Guy would probably retort that it was a question of all or nothing. It was precisely because Becket’s fate, especially during his exile, was caught up in endless power games between the Angevin Henry and his rivals, and the tortuous struggle between then-pope Alexander III and Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, that we have to hear the detail. Without it, we cannot fully understand Thomas’s predicament: how he was, now, a useful pawn or even trump card in others’ fast-moving struggles; now, irrelevant, or a liability. Yet there could still have been some pruning.

Saints are neither sinless nor infallible. They are often very difficult to live with. But they are heroic in service to the Lord. That heroism is a “habit,” i.e., it possesses them. Guy shows that Thomas Becket matches up to this, and that he was a martyr for essentially the same cause as was Thomas More (and other English men and women who gave their lives). So he was much more than a “rebel,” to quote this book’s subtitle. Furthermore, I am fairly sure that I now know him—in the round.

J. J. Scarisbrick, professor emeritus of history at the University of Warwick, is the author of Henry VIII.