This is the cover of "Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel" by John Guy.
This is the cover of "Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel" by John Guy.

John Guy's biography of Thomas Becket starts off with a bang: A prologue plunges the reader into the wintery nighttime chill of a doomed channel crossing in which King Henry I's only legitimate heir drowns. The effect is a sort of literary Bayeux Tapestry, setting the tone for the rest of the book. This bodes well for those of us who want our histories to feel immediate and compelling, to read more like storytelling than data reporting.

Guy, a fellow in history at Clare College, Cambridge, and an honorary professor at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, brings admirable descriptive powers to the biographer's potentially dry job. He cites endless, amusing and often graphic contemporary eyewitness accounts, letters and court documents with annotative objectivity, but he goes further than just reporting, and that's the beauty of this book.

There are reasons why one version of events might be told with a bias toward the king, on one hand, or toward Becket, on the other. History may be written by the victors but there was a lot of scrambling on both sides of the Henry/Becket affair, inspiring "spin" from a wide variety of sources. Guy lifts the heavy curtain of hagiography to expose a Becket that is as likely to have lived and breathed among us as to have bravely faced a martyr's death.

Guy's early chapters provide colorful detail to every aspect of his subject's life that led up to the "warrior, priest, rebel" of the book's subtitle. Becket's mother "is said to have habitually weighed her young son on the scales using bread, meat, clothes and anything else useful for the poor ... after which she would distribute these goods as alms." His middle-class childhood in London, his years as a student in Paris, his steady, ambitious rise in business and at court and his passion for the finer things in life are examined thoroughly.

If the most one knows about Becket comes from the 1964 film (based on the play by Jean Anouilh), by the middle of this book you will have dismissed all images of Richard Burton and embraced the taller, aquiline-nosed portrait of Becket as Guy presents him. Eager, intelligent, ambitious, the young Becket was soon employed by Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury, whose own political and ecclesiastical prominence created every conceivable opportunity for Becket's swift rise to power.

The personal relationship between Becket and King Henry II is examined from every angle imaginable. Readers will get real insight into the breakdown of the working relationship (which actually began well before Becket was made archbishop), and how that breakdown heightened and sharpened the brittle, tenuous social, cultural and personal frailties of their "friendship."

"Thomas Becket's character as it has been understood for 900 years has a riddle at its heart," Guy writes. "If his clerk and fellow Londoner William fitz Stephen is to be believed, it would seem that Henry and his chancellor were always the best of friends ... as inseparable as lovers or blood brothers."

But Guy believes that Henry II "found Becket useful, amusing, and companionable, indulging him and treating him as a favorite," but all the while knowing "such privileges could always be withdrawn."

As chancellor, Becket's authority had stemmed "not 'from his own name' but 'from the hazard' of Henry's will, on which Thomas had been utterly reliant." (For all of Becket's finery, for all of his theatrical showmanship and high living, there lurked a "son of one of (King Henry's) villeins" who had a chip on his shoulder that Henry knocked off very publicly when he wanted to.)

Becket's view of that imbalance of power changed, of course, when Henry made him archbishop of Canterbury. Though Becket and Henry had butted heads before then, as Guy shows us, once he was consecrated archbishop, Becket no longer saw himself as Henry's servant. His abrupt resignation as chancellor, a decision made without consulting or even warning the king, drew an even sharper line between the two men.

Henry's struggle to enlarge his secular authority and Becket's parry on behalf of the Catholic Church pack strong punches thanks to Guy's sure-footed writing. He fully explains the political problems Pope Alexander faced: dizzying, slippery slopes filled with anti-popes, powerful emperors, the alternating threat and promise of support of mercurial state alliances. Each time an alliance shifted, the pope's problems, focus and priorities changed accordingly. Sometimes this worked in the archbishop of Canterbury's favor, sometimes not.

What you think you know about either man -- were they like brothers, in those early years? Were they "as inseparable as lovers"? -- may not be quite so. As Guy writes: "Given the often intractable nature of sources written 900 years ago, some things can never be proved one way or the other. But the mistake is surely never to ask the awkward questions in the first place."

Guy asks plenty of questions in this rich and demanding work, which makes for a rewarding reading experience.