Alida Becker: Review of "Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel: A Nine-Hundred-Year-Old Story Retold"

Roundup: Books

Alida Becker is an editor at the Book Review.

“The biographer’s trap,” John Guy remarks in “Thomas Becket,” his portrait of that foremost friend turned foremost foe of Henry II, “is to look for a decisive moment of change.” But, he adds, “to do that is to write the history of the saint without his shadow.” With ­Becket, this temptation often seems to have been irresistible, from the very night of his murder, Dec. 29, 1170, near the high altar of Canterbury Cathedral. As a crowd swooped down on the battered corpse of the archbishop, tearing off pieces of clothing to dip in the gruesome puddle of his blood and brains, the outlines of the story of Becket’s sudden conversion from ­luxury-loving chancellor to ascetic defender of the church were already being rehearsed, soon to be followed by tales of his miraculous powers.

Although Guy is known as a historian of the Tudor period, he admits to a long-held fascination with the 12th century’s “extraordinary galaxy of larger-than-life characters.” And his previous book, “A Daughter’s Love: Thomas More and His Dearest Meg,” must have provided ample psychological grounding for this new one, tracing another struggle between an imperious, unscrupulous monarch, Henry VIII, and another stubborn commoner who found it impossible to bend to the royal will. In the case of Becket, Guy was also aided by an array of firsthand source materials, many of them biographies written by men who knew Becket themselves. Shrewdly contrasting them and assessing their biases, Guy has constructed his own modern successor, assisted by electronic search engines and high-resolution digital photography, which revealed previously invisible annotations in volumes from Becket’s personal library....

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