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Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel

A new biography of Thomas Becket will be released on July 3rd.

"Becket’s life story has been often told but never so incisively reexamined and vividly rendered as it is in John Guy’s hands. The son of middle-class Norman parents, Becket rose against all odds to become the second most powerful man in England. As King Henry II’s chancellor, Becket charmed potentates and popes, tamed overmighty barons, and even personally led knights into battle. After his royal patron elevated him to archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, however, Becket clashed with the King. Forced to choose between fealty to the crown and the values of his faith, he repeatedly challenged Henry’s authority to bring the church to heel.

"Drawing on the full panoply of medieval sources, Guy sheds new light on the relationship between the two men, [and] separates truth from centuries of mythmaking. . .

Here is a Becket seldom glimpsed in any previous biography, a man of many facets and faces: the skilled warrior as comfortable unhorsing an opponent in single combat as he was negotiating terms of surrender; the canny diplomat 'with the appetite of a wolf' who unexpectedly became the spiritual paragon of the English church; and the ascetic rebel who waged a high-stakes contest of wills with one of the most volcanic monarchs of the Middle Ages."

Biographer John Guy sheds new light on the conflict between Henry and Becket. English historians have long suggested that Henry II had right on his side in asserting that Common Law governed all persons in the kingdom, including clergy. The Archbishop's attempt to exempt clergy never seemed fair or right. This still seems true to me, and I can't help but feel that the abuse of children by priests would have been better handled in the open in courts of law rather than in secret by the Church.

However, the English Church's determination to be free, a principle confirmed in Magna Carta, abides very near the precious right to freedom of conscience. Today many people don't want to be ruled by the church. Becket did not want government ruling the church. In many but not all cases that seems right. I'm looking forward to reading this biography.

Born in Australia, John Guy moved to Britain in 1952, and took a First at Cambridge, where he now teaches. He is the author of My Heart is My Own: the Life of Mary Queen of Scots, which was awarded the 2004 Whitbread Biography Award, and A Daughter's Love: Thomas More and his daughter Meg, 2009.


Comments (1)

Cat, I join you with interest in reading this new book about Becket. Surely one of his virtues is as patron saint for clergy who've been betrayed, i.e., stabbed in the back.

As an aside, walking with friends in Canterbury some years ago I pointed out St. Thomas Becket R.C. Church and, being an Anglican cleric, giving in to that tiresome habit of referring to it sniffily as 'The Italian Foreign Mission'. Of course, what is conveniently forgotten is that the big 'English' Cathedral down the road was built first on a foundation by an Italian of the name 'San Agostino' sent to England by Pope Gregory, another Italian who created the chair that once Thomas Becket and the current incumbent have occupied.
With due recognition to the small Saxon church that pre-existed the Italian invasion of England, it is truer to say that, strictly speaking, the whole of the Church of England is built upon a rather considerable Italian Foreign Mission!

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