Review of “Henry II” by L. F. Salzman

Though his name is not prominent today, Louis Francis Salzman was one of the pioneers in the field of economic history. Despite setting out initially to study medicine, an interest in local history led him to switch to a career as a historian. This work led him to write a succession of books about industry and trade in England during the Middle Ages that became cornerstones in their field. Yet Salzman never lost his interest in local history, and was not only a founder of the Sussex Record Society but participated in local archaeological excavations as well. His pen proved incredibly prolific, and extended to the writing of works for children as well.

Salzman’s talent for prose is very much on display in his biography of Henry II. It’s a sprightly read that provides a brisk overview of his life, particularly in comparison with more modern biographers. Whereas Barber and Warren spend considerable space at the start of their books explaining the events of the Anarchy as a way of setting the stage for Henry’s succession, Salzman covers Henry’s ascent to the throne in barely a dozen pages. From there he recounts his subject’s reign in seven chapters, the majority of which are focused in his involvement in one of the many conflicts of his reign, be it with the Welsh, the French, or his own sons.

Yet the one that stands out is the one on “the struggle with Becket.” By far the largest of the chapters, it takes up a fifth of Salzman’s book, which makes the conflict between the two men seem to be the overriding concern of Henry’s reign. Here the contrast with W. L Warren’s analysis of their dispute stood out, to the point where Warren’s observation of the Henry-Becket controversy as somewhat exaggerated seemed a direct commentary on Salzman’s portrayal. What for Warren was largely a low-key conflict between the two men that only became Henry’s dominant concern shortly before Becket’s murder appears in Salzman’s telling the predominant focus of a decade of Henry’s reign. His retelling of it certainly makes for dramatic reading, even if the effect is to overstate its importance.

In this respect it encapsulates perfectly the issue I had with this book. Though Salzman is a fluid writer, his focus on the more dramatic aspects of Henry’s kingship suggests that his primary concern is entertaining rather than informing. This was only reinforced for me by the book’s final three chapters, which follow Salzman’s description of Henry’s final years and his death with description of the social, administrative, and legal aspects of his rule. Crammed as they are at the end, they feel like an afterthought positioned so as to allow disinterested readers to skip over them in favor of the more entertaining aspects of Henry’s life. While this may have been a reflection of the intended audience for this book, like the Becket chapter it leaves the reader with a distorted sense of Henry and his importance to English history.

While some may argue that this is all for the better if it raises historical knowledge, it also raises the question of whether proportion should be sacrificed in the process. Featuring Henry’s conflicts certainly makes for interesting reading, but to me it misses the point of why he is worth reading about today. And while others may disagree, it certainly seems to me that the balance of recounting the various aspects of Henry’s life is better achieved in biographies other than this one, which feels very much an outdated approach to understanding the past.