Historical interpretations of Thomas Becket - saint or sinner?

Medieval writers

Becket immediately became the hero of the Church. There were 15 biographies of him written at the time – one of them by Edward Grim, who was with him when he was killed. Not all of the writers agreed with Becket, but the Pope had said Becket was a saint, and they had to show him as such.

Catholic hero, Protestant anti-hero

In 1538 King Henry VIII – who had taken control of the Church in 1534 – destroyed Becket's shrine. The next year, the Pope published a document accusing Henry VIII of burning Becket's bones and putting the dead saint on trial.

Catholic writers in the 1800s declared Becket a saint and a hero, and in 1982, when Pope John Paul II visited Britain, he and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, knelt in prayer at the site of the shrine of Thomas Becket.

By contrast to the Catholic writers, the Whig historians of the 1800s portrayed Becket as a troublemaker who was delaying the advance of justice and government.

Interpretations of Thomas Becket

Popular portrayals

In 1935, the Catholic writer T S Eliot, wrote his play Murder in the Cathedral, closely following the account of Edward Grim. Eliot was writing at a time when Hitler was becoming a dictator in Nazi Germany, and he showed Becket as a man bravely resisting a tyrant.

In 1959, the French writer Jean Anouilh's play, Becket or the Honour of God, portrayed Becket as a good and godly Saxon, bravely resisting a drunken and immoral Norman king. The playwright's facts were wrong, but it was so popular that in 1964 it was made into a film starring Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton.

What do you think?

What is your interpretation of Thomas Becket? Was he a saint or a troublemaker? Was he right to stand up to the king?

Perhaps Becket can be compared to other individuals who sacrificed their lives for their beliefs?

How have more recent generations interpreted historical characters to recreate them as inspiring martyrs? For example Joan of Arc was used by the Free French in World War II.

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