The rise of Becket to two of the most most influential positions in 12th century England (as the Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury - which he then trumps, so to speak, with his posthumous canonisation, his shrine becoming the object of international pilgrimage)is a fascinating tale. This is a story that many of us will feel we know. Yet while there are few outright surprises in terms of new material on Thomas in this book, the picture we get here is astonishing in its freshness and vivid detail, particularly considering the 900 years since his death.
There is a wide range of sources available, from early biographies reflecting Becket's highly politically charged martyrdom to official documents and correspondence reflecting Thomas' role at the heart of government: Guy seems to handle these effortlessly and is also admirably clear when weighing up likelihoods and possibilities. (There is an interesting, brief appendix about the 'rich and varied' primary sources.) His account of the political background to Thomas's life (the civil war between Stephen and Matilda most importantly) is clearly explained, as is the reality of the political tensions between the Capetians, the Angevins and the power of the Catholic Church: this can be complicated stuff and yet the clarity he achieves never seems like oversimplification.
What is particularly fascinating is Becket's rise in the world of power politics, becoming indispensable to Theobald, the then Archbishop and later Henry, whose virtually constant companion Becket became for the first eight years of his reign, playing an important role in supporting Henry's aspirations for his monarchy. The changing relationship between Henry and Thomas is carefully charted and one gets a vivid sense of the character of each man and of the very significant consequences of the breakdown of their relationship and its posthumous effect. For example, in Chapter 12, 'The Solitary Man', Guy takes time out from the narrative on the cusp of Thomas's appointment to the Archbishopric to examine 'the riddle at the heart' of his character, the issue of sexual orientation which came to the fore via Anouilh and Hollywood, whether Thomas misunderstood the nature of his relationship with the King and assumed a degree of equality which was misplaced etc. He examines contemporary accounts of Henry's and Thomas's personalities. These issues are crucial to the approaching breech in their relations: Guy's handling of the issue at this point is exemplary.
Of course the heart of the book is the transformation of Becket from 'worldly warrior chancellor' to the 'otherworldly priest and victim'. In Chapter 16, 'Conversion', Guy dismisses as 'palpable fiction' some of the more doubtful versions of Thomas' metamorphosis into his role as Archbishop put forward by earlier biographers with their own agendas. But if this was not a Damascene conversion as some have suggested, Guy identifies and explores the more subtle but nonetheless important changes which fueled what he refers to as the 'reanimat[ion] of his spiritual self'. (A clear, at least with hindsight, marker of serious conflict between Henry and Becket - then warrior/Chancellor - is identified as taking place at a council of war outside Toulouse, which predates Thomas' assumption of the role of Archbishop by some years.) The subsequent rift with Henry, the years of exile and attempts at reconciliation make for absorbing and at times gripping reading. The shorter and (sometimes very significant) longer term consequences of Becket's martyrdom are thoroughly explored, as is the 'conundrum' of whether it was in some way almost sought out of stubbornness and impulsiveness.
The review copy had neither index nor plates, so it is impossible to comment on the quality of either, but it is clear the published edition will have both. I personally missed the use of at least some footnotes: source material is relegated to the end of the book in 'Notes and References', but in a form which means one has to read through a sometimes lengthy paragraph for each chapter if one wishes to find out and follow up a source, though many will be happy not to have the foot of the page cluttered with such material. These notes and references also seem to serve as the bibliography for the book, as none is listed in the contents nor present in advance reading copies: that seems unfortunate too. Perhaps the publishers were keen not to give what is in fact a serious study too many academic trappings for fear of alienating the more general reader.
This book is not quite as 'un-put-downably readable' as some recent examples of popular history, though I suspect that this is in part due to the author's refusal to step too easily into novelistic mode: for me that is a virtue and I am happy to have had to make a little more effort to stay the course. And in fact, the closing chapters, as Becket's fate becomes increasingly inescapable, make for gripping reading. In fact, on reflection, my initial 4* seem a little ungenerous so, in the absence of half stars, I amend them to 5. Recommended.
There's not a great deal I can add to the majority of the excellent reviews above. This book represents a tour de force when it comes to describing the life and times of that turbulent priest. From humble beginnings, rather like Wolsey four centuries later, Becket's rise was meteoric. What is interesting about this book is the narrative style of Guy, which as another reviewer has said, has started from scratch with no preconceptions about where the story would lead and placed Becket's life in the political context of twelfth century England. Guy manages really well in sorting out the chaff and misinformation from the wealth of material that exists about Becket and in doing so at times paints a less than glorious, albeit objective, portrait of this warrior priest. He also debunks a few of the myths and legends that arose around Henry II and Beckett.
