The film “Becket” is a 1964 film adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s play of the same name. The movie underwent considerable restoration and was re-released in 2007 to another generation of history buffs. “Becket” won the Academy Award in 1965 for Best Adapted Screenplay, and was nominated for eleven other Academy Awards also. The film stars Richard Burton as Thomas Becket and Peter O’Toole as King Henry II. The story takes place in the latter part of the 12th century and of course is true.
Richard Burton - Wikimedia
King Henry II was a weak ruler who led a life of debauchery in spite of the fact that he was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine and was the father of several children, one of whom became King Henry III. Fortunately, he had a loyal servant, Thomas Becket, a Deacon of the Church, who served him as Lord Chancellor and looked after the affairs of government in the name of the King. Thomas received the King’s signet ring which indicated his position in the King’s court.
Because England was at war with France, King Henry attempted to tax the churches of England in order to finance the war’s expenses. He was opposed vigorously by the Archbishop of Canterbury, with whom he had a long-time quarrel.
Becket Becomes the New Archbishop of Canterbury
England was victorious in the war and the French citizens were accepting of their conqueror. Shortly thereafter, King Henry received word that the Archbishop of Canterbury had passed away. He wrote to the church authorities that he would like to nominate Thomas Becket as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket begged him not to do it. But Becket was the only man that Henry could trust; he needed him in that position. There was one small problem; Becket had never been ordained. King Henry arranged for that incidental omission to be taken care of; Becket was ordained as a priest on the morning of the day of his investiture as the Archbishop. He continued to wear the King’s signet ring along with the Archbishop’s ring.
The ceremony consecrating the new Archbishop was impressive and realistic. It set the tone of integrity and holiness which would be Becket’s hallmark throughout his tenure. After his appointment, Thomas Becket began to show a concern for the poor. A young monk who had been held prisoner because he had attempted earlier to stab Becket because of his position against the French, was released and became a valet to the new Archbishop. Overhearing Becket’s prayers before the crucifix, the young monk was so taken with the beauty of the man’s soul, he became his loyal friend thereafter.
Peter O'Toole - Wikimedia
Lord Gilbert is Excommunicated
Becket's allegiance quickly shifted from Henry’s court to the Church, allowing him the freedom to take a stand against the King. In one of his first duties as Archbishop, Becket learned from the Bishops that a priest had been arrested because of his sexual indiscretions. Lord Gilbert, who was close to King Henry, had the young priest killed before he could be tried in an ecclesiastical court. Becket’s decision was to excommunicate Lord Gilbert who refused to back down when accused of the wrongfulness of his decision. King Henry was enraged at Becket who had taken the church’s position over the court’s positon. Becket returned the King’s signet ring to him.
King Henry II Attempts to Remove the Archbishop
King Henry met with the Bishops of London and told them that he had made a crass mistake in naming Thomas Becket as the Archbishop of Canterbury. He said that he hated him and needed their help in getting rid of him. Becket was summoned to the King’s palace where he told Henry that he was innocent of any wrongdoing and would consent to be judged by the Pope alone.
King Henry told his henchmen that Becket must not leave England; he must not cross the channel. Becket and Brother John fled on horses and took a boat that was heading to France where King Louis VII (John Gielgud) offered him protection. In spite of a letter from King Henry saying that Becket was guilty of treason and was somewhere in the King’s domain, King Louis was pleased to grant him exile. It suited Louis’ purpose, as he had his own disagreements with Henry. Becket stayed in France for an extended time.
Canterbury Cathedral - Wikimedia
Becket Pleads with the Pope
Becket finally reached his original destination which was Rome, and made an appointment to see the Pope. He begged the Pope to relieve him of the office of Archbishop of Canterbury so that he might retire to a monastery and live as a simple priest. The Pope advised him to return to England, that it was his duty to champion the church against any intervention by civil authorities. Becket reluctantly agreed to the Pope’s wishes.
Becket Returns to England
A meeting was arranged between King Henry and Becket on a beach in France. They were both on horses and the King’s retinue stayed off in the distance. Henry asked Becket if he loved him. He said “Yes, I did love you, your grace.” He insisted that it was his duty to defend his church. Henry allowed him to go back to England.
King Henry’s Plan to Slight Becket
King Henry had a diabolical plan to crown his son as the successor to the throne, as King Henry III. He had no respect for his son, and insulted him at the dinner where he announced his intentions. He said that the coronation would take place in York rather than in Canterbury as an affront to Becket. His wife Eleanor of Aquitaine argued with him about his decision, to no avail.
King Henry II Wikimedia
Becket is Assassinated
In Canterbury, the Archbishop received the news from his frightened aides that armed men were at the door and wanted to speak to the Archbishop. He met the four men, reprimanding them for carrying arms into God’s house. “What do you want?” he said. “Your death” was the answer. First they killed Brother John, his protector. Then they stabbed Becket several times on the steps of his altar.
When King Henry asked who had done the deed, he was told that the perpetrators were unknown. Public opinion of the time laid the blame for the murder at the feet of King Henry II. The last scenes show Henry at the tomb of Becket, asking forgiveness. His aides, at his request, whipped him severely at the feet of his beloved friend.
Thomas Becket became a martyr for the Church on December 29, 1170. He was canonized a saint by Pope Alexander in 1173, three years after his death.