Ultimate Issues in Politics

BECKET & HENRY: The Becket Lectures. By James J. Spigelman; foreword by George Cardinal Pell (St. Thomas More Society, GPO 282, Sydney, NSW 1043, Australia, 2004), 308 pp. US$35.00 + P&H.

(NOTEb Corresponding with the above address is apparently the only way to get this book, if it actually is still in print! Otherwise, check your local library – rjg)

The account of Thomas à Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral four days after Christmas, 1170, is often told in drama, poetry, and scholarly literature. His murderers were barons and knights of Henry II, the determined English king. Their names — I had never paid attention to them before — were: Hugh de Moreville, William de Tracey, Reginald Fitz Urse, and Richard Le Bret. Though Henry deemed that they carried out his orders, it seems clear, as Spigelman surmises, with the best of evidence that they did. Becket also believed this royal source in the very act of his execution in the shrine in which he was the Archbishop, newly returned from exile in France.

This fascinating and precise book is, evidently, a labor of love in its writing, a writing that lasted over a decade. It was originally a series of lectures given to the Thomas More Society in Sydney. James Spigelman is, since 1998, the Chief Justice in the Court System of New South Wales in Australia. He was born in Poland in 1946, of a Jewish family that immigrated to Australia when he was a boy. He has had a distinguished legal, political, and intellectual career in Australia. His legal background is clearly evident in this book that pays meticulous attention to the exact nature of the legal and political situation that led to the controversies involving Becket, Pope Alexander, the King of France, and King Henry II himself.

As Harold Berman wrote in his magisterial, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition, the exact legal structure of the modern state found its real origin in the reforms of Pope Gregory VII, with the subsequent reaction of the various newly-forming European states that were forced or guided to identify their own definition of their own sphere of competence over against the spiritual power. The murder of Becket is in the direct logical line of these papal reforms that sought to clarify just what powers belonged to the civil power and what to the Church. Both King and Archbishop agreed that the King had powers that touched those properties and customs that affected the Church. We need to remember that the English state is in this period in the process of being centralized both over the barons and the Church. It had also to clarify its relation to the French side of Henry’s family that had come to England with the Norman Conquest. Gregory VII wanted to guarantee that the bishops and abbots would not be beholden to the civil power. The king, on the other hand, was concerned with the lawlessness of many a cleric and the failure of Church courts to punish them.

King Henry was determined to uphold his concept of his own customary power within the realm. Becket was determined to maintain the rights of the Church after he had earlier in his career shown signs of weakness. This struggle was carried out over many symbolic acts such as what archbishop was to crown the king, who received benefices when an Episcopal see was vacant, whether church land had military obligations, what court was to decide what issue, who had jurisdiction over what sort of case.

Spigelman, I think, lets the story tell itself. At each step, he informs us what the issue at controversy was. We know the stormy character of the king, the ever more poignant character of Becket who is often seen as overly stubborn and uncompromising.

We see too the vacillating bishops, some who side with Becket, others with the King, shades of the performance of the Catholic bishops during the English reformation.

At first, I assumed this book would be a “dry read” because of its attention to legal detail. But no drama has only one side. If we do not understand what grounds Henry had for his position or what principles that Becket sought to uphold, we will not appreciate the powerful scenes of the final murder of Becket. Spigelman writes of these last acts in a calm, observant-to-details manner that serves to rivet our attention. Becket’s story is always a soul-moving account. Spigelman’s narration is gripping and even frightening. Here we see the graphic issues of the powers of the state seeking to claim full integrity over against the spiritual power attending to things beyond Caesar.

“History has shown,” George Cardinal Pell, reflecting in his Foreword on the lesson posed by Spigelman’s Becket, writes “that Church leaders are more than capable of presiding over and even becoming front runners, not only in religious mediocrity but in widespread corruption. But there is much less hope of avoiding these fates when the Church leadership becomes subservient to ‘worldly’ power, whether that is expressed by kings, or politburos, or the media, or parliaments, or ‘reformist’ judges.” The story of Becket, like the civil executions of Socrates, Christ, Cicero, Boethius, Thomas More, and other central figures in our political history, is one of those defining moments that forces us to face what the civil power is and to what the spiritual power must witness.

Judge Spigelman’s Becket is the testimony of a lawyer who knows what is at stake on both sides. We do not put this book down without our souls having been seared. We like to think that no ultimate issues are at stake in our politics, yet both Henry and Becket knew they were.

James V. Schall, S.J.
Georgetown University
Washington, D.C.

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