“The last act is the greatest treason. To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
― T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral
On June 22, 2012, Monsignor William Lynn, who served as secretary to the archbishop of Philadelphia until 2004, was convicted of child endangerment. As incredible as it might seem, especially following upon the avalanche of news reports since the 80’s about pedophilic priests, Lynn—allegedly with the full knowledge of the late Cardinal Bevilacqua—removed offending priests from their parishes “for health reasons” and reassigned them to other parishes. He effectively moved them from one hunting ground to another, and the good and faithful Catholics in unsuspecting parishes were left to discover for themselves that predators lived among them (my novel, Along the River Road, deals with exactly this scenario).
What is truly significant about this story is that Monsignor Lynn’s conviction marks the first time ever that an official of the Roman Catholic Church was indicted on charges related to the clerical abuse crisis.
How is it that “criminous clerks” (to use historian John Guy’s phrase) have for so long been immune to scrutiny by secular courts? Part of the answer to that may be found in a new biography of a twelfth-century Archbishop of Canterbury: Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, by John Guy (Random House, 2012). (Note: It’s interesting that the title of the book in Britain adds “Victim” to the list.)
John Guy is a British historian (actually, he is Australian; he moved to England when he was 2 or 3 years old in 1952), and—yes—this is a work of history, not historical fiction. That might put off some readers, but Guy’s easy prose style and his reservation of notes (more than forty pages of them) to the end of the book make this a smooth read. Readers may remember his award-winning Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005), arguably the best biography of the doomed queen since Lady Antonia Fraser penned Mary, Queen of Scotts in 1969. (I should note that Queen of Scots was originally published in 2004 in Britain with the title My heart is my own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots ).
Who was Thomas Becket? As Guy’s title suggests, Becket was many things. The son of a middle-class commoner from Cheapside, through a series of fortuitous acquaintances he was able to capitalize on his charm and good looks. He stood six-feet tall, creating an imposing counterpoint to the much shorter King he would come to serve, Henry II of England. He is revered as a saint by millions (he is especially revered by high church Anglicans and Episcopalians—perhaps because of fellow high churchman T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral). As such it is difficult to get a good idea of who he really was since much that is written about him is more hagiography than history.
Was he a saint? Guy offers some interesting and perhaps shocking insights.
The sources Guy cites suggest that Becket was a decent man, but the picture we get is that he was ambitious. Early on, he became enamored of the trappings of wealth in his association with a nobleman who took him under his wing. Becket became addicted to falconry, a rich man’s sport. His father sent him to university at Paris, where he was probably a so-so student, but when he returned he fell into an opportunity he couldn’t refuse. He was offered a clerkship in the house of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury.
The background of Becket’s early life was a civil war over succession that left the countryside in chaos. The king who would come to bring order out of this mess was perhaps one of England’s greatest, Henry of Anjou, who would be called Henry II. His was a mercurial personality; he was not an organized individual nor was he a man who cared much about his personal appearance. But he was a man with a plan, and his plan would make England a very different country. Henry’s judicial reforms, such as the use of precedent and the development of the common law, would change jurisprudence from that time on.
There was only one problem: the Catholic Church had its own well-established system of laws and its own ecclesiastical courts. Popes held spiritual sway over kings and exercised it in a way that had been causing political tension for decades. In England, persons holding clerical orders of any kind could not be tried for criminal offenses in the relatively novel king’s court, but only in church courts.
This was a problem for quite a few reasons, and Guy explains the issues very clearly. Essentially, Henry saw it as a threat to law and order because persons holding even very minor orders in the church, such as acolyte, were exempt from secular law, and there was a large number of them in England. Henry saw the protection of “criminous clerks” from the king’s justice as a threat to the peace and stability of the kingdom. Henry wanted all of his subjects to be bound by the same laws. In order to achieve this, he had to bring the church under his power.
Becket became acquainted with Henry while Thomas served Theobald, and Henry was impressed. He later appointed Henry chancellor of England, and in that position Becket continued to impress. Henry and Becket became inseparable, even on the battlefield (the Warrior).
