Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Book Review: Thomas Becket by Frank Barlow



What do you know of Thomas Becket? Maybe you've heard that some king or other said, "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?" and a bunch of knights immediately set off and offed the poor archbishop in Canterbury Cathedral.

If you've got a little more history under your belt, perhaps you recall that Thomas and the King (probably a Henry - there were so many of them) were close friends until Henry made Thomas Archbishop of Canterbury in order to have a yes man in the top church post. Unfortunately, Thomas got an attack of conscience and started acting like a churchman, until [see above].

The latter was pretty much my recall, so when I resolved to follow the trend of picking a patron saint
for the year, I decided that 1) it should be an English saint and 2) there should be a decent book about him/her. Frank Barlow's biography is a new edition of the 1986 original, published especially for the Folio society. It's a traditional history book rather than the journalistic or novelistic biography that we expect nowadays. He tries to present a fair summary of the available evidence, and to make the context clear for readers who don't have a lot of medieval history. This means that in parts, the book lags. I felt pretty confused by all the tangents he went off on at the beginning, until I decided that I could read for the big story with a clear conscience. The couple of chapters on Thomas's exile are also a little tedious, but probably not as much for us as they were for Thomas's clerk Herbert of Boshom, who complained of their time in an isolated monastery that he was stuck between monks and a pile of stones.



And to be fair, it's a hard story to tell. Imagine a game of human chess where the principal pieces can both make moves and be played by other pieces. That about sums up the situation in medieval Europe. In England, we have a church still establishing its authority, not only in relation to the crown, but internally, as various bishoprics still dispute primacy (significantly, whether the archbishop of Canterbury has authority over all other bishops). The crown itself is in the shaky hands of the new ruling Angevin family under Henry II. Across the Channel, Henry has also to manage his lands on the Continent, which he rules in various capacities, and negotiate his relationship with Louis VII of France, alternately his ally and enemy, who also happens to be his wife's first husband, his overlord, and father of his son Henry's wife. Throw in a split papacy with a pope and anti pope, vying for supremacy and alternately courted and shunned by secular powers according to their political needs, and you get a taste of the times. It's complicated.

So in one way, the story is never just about Henry and Thomas but about the pan-European power struggles of Church and state. And yet in another it is: two extremely proud men, close companions as King and High Chancellor, who become fatal frenemies, neither willing to concede to the other. I came out of the book thinking that for Thomas, death was not too high a price to pay to be the victor in their quarrel. And essentially, he was. He became the celebrity saint England craved to rival those on the Continent; Henry is barely remembered unless it is in the context of his redoubtable wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, or the famous and infamous sons who rebelled against him, Richard the Lionheart and John. (Until, of course, an even prouder Henry crushed both his tomb and the power of the Catholic church in England.)

So does he live up to his hagiographies? No: during his exile, the English church became denuded of the leaders it desperately needed as bishoprics sat empty, and he quarrelled with the important men remaining. True, he 'reformed' his life somewhat, but mostly in the sense of conforming to a monastic rule of life, and an attempt to improve his sadly lacking formal education. He went to his death still disputing with the king he had once mentored. Thomas is the saint who should never have been one.

On the other hand, there are plenty of us who need a saint like that ;)

Thomas's shrine at Canterbury

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