Produced and Published by the Students and Faculty of Stephen F. Austin State University.


by Whitney Adkins

The movie Becket, directed by Peter Glenville in 1964, retold the feud between Thomas Becket and Henry II, Archbishop of Canterbury against the King of England. The film used themes such as honor and loyalty to portray a saint standing against a tyrant. Although this representation is not historically accurate, it does provide an authentic review of the twelfth century and the true nature of people in power.

The characters in their actions and feelings are accurately portrayed, but each is altered or heightened to persuade the audience to have certain feelings for him. In this film, Becket, played by Richard Burton, is a controversial figure even to himself. In his years as chancellor, he rides along with Henry, wenching and drinking, forming a strong friendship, but when alone he finds a deep void left unfilled by his power and connections. Without Henry’s knowledge he saves innocent women from lives of disgrace, forgives assassination attempts made upon him, and allows church officials to insult him. Like a mother he keeps Henry in line and out of trouble, symbolizing his future role as a shepherd of the church. His cool demeanor and steady gaze allow the audience to see that he is pious even in the beginning and yearns for a chance to serve God. There is truth in this image of Becket, but history would not allow the director to get away so simply. In oral reports and texts, Becket is found to have a hot head and a tendency to be stubborn. He was materialistic, witty, and very intelligent. He did, however, show great respect to the church for its part in punishing men who swore and in praising chastity. The church did not like the early Becket. He was thought of as the king’s puppet who tried to collect taxes from the church - at the time a hot topic. The fear over his becoming Archbishop of Canterbury was immense, but Becket’s character seemed to turn for the good of God and the church. Becket began to wash poor people’s feet and abandoned his materialistic life for an ascetic one. Historically his change of heart is considered sincere.

Henry II was brilliantly played by Peter O’Toole. O’Toole was nominated for Best Actor for this role. Although the acting was wonderful, the portrayal of Henry II was very inaccurate. Henry is seen as a spoilt child who depends on Becket as a child would its mother. He throws temper tantrums, runs to Becket at any sign of trouble, and feels lonely if Becket cannot accompany him. Becket constantly pulls him away from women and reminds him that his royal duties come first. Henry is seen as relying on his friend’s intelligence instead of his own. While some of this is true historically, some of it is most definitely an exaggeration. Henry II did have several rages of temper, abundant amounts of energy, very little patience, and a stubbornness that even his sons found repulsive. Despite all this, Henry had great skill in diplomatic matters, was a patron of education, and enjoyed sitting in on councils. The friendship between Becket and Henry probably ran very deep because the men were so similar in intelligence and temperament. Any dependence Henry had on Becket was for his company and advice. Henry II is also portrayed in the film as an unloving father and cruel husband. This is also an injustice. Henry loved his sons dearly and adored his wife, but had problems with infidelity and wanting to control everything himself.

Queen Eleanor, Henry’s wife played by Pamela Brown, did not appear very often in the film. When she was in the scene she usually talked back to Henry and comforted the children when the king grew angry with them. This view is very accurate of Eleanor. In history, she was a very strong, independent woman who was just as ambitious as her husband. Henry’s unfaithfulness to her provoked anger and sarcasm. In the movie, Eleanor disliked Becket and after his murder revealed her envy for the archbishop who even in death consumed the king’s thoughts and love. Based on Eleanor’s true character this envy was probably genuine, but it is recorded that she did grieve over Becket.

The other characters made little appearances. Pope Alexander III is seen in only one scene. Becket asks the pope for protection and requests the removal of his title as Archbishop of Canterbury. The pope gives him a haven, but will not allow him to give up his title or position. According to texts, the pope was already in a quarrel with the Emperor of Germany and did not want another royal leader against him. King Louis VII of France had a short role in hiding Becket and providing an escort to the pope for him. The French king was played very well in his actions and speech. He followed the rules of courtly courtesy and provided Henry’s messengers, the Bishop of London and the sheriff, nice quarters for three days but did not see them. What the film did not emphasize on was the King’s bitter feelings against England and his desire to retrieve French lands attained by the English. In history and the film, he did grow to love Becket.

These last two characters played hardly any role, but without them neither Henry nor Becket would get where they were. Queen Matilda, actually called Empress due to her previous marriage to the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, was Henry’s mother and fought a war against her cousin Stephen of Blois for England in 1135. Being the daughter of Henry I she believed after his death she would succeed him, but Stephen convinced the barons and church who took an oath to support her otherwise. Matilda went to war with her cousin and after several battles in 1148 gave up her right as Queen of England. Although she was defeated, she knew her son, Henry II, was the only heir to the throne since Stephen had no living son. Henry owed much to her, but in the film shows no appreciation. In fact, she was not even supposed to be in England during her later years, but in Rouen, Normandy where she retired. The other character, Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, is only shown in a council with Henry in the beginning of the film and then died. He acts surprised with Henry’s decision to make Becket chancellor, but is actually the one who suggested the move to Henry. Theobald was the first person of rank to notice Becket and made him a clerk; therefore, he provided a way for Becket to rise up as chancellor and archbishop.

