Skip to Content


Death comes for the archbishop

Blair Worden dispels some of the myths surrounding Henry II and his turbulent priest, Thomas Becket

7 April 2012

11:00 AM

7 April 2012

11:00 AM

Thomas Becket John Guy

Viking, pp.420, 25

Posterity has always embellished Thomas Becket. After his death in Canterbury Cathedral in December 1170 the Church idealised and canonised him; his tomb inspired miracles and became the most famous shrine in Christendom; the local monks grew rich and fat on the tourist trade that would attract Chaucer’s pilgrims. The 18th century invented Henry II’s hint, ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ Playwrights spice the dish. Tennyson’s drama about Becket was staged by Irving; everyone remembers Eliot’s chorus, living and partly living; and Anouilh’s play, which turned the Norman immigrant into a Saxon, gave him, in the screened version, a wide and charismatic appeal.

Not that theatricality or charisma was foreign to the real Becket’s complex character. John Guy’s is the first substantial life of the archbishop since the veteran medievalist Frank Barlow’s a quarter of a century ago. On secondment from the Tudor period, Guy carries to the 12th century the scholarly and analytical acumen, and the vivacious prose, he has brought to the 16th.

Popular conceptions of Becket turn on his relations with the king who made and broke him. A blessed friendship turns to tragic enmity. Henry’s worldly chancellor, raised from modest origins to golden heights of power and wealth, suddenly becomes a defiant hair-shirted cleric, driven by either high principle or a taste for martyrdom into a long exile and then, on his provocative return to England, to a death that seizes Henry with remorse.

Guy disposes of much of that picture, and qualifies the rest. He finds no abrupt transition in Becket’s character. Even in his pomp, an inner piety and asceticism nibbled at his worldly contentment. So, as he moved among the ruling barons, did the insecurities of a newcomer who never felt a belonger. Becket, in Guy’s reading, was destroyed not by a personal tragedy but by political inexperience and miscalculation and impulsiveness.

A sense of tragedy is anyway precluded by Guy’s portrait of the king. We meet Henry as the latest in a brutal line of Norman and Angevin rulers obsessed by dynastic ambition and happy to sacrifice the peace and unity of their lands to it. In place of the ‘rose-tinted’ perspective of legal and constitutional historians, who have made Henry the pioneer of an effective and equitable system of justice, Guy gives us a foul-tempered, bullying, venal, perjured tyrant with ‘an innate assumption that his will was law’.

His friendship with Becket, never uninhibited, was always conditional on facts of power. Henry was incapable of any relationship that did not assume unquestioning obedience to him. He suffered no remorse at Thomas’s death, only regret that the shock it caused had dented his own authority. He did penance at Becket’s tomb because, unable to stem the cult, he had decided to annexe it to the aura of majesty.

It is Guy’s achievement, when he has stripped the embellishments, to leave us with a sense of Becket’s greatness. Yet he has a problem he never quite solves. The less romantic the relationship between Henry and Thomas appears, the less satisfying biography becomes as a means of explaining it. The clash of personalities heightened but did not create the great issue on which Henry’s demands for obedience turned, and which Guy is content to sketch: the contest of church and state. It went with both the royal and the archiepiscopal territory.

Becket had risen in the service of his predecessor at Canterbury, Theobald, who, like Becket after him, had his property seized, was driven into exile, and was targeted for assassination by a band of knights. Unlike Becket, he was a shrewd politician. When possible he worked with the crown to build a joint authority of church and state and to thwart predatory barons with eyes on ecclesiastical property.

Yet the Church gained little from that co-operation. Any successor of Theobald might have turned away from it. Accommodation between the temporal and spiritual swords, Guy passingly indicates, was getting harder. The claims of papal sovereignty and church or canon law, backed by powerful ideals of spiritual authority and moral regeneration, were ever extending. Becket and his associates liked to invoke the Church’s ‘liberty’ against forces of tyranny and oppression. What they meant was its right to independence of, and immunity from, the secular power, through papal protection and the exemption of the clergy from the courts that tried and punished the laity. Any king worth the name, brutal or not, would have fought back.

Soon after Henry’s accession in 1154 Becket was made chancellor, a post he transformed into a great office of state. In France he headed a magnificent embassy and dashingly led troops into battle. At home, an instrument of the secular power, he shifted the burden of national taxation at the Church’s expense. Theobald, who had persuaded Henry to appoint Becket, broke with him.

After Theobald’s death in 1161 the king appointed Thomas, a mere archdeacon, to Canterbury over the heads of resentful bishops, and expected him to combine the jobs of chancellor and archbishop. A true friend would have known him better. To Henry’s bewildered fury Becket resigned the chancellorship without consulting him and embarked on a bold programme to enlarge the Church’s resources and authority. Conflicts over rights of law and property assumed in Becket’s mind, as he steeped himself in biblical and theological study, a cosmic import. Quickly the quarrel spread to Rome and to the courts of Europe. How international it now looks, set as it was in a Europe to which the Church gave a coherence that modern bureaucracy cannot match.

The Reformation, by nationalising the Church and subjugating it to the state, ended all that. Henceforth Henry II’s interpretation of Becket’s international lobbying as treason, questionable at the time, would seem uncontentious. Henry VIII had Becket’s shrine demolished and despoiled. ‘There appeareth nothing in his life’, the Tudor king proclaimed, ‘whereby he should be called a saint, but rather esteemed to have been a rebel and traitor to his prince.’ Even Charles I, whose readiness to back an archbishop of Canterbury bent on restoring lost powers of the Church would baffle his subjects and help cause the civil war, declared, to the relief of the earl who heard him, that ‘he thought Thomas Becket as arrant a traitor as ever was’. The state had won. 

Show comments