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The late philosopher Roger Scruton once told a ­Guardian journalist that he thought he had been “too soft” over the course of his life. The interviewer was taken aback: Scruton was known as a scourge of political correctness and academic fashion. But as Scruton explained: “I’ve tended to overlook the actual underlying . . . um . . . precariousness of human life, so thinking we could all just arrange things by sticking to nice, agreeable procedures, being the decent stiff-upper-lip Englishmen that we’ve always been, and let the whole thing manage itself. I think that is a kind of softness, because the more I live, the more I see that humanity is always poised on the brink, and can fall into chaos and disaster at any time.”

That view of human existence, as threatened at all times by the forces of disorder, came naturally to the twelfth-century English archbishop Thomas Becket. Nobody has ever accused Becket of being soft: The common criticism is that he was too harsh, too rigid, too ready to see apocalyptic possibilities around every corner. One of the battles he fought, late in life, was for his right to anoint the king’s heir: The pope had decreed that Becket would perform the ceremony, as the traditional duty of the Archbishop of Canterbury. But the king asked the Archbishop of York to do it, which Becket took so badly that he convinced the pope to excommunicate his fellow-bishop. At the time, and for centuries since, Becket has been seen by many as an extremist, a man who could start a fight in an empty room.

But he can also be seen as a model of heroic courage, one of the most admirable figures in medieval history. As archbishop, Becket defended the independence of the English Church against King Henry II’s attempts to suborn it, leading eventually to the famous scene in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170—eight hundred fifty years ago. Four knights, thinking they were doing the king’s will, confronted Becket. They may have intended only to arrest him, but they ended up brutally murdering the archbishop in his own cathedral. Becket was recognized almost at once as a great martyr. Two years after his death he was canonized, and soon thereafter King Henry himself repented publicly, going to Canterbury to be penitentially whipped by the cathedral monks. Becket’s tomb became one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations of the Middle Ages, with as many as a hundred thousand visitors in some years. Hundreds of miraculous healings were reported. Becket was honored all over Christendom, in stained glass windows and statues, in literary retellings of his life, and on the new universal feast of St. Thomas the ­Martyr. In ­Iceland alone, eleven churches were named in his honor; there’s a district of the Hungarian city of ­Esztergom called Szenttamás.

Unlike most medieval cults, Becket’s has survived and even thrived in the modern era. T. S. ­Eliot’s best-loved play, Murder in the Cathedral, is one long tribute to Becket’s sanctity. Richard Burton played a brave, brooding archbishop in the ludicrous but effective 1964 film Becket. Had it not been for ­COVID-19, this 850th anniversary would have been a year of commemoration, with conferences, performances, and liturgies, plus a major exhibition at the British Museum. Perhaps because the twentieth century saw so many examples of resistance to authoritarianism—Mandela and Havel, Bonhoeffer and Solzhenitsyn, Kolbe and Romero—Becket still speaks to our age.

Yet alongside the centuries-long devotion to ­Becket is a rival tradition, summed up by one of his fellow-bishops, Gilbert Foliot, who was heard to remark: “He always was a fool and he always will be.” In the sixteenth century, Pope Paul III wrote privately that he couldn’t understand why Becket was venerated as a martyr. As far as Paul could tell, the archbishop had been motivated not by high principle but by self-interested vanity. To early Protestant writers, Becket was an egregious example of blind loyalty to the papacy; to Enlightenment historians, the Dark Ages personified; to sober-minded ­Victorians—as the medievalist ­Nicholas Vincent puts it—a “weird Romish extremist.” In 2006, BBC History magazine ran a readers’ poll to find the “worst Briton of the last 1,000 years”: Becket was nominated for being divisive, hypocritical, and the “founder of gesture politics,” and eventually came in second behind Jack the Ripper. The Dictionary of National Biography, from which you might expect more sympathy, gives the verdict that Becket’s “­brilliant, if chequered, career had a mostly harmful effect on all those connected with it.” On a 2017 episode of the BBC radio program In Our Time, the historian Danica Summerlin was asked to gauge Becket’s honesty, and said: “[It] depends how cynical you want to be.” “Well,” replied the program’s no-nonsense host, Melvyn Bragg, “how cynical do you want to be?” That is the question for every observer of Becket’s life.

If the cynics have not managed entirely to demolish Becket’s reputation, it is thanks to one image: the archbishop in his cathedral, defenseless, being cut down by four armed men. At the time, it seemed an unspeakable sacrilege. Even as Henry’s knights fled through the cloisters, they feared that the earth would swallow them up. The details, recorded by five eyewitnesses, are horrendous: The knights’ blows were all directed to the head, and after one knight had sliced off the top of Becket’s skull, a servant of another scooped his brains onto the floor. The moment has an archetypal quality: the soaring cathedral invaded by the insane passions of hatred and violence.

Yet Becket was not only a victim; he displayed a kind of swagger, a mastery of the situation. The archbishop had a series of opportunities to escape or surrender, and he refused them all. The four knights arrived at the cathedral on the afternoon of ­December 29, weighed down with armor and weaponry and accompanied by a large retinue. They were not acting on King Henry’s orders, but they hoped to please the king by confronting Becket. Yet there was violence in the air from the start, which Becket met with cool defiance. First, he kept the visitors waiting while dinner was cleared away. “God help you,” began one of the knights, Reginald Fitzurse, when they were finally ushered in. “We have brought you a message from the king. Will you hear it in public or in private?” Becket: “Whichever you choose.” Fitzurse accused Becket of insulting the king in the recent dispute over the anointing of Henry’s heir. As Fitzurse warmed to his theme, Becket replied bluntly that he would ­excommunicate anyone who trespassed on the Church’s rights. The knights told him: “You’ve risked your head by saying that.” Becket was unmoved: “Find someone else to frighten—you will find me steadfast in the battle of the Lord.”

The knights went to get their weapons, and the cathedral monks urged Becket to rush to safety. He dismissed their advice and entered the cathedral to officiate at vespers. The monks slammed the door behind him, whereupon the archbishop ordered them to open it. Soon the knights were in the sanctuary, openly threatening to kill him. “I am ready to die for my Lord,” Becket told them, “so that in my blood the Church may obtain peace and liberty.”

Becket’s devotees see, in these extraordinary scenes, a man so on fire with the love of God that it had burned up the possibility of fear; a man who, quite conscious that he was giving up his life, thought it a small thing if he could do something for his Redeemer. Becket’s critics take a different view. Why couldn’t the archbishop speak more gently to the knights, if he was such a saint? Why did he so strenuously avoid taking the simple precautions that would have saved his life? And why did he keep making such grand declarations? Doesn’t it suggest that he was acting a part, that he was so vain that nothing could satisfy his self-regard except the ultimate accolade of martyrdom?

The debate over Becket’s character is not the same as the debate over his principles, but they are related. If you think that Henry II’s policies were basically justified—or that the medieval Church was too powerful for its own good, or that bishops have no place in politics, or that the Age of Faith was a cruel and stagnant era—you will probably find it harder to sympathize with Thomas Becket. This is one reason he continues to fascinate: When we argue about Becket, we are arguing about questions that will never go away. When, in the 1830s, John Henry Newman and John Keble published an account of the Becket dispute by their late friend Hurrell Froude, Newman wrote to Keble: “[The] Becket papers might frighten people considerably—on Church and State.”

The first puzzle about Becket’s life concerns what happened to him in his early forties. Until then, he had been England’s most successful social climber. Born around 1120 to comfortably-off but not noble parents, he networked his way into a job with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald. So impressive was young Thomas in the role—omnicompetent, a natural leader, photographic memory—that when the position of the King’s Chancellor became available, Theobald nominated him for it. Now Henry’s second-in-command, Becket excelled again. Did the king need a French town captured? Becket would lead thousands of troops in seizing it, then carry out the standard ravaging of the countryside. Did the king want to relax? Becket, a connoisseur of field sports, was there to go hunting with him. Did the king hope to raise war funds through an extortionate tax on the Church? Becket would put it into effect. (His lifelong friend John of Salisbury later said this incident showed Becket to be “the servant of wickedness.”)

When Archbishop Theobald died in 1161, Henry had to choose a successor. (Technically the archbishop was elected by the clergy, but in reality, Henry’s word was decisive.) Becket was the obvious pick: He could be relied upon, surely, to do the king’s will. It made sense for Becket, already England’s most powerful civil servant, to become its most powerful churchman too. Becket recognized that his career did not exactly suggest a vocation as archbishop. Though he was Archdeacon of Canterbury, he had hardly displayed the necessary virtues of a successor to the apostles. When Henry first proposed it, Becket joked: “How religious, how saintly is the man you would appoint to that holy see!” True, Becket as chancellor had been known as a prayerful man; there were no rumors against his chastity; he sometimes showed genuine integrity. But as he later recalled, to be chancellor was to “[luxuriate] in the riches and delights of the realm, feared, courted, and honoured by all.” And he loved it.

When Becket became archbishop, everything changed. No longer the loyal servant of the crown Henry had come to know, this Becket seemed single-mindedly focused on the duties of an archbishop: He resigned the chancellorship (which struck Henry as an insult) and showed a new willingness to annoy the king in disputes over land and appointments. When Henry unveiled a set of legal reforms, proposing to take power out of the Church’s hands and give it to the royal bureaucracy, Becket opposed him. The friendship of the two men was broken for good.

This metamorphosis can be read in two ways. For the cynics, Becket had simply found a new role. Once he had starred as a pragmatic politician; now he was ready to play the pious and steadfast archbishop. On another reading, this was Becket’s moment of conversion. In his biography, David Knowles argued that Becket had long been “fundamentally dissatisfied with himself.” When he was offered the archbishopric, he realized he was “for the first time free to follow the call which he had long heard and neglected.” Becket’s life, Knowles wrote, presents:

a striking example of the acceptance of a vocation by one who has long delayed in giving all to the service of Christ, and who has seemed to ­onlookers to be giving all to the world till the moment of resolve came. It is a shape of life far fr­om ­uncommon: Thomas rendered it uncommon by the force and perseverance with which he drove himself along the new path, with the sense of his long refusal always before him.

The other turning point in Becket’s life was in 1164, at the Council of ­Clarendon, where he made a complete fool of himself. A storm had been brewing ever since Becket accepted the archbishopric. It broke when Henry decided to untangle the complicated relationship between the king’s authority and the Church’s. Henry was a politician of great gifts: Having inherited a country traumatized by civil war, he united old enemies, crushed the opposition, expanded his territories by a series of military conquests, and carefully reformed the laws of the land. In Henry’s view, the situation with the Church needed straightening out. The Church courts were failing to prosecute crimes—a hundred homicides, he was informed, had gone unpunished because the suspects were priests or in minor clerical orders—and even when the courts did act, the punishments were soft ones like defrocking or being sent to do penance. Moreover, previous Kings of England had claimed the right to supervise the bishops’ link with Rome. It was time to set that in stone.

Henry formalized his proposals in sixteen “­Constitutions,” some of them fairly uncontroversial, others shocking to the English bishops whose assent he demanded. Two of the Constitutions were ­especially audacious. First, legal cases could not be referred to the pope except with the king’s permission. Second, the king would have unprecedented authority over cases that had previously belonged to the Church, so that—as the Constitutions put it in a suspiciously vague formulation—“Clerks cited and accused of any matter shall, when summoned by the king’s justice, come before the king’s court to answer there concerning matters which shall seem to the king’s court to be answerable there, and before the ecclesiastical court for what shall seem to be answerable there.”

Henry was a difficult man to contradict: He was both intimidating—Becket was the only person who ever stood up to him—and manipulative. Nevertheless, most of the bishops recognized that the Constitutions would trespass on the Church’s rights, and Becket, as the bishops’ de facto leader, had strong support. Somehow, he turned this promising situation into a comprehensive defeat. He led the bishops in opposing the reforms; then, without consulting them, suddenly gave in to the king; then, as suddenly, went back on his capitulation. Through this erratic series of unexplained judgments, Becket managed to alienate the bishops, who had until then trusted his leadership, and infuriate the king, who responded by launching a trial of Becket on trumped-up charges of financial wrongdoing. The archbishop fled the country.

After his failure at Clarendon, Becket was sunk in gloom. He thought he had ruined everything. “I begin to see,” he told his companions on the journey home after a long silence, “that it is through me, and because of my sins, that the English church is reduced to slavery.” Becket’s staff were in no mood to console him. Some of them compared his surrender to St. Peter’s denial of Christ, while his cross-bearer said aloud: “What virtue is left to a man who has betrayed his conscience and his reputation?” Becket was so ashamed that he suspended himself from ­saying Mass.

For the rest of his days, Becket remembered this as his lowest point. He referred to it when the knights came to kill him in the cathedral. (“Once I fled like a timid priest. Now I have returned to my Church in the counsel and obedience of the lord Pope. Never again will I desert her.”) When the Bishop of ­Chichester needled him about the episode, Becket replied: “If we lapsed at Clarendon, if the flesh is weak, we must take heart again and with all the strength of the Holy Spirit fight the old enemy who hopes that those who stand will fall, and those who have fallen will not get up again.”

There is, as always, a more cynical way to read Becket’s response to his failure at Clarendon. He had been made to look like an idiot once: His pride would not let it happen again. Certainly, out of either conviction or psychological rigidity, Becket was unyielding. From France, where King Louis had allowed him to stay, the exiled archbishop continued to resist the Constitutions for six years. As hard as Henry pushed, Becket pushed back. The king sent a party of bishops to the papal court, to make the case that Becket was blowing a minor issue out of all proportion; shortly afterward, Becket himself arrived and persuaded Pope Alexander III to condemn the Constitutions. The king decided to up the pressure: He confiscated Becket’s English lands, handing them over to an asset-stripping nobleman; expelled all Becket’s—and his household’s—family from England (about four hundred men, women, and children, some in poor health, instantly deported); and, in a blatant attempt to intimidate the pope, publicly flirted with recognizing the antipope, Paschal.

In June 1166, Becket responded with a fire-­breathing sermon at the Benedictine abbey in ­Vézelay. He denounced the king’s recent outrages, then excommunicated those who had abetted them. The conflict continued to escalate: At one stage, Henry was on the brink of schism, and Becket was threatening to place the Kingdom under interdict. They eventually patched up an agreement that allowed Becket to return to England; but it was always a fragile deal. Becket was fairly sure that if he returned to Canterbury he would be martyred, and less than a month after he came back to his cathedral, he was.

Becket’s actions in exile are, to his critics, evidence of a mind too neurotic to seek peace even when peace was readily available. Yes, the Constitutions were a power grab; yes, the king’s brutal treatment of Becket was a real persecution, and his anger led directly to ­Becket’s murder; but before it got to that stage, couldn’t ­Becket have tried harder to find a compromise? The pope thought so, and continually reined in Becket, reversing some of his excommunications and urging him to keep his head down. But throughout these years, Becket continued to threaten, excommunicate, and lobby for Rome to condemn Henry more forcefully. When Alexander advised Becket to “humble [himself]” before Henry to regain the king’s favor, Becket wrote back: “The Church’s persecutor and ours is taking advantage of your patience.” If Alexander did not punish Henry, Becket warned, the pope would be called to account on Judgment Day. As the historian Beryl Smalley wryly noted, “Becket was not the first or the last Catholic to think he knew better than the pope what was good for the Church, though few have acted more obstinately on their belief.”

Becket acted as he did because of two intuitions. The first was that Henry could not be trusted: He would lie his way through any peace talks. Many people who dealt with Henry came to the same conclusion. One of the pope’s envoys was reported as saying “that he could not recall ever having seen or heard a man so mendacious.” What Henry needed, Becket thought, was fatherly correction, the firm and loving hand of the Church.

Above all, Henry needed to be reminded of the source of his own authority. A king’s power was a divine gift; if Henry defied God’s Church, invading its courts, taking away its privileges, and destroying the most senior churchman in the land, he was making nonsense of his own kingship. As Becket wrote to Henry: “You enjoy the privileges of the power bestowed on you by God for the administration of public laws, so that, grateful for his favours, you should not appropriate anything against the dispositions of the heavenly ordinance.” This helps explain why Becket was so quick to condemn and punish apparently minor breaches of custom—as when he had the Archbishop of York excommunicated for anointing Henry’s heir. It really mattered that Canterbury was senior to York, just as it mattered that the pope was senior to the bishops and that God was senior to the king. Becket believed that “Christ commanded obedience to us as the effective, indeed the most effective remedy for all ills.”

This remark may seem a bit rich, given Becket’s relationship with his king and his pope. But Becket felt intuitively that the world could easily spin out of control once the right order of authority was rejected. For Becket, humanity was always poised on the brink, and if the pope did not intervene, Henry would bring about chaos. “If he should succeed in establishing such great wrongs with the consent or dissimulation of the Roman Church,” Becket wrote to two cardinals in 1167, “who will dare to speak out against him in future?” And if that happened, then Henry’s descendants, and monarchs elsewhere, would follow his example, and then, “There will be few or none in the future who will not follow the princes’ will entirely, who will keep faith with the Roman Church . . . who will not spurn the law of God as a fable, empty words without truth or meaning.” Either human authorities would respect God and the world would be at peace, or those authorities would set themselves up as the ultimate source of power and God would be driven out of society.

The last decade has provided a few more reasons to sympathize with Becket’s dramatic worldview. In the persecution of China’s Christians, in the mob violence against churches from Chile to Poland, in the spectacle of a harmless group of nuns being summoned to the Supreme Court of the United States, there is clear evidence that when the powerful begin to trespass on the Church’s ground, nobody can tell where they will stop.

It was because of that intuition that Becket, once a wealthy celebrity with the world at his feet, was prepared to give up everything. Seen in this light, his severe language and trigger-happy excommunications seem less like a self-indulgent display of power and more like a last-ditch rearguard action. By the closing stages of the conflict he was, as John Guy puts it, “Pale and gaunt-faced, thin as a knife, prone to bouts of depression and ravaged by a crippling sense of failure and isolation,” to which one could add that he was troubled in physical health, shut out of his country and the protection of its laws, abandoned by his brother bishops, hated by the man who had made him great, given only tepid support by the pope, guilty over his past, anxious over the future, with his reputation in tatters, his lands and wealth confiscated, his family and friends punished and dispossessed. Having lost almost everything, he nevertheless took up what weapons he had, a David facing down Goliath.

The film Becket, for all its historical inaccuracies, does capture something of this in the famous excommunication scene: We see a man who will do anything to defend the Church, and who now has no choice but to fight. We are used to hearing about the virtues of self-abnegation and patience and trusting in God and obeying authorities even when you’re fairly sure they’re wrong; and these are all real virtues. But in Becket, we see the other side of the picture, which also needs to be given its place: the virtue of making a stubborn effort to set things right, to subdue evil and make room for good. 

Dan Hitchens is editor of the Catholic Herald.

Photo by Cnbrb via Creative Commons. Image cropped.