The primary sources are rich and varied: contemporary histories and chronicles, early Latin ‘lives’ of Becket, his correspondence (not least some 230 letters he wrote himself or worked up from first drafts submitted by his clerks, some being rough drafts of letters never sent with glimpses of his interior world), the letters of John of Salisbury (some 300), the panegyrics of friends, the invectives of enemies like Gilbert Foliot, Roger of Pont l’Évêque or Jocelin of Salisbury, whom Becket excommunicated and who would stop at nothing in their efforts to silence or depose him.
Of the chroniclers, several describe the events of the twelfth century in depth. All wrote in Latin: none wrote in English and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle breaks off at Henry II’s accession. Valuing chronology and factual accuracy more than the contemporary biographers, the chroniclers set the scene and establish a story structure. They can indulge in manufactured speeches and drama, and for much of the time seek to ferret out information that those in authority were trying to keep secret. But despite sometimes more resembling tabloid journalists than historians, they rarely invent information for the sake of it. ‘A rich, disorderly profusion’ is characteristic of their work; otherwise their tone is investigative, seeking to do justice to the evidence, teasing out the motives and actions of king and archbishop, but not scrupling to criticize both. The main limitation of these narrators is that they were chiefly interested in men of power and have little time for women. Eleanor of Aquitaine they could not completely ignore, but their ‘discoveries’ about her alleged transgressions were more interesting to them than seeking out the extent of her true role in politics and patronage and her relationship to her husband and Thomas Becket, and they write about her actions in the light of their own stereotyped assumptions concerning the role of royal women.
Up to the middle of Stephen’s reign, the most useful background narratives are by Orderic Vitalis, a monk of Saint-Evroult in Normandy and a keen student of the classics who was of mixed Anglo-French parentage, and William of Malmesbury, an omnivorous reader and a gifted historical scholar of Anglo-Norman parentage who travelled widely in England but spent his entire career at Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire. The anarchy of Stephen’s reign is evocatively covered by the author of the so-called Gesta Stephaniand by Henry of Huntingdon, the most important Anglo-Norman historian to emerge from the parochial clergy. Both these writers share the critical and analytical skills of Orderic Vitalis and neither stints on detail. For this and the later period, Robert of Torigni, a monk and later prior of Bec Abbey who became abbot of Mont-St-Michel in 1154, adds essential chronological and factual information, especially on Norman history and politics, including summaries of key diplomatic documents. Personally acquainted with the most important figures, he had met Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine at least twice. As a partisan royalist, however, he rarely mentions Becket’s quarrel with the king.
The fullest, most sophisticated of the contemporary chroniclers of Henry II’s reign is Ralph of Diss, a canon of St Paul’s in London. Although writing when Becket was already a canonized saint, he had been collecting his materials for many years. Based in London, he had good connections with the royal court, although he never held an official position there. A methodical compiler of facts illustrated by abridged versions of important letters and documents, he gives a vivid, commendably balanced narrative split into sections with marginal symbols (such as a crown or a bishop’s staff) to distinguish different topics, and quotes extensively from documents. Henry was something of a hero in his eyes. Even so Ralph remains a fair and honest rapporteur, including several important scenes in his work that the earliest biographers omitted.
Roger of Howden, William of Newburgh and Gervase of Canterbury were younger men whose writings draw freely on the early ‘lives’ but correct their omissions and inventions. Howden, an absentee parson born in the East Riding of Yorkshire, is rightly regarded as one of the finest chroniclers of Henry II’s reign. The author of two overlapping chronicles from the time of Bede to 1201, both admittedly fairly derivative before Christmas 1169, his work is invaluable, since despite lacking colour and a sense of perspective, he was himself a clerk in royal service and so regularly includes full, unexpurgated versions of documents or else gives coherent summaries based on written information and materials supplied to him by others, including letters by Becket, Pope Alexander III and Gilbert Foliot. Writing from within the inner circles of government by the time of the climax of the Becket dispute, his views offer a useful corrective to those of the monastic chroniclers.
William of Newburgh, an Augustinian canon born in Bridlington, begins his story in 1066 and ends in 1198. A man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Norman and continental politics, he brings a sense of distance to his narrative as he did not begin writing until the 1190s. One of the most critically attuned of the monastic chroniclers, he stands above the crowd. When discussing the Becket conflict he considers neither side to be wholly free from blame, criticizing Henry for his bullying and intimidation, and the bishops for being keener to defend the Church’s privileges and immunities than to correct its vices.
More derivative is Gervase of Canterbury’s chronicle, but since he and his brother, another Thomas, were both Christ Church monks, they had known Becket personally and seen him in action as archbishop despite being his juniors by more than twenty years. Although borrowing extensively from other writers, Gervase adds his own independent sources into the mix and for a number of key topics appears to have access to unique information. Professed as a monk by Becket himself in 1163, his view is very much that of a Canterbury insider. Besides attending the murdered archbishop’s funeral, he was to describe in some depth the destruction of the cathedral choir by fire in 1174.
