I recently reread and was again inspired by two very different literary works which both chronicle the amazing life of a man who died 846 years ago today.
Thomas Becket’s life and death have provided rich material for storytellers for almost a millennia. Born in the Cheapside sector of London he was sent by one of his father’s wealthy friends to a priory school before settling into what he suspected would be the lackluster life of a clerk, finally finding a position in the household of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury. From that lofty perch he made the acquaintance of young King Henry II. After a spell of unashamed, self-propelled social climbing he became the confidant of the King, who made him his chancellor. When Archbishop Theobald died, Henry pulled in some pontifical favors and had Thomas, who wasn’t even a priest, named the new archbishop. In a quick flurry of rites that elevated him to priest, bishop and archbishop, he became the highest ranking Catholic in Britain. Roman Catholicism being the state religion – in effect the only religion – the former Cheapside lad found himself on Canterbury Cathedral’s throne, almost equal to that of the king.
And therein lay a problem. Henry had only elevated Thomas because he needed a “yes man” to negate the problems he had been having with Theobald regarding vast holdings of the church that Henry wanted for himself.
Over the span of several frantic years Thomas became the holiest of holy archbishops, standing fast against the king on every front, all the while seeking God’s guidance and serving as a devout and loyal shepherd to his vast English flock. In other words, his new-found spirituality and commitment took the wheels off Henry’s scheme to give the king ultimate power over both church and state.
On December 29th, 1170, Thomas was slaughtered in his cathedral by a small band of Henry’s knights, believing they were carrying out the execution of a traitor on the order of their King, a command which Henry would deny having given.
There, my friends, is the briefest and worst rendition of Becket’s life you will ever see. For two excellent ones I suggest Thomas: a Novel of the Life, Passions and Miracles of Becket, by Shelly Mydans and Murder in the Cathedral, a verse play by T. S. Eliot. Both do credit to a man who has been a spiritual hero to countless millions (myself included) and has long been a saint in the Catholic and Anglican communions.
If you’re after a good read try either or both.
If you want to be a better crafter of good reads use Mydan’s novel as a textbook example of wonderful imagery and description and Eliot’s play as the quintessence of perfect dialogue.
And if you’re in need of a spiritual hero, the twelfth century martyr who girded himself with pure faith to stand against an obstinate and greedy king might just fill the bill.