Becket and the real Thomas Becket

I have always enjoyed watching Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole in Glenville’s Becket, they were both at their highest even when the storyline went against historical fact. However, there are scenes in the film which seem to contradict the 50-year old criticism that Becket is as far away from historical truth as a feature film can get. One of these scenes is, without a doubt, the investiture ritual which director Peter Glenville took very seriously: it goes on for 5 minutes, documenting the investiture proper with the bestowal of archiepiscopal regalia, readings, chant, prostration, ordination, popular acclamation. The scenery is ambitiously 12th century, something not quite easy to come by  in the film industry of the 60’s.

Becket’s investiture

Another such scene is Becket’s audience with pope Alexander III in Rome in 1165. The dialogue runs like this:

Becket: I’m sorry to be importunate, Your Holiness, but time is running out and my course concerns the very life of the church in England.

Alexander: I know, I know, and your cause is worthy but nevertheless, Becket, the church must seek to exist peacefully within the framework of the state.

Becket: I sought that with desperation, Your Holiness.

Alexander: Precisely, Becket. You are new to God’s service and perhaps for that reason you were somewhat hot headed and intemperate in your methods. You have proved your moral worth, but you have also split the church in England into two parties and that is regrettable.

Now have a look at the Pope’s letter to Becket dated that same year:

Since the days are evil and much has to be endured for the circumstances of the times, we beseech your discretion, we advise, we counsel, we urge, that in your whole conduct respecting your cause and that of the Church, you display caution, prudence, and circumspection, doing nothing in haste or precipitately, but at the right time and gravely; so that in all possible ways, consistent with the liberty of the Church and the dignity of your office, you will labour to recover the favour and good will of his majesty the King of England. And until next Easter you should uphold the said king in that you should forbear to take action against his person or territories. For that God will give us better days, and both you and we may take proceedings with safety. (Letter of Pope Alexander III, in Materials for the history of Thomas Becket, Epistolae V, 179-80)

Becket and the Pope

It always constitutes a medievalist’s joy to see a film giving credit to recorded history in its diegesis, characters or scenery.

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