Biographies & Memoirs

12. A Solitary Man

Thomas Becket’s character as it has been understood for 900 years has a riddle at its heart. 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, working and playing together, fighting and hunting, eating and drinking, sharing every secret thought – as inseparable as lovers or blood brothers. And yet Thomas’s brutal humiliation in the council of war at Toulouse suggests something rather different. Even if his judgement had been found wanting on this occasion, it was decidedly unusual for Henry to react so roughly to someone speaking from the heart as long as they were making an honest mistake and not plotting something.

A closer examination of the sources shows that other contemporaries are decidedly more measured. They recognize a close mutual rapport, but give it a far less euphoric spin. According to Robert of Cricklade, Thomas proved himself to be shrewd, ingratiating and disciplined as chancellor, but he was also well aware of the limitations of his position, ‘doing nothing which might offend the king’. Combing the Book of Genesis for a suitable analogy, Edward Grim describes Thomas as ‘a second Joseph in Egypt’, which superficially seems a highly positive remark, but when unpacked is strangely ambiguous, since while Joseph won the highest favour and trust from Pharaoh, rising to be chief governor of Egypt, he was certainly not Pharaoh’s near-equal or anything like it, and was in fact only there because his brothers had sold him into slavery.

Moreover, when fitz Stephen does finally spice his narrative with a fully developed illustration of the unique familiarity he has imagined, he fatally subverts it. One cold winter day, he says, as the king and his chancellor were riding together through the streets of London, a shivering beggar appeared before them clad only in rags.

‘Do you see him?’ said Henry.

‘Yes, I do,’ answered Thomas.

‘How poor he is, how frail and thinly clad,’ said the king. ‘Wouldn’t it be a great act of charity to give him a thick warm cloak?’

‘It would indeed, and it behoves you as a king to think and act so,’ replied Thomas.

As they reined in their horses, the beggar stepped forward and Henry asked him if he would like a fine new cloak. Not at first recognizing them, the beggar thought the offer a cruel taunt. Suddenly Henry turned towards Thomas. ‘This great deed of charity,’ he said gleefully, ‘shall be yours’, and grabbing hold of his chancellor’s cloak by the hood, he tried to pull it off him. But Becket resisted angrily: it was a brand-new scarlet cloak lined with grey fur which he loved and did not want to lose.

An unseemly commotion ensued as Henry snatched at the costly garment and Becket battled to retain it, each man using both hands and narrowly avoiding tumbling off his horse. Seeing what appeared to be a scuffle, the royal bodyguards rushed forwards, but were ordered back. The scene was turning very ugly indeed when Becket – visibly piqued – finally allowed a triumphant Henry to overpower him and seize the garment. Handing it over to the wide-eyed beggar, the king explained what had happened to the onlookers and all except Thomas laughed uproariously, some courtiers mocking the chancellor by offering him their own cloaks or capes. As to the beggar, he slipped quietly away to sell his prize to the highest bidder, praising God and thanking his lucky stars.

Interpreted by one romantic historian as ‘a charming joke’ designed to force Becket into showing deference and generosity to his social inferiors, the story of the beggar has a more menacing edge, vividly illustrating the inequality and social distance between the king and his middle-class chancellor, showing that even when a disagreement arose between them on so trivial a matter as possession of a cloak, Henry had to win and be seen by all to do so. Wilful, autocratic and capricious, he was a ruler with an innate appreciation of his awesome powers as a divine-right king: he would regularly cut his courtiers and officials down to size, ambushing them, reducing them to jelly, exposing in calculating, humiliating, unexpected ways exactly where they stood with him.

Henry’s conduct invites a more sceptical hypothesis running along the lines that, as a younger man, while he was still carving out a path for himself, he found Becket useful, amusing and companionable, indulging him and treating him as a favourite, but knowing that such privileges could always be withdrawn. For his part Thomas, especially in this earlier phase of their intimacy, was naive and inexperienced enough to believe it was something uniquely special, even a relationship of near-equals, whereas in reality it was a partnership of convenience, enabling Henry to settle the boundaries of his empire and begin to achieve his more specific aim of restoring the ‘ancestral customs’ of his grandfather while keeping Theobald and the Church firmly onside.

