Monday, 27 September 2021


This weekend following the British Museum exhibition “Beckett: Murder and the Making of a Saint”, we are going to a conference which is about Thomas in Canterbury.

Clas Merdin: Tales from the Enchanted Island: The Thomas Becket Exhibition

It’s the 12th century. England has been ravaged by 14 years of civil war between Stephen and Matilda. The country is in chaos. In 1153 Henry 1’s grandson, at 21, becomes King.

Henry II of England Biography - Facts, Childhood, Family Life &  Achievements of English King

What’s he like? He has hyper-energy, eats standing up, is always on the move, he’s petulant and impetuous. But in his short reign this man-of-action restores order. The barons submit to him; castles built without permission are torn down. The mercenaries who’d been hired in the Civil War have a few days to leave England or be executed. They decamp in a hurry. He sets up trial by jury and assizes (old French for “sittings”) where judges hear cases. Prisons are built and villages and towns are repurposed with proper market days. The country becomes less mediaeval, more civilised and calm; much of this owing to Henry’s decisiveness. 

Yet he only speaks French and Latin and lives 2/3 of his life in Anjou. A key to his success is Thomas Becket, who is recommended to him by his Archbishop, Theobald. They get on tremendously well, so well that Henry makes him Lord High Chancellor. Thomas is smart, charming, a fixer and a man who makes things happen. He’s the King’s right hand but also his best friend.

He’s a show-off, dandy and poseur. He keeps monkeys and wolves. He has a vast array of silk garments. When he goes to France to negotiate the marriage of the King’s daughter he does so in fabulous luxury with a huge entourage. He behaves as if he were King. He loves bling.

Late medieval bling-bling -

Then something awful happens. When Archbishop Theobald dies Henry has a brainwave. Why not make Becket Archbishop as well as Chancellor?  Henry has been irked for some time by something called “benefit of clergy” which simply means whatever a member of the clergy does they’re immune to civil law. So, if they commit murder, say, a Bishop’s Court might defrock them or exact a penance. That’s all. But there’s a bigger game to play. The church represents a sixth of the population and is very wealthy. Henry wants to clip its wings. Thomas is the man to do that job. He’s proved this before.

 Huge mistake.

Becket’s transformation from super-rich courtier to Man-of-God takes two days. One day Thomas next day the Reverent Thomas, next day Archbishop Thomas, answerable to the Pope as well as the King. 

But he won’t do what an increasingly bemused and enraged Henry wants. He becomes as saintly now as he’d been epicurean before. For 8 years he’s an absentee Archbishop in France. From brilliant Chancellor and best friend  to intransigent churchman and obstructive foe (as Henry sees it). Thomas cannot be judged a success in his new role. He has constant rows with Henry causing great distress to the people who’d seen this previous effective partnership  collapse and create national disharmony..

Henry’s increasing frustration and rage is interpreted by four loyal but not too bright knights as a wish that Thomas be silenced. So, they come over from France and butcher him in Canterbury Cathedral.

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It’s the most infamous murder ever. For the last 19 years of his life Henry bitterly regrets it, lamenting the loss of a friend, his own rashness and poor judgement, the tarnishing forever of his previously brilliant reign and becoming just a footnote in history.

We instead have the most famous Saint. 

Canterbury, England St. Thomas Becket Pilgrimage with 206 Tours

Lesson for today: Be very careful about senior appointments. Especially if it’s a friend.


1 comment:

John Eustace said...

History has a habit of repeating itself, so one can but hope