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Death comes for the archbishop

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

Scotland’s phoenix

The late squarson, Henry Thorold, was fond of pointing out that his Shell Guide to Lincolnshire was the bestselling of the series, not because of any intrinsic merit but because no guide to the county had been produced since the early 19th century. The same might turn out to be true of the latest volume

Figures in a landscape

As you cross the Trent, you are very much aware that you have moved from the south to the north country. The next great divide is the Tyne, with the dramatic straggle of Newcastle stretching east and west. Beyond lies mile upon mile of Northumberland, all the way to the Scottish border, arable land for

On the way to the forum

In 150 BC, Cato the Elder arrived in the Senate House in Rome with an eye-catching basket of figs. This redoubtable statesman — often referred to as ‘censorius’, an epithet I have coveted since my childhood — was famous, apart from his censoriousness, for his conviction that the most important thing for Rome at any

A safe pair of hands | 7 April 2012

Michael Spicer is too honourable to be a brilliant diarist. As he himself says, ‘I eschew tittle-tattle or small talk.’ These diaries cannot be read, as Chips Channon’s or Alan Clark’s can be, because they offer a joyful cascade of indiscretions. When Clark dies in September 1999, Spicer writes of his fellow Tory MP: ‘We

Life & Letters: A PM’s summer reading

One of the weaknesses of many political biographies is that they are so often all about politics. The authors either forget that politicians are people, and sometimes interesting people, or they assume that their private life is of neither interest nor importance. So the book becomes a record of what the politician did rather than

Not quite cricket

To the French, Albion’s expertise in perfidy will come as no surprise. But centuries of warfare have given them time to learn. With their experience only dating back to 1914, the Germans clearly found it difficult to grasp during the second world war that nowhere is the truth more expertly and instinctively spun than in

Where dreams take shape

The question of what artists actually get up to in their studios has always intrigued the rest of us — that mysterious alchemical process of transforming base materials into gold, or at least into something marketable in the present volatile art world. Today’s studio might as likely be a laptop as laboratory, factory, hangar or