Tradition has always held that they were fast friends. In the 1964 film “Becket,” based on a play by Jean Anouilh, the opening scene is of Becket and Henry “wenching” together. This wouldn’t have happened, Guy points out. Oh, Henry would have done it, and he certainly tried to get his friend to join in—but by the time he met Henry, Thomas was living chastely.
The film also suggests a homoerotic underpinning to their companionship—at least on Henry’s part—but that too is a fiction. Guy argues persuasively why Becket’s sexual orientation was not an issue: had it been, his enemies would have used this “sin that cannot be named” to disgrace him. But the two were very close, although it was clear in Becket’s mind that the relationship—however strong it was—was subject to the needs and whims of a man who was, first and foremost, a politician. More than once Henry would remind Becket of his place, their friendship notwithstanding.
The Church was becoming a thorn in Henry’s side. A pope could excommunicate a king, thus removing the obligation of the faithful to be loyal and setting the stage for civil war. Henry had to balance his dealings with the papacy carefully in order not to have the Church disrupt his policies and goals for the kingdom as he sought justice for all his subjects. He was always seeking ways to reduce the interference of the papacy and his bishops. When Archbishop Theobald died, Henry had a brilliant idea. Why not make Thomas archbishop – and chancellor?! Thus, the church-state issue would go away, since Thomas was Henry’s man.
But Thomas wasn’t, in the final analysis, Henry’s man. Though there may have been a time when he could be accused of “putting the King before God,” this all changed after his ordination (the Priest) and consecration as archbishop. Thomas realized that he was in the untenable position of having to serve two masters, and shortly after his consecration he resigned the chancellorship. He underwent a gradual conversion away from the world and towards an ascetic life (after his death he was discovered to have worn a hair shirt beneath his garments). From that time on, Thomas was God’s man (the Rebel). After a clash over the trial of a cleric in a church court, Henry’s temper flashed: “Now,” Henry is said to have proclaimed, “I have no more love for him.”
It’s a bit complicated, but essentially Thomas fought Henry’s attempts to make clergy subject to the king’s law and was eventually forced into exile in France. He would eventually return, but Thomas would not relent in his support of the church over and against his king. Bishops who opposed him in favor of the king, he excommunicated. He fought with every ounce of his integrity and formidable intelligence to protect the church from what he saw as an increasing incursion into its divine prerogatives.
Thomas’ unceasing support for the church may have led him to cover up heinous behavior on the part of some of the clergy. It is disturbing to learn, based on some fairly good historical evidence, that Thomas may have worked to cover up an incident whereby a prelate preyed on a young man repeatedly and later even arranged the boy’s murder to protect his reputation. Since the perpetrator was connected with Archbishop Theobald’s household, Thomas felt it necessary to do whatever to protect his patron—and the church—from scandal. He served his church faithfully, as would Monsignor Lynn nineteen centuries later in Philadelphia.
At last, the tension between the king and “his” archbishop came to a head. Henry lamented (he was well in his cups at the time) to some of his henchmen that he felt helpless and asked why no one would do anything about this meddlesome “low-born” priest (his exact words are a matter of historical conjecture). Four of his knights took his words as signifying a command, and set out to rectify the troublesome situation.
At Canterbury, on December 29, 1170, the four men killed Becket as he prepared to offer vespers, lopping off the crown of his head and scattering his brains about the floor. Thus was born Becket the Victim: or more precisely, Becket the Martyr.
Henry did public penance (more ceremonial than sincere, Guy says) in order to overcome the impact of what was a public relations disaster, even without Twitter or Fox news. The four knights fled the country. The battle over who would have primacy in England, pope or king, would continue (Henry VIII would eventually trump the pope in his desire to bed Anne Boleyn). Time has clouded the issues and all but obscured the men involved, and all we are left with is an historical sketch of a man long dead. Guy presents him in a way that few other biographers have done, and the picture is not always flattering.
One thing becomes apparent however: the events that led to the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 still have relevance today: Monsignor Lynn is going to pay for endangering children he was entrusted to shepherd. It’s about time. Law enforcement has for too long shown deference to the hierarchy in such matters. If Becket had had his way, the Monsignor would never have made it to a secular court of law as long as he maintained clerical status.
John Guy’s Thomas Becket is the story of a battle between “two titans” of history that requires close reading. But it is well worth it.
Copyright Isaac Morris 2012