Arnulf of Lisieux, the insinuating insider who had been first to congratulate Thomas on his promotion, supports this harsher interpretation. Writing after the relationship had broken down but before it reached its lowest point, he commiserates with Becket as to how difficult it had been for him to function from the outset as chancellor, when his authority had stemmed not ‘from his own name’ but ‘from the hazard’ of Henry’s will, on which Thomas had been utterly reliant. Far from this being a friendship of near-equals, so obsessed with his own dignity was Henry that it made him almost impossible to advise. Only Becket’s skill in ingratiating himself, his talent for engaging with such a complex, forceful intelligence, had enabled him to operate as he did. Alone of those in Henry’s inner circle, he could interpret the king’s mood, judging ‘all the movements of his heart, what mildness there may be in him, what courageous action he might risk attempting’, and while it suited him to do so, Henry had reciprocated, valuing ‘your consummate prudence’ because it was so far removed from the usual, unvarnished forms of sycophancy.

Thomas himself neatly captures the king’s psychology when recounting to a papal envoy what later would turn so sour:

If he senses that he can corrupt you by promises or frighten you by threats so that he can obtain something against your honour and some security for himself in the matter, from that moment your authority with him will utterly vanish, and you will become contemptible, a mockery and a laughing stock to him and his. If, on the other hand, he sees that he cannot turn you from your intention, he will first fake fury, he will swear again and again, he will imitate Proteus,* and finally come back to his senses; and thereafter, unless you get in the way, you will always be like a god to Pharaoh. For among the many things for which he is renowned by his familiars and those close to him, that man boasts especially that he is a tester of character … On all matters, therefore, he should be approached with the greatest restraint and an avoidance of too much talk.

When Becket said, ‘that man boasts especially that he is a tester of character’, he was speaking from hard-won experience: more likely than a friendship of near-equals, Henry’s rapport with his chancellor would be built on the latter’s willingness to endure in good spirit the frequent challenges that Henry set for him. Hungry for power and influence, he was still sufficiently malleable. Arnulf, however, had put his finger unerringly on the problem. One day, he warned Becket, circumstances may arise in which ‘you do not wish to abandon your aims or he to derogate anything from the royal dignity’. Surely then a right royal battle must arise.

John of Salisbury, the contemporary who knew Thomas longest and best, always believed that his friend had an ascetic, rebel’s impulse within him, springing from his origins as a middle-class Londoner and making him a divided consciousness at the courts of princes. Better-placed than most to know the true facts, John confirms that the chancellor had always found his relationship with Henry difficult. Kings like Stephen and Henry, he explains, are ‘arbitrary rulers’ and ‘slaves of their own passions’. Courtiers, despite their winning ways, are like ‘untamed beasts’: wanton and greedy, treacherous and lawless, frivolous and drunken. ‘Right from the start,’ he recounts, ‘the chancellor carried the burden of so many and such great necessities of various kinds, he was exhausted by so many labours, almost crushed by so many afflictions, assailed by so many traps, exposed to so many snares by the spite of courtiers, that often on certain days … he would despair of living … He was every day forced to contend as much against the king himself as against his enemies and to evade innumerable crafts and deceits.’

Developing his opinions mainly for his own eyes in a semi-fictional verse satire entitled Entheticus de Dogmate Philosophorum (‘An Abstract of Wise Men’s Doctrine’), John portrays the royal court as a place of intense personal rivalry, even homicidal feuding, painting a picture in which the chancellor strives to do his best against the odds, comparing Henry’s claims to be merely ‘restoring the customs of his grandfather’ to the tricks of a circus performer. In this fascinating jeu d’esprit packed with insights that could not otherwise be voiced for fear of retribution, John picks out three leading courtiers of a tyrant-king named ‘Hyrcanus’ who are surrogates for real-life figures.* The speciality of ‘Mandroger’, a parasitic astrologer, is attacking the Church. He exalts the king’s sovereignty at the expense of canon law, boasting that ‘he alone preserves the crown and is the father of the laws of the kingdom’ while pillaging the Church like a robber. ‘Antipater’ does the same, but more blatantly, attacking the Church by stealing its property and through taxes. His friend ‘Sporus’, an effeminate eunuch, extorts protection money under the guise of ‘gifts’ and is the most crafty and insidious of the ‘beasts’, cloaking his villainy under the guise of ‘friendship’.

‘Mandroger’ is generally agreed to be Robert de Beaumont, ‘Antipater’ is Richard de Lucy and ‘Sporus’ is Richard de Humez. In the Battle Abbey case, all three had purportedly expressed views very close to those lampooned by John. All, too, had played prominent, if Janus-faced roles in the transition of power from Stephen to Henry, when a secret pact of friendship bound together de Lucy, his brother Abbot Walter, de Humez and Reginald, Earl of Cornwall, one of Henry I’s illegitimate children by a woman named Sibyl.

In John’s satire, ‘poor England’ is rescued by the chancellor, Thomas Becket, a virtuous man known as the ‘protector’ and ‘defender of liberty’. But to outsmart the ‘untamed beasts’, he has to work circumspectly. He is forced to dissimulate, to pretend that he is one of them. To survive at Henry’s court, he is forced to become a chameleon, to take the part of the enemy, ‘but only in appearance so that he may learn with equal zeal how to love God’. John describes his friend’s tactics as a form of ‘virtuous deceit’ or ‘pious deception’ (pia fraus). Such dissimulation in a higher cause, approved by authorities as varied in their beliefs as Cicero and St Augustine, says John, is the only way that a man like Thomas could gain enough clout with a king as dangerous as Henry to be able to steer him away from evil paths.

Whether John ever showed his (seemingly unfinished) satire to Becket or kept it buried in his private papers will never be known. However, a shorter poem capturing the spirit of the longer one is copied neatly into the front of John’s presentation copy of his great treatise on statecraft and politics, the Policraticus, delivered to Becket during the Toulouse campaign, where it takes the form of a 306-line personal dedication. Here John depicts Thomas as Henry’s only honest councillor. Among a greedy bunch of flatterers, he alone is a ‘lover of truth’. A man of ‘justice and equity’, it is Becket ‘who cancels unjust laws’. If anything is detrimental to the ordinary people or a threat to morality, ‘through him it ceases to be hurtful’.

John was never a blind sycophant, candidly conceding in one of his later letters that Thomas, for much of his time as chancellor, had been ‘a mighty trifler in the court’, where ‘he seemed to despise the law and the clergy, while he followed low pursuits with the magnates’. And yet, even that way of putting it is deeply intriguing. He had only ‘seemed to despise the law and the clergy’. Unlike his letters, most of which are newsletters to be circulated among his friends, John’s poetic and satirical writings are a complicated mixture of fact, fiction, homily and wishful thinking. Using language and the power of his imagination, his claims for Becket’s virtues may be rhetorically inflated, but they do suggest he had seen something special in the man. Those who take appearances purely at face value, he gleefully assures us, will shortly be in for a sudden, dramatic surprise.

If Becket’s friendship with Henry was indeed shallower, more ambiguous, less sincere than the stereotype suggests, can it be that he was also less self-possessed and convivial as a royal intimate than he appears to have been and rather more of a solitary man? Whereas Henry had the confidence of a born aristocrat, the manners of a schoolyard bully and the stomach of an ox, Thomas, who had been closest to his mother as a child, was always anxious and insecure by temperament. Never able to manage stress well, his digestive ailment began to trigger intermittent bouts of colitis. Severe mental strain linked to overwork would cause it to flare up, leading to short, but agonizing bouts of pain.

