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A Literarea Preview: 'Thomas Beckett: Warrior, Priest, Rebel'

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Thomas Beckett: Warrior, Priest, Rebel
By John Guy

The story of Thomas Beckett and King Henry the II has been told and retold over the centuries, but a new book “Thomas Beckett: Warrior, Priest, Rebel” by John Guy manages to find an interesting and engaging way to keep the story fresh.The prime lesson one takes away from this book? Never trust an ego-maniacal king no matter how close you are to him.

Granted, when Thomas Beckett went from “the king’s trusted advisor” to “the Archbishop of Canterbury,” he underwent a bit of a transformation. Imagine a not-very-religious person suddenly being named to a leadership position – THE leadership position in Britain– in the Church. All of a sudden, to King Henry’s dismay, Thomas became – righteous. Where he was once on the King’s side in all matters, now, as Archbishop, Thomas found himself opposing his former good friend on a number of issues, which proved fatal for ol’ T-Beck.

The book covers Beckett’s life, beginning as a not-so-gifted child, then mapping his rise to the King’s closest advisor and finally, the Archbishop-ship, followed by his forced exile as ex-advisor, ex-friend and eventually an ex-human. Prior to their religious fallout, Henry and Beckett were famously close. So much so that there were rumors that they might have been lovers. The author Guy dismisses this based on little evidence, instead hedging his bet that if Henry knew Beckett was homosexual he would have undoubtedly used it as ammunition in their very public feud.

Guy does an excellent job of heightening the drama despite the fact the meetings, offers and counter-offers had to be quite grinding and grueling sessions for the participants. Thankfully, that’s not the case for us readers.

In one particular telling story early on, the King and a pre-Archbishop Beckett are riding through the crowded marketplace when they happen on a poor peasant. The King asks Beckett if it would be a magnanimous gesture for a king to give his cloak to a poor peasant. When Beckett responded in the affirmative, the King quickly said that it would be even more magnanimous if Beckett gave up HIS brand new cloak – with fur lining! – to the poor peasant in question. After Thomas resisted, the King tried to wrestle Cromwell’s cloak of his back, causing both men to almost fall off their horses in the ensuing melee. Cromwell was humiliated eventually gave in – and the peasant quickly bartered the cloak to the highest bidder. It was certainly a sign of things to come for ol’ T-Beck.

In the end the book is obviously tragic but also darkly comic and Beckett comes across as Guy puts it “as prickly as he was smooth, a man with the habits of a hedgehog.”

About the Author
A Juilliard-trained writer, Kevin Kizer has fought against numerous world-champion writers during his career, besting the reigning middle weight writing champion in an exhibition bout in Helsinki in 1976. He also played a crucial role on the U.S. gold-medal winning writing team during the 1984 Pan-Am games, where he came off the bench in dramatic fashion to write the winning prepositional phrase just as time expired.