There are parallels between the relationship of Henry II and Becket and that of Henry VIII and Wolsey four century's later which make this interesting reading.
This is a marvellously detailed, meticulously researched and objective biography of Becket and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the history of that period, I don't think it will be bettered.
on 13 June 2012
I feel sure that Guy has done some thorough research but the style of his book is more like that of a historic novel. It includes
- precise observations of meetings e.g. `turned on his heel', `stormed out of the room'
- descriptions of the tone of voice of an individual e.g. `he fumed' , `asked tersely'
- occasionally even telling us what an individual thought.
I can hardly believe that such detail was recorded in the 12th century. In an effort to make the material enjoyable, Guy seems to have added just a little colouring of his own. There is even a patch of dramatic present tense towards the end of the book, which is simply out of place and silly. I don't think he has done himself a favour with this style.
The `ancestral customs' which were critical to the relationship between Henry II and Becket are nowhere described adequately.
Interestingly, Guy's description of `... a monarch,.... set on building a regional church under tight royal control, ring-fenced by the coast, as an integral part of a centralized state controlled by himself,...' actually refers to Henry VIII, as he points out the similarity between him and Henry II.
As he writes in his introduction to this thoroughly enjoyable book, John Guy has "tried to sweep away the cobwebs, dismantle the legends and use the original sources to conjure back to life a highly controversial figure who helped to change the course of history, and who has divided opinion ever since." He has succeeded admirably in these aims and though the work is some 400 pages long, and covers some highly complex ground - I defy anyone to summarise the course of the civil war between Stephen and the Empress Mathilda without the reader falling off his chair - it remains a readable, rewarding and entertaining book.
Perhaps the nub of the work is to found in chapter 12, 'A Solitary Man', where Professor Guy offers a profound analysis of a major source, the narrative of William fitz Stephen, written about 1173/74, and in doing so provides insights into the character and personality of Becket and his relationship to Henry II, which are entirely convincing and provide ample proof that John Guy has indeed succeeded in conjuring Becket back to life.
Enjoyable enough, and I learned far more than I knew previously about Thomas Beckett and his times. The casual brutality of the time, coupled with how religion pervaded almost all aspects of life is made clear. I was fascinated by the power of the threat of excommunication - it could certainly bring recalcitarant rulers to attention, but not always stop them from brutality.
An interesting, if perhaps overlong, account
on 28 May 2016
In this entertaining and fast-paced biography, the distinguished Tudor historian John Guy, in a return to the period of his early student days, tells the well-known but always compelling life of England's most renowned native saint. The focus of the book is of course the dispute between Thomas Becket and Henry II, principally over the liberties of the church but increasingly dominated by their acrimonious personal conflict, that arose from the issue of criminous clerks, became conflated with the archbishop's defence of the rights of the church of Canterbury, and was to result in Thomas's exile from 1164 to 1170 and then his shocking murder in his cathedral shortly after his return.
The portrait of Thomas is well drawn, encompassing his weaknesses and inconsistencies as well as his strength of purpose and principled beliefs, and along with a vivid portrait of the aggressive and over-powering king, the book takes the reader to the heart of a profound dispute about the nature of society in a faith-based world that became a titanic duel between two charismatic but flawed men. Guy remains sympathetic to his subject, while not ignoring his errors, whether personal, as in his intransigence in exile, or political, as in his abject conduct at Clarendon, but he is far harsher in his treatment of Henry, who as a perjurer by habit is shown to have never willingly fulfilled the terms of the agreement at Fréteval that Thomas entered into in good faith.
In writing a biography for a general readership, Guy can only deal in passing with complex issues that impacted upon the dispute between archbishop and king, such as the aftereffects of the settlement of the Investiture Controversy, the jurisdictional rights of the archbishop and church of Canterbury, or the authority of the pope over a metropolitan and in the dominions of a Christian king of England who also held vast continental lands of the French king as duke and count, but these can be explored in more academic works.
Guy places the battle over criminous clerks within its European context and the papal schism caused by Frederick Barbarossa's support of rivals to Alexander III, a subtle statesman who negotiated the labyrinth of twelfth century politics with much success, but he does not explore the motivations of Henry II in this continental framework, particularly whether he was attempting to establish a national church similar to that intended by the emperor in his lands, and whether Thomas' martyrdom ended this as a feasibility, instead tilting the advantage away from secular rulers towards spiritual leaders, thus paving the way for the development of papal monarchy. However, Guy does not make the mistake, tempting to the student of the Tudors, of regarding Henry II as a proto-Henry VIII, and seeing the Becket dispute as the right road not taken until the Reformation, with the centuries between the renaissances of the twelfth and sixteenth centuries as a lost second dark age, and for that the medievalist can be grateful.
