Who Do You Think They Are?

Who comes to mind when I tell you the following? He was a middle-class London lad with serious aspirations. He studied in Paris. He had a penchant for wearing silks and furs and threw the most lavish parties in town. He had over 150 knights in his service. He owned six ships and was partial to blood sports. He led an army into battle. At his parties, he offered better food than King Henry II and the entertainment he laid on was more sophisticated than that supplied by the King, who fancied the Suffolk jester Roland the Farter.

(Every year, Roland Le Fartere performed a whistle, a jump and a fart for the King at his Christmas celebration.)

I was surprised to discover that the description above relates to Thomas Becket. I didn’t know a great deal about the man before reading John Guy’s new biography but I thought I knew a little. I had imagined him as being a devout, hair-shirt wearing almost monk-ish character. I have an image of the Saint and martyr in ragged disarray being executed in the church by King Henry II’s knights. I suppose I should have known better. He was, after all, the Archbishop of Canterbury and had been the King’s chancellor before then. But, I didn’t know better and it got me thinking how much of the history I want to know is just well-grounded mythology.

Thomas Becket and Henry II. Source: Wikimedia Commons

As it relates to my ancestors on my family tree, I know I am just telling fireside stories. Perhaps occasionally I brush up against the truth but really I’m just taking a moment in the lives of those I’ve named and weaving a story around it. I have heroes and villains. My dad is Prometheus; my mother Ophelia; my first male boss was Henry VIII (he looked like him; he never beheaded his wives. And he’s not in my family tree but he really looked like Henry VIII); my son is The Little Prince, in a world of his own; my daughter is Alice, in ill-fitting clothes.

Think of Samuel Pepys (who we know from my last post fondled ladies in church). He wrote his diary between 1660 and 1669. After reading parts of the diary, I feel like I have an idea of who he was but I recently found my diary from when I was 15. I was so shocked and horrified by what I had written, I threw it away. I would hate for my children to have found it and mythologized me through those words.

And who, reading this letter, would imagine that the author would murder the recipient not long after writing it.

My mistress and friend:  I and my heart put ourselves in your hands, begging you to have them suitors for your good favour, and that your affection for them should not grow less through absence.  For it would be a great pity to increase their sorrow since absence does it sufficiently, and more than ever I could have thought possible reminding us of a point in astronomy, which is, that the longer the days are the farther off is the sun, and yet the more fierce.  So it is with our love, for by absence we are parted, yet nevertheless it keeps its fervour, at least on my side, and I hope on yours also:  assuring you that on my side the ennui of absence is already too much for me:  and when I think of the increase of what I must needs suffer it would be well nigh unbearable for me were it not for the firm hope I have and as I cannot be with you in person, I am sending you the nearest possible thing to that, namely, my picture set in a bracelet, with the whole device which you already know.  Wishing myself in their place when it shall please you.  This by the hand of

Your loyal servant and friend

H. Rex

From Henry VIII’s letters to Anne Boleyn

Source: Wikimedia Commons

And here’s an excerpt from a letter that Eva Braun wrote to her Hitler shortly after an attempted assassination in 1944. What a cruel man. But he was her “beloved”.


I am beside myself. I am dying of anxiety now that I know you are in danger. Come back as soon as possible. I feel as if I am going insane.

The weather is beautiful here and everything seems so peaceful that I am ashamed of myself … You know I have always told you that I would die if anything happened to you. From our first meeting on, I have promised myself to follow you wherever you go, even to death. You know that I live only for your love.

Yours Eva”

Source: http://www.evabraun.dk

Source: Wikimedia Commons via Bundesarchiv

Perhaps it is silly to try to conjure the personality of Thomas Becket, who died 855 years ago. We can only know for certain what his contemporaries said about him and where he went (some of the time). But where’s the fun in that? All of us are story-tellers at heart and I’m going to keep on spinning these stories around my ancestors, however inaccurate they are. I wish I could give more of them happy endings though.

P.S. Thomas Becket did eventually don a hair shirt, so perhaps both pictures of him – one as a power-hungry, snappy dresser and the other as a devout man of the cloth – are true.

2 thoughts on “Who Do You Think They Are?

  1. Brilliant, thought provoking post. I am constantly infuriated by historians who take words as written without thinking about the context, the people involved, the whole story. People became clerics in the past often in order to pursue knowledge, not necessarily out of piety. Religious institutions were safe places and were often attractive to women who did not want to be bullied into an unhappy marriage. Hildegard of Bingen and others show how rich a religious life could be. Because life back then was pretty tough. The British navy used to be utter hell, but men did enlist – it was a guaranteed job, food, adventure, comradeship. By default, that shows how dull, impoverished and lonely life could be outside. There are very few human organisations that deny people happiness – the Cromwellians were a major example, and the various Communist parties that seem to have concentrated on basic survival but forgot that people will starve for a chance at happiness. As the socialist saying goes, give me bread, but give me chocolate. I think if chocolate had been around in Becket’s time he would have had a stash of Quality Street somewhere.

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