December 29, 2012
A blog devoted to Catholic legal theory can hardly let pass today's Feast of St. Thomas Becket (c.1181-1170). Peter Glenville's 1964 film with Richard Burton as Becket and Peter O'Toole as Henry II is a classic. More recently, the eminent Tudor historian John Guy (author of a number of fine books on Thomas More) has written a splendid biography of Becket--a taste here:
For his attack on the church's claim of immunity from secular jurisdiction, Anglo-American lawyers and constitutional historians in the nineteenth century would put on rose-colored spectacles and reinvent Henry as a legal reformer avant la lettre, a pioneer of fair trials and equality before the law who paved the way for some of the most important clauses later incorporated into Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. In reality, however, his actions showed that the rights of the accused could always be overridden by political considerations and the king's will. Far from remodeling the legal system and the courts in the interests of justice and the common good, Henry sought to strengthen his own power. And far from being a pioneer of "equitable" or "impartial" justice, he happily presided over his own court in the Battle Abbey case and at Becket's trial for embezzlement and false accounting at Northampton, acting simultaneously as chief counsel for the prosecution, judge, and jury. In response, Thomas would prove that a middle-class Londoner could transcend his social origins and challenge a ruler who he believed was degenerating into a tyrant, but it would cost him his life. Thomas More would take a similar path in Henry VIII's reign, and it may be no coincidence that More's working library contained many of the same books as Becket's.
John Guy, Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel (Random House, 2012), p. 338.
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