Thomas Becket, 1115-1170: Separation of Church and State, Act One

Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel by John Guy,  Random House.

The Jean Anouilh play Becket pretty much confirms the power of art on an unsuspecting public.   Think Henry II and the reasonably educated person will get an image of King Peter O’Toole and his one time drinking buddy Richard Burton.  While Peter is always an engaging sort of rogue, Richard does really have the power of right on his side.  He being a saint and all.

So basically the fix has been in since 1959. Probably time enough for another look-see.  To that end, Mr. Guy’s book gives us a more historically accurate but just as entertaining a rendering of reality.

First off,  these are not simply a pair of good old wenching and drinking buddies who come to grow into different sorts of men.  Henry certainly went in for that sort of thing in a major way, sowing all sorts of wild oats (even a plebeian such as myself can put him on the family tree).   Beckett was more of careful bourgeois striver, not to say social climber  from the get-go.  Not for him the taverns or the army or similar low places. No,  this dully middle class boy’s  first real job (after some work as a merchant’s assistant) is as an underling to Theobold, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Not that his was all that holy a vocation.  The job was pretty much clerical, all quills and ink stains, though well and thoroughly done. In time he was given greater responsibilities (rumors later surfaced of some backroom skullduggery*) and eventually  Theobold talked Henry into giving Beckett the Lord Chancellor’s office.  The archbishop’s thinking was that Beckett could rein the young king in a bit, for the betterment of the church.

It didn’t quite work out that way.  As Chancellor, Becket  was pretty much the king’s man, making sure that money that might have flowed to the church went instead to the crown.

So when Theobold died and the position of Archbishop of Canterbury opened up,  why not give it to Becket?  Henry thought the fellow tractable.  Henry thought most people tractable.  Most people are tractable.  As Chancellor,  Becket owed his first allegiance to the king, and as the king appointed the seat of the Archbishop, clearly he owed this secondary allegiance as well.

Becket didn’t see it that way, nor was he – tractable.  Rendering unto Caesar what was Caesar’s, he resigned as Chancellor, a slap in the king’s face and threw his lot behind the church.

Guy suggests this was no road to Damascus moment, but more likely the culmination of gradual thinking, perhaps dating from the time under Theobold and perhaps dwelling on some of his own past transgressions.  Then again, it might have been a simple lust for power. In any event, he walked the walk, all hair shirts and cold baths and washing feet of the poor.  (On the other hand, he also kept the silk robes of state on hand for whenever necessary – at least one of his old friends was astonished when he was canonized.)

As to the clerical/secular divide, the issues were predictable.  Money and power.  Who gets to tax and who gets to keep?  And who is in charge of the law?  The church claims authority over misbehaving clerics.  The system was being abused, or so said Henry. Guy says the record does not support this.  Misbehaving clerics did not in fact get off scot free under church law.  The only saving grace was that the church did not believe in capital punishment for anything less than heresy (and even this could be nullified by handing the guilty over to the civil courts for punishment).    It was largely symbolic, but it stuck in Henry’s craw – not a stupid man by any means, he recognized the power of symbol and meant to control it where possible.

Henry forced the issue on most all the English clergy, with Becket as the holdout. (Sound familiar?)  Requested to answer officially for contempt, he left for France where he spent the next six years as the king and the pope wrangled of questions of power.   Needing Henry’s backing against the Holy Roman Emperor, the pope made Henry an offer he could not refuse.  Henry accepted a face saving compromise, Becket returned,  but no proper reconciliation could be effected.

Which gets us to the martyrdom.

You will remember the 1066 And All That version:   Eager subordinates over-interpret a chance comment by Henry and off they go to do in the meddlesome priest.   It backfired.  The church saw an opportunity and pushed the murder  for all it was worth. Martyrs were not thick on the ground by that time and but it was an easy sell.  The blood was still warm as the faithful dabbed and tore what grisly souvenirs they could.  The pope, no fool, fast-tracked the man’s canonization  and Henry was in a bad way.  He agreed that the prudent thing to do would be to submit  to being scourged.

Blood was let. Life went on. The notion of Regal power slipped into the English mindset.

In the end, it is six more Henries down the line before there was a complete break with Rome.  (No surprise then that  Guy is a scholar of Tudor history. ) Henry VIII finally had the nerve to up-end Becket’s bones and burn them, to call him a traitor, and to assert  a damnatio memoriae on this meddlesome priest who thought he could tell a king what he could do in his own kingdom.

Well, Henry had some anger issues.  Actually, both Henries did.  The current Prince Henry seems happily devoid of such things, but if he ever does becomes king, here’s hoping he doesn’t have recalcitrant chancellors named Thomas.

As to the book – the book is first rate and highly readable.  Well worth your time.

*(there is the suggestion that Becket helped engineer a cover-up of sexual misconduct on the part of the future Archbishop of York – politics is a nasty business.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *