Pleased by C4’s ‘Britain’s Most Historic Towns: Plantagenet Canterbury’

Professor Alice Roberts, presenter of Channel 4’s ‘Britain’s Most Historic Towns: Plantagenet Canterbury’. Courtesy of Flickr / David Skinner (image unmodified)
Professor Alice Roberts, presenter of Channel 4’s ‘Britain’s Most Historic Towns: Plantagenet Canterbury’. Courtesy of Flickr / David Skinner (image unmodified)

I’m not generally a fan of Channel 4 or its ethos. However, I was pleased by its ‘Britain’s Most Historic Towns: Plantagenet Canterbury,’ broadcast on Saturday.

Part of a series (actually a second series) in which each episode takes an historic town and examines a particular period of British history in which it played a key rôle, Saturday’s episode looked at the city of Canterbury and the part it played in the history of the Plantagenet kings (A.D. 1154—1399 as understood by this programme[1]).

Christianity (in the form of Roman Catholicism) was completely embedded in English society during these centuries, whether in the lives of the rich and noble or in the lives of ordinary, working folk.

“What I appreciated about the programme is that it didn’t try to airbrush Christianity out of our history.”

What I appreciated about the programme is that it didn’t try to airbrush Christianity out of our history (as frequently happens in the mainstream media). Canterbury is the city where the first Archbishop of Canterbury, Augustine, took his seat in A.D. 597, having been sent to these shores as a missionary by Gregory the Great, bishop of Rome. It has been the centre and focal point of Christianity in England/Britain ever since (indeed, still today of the Anglican Church worldwide).

Hence it’s almost impossible to talk about Canterbury without talking about Christianity. The city was scene to a number of key events in English history in which Church and State either colluded or clashed, and even played a key rôle in the development of the English language through the first work of literature written in English, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

One of the key events in this period — indeed a defining moment in the battle between Church and State in England — was the assassination of Archbishop Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.

“My favourite moment in the programme was when presenter Professor Alice Roberts articulated the only possible explanation for Thomas à Becket’s change of behaviour when he was made Archbishop of Canterbury: Becket ‘found God.’”

Thomas Becket was a friend of King Henry II, whom the king liked so much that he made him his Chancellor. Wanting to exert his influence over the Church, in 1162 when the vacancy came up, Henry appointed Becket the new Archbishop of Canterbury. He believed by doing this he had got ‘his man’ into the post.

But if the king thought that Becket would simply be his puppet in the post, he was wrong. Becket shocked him by standing up for the Church against the king for the remainder of his life; he even had to go into exile in France as a result of his opposition.

What was it that caused ‘Henry’s man’ to turn against his patron and take so completely the side of the Church?

I have long thought there can only be one possible explanation for this change in Becket. And my favourite moment in the programme was when presenter Professor Alice Roberts articulated this only-possible explanation: Thomas Becket “found God.”

More like this, please, Channel 4!

 

 

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[1] That is, from the accession of the first Plantagenet king, Henry II, up to the deposition of Richard II in 1399. The Plantagenet dynasty is usually reckoned to continue through the Wars of the Roses up till the death of Richard III in 1485.

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