Sunday, December 29, 2013

An Unlikely Saint: summary/review of John Guy's "Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel", part I

In the months since my last post, the world, or at least anyone with a degree of cinematic taste, wept for the loss of Peter O'Toole. An eight-time Academy Award nominee, one of the last great film actors of yesteryear, O'Toole's was the only celebrity death that I truly took notice of in... well, as long as I can remember. His second hit, Becket, starring alongside Richard Burton, remains one of my all-time favorites. And so, when I found myself with more free time than usual after the end of classes, I stopped by the public library and checked out Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, A Nine-hundred-year-old Story, Retold by John Guy. Published just last year, I thank Guy for the refreshingly modest title; no pretensions of earth-shattering, Bible Code proportions of research. Indeed, after 900 years, very little new information has come about the shed light on the life of the "hooly blisful martir", yet the book still taught me a great many things I didn't already know. Guy, like other Becket historians before him, tries to answer those over-persistent questions: "was he really a saint?" "Were his differences with the king really worth getting killed over?" "Did he provoke his own martyrdom?" And now, since today happens to be his feast, the 843rd anniversary of his death at Canterbury Cathedral, I'm rushing to get out this summary of Becket's life and thoughts on Guy's book to share with you.


Part I: The Early Years

The future archbishop was born in London against the backdrop of a great calamity. Those of you who have read or seen the TV adaptation of The Pillars of the Earth will recall the sinking of the White Ship. On the 25th of November, 1120, the English Channel's depths claimed the lives of some three hundred of the realm's highborn, including Prince William, his brother, Richard, and sister, Matilda. King Henry I sired twenty bastards, but only one legitimate son, so when William died, so too did any hope of a peaceful succession. England was torn apart in the ensuing decades by a civil war between Henry I's nephew, Stephen, and his one legitimate daughter, Empress Matilda (or Maud, but yes, Henry had two Matilda's). The usurping nephew won the bid for the throne, but Matilda perhaps had the last laugh as Stephen was forced to pass the kingship to Matilda's son, the future Henry II, after his death. It's this second Henry, portrayed by the thunderous Peter O'Toole not just in Becket, but again in The Lion in Winter, who forms the other great player in this story.

And so, on the 21st of December, either 1118 or 1120, depending on the source, a boy was born to Gilbert and Matilda Becket (the English at this time were as fond of Matilda's as we today are of Aidan's and Liam's), who was given the name Thomas, after the apostle on whose feast it was. He was baptized the same day, at Saint Mary Colechurch. Guy remarks that Matilda wasn't present "since canon (or church) law forbade a newly delivered woman to enter a consecrated church space until she had been ritually purified in a special ceremony some forty days after birth." He's referring, of course, to the "churching of women" that you can still find in the old Rituale Romanum, but I've never heard of the rite being strictly mandatory. Maybe Matilda just had the wind knocked out of her, having given birth the very same day? It's worth some further study. 

The presentation of Christ in the Temple (also called the Purification of the Virgin by some) forms the basis of the ritual of churching of women.
The Beckets lived on Cheapside, which to modern ears would suggest a medieval way of saying "the ghetto" and give lie to the popular folk belief that Thomas belonged to the conquered and dispossessed Saxon majority. The Saxon myth admittedly makes for a good story, and Jean Anouilh, playwright for what would eventually become the 1964 film, acknowledged that he learned of Becket's true origins before the play debuted and retained the script as it was for the sake of the plot. To the contrary, Thomas's parents were both from Normandy, and "Cheapside" simply meant "the marketplace". Gilbert was a textile merchant who provided a comfortable middle-class lifestyle for his family. Thomas's enemies would nonetheless begrudge him for his non-noble origins every chance they got. Guy quotes him as responding in one of these occasions with, "'I prefer... to be a man in whom nobility of mind creates nobility, rather than one in whom nobility of birth degenerates. Perhaps I was born in a humble cottage, but through the aid of divine mercy... I lived very well indeed in my poverty."

