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when John Hosler published his study of Henry’s military career in 2007, its specialized focus complimented rather than superseded Warren’s work.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.

Review of “Henry II: A Medieval Soldier at War, 1147-1189” by John D. Hosler

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.

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.

Review of “Henry II” by L. F. Salzman

Though his name is not prominent today, Louis Francis Salzman was one of the pioneers in the field of economic history. Despite setting out initially to study medicine, an interest in local history led him to switch to a career as a historian. This work led him to write a succession of books about industry and trade in England during the Middle Ages that became cornerstones in their field. Yet Salzman never lost his interest in local history, and was not only a founder of the Sussex Record Society but participated in local archaeological excavations as well. His pen proved incredibly prolific, and extended to the writing of works for children as well.

Salzman’s talent for prose is very much on display in his biography of Henry II. It’s a sprightly read that provides a brisk overview of his life, particularly in comparison with more modern biographers. Whereas Barber and Warren spend considerable space at the start of their books explaining the events of the Anarchy as a way of setting the stage for Henry’s succession, Salzman covers Henry’s ascent to the throne in barely a dozen pages. From there he recounts his subject’s reign in seven chapters, the majority of which are focused in his involvement in one of the many conflicts of his reign, be it with the Welsh, the French, or his own sons.

Yet the one that stands out is the one on “the struggle with Becket.” By far the largest of the chapters, it takes up a fifth of Salzman’s book, which makes the conflict between the two men seem to be the overriding concern of Henry’s reign. Here the contrast with W. L Warren’s analysis of their dispute stood out, to the point where Warren’s observation of the Henry-Becket controversy as somewhat exaggerated seemed a direct commentary on Salzman’s portrayal. What for Warren was largely a low-key conflict between the two men that only became Henry’s dominant concern shortly before Becket’s murder appears in Salzman’s telling the predominant focus of a decade of Henry’s reign. His retelling of it certainly makes for dramatic reading, even if the effect is to overstate its importance.

In this respect it encapsulates perfectly the issue I had with this book. Though Salzman is a fluid writer, his focus on the more dramatic aspects of Henry’s kingship suggests that his primary concern is entertaining rather than informing. This was only reinforced for me by the book’s final three chapters, which follow Salzman’s description of Henry’s final years and his death with description of the social, administrative, and legal aspects of his rule. Crammed as they are at the end, they feel like an afterthought positioned so as to allow disinterested readers to skip over them in favor of the more entertaining aspects of Henry’s life. While this may have been a reflection of the intended audience for this book, like the Becket chapter it leaves the reader with a distorted sense of Henry and his importance to English history.

While some may argue that this is all for the better if it raises historical knowledge, it also raises the question of whether proportion should be sacrificed in the process. Featuring Henry’s conflicts certainly makes for interesting reading, but to me it misses the point of why he is worth reading about today. And while others may disagree, it certainly seems to me that the balance of recounting the various aspects of Henry’s life is better achieved in biographies other than this one, which feels very much an outdated approach to understanding the past.

Review of “Henry II” by W. L. Warren

One of the things that I have come to appreciate through this project is how certain biographies can dominate the study of English monarchs. Though this is not true for all of them, for some monarchs one work ends up becoming the go-to source for students and scholars seeking to learn about the king. It’s probably more than a coincidence, too, that these books tend more often than not to be the volumes on the subject for the English Monarchs series. Whether it’s Frank Barlow’s book on Edward the Confessor or David Douglas’s on William the Conqueror, the depth of their examination and the quality of their scholarship ensured that they defined our understanding of that monarch for decades after they were first published.

Such is the case with Wilfred Lewis Warren’s biography of Henry II. Though first published a half-century ago, judging from the footnotes that I’ve seen in other places it remains the go-to source on his life and reign. And after reading it for myself it’s easy to see why it enjoys this status. It’s a formidable tome of a book, one that offers an account of Henrys life situated within the context of six decades of English history. Henry himself is virtually absent from the first chapter-and-a-half of the book, as Warren recounts the events that made it possible for Henry to become king, from William Adelin’s death on the White Ship through the key events of the Anarchy. It’s a good an overview of the events of the latter as any that I’ve read so far, and it argues effectively for the motivations and consequences of the players involved.

After situating Henry on the English throne Warren then provides a chronological survey of Henry’s first three decades as king. Not only does this offer a good synopsis of the key developments that defined much of his reign, it serves as a springboard into Warren’s analytical examination of Henry’s rule. While focused on England and its associated realms, unlike many of the other biographers of Norman and Plantagenet monarchs he incorporates coverage of Henry’s Angevin territories into his analysis. This was particularly welcome after its virtual absence from Barber’s books, as to cover a monarch’s rule over only part of his realm is to distort the understanding of the king’s concerns and how he addressed them. Warren’s more comprehensive approach also meant that he does a far better job of explaining how Henry restored stable government to England after the violence of the Anarchy, even if he credits the king more for reviving and expanding his grandfather’s innovations in government rather than devising whole new systems on his own.

But perhaps the most intriguing part of the book for me was his coverage of Henry’s quarrel with Thomas Becket. This was one of those subjects that, thanks to its cultural presence, shaped much of what I knew about Henry prior to starting this project. Yet while giving it due attention Warren makes an interesting case that its role in burdening Henry’s reign has been greatly overstated, as he notes that it was only in the final stages that it consumed Henry’s attention and led him to his fatal expression of frustration. Though Becket was well suited for the mantle of martyrdom, Warren also argues that it proved less beneficial for his cause, as Henry’s contrition plus the reluctance of other bishops to identify with Becket limited the extent of the concessions he was forced to make afterwards to restore peace between Church and crown.

This fits with his generally positive portrayal of Henry, one that ends