One of a few classical movies that I had seen in the nineteen sixties was , ‘Beckett’, featuring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole in the roles of Becket and Henry The Second respectively The movie was based on a play about Thomas Becket, written in French by Jean Anouilh,..
Having read James Anthony Froude’s ‘Life and Times of Thomas Becket’, it was natural that I was particularly keen to see the movie.
The movie opens with Henry Ii undergoing penance for having caused the murder of The Archbishop of Canterbury,
Here is what he says while kneeling at the the tomb of Becket.
King Henry II:
Well, Thomas Becket. Are you satisfied? Here I am, stripped, kneeling at your tomb, while those treacherous Saxon monks of yours are getting ready to thrash me. Me – with my delicate skin. I bet you’d never have done the same for me. But – I suppose I have to do this penance and make my peace with you. Hmm. What a strange end to our story. How cold it was when we last met – on the shores of France. Funny, it’s nearly always been cold – except at the beginning, when we were friends. We did have a few – fine summer evenings with the girls. Did you love Gwendolen, Archbishop? Did you hate me the night I took her from you, shouting “I am the king”? Perhaps that’s what you could never forgive me for. Look at them lurking there, gloating. Oh, Thomas, I’m ashamed of this whole silly masquerade. All right, so I’ve come here to make my peace with their Saxon hero because I need them now, those Saxon peasants of yours. Now I will call them my sons, as you wanted me to. You taught me that, too. You taught me everything. Those were the happy times. You remember, at the peep of dawn, when as usual we’d been drinking and wenching in the town. You were even better at that than I was.
The movie closes with a return to the scene, the King having been flogged as recompense for his sin., the King gloating thus, ‘Is the honor of God washed clean enough? Are you satisfied now, Thomas?’.
One can not be sure, whether St.Thomas was satisfied or not with the expiation, but one can find from the smug expression on the King’s countenance as he kneels down in penance, that he was happy, and relieved that he was rid, at last of ‘the meddlesome monk’ , a particularly painful thorn in his flesh and could smoothen quite a few ruffled feathers both across and far off from his kingdom, with this expiation, what if it were to be painful and humiliating.
The screen play was written by Edward Anhalt.
Here is a link to an YouTube video clip of the memorable scene from the movie.
And here is James Anthony Froude’s account of the same event from his book, Life and Times of Thomas Becket’
“Although the conspiracy against which he was fighting was condemned by the pope it had grown nevertheless too evidently out of the contest with Becket, which had ended
so terribly. The combination of his wife and sons with his other enemies was something off the course of nature strange, dark, and horrible. He was abler than most of his contemporaries, but his piety was (as with most wise men) a check upon his intellect. He, it is clear, did not share in the suspicion that the miracles at the archbishop’s tomb were the work either of fraud or enchantment. He was not a person who for political reasons would affect emotions which he despised. He had been Becket’s friend.Becket had been killed, in part at least, through his own fault; and, though he might still believe himself to have been essentially right in the quarrel, the miracles showed that the archbishop had been really a saint. A more complete expiation than the pope had enjoined might be necessary before the avenging spirit, too manifestly at work, could be pacified.
From Southampton he directed his way to Canterbury, where the bishops had been ordered to meet him. He made offerings at the various churches which he passed on
his way. On reaching Harbledown, outside the city, he alighted at the Chapel of St. Nicholas, and thence went on foot to St. Dunstan’s Oratory, adjoining the wall. At the oratory he stripped off his usual dress. He put on a hair-penitential shirt, over which a coarse pilgrim’s cloak was thrown ; and in this costume, with bare and soon bleeding feet, Henry, King of England, Lord of Ireland. Duke of Normandy, and Count of Anjou, walked through the streets to the cathedral. Pausing at the spot where the archbishop had fallen, and kissing the stone, he descended into the crypt to the tomb, burst into tears, and flung himself on the ground. There, surrounded by a group of bishops, knights, and monks, he remained long upon his knees in silent prayer. The Bishop of London said for him, what he had said at Avranches, that he had not commanded the murder, but had occasioned it by his hasty words. When the bishop ended, he rose, and repeated his confession with his own lips. He had caused the archbishop’s death ; therefore he had come in person to acknowledge his sin, and to entreat the brothers of the monastery to pray for him At the tomb he offered rich silks and wedges of gold. To the chapter he gave lands.
For himself he vowed to erect and endow a religious house, which should be dedi-
cated to St. Thomas. Thus amply, in the opinion of the monks, reconciliari meruit, he deserved to be forgiven.
But the satisfaction was still incomplete. The martyr’s injuries, he said, must be avenged on his own person. He threw off his cloak, knelt again, and laid his head upon the
tomb. Each bishop and abbot present struck him five times with a whip. Each one of the eighty monks struck him thrice. Strange scene ! None can be found more characteristic of the age ; none more characteristic of Henry Plantagenet. The penance done, he rose and resumed his cloak ; and there by the tomb through the remainder of the July day, and through the night till morning, he remained silently sitting, without food or sleep. The cathedral doors were left open by his orders. The people of the city came freely to gape and stare at the singular spectacle. There was the terrible King Henry, who had sent the knights to kill their archbishop, sitting now in dust and ashes. The most ingenious cunning could not have devised a better method of winning back the affection of his subjects ; yet with no act of king or statesman had ingenious cunning ever less to do.
In the morning he heard mass, and presented offerings at the various altars. Then he became king once more, and rode to London to prepare for the invader. If his humilia-tion was an act of vain superstition, Providence encouraged him in his weakness. On the day which followed it William the Lion was defeated and made prisoner at Alnwick. A week later came news that the army at Gravelines had dissolved, and that the invasion was abandoned. Delivered from peril at home, Henry flew back to France and flung Lewis back over his own frontier. St. Thomas was now supposed to be fighting for King Henry. Imagination becomes reality when it gives to one party certainty of victory, to the other the anticipation of defeat. By the spring of 1175 the great combination was dissolved. The princes returned to their duty ; the English and Norman rebels to
their allegiance ; and with Alexander’s mediation Henry and Lewis and the Count of Flanders were for a time once more reconciled”