The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thomas a Becket

Today, December 29, is the anniversary of the murder of Thomas a Becket, perhaps at the orders of King Henry II, certainly to the great relief of that most protean and impetuous of Kings. As I wrote two years ago (crikey!):
Imagine my surprise when, years later, I found out that one of the most pressing grounds for the conflict between Becket and Henrywas the treatment of "criminous clergy" who committed offenses against the laity; in the face of years of inaction by the ecclesiastical authorities, Henry wanted the right to try such clerics in the secular courts.

There was much more to it than that, of course. The real Thomas Becket may have been headstrong and arrogant, but he was also seeking to preserve the institution of the Church as it was entrusted to him, and to resist a King who was re-making the political institutions of his day and centralizing power in the King's person.

As to Becket's murder, the King's role in it has always been sharply disputed--the authenticity and meaning of the infamous quotation, "will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" have been debated for centuries. (An excellent account is contained in W.L. Warren's biography, Henry II).

Regardless of the merits of their dispute, there's no denying that the story of Becket has given rise to much great art. My personal favorite is the admittedly ahistorical play by Jean Anouilh, brilliantly filmed with Richard Burton as Becket, and Peter O'Toole as Henry:

Great though the movie is, it does considerably less than justice to either Henry (who fought a civil war to a standstill to become King) and Becket himself.

And, of course, T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral is a great favorite of mine since Fordham College (thanks, Dr. Antush!), and one which combined great insight into human nature and into theology. For me, the lines that hit home most are the scenes between Becket and his Tempters. So, the Fourth Tempter offers him the power of martyrdom:
You hold the keys of heaven and hell.
Power to bind and loose : bind, Thomas, bind,
King and bishop under your heel.
King, emperor, bishop, baron, king:
Becket sees this trap, and responds:
Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.


rick allen said...

I would also recommend Richard Winston's biography (which may, I'm afraid, be out of print). It's not a terribly exciting read, but it's a good modern biography, trying to get the facts right, but not excluding accounts of those more marvelous tales from the surprisingly large number of lives written within a few years of Becket's death.

Anglocat said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Rick! Warren's book is a bit out of date, so a newer one could be a useful supplement.