A revisionist new biography reintroducing readers to 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 been often 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. After his royal patron elevated him to archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, however, Becket clashed with the King. Forced to choose between fealty to the crown and the values of his faith, he repeatedly challenged Henry’s authority to bring the church to heel. Drawing on the full panoply 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 “with the appetite of a wolf” 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, derided by his enemies as an ungrateful upstart, Becket returned to Canterbury 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 will lead to his martyrdom at the hands of the king’s minions—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.
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About the Author
John Guy studied history at Clare College, Cambridge, and became a lecturer on early modern British history and Renaissance political thought. He has held academic positions in Britain and the United States throughout his career and is still a Fellow in history at Clare College, Cambridge, and teaches on the Yale in London program at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. He appears regularly on BBC Radio and has presented five documentaries for BBC2 television. He also writes and reviews for various newspapers and magazines, including The Sunday Times, The Guardian, and The Economist.
Praise for Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel…
PRAISE FROM THE U.K. FOR JOHN GUY’S THOMAS BECKET
“[A] suspenseful, meticulously researched biography . . . [John] Guy’s biography scintillates with energetic scene-setting, giving us wherever possible a tactile, visual feel for early medieval England, and London especially. His portraits of [Thomas Becket and King Henry II], from the early period of their relationship, are subtle and telling. . . . Guy’s account of this titanic struggle between two great egoists of English history breathes new life into an oft-told tale of throne and altar antagonism, with its complex undercurrents of money, politics, religion and shocking violence. However well you think you know the story, it is well worth the read.”—Financial Times
“[Guy’s] new study of Becket is a triumph: a beautifully layered portrait of one of the most complex characters in English history, which gives a new narrative coherence to a very peculiar life. . . . It is to Guy’s immense credit that he has written such a lively, effortlessly readable biography—a book that not only corrects many historical errors and uncertainties, but merits reading more than once, for the sheer joy of its superb storytelling.”—The Times
“[A] fine and thought-provoking book . . . The worldly man of power did not become an ascetic overnight; instead—as Guy brilliantly demonstrates through a forensic examination of the texts Becket studied—the new archbishop experienced an intellectual and spiritual reawakening, as his highly strung mind grappled with the gravity of his responsibilities.”—The Sunday Times