Unlike Henry, he was extremely devout, praying regularly and allowing himself to be scourged, retaining two priests specifically for this purpose while he was chancellor and receiving their discipline in secret, ‘his back stripped for whipping’. He did not wear a hair-shirt yet – that would come much later on – but he believed that he needed a sharp dose of physical pain before attending confession and the mass as an antidote against the sin of pride and to warn him against the devil’s temptations. Such behaviour does not hint at sadomasochism, and has to be seen in the context of his age not ours. The value of experiencing pain as an aid to penance or devotion was deeply etched into medieval society, regarded by devout Christians as an essential prop to all laity and clergy, not just something reserved for monks or hermits, but potentially of value to everyone.

Robert of Cricklade was among those aware of Becket’s hidden piety, describing how a near kinsman had told him about a friend with some important business who had decided to ask for Becket’s help. Arriving at the town where he was staying late in the evening, the man decided to wait until next day before approaching him, but rose at daybreak to meet him. Passing beside a church along his way, he looked inside through the open door to see a pilgrim prostrate on the floor in prayer. Quietly observing him for a few minutes, the man suddenly sneezed, disturbing the pilgrim, who ended his prayers and set off home. Pausing only to note the pilgrim’s unusually splendid attire, the man then sought out Becket’s lodging and awaited his turn for admission. No sooner had he gained entrance than he saw from the chancellor’s clothing that he and the mysterious pilgrim were one and the same.

The earliest biographers make no bones about their distaste for Becket’s venial sins. ‘Many times and in many places he did wrong on the king’s behalf,’ one of them says, ‘but he used to make amends privately to God at night.’ The difference with Henry and his courtiers is that he was also known to be chaste. ‘Proud he may have been,’ says Guernes of Pont-Sainte-Maxence, ‘and given to vanities as far as worldly affairs go and in outward show, yet he was chaste in body and healthy in soul.’ William fitz Stephen insists that ‘from the time he became chancellor, no lechery polluted him’, a singular achievement in royal palaces, where whores crowded expectantly around the gatehouses and fornication was the norm. When Henry actively incited Thomas to join in the fun ‘and so laid snares for him day and night’, he refused for ‘he was a chaste man who hated indecency and depravity’. Thomas also made sure that his standards were enforced within his own household, so that when one of his clerks, Richard of Ambly, seduced a friend’s wife by convincing her that her husband had died overseas, he dismissed him and cast him into a dungeon at the Tower of London in chains.

A vivid anecdote concerns one of Henry’s discarded lovers, a high-born woman named ‘Avice’, described as ‘the most beautiful lady in all his empire’. When his lust for her was satiated and he wished to palm her off, he thought of Thomas, who was then staying at Stoke-on-Trent. The lady, taking her cue, sent many messengers to the chancellor’s lodging, arousing the suspicions of his host, a clerk named Vivian, who saw an opportunity for blackmail. One night after Thomas’s bed had been carefully prepared with a silken valance and the finest linen sheets, this man set a trap, waiting until he felt sure that the couple were enjoying illicit sex before bursting into the chamber with a lantern. To his astonishment, the bed was empty and the sheets undisturbed. Instead, he found Becket alone and asleep on the floor, covered only by his cloak and with bare legs and feet. He had worn himself out with work and prayers and lain down there too exhausted to move. Avice, it was discovered, had never set foot in the house.

But can all these stories really be true? While making many of the same points, Edward Grim adds an intriguing qualification. Becket, he says, ‘kept his body chaste, although some think differently about that’ (licet aliter aliqui aestimaverint). Someone fitz Stephen trumpets as one of his sources, Becket’s confessor, Brother Robert, whom he had first encountered while a pupil at Merton Priory and whom he appointed as his confessor shortly after he became chancellor, is equally guarded. While sure that ‘from the time he became chancellor, no lechery polluted him’, he is deafeningly silent about his earlier lifestyle.

