Although the story of Thomas Becket was taught to me in school, the only bits that sank in were that he was killed by (or for) the king, his friend, after an argument. A visit to Canterbury Cathedral a few years later taught me a little bit more, but I was no clearer on what the 'argument' had been about, or how an archbishop could be murdered in his own cathedral on the orders of the king.
So this book has filled in a big gap in my knowledge of medieval England, and been an absolute pleasure to read. Beginning with the White Ship disaster which coincided almost exactly with the birth of Thomas Becket and ultimately led to the Anarchy period of civil war during which Becket began his working career, John Guy provides a good balance of background historical information and informed speculation on what Becket's upbringing would have probably been like. Rather than a "low-born cleric", Becket was born into a prosperous Norman family whose contacts enabled him to enjoy a relatively privileged adolescence and form relationships with his social superiors, enabling him to enter service and embark on a career that would lead him to the very top of the State and then the Church.
The sheer detail that Guy is able to provide on the life of a man that lived and died nearly 900 years ago is astonishing, and the book is positively full of vivid descriptions of Becket's life and work. After a briskly-paced first 20 years or so during which Becket rises steadily through the ranks to become effectively the right-hand man of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, he is brought into close contact with Henry, the potential heir to the throne of England, as the Archbishop tries to broker a peace that will end the civil war. A mutually convenient friendship between the two younger men ensues, which ultimately results in Becket's appointment as Chancellor shortly after Henry's accession to the throne as Henry II.
The pace then starts to slow down as even more detail is thrown on Becket's actions as Chancellor, where he is so successful at home and abroad he becomes as invaluable to his king as he previously was to his archbishop (at some cost to his relationship with the latter), so much so that when the position of Archbishop becomes vacant, Henry sees Thomas as the ideal man to bring Church and State closer together.
Rather than describe the famous battle of wills between King and Archbishop, I will simply say that the whole story gets a very thorough re-telling in absolutely glorious detail which deserves to be read by anybody remotely interested in the period. Of course, this detail would not be possible without the quantity of biographies and chronicles written at the time by a variety of witnesses and contemporaries, and Guy is very clear about the debt his book owes to these authors at both the beginning and the end of the book; he has clearly devoted a massive amount of time and energy in exploring these sources and throughout he explains where he thinks the sources are reliable, and where they are less so. As a result, the text absolutely teems with life from start to finish, and I cannot recommend this book highly enough.