Immortalized by Jean Anouilh’s play, Thomas Becket remains one of the most well known English saints. The numerous retellings and productions of his story populate our imaginations with vivid scenes of his fierce struggle with King Henry II and his gruesome death in Canterbury Cathedral. For these very reasons, Becket is often exalted as a model of leadership in the never-ending conflict between throne and altar.
But how well do we really know the story of Thomas Becket? How faithful to history are these renderings?
In his recently released book, Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, historian and journalist John Guy draws from historical records to fashion a lively portrayal of this prominent figure. Guy’s engaging account provides us with a multilayered portrait of Thomas Becket: from his humble beginnings as a legal apprentice to his rise to power as the King’s chancellor, to his spiritual transformation as Archbishop of Canterbury.
Through Guy’s research, we discover that Becket—contrary to many popular depictions—was a very complex man. Driven by an insatiable desire for wealth and power, Becket’s election as Archbishop of Canterbury challenged him to consider his new role. Although he did not surrender his wealth upon his consecration as bishop, his teachers began to see in him an inner transformation, “like a man awakening from deep sleep.” As Becket studied the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church he became more passionate about his call to serve the Church. While Becket’s firm commitment to the Church ultimately cost him his life, this devotion is why he would be forever remembered—not just in England, but also throughout all of Europe.
Guy’s captivating narrative is a welcome addition to the many accounts of Thomas Becket: it’s a grounded portrayal of a man who is so often glorified.