There’s an adage that authors of nonfiction books are ready to write their works the moment they have finished doing so. It may seem like a paradox, but it gets to a truth about such works, which is that the author never fully completes their research and thinking about the subject until they have finished the book. Yet that is the moment when the author then walks away from the subject, usually never to return excepting for the occasional review article or other short-form piece. This is the reason why I found Richard Barber’s selection as the author of the Penguin Monarchs volume on Henry II so intriguing. Given how infrequently a biographer writes two books about the same figure, I was curious to see what new insights he had gained on top of the understanding he had reached at the end of his previous biography nearly a half century before.
As I read the book, though, I was struck by how familiar it all was. Barber begins with a different approach from that of his previous biography by providing a pen portrait of Henry the man. Starting with extended quotations from Walter Map, an author and cleric who was a courtier of Henry’s, Barber provides a detailed description of the man based on contemporary sources. After so many biographies in which monarchs are described using sources written from a distance of centuries this was extraordinarily refreshing, and it gave me a real sense of what Henry was like as a person.
From there Barber launches into a summary of Henry’s life from his expedition to England in 1147 to his death. As is the case with the efficient volumes of this series, the focus is on England and Barber briskly proceeds through the key points in his life. This is where the feeling of deja vu set in, though, as he touches upon all of the same points he did in his 1964 biography, with little adjustment. The book had the exact same focus on Henry’s conflicts with Thomas Becket and his children, and the same lack of coverage of his major innovations in English government. Whereas the high drama with Becket forms the core of the book and the family squabbles round it out, the fiscal and legal reforms that were the major achievements of his reign were confined to a couple of pages at the end. While it’s an improvement upon his previous book, it is still a limited one.
This may be a reflection of Barber’s sense of his audience. In the brief guide to further reading at the end of the book, Barber classifies his previous work as a “popular biography.” In this sense his choices likely reflect what he believes most readers are looking for in a biography of Henry, which is the high drama that has made his life such a fruitful subject for novels, plays, and movies. And while those readers will finish Barber’s book well-satisfied, anyone seeking to learn about Henry’s greatest contributions to his kingdom will find thin gruel indeed.
Richard Barber is a historian with long and extensive career as an author. Originally a specialist in Arthurian legends, he published his first book on them at the tender age of twenty. This proved to be the first of several works from his pen on medieval history and literature, many of which he wrote while working at his day job in the publishing industry. After working for a couple of established presses, he branched out on his own in 1969 and started The Boydell Press, which as Boydell & Brewer is still publishing fine scholarly works on academic subjects. While Barber no longer runs the company, he is quite active in retirement as both an author and as a freelance editor.
As I noted, one of the reasons why I chose his 1964 book of Henry II for my first biography of the king was to juxtapose it with his more recent study of the king. Of course, it also meant that it served as my entry point into Henry’s life, and in this respect it proved very satisfactory. Even at a young age Barber was a lucid writer, and his book offers a good summary for the novice to Henry’s life and times. He does this by starting with a prologue that encapsulates neatly the 12th century world into which Henry was born, which Barber follows with a description of the war between Stephen and Matilda. Barber then follows this with a narrative that addresses all of the key points of Henry’s life: his accession to the throne, his campaigns abroad, and his troubles with his family and with Thomas Beckett. In these he balances well his chronological focus with contextual summaries, which give the necessary background without losing focus on his primary subject.
Given all this, it’s understandable why this book has enjoyed such a long life. Yet the strengths of this book also are its weaknesses, as Barber does not venture beyond providing a narrative of Henry’s life and times. He is good at describing what happened in his subject’s life when it happened, and he offers brief explanations of why it happened as well. But any deeper exploration of Henry’s reign, such as of his fiscal policies or his legal reforms, is absent from his coverage. Because of this, readers who rely solely upon this book for their knowledge of Henry’s reign may finish his book unaware of some of the most important reasons why it was so significant, which is a serious flaw in his book.
To be fair to Barber, nowhere does he claim that his book is the definitive work on his subject. And for readers seeking a clear and straightforward narrative of Henry’s life this book still fits the bill nicely. For those seeking a more comprehensive understanding of his reign, though, this book can only be a starting point, one for which his dated bibliography serves as an imperfect guide. Such a narrowing of its value is perhaps inevitable for any work of history, but in Barber’s case it limits any ability to recommend it as the one book to read about his subject.
Henry II is one of those monarchs for whom my introduction came through the movies. In this case it was the film version of James Goldman’s play The Lion in Winter, which had a stacked cast that included Katherine Hepburn (who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine) and Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton, both equally impossibly young. Yet it’s Peter O’Toole’s performance that stands out the most for me, and it’s his face that my mind conjures up whenever I think of the king.
Whether that will remain true once I’m done reading the available biographies of him remains to be seen. The selection of available lives about him is the greatest in number since that of his great-grandfather, William I, and promises to take up an equal amount of time. I’ve decided to start with Richard Barber 1964 book Henry Plantagenet: A Biography of Henry II. Though it’s not the oldest of the modern biographies, it looked especially intriguing given that Barber went on to write the volume about Henry for the Penguin Monarchs series, and I wanted to read the two of them in succession to consider how Barber’s judgments about Henry may have changed over time.
Once I complete Barber’s books, I’m going to turn to W. L. Warren’s biography of Henry for the English Monarchs series. This is one that I have seen referenced practically everywhere, which I usually take as a good measure of the book’s stature. It will be particularly interesting to see how his interpretation compares with that of Barber’s as the latter’s biographies bookend Warren’s study of the king.
After that I plan on reading Louis Francis Salzman’s biography of Henry II. As the oldest of the biographies I’ll be reading about Henry, it will be interesting to see how he interprets the monarch absent the recent scholarship and popular images that have emerged since then. I’ll follow this up with a biography by John T. Appleby, a historian who earned a reputation as a biographer of English kings. This is the first of his books that I’ve read, and it will help me determine whether I should read any more if the number of options for future ones requires me to be more selective.
Finally, I plan on concluding my examination with a pair of recent studies. Based on their titles, both appear to offer more targeted studies of Henry’s life and reign than the aforementioned works. The first of these, by John Hosler, is a study of Henry’s military career, which is a perspective that seems unusual enough to warrant assessing. If the title of the other one, by Claudia Gold, is any indication, it examines Henry’s life through a selection of key moments in it. This approach contributes to why I’m saving it for last, as if my reading of her approach is correct, I’m interested in seeing the merits it offers from the more traditional chronological method and the different insights that it yields on its subject.
As I noted in my introductory post on Stephen, it’s a little surprising that a king whose reign was defined and consumed with a dramatic civil war (the setting for Ken Follett’s peerless novel The Pillars of the Earth, among others) has been the subject of barely a half-dozen biographies over the past six decades. Fortunately, the overall quality of the books makes up for the lack of the expected quantity, as all of them are written to a high standard of scholarship. Yet ever one of them point to one of the challenges in writing about Stephen that may intimidate some prospective authors, which is the need to explain the odd mix of success and failure that is at the heart of his time on the throne.
For a long time, this meant taking on R. H. C. Davis’s biography, which fifty-five years after it was first published still exerts an influence on interpretations of the king. Part of the reason for this was for the way it filled the vacuum of Stephen biographies by providing the first modern study based on the surviving sources. These he used to provide an account of Stephen’s life that is very well-informed and makes a powerful argument for what might be regarded as the case for Stephen as a failure. In a sense, the biographies that have followed have been in response to Davis’s pioneering work on him.