Any biography of Becket must by default also be a study of Henry II, but Guy also brings to life the supporting characters such as the pope, Louis VII and Thomas' episcopal colleagues, but if there is one character the author appears particularly attracted to it is John of Salisbury, the archbishop's wisest counsellor and a theologian-cum-philosopher of international repute, who had it not been for his friend's murder would have been the most famed English priest of his time.
This book does not replace Frank Barlow's admired biography, but it serves as an engaging and chatty introduction to Thomas Becket, and will hopefully attract more people interested by his fascinating and frustratingly flawed subject to the study of English medieval history.
Written in a way that is very accessible to the non-historian, this book gives a full and rounded picture of the life of Thomas Becket and the politics of the court of Henry II.
Throughout the book, the author fills out the political and social background to the events of Becket's life, so that we see the contrast between Becket's relatively humble origins (coming from what would now be thought of as the middle-class) and the exalted court and religious circles in which he later moved. Guy suggests that his lack of an aristocratic background played its part in Henry's attitude towards him and subsequent fury at Becket's refusal to submit to his will.
As someone who knew only the bare bones of the Becket story, I felt that the author explained very clearly the different political strands that contributed to his eventual fate - Henry's ambitions in Europe, the involvement of King Louis of France, the ongoing schism in the papacy. Relying throughout on original sources, Guy gave a convincing picture of how Becket was seen by his contemporaries, both friend and enemy. He also looked at how Becket's story had been written over the centuries, pointing out where he felt that inaccuracies had crept in and going back to the original sources to support his own interpretation.
But although this is clearly a scholarly, well-researched book, it is so well written that it reads almost like a novel; the lead up and execution of the murder were particularly finely done. For a non-historian like myself, this is exactly how history should be presented - assume no knowledge on the part of the reader, fill in all the necessary background, give a picture of the wider society and tell the whole thing in an interesting way. An excellent read - highly recommended.
Enjoyable Easy to read; well documented and thoughtful about the value of sources... It is really difficult to get more information of the people and the world of the 12th century... the reader can enjoy this book as an introductory work, academic but published in a friendly way... brief chapters, no large disgressions, etcetera Thomas Becket John Guy has written some brilliant historical biographies, including A Daughter's Love THOMAS MORE AND HIS DEAREST MEG and Queen of Scots The True Life of Mary Stuart, so I was really looking forward to his latest work - the story of Thomas Becket and what a fascinating story it is. Although really it is not only the story of Thomas Becket, but also that of Henry II, as their lives, and fates, were so entwined with each other. Thomas Becket was born to middle class, but fairly humble beginnings. His early life showed very little of what was ahead - surprisingly he was not academically minded as a young man, nor was he ambitious intellectually. It was interesting that he enjoyed the friendship of a Norman artistocrat fairly early on and was introduced to another way of life - enjoying hawking and hunting. Indeed, he was wonderfully human, enjoying himself while studying in Paris and seeming neither overly serious nor particularly pious. A critical choice in his life and career was joining the household of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury and learning the craft of a right hand man, becoming invaluable and taking his studies seriously. He also learnt an important lesson when he witnessed Theobald forced to flee for his life, which led him to take precautions when faced with a similar situation. It is once Henry enters the picture that the book really comes alive. Becket is by Theobald's side when peace is brokered between Henry and Stephen, ending the civil war that had raged for so long. Theobald called Becket, "my first and only councillor" and he was marked for a glittering future career. Once King Stephen died and Henry was crowned, Becket became the new king's chancellor within six weeks. It really was a meteoric rise for a man of fairly humble beginnings, who now found himself constantly at the new king's side. Thomas Becket had a life of luxury, but was seen as an upstart by the aristocrats at court and never seemed able to rid himself of being looked down upon for his lowly beginnings. Henry was a very self assured man who had boundless energy and was unpredictable with a terrible temper. This temper would cause Becket serious problems, especially when Henry planned to make him both Archbishop of Canterbuy and Chancellor. Henry wanted to limit the conflicts between the Church and the State, but that required that Thomas would obey what the king wanted. It was a difficult path to walk, to juggle the rival claims of the Church and State and when Becket resigned as chancellor without consulting Henry there was an increased distance between them as Henry withdrew his favour. The book discusses all the issues which caused problems between the King and Archbishop in great detail, including taxation and Henry's demands that secular judges punish criminous clerks. When Henry reproached Becket for ingratitude, asking, "are you not the son of one of my villeins?" it was again a way of emphasising their inequality. The Council of Westminster, the Council of Clarendon and attempts to make Becket submit led to charges of embezzlement and, eventually, to