John Guy’s biography of Thomas Becket is a very good book—it is the work of a scholar (hitherto best known as a Tudor historian) at the zenith of his skill and completely on top of his sources. And how voluminous those are: 12 contemporary or near-contemporary biographies, including one in Icelandic, several accounts of Becket’s reported miracles, contemporary chronicles, hundreds of letters—not to mention a massive amount of secondary literature. Thomas Becket must have good claim to being the most written-about Englishman.
The celebrated medievalist David Knowles, himself no mean authority on Becket, declared that he found the martyr-archbishop of Canterbury ultimately a mystery, unfathomable, and explained that when we finally try to take hold of him he eludes us “like a wraith.” Some of Becket’s contemporaries, even some admirers, seemingly were of the same opinion. So was T. S. Eliot. All agreed that Becket was extraordinary, but there were many contradictions and unanswered questions—about the sincerity of his conversion from worldly chancellor to hair-shirted churchman, for instance, or whether his intransigence was sometimes (or often) more pigheaded than virtuous, or his martyrdom more self-provoked than selfless.
But John Guy has no such hesitations. He has found, and carefully portrays, a thoroughly consistent, coherent person. There is no hagiography here, no avoiding the difficult questions, mercifully little psychoanalysis and plenty of down-to-earth good sense. The portrait is convincing.
Of course, the younger Becket was outwardly worldly: addicted to wrestling, hawking, and hunting; flamboyant and loving the grand gesture. Guy tells us of the spectacular embassy to Paris in 1158 when Chancellor Becket traveled with 24 changes of clothes, hundreds of horses, men, and carriages, falcons, exotic birds, greyhounds, mastiffs, and monkeys, and stacks of precious jewels and plate to bestow on his host, the king of France, as well as gallons of beer for bystanders watching the huge cavalcade pass through villages and towns. But the dazzling six-footer who was the climax of this procession was chaste, said his prayers, and frequently scourged himself. Moreover, Guy is surely right to insist that Becket was always wary of his master, Henry II; he was never really a devotee of the king, and was never corrupted by him. So there was no sudden conversion from sycophantic courtier to God-fearing courtier. Much like a later chancellor named Thomas, Becket may have tried to be the king’s good servant, but he was God’s first.
And like Thomas More’s king, Henry VIII, Becket’s was a nasty person. Guy pulls no punches. Henry II was cunning, violent, possessed of a whirlwind temper (in his rages he threw things around and even chewed straw on the floor), a bully, frenetic, and unpredictable. He was also bent on restoring what he called “the ancient customs of the realm,” that is, the crown’s influence over the church, which he claimed his grandfather had enjoyed before a power shift due to the recent civil war. In truth, he was after the subjugation of churchmen, a royal supremacy—radical innovation rather than restoration.
Alas for him, the man he appointed in a typically rash moment as archbishop of Canterbury, and who immediately resigned the chancellorship, was a product of that profound reform movement often named after one of its prime movers, Hildebrand (later Pope Gregory VII), which sought to liberate the Western church from excessive lay, and especially lay rulers’, influence. Becket grew up during a time of powerful popes, of burgeoning canon law and its high doctrine of papal authority and clerical immunity; that is, the rights of sacerdotium, the clerical estate, including its courts, over and against those of regnum, the secular state and its jurisdiction. Indeed, in some ways Becket was more Hildebrandine than Hildebrand.
Given all this, a titanic struggle between Henry II and Becket had
the inevitability of Greek tragedy. As the conflict unfolded, Becket would come to believe that he was facing not just a monster bent on turning the two provinces of the church in England into a puppet state-church, but also a tyrant who was a menace to all his subjects. The immediate issue was whether “criminous clerks”—that is, clergy of any sort who were found guilty of grave crimes by church courts (which did not use the death penalty)—could be brought before royal courts (which did, of course, very freely use the death penalty). But deeper issues soon arose regarding the freedom of appeal to Rome, Rome’s authority over English church life, the authority of the primatial see of Canterbury, and the independence of the English episcopate from royal influence.
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.