TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 21 March 2012
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.