The archbishop who put his love for his God above that for his king

Thomas Becket

John Guy

Viking €34.00,

ebook €16.99

Review: TP O’Mahony

In the 1964 film Becket, starring Richard Burton in the title role as the 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury, an enraged King Henry II (played by Peter O’Toole) vents his anger and frustration in the presence of four loyal henchmen, using words many of us are familiar with: “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”

It was Henry, occupier of the English throne from 1154 to 1189, who appointed Thomas Becket to the prestigious See of Canterbury in 1162, making him Primate of the English Church. The King did so in what he thought was a clever move to thwart the rising power of the Church. After all, up to that point, Becket had served him loyally as Chancellor, one of the country’s most influential positions.

At the time, as Becket’s latest biographer tells us, Henry wished Becket to combine the primacy with the chancellorship “so that he could more easily rule the whole of the English Church”. He had shrewdly calculated (or so he thought) that he had now placed “his own man” in a key position and, through him, could more readily influence the course of Church-State relations.

The “divine right” of kings was a centrepiece of the political order back then.

But even during Henry’s reign the English Church, buttressed by another divinely ordained power, that of the Papacy, had jealously guarded its own prerogatives, and while “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” was the prevailing doctrine, there were definite limits in the eyes of the Church to what Caesar might rightfully claim as his.

Growing tension between throne and altar formed the background to the rift between the King and the Archbishop. Henry, having promoted Becket and nurtured his career, would come to feel betrayed by the archbishop in the end.

In truth, there was an element of misjudgement on both sides as to the nature of their relationship. Becket naively believed it was one of near-equals, whereas Henry saw it as a partnership of convenience which he, autocratic and capricious, could sunder at will.

Crucially though, as the author stresses, Beckett had concluded on becoming archbishop that “he could not cleave to God and at the same time obey the King’s will or give precedence to the laws of the saints without making an enemy of the King”.

As for the latter, he was leaving his (as he saw it) archbishop no room for manoeuvre. In a letter to Pope Alexander III, written shortly before his murder, Becket, as the author says, put his finger on the root of the problem. “Henry’s desire was that the archbishop should obey him in all things.”

The proximate cause of the split was a dispute over whether a group of clerical offenders should be tried by the civil authorities or in an ecclesiastical court. The former was provided for in the constitution of Clarendon (1164), which Henry sought to impose in an effort to nullify the growing independence of the Church from the crown. Becket’s objection to this (on the grounds it would stifle the Church’s liberty) brought him into open conflict with the King. But behind it was an extended period of suspicion and mistrust between King and Archbishop.

The book’s sub-title is “Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim: A 900-Year-Old-Story Retold”. Down the centuries a central facet of that story stemmed from speculation about Becket’s sexuality, speculation that has not abated. Guy tells readers the question of the archbishop’s sexual orientation is still open, though what matters is there was never sufficient proof to allow a firm conclusion to be reached during Becket’s lifetime.

“Authors floating theories about Becket’s sexuality include Jean Anouilh in his 1959 play Becket or the Honour of God.” Guy reminds us this play was the basis for the film starring Burton and O’Toole, in which the action centres on an unfilled homosexual relationship between the two main characters.

“Henry, in Anouilh’s dramatic realisation, is a bad case of thwarted homosexual love, while Thomas is an earthbound man in search of his true identity.”

No sustainable case, however, could be made against the archbishop. “Had the slightest doubt existed about Becket’s sexuality, it would have been turned against him by the royal propagandists when his breach with Henry became so vitriolic that all the normal rules of polemic were abandoned and anything that could be slung against an opponent, fair or foul, was used.”

Guy rightly emphasises that if Becket had been a “closet homosexual” members of the King’s loyal entourage would without hesitation have “outed” him and destroyed his reputation. It must always be remembered — and the author makes this point forcefully — that “homosexuality (or lesbianism) in the 12th century was not merely a mortal sin, it was ‘the sin that should not be named’ — a crime against God”.

The disgrace, therefore, that would have been visited on the archbishop would have led to his banishment, if not worse. “Given the often intractable nature of sources written 900 years ago, some things can never be proved one way or the other,” writes Guy.

In the end, Becket followed his conscience rather than his king. A line from Anouilh’s play goes to the nub of the controversy: “You prefer God to me,” admits a bitterly disappointed and disillusioned monarch.

As to the exact words used by Henry II, which were taken up and acted on by his four henchmen, amounting therefore to a sentence of death, John Guy says “variant versions” of the King’s “fatal words” have come down to us from the 12th century.

“The most famous and compelling rendition – ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ – is apocryphal. Generally assumed to have originated with Lord Lyttelton in his History of the Life of King Henry II begun in 1767, these words were first used by Thomas Mortimer in his New History of England, published three years earlier. Inaccurate and misleading as a translation of the Latin sources, this variant also misses the crucial point that — true to form — Henry’s grudge was as much rooted in his view of the archbishop’s ingratitude and presumption as of his alleged treachery.”

In 1935 the American-born poet and Nobel Prize winner TS Eliot wrote a play called Murder in the Cathedral which did much to cement Thomas Becket’s reputation as an heroic figure who stood up to a King and chose martyrdom rather than betray his Church and his Pope. In doing so, he also used the line now dismissed by Guy as apocryphal. As a romantic, I’ll cleave to the TS Eliot version.

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