The Red and the Grey

The story, beginning with the death of Thomas Becket, splits into two parts; before and after the aforementioned event, which is the pivotal point of the story.
The first half will explore the friendship between the King and his drinking companion Thomas Becket, and the fresh start in which they were little more than frivolous companions until Becket’s anointment as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the scandal that ensued.
The second half sees the aftermath of the murder of Thomas Becket and the revolt of 1173.
This was originally written for the Chalke Valley History Festival but didn't place, so I've decided to post it on here. Maybe someone will be kind enough to read it or give me any feedback? It would be much appreciated... I only had to write the first chapter for the story and a synopsis, which I won't include in case I want to add some more later on.


1. -

What is that which a man who defies the king? Is he a saint; a sinner; a fool? It does not matter. A man who defies the king is a dead man walking; a breathing body allotted a grave. Whether he be a saint; a sinner; a fool, he is a dead saint; a dead sinner; a dead fool nevertheless. And the measure of that which a dead man can do is limited…

Thomas Becket, they say. Thomas Becket. Is he a good man? He is a man of the cloth; he must be a good man. He is the Archbishop, anointed by God. No. Not by God. By the King. And yet, is there much difference between the two? The King? Tell us, they say, the King: is he a good man? It does not matter whether the King is a good man or not. He is the King, he will be the King so long as he breathes, if his heart pumps the blue blood through his veins why should they concern themselves with how it is set? Henry is scarcely a man, an animal prowling his cage, swiping out every now and then when a shock of red and grey clouds his vision and he is on the floor, chews the rushes on the floor; tears the clothes from his back until there is little left but the sweating, heaving terror that so often lingers foremost in his mind.

   Henry is the King. He can be a saint; a sinner; a fool as long as his people still bow to him and the crown of England rests on his head, the crown fingered and tainted by his consorts, wraiths in the bleak half-light of morning and the sanctity, sweet sanctity, of the coming veils of night. Henry is the King.

   Angering the King is foolish, pleasing him advised. Any courtier dead with the warning on his lips and the scathed palms of his hands pressed together in eternal prayer can tell you that. But they do not need to. Not when it is clear that Henry is benign in his court and any man is foolish to temper this, this knowing silence and averted gaze lit by the tallow’s candle.

   Thomas Becket need learn this. That is, if he is to keep the mitre on his head and his head on his shoulders.

   And Eleanor is his Queen, Eleanor d’Aquitaine who moves with such grace, though the front of her gown can bear gore-streaked and her words run cold. She is as much of a beast as her husband, however much better she hides it. In his court she keeps her claws sheathed and yet on her haunches she rests beneath the guise of standing tall, ready, prepared to pounce, to pounce with the select words she chooses; the select words that can cripple men. Henry is no different, even if he pretends. Eleanor is a woman of God, her every vacillation and whim laced with divinity, cheap affectations for His sake, hollow and without purpose.

   Oh Henry, she leans over to whisper, oh Henry! The marriage she had annulled, the one she had wanted to forget, is the very same with which she teases the King, coming closer, purring in his ear, the French King, the French King, with whom she had shared a bed. She is in Poitiers now, at last, and he is thankful she is gone for a while, a time in which he need not be reminded of Louis or of the face of his Rosamond, the one with whom he occupies his mind while the Queen lies stolid next to him. But she is gone for a short while, though the candle’s tallow is solid and the light flickers and wanes, the flame he calls Thomas Becket and the pinch to have it extinguished riding forth to Canterbury, Canterbury again.

   The incense burns, the candles flicker and Henry himself is incensed, forever incensed by the man who waits at the door, the man who scarcely waits before knocking, Becket who enters his church by his hand and resents the golden touch bestowed upon him so as to ignore it was ever there at all. Henry feels every lash Thomas strikes on his own back by the garments he, the King, had offered him and the mitre he so proudly wears. Eleanor is gone for the moment but the King stews in the castle, on his throne, in his mind is the face of the man he’d once known and the drastic self-invention he favoured over the favour of the man to whom he does not bow. The way he speaks such cant as if he believes it, the way he behaves as if the incense he burns for the Lord does not revile him, he does not burn at its touch. Thomas Becket -the friend he’d coveted, the man with whom he had shared so much, has now turned his back on the King, on the court, on the wealth of the life he lives there, even in the quiet stammer of Henry’s uncertainty, the uneasy shortcomings of Eleanor’s misplaced stepping. He says, denounce the revellers, show them to the bare face of God, the God to whom he had been acquainted by circumstance, the sheer fortune of the man who plays as the Archbishop.

   It is not a matter of God, the matter of him becoming the Head of the Church; it is a matter of Henry behind the scenes, pulling at the strings of his puppet like the manipulation of the Church itself, the Church he controls, or at least wants to control, and Becket’s disjointed limbs flailing about as they would at the hands of the knights he’s already sent to Canterbury. Good men, through and through, cannot be in power. Good men can ascend to such heights; though by the time they fall depleted they are good men no more, shells of what they were to make room for more reformation and the corruption of men worse.

   Becket is a good man still. This cannot be. In truer name is the Lord a King, says Thomas, a King more worthy than the one who sits on the throne. This is true. Henry appreciates this. And the Almighty may very well be the Saviour, the one to whom they turn when the harvest is not fruitful, but Henry is the one who turns them away at the door, refuses them admittance, sending them right back into the Church and so far more estranged from their King, like his wife.

   He is glad they go forth, his knights. They ride and they ride and when they get to Canterbury they will kill Thomas Becket. This he knows. They will rid him of his turbulent priest and the trouble he has and will cause. He, Becket, will then be with the God he so worships and as they bide his command, the crown of his head will be removed, as he wanted Henry’s crown removed, and the splatters of his blood and brain will stain the altar steps, the cathedral he called home a tomb for the man who chose to defy the King.

   He is not glad, but content. It is not what he wants, though seldom does anyone get what they truly want, even the one who wears the crown. But he knows that it is a mistake. A mistake to kill Thomas Becket, the would-be martyr. Cathedral stones may be drenched in blood, but the cause for which his old friend died is the one that will tear away at his dynasty. The plinths of which the earth (or England, at least) is borne are shaken, the tremor of the death of the Archbishop. The dangers of dead men come at last. But it is spring, emerging from the bane of winter and Eleanor is in Poitiers and Becket is in his grave. They both bear down the beaten track but he knows that for a short while he is safe. Despite the dangers of dead men.

   What is that which a man who defies the king? Is he a saint; a sinner; a fool? It does not matter. A man who defies the king is a dead man walking; a breathing body allotted a grave. Whether he be a saint; a sinner; a fool, he is a dead saint; a dead sinner; a dead fool nevertheless. And the measure of that which a dead man can do is something Henry does well not to underestimate…

   The Archbishop is dead. Long live the King.

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