A biography of Thomas Beckett is not exactly something I'd pick up every day. This was actually a jumping off point from an article I was reading that pushed me into a deeper dive. I'm glad for the push as John Guy's detailed account of the martyr is both history and page-turning suspense.
If you've heard of Thomas Beckett and the difficulties he had with Henry II in 12th century England, then you know things didn't end well (he was declared a martyr after all). But the knowing doesn't lessen the tension which is ever present as author John Guy carefully pieces together the elements of Beckett's life and then shows us how those pieces led him into a confrontation with a King. Guy spent three years researching and writing this biography and that work shows from page one. Thomas Beckett began life solidly in the middle class (or the 12th century equivalent) and was not particularly scholarly as a young man. In fact what Guy makes clear is that much of Beckett's early success came through being in the right place at the right time and making some solid connections. An early acquaintance with a Norman aristocrat introduced him to some of life's more expensive pleasures which led to a little more ambition in his work-life. His chance comes when he gains a position in the household of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury. This job becomes the key to everything that follows. Henry II takes notice of Beckett and when Henry is crowned King, Beckett becomes the new Chancellor within a matter of weeks. His success as Henry's administrator eventually wins Beckett the title of Archbishop of Canterbury - no mean feat considering he wasn't even a priest at the time. But it is here where he and Henry truly begin to clash. King Henry thinks he is placing the perfect ringer within the Catholic church's hierarchy - an Archbishop who will cede some of the church's power to Henry - but Beckett doesn't fall in line as the King hopes. Thus the seeds of his own murder are sown. Piece by piece and decision by decision, John Guy leads us to the inevitable final moments for Beckett. Along the way he tells a tale that includes religion and politics and the machinations and intrigues of the powerful within those realms. This is a history that is as engrossing as it gets - and sort of timely if you consider all the dealings that go on in politics today.