Review of “Henry II: The Vanquished King” by John T. Appleby

John Appleby came to the field of medieval biography via a circuitous route. Born in Arkansas, he graduated from Harvard with an A.B. and worked as a journalist until the Second World War brought him to England, an experience which inspired his memoir Suffolk Summer. After its publication in 1948, he began work on a biography of King John, a project that led him to translate the Close and Patent Rolls from his reign into Latin. His biography of Henry was his second of an English king, and one that he wrote while serving as associate editor of the American Historical Review, a position in which he served until his death in 1974.

Appleby’s command of medieval sources is well on display in this book, as they serve as the foundation for his examination of Henry’s reign. Unlike most of the other biographies of Henry that I have read so far, it’s one that is squarely focused on Henry as king, as the author provides only a brief sketch of the Anarchy and the events leading to Henry’s assumption of the throne. Though I was grateful for the change of pace after so many biographies that spend so much space on the prelude to Henry’s reign, it foreshadows an almost rigid concentration on Appleby’s subject that takes a strictly chronological approach to recounting his time on the throne.

This in itself is not necessarily a concern. Yet Appleby’s approach is indicative of a far larger problem with his book, which is his narrow focus on recounting details absent any analysis. There is little to no evaluation of the veracity of the sources, and no effort to compare conflicting accounts and assess the possible motivations behind their interpretations. This is particularly problematic when it comes to citing letters, which were often written less to provide a record for historians centuries later than to prompt the addressee to take some action or decision on their behalf. Yet this never seems to cross Appleby’s mind, or perhaps he judges himself not familiar enough with the context to render such judgments.

If it is the latter, then such modesty is commendable. Such caution, however, makes his biography a less-than reliable assessment of Henry’s actions and his legacy as a king. In this respect it embodies what historians dislike most about history written by the untrained scholar, as its exclusion can lead readers to an inaccurate assessment of the subject being written about. In Appleby’s case, with so many better and more recent biographies to choose from, it has largely been eclipsed as a study of Henry and his times.