There’s an adage that authors of nonfiction books are ready to write their works the moment they have finished doing so. It may seem like a paradox, but it gets to a truth about such works, which is that the author never fully completes their research and thinking about the subject until they have finished the book. Yet that is the moment when the author then walks away from the subject, usually never to return excepting for the occasional review article or other short-form piece. This is the reason why I found Richard Barber’s selection as the author of the Penguin Monarchs volume on Henry II so intriguing. Given how infrequently a biographer writes two books about the same figure, I was curious to see what new insights he had gained on top of the understanding he had reached at the end of his previous biography nearly a half century before.
As I read the book, though, I was struck by how familiar it all was. Barber begins with a different approach from that of his previous biography by providing a pen portrait of Henry the man. Starting with extended quotations from Walter Map, an author and cleric who was a courtier of Henry’s, Barber provides a detailed description of the man based on contemporary sources. After so many biographies in which monarchs are described using sources written from a distance of centuries this was extraordinarily refreshing, and it gave me a real sense of what Henry was like as a person.
From there Barber launches into a summary of Henry’s life from his expedition to England in 1147 to his death. As is the case with the efficient volumes of this series, the focus is on England and Barber briskly proceeds through the key points in his life. This is where the feeling of deja vu set in, though, as he touches upon all of the same points he did in his 1964 biography, with little adjustment. The book had the exact same focus on Henry’s conflicts with Thomas Becket and his children, and the same lack of coverage of his major innovations in English government. Whereas the high drama with Becket forms the core of the book and the family squabbles round it out, the fiscal and legal reforms that were the major achievements of his reign were confined to a couple of pages at the end. While it’s an improvement upon his previous book, it is still a limited one.
This may be a reflection of Barber’s sense of his audience. In the brief guide to further reading at the end of the book, Barber classifies his previous work as a “popular biography.” In this sense his choices likely reflect what he believes most readers are looking for in a biography of Henry, which is the high drama that has made his life such a fruitful subject for novels, plays, and movies. And while those readers will finish Barber’s book well-satisfied, anyone seeking to learn about Henry’s greatest contributions to his kingdom will find thin gruel indeed.
Richard Barber is a historian with long and extensive career as an author. Originally a specialist in Arthurian legends, he published his first book on them at the tender age of twenty. This proved to be the first of several works from his pen on medieval history and literature, many of which he wrote while working at his day job in the publishing industry. After working for a couple of established presses, he branched out on his own in 1969 and started The Boydell Press, which as Boydell & Brewer is still publishing fine scholarly works on academic subjects. While Barber no longer runs the company, he is quite active in retirement as both an author and as a freelance editor.
As I noted, one of the reasons why I chose his 1964 book of Henry II for my first biography of the king was to juxtapose it with his more recent study of the king. Of course, it also meant that it served as my entry point into Henry’s life, and in this respect it proved very satisfactory. Even at a young age Barber was a lucid writer, and his book offers a good summary for the novice to Henry’s life and times. He does this by starting with a prologue that encapsulates neatly the 12th century world into which Henry was born, which Barber follows with a description of the war between Stephen and Matilda. Barber then follows this with a narrative that addresses all of the key points of Henry’s life: his accession to the throne, his campaigns abroad, and his troubles with his family and with Thomas Beckett. In these he balances well his chronological focus with contextual summaries, which give the necessary background without losing focus on his primary subject.
Given all this, it’s understandable why this book has enjoyed such a long life. Yet the strengths of this book also are its weaknesses, as Barber does not venture beyond providing a narrative of Henry’s life and times. He is good at describing what happened in his subject’s life when it happened, and he offers brief explanations of why it happened as well. But any deeper exploration of Henry’s reign, such as of his fiscal policies or his legal reforms, is absent from his coverage. Because of this, readers who rely solely upon this book for their knowledge of Henry’s reign may finish his book unaware of some of the most important reasons why it was so significant, which is a serious flaw in his book.
To be fair to Barber, nowhere does he claim that his book is the definitive work on his subject. And for readers seeking a clear and straightforward narrative of Henry’s life this book still fits the bill nicely. For those seeking a more comprehensive understanding of his reign, though, this book can only be a starting point, one for which his dated bibliography serves as an imperfect guide. Such a narrowing of its value is perhaps inevitable for any work of history, but in Barber’s case it limits any ability to recommend it as the one book to read about his subject.