Becket fleeing into exile. When Becket was in exile, there follows an endless round of attempted diplomacy, last ditch attempts to make peace and finally, Becket's return to England. He was received as a hero by the people of Canterbury, but, of course, was not welcomed back by everyone. Becket's enemies again accused him of plotting, leading to Henry's statement, which has gone down in history as, "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?" Well, John Guy discusses what was probably said and to whom and why it led to the murder of Becket and what the ramifications of that murder were. Whether Henry was really and truly penitent, the cult of Becket and his sainthood. In essence, this is the story of a king who attempted to control Thomas Becket for his own uses and a man who realised that he had no choice but to defend his beloved church and its privileges, even if it led to his death. Becket was a very human man and he had his faults, but in this biography John Guy manages to breathe true life into his subject and this is an informative, well researched and highly readable account of a very turbulent time. encyclopedic in detail Encyclopedic in detail. Becket's early life is described with many might-haves and could-haves and and maybes. I think it would have been better to shorten this part. A definitive work for sure, but requires significant patience even on the part of a history-loving reader. good read, from a novist's point of view I have only recently developed an interest in English history, so this is not meant to be an academic review. I found the book very readable and informative. It has inspired me to more reading in this area of interest. It appears very well researched, and was a great resource for my fledgling venture into history of that era. Excellent - Should Become The Definitive Biography Of Saint Thomas Becket This is an excellent book which will probably become the definitive biography of Saint Thomas Becket, who was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. John Guy writes well and his research is extensive. His interpretations of the original sources and evidence are all reasonable and persuasive. Guy presents the disagreement between Henry II and Thomas Becket for what it was an Archbishop standing up to a King in defence of the Church's rights and autonomy. In Guy's view, Henry II comes across as a untrustworthy, oppressive tyrant who wanted to subordinate and control the Church in his kingdom for his own political purposes. When Henry II appointed his Chancellor, Thomas Becket, as Archbishop of Canterbury, he expected Becket to accomplish this for him. Instead, Becket took his role as Archbishop as meaning his first allegiance was to God and the Church instead of to King Henry II. In Becket's view, his position as Archbishop of Canterbury meant he was still a subject of the King but his first allegiance was to God and the Church. The story is a fascinating study of the relationship between Church and state in medieval Europe, 12th century European politics, and philosophical questions such as the duty of subjects/citizens toward tyrannical and oppressive rulers. It's also a very interesting study of a man who stood up for what he believed to be his duty in the face of often overbearing and relentless pressure. Although Henry VIII later accomplished what Henry II wanted to accomplish through Becket, Thomas Becket's stand against Henry II had a major effect on European history. The story is still relevant today. It's a fascinating story told in a well written, well researched biography. Highly recommended!
I have taken my time reading this wonderful account of the life of Thomas Becket and realise just how little I knew about the man beforehand. The vast amount of research that John Guy did is astounding, he writes about the events of 900 hundred years ago and the reader can almost feel as though it is set in the present day. For once the family background has been revealed and how a humble lad, though far from poor, rose to gain such favour with the crown. I have read many books about English and French history but this just fills in so many blanks, how the succession came to be so uncertain for years etc. and how Beckett himself had not set out to become a religious figure, let alone a Saint. There are the human stories, he was a young man with ambition but also feelings and desires which may not have been previously written about in such detail. Like other reviewers have commented the relationship between Henry 11 and Beckett were almost mirrored in Tudor times between Henry V111 and Cardinal Wolsey. This book is excellent if you are interested in history but may prove to be heavy going for anyone else. Forget what you were taught in school, this is the account of a real man before he became a Saint. I will be looking out for more books by this brilliant author.
on 25 July 2012
I purchased John Guy's superb new biography of Thomas Becket as the Archbishop was central to my MTh dissertation. Uniquely, Guy uses the first third of the book to unravelling the complexity and egocentricity of Henry II's court. I was struck at how similar some institutions operations are today. Guy builds upon Barlow's very strong (revolutionary) academic work on Becket (from some 15 years ago) but covers the historic background in much greater detail and utilises this information in informing Barlow's research and well as developing his arguments. This is useful because it provides a reasonable (and well argued) explanation for the change in Beckets behaviour after his ordination to Archbishop, the central question in understanding Beckets construction as a man. Superbly researched and very readable, this work left me satisfied but also asking questions provoked by Guys fresh direction and understanding of this irascible man. I re-read sections several times over and found it very hard to put down late into the night. My book of the year.