Becket (1964, dir. Peter Glenville, based on Jean Anouilh’s play Becket or the Honour of God) tells the story of Thomas Becket (Richard Burton), the Chancellor of England who was made Archbishop of Canterbury by Henry II (Peter O’Toole). Henry and Becket were friends and drinking buddies and Becket helped Henry control the English Church while he was chancellor, but when Henry made him archbishop, he underwent a startling conversion and became a staunch proponent of the rights of the Church, fighting Henry’s attempts to impose royal power more thoroughly over the English clergy. Ultimately, in 1171, in a fit of rage, Henry declared that he wished someone would “rid me of this meddlesome priest”, which four of his household knights took as a sign that they should ride to Canterbury and murder Becket in the cathedral there. The ensuing scandal saw Becket elevated to sainthood in just over two years’ time and Henry eventually agreed to submit to being whipped at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral as penance for his role in Becket’s death.
Becket’s story is a famous one. He was a major saint in the last centuries of the Middle Ages, and Canterbury became one of the most important centers of pilgrimage as a result of Becket’s cult. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is set on such a pilgrimage. Becket’s life and death has been a popular subject for playwrights, including Alfred Lord Tennyson, T.S. Eliot, Paul Webb, and, as noted above, the French author Jean Anouilh, who wrote his play in 1959.
According to Anouilh, he bought an old book that had a chapter on Thomas Becket, and after reading it, his wife encouraged him to write a play on Becket. After he wrote the first portion of the play, he learned that the book was wrong on one major facet of Becket’s life, namely his ancestry. But because he had worked Becket’s ancestry into the play as a major theme, he decided to keep the historical error in the play.
There is absolutely no historical doubt about Becket’s ancestry. Both his parents had French names, and ‘Becket’ means either ‘brook’ or ‘beak-nose’ (in which case it was probably a nickname his father acquired). The medieval biographies of Becket offer more than one idea about where in Normandy the family came from, but they are clear that the family was Norman. The best biography of Thomas Becket, by Frank Barlow, doesn’t even bother considering the idea that he might have been Anglo-Saxon.
Normans and Anglo-Saxons
In 1066, the French nobleman William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, conquered Anglo-Saxon England, defeating the last Saxon king of England, Harold Godwinson. As a result, all subsequent English monarchs have been descended from William. As a result of the Norman Conquest of England, French culture was dominant for several centuries. In the 12th century, the overwhelming majority of English nobles were of French ancestry and many maintained tight family alliances with Norman relatives. French was the language of the cultural elites in England, and the Saxon population was to a considerable extent reduced to a subject peasantry, with English being the language of the lower classes and taking several centuries to filter back up the hierarchy to eventually displace French. (This is why, for example, the English words for livestock, such as cow, pig, and sheep, are of Anglo-Saxon origin, while the words for the meat these animals produce, such as beef, pork, and mutton, are French.)
So when Anouilh read, incorrectly, that Thomas Becket was of Anglo-Saxon ancestry, he immediately saw a story about a man of an oppressed ethnic group rising to triumph over his own oppressors. Having himself lived through the Nazi occupation of France, this must have been a powerfully resonant idea for him, and thus his telling of Becket’s story is one in which Becket’s supposed Anglo-Saxon ethnicity and Henry II’s Norman ancestry are front and center.
This accounts for the film’s somewhat curious approach how it depicts Anglo-Saxons and Normans. The Anglo-Saxons are depicted as poor peasants living in dirty hovels and being silently (and sometimes violently) resentful of the Normans. On two separate occasions, Anglo-Saxons attempt to murder Becket (a peasant mistakes him for a Norman while a Saxon monk sees him as a collaborator). Early in the film, Becket says that the Normans represent comfort and civilization, and so he embraces them and looks down on his fellow Saxons.
However, despite this, the film depicts the Normans (up to and including King Henry) as vulgar barbarians while Becket becomes the representative of a more civilized way of life. The film incorrectly has Becket introduce forks to Norman England, while Henry can’t understand why he shouldn’t just use his fingers, and the first time forks are presented at a feast, one Norman baron uses his fork to stab another man. The feast scene highlights the crudeness and violence of the Normans, who constantly throw food at each other, much to Henry’s amusement.