There is, of course, a semantic point at stake. According to canon law, the ‘true servants of God’ were chaste, meaning that they ‘do not endanger their souls by fornication’. Fornication means illicit sex, therefore married couples who slept only with each other were also ‘chaste’. What counts is the nature of the relationship. Where single men and women were concerned, a hierarchy of tolerance and condemnation existed. Although celibacy was the ideal, it is also true that infrequent intercourse between single people of the opposite sex could be excused in the confessional. Both parties could be absolved and given penance unless either had taken a vow of chastity, in which case fornication was a mortal sin. Monks and nuns were in a special category, since both had taken these vows. Even where ordinary priests were involved, the Church took a realistic view of what they could be expected to achieve. A double standard prevailed, since regardless of canon law doctors overtly prescribed occasional sexual release as essential to bodily health. Once the pressure had begun to mount on Becket in exile, his own physicians strongly recommended an active sex life for the benefit of his health – advice which he declined on the grounds that such medicine would prove harmful to his soul.

It is highly improbable that, even if Thomas was celibate in later life, he had managed this as a student in Paris, where if the satirists are to be believed most of his fellow-students had sex on the brain and the tavern prostitutes or fillettes outside the city walls were readily on hand. His friend John of Salisbury, who had lived in Paris for much longer than Thomas, more or less admits this outright, reporting that as a younger man Becket had ‘indulged in the rakish pursuits of youth … he was proud and vain, and silly enough to show the face and utter the words of lovers’. Almost certainly when the earliest biographers emphasized his ‘chastity’, they meant the word to be a metaphor for the far bigger idea that, for all his apparent pride and vanity as the king’s chancellor, Thomas had remained pure in heart. That said, the overwhelming impression is that, once he had entered Theobald’s service as a clerk, he attempted to repress his sexuality, certainly in comparison to those around him.

That still leaves open the question of sexual orientation. Was Thomas Becket uneasy in the company of women? Were his mother and the mother of God the only important women in his life? His adolescent friendship with Richer de l’Aigle clearly worried his mother as much as it worried Robert of Cricklade, who says with calculated ambiguity that in Richer’s company ‘the world offered him her sweetness somewhat more freely than before’.

Authors floating theories about Becket’s sexuality include Jean Anouilh in his 1959 play Becket or the Honour of God. Turned by Hollywood into an award-winning feature film in 1964 starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, the action centres on an unfulfilled homoerotic relationship between the two main characters. Henry, in Anouilh’s dramatic realization, is a bad case of thwarted homosexual love, while Thomas is an earthbound man in search of his true identity. The truth is considerably more complex. On the one hand, homosexuality (or lesbianism) in the twelfth century was not merely a mortal sin, it was ‘the sin that should not be named’ – a crime against God. On the other, the boundaries typically were porous: love and friendship between males were often thought superior to the love between men and women. To kiss was the normal way of greeting people or taking one’s leave. Holy men kissed holy men on the mouth; laymen of equivalent social status did the same, while inferiors received a kiss on the cheek; the rituals of homage and fealty between a lord and his vassal ended with a kiss on the mouth. Many popular songs had racy lyrics describing the love of two knights for each other. Monks, even abbots, wrote baldly erotic poems in the style of Ovid addressed to young boys, which was risqué but not condemned outright.

The acid test was whether such encounters led to sexual activity or abuse. Teenage males were expected to bond spiritually with each other, but not to have sexual relations. Young knights would eat together, sleep in the same chamber and spend every waking hour in one another’s company. Often led and inspired by an older man, they were taught to love each other as brothers. But such love had to be ‘virtuous’: kissing was allowed, but sexual desire had to be checked, since in the eyes of the Church the sole purpose of sexuality – with the possible exception of older people on grounds of mutual love and affection – was the procreation of children.

Whether Becket’s adolescent intimacy with Richer included a homoerotic element we can only imagine, but the mature Thomas could not have been homosexual, since if he had been, he would have been unable to keep it a secret during the bitter propaganda war that was unleashed by his final quarrel with the king. The Church regarded homosexuality as a crime against nature as well as God, condemning those who engaged in same-sex relationships to a special place in hell, where hideous demons would torture them for all eternity. In a futile attempt to deal with them on earth, Archbishop Anselm in 1102 had issued a decree ordering them to be excommunicated and – if they were clergy or free men – degraded from their place in society and outlawed. It was even claimed by canon lawyers that sodomy was a more heinous crime than raping underage girls on the grounds that ‘at least’ forcible sexual intercourse with a woman was heterosexual.

