Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

French playwright Jean Anouilh claimed that the genesis of this play lay in his need for a book with a green binding.  In an attempt to strike the proper balance of colors on his bookshelf he picked up a copy of Augustin Thierry's The Conquest of England by the Normans and almost accidentally read the story of Thomas Becket :

    I was dazzled.  I had expected to find a saint--I am always a trifle distrustful of saints...-and I found a man.

As Anouilh himself acknowledged, he didn't really do any more research than this and so his play accepts, and relies for much of its dramatic effect on, Thierry's assertion that Becket was a Saxon, though historians no longer believe this to be true.  But since he'd already completed the work before someone informed him of his "error", he chose not to rewrite it to reflect the current historical theory :

    I decided that if history in the next fifty years should go on making progress it will perhaps rediscover that Becket was indubitably
    of Saxon origin; in any case, for this drama of friendship between two men, between the king and his friend, his companion in
    pleasure and in work (and this is what had gripped me about the story), this friend whom he could not cease to love though he became
    his worst enemy the night he was named archbishop--for this drama it was a thousand times better that Becket remained a Saxon.

So Anouilh's version of the story makes no pretense of historical accuracy.  Nor does he attempt the poetics or the spirituality of T. S. Eliot's version, Murder in the Cathedral.  He gives us a straightforward take on the tale, one primarily concerned with, as he said, the friendship between Henry and Becket and with Becket's quest for his own honor.

The action of the play is framed by scenes of Henry II at Canterbury, doing his penance for either ordering or acquiescing in or failing to prevent the murder of Becket.  As he prepares to be scourged, he flashes back to happier days when he and Becket would carouse together and their fast friendship led to Becket's dizzying rise to power, even to the chancellorship of England.  Becket's Saxon origins create particular resentment among Henry's Norman noblemen and his assertion of the crown's prerogatives angers the clerisy.  But his first mentor, the Archbishop of Canterbury cautions fellow churchmen not to judge Becket too hastily :

    ARCHBISHOP : Don't imagine he is the ordinary libertine that outward appearances would suggest.  I've had plenty of opportunity
    to observe him, in the bustle of pleasure and daily living.  He is as it were detached.  As if seeking his real self.

Becket too is conscious of this aspect of his nature.  As a subject Saxon serving his Norman overlord he is painfully aware of questions of honor and loyalty :

    KING : Do you love me, Becket?

    BECKET : I am your servant, my prince.

    KING : Did you love me when I made you Chancellor?  I wonder sometimes if you're capable of love.  Do you love Gwendolen?

    BECKET : She is my mistress, my prince.

    KING : Why do you put labels onto everything to justify your feelings?

    BECKET : Because, without labels, the world would have no shape, my prince.

    KING : Is it so important for the world to have a shape?

    BECKET : It's essential, my prince, otherwise we can't know what we're doing.

In effect he seems to be saying, as did Bob Dylan, "you gotta serve somebody" and he's decided to serve the King.  This choice has brought him wealth, position and power, but he remains conflicted :

    BECKET : My prince...If you were my true prince, if you were one of my race, how simple everything would be.  How tenderly I would
    love you, my prince, in an ordered world.  Each of us bound in fealty to the other, head, heart and limbs, with no further questions to ask
    of oneself, ever.

    But I cheated my way, a twofold bastard, into the ranks and found a place among the conquerors.  You can sleep peacefully though,
    my prince.  So long as Becket is obliged to improvise his honor, he will serve you.  And if one day, he meets it face to face...

    But where is Becket's honor?

These internal conflicts though do not prevent him from serving Henry well, especially in his effort to establish the supremacy of the State.  So long as he serves only Henry he seemingly has no compunction about defying the Church :

    BECKET : We aren't children.  You know one can always come to some arrangement with God, on this earth.

But when Henry has a brainstorm and decides to have him made Archbishop, Becket immediately realizes that this will be a disaster :

    BECKET :  This is madness, my Lord.  Don't do it.  I could not serve both God and you.

But, of course, Henry does do precisely that and in that moment the two become enemies.  Becket serves his new master, God, with the same complete devotion that he served his prior master, Henry.  He goes so far as to give away all his belongings to the poor, the kind of extravagant gesture which might be interpreted equally plausibly as the passion of a true believer or a bid for popularity with the mob.  Henry tries to determine which it is and how it is being taken by Becket's rival clergy :

    FOLLIOT : His Grace seems to have the reins of the Church of England well in hand.  Those who are in close contact with him even say
    that he behaves like a holy man.

    KING : It's a bit sudden, but nothing he does ever surprises me.  God knows what the brute is capable of, for good or evil.  Bishop, let us
    be frank with each other.  Is the Church very interested in holy men?

    FOLLIOT : The Church has been wise for so long, your Highness, that she could not have failed to realize that the temptation of saintliness
    is one of the most insidious and fearsome snares the devil can lay for her priests.  The administration of the realm of souls, with the temporal
    difficulties it carries with it, chiefly demands, as in all administrations, competent administrators.  The Roman Catholic Church has its Saints,
    it invokes their benevolent intercession, it prays to them.  But it has no need to create others.  That is superfluous.  And dangerous.

When Becket's defense of the Church's traditional rights--specifically that clerics may only be tried by ecclesiastical, not civil, courts, no matter their offense--this same Folliot, who in the normal course of things would have succeeded to the Archbishopric, remonstrates with him :

    FOLLIOT : Everything can be called into question in England except the fact that it was conquered in 1066.  England is the land of law
    and of the most scrupulous respect for the law; but the law begins at that date only, or England as such ceases to exist.

    BECKET : Bishop, must I remind you that we are men of God and that we have an Honor to defend, which dates from all eternity.


