850 years ago tomorrow, the 21st February, Thomas Becket, so famously martyred near the quire of Canterbury Cathedral by a clutch of violent social climbers, was canonised by Pope Alexander III in a reflection of the wave of shock and, later, devotion to his memory that swept the Christian world in the wake of his death. Becket had been a controversial figure for much of his life, something later ameliorated by his posthumous saintly status. His friendship with Henry II had turned sour long before his murder, probably since the king made him archbishop against the then chancellor’s wishes. It was a move the king hoped would embed his man in the Church but Becket found a piety in the process that would propel him to great things.
One of the outcomes of his newfound contrition and the stature it somehow brought with it was an increased antagonism and alienation of not just his king but many of his countrymen as well. Nonetheless many others flocked to him, his story becoming in many minds, perhaps not least his own, one of truth against autocracy. Towards the end he had become a kind of living legend, a walking cypher for everything he’d come to represent. Defined by devotion, his story’s conclusion beckoned all the more inevitably as he pursued what many saw as his calling – to defend the Church against oppression from on high. That this championship was a die that he himself had partly cast was an irony lost to the crowd.
I spent a good amount of time looking at his life in the course of research for my book about the Pilgrims’ Way, that classic route along our southern hills. His – and Henry’s – stories are central to the history of that particular path of course; Becket’s shrine a magnet for international pilgrims as his cult grew. But many followed it too in keenness to trace, perhaps even emulate, the penitential steps of their scandalised monarch who made his way, though his route is uncertain, to his former friend’s resting place.
If I’m honest, I’m still sometimes surprised as to why the history of these two men held such immediate traction over me as soon as I began to read about it. It was more than simply background reading about the history of this given pilgrimage – even if walking it remained the main event. Was it because Becket’s conflict and conversion to a greater faith seemed to dovetail into questions that felt more pertinent than ever for me; my relationship to the Christian Church, how I might find a deeper sense of belonging within it, how I might find a deeper dimension of faith despite what you might call a former degree of circumspection regarding the merits of formal religion?
All of this certainly resonated and looking at his story became a means to help myself answer more personal questions. But Henry too you had to feel for – how it all went wrong, the necessity of his eventual journey to pay penance at Becket’s shrine and how that itself may well have changed things. His story takes its place among other instructive medieval sagas – one recurring theme of those times; however unlikely it may sound, is the apparent wrath visited on those plundering or otherwise disrespecting Holy Ground – just look at King John, or Eustace, or Henry’s own eldest son.
The story fascinates still in its reflection of piety and power – what can happen when either or both threaten to become all consuming. Henry was a man who liked to get his way. Becket sometimes appeared to pride himself on rising above – or against – his monarch’s will. But within it all are other articles of faith; other questions, dimensions and tensions. Were either men driven by pride? Was there a kind of glory cloaked in self-deprecation? Or a humility in striving to be true to duty? Was Henry’s penance sincere? We may never know, which is partly what makes the story so iconic; the light it throws on mortal men, the value of searching our hearts.
In some respects, Henry’s and Becket’s stories played out as prolonged tragedies; the hubris amid the reverence, the wrestling of different manifestations of might. And yet the two men still impress by respective determination if not always necessarily their virtues. What perhaps is more important for anybody wishing to follow in a literal sense in Henry’s footsteps by walking the ‘Way is that – whether through shock, veneration or the veritable cash cow of pilgrimage infrastructure in the Middle Ages – many pilgrims chose to walk this way and doing so today is act of sympathetic magic with forebears perhaps not quite as distant as we think.
Perhaps, amid the distant echo of former dramas, the instruction given by a king laid low by what all told was still the power of a spiritual intensity, of Becket’s very real courage as he could see all the more clearly just where his convictions were leading, the answers for us all still lie in wait. Perhaps we can be closer to the ones who’ve gone before not by contrition or stumbling on our knees or keeping something going for the sake of it. That is not to say some things do not have an inherent worth or that we cannot find, when all the flotsam’s stripped away, a kind of solid bedrock of belief. But the things we need can still feel more immediate; to step out in the early April sun, to meet the track, to find a little joy in each new leaf. We may find then that kings and prelates take their place amongst a rich panoply, where every pilgrim walks at one another’s side, where stories settle like the mulch and we find that with nothing but a bag and staff and sense of shared endeavour we are richer than we ever dared believe.