It is likely a testament to the effectiveness of Davis’s work that it would be another generation before anyone even undertook a biography of Stephen. Yet while not a biography, Keith Stringer’s short study points to the sort of “Davis revisionism” that would characterize the books about the king that would follow. No work better exemplified this than David Crouch’s book, which stands as a formidable and persuasive rebuttal to Davis’s work, thanks to the author’s abilities as both a historian and a writer. It’s also a more comprehensive account than Donald Matthew’s subsequent study, which is more narrowly focused and not as appealing as a result
Such was the trend of Stephen revisionism that perhaps a reaction to it was inevitable. This is what can be found in Edmund King’s contribution to the Yale English Monarchs series, which, while not presenting as negative a depiction of the king as Davis had, serves as an effective reminder that there are good reasons why so many people over the centuries have judged Stephen’s reign a failure. And while Carl Watkins’s excellent short study does not go quite that far, his framing of Stephen’s reign as a disruptive interregnum highlights the king’s limitations in other damming ways. Yet as well argued (and, particularly in Watkins’s case, well-written) as these books are, Crouch’s book remains the best biography of Stephen for anyone seeking the best single book to read about him and the tumult of his reign. Though some of his arguments have been tempered by the more recent works, it’s still hard to beat Crouch’s combination of readability and analysis.
Today Elizabeth II, who had reigned as the 58th monarch of England and its successor realms, died at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. As this is a site dedicated to reading biographies of British monarchs, I thought it appropriate to share a few thoughts.
The first of these is the remarkable nature of her reign. Elizabeth reigned for 70 years and 214 days, a record that will never be surpassed in our lifetimes (for her son, the now-Charles III to do so, he will have to live to the age of 145). During that time, the United Kingdom has undergone considerable change, transforming from a globe-spanning empire rebuilding from the devastation of the Second World War to a nuclear-armed power coping with the consequences of its departure from the European Union. Over this she has had little say, as government today is in the hands not of the crown, but the prime ministers chosen by a majority of the members in the House of Commons. During her time on the throne Elizabeth has seen fifteen different people hold that office, with the last of them, Liz Truss, “kissing hands” with her the day before she died. In doing so, she achieved one final record, outdoing her great-great-great-grandfather, George III, by one prime minister.
Though I have yet to reach Elizabeth in my reading project, as the only person to have occupied the throne during my lifetime I am familiar with her in a way that I am with none of her predecessors. In this I am not alone, as there are entire generations who cannot remember a time when she wasn’t the queen. For me this has meant that she has shaped my understanding of modern monarchy by her example and become the metric by which I judge her remaining counterparts today and, to a degree, her predecessors. Perhaps this is unfair to the latter group, as they faced challenges that she was spared by her largely ceremonial role, but her example of what it means to be a monarch of all the people is one that is difficult to forget.
I have a long way to go until I get to her, and I have no doubt that between now and then the number of books about her life and reign will only grow larger. But when I do it will be with the appreciation of all that she has done to preserve an institution that has endured for nearly 1100 years. In these modern times that is no small achievement, and one that her successors may find difficult to emulate.
One of the things that has come to distinguish the Penguin Monarchs series for me is the more idiosyncratic nature of its choices for biographers. While the Yale series generally selects for their authors the foremost experts on their respective subjects, the editors of the Penguin series often go for distinguished scholars who are not generally known for their work on the monarch about whom they are writing. While few choices were as far afield as was Tom Holland, who is best known for his books on ancient history, such eminent – and excellent – medievalists as Richard Abels and John Gillingham were not the most obvious ones to write about the monarchs that they covered for the series.
Such is the case with Carl Watkins. As a specialist in the religious culture of the Middle Ages he seems an unorthodox choice to author a book about an English monarch. Yet his engagingly-written biography of Stephen is one of the best I have read so far in the series, thanks to its nice balance of detail and analysis. Unlike other Stephen biographies, he begins not with Stephen’s background (which he addresses only briefly) but that of the succession to Henry’s position as king of England. It’s a great way of addressing within the limited space afforded to Watkins not just Stephen’s claim to the throne, but the inherent instability that would lead to the civil war between him and Mathilda over the course of his reign.
