Of the many roles played by medieval monarchs, among the most important was that of soldier. Kings typically were expected to lead their men into war in person, with their ability as a ruler determined in no small measure by their success on the battlefield. This was no less true for Henry II, who reign was punctuated by wars and rebellions. As John Hosler notes, however, Henry’s role as a military commander typically has been overshadowed by his domestic policies, legal reforms, and personal drama. His book seeks to redress this by spotlighting Henry’s military career in such a way as to support his view of Henry as a successful military leader.
This Hosler does in a series of chapters that analyze Henry’s military experience within the context of 12th century military history. After an initial chapter in which Hosler assesses the available sources on his subject, he situates Henry’s military activities within the context of his political career. From there he moves to a more of an analytical focus on Angevin military organization and operations, examining first from where Henry obtained the men for his armies, then the strategy and logistics of his campaigns and the role played by castles and siege warfare. After a chapter detailing the events of the Great Revolt of 1173-4, Hosler then provides a final assessment of Henry as both a general and as a soldier, arguing that his career in the saddle was an “extraordinarily successful” one whose strengths and weaknesses as a commander in war mirrored many of the ones he demonstrated in his other roles as a king.
Hosler’s book provides an interesting examination of an important aspect of Henry’s role as a medieval ruler, and its case is a convincing one. Yet what it is not is a biography of the king. To his credit the author makes no claims to having written one, preferring to focus on filling in the gaps that exist in the ones available. While Hosler’s modesty is commendable, his reluctance to follow in the footsteps of Richard Barber and W. L. Warren (both of whose biographies he identifies as the best on his overall life) limits his achievement. As useful as his book is, given his point about the relative neglect of Henry’s military career, it would have been even more helpful if Hosler had examined it within the context of his other activities as a king. Had he done so, it would have strengthened even further his argument about the importance of Henry’s military role was to his achievements as a ruler, which would in turn have bolstered his claims as to the overall significance of this aspect of his reign.
To have left the reader wanting more can be as much a credit to the author as it is a criticism of the book. Hopefully future biographers will follow Hosler’s lead and feature Henry’s military achievements in their assessment of his reign. It is far too narrow on its own to serve in that role itself, however, which is why this book is read best as a supplement to other studies of Henry’s life and reign.