Biography of Thomas Becket unearths new material

By Bill Felber

I purchased a copy of “Becket” almost by mistake, and began reading more or less out of a sense of duty, firm in the anticipation that I had wasted my money. What could one make of a 900-year-old murder case? How much in the way of original, documented material could an author be expected to come up with? 

The reality was almost completely otherwise. John Guy, a long-time British historian, fashioned this profile of the 12th Century ecclesiast and his fatal relationship with King Henry II on nearly a dozen letter writers or biographers, several of whom were eyewitnesses, and almost all of whom wrote within a few years of the events they recorded.

The result is a biography that comes across as thoroughly researched, free of gaps, and almost contemporary in its familiarity with its topic. Simply put, it is the best book I’ve read since “Unbroken,” richly deserving of its recent place within the New York Times list of non-fiction best-sellers.

The essential story of Becket is pretty well known, among other reasons because Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole starred as the principals in a widely praised 1960s movie. In short, Thomas Becket was a middle-class commoner who developed a friendship with the future king and eventually was raised to the position of chancellor by him. Henry did so out of a desire to find some trustworthy by suppliant soul who would carry out his rarely egalitarian wishes. This Becket initially did, believing that his responsibility was to his position as executor of the royal will.

Upon the death of the archbishop of Canterbury, it fell to Henry as monarch to appoint a successor, and he named Becket, overlooking the fact that his chancellor had never been ordained a priest. When the new Archbishop took Holy Orders, Henry assumed that he had placed a suppliant in the position, only to find out that the new Archbishop Becket was as steadfast and loyal to his new boss— the Pope — as he had been to his former boss while serving as chancellor.

The crux of the nearly 10-year battle was over a rule that seems odd and even unjust today, but which was common practice in the 12th Century. The Church insisted on its right to try what were referred to as “criminous priests” — those charged with crimes — in ecclesiastical rather than civil courts.

This had the obvious effect of placing the church above the state. Henry saw that practice as a slight against his authority. He was, after all, the king.

More than that, Henry — famously and accurately played by O’Toole — was given to fits of rage at real or perceived slights. That temper was routinely set off by his more or less constant run-ins with Becket over the king’s right to judge errant clergy, and over time Henry personalized the argument, seeing Becket as the source of all his troubles, real or fancied.

Fearing an arrest for treason, Becket left England for France, where he lived several years in exile. In 1170, however, the two men met on the ocean shore — a scene famously rendered in the movie — for a confrontation that led to Becket’s return from exile. Whether Henry sincerely wished this rapprochement to succeed or merely constructed a pretext to do in Becket may be debated, but in any event his mercurial personality made the maintenance of any agreement tenuous and unlikely.

Literally within days of Becket’s return, the archbishop was murdered at the altar of the Canterbury cathedral by four knights acting, it was famously said, following Henry’s plea in their presence for someone “to rid me of this turbulent priest.”

The crux of the case for Becket, flowing as it does from his defense of the church’s claim to immunity from secular jurisdiction, comes across today as weak in principle. To moderns, Henry is viewed as a reformer, a proponent of equality and equal justice. But, Guy notes, to take that view is to apply 21st Century concepts to a 12th Century circumstance.

Keep in mind that all of this transpires decades before Henry’s son, John, was forced to accept the Magna Carta as the founding document of English common law. The reality, Guy writes, was that Henry’s actions “showed that the rights of the accused could always be overridden by political considerations and the king’s will.” Guy notes that Henry presided over judicial proceedings against Becket, among others, as chief counsel for the prosecution, judge and jury. The bottom line question for centuries has been whether Becket held the moral high ground in his run-in with Henry. Day plainly believes he did. “Thomas was surely correct to claim that it was impossible for him to assent to customs that in several cases were novelties, twice condemned as “obnoxious” by the pope,” he writes.

He views Becket’s downfall as occasioned by his almost childlike and erroneous confidence in his ability to manipulate the king, his old buddy, to go along his way of thinking.

Bill Felber is executive editor of The Manhattan Mercury.

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