Just one book on . . . Henry II

As I noted in my first post about Henry II, my initial exposure to him came not from reading about him in a history book, but from the film version of James Goldman’s play The Lion in Winter. Perhaps it’s because of the high profile enjoyed by that movie that I was surprised to find so few modern biographies have been written about him for me to review for this project. Given both his role in English history and the fact that he was well-known enough to serve as the subject of not just one but two successful movies in the 1960s, I was expecting to find a similar number of biographies about him that I found about William the Conqueror. Instead, I identified just seven modern works to read.

I suspect that a major factor for this is the stature enjoyed by Wilfred Lewis Warren’s formidable study. In both size and scope it’s an impressive achievement, and it effectively cleared the field for a generation. Even when John Hosler published his study of Henry’s military career in 2007, its specialized focus complimented rather than superseded Warren’s work. Almost a full decade would pass before someone attempted a balanced study of Henry’s life and times, with Richard Barber’s short study soon followed by Claudia Gold’s larger work. Perhaps others will follow.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to deny that Warren’s book remains the go-to biography of Henry. Though Barber’s earlier biography and the ones by Louis Salzman and John Appleby that preceded it are solid enough works, all of them were eclipsed by Warren’s voluminous book. Products of their time, they are best read today for the evolving takes on Henry’s historical image that they provide than for any great historical value on their part, especially as Barber’s recent short study for the Penguin Monarchs series provides a far more efficient and up-to-date introduction to their mutual subject.

Yet while Warren’s study remains the best single work on Henry, Gold’s book is the one I’d recommend to anyone seeking to read just one biography about the king. While it lacks Warren’s comprehensiveness, it more than makes up for it with the clarity of its prose and its exclusion of extraneous or secondary divergences. Her exploration of Henry’s family dynamics is far superior to that of Warren’s, and while I felt that she exaggerates the importance of the Becket feud, it is a minor flaw in what is otherwise the most accessible study of Henry available. The merits of Warren’s older work means that ideally Gold’s should be the last book on this important monarch that anyone should read, but it should by all means serve as their starting point for understanding this fascinating and accomplished individual.

Review of “King of the North Wind: The Life of Henry II in Five Acts” by Claudia Gold

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One of the noticeable trends in medieval history in recent years is the effort to piggyback books off the success of the Games of Thrones franchise. Ever since George R. R. Martin’s brainchild became an international phenomenon, publishers have sought to take advantage of Martin’s explicit debt to medieval history by emphasizing the inspiration provided by various events, or by otherwise invoking an association through marketing. With its evocative title (a nickname given to him by Richard of Poitiers, and one that I have not encountered in any of the previous biographies that I have read) and the jacket copy explicitly beckoning “fans . . . of George RR Martin” to read her book, Claudia Gold’s biography of Henry II is simply marketed more blatantly to exploit the connection.

Yet Gold’s own inspiration is less George R. R. Martin than it is William Shakespeare. This is made explicit both by the structure of her book, which divides her presentation of Henry’s life into five “acts,” and by a prologue which imagines the staging in 1599 of the Bard’s “History of Henry II” at the newly-constructed Globe Theatre. Such an indulgence allows Gold to emphasize the tragic elements of a life which she claims had largely been forgotten today. Given the prominence of not one, but two major movies featuring Peter O’Toole as Henry II – to say nothing of the over half-dozen biographies that I have read before this one – this seems hyperbolic to put it mildly. Such claims may help to justify for readers the books they are buying, but it certainly doesn’t help Gold’s credibility to ignore the substantial presence Henry II enjoys today, especially when compared to most of his predecessors and contemporaries.

Nevertheless, Gold can be forgiven a little overstatement if it helps to draw readers to her book. And those who pick it up will be rewarded with a richly engaging survey of Henry’s life. Gold’s biography is easily the most readable of all the ones on Henry II that I have consumed for this project, which is a real testament to her skills as an author. Her secret weapon in this respect is her focus, which is on Henry himself. Though she addresses the sequence of events that made his reign possible, she avoids any extended examination of the realm he ruled or the politics of Europe during his time. This allows her to maintain her focus on Henry and the remarkable events of his reign.

The “acts” themselves identify the key themes that defined the various points of Henry’s life. From “The Bargain” that made his succession to the throne possible, Gold moves her readers through the “Triumph” of his early years, then the “Pariah” status of resulting from his conflict from Thomas Becket. After reading W. L. Warren’s arguments about the exaggeration of this conflict in accounts of the king’s life, Gold’s emphasis on it seems unnecessarily excessive, if understandable given her focus on the dramatic. This plays out in her final two acts – “Rebellion” and “Nemesis” – which cover his family troubles and his conflict with Louis VII, and which add a tragic coda to her description of the empire Henry had labored so hard to build.

Gold’s approach is not without its flaws, as her approach prioritizes narrative over chronology, which can make it difficult to follow the course of events during Henry’s reign. Yet the gain in her focus and the clear sense she gains from it of the personalities about whom she writes more than justifies the trade-off. With nobody is this truer than with Eleanor of Aquitaine, as Gold’s observations about her among the best that I have read up until now. Given Gold’s focus on women in power in her previous books, it would be interesting to see her follow up this book at some point with one on Henry’s wife, as I suspect she could add something even to that crowded field. Even if she does not, though, we still have this excellent biography of Henry, which goes far in refreshing our perspective on him for a modern age.