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.