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Thomas Becket and his Biographers

Thomas Becket and his Biographers

Volume: 28
Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Thomas Becket and his Biographers
    Book Description:

    In the wake of his murder in December 1170, an extraordinarily large number of Lives of Thomas Becket were produced. They provide an invaluable witness to the life and death of Thomas and the dramatic events in which he was involved, but they are also works of great literary value, more complex and sophisticated than has been recognised. This book, the first to be devoted to the biographers and their works, consists of an examination the individual Lives, followed by an analysis of the biographers' treatment of the major themes in Thomas's life - conversion, conflict, trial, exile and martyrdom - in the light of contemporary hagiographical, historical and theological writing and canon law. It raises points of major significance for the study of intellectual and literary life in the central middle ages and provides an important reassessment of the Becket conflict and Thomas Becket himself. Dr MICHAEL STAUNTON is Lecturer in Medieval History, School of History and Archives, University College Dublin.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-509-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  5. 1 Introduction: The Lives and their context
    (pp. 1-18)

    The first reaction to Thomas Becket’s murder on 29 December 1170 was shock, but well before the shock had faded another emotion had come to the fore: the desire to make sense of the most remarkable episode in recent history. ‘Where shall I begin?’, wrote John of Salisbury to a friend in its immediate aftermath. ‘One can hardly speak for the abundant, overflowing, tide of the theme.’¹ Around the same time another of Thomas’s clerks, Herbert of Bosham, began his report, ‘In writing this I stopped and hesitated, wondering what kind of expression I could use to bring before you...

  6. 2 The forerunner: John of Salisbury
    (pp. 19-27)

    John of Salisbury was ideally suited as a biographer of Thomas Becket.¹ A fellow-clerk in Archbishop Theobald’s household from 1153, he went on to serve Thomas as archbishop. Along with Herbert of Bosham, he was Thomas’s most important adviser. He wrote numerous letters in support of the archbishop, and used his extensive connections with prominent and influential ecclesiastics for private advocacy on his behalf. His own exile in France overlapped with Thomas’s, and he returned to Canterbury in late 1170 and was present in the cathedral on 29 December to witness the murder. John knew Thomas well, and if he...

  7. 3 Telling the story: Edward Grim, Guernes and Anonymous I
    (pp. 28-37)

    Edward Grim had fame thrust upon him. He was a visitor to Canterbury who found himself present in the cathedral on 29 December 1170. As the murderers bore down on Thomas nearly all his monks and clerks, including a number of his future biographers, fled in fear, but this visiting clerk stood by him. In attempting to block the first of the knights’ blows he almost had his arm severed, and this act of bravery earned Grim a special place in the recounting of Thomas’s martyrdom, and features in many pictorial representations of it. But Grim also made his own...

  8. 4 Criticism and vindication: Anonymous II and Alan of Tewkesbury
    (pp. 38-48)

    Two of the more obscure, and unusual, contributions to the corpus of Becket hagiography are those by Anonymous II and Alan of Tewkesbury. The anonymous Life follows a chronological narrative, but is almost entirely devoid of circumstantial detail, consisting largely of reflection upon Thomas and the dispute. The depiction of the Council of Clarendon, for example, mentions no name, date or place, even Clarendon. Alan of Tewkesbury is known as the compiler of the Becket letter collection, but very little attention has been paid to him as a hagiographer. His work is a supplement to John of Salisbury’s brief Vita...

  9. 5 The view from Canterbury: Benedict of Peterborough and William of Canterbury
    (pp. 49-55)

    When Thomas lay dead on the floor of Canterbury Cathedral he was less a focus of veneration than of fear. The monks of Christ Church had never warmed towards this non-monastic archbishop who had been intruded by the royal power. His conflict with the king and his six-year absence had brought them uncertainty, poverty and repression. Now it seemed that he who in life had undermined that ancient and celebrated community would destroy it in death. Fearing reprisals from the murderers, the monks buried their archbishop in haste, without the usual ceremony. But as they stripped the body for burial...

