Publisher: Random House
Publication date: 7/3/2012
It is December 1170.
Four knights braced by drink leave their chain mail and swords in the Canterbury Cathedral courtyard. With ambitions of proving themselves to their king, they stride into the great hall and demand to see the archbishop.
Thomas Becket keeps them waiting and after a heated verbal confrontation, the knights return to the courtyard to retrieve weapons and reinforcements. Finding the cathedral blocked, they clamber up a ladder back into the great hall.
The bell rings for vespers. Loyal monks standing with their archbishop lead him through the north door of the cathedral and lock it behind them.
A knight bursts through the north door and shouts, “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the king and the kingdom?” Becket responds, “I am no traitor to the king, but a priest.”
Becket resists the knights, who try to drag him out to the courtyard. He says a prayer. One of the king’s men strikes a fatal blow with his sword. Arms outstretched, Becket falls beside an altar.
Various chroniclers have offered their renditions of events… the contentious relationship between Henry I and Thomas Becket and how it turned to a public quarrel and ultimately assassination. Most agree on the grisly details of the murder.
Tudor historian John Guy begins his new book Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel by listing firsthand biographers and actual witnesses of events leading to this martyr story. In his retelling, Guy sought “to sweep away the cobwebs, dismantle the legends, and use the original sources” to bring the story to life.
Becket turned 21 when Henry of Anjou returned from exile with his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. According to Guy, biographers marveled over the fact that he would be named the new king’s chancellor within six weeks of Henry’s coronation.
Guy traces Becket’s ascendancy from middle-class origins in the backdrop of a royal court of ambitious and ruthless participants. He also reveals character flaws and divergent values between Henry and Becket that would culminate “in a clash of titans that only one of them could survive.”
Unlike Becket, who relied on charisma and his quicksilver oratory to get his own way, Henry was a bully relying on threats and taunts.
Although he carried around saints’ relics to invoke the sacred mystique of his kingship, Henry was prone to sacrilege, the breaking of oaths and a deep antipathy toward church hierarchy. Guy writes that the king found Becket “useful, amusing, and companionable, indulging him and treating him as a favorite, but knowing that such privileges could always be withdrawn.”
Henry hoped to reintroduce the “ancestral customs” of his grandfather and restore the power of the monarchy. Becket’s supporters hoped he would use his influence to usher the king’s traditional role as a patron and protector of the church.
In 1162, Becket was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and properly ordained as a priest shortly after. His responsibilities and obligations to the church would come first and he resigned as chancellor without consulting Henry. A grudge began to simmer.
Becket’s refusal to cave to Henry’s allegiance demands was seen as a conspiracy against the crown and sparked a long and contentious public stand-off. Peace talks would collapse and the pair would refuse numerous opportunities to reconcile. The king expelled Becket’s family and supporters, while the archbishop excommunicated Henry’s allies.
The king’s infamous utterance, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” set the scene for assassination and forever marked the history of relations between the church and the English monarchy.
Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel by John Guy is a highly worthwhile read researched entirely from firsthand sources that neatly dodge the conjecture and spin surrounding the martyrdom of Thomas Becket.
Category: Nonfiction, History, Great Britain