Nevertheless, Watkins identifies the flaws in Stephen’s personality as the source of his problems. In this respect his book hearkens back to the interpretation offered by R. H. C. Davis nearly five decades before, though Watkins’s own arguments incorporate the recent scholarship on the period. While acknowledging Stephen’s martial abilities, Watkins presents him as a fundamentally weak personality, one who was unable to play the commanding role his position demanded. Too kind to be the sort of despot his subjects were accustomed to after three and a half decades of Henry’s firm rule, the combination with the muddled succession made challenges to his rule inevitable.
While this makes the challenges to Stephen’s possession of the throne understandable, it does not explain how he ended his life in possession of it. While Watkins credits in particular the considerable role Stephen’s wife Matilda of Boulogne played as an adviser and advocate for her husband’s cause, his main explanation lies in the deadlocked nature of the war, one in which both sides never could gain a clear advantage. His description of the kingdom is as deft and insightful as the rest of the book, and underscores the decline of order throughout the realm. In the end what he sees as ending this stalemate was not any effort on the part of Stephen or Matilda but the deaths of many of the key protagonists and the eventual exhaustion of the rest of the kingdom. The irony, as Watkins notes in the end, was that Henry II’s succession represented the delayed fulfillment of his grandfather’s plans for the succession, which reduces Stephen’s reign a bloody diversion rather than a new era in English history. While this conclusion may contrast with the trend over the past few decades in the historiography of Stephen’s reign as reflected in the other biographies I’ve read, it’s one that Watkins makes effectively through the clarity of his arguments and the sharpness of his prose. It’s a sprightly and provocative account that is enlivened by effective imagery and clever turns of phrase. To me it embodies perfectly what a series such as this one should aspire to achieve: a clear and accessible overview of its subject that gives its reader a sense of the subject and the time in which they lived. While it may not necessarily be the one book on Stephen everyone should read, it certainly is the one with which people should start if they’re seeking an introduction to him and his era.
One of the hallmarks of the Yale English Monarchs series is their selection of top-flight specialists to write biographies of their subjects. This is no less true for Stephen, the biography for whom represented the culmination of Edmund King’s long career studying his reign. Over the course of four decades, not only did King contribute an impressive amount of scholarship on the period – much of which was reflected in the notes and bibliographies of most of the previous books that I’ve read for Stephen up to this point – but he also taught an advanced course on him throughout much of his academic career which, as he states in his acknowledgements, helped him shape the book. As such, he seems not just the logical choice to contribute a volume to a series that strives for definitive studies, but an inevitable one.
And his book on Stephen embodies all of the strengths in such a choice. Starting with an opening chapter describing Stephen’s family background and his early years as a count, King provides an account that moves chronologically through his subject’s life. Though he claims at the start that his book is a biography of Stephen rather than a “life and times” study, he nonetheless provides considerable background explanation of institutions and events. As his notes demonstrate, this is grounded mainly in the contemporary chronicles, which he quotes frequently throughout the text. From them he provides a sympathetic account of Stephen that nonetheless judges him a failure, concluding that he was acting a part and doing so without the conviction that characterized a strong ruler.
It’s an interesting judgment, and one that pushes back in some respects against the favorable revisionism of the biographies that preceded King’s. Yet the effectiveness of his argument is marred somewhat by the way in which he presents it. While the chronological presentation of Stephen’s life is surprisingly coherent, the narrative itself doesn’t flow well between them as the chapters themselves are more akin to essays on periods of his reign than convenient breaks in a single interconnected work. Moreover, after his initial chapter examining Stephen’s rule as count, once his subject takes the throne King focuses on England at the expense of the Norman half of the Anglo-Norman empire. Though hardly unique to King’s study and to an extent an understandable omission in a series devoted to studying English monarchs, many of King’s counterparts have demonstrated persuasively that such a prejudice leaves out factors that are vital to understanding the decisions the occupants of the English throne faced during this period.
