One of the things that I have come to appreciate through this project is how certain biographies can dominate the study of English monarchs. Though this is not true for all of them, for some monarchs one work ends up becoming the go-to source for students and scholars seeking to learn about the king. It’s probably more than a coincidence, too, that these books tend more often than not to be the volumes on the subject for the English Monarchs series. Whether it’s Frank Barlow’s book on Edward the Confessor or David Douglas’s on William the Conqueror, the depth of their examination and the quality of their scholarship ensured that they defined our understanding of that monarch for decades after they were first published.
Such is the case with Wilfred Lewis Warren’s biography of Henry II. Though first published a half-century ago, judging from the footnotes that I’ve seen in other places it remains the go-to source on his life and reign. And after reading it for myself it’s easy to see why it enjoys this status. It’s a formidable tome of a book, one that offers an account of Henrys life situated within the context of six decades of English history. Henry himself is virtually absent from the first chapter-and-a-half of the book, as Warren recounts the events that made it possible for Henry to become king, from William Adelin’s death on the White Ship through the key events of the Anarchy. It’s a good an overview of the events of the latter as any that I’ve read so far, and it argues effectively for the motivations and consequences of the players involved.
After situating Henry on the English throne Warren then provides a chronological survey of Henry’s first three decades as king. Not only does this offer a good synopsis of the key developments that defined much of his reign, it serves as a springboard into Warren’s analytical examination of Henry’s rule. While focused on England and its associated realms, unlike many of the other biographers of Norman and Plantagenet monarchs he incorporates coverage of Henry’s Angevin territories into his analysis. This was particularly welcome after its virtual absence from Barber’s books, as to cover a monarch’s rule over only part of his realm is to distort the understanding of the king’s concerns and how he addressed them. Warren’s more comprehensive approach also meant that he does a far better job of explaining how Henry restored stable government to England after the violence of the Anarchy, even if he credits the king more for reviving and expanding his grandfather’s innovations in government rather than devising whole new systems on his own.
But perhaps the most intriguing part of the book for me was his coverage of Henry’s quarrel with Thomas Becket. This was one of those subjects that, thanks to its cultural presence, shaped much of what I knew about Henry prior to starting this project. Yet while giving it due attention Warren makes an interesting case that its role in burdening Henry’s reign has been greatly overstated, as he notes that it was only in the final stages that it consumed Henry’s attention and led him to his fatal expression of frustration. Though Becket was well suited for the mantle of martyrdom, Warren also argues that it proved less beneficial for his cause, as Henry’s contrition plus the reluctance of other bishops to identify with Becket limited the extent of the concessions he was forced to make afterwards to restore peace between Church and crown.
This fits with his generally positive portrayal of Henry, one that ends with a tone of sorrow over his subject’s troubled relationship with his ambitious sons and their quarrels over the succession. Warren never lets his sympathy for Henry sympathy color his analysis of the king, however, as he offers acute judgments that are all the more persuasive for the clear prose in which they’re offered. The author’s gift for delivering perceptive points in a direct and coherent way helps to explain why the book has become such an influential study of the king and his era. Though its size may deter some, for those who persevere they are likely to finish it with as clear and as thorough an understanding of Henry and his reign as is possible to find between the covers of a single book. It is a hard act for the others to follow.