Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel

John Guy. Random House, 2012. 424 pages. $35.00.

By David Madden

Thomas Becket was a many-faceted enigma during his lifetime (c.1122-1170) and as a saint he has remained so throughout the centuries to this day, even though five witnesses to his murder in the cathedral at Canterbury and many scholars have provided biographies over the years, the latest being John Guy’s interpretative Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel. A Nine-Hundred-Year-Old Story Retold.

As he tells this old story—a very good one, very well-told—Guy presents all the facts, raises all the old questions, and adds some of his own; and his interpretations, although sometimes rather forced or at least questionable, justify yet another biography, following upon the somewhat less masterful one by Frank Barlow in 1986.

I didn’t argue with Barlow’s biography, nor with the well-known plays Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot and Becket by Jean Anouilh, nor with Tennyson’s unfortunately little-known play Becket. But I do argue with Guy quite often about matters large and small—a stimulating, enlightening experience for which I am grateful. “And yet not every impression left by written sources created nine hundred years ago may be true.” I tried often to resist applying that observation to Guy’s impressions.

For instance, he raises again, but at greater length, the question of the sexuality of Becket, as a youth with his tutor, but mainly as Henry II’s very close friend in such ways as to render that facet of the Becket enigma even more enigmatic. Becket lived no life that would have enabled him to leave us with a testimonial resembling Confessions of St. Augustine. 

Aside from the thinly documented question of his sexuality, what was it that attracted the young king and the London social climber to each other to such an extent that young Henry made Thomas his Lord Chancellor? Despite his lack of qualifications, Thomas proved for more than seven years to be exceptionally talented in that role, serving the king more than God. “I know my lord king inside out,” said Becket. Even so, Henry’s “choice has always been thought mysterious or inexplicable,” and “intriguing.” William fitz Stephen declared that “Never in the whole epoch of Christian history were two men more of one mind or better friends.” 

What persuaded King Henry to take a giant step further and use his power to get Thomas appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, a role for which he had even less qualification, and further to enable Thomas to function at his command in both roles simultaneously?

Why then did Thomas, now forty-one, ask Henry to relieve him of the worldly role of Chancellor so that he might do a better job in the spiritual role as Archbishop? Guy answers this question as ably as he does all the others. The office made the man. Thomas got religion. He studied the Bible and applied it with the sagacity he had developed in his role as Lord Chancellor, which had included victories as a warrior at home and abroad. Having “stared God directly in the face,” he served God as he had served the king—over-reachingly. 

The huge question looming still is what chipped away and finally broke down the friendship between the servant of Christ and the purely worldly king? Guy plays out the obvious answer in one dramatic scene after another, over many pages because the answer has numerous facets. The king wanted all criminal trials to come within his jurisdiction; the archbishop refused, in meeting after meeting, face to face and in large conferences involving church and state officials on two continents, to relinquish the church’s authority in trials affecting clergy. The archbishop had the sometimes weak, sometimes strong support of the king of France and the Pope. 

King Henry also had the support of certain high officials of the church, those who detested, mistrusted, and were jealous of Becket, beginning with his years as Chancellor. But it was the knights closest to the king who resolved, for personal reasons and profit, to put an end to years of conflict. After fleeing for his life into ten years of exile in France as a simple monk, the archbishop decided to return to Canterbury to tend to his neglected and beleaguered flock. Around Christmas time, he was conducting a service in the cathedral when four knights butchered him. 

Guy tells the story of the aftermath, in which the King did humbling penance several times in the cathedral, and thousands paid such homage to the archbishop that he was made a saint only a few years after the murder.

How did it come about that architect Father Peter de Colechurch built a chapel honoring the Archbishop just near the center of London Bridge, the first bridge of stone built in England since the Romans evacuated—intended for pilgrims going to visit Becket’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral? Was this dedication Peter’s choice, the Church’s, or King Henry’s? That is not part of the story Guy has chosen to tell, leaving Peter de Colechurch’s centuries-long obscurity intact.  

But in 400 pages of narrative text, Guy leaves very little else out. What is lacking in substance he makes up for in an abundance of conjectures, overt and subtle, ringing in phrases from “one may suppose” to “must have been” with a dizzying frequency that is somewhat tolerable, along with a plethora of other qualifiers and artful dodges.

What may prove less tolerable to readers hungering for a sustained focus on the life of the man whose enigmas moved them to buy this biography are the superfluity of pages early on that focus on Henry II, a man of more contradictions than enigmas, a man interesting enough to have inspired many books; and this book does such a superb job of telling the king’s story that many readers will not be dismayed by the digressions, including those that deal with the shifting seductiveness of his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

What is most important to Becket’s life and times is fully presented, but what is more important to nonacademic readers is what they know best: the murder of Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. Here Guy may not satisfy any more fully than the fictive dramatizations on stage and screen, or than Barlow’s biography, and may therefore want to turn to a much fuller account in Thomas Becket, His Last Days by William Urry, for many years the Cathedral’s archivist and Oxford Fellow revered for his storytelling charm.

Although Guy’s biography is essentially less a fact-driven than a character-driven narrative, the chapter in which he focuses purely on a character analysis of Becket is excellent, in which we learn that he was off and on solitary, vain, materialistic, devout, ambitious, willful, reckless, hypocritical, rebellious, brave, energetic, sexually ambiguous, politically astute, philanthropic, theatrical, a power broker, a fine horseman, intellectually fertile, a destructive warrior, and a faithful friend, especially with John of Salisbury. 

Is John Guy one of the many who have affection, admiration, and respect for Thomas Becket? The many ways in which this biographer answers that question raises this fine biography to a level commensurate with the enigmas of its subject.

David Madden (ΦBK, University of Tennessee, 1979) is a novelist and resident member of the Epsilon of Tennessee chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.