Biographies & Memoirs

The Earliest Biographers’ Who’s Who

A remarkably rich body of first-hand source materials in the form of early Latin ‘lives’ of Thomas Becket, together with one in Old French verse, allows the biographer to reconstruct his life with exceptional accuracy, even though the hagiographical bias of some of this material renders it partially unreliable. Almost all these earliest biographies were begun within four years of Becket’s murder in 1170 and completed within seven, apart from Herbert of Bosham’s, which was finished between 1184 and 1186. Many of the names that follow will appear not just as commentators but as characters within the action itself. These authors were Becket’s contemporaries, many of whom had known him personally. This section is intended as a handy means of reference, allowing readers to identify them and place them in their historical settings.

Alan of Tewkesbury, an Englishman who became a canon of Benevento and subsequently a monk and prior of Christ Church, Canterbury, and abbot of Tewkesbury, is the compiler of the ‘master’ manuscript of Becket’s letters, put together between around 1174–6 and 1180–84 from a variety of earlier collections, including John of Salisbury’s. To enhance his work and encourage its circulation, he prefaced it with a brief ‘life’ that built on and expanded an earlier prologue written to introduce his own letter collection by John. Although his coverage is distinctly patchy and presumably designed to fill gaps in the story not covered by the letters, Alan provides some invaluable detail unknown to the other earliest biographers, much of it in the form of reported speech. He may have owed some of his information to Master Lombard of Piacenza, Becket’s canon law tutor at Pontigny.

‘Anonymous I’ (probably Roger of Pontigny) finished writing Becket’s ‘life’ in about 1176–7. A monk of the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny, near Sens and Auxerre in northern Burgundy, where Becket stayed for the first two years of his exile, he was identified as the author of the more important of the two ‘anonymous’ biographies in the nineteenth century and this attribution, although still occasionally contested, is now widely accepted. The writer, known to have been a foreigner because of his peculiar handling of English terms and names, says that he had ministered to the archbishop in his exile and was ordained a priest by him, which best fits Roger’s career. And in a composite ‘life’ of Becket afterwards compiled out of several of the earliest of the biographies by Thomas of Froimont, it is stated that a monk named Roger was deputed to assist Becket during his exile at Pontigny. While his approach is broadly hagiographical and derivative from Edward Grim and Guernes of Pont-Sainte-Maxence, he does report a number of incidents not recorded elsewhere.

‘Anonymous II’ is possibly someone born in London who may have had links to Gilbert Foliot, although he was later a Canterbury monk. The author claims, improbably, that he was a witness to the murder. His ‘life’, completed in around 1172–3, consists largely of a chronological narrative and reflective passages, but lacks descriptive detail, often omitting the most basic facts. Its value lies in a number of the contemporary criticisms it reports of Thomas which it attempts to refute – for instance, those levelled at the time of his promotion to the archbishopric.

Benedict of Peterborough compiled the first and what would eventually become the most influential collection of Becket’s ‘miracles’ in three books in about 1173–4, adding a fourth by 1179 at the earliest. In about 1174, he also wrote an account of the events of the murder to serve as an introduction to the first three books; this is preserved only in the form of extracts copied at a later date. One of the Christ Church monks, he is said to have been ‘among the archbishop’s familiar friends, in especially familiar attendance on the day of his death’, when he was present in the cathedral. Appointed prior of Christ Church in 1175 and abbot of Peterborough two years later, he was the first guardian of the shrine and went on to found a chapel of St Thomas beside the gate to the monastic precinct at Peterborough, digging up and taking with him the blood-stained paving stones from the place of the martyrdom at Canterbury to use as altars.

Edward Grim completed writing Becket’s ‘life’ in around 1171–2. Said to have been born in Cambridge, he was never a member of the archbishop’s household or a monk of Christ Church. He was a visitor to Canterbury who happened to find himself at vespers in the cathedral on the day Becket was murdered. As the displaced rector of Saltwood in Kent, probably ousted after April 1163, when the king seized the honour of Saltwood, he would have seen and heard the archbishop in action. Only recently returned from Normandy when Becket was killed, he was one of the closest to him in the cathedral, when his arm was almost severed in a heroic attempt to deflect the knights’ blows aimed at the archbishop. His ‘life’, unashamedly hagiographical in tone, was one of the earliest to be written. Since he had witnessed only the end of Thomas’s life, he must have depended on others for substantial portions of his information. Despite this, his material would be appropriated by several of the other early biographers.