To draw a line that excludes an important part of Stephen’s domain is an unfortunate decision on King’s part that defines the limits of the book’s value as a study of his reign. Immensely learned and written with both wit and insight, it’s a book that, like so many of its predecessors in the Yale English Monarchs series is likely to serve as an enduring work on its subject and one that anyone seeking a full and intelligent assessment of Stephen should read. For those desiring a comprehensive assessment of Stephen within the covers of a fluid narrative, though, other books may serve their interests more effectively.
There’s a great deal to like about Donald Matthew’s book on Stephen, not the least of which is its author’s straightforwardness. At the very start of his book, he makes his purpose clear, which is to provide an account of Stephen’s reign that is accessible to the general reader. It’s a goal that he fulfills successfully with a text that explains the key issues in a clear style free of historical jargon and the employment of Latin, French, and other foreign terms beyond what is absolutely necessary. He adds to this with a charming anecdote in his preface in which he describes how his introduction to Stephen began as it did for many of his other readers, with a description of the Anarchy in a book aimed towards a popular audience. It’s a disarmingly effective way to connect with his target audience.
The anecdote is also important in another respect, as it sets up Matthew’s target in his book. From the first chapter onward he makes his view clear that Stephen is an unfairly maligned king. While this is an argument that had gained considerable currency before Matthew’s book was published in 2002, he takes it much further than previous Stephen biographers by focusing less on Stephen and more on his historical reputation. This becomes evident with his approach to his subject, which begins not with Stephen’s early life, but with a chapter entitled “Scene Setting” in which he provides a short synopsis of his reign before delving into the evolution of his historical reputation in the centuries that followed. It isn’t until after a chapter describing the monarchy Stephen inherited that he returns to his reign in greater detail, recounting events and summarizing the choices.
Using this approach Matthew makes a number of interesting points absent from the previous biographies that I had read, my favorite of which was his observation that, had Stephen been succeeded by one of his sons, the subsequent dynasty would have done more to nurture his historical reputation. It’s one of those so-obvious-you-missed it points that I didn’t fully appreciate until Matthew made it, but it makes excellent sense. It’s certainly one to keep in mind as well when considering other monarchs who were the last of their line, such as the later Richards, but it’s one that is employed here effectively as a defense.
And therein lies the main issue with Matthew’s study of Stephen, which is that it’s less of a biography than it is an effort to rehabilitate his historical reputation. There’s a complete absence of personal details (Stephen’s wife doesn’t even merit a mention in the book), as the focus is more on Stephen’s actions and the criticisms against them. In refuting them Matthew is to an extent pushing against an open door, as many of his arguments are similar to those Stringer and Crouch make in their books. But Matthew’s rehabilitation certainly eclipses theirs in terms of its focus and clarity. It’s a great book for anyone interested in Stephen’s historical reputation and the damage done to it, but it falls short as a biography of the king.
When David Crouch’s study of Stephen was released in 2000, it was the first major work focused on his reign since Ralph Davis’s biography was published over three decades before. In that time, the ongoing scholarship about the period raised questions about some of the conclusions and suppositions on which Davis’s book was based. Though Keith Stringer addressed this in his admirable short study of Stephen’s reign, the nature of his work – a short study designed as a focused introduction to its subject – precluded the broader reexamination that Crouch provides in this work.
As his title indicates, Crouch’s study is not a biography of Stephen but an examination of his rule over England. Yet Crouch’s approach is more overtly biographical than Stringer’s book in that it focuses on Stephen’s character to understand the problems he faced during his reign. This fuels his avowedly revisionist approach to his subject, as he argues that Stephen was both a better king and a better person than he has been traditionally regarded. As evidence of the latter in addition to highlighting Stephen’s bravery on the battlefield – a point all but his most hostile chroniclers acknowledge — he points to Stephen’s devotion to his wife Matilda as a demonstration of his fundamentally character, and argues that such orders as his directive to devastate Wiltshire were common to the warfare of his age.