    If I do not defend my priests, who will?  Gilbert of Clare has indicted before his court of justice a churchman who was under our exclusive

    YORK : An interesting victim I must say!  He deserves the rope a hundred times over.  The man was accused of rape and murder.
    Wouldn't it have been cleverer to let the wretch hang--and have peace?

    BECKET : 'I bring not peace but the sword'  Your Lordship must I'm sure have read that somewhere.  I am not interested in what this man
    is guilty of.  If I allow my priests to be tried by a secular tribunal; if I let Robert de Vere abduct our tonsured clerics from our monasteries,
    as he has just done, on the grounds that the man was one of his serfs who had escaped land bondage, I don't give much for our freedom
    and our chances of survival in five years' time, my Lord.  I have excommunicated Gilbert of Clare, Robert de Vere and William of Aynsford.
    The Kingdom of God must be defended like any other Kingdom.  Do you think that Right has only to show its handsome face for everything
    to drop in its lap?  Without Might, its old enemy, Right counts for nothing.

    YORK : What Might? Let us not indulge in empty words.  The King is Might and he is the law.

    BECKET : He is the written law, but there is another, unwritten law, which always makes Kings bend the neck eventually.

    I was a profligate, gentlemen, perhaps a libertine, in any case, a worldly man.  I loved living and I laughed at all these things.  But you
    passed the burden on to me and now I have to carry it. [...] I shall appear tomorrow before the King's supreme court of Justice.

And so we see that Becket has developed something of the terrifying, but necessary, fanaticism of a saint, that he is willing to risk all in defense of God's Church.  This prompts Henry's fateful question :

    KING : Will no one rid me of him?

Sure enough, they do.  But this murder of a popular prelate, the murder occurring in a cathedral no less, brings down the anger of the nation upon the King's head, forcing him to do penance and prostrate himself before the Church and Becket's sarcophagus :

    KING : Are you satisfied now, Becket? Does this settle our account?  Has the honor of God been washed clean?

Whether it satisfies Becket or not, whether it washes God's honor or not, this open submission to God's justice does put the King back in the peoples' good graces :

    BARON : Sire, the operation has been successful!  The Saxon mob is yelling with enthusiasm outside the cathedral, acclaiming your Majesty's
    name in the same breath as Becket's!  If the Saxons are on our side now, Prince Henry's followers look as though they have definitely lost the day.

    KING : The honor of God, gentlemen, is a very good thing, and taken all in all, one gains by having it on one's side.  Thomas Becket, who
    was our friend, used to say so.  England will owe her ultimate victory over chaos to him, and it is our wish that, henceforward, he should be
    honored and prayed to in this Kingdom as a saint.

It is ironic that Anouilh, who was apparently something of an existentialist in his other plays, should be best remembered for this earnest drama of faith and honor and the proper roles of Church and State.  And to some degree he tries to make it seem that Henry and Becket are merely acting out preordained roles, but it seems obvious that either or both could have acted differently at many different points.  But the story need not work as existential drama because, as Anouilh recognized when he dipped into Thierry's account, this is a story that is imbued with a natural drama as it expresses a tension that is central to humankind, how we distribute power between our temporal and our spiritual guardians.

In the film version, when Becket first receives the seal of the Church and it joins the seal of State on his hand, he says that the powers should be combined.  This is quite wrong.  The two are and must be quite distinct, as he soon discovers.  And it is possible to respect both sides in the struggle between the two.  It was necessary for Henry to establish the supremacy of the State in civil matters--the Church could not remain so far beyond the reach of civil authority that its clerics were virtually untouchable.  But it is equally important for the Church to hold the State to account for its actions.  The Church must be bound by the laws of men, but men must be bound by the laws of God.  The tension between the two is healthy, though it must sometimes break and lead to disruption, even to violence and death.  But imagine what Western society might be like today had there not been men of the quality of Henry and Becket to on the one hand consolidate the power of the State and on the other to place certain moral restraints upon the conduct of the State.

In the end though, while I think him worthy of our respect, I think Becket was wrong.  In his excellent recent book, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World (2001) (Grade: A), an old professor of mine, Robert Kraynak, surveys the biblical commands as regards the roles of Church and State and concludes that Christians are called upon to keep the two separate to some degree.  In a good society the State should serve the ends of the Church, but while the Church must reign supreme on spiritual matters, the State is free to regulate in the material sphere.  It seems to me that the very earthly crimes of the clergy are a fit matter for the civic authorities to rule over.  Becket should not have made this the ground upon which he staked his life.  But, at the same time, he should not have been murdered for fighting this fight.  He is no less a martyr for the dubiousness of his cause.  And his story, and Henry's, is still great drama.

Buy the film Becket and the play Becket or The Honor of God at


Grade: (A)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -Jean Anouilh (kirjasto)
    -JEAN ANOUILH - French Dramatist
    -Internet Public Library : Online Literary Criticism Collection : Jean Anouilh (1910 - 1987)
    -ARCHIVES :  "jean Anouilh" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Finding God and Self in “Becket” (Michael De Sapio, September 18th, 2021, Imaginative Conservative)
    -REVIEW : of The Honor of Thomas Becket (Doug DeVita)
    -REVIEW : of Antigone by Jean Anouilh (Felicity Poulter, Varsity)

    -INFO : Becket (1964) (
    -INFO : Becket (Rotten Tomatoes)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Peter Glenville (Imdb)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Peter O'Toole (Imdb)
    -REVIEW : of Becket (Kurt Messick, Epinions)
    -ESSAY: Thomas Becket and the costly sacrifice of Christian witness (Catherine Pepinster 29 December 2020, Christianity Today)
    -ESSAY: Was Thomas Becket a Saint or an Arrogant Troublemaker?: We ask four historians to consider the reputation of Henry II’s Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered 850 years ago this month (History Today, December 2020)