Had the slightest doubt existed about Becket’s sexuality, it would have been turned against him by the royal propagandists when his breach with Henry became so vitriolic that all the normal rules of polemic were abandoned and anything that could be slung against an opponent, fair or foul, was used. Just such an exposé would befall Roger of Pont l’Évêque, the new archbishop of York. During the mutual recriminations after Becket’s murder, John of Salisbury would publish for all to read how Roger, while still archdeacon of Canterbury and one of Theobald’s clerks, had dabbled in paedophilia. He had seduced a beautiful young boy named Walter and repeatedly sodomized him, but when the boy grew older and tried to expose his tormenter, Roger had him blinded. Then, when he complained to the secular court, Roger – on the principle that dead men tell no tales – bribed the judges and had the boy sentenced to death and hanged. ‘Thus,’ waxed John, ‘he rewarded the long complaisance of his old love: first he seduced the wretched youth; then to make him more wretched still, because he repented his consent to such sordid and filthy behaviour, he mutilated and blinded him; finally, to bring his wretchedness to its height, because he made such noisy protest as he could of his misfortunes, he had him murdered by hanging on a gallows.’

To our eyes this exposé rebounds badly against Becket too. For Roger, the documents reveal, had escaped punishment only because, at Theobald’s request, his fixer Thomas had hushed everything up in the interests of the Church’s reputation and, perhaps more importantly, that of Theobald himself, in whose household the boy’s seduction had first taken place. Thomas, who in this disreputable affair shows himself to have been a man of unrivalled efficiency, had recruited Bishop Hilary of Chichester to assist him, with the result that Theobald had successfully exploited a special legal immunity clause to hear Roger’s confession in a secret, unrecorded ceremony in a monastic chapter-house. Thereafter, Roger had gone to Rome, where by bribing many of the more influential cardinals he once again escaped punishment.

Since Roger came to regard Becket’s quarrel with the king as his golden opportunity to trump a hated rival, John of Salisbury believed after his friend’s murder that Roger’s hands were stained with the blood of an innocent man who had once taken pity on him out of Christian charity, saving him from the ignominy he rightly deserved. Modern readers will think differently about it, viewing the episode with loathing, for John’s account makes it crystal clear that Becket had helped to conceal a shocking case of sexual abuse. Had it come to light at the time, it would have caused a scandal rocking the English Church to its foundations, perhaps forcing Theobald to resign. By the standards of the day, Becket had done what he had been instructed to do by Theobald, and John too had kept his silence for many years.

What, however, this sordid episode makes starkly clear is that, had comparable ammunition against Becket been available to them, Roger’s friends would have struck back once John had published his exposé, even if they too had previously held their tongues. No holds were barred in this exchange, which took place a year before Thomas was canonized by the pope and at a moment after his assassination when it was still possible to criticize him. If he had been a closet homosexual, Roger and his friends would have said so.

An incidental repercussion of these disclosures, furthermore, is how curious it is that Becket was so friendly with Hilary of Chichester at the time of the cover-up that he could confide in him and rely on his discretion in a matter of such potentially explosive sensitivity. And yet, during the Battle Abbey case, if the description given by the abbey’s chronicler is not a fabrication, he would be so contemptuous of the bishop’s reputation that he would make a speech stage-managed in such a way as to inflict maximum damage on him. That dissonance too may be significant, casting further doubt on the credibility of the chronicler’s account of Becket’s speeches in court and reinforcing the already strong suspicion that this section of the chronicle is a forgery.

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. Not just a legend, Thomas Becket was also a man, however repressed his sexuality, however ambiguous his relationship with Henry.

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