Yet it is the question of Stephen’s record as king that is the main focus of Crouch’s book. And he makes a persuasive case for Stephen as an underrated monarch both by his analysis of his subject and his engagement with the existing historiography. Part of Crouch’s case rests with Stephen’s relations with his contemporaries, presenting Stephen as a good judge of men and observing that the loyalty he won from them demonstrates the regard in which he was held. Crouch also views Stephen as a better manager of the nobility and relations with the Church than has been claimed, with the promotion of his supporters far more restrained than many have claimed. This would help explain why, even in the worst stages of the “Anarchy,” most of England remained loyal to Stephen and free from warfare.
If all this is true, then why is Stephen’s reign viewed as poorly as it is? Crouch cites a combination of factors, starting with Stephen’s inability to judge situations as well as he could men. Aspiring to be another Henry, he lacked the intellectual capabilities that made his predecessor such a successful ruler. Crouch faults him in particular for mismanaging both Normandy and his relations with Wales, which created opportunities that Empress Matilda was able to exploit. Nor did it help Stephen’s reputation that he was followed by a monarch who earned credit from historians for establishing traditions in administration and common law. Sandwiched between two such consequential kings esteemed for their governance, is it any wonder that Stephen’s reign suffered by comparison?
I finished Crouch’s sympathetic examination of Stephen’s reign with a new understanding of his subject, one more nuanced than what I had gained from either of the previous books I read about it. That I found it as persuasive as I did was due to Crouch’s skills as both a historian and as an author, as he does a very skillful job of laying out his arguments and explaining the reasons for his conclusions. With my examination of the available biographies of Stephen only at its halfway point it remains to be seen whether it is the best book available about him. At this point, however, it is certainly the book by which I will measure the ones to follow.
The Lancaster Pamphlets are a series, that, according to their cover copy, “provide a concise and up-to-date analysis of major historical topics” for students taking their “A” levels and enrolled in college courses. Until now I had never read any of the titles published under its imprint, nor was I familiar with Keith Stringer, who, like many of the authors of the other books in the series, was a member of the history department at Lancaster University when he wrote it. As a result, when I began reading his study of Stephen’s reign I had few expectations for what I might find inside.
This may have been a factor in why I enjoyed it as much as I did. Stringer’s book offers its readers a concise analytical examination of key factors shaping Stephen’s rule and its outcome. His approach is impressively direct, as he stakes out his views and explains his reasoning behind them. In this manner he makes a revisionist case for regarding Stephen as a better king than he has been traditionally regarded. Henry gets a share of the blame for failing to provide for an “untroubled succession,” which Stringer underscores was one of the key duties of any monarch. From this perspective, Stephen’s seizure of the throne was a welcome effort to fill a dangerous vacuum created by Henry’s unwillingness to commit fully to Matilda’s succession.
But if Stephen actions in 1135 were a promising step towards stability, where did it go wrong? Here Stringer presents Stephen as facing a crisis not seen since the year of the Conquest. Unlike Henry, who only had to manage one crisis at a time, Stephen sometimes faced as many as three simultaneously: with Scottish and Angevin enmity inhibiting his ability to concentrate his forces against Matilda. Here Stringer’s expertise as a historian of medieval Scotland comes into play, as he does a fine job of explaining David’s role in exacerbating Stephen’s problems. Along with the other challenges, this soon exhausted finances which the Anglo-Norman state could not readily replenish. The result were wars which dragged on, posing a constant drain on the treasury and which ended only because of Henry Plantagenet’s willingness to accept the promise of succession instead of the elusive total victory he and his mother had both sought.
For all of its concision, Stringer’s coverage of Stephen’s reign is surprisingly comprehensive, covering the standard subjects of government operations, relations with the magnates, and Stephen’s dealings with the Catholic Church. What it does not provide, though, is any discussion of Stephen’s life prior to taking the throne, or his personal life while he occupied it. To be fair to Stringer, this is not what he set out to cover, and in describing Stephen’s reign he does a fine job of examining the key developments and in presenting Stephen’s actions in a sympathetic light. But anyone who is looking for a biography of the ill-fortuned king would be better advised to turn elsewhere.