Thomas Becket by John Guy

published 2012 chapter 14

The order of service can be rediscovered in the pages of a surviving fragment in the British Library. At an early hour, and in full view of a large congregation gathered in the nave of the cathedral, the air thick with incense as the monks chanted the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (‘Come Holy Ghost’), Thomas came out of the vestry, wearing a black cope and a white surplice as befitted a humble priest. He moved slowly up the steps of the choir to the high altar, where he knelt quietly in prayer. From there he was led back to the steps of the choir, where he was released from all secular obligations in the name of the church of Canterbury. With this part of the service completed, Bishop Henry began the solemn rite of consecration, in which he laid his hands on Thomas before giving him his pastoral staff, mitre, ring and gloves, acclaiming him as the archbishop of Canterbury and primate of all England.

Q: How long had Thomas Becket been a priest when he became Archbishop of Canterbury?

A: Less than a day. He was an archdeacon, but had to be consecrated a priest quickly the day before the enthronement above.

This book is full of fascinating facts: John Guy is such a great writer of history, and he had some worthwhile material in the ever-fascinating story of Henry II and Thomas Becket, frenemies before the term was invented. In this passage, Guy makes the scene seem real and detailed, but he also makes it clear in the first line that he’s not winging it, he has factual backup for all this. The story – which ends in the murder of Becket, his canonization, his grave becoming a shrine and, ultimately, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – has riveted writers ever since, particularly because of the homoerotic undertones in the relation between Henry and Thomas. As with every other aspect of the story, John Guy looks at the evidence carefully and calmly.

He certainly has an eye for the priceless detail:
The record of a grant of land Henry made in Suffolk to a jester called ‘Roland the farter’ for making a leap, a whistle and a fart annually at Christmas gives [an]...accurate impression of his [cultural] tastes.

John Guy’s book on Mary Queen of Scots, My Heart is My Own, is also magnificent, more hair-raising and extraordinary than any novel.

Links on the blog: Another saint here. In terms of Bishops, ‘only London, not Canterbury’ is a line from this book, Cardinal Wolsey got York but never Canterbury, and the Archbishop came calling in the famous first line of this novel.

The picture is of a Nottingham Alabaster representation of the enthronement, from Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Moira - I must read Guy. I've always been interested in the Henry/Becket relationship and certainly they were two of the most influential people of their day (and since). I like your description of them as 'frenemies.'

  2. I like John Guy's writing. It is intelligent and accessible. I have a couple of history books on the side waiting to be read so I'm unlikely to get around to this but it has piqued my interest.


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