The fictional characters were Brother John and Gwendolyn. Gwendolyn was Becket’s love interest whom Henry stole, which caused her to commit suicide. There is no evidence of this character ever existing, but it did provide more conflict for the film and a way to show Becket’s willingness to forgive. The second character, Brother John, was a devout follower of God and Becket’s assistant when he was Archbishop. He dressed Becket, held the cross, and consoled the Archbishop when he was disheartened. While there is no record of Brother John, there are similarities between him and John of Salisbury who served as Becket’s secretary. He was with Becket during the feud with Henry and accompanied him on his journey back to England. He was not present during the murder, but wrote Becket’s biography Life of Becket. Brother John could represent him or another real man named Edward Grim, a monk who did carry the cross and was wounded in the assassination of Becket in 1170. The character could symbolize both, but his purpose in the film is to be a reminder to Becket of his loyalty to God and not the king.

The conflicts found in the movie are extremely important to the overall plot. The main conflict was between church and state. The film accurately described the problems of the time, but failed to mention why and how England got in the situation it was in. Henry II wanted all the rights the king had during his grandfather’s time. Henry I. He desired a restricted church and a powerful justice system. This problem took root right after King Henry I’s death. With Henry I, (1100 to 1135), the church did not hold much power in justice matters and had to pay land taxes to the king. After Henry’s death, the only heir was his daughter Matilda, previously discussed. Her cousin Stephen of Blois took England with much persuasion and a war was fought from 1135-1148. The importance of the civil war was that the church was not tied to the state but set up its own law, known as canon law, and took over financial and educational matters. Henry II not understanding how far the church had come, demanded the old rights back. The church must pay taxes and the clergy tried for any crimes must be put to trial in the secular courts instead of the clerical ones. Henry disliked the church’s punishments of church officials because they were so light that many sex offenders or murderers were set free. The church under Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, would not submit. When Theobald died, Henry decided that his chancellor Thomas Becket would become the new Archbishop and stomp out these discipline problems. Becket, who had been chancellor from 1154 to 1162 eventually agreed, and, despite the protests from monks and bishops, was made Archbishop of Canterbury.

The film skips over this past history that was crucial to understanding the state England was in, and started with Becket becoming Chancellor. The audience is then allowed to see how problems arose between religion and state. The plot continues with Henry II serenely asking the church to give up some independence and not make appeals to Rome without royal permission. Expecting a speedy reply in his favor, he was shocked to discover that Becket went against him. Some historians debate whether Becket actually had a change of heart or was just dizzy from power. Henry thought it was the latter, but the church saw a difference in this once reckless, worldly man. He gave up his nice clothes, started dressing in a hair shirt and plain robe, began whipping himself, and serving the poor. Henry II, still stubborn, asked Becket and the church to agree to the Constitutions of Clarendon in 1164, which forced the church to have less connection with Rome and allow the clergy to be tried in the secular courts. Becket agreed orally but refused to sign any papers.

Henry finally gave up on Becket and tried to remove him as Archbishop by accusing him of embezzling money while chancellor. The royal council met in Northampton on October, 1164 to put Becket to trial. Becket refused any accusations against him and fled to France. Louis protected him, and Becket reached the pope and asked for help. As said before, it was granted. He stayed away from England for six years, but neither Henry nor Becket would give up. In defiance, Henry, in 1170, had his son Henry III crowned at York instead of Canterbury. Becket was furious because the old tradition was that the coronation of a king was to be in Canterbury. Becket threatened to indict all of England, which quickly placed Henry in a bad position. He agreed to let Becket come back to England and let all the impending issues rest awhile. When Becket returned he angrily excommunicated all the bishops involved in the royal coronation, which caused Henry to say those ill fated words which led to Becket’s senseless murder. In his usual rages, he commented to some of his knights that “no one will rid me of this turbulent priest?” Taking him seriously, four knights stabbed Becket on the steps in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. His death sent shock waves through Europe and England, he was proclaimed a martyr and saint. Henry was not looked well upon, and he pled guilty but pleaded his innocence with the pope and his people. He was believed but he paid penance to his friend by building shrines for him and being whipped by eighty monks in 1174.

The conflicts of the church and state were portrayed very well throughout the film. Both the main characters talked about the issues facing England at the time and explained both sides to the audience. Becket was shown with the King of France and the pope, but was falsely seen to meet with Henry on the French shore to mend what had happened between them. The assassination was in the right place and right time, but instead of four knights there was only three. The only serious historical inaccuracy arose from the compressed time frame but the way the years were pushed together was very understandable since the time period of the movie was long – from 1154-1174.

The clothing and setting added to the authenticity of the film, though perhaps not exactly to the right century. The clothing for the males was very accurate. The robes and vests were very colorful, but were popular during the twelfth century. The women’s clothing, however, was exaggerated. The headpieces were so large that it was surprising they did not fall over right when they stood up to walk. The time only required simply chin pieces and headwear that was very subtle with no décor present on them. The armor was very realistic in the movie and accurate for the time. The knights and guards had helmets, swords, and tight padded vests. Unlike the clothing, the setting was a direct replica of the twelfth century. The movie was filmed in England at Bamburgh and Alnwick castle. Henry II was known for his castle building and spent most of his finances when not fighting, in castle building. The ornate tapestry was beautiful and quite frequently seen in the film. The church was also displayed well. Monks even sang the right vespers during the church services and candles were lit to add effect. The stairway down to the crypt was a nice touch, as well as the writing of Sic TransitGloria on the fireplace in Becket’s room.
Overall, the film was historically accurate with a few embellishments and some shortening of the time between events. It received twelve nominations and provides an excellent source for history and entertainment. The site of Becket’s murder is still visited today as often as the pilgrimages held after his death.

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