Archbishop Thomas Becket, who for four centuries after his gruesome murder in Canterbury Cathedral would be nicknamed “lux Londoniarum” (the light of the Londoners), was the only surviving son of Gilbert and Matilda Becket, born very probably when the wreck of the White Ship was still the hottest news in town. The time was the afternoon of St. Thomas the Apostle’s Day (December 21); the place a large house in Cheapside standing on the fief of the Marmion family, to whom a substantial annual quitrent was due.
Lying on the north side of Cheapside between Ironmonger Lane and Old Jewry, the Beckets’ house was within earshot of the busiest street market in London. Most likely it was built of wood and limestone with narrow, unglazed windows. Its main living areas were the open hall, or main reception area, warmed by a central stone hearth, with a private chamber to the side where the family lived, slept, and entertained their closest friends and relatives. The open hall was lit by wax tapers, was furnished with trestle tables and stools, and had washing bowls and basins suitably positioned by the door or in an alcove. Servants, who waited on the family and prepared their meals, slept in the hall. Beneath the house was an undercroft, or cellar, perhaps serving as a warehouse to store goods. Possibly the kitchen was at one end of the hall behind a wooden screen, maybe outside in an annex to minimize the risk of fire. Water for cooking and washing was drawn from a private well or purchased from one of the city’s many water carriers, who scooped river water from the Thames into leather pouches, selling them door-to-door. Soap was generally made from ashes, and the Beckets cleaned their teeth using green hazel shoots before polishing them with woolen cloths.
While Gilbert and Matilda’s open hall was apparently larger than average, their living chamber may have been fairly cramped. Working back from documents compiled in 1227–28, it can be estimated that the property had a street frontage of 40 feet, a rear width of 110 feet, and a depth of 165 feet, but the greater portion of this area was taken up by a garden. The same documents show that the adjacent houses were approached via gatehouses and provided with outdoor latrines flowing into cesspits, so perhaps the Beckets’ house had such amenities too.
Baptized in the nearby parish church of St. Mary Colechurch, Thomas was named after the apostle whose festival it was. His godparents promised to protect him from “fire and water and other perils” until he was seven and teach him the Lord’s Prayer, the Ave Maria (Hail Mary), and the Apostles’ Creed. Following time-hallowed rituals, the priest dipped Thomas in the font, then placed his thumb in holy oil, making the sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead, shoulders, and chest, before wrapping him in a “chrism cloth,” a white linen christening robe, as a symbol of purity and to keep him warm.
Excerpted from Thomas Becket by John Guy. Copyright © 2012 by John Guy. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The clash between church and king has been a staple of British history for centuries. This ongoing struggle found its apotheosis in the battle between King Henry II and Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, during the middle of the twelfth century. In Thomas Becket, historian John Guy has written a provocative biography on one of the most subversive figures in English history—the man who sought to reform a nation, dared to defy his king, and laid down his life to defend his sacred honor.
Becket’s life story has often been told but never so incisively reexamined and vividly rendered as it is in John Guy’s hands. The son of middle-class Norman parents, Becket rose against all odds to become the second most powerful man in England. As King Henry II’s chancellor, Becket charmed potentates and popes, tamed overmighty barons, and even personally led knights into battle. However, after his royal patron elevated him to Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, Becket clashed increasingly with the King. Forced to choose between fealty to the crown and the values of his faith—which seemed to take firm hold after his consecration—he repeatedly challenged Henry’s authority to bring the church to heel. Drawing on a full range of medieval sources, Guy sheds new light on the relationship between the two men, separates truth from centuries of mythmaking, and casts doubt on the long-held assumption that the headstrong rivals were once close friends. He also provides the fullest accounting yet for Becket’s seemingly radical transformation from worldly bureaucrat to devout man of God.
Here is a Becket seldom glimpsed in any previous biography, a man of many facets and faces: the skilled warrior as comfortable unhorsing an opponent in single combat as he was negotiating terms of surrender; the canny diplomat who unexpectedly became the spiritual paragon of the English church; and the ascetic rebel who waged a high-stakes contest of wills with one of the most volcanic monarchs of the Middle Ages. Driven into exile in France in 1164, derided by his enemies as an ungrateful upstart, Becket returned to Canterbury in 1170 in the unlikeliest guise of all: as an avenging angel of God, wielding his power of excommunication like a sword. It is this last apparition, the one for which history remembers him best, that lead to his martyrdom at the hands of the king’s minions. Becket’s murder on December 29, 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral is a grisly episode that Guy recounts in chilling and dramatic detail.
An uncommonly intimate portrait of one of the medieval world’s most magnetic figures, Thomas Becket breathes new life into its subject—cementing for all time his place as an enduring icon of resistance to the abuse of power.
Hardcover Book : 448 pages
Publisher: Random House Inc. ( July 03, 2012 )
Item #: 13-610052
Product Dimensions: 6.25 x 9.25 x 1.12inches
Product Weight: 26.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
If you've seen the movie with Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole, you'll want to read this book. Even if you haven't seen the movie, you'll want to read this. It's fascinating. Goes much deeper than the movie. John Guy delves into Becket's transformation from warrior to priest and finally the rebellious bishop. It's a must-read if you're interested in the beginnings of the Plantagenet dynasty.