The chief Latin ‘lives’ are by William fitz Stephen, Herbert of Bosham, John of Salisbury, ‘Anonymous I’ (probably Roger of Pontigny) and Edward Grim. Almost as important, although in some instances partly derivative, are works by Alan of Tewkesbury,‘Anonymous II’ (possibly someone born in London although he was later a Canterbury monk), William of Canterbury, Benedict of Peterborough and Guernes of Pont-Sainte-Maxence, the last of whom wrote in Old French verse. All were Becket’s contemporaries, most of them known to him personally. Another ‘life’ by Robert of Cricklade, prior of St Frideswide’s, Oxford, whose lingering illness contracted after a pilgrimage to Sicily was providentially cured after a visit to Becket’s shrine in 1171, no longer survives. Fragments from it can, however, be reconstructed, since in about 1200 it was translated into Old Norse and forms an important source for the biography of Becket known as the ‘Thomas Saga Erkibyskups’, written in Icelandic and compiled from a mixture of Norwegian and Latin sources. These fragments, valuable for the years before Becket became archbishop, show that, had it survived, Robert’s ‘life’ would have contained unique material. A brief supplementary Latin work by an anonymous author, ‘A Summary of the Dispute between the King and Thomas’, gives a first-hand account of the earlier stages of the quarrel complementing the ‘lives’, notably the events of the Council of Westminster in October 1163.
Since these ‘lives’ can sometimes be little more than elaborate exercises in hagiography, they should be approached with appropriate caution. Whatever Becket’s contemporaries may have really thought about him while he was alive, after his gruesome murder they had to change their tune. And when the pope canonized him as a saint, they had to work with the assumption that his entire life had been part of a journey towards martyrdom, making irresistible the temptation to reconsider the whole of his life in the light of its unexpected ending. Although mostly completed within seven years of the murder, all these ‘lives’ are retrospective, meaning that with the exception of John of Salisbury’s earliest account in his letter to John of Canterbury, written early in 1171, they are constructed to explain, and justify, Becket’s ‘martyrdom’, so legitimizing his canonization by the pope. A sharp distinction should be drawn between the sources written before and after the murder, because anything written after that shocking event will automatically have been influenced by it.
Becket’s own letters, which survive in profusion once he was elected archbishop, and the voluminous writings of his friend John of Salisbury, notably his letters, provide the essential correctives. They, unlike the ‘lives’, are strictly contemporary sources. John’s letters, which are especially informative for the final years of Theobald’s life and the diplomacy of the years 1163–7, are also wonderful repositories of the latest gossip. John knew everyone and everything, providing his wide circle of friends with news and information not just concerning Becket, but about events all over Europe and as far afield as Sicily and the Middle East. By comparison, Alan of Tewkesbury’s main claim to fame is his ‘master’ manuscript of Becket’s letters, surviving in the form of a dossier compiled between 1174–6 and 1180–84 that was assembled from the disorderly residue of Becket’s scriptorium in exile and from a variety of earlier important collections, including that begun by John of Salisbury which Alan took over.
Considered in their original contexts, Becket’s letters are accurate, informative, durable. Assembled originally by different hands for different purposes, they provide a more varied and reliable view of his position during the quarrel with the king than that given by any of the earliest biographers. Until very recently, they were abominably edited, being ill-arranged, misdated and sloppily translated from the Latin, and for those reasons insufficiently used. Now expertly dated and translated in a masterly two-volume work of scholarship by Anne Duggan published in 2000 (although inexplicably omitting those dozen or so of his letters written while he was still the king’s chancellor – those must still be trawled from the original Latin), the letters open up a whole new area. True, they are unbalanced chronologically – the vast majority come from the years of Becket’s exile in France, especially the final phase of the conflict after 1165, which was largely conducted as a war of letters – but they include frequent reflections on his earlier career, and there is more than enough for us to hear his own voice clearly and authentically.
Full of information, especially those that are private and intimate, the letters help us to get inside Becket’s head, revealing his hopes and fears, his likes and dislikes, his genuine, practical, living faith and vision of the world besides his better-known talent for vivid, fiery oratory and theatrical scenes. Under Herbert of Bosham’s guidance, he came to regard the Scriptures as oracles, appears to know them inside out and quotes them constantly. Under the extreme pressure of the quarrel, he identifies his cause with that of Christ against the Jews and Romans. ‘Tell me,’ he writes to the English clergy in 1166, ‘have you forgotten what was done to me and God’s Church when I was still in England? What was done after I fled, what is still being done? Especially what was done at Northampton, when Christ was again being judged in my person before the judgement seat of the king? Where was the authority found for that? Doesn’t such a scandal make you blush?’ As Duggan remarks, the letters carry the reader into the heart of the controversy, revealing the unfolding of the crisis and the dark uncertainty in which Becket and his fellow-exiles lived from day to day. Most of all, they restore to Becket – a man too easily dismissed as a hypocrite, a pretender or an ‘actor-saint’ – his values and his human face. If we are ever to recapture his true character and psychology, they must be collated against the often harsher opinions of the chroniclers while taking into account the impression of his mindset that a fortuitous survival of the inventory of books that he owned and was studying in exile makes possible – a few of his own copies, some even in their original vellum bindings, can still be traced in Cambridge libraries.
Other letter collections, such as those of Peter of Celle and his circle of famous correspondents, help us to sketch the wider picture. It is clear that throughout his years in exile and with the invaluable assistance of John of Salisbury as his intermediary, Becket used the abbot’s own extensive network of penfriends as a channel through which he could publicize his ideals and intentions, enabling him to fight the propaganda war and paint Henry in the colours of a tyrant.