THOMAS BECKETT by Richard Winston


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Richard Winston undertook this biography of Thomas Beckett with the understanding that the standard biographies dated back a century; the last life based on primary sources was forty years old. This disregards the historical novel form, notably represented recently by Shelley Mydans' Thomas (1965). For a general audience, Mrs. Mydans' treatment, careful as it was, may stand as the more effective experience. The serious reader will be stimulated by Mr. Winston's book, a painstaking analysis of original sources that yet has shape as well as substance, with many of the speeches of the principals, made memorable by Anouilh, surprisingly extant and accounted for. The author is as concerned with the life of the nation and the Church, the struggle of powers, as with the character of his subject, and indeed stands out in his handling of these concerns. He terms the clash between Henry II and Beckett ""fated, precedented, inevitable."" (The fact that Henry was a foreign king led him to misjudge the relationship between the crown and the primate of all England.) When Thomas stepped down as chancellor and picked up the cross as Archbishop of Canterbury, he ""put on 'a new man"" who believed we must obey God rather than man."" The Council of Clarendon and its aftermath tested his vocation: reconciliation after a six-year exile did not save him from death at the hands of the barons. It was a death Thomas welcomed and would not be denied. A work of probity and scholarly command, at once encompassing and engrossing.

Pub Date: Sept. 18th, 1967
Publisher: Knopf