By ROBERT SPEAIGHT Becket by Richard Winston (Constable 50s.).
TWO INCIDENTS sprang into my mind as I laid down Mr. Winston's magnificent biography of Becket. The first was a conversation with an eminent medievalist at Oxford who confessed to me his "hatred" of Becket at the same time as he admitted his fervent admiration of St. Bernard—for I should have thought there was much in common between the martyr of Canterbury and the preacher of the Second Crusade.
The second was the evening when I was writing the preface to a new edition of my own life of Becket and I heard over the wireless that Cardinal Mindszenty had been arrested. Here again. and even more forcibly. the comparison hit one in the eye.
In commending that little book of mine, summary and superficial as it was, T. S. Eliot observed that 1 had been "very fair to Henry". Mr. Winston has been fair to him too: and he sees that Henry is a more tragic character than Becket. One can justly say that each man paid the price of his temperament, but the difference is eloquent between the huddled burial at Fontevrault and the miracles that multiplied from the martyrdom.
Mr. Winston controls has sympathies, as he sifts his material. with a scholar's care, but there is no doubt where they lie. For him, Becket is a hero, securing the independence of the English Church and attaching it firmly for the next 350 years to its Roman mother. The causes of the dispute are of less importance than the consequences. It is the great merit of this massive but immensely readable biography to have kept the story exciting without skimping any of its tortuous and sometimes tedious details.
The conflict between two men of charismatic personality and rare ability has never lost its power to move the dramatist and the historian. There are some for whom the idea of ecclesiastical privilege is so abhorrent that they cannot see through to the deeper issues involved. John Drinkwater admitted as much to me more than 30 years ago. Others can see in Henry 11 no more than a precursor of Henry Vitt—which in some respects he was. It is not difficult to recognize Becket as a hero; it is more difficult to recognize him as a saint.
Here Mr. Winston does not question the miracles, but he stresses that the pre-condition of a miracle is faith. It is because Becket was loved. and not merely admired, by the common people that they so confidently implored his intercession.
Anyone who has enjoyed Eliot's "Murder in the Cathedral" or Jean Anouilh's "Becket" should read this book. It shows how wise Eliot was to stick to the facts and how foolish Anouilh was to disregard them. And the facts, as set out here, are more exciting than any dramatist's adaptation of them.