Thomas Becket: His Last Days, by William Urry. Published by Sutton Publishing Limited, 260 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10001, 212213-2 775. 192 pages. $34.95, hardcover.
The often uneasy relationship between church and state has as a prime example the relationship between King Henry II and Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket and Henry had been close companions, hunting together and sharing long discussions. The King had even sent his son Henry, heir to his throne, to live with Becket and be tutored by him. Henry appointed Becket as his chancellor, a position in which he was quite effective, securing for Henry and the English the respect of France when he travelled there on Henry’s behalf, elaborately dressed and with an impressive retinue.
Henry had long wanted to make the clergy more subject to his own courts, and when Canterbury needed a new archibishop, he saw it as a chance to further his aim by appointing Becket, a man who had served him well in the past. Becket, fond of high living, was not even a priest, and he did not want the position. Henry insisted, and Becket relented. But Henry did not get the archbishop he had hoped for. Becket took his new position seriously and asserted the primacy of ecclesiastical courts over the clergy. Henry was furious; he had the revenues of Becket’s see sequestered and effectively forced him out of the country.
During the six years Becket was abroad, he and Henry were constantly at odds. These two old friends could not find their way back into each other’s graces.
Urry, formerly the cathedral archivist at Canterbury, covers all this in a lengthy prologue before launching into his subject of Becket’s final days.
Finally, it looked as if the way was clear for Becket to return. He had a promise from Henry that he would be greeted with a kiss of peace and 500 marks to help the Archbishop settle his considerable debts. Though the cleric had doubts, he sailed for England.
Urry follows in detail Becket’s return and the turbulent events, confusion, and anger that resulted in the slaying of Becket by four of Henry’s knights who thought they were carrying out the King’s will. The writer also goes on to describe the aftermath–the profound shock of the people, Henry’s overwhelming guilt and loss of respect, and the growing veneration of Becket.
Urry conveys the immediacy and tension of this historic clash between church and crown. Black and white photos and drawings enhance the telling.