Henry is a libertine who goes through women with no regard for them as human beings; in one scene he repeatedly refers to a frightened Norman peasant girl as “it” and orders her brought to his castle so he can sleep with her. Later, he forces Becket to give him a woman whom Becket evidently has feelings for. In another scene, he treats a French peasant woman as a piece of furniture and is surprised when she protests. In contrast, Becket facilitates Henry’s romantic escapades but does not participate.
When Becket negotiates the surrender of a French town, Henry’s barons are angry that they won’t get to sack it, and Becket has to explain why sacking the town will discourage other towns from surrendering, as if Becket was the first man to realize this, when in reality it was a recognized principle in warfare to not sack towns if they surrendered quickly. The message here is clear; Becket is the man with true sensibility and the Normans are little better than wild animals.
Becket, as the film structures events, begins his rise to power as a collaborator, working with the Normans, particularly Henry II, and having only an uneasy sense of allegiance to his Saxon kin. But once he becomes archbishop, he begins to resist Henry II and to champion a clergy that the film (falsely) presents as representing the Anglo-Saxons. So the struggle between Henry and the English Church becomes a struggle between the Normans and the Saxons as expressed through Henry and Becket. Henry briefly triumphs when Becket is murdered, but as he remarks when he is speaking to the dead Becket while awaiting his flogging, the Saxons get to have their victory because the monks who flog him are Saxons.
I’ve mentioned before that historical films and plays are always about the period they are made in, and Anouilh’s play demonstrates this, because the subtext here is the Nazi occupation of France, with the Normans standing in for the Germans and the Anglo-Saxons being the conquered French. Becket goes from being a collaborator to a resistance fighter; his death and subsequent vindication mirrors the fate of many French resistance fighters during the war.
The issue of collaboration was (and to some extent, still is) a painful subject in post-war France. The Vichy government collaborated during the war, actively assisting the Nazis with the deportation of Jews and the arrest of resistance fighters. After the war, some collaborators, such as Marshall Petain, were tried for treason (Petain was convicted and sentenced to death, but had his sentence commuted to life in prison), while others, such as Maurice Papon, who oversaw the deportation of more than 1,500 French Jews and participated in the torture of French insurgents, continued to serve in government until 1965.
Because the Germans defeated the French so rapidly in World War II (in contrast with World War I), the French were actively seeking ways to salvage their pride. Resistance fighters were celebrated, and their role in undermining the Nazi war effort was in many cases exaggerated. One of the greatest medieval historians of the 20th century, Marc Bloch, was a resistance member who was executed by the Nazis shortly before the end of the war, and subsequently became something of a secular saint for French intellectuals. So in the 1950s, the issue of collaboration and resistance would have been a theme that spoke powerfully to many French people. Anouilh’s Antigone, first produced in 1944, explored the issue of resistance to a tyrannical government, and his 1952 play about Joan of Arc, L’Alouette (The Lark) is another study of resistance to an occupying power.
This also accounts for the film’s uncertainty about who truly represents civilization. Becket explicitly says that the Normans are more civilized than the Saxons, and yet he is clearly the most civilized person in the film. This doesn’t make a lot of sense until you consider that Becket is a stand-in for the French under the yoke of Nazi brutality. He represents 20th century French civilization.
Unfortunately, while all of this makes for a good movie, it’s bad history. Becket was not Anglo-Saxon, but Norman. His struggle with Henry was about the deeply controversial question of how Church and State were supposed to relate, an issue that caused considerable turbulence in many parts of Western Europe in the late 11th and 12th centuries; it was not a struggle of oppressed Anglo-Saxons against brutal Normans.
By all means, give Becket a viewing. Its two leads were giants of the screen in their day, and both men were at the height of their careers when this film was made. O’Toole would, of course, portray a much older Henry II just three years later when he made The Lion in Winter, but in both films he captures Henry’s deep well of energy. The Lion in Winter is, for me at least, the better film, and I think it holds together today a little better than Becket does, perhaps because the earnestness of Burton’s performance feels a little old-fashioned. But if you can look past the Anglo-Saxons vs Normans theme, which admittedly is a huge part of the film, what remains is a reasonable telling of the story of Henry and Becket’s falling out and Becket’s death.
Want to Know More?
Becket is available on Amazon.
Thomas Becket is a fascinating figure, and one definitely worth reading more about. I’m partial to Frank Barlow’s Thomas Becket, but there are new books on Becket produced every year or two. If you want to delve into the primary sources on Becket, The lives of Thomas Becket (Manchester Medieval Sources MUP)offers a good collection of the materials.
T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral is a very different look at Becket’s death.