Guernes of Pont-Sainte-Maxence, a clerk born in Pont-Sainte-Maxence in Picardy, describes himself as a travelling poet and wrote a ‘life’ in Old French verse. Completed in about 1174, it is not only among the earliest but also the one most reliant on oral testimony. Although he had never met Becket, he claims to have seen him several times as chancellor riding out against the French and had visited Canterbury, where he interviewed everyone he could find who had known him. He sought out Becket’s sister, Mary, and a servant who had fled with him into exile, a man named Brown. Despite striving to stick to the facts and his own knowledge, he drew extensively on the work of Edward Grim and William of Canterbury. He also consulted William fitz Stephen and Benedict of Peterborough. As he pursued his researches, he was prepared to alter or correct what he had written earlier in the light of new testimony: ‘I know,’ he explains, ‘how to bear the burden of crossing out and writing it again.’ The extant version is his second attempt. An earlier version, which it has been suggested drew even more extensively on Edward Grim, does not survive.

Herbert of Bosham wrote by far the longest of the early ‘lives’ at around 80,000 words, completed in 1184–6. Another of Becket’s clerks as chancellor, he afterwards became his divinity tutor and one of his leading advisers as archbishop. He was Becket’s close friend and confidant, and alongside John of Salisbury had a powerful influence on his intellectual development. An eyewitness to all the major encounters of Thomas’s archiepiscopate, he is the only one of the earliest biographers to have remained at his side throughout his exile, apart from a brief excursion to Auxerre while Thomas remained at Pontigny. To his everlasting regret, he was sent away by Becket on a mission to France in 1170 and so missed the murder. A zealot who allowed his tongue and his pen to run away with him, he sat at Becket’s feet during the Council of Northampton in 1164 and rashly advised him to excommunicate his enemies; at the failed peace talks at Montmirail in Maine in 1169 he whispered something into the archbishop’s ear at a critical moment with disastrous results. A theologian of distinction in his own right, he had been a student of the famous Peter Lombard and a master in theology in the ‘schools’ in Paris before Becket recruited him. Tall and handsome, known to be a smart dresser, he was a colourful character who relished a fight, a gifted writer, an original thinker and a brilliant Hebraist. Gaining his understanding of Becket’s psychology and vision of the world earlier than anyone except John of Salisbury, he tries to write historically, attempting (as he says) to explain ‘not just the archbishop’s deeds, but the reasons for them, not just what was done, but the mind of the doer’. Despite an obvious hagiographical bias, much of his writing, in particular his description of Becket’s first year as archbishop, is commendably honest.

John of Salisbury wrote in two stages, first composing a vignette of Becket in the form of a letter addressed early in 1171 to their mutual friend John of Canterbury, bishop of Poitiers, that was widely distributed, and subsequently a brief ‘life’ begun a year or two later in the shape of the preface to a collection of the archbishop’s correspondence that was later reworked by Alan of Tewkesbury. A brilliant classicist and philosopher, John was one of Becket’s fellow-clerks in Archbishop Theobald’s household and a powerful influence on his intellectual development as archbishop alongside Herbert of Bosham, even if he chose not to stay in his entourage in exile and aided him from a distance. Present in the cathedral when Thomas was murdered, he wrote the earliest eyewitness account and comes the closest of any external observer to capturing Becket’s true character and psychology. One of the most important actors in the drama in his own right, John ranks with Peter Abelard (at whose feet he had once sat) as one of the sharpest, most dazzling minds of the age. Blessed with a large and well-developed network of friends, men like the highly influential Peter of Celle, abbot of St Rémi at Rheims, whom he had first met as a fellow-student in the ‘schools’ in Paris while studying the liberal arts, he was able to pump them for information or recruit them to Becket’s cause. Hagiography in its purest form never suited John’s talents and neither did sycophancy; he is a perfect foil in attempting to understand the values Becket stood for and what he really sought to achieve.

John also helps to capture the political atmosphere at Henry II’s court while Becket was chancellor. In 1159, he dedicated his Policraticus (‘The Statesman’) or treatise on statecraft and politics to Thomas, even inserting a verse dedication of 306 lines (sometimes known as the Entheticus Minor) into the presentation copy he sent him as he was camped with Henry’s army outside the walls of Toulouse. This manuscript still survives in its original binding in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (MS 46). And long before Becket was made archbishop, John began a longer verse satire, the Entheticus de Dogmate Philosophorum (‘An Abstract of Wise Men’s Doctrine’), amounting to 1,852 lines in the form in which it survives, an advice book considering the nature of true wisdom and ideal philosophy. This turns out to be a mine of information about the values, vices and corruption of the ‘untamed beasts’ at the courts of King Stephen and the younger Henry II, complete with thinly-disguised, lacerating vignettes of real-life individuals.