A word on the name: "Becket", says Guy, most likely stems from Bec Abbey, situated near the village where Thomas's ancestors hailed. Surnames were not yet in general use, so our established customs did not yet come into play. For example, when Thomas's sister, Agnes, married, she still used the Becket name afterward. Thomas himself never used the name, instead going by "Thomas of London", "Thomas the chancellor", or "Thomas the archbishop" as his career progressed. Anyone who addressed him as "Thomas Becket" meant to incite him by using his lowborn surname, so his hagiographers omit it entirely. At last, the form "Thomas à Becket" is entirely foreign to the 12th century. It may have arisen from a pious imitation of a later medieval writer, Thomas à Kempis, who wrote the massively influential Imitation of Christ.

Bec Abbey, abandoned during the French Revolution, was actually restored by a small community of Olivetan Benedictine monks in 1948, and therefore is an active monastery once again. The tower above is the only surviving medieval portion of the Abbey.
We can thank "Mrs. Becket" for pushing the young Thomas through an education. French was his native tongue, but he was exposed to English early on from the family's servants; more than can be said for the Norman, so-called English kings such as Henry II, who neither spoke nor even cared to learn the language of his subjects. Thomas began formal schooling at an Augustinian priory in Surrey at the age of 10, then returned to London to advance his Latin, composition, and rhetoric at one of the city's grammar schools. Most of these boys would be destined for careers in the Church hierarchy. Thomas doesn't seem to have had any clerical ambitions for himself at this point. He coasted through his studies, neither earning his teachers' ire, nor their praise.

His first taste of the high life came when, as an adolescent, a noble by the name of Richer de l'Aigle, began lodging at the Becket house during business trips to London. It was this Richer that took Thomas out on adventures during school holidays, partaking especially of the pleasures of the hunt. Thomas would become known for his love falconry in particular, easily the most expensive sport of the age. To be seen with a hooded falcon on one's arm was as conspicuous a form of consumption as our Lamborghinis today, and Thomas would someday keep a whole aviary of them. His mother disapproved Thomas's new worldly habits, so before he and Richer grew too close, not to mention that the civil war was escalating and making the country increasingly more dangerous to live in, Thomas was sent away to school in Paris... a safer city, to be sure, but at no time from then to now was Paris every the place to go to find one's virtue.

It seems that Thomas was a bit of a loner during his time in Paris, so we know little of his "college days"; his friends, teachers, whether he enjoyed the usual kegger, and so on. The city housed as motley collection of schools that would eventually form the University of Paris. One of Thomas's most likely tutors was Robert of Melun, a fellow Englishman who numbered among the first to challenge the theory of divine right and defend "active resistance to a tyrant by the ministers of the church". Perhaps his lectures on resistance to kings emboldened Thomas and laid the foundation for his future actions?

Two years into his liberal arts studies and now grown over six feet, Thomas received word that his mother had died. He rushed back to London, never to return. He took what Guy identifies as a "gap year", and according to John of Salisbury, "'indulged in the rakish pleasures of youth and was unduly eager to be noticed'". But his father's fortunes were failing, and eventually, Thomas had to find a job. He had a brief stint as a clerk for one of his relatives, a banker named Osbert Huitdeniers (Eightpence), but the work soon proved to be beneath his talents. It so happened that two brothers who frequently lodged with the Beckets when they were in town, Archdeacon Baldwin and Master Eustace, took note of Thomas's underemployment and referred him to their friend, a certain Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury and primate of all England. The archbishop gave a cursory interview, and to Thomas's surprise, offered him a job as one of Theobald's nine or ten clerks on the spot. It was quite an accomplishment for a college dropout, as the leaders of the English church typically only hired the best and brightest; thus proving once again the value of having friends in high places. The appointment launched Thomas into the world of ecclesiastical and royal politics. Such would be true even in times of peace, but when Thomas entered the archbishop's service in 1145, Theobald's ongoing battles with King Stephen over royal incursions against church property, as well as his role as mediator between king and Pope Eugenius, propelled the primacy to a level of influence never before seen in England.



In part II, I'll write about Thomas's role under Archbishop Theobald and his path to the chancellorship. (Update: part II is up, now here.)

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