  10. 6 Observation and reflection: William Fitzstephen
    (pp. 56-62)

    William Fitzstephen’s is the most appealing of the Lives of Thomas to the modern reader. Like Herbert of Bosham’s, it stands apart from the other Lives, being based largely on the author’s own observations or on information not found in other Lives. It tells us a great deal about Thomas and about the dispute which we would not otherwise know, most notably in his account of Thomas’s life as chancellor, which is treated cursorily by all other writers, but also in his reports from the royal court from the time of Thomas’s flight to France onwards. Fitzstephen’s eye for detail...

  11. 7 Breaking the rules of history: Herbert of Bosham
    (pp. 63-74)

    Herbert of Bosham’s is the ultimate Life of Thomas. Completed between 1184 and 1186, it is the last Life to be written by someone who knew Thomas well, and the last original contribution to the twelfth-century corpus of Becket Lives. At around 80,000 words, it is by far the longest, and while it echoes many features of the earlier Lives – for example the combination of observation with reflection, and response to criticism of Thomas – it is far more ambitious than any other. Herbert clearly believed he had written a great and important work, but worried that others might...

  12. 8 Conversion
    (pp. 75-96)

    Thomas Becket’s personality and character have proved notoriously resistant to interpretation, despite the vast amount of testimony to his life and death. There are two particular questions about Thomas which no amount of historical evidence has been able to resolve. One concerns his murder: did Thomas, as his biographers suggest, foresee his death and willingly embrace it? The other, the subject of this chapter, is: how do we explain the change from Thomas the worldly chancellor and friend of the king to Thomas the archbishop, champion of the Church? While this question has exercised many scholars, little attention has been...

  13. 9 Conflict
    (pp. 97-128)

    Undergraduate students of the Becket conflict will be familiar with an examination question of this kind: ‘ “The Becket conflict was primarily a clash of personalities”. Discuss.’ The word ‘personalities’ may be replaced by ‘jurisdictions’ or even ‘ideologies’, but the question remains essentially the same: What was the Becket dispute about? A thoughtful answer will usually acknowledge the participation of all these elements in the dispute to varying degrees, and might also discuss the role of Canterbury rights. Such a question recurs because no matter how many times it is asked, a definitive answer will never be given. But a...

  14. 10 Trial
    (pp. 129-152)

    ‘The Becket dispute’ is an appropriate name for the crisis which dominated relations between the Church and the Crown in England between 1163 and 1170, because it was Becket himself who gave it its unity. Clearly identifiable political issues were involved, certainly, but personalities drove events and gave them their shape. Thomas’s biographers make little attempt to distinguish the political from the personal. Although, as we have seen, many writers provide incisive analyses of the issues at stake, this is seldom divorced from the theme of Thomas’s sanctity, or parallels with earlier exemplars. Some of the most impressive sections of...

  15. 11 Exile
    (pp. 153-183)

    In the early hours of 15 October 1164 Thomas slipped out of his lodgings at St Andrew’s Priory, Northampton, and fled from the town under cover of darkness. Over the next few weeks he travelled by night and hid by day, making his way by a circuitous route to the port of Eastry in Kent. There he set sail with a few companions and landed on a remote beach in Flanders, whence he proceeded to the lands of the French king. He did not return to England for six years, and a month later he was dead. The exile dominated...

  16. 12 Martyrdom
    (pp. 184-215)

    Ever since the evening of 29 December 1170 perceptions of Thomas Becket’s life have been coloured by his image in death. No matter how vivid or significant are the pictures we have of Thomas in his various roles – as the king’s servant, archbishop, exile – the image of the murder victim and triumphant saint loom over them. Thomas the martyr can detract from Thomas the chancellor and archbishop and can distort our perception of his life. But this is understandable if we consider the extraordinary nature of his death. The familiarity of the image of Thomas’s murder has dimmed...

  17. Conclusion
    (pp. 216-219)

    One of the reasons for Thomas’s broad appeal as a saint is that he meant different things to different people. Each could take from his memory and his image what they sought, whether it was the miracle-worker, the martyr, the champion of the Church or a combination of these. It is not unusual for people to project onto a saint, or indeed any famous figure, what interests them and what they want to see, but Thomas allowed such a range of interpretations because his life presented such rich and varied material. The same may be said of the Lives of...

  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 220-239)
  19. Index
    (pp. 240-246)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 247-249)