A revisionist new biography reintroducing readers to one of the most subversive figures in English history--the man who sought to reform a nation, dared to defy his king, and laid down his life to defend his sacred honor
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, separates truth from centuries of mythmaking, and casts doubt on the long-held assumption that the headstrong rivals were once close friends. He also provides the fullest accounting yet for Becket's seemingly radical transformation from worldly bureaucrat to devout man of God.
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. Driven into exile, derided by his enemies as an ungrateful upstart, Becket returned to Canterbury in the unlikeliest guise of all: as an avenging angel of God, wielding his power of excommunication like a sword. It is this last apparition, the one for which history remembers him best, that will lead to his martyrdom at the hands of the king's minions--a grisly episode that Guy recounts in chilling and dramatic detail.
An uncommonly intimate portrait of one of the medieval world's most magnetic figures, Thomas Becket breathes new life into its subject--cementing for all time his place as an enduring icon of resistance to the abuse of power.
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July 03, 2012
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Excerpt from Thomas Becket by John Guy
Archbishop Thomas Becket, who for four centuries after his gruesome murder in Canterbury Cathedral would be nicknamed "lux Londoniarum" (the light of the Londoners), was the only surviving son of Gilbert and Matilda Becket, born very probably when the wreck of the White Ship was still the hottest news in town. The time was the afternoon of St. Thomas the Apostle's Day (December 21); the place a large house in Cheapside standing on the fief of the Marmion family, to whom a substantial annual quitrent was due.
Lying on the north side of Cheapside between Ironmonger Lane and Old Jewry, the Beckets' house was within earshot of the busiest street market in London. Most likely it was built of wood and limestone with narrow, unglazed windows. Its main living areas were the open hall, or main reception area, warmed by a central stone hearth, with a private chamber to the side where the family lived, slept, and entertained their closest friends and relatives. The open hall was lit by wax tapers, was furnished with trestle tables and stools, and had washing bowls and basins suitably positioned by the door or in an alcove. Servants, who waited on the family and prepared their meals, slept in the hall. Beneath the house was an undercroft, or cellar, perhaps serving as a warehouse to store goods. Possibly the kitchen was at one end of the hall behind a wooden screen, maybe outside in an annex to minimize the risk of fire. Water for cooking and washing was drawn from a private well or purchased from one of the city's many water carriers, who scooped river water from the Thames into leather pouches, selling them door-to-door. Soap was generally made from ashes, and the Beckets cleaned their teeth using green hazel shoots before polishing them with woolen cloths.
While Gilbert and Matilda's open hall was apparently larger than average, their living chamber may have been fairly cramped. Working back from documents compiled in 1227-28, it can be estimated that the property had a street frontage of 40 feet, a rear width of 110 feet, and a depth of 165 feet, but the greater portion of this area was taken up by a garden. The same documents show that the adjacent houses were approached via gatehouses and provided with outdoor latrines flowing into cesspits, so perhaps the Beckets' house had such amenities too.
Baptized in the nearby parish church of St. Mary Colechurch, Thomas was named after the apostle whose festival it was. His godparents promised to protect him from "fire and water and other perils" until he was seven and teach him the Lord's Prayer, the Ave Maria (Hail Mary), and the Apostles' Creed. Following time-hallowed rituals, the priest dipped Thomas in the font, then placed his thumb in holy oil, making the sign of the cross on the baby's forehead, shoulders, and chest, before wrapping him in a "chrism cloth," a white linen christening robe, as a symbol of purity and to keep him warm.
Whereas baptism usually took place when a newborn child was a few days old, Thomas was brought to the church by a midwife or nurse within hours of his birth, suggesting he may have appeared weak or sickly, or perhaps his parents had lost an earlier child and were determined to make sure their son was christened at once. His father was present at the church but not his mother, since canon (or church) law forbade a newly delivered woman to enter a consecrated space until she had been ritually purified in a special ceremony some forty days after her lying-in.
Around the year 1110, Gilbert and Matilda Becket had joined settlers from Rouen, the chief city of the Norman dukes, who had flocked to London, enticed by the city's expanding trade. Most likely Gilbert was a draper's merchant, since Cheapside and its environs were inhabited mainly by goldsmiths and those dealing wholesale in textiles, and Gilbert is known not to have been a goldsmith. Although they came from Rouen, their exact birthplaces are disputed. William fitz Stephen (no relation to the skipper of the White Ship), also born to Norman parents in London and one of Thomas Becket's early biographers, says that Gilbert came from a fairly humble family living close to Thierville in the valley of the Risle, not far from Bec Abbey, some twenty-five miles from Rouen. An anonymous Canterbury monk says that Gilbert's family was from Rouen itself and that Matilda (who is sometimes called Rose) was most likely born and raised in Caen. Married at around the age of twenty, the couple immigrated to England soon after their wedding.
The surname Becket usually means "little beak" or "beak-face," and young Thomas is known to have had an aquiline nose, probably inherited from his father. But it is far more likely that Becket derives from Bec, as in Bec Abbey. Surnames were optional in medieval society, and few people regularly used them. Gilbert and Matilda's eldest daughter, Agnes, was among them, calling herself Becket even after her marriage, but her brother never used the name, and when he is so addressed by others, it is usually derogatory. Before entering royal service, he preferred to call himself "Thomas of London" and afterward "Thomas the chancellor" or "Thomas the archbishop." Just one chronicler, Roger of Howden, refers to him in the modern way, as Thomas Becket, and then only once.
One of the most enduring and tantalizingly romantic myths about Thomas is that his mother was a Saracen princess. Still often repeated as true, the story first became part of the Becket legend as the result of an interpolation in a corrupt medieval manuscript first printed at Paris in 1495. The same story appears in a chronicle attributed to John of Brompton, abbot of Jervaulx. Gilbert, it is said, had traveled on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem as a young man, attended only by a servant. While praying one day in a church, he was surprised by a party of Saracens, who abducted him and led him into slavery. Held for a year and a half, he suffered great hardships but slowly ingratiated himself with his captors, who allowed him to come to their table, where he explained to them the customs and manners of the Europeans. The Saracen lord's daughter took a fancy to him and secretly visited him in prison, offering to become a Christian if he would make her his bride. When a few months later he broke free from his chains and managed to escape in the company of some merchants, she followed him. Arriving in London alone and knowing no words in French or English besides "London" and "Becket," she walked the streets desperately, mocked by bemused children, until by pure chance she was recognized by Gilbert's servant. Reluctant at first to marry her, but eager to see her baptized, Gilbert sought advice from the bishop of London, who, "perceiving the hand of God visibly concerned in the affair," decided to baptize her the next day. After the ceremony at St. Paul's--conducted by six bishops--she and Gilbert were married, and Thomas was conceived overnight.