Becket; or For the Honor of God

There are some who believe that history is history and fiction is fiction and they should never mingle.† Those who think this way see no place for historical novels and movies, and they limit themselves by thinking this way.† Why?† Because good historical fiction can illuminate an age or a person in ways that are inaccessible to an historian who is strictly bound to historical evidence.† The movie “Becket” is one of the best examples of this argument.

Despite the fact that it sometimes distorts historical evidence (e.g. it makes Thomas Becket a Saxon), “Becket”, because it is fiction, can delve deeper into the possible nature of the rift between Henry II and Thomas Becket.† It seems clear, even from a brief study of the Becket affair, that Henry and Becketís dispute was more personal in nature than one can find in the historical evidence.

This seems to be the case simply because the issues that Becket and Henry quarreled over had been argued over before, and would be argued over again throughout English history, without the drastic consequences that occurred on December 29, 1170.† But what were the personal elements to the Becket/Henry dispute?† Where historians can only speculate, the movie “Becket” asserts three motives: love, jealousy, and honor.

At first, Henry loves Becket like a brother, but the love becomes stained by jealousy and bitterness.† He is jealous that Becket can do everything from hunting to riding better than he can.† However, there is something much deeper here.† Henry is bitter that† Becket does not love him.

Oh, Becket is loyal to his duty, but duty without love is but a hollow shell of hypocrisy, and Henry knows this.† That is why he is always testing Becketís devotion like the time he insists on taking Becketís female friend, Gwendolyn, away from him.† (This is another example of fiction, but the movie uses it to make a point about Becketís absence of any sense of honor prior to his appointment as Archbishop.)† Henryís jealousy only increases when Gwendolyn commits suicide rather than stay with him.

As far as honor goes, Becket, in the movie, has none until he is appointed Archbishop.† His loyalty switches from the chancellery to the church as easily as a chameleon changes colors.† He also has no sense of honor when it comes to his friends (e.g. Gwendolyn mentioned above).† Also, and this is why the movie portrays Becket as Saxon, he has no sense of national honor.† He betrays his Saxon brothers by serving a Norman king, and this is why the Saxon monk tries to kill him in the movie.

When Becket finally does find his honor, Henry, his love almost completely replaced with jealousy, feels betrayed and becomes enraged.† To think that Becket finally found his honor and it was not the kingís honor but Godís is more than Henry can stand.† His jealousy and anger eventually take complete control; he subtly orders Becket killed; immediately his love reasserts itself; he repents, but it is to late.† Becket is murdered.

Love, jealousy, and honor, then, are the three personal reasons that the movie Becket offers to explain why the Becket controversy developed as it did.† It enhances this view by not going into any great detail with historical events such as the Constitutions of Clarendon or the criminious clergy.† To the movie these are just side issues- the context within which the personal drama is acted out.

In conclusion, by doing what historians can not do, that is, offering an† interpretation that is intuitive but not verifiable, “Becket,” adds to oneís understanding of a complex and fascinating period of history.