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My previous knowledge of Becket's life and death was based on the film, Becket, starring Peter O'Toole and RIchard Burton. I now realize that the film art-brushed out Henry II's tyrannical behaviour, mendacity and cruelty to any who tried to impede his wishes. The book gives a detailed account of the deteriorating relationship between Henry and Becket from bosom buddies to arch enemies with a wealth of information about this turbulent period in European history in the 12th Century. There's a dizzying amount of historical detail that warrants a visit to Wikipedia to remind one of the the genealogy of the main players as one skips from the English to French Court with detours to the Vatican and other European nobilty.
Frankly I couldn't keep track of all the many characters and the intrigues and double-dealing by monarchs, barons and clergy, including Popes (and there were more than one at any one time owing to a schism in the Catholic Church). However, the lively writing and engaging narration kept me listening. Even if you can't remember all the sub-plots and characters the gist of the story comes over clearly and what a story it is. Christian benevolence was lost under an avalanche of political intriguing, self-agrandissement, bribery and war-mongering from all quarters. Becket, and very few others, come out of the narrative largely untarnished and he guilty only of sticking stubbornly to his principles leading to his undignified assassination.
I was shocked by the deceitiveness and vindictiveness of Henry, even by Medieval standards, and by the general lack of morality among those in power, both lay men and clergy, and of the lottery of life when rule is by a dictator answerable to no-one.
If you're interested in biography enriched by history this book is an excellent example.
10 of 10 people found this review helpful
Would you consider the audio edition of Thomas Becket to be better than the print version?
Although this is a serious biography, Roy McMillan reads with care and sensitivity so the thread is never lost. A print version would give one the benefit of being able to flip back to check the identify of some of the characters who cross Becket's path from time to time, but perhaps it would not convey the overall sweep of his life so well.
Who was your favorite character and why?
Obviously in a biography the main character is critical; and Becket is certainly a riveting figure who rose from obscurity to a position of intimacy with the king, and then to a confrontation with him. The account of the character was not always consistent: sometimes John Guy depicts him as shy and uncertain overawed by the king, whilst at other times he is presented as a subtle and skilled political operator who followed his own path. The interaction was not only between these two men (with a panoply of secondary characters), but also between the two institutions they eventually led---the church and the secular state---whose relationship remained unsettled for another 400 years until the confrontation between Henry VIII and Thomas More, which eerily echoes that between Henry II and Becket. The book provides a raft of colourful and interesting details about Becket's life and offers a plausible picture of a man who was surely one of the most remarkable of his age; and even though I was inevitably left with questions, the book sets Becket's life in the context of his times, and describes how he shaped and changed those times.
What three words best describe Roy McMillan’s voice?
His voice is pleasant, well-modulated and easy to listen to. There was however a problem: there are, unavoidably in a book of this period, many many French names of places and people; and Roy McMillan's French pronunciation was bad enough to be seriously distracting. It is acceptable to Anglicise all names and pronounce them in the English fashion; but if you want to pronounce them in French, then some basic attention to the rules of French pronunciation (eg the accent always falls on the last syllable) is indispensable. I found this really grated after a while, which is a shame because fundamentally Roy McMillan is a good reader.
Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?
No. It is a complex story with many subordinate characters and a good deal of detail, and I appreciated being able to pause and think.
Any additional comments?
This is one of the few biographies of a man who was colourful, powerful, and unexpectedly radical in his own day, and whose influence has echoed down the ages ever since, even to today: if you see the worn stone steps in Canterbury Cathedral, you cannot help wanting to know about the man whose death so galvanised the world that millions have come to pray at the site of his shrine over the last 900 years. It is well worth a listen!
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
Medieval history has always intrigued me and I had heard references to Becket's bloody murder in other text (both fiction and non-fiction) so it was great to see this title in an audible format. You gain an understanding of how education, place and time could raise the low born in medieval England to great influence but also the whims of monarchs can be your downfall. The narration is good.