Robert of Cricklade, prior of St Frideswide’s, Oxford, had Saxon ancestry and came originally from Cricklade in Wiltshire. An Augustinian canon at Cirencester Abbey before moving to St Frideswide’s, he was a biblical scholar of some distinction, but his main claim to fame is the lost ‘life and miracles’ of St Thomas that he completed in about 1173–4 after his bad leg, acquired on a pilgrimage to Sicily, was providentially cured following a visit to Becket’s tomb in 1171. Beyond this he had no direct connection to Becket and was not a member of the closed Canterbury coterie, making his opinions more sceptical, more independent-minded than most. Fragments from his work can be reconstructed, since in about 1200 it was translated into Old Norse and subsequently formed an important source for the ‘life’ of Becket known as the ‘Thomas Saga Erkibyskups’. These fragments have been brilliantly traced and pieced together by Dr Margaret Orme.

‘Thomas Saga Erkibyskups’

Written in Icelandic and known for certain to exist in 1258, the ‘Thomas Saga’ survives in its fullest and most developed form only in a version compiled in about 1320–50. Put together over many years from a diverse mixture of Norwegian and Latin sources, including the writings of John of Salisbury and Benedict of Peterborough, much of its original backbone seems to have been the ‘life and miracles’ compiled by Prior Robert of Cricklade that was translated into Old Norse in about 1200.

William fitz Stephen finished writing Becket’s ‘life’ in around 1173–4. As his fellow-Londoner, clerk and friend, a subdeacon in his chapel, and a draftsman and advocate in his court, he had close and frequent contact with Becket over many years and tells us more than anyone else about his career as chancellor. Unlike most of the other biographers except Roger of Pontigny, he did not belong to a select and inward-looking Canterbury coterie. Much of his material is unique and it seems that, apart from consulting the archives of Gilbert Foliot in order to refute his attacks on Thomas, he wrote from memory. Since he knew more than anyone else about Becket’s career as chancellor, it is likely that he had entered his service before his embassy to Paris in 1158, which he describes with lingering delight. In 1164 he was Becket’s legal spokesman at the Council of Northampton. Despite reconciling himself to Henry when Thomas went into exile, with the result that his account of Becket’s experiences at Pontigny and Ste-Colombe is thin, he visited the archbishop at least once in France before rejoining him late in 1170. Returning with the exiles to Canterbury, he was one of those closest to Thomas in the cathedral when he was murdered. For all the verve and elegance of his writing, he can sometimes appear partisan, giving Thomas the benefit of the doubt and justifying his opinions whether right or wrong. But his eye for colour and fine detail is unrivalled, and he offers some of the most informative and evocative scenes of all the early ‘lives’. No other writer mentions him, and no evidence can be found to substantiate the claim that he may be the William fitz Stephen who served as sheriff of Gloucester and as an itinerant justice between 1171 and 1188.

William of Canterbury began compiling an important collection of Becket’s ‘miracles’ in about 1172 and had finished the first five books by around 1175, with a sixth book added in 1178 or 1179. One of the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, he had been ordained a deacon by Becket and was present in the cathedral when Becket was killed. Later attached to the shrine, he was given the task of receiving pilgrims and listening to their stories, assisting Benedict of Peterborough, the first official guardian of the shrine. He also wrote a ‘life’ of Becket, completed in about 1174 and divided into two sections, the first covering events up to Thomas’s return to Canterbury and the second describing the events of December 1170 in depth.

Note on Units of Currency

In citing units of currency, the old sterling denominations of pounds, shillings and pence have been retained. There are twelve pence (12d.) in a shilling (1s.), twenty shillings in a pound (£1), and so on. A mark is roughly 13s. 4d., although the precise correlation would depend entirely on the silver content of the coins tendered in payment, so conversions are not feasible. The sum of £100, the equivalent of around £60,000 (US $96,000) today, is the amount needed to pay the household expenses of an average baron for a year. A thousand silver marks would be worth around £400,000 (US $640,000) in today’s money. Some rough estimates of the contemporary purchasing equivalents for Anglo-Norman and Angevin units of currency, where applicable, will be given in the text.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!