John Guy, one of our most acclaimed and successful historians, brings a colossal figure of British history vividly to life in this unabridged, downloadable audiobook edition of Thomas Becket. Read by Roy McMillan. Behind the legend, there was a man. In 1120 the wife of a Norman draper’s merchant gave birth to a baby boy in London’s bustling Cheapside. Despite his sickly constitution, middle-class background and unremarkable abilities, he rose within the space of thirty-five years to become the most powerful man in the kingdom, second only to Henry II himself. At his height, he led seven hundred knights into battle, brokered peace between nations, held the ear of the Pope and brought one of the strongest rulers in Christendom to his knees. And within three years of his bloody assassination, he was a saint whose cult had spread the length and breadth of Europe, and a legend who remains as controversial and compelling today as he was during his life.
The story of Thomas Becket is the story of an enigma, as well as of one of the most tumultuous periods in English history. Drawing on a vast array of contemporary records, personal letters and first-hand accounts, John Guy has reconstructed a psychologically compelling, stunningly nuanced and utterly convincing account of this most remarkable man, the dramatic times in which he lived and the pivotal role he played in his nation’s history.
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Illuminating and shocking
A genuinely remarkable man
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
- Kl Love