A Turbulent Reputation: Michael Staunton Considers How Thomas Becket, a Controversial Figure Even in His Own Lifetime and Ever since, Was Described by His Earliest Biographers
Staunton, Michael, History Today
IN 2001 THOMAS BECKET (1120?-70) was named by the Daily Mail as one of history's 100 'Great Britons'. Four years later he came runner-up to Jack the Ripper in a BBC History magazine poll of 'Worst Britons'. Such a disparity of opinion is nothing new. Becket's brutal murder in Canterbury Cathedral in December 1170 unleashed an outpouring of grief and outrage which quickly developed into an extraordinarily successful and dynamic cult of St Thomas. But even as crowds flocked to his tomb, hailing him as the greatest saint of his age, or even the greatest in Christian history, criticism lingered. Not everyone had revised their impression of Becket as an arrogant troublemaker whose life had shown little evidence of sanctity and whose actions had been harmful not only to the King but to the interests of the Church he claimed to represent. In 1538, Henry VIII ordered the destruction of Canterbury's shrine to their martyr, and since then opinion on Thomas has often divided along Catholic/Protestant lines. But criticism and support for Becket have not always come from predictable quarters, or for the reasons one might expect. He has been championed by kings and hated by churchmen, and criticism has not only been acknowledged by his supporters, but employed as part of the construction of his sanctity.
The man who lay dead on the floor of Canterbury Cathedral on December 29th, 1170, was, according to his murderers, a 'traitor to the king and the kingdom'. After six years of exile in France he had returned to England with the goodwill of Henry II, only to disturb the peace, as he had done so many times before. It was the King's furious outburst against his Archbishop that had incited the four knights to set out for Canterbury, but his enemies were by no means confined to the secular world. Henry's rage had been sparked by a visit from the archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury, exasperated by Becket's decision to excommunicate or suspend them from office for crowning the King's son in his absence. These were long-standing enemies who had frequently clashed with their archbishop.
After his murder, their criticisms of Thomas were largely silenced, but there survives an eloquent and lacerating critique of Becket from the pen of one, Gilbert Foliot, bishop of London. Gilbert was everything that Becket was not: an austere Cluniac monk from a noble family, and a distinguished scholar. Passed over for the position of Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162 in favour of Becket, his views on the dispute are coloured by bitterness, and his letter to Thomas of 1166, Multiplicem nobis, in which he reviewed the archbishop's career, stands as a damning verdict on Becket's policies and an indictment of the man himself.
'It is difficult', writes Gilbert, 'for things begun with bad beginnings to be carried through to a good conclusion'. For an archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas's beginnings were certainly unorthodox. The son of a London merchant, his training had been first as clerk to a city accountant, then as clerk to Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, before serving the King as royal chancellor for seven-and-a-half years. He showed no great intellectual distinction, and he did not become a priest until the day before his consecration as archbishop on June 3rd, 1162. Above all, his behaviour as chancellor was far from what might have been expected of a future archbishop. His love of feasting, hunting and display are well attested. Once he led an embassy to Paris accompanied by hundreds of attendants, eight wagons carrying silver dishes, changes of clothing and large quantities of ale, each wagon accompanied by a fierce dog and drawn by five horses, and on top of each horse a monkey. On another occasion he led an army of thousands into battle on the Norman frontier against the French, and himself unseated a famous knight from his charger. He was also a loyal servant and close friend of the King, and this fact at once makes more sense of his appointment and also left it open to criticism, making it appear as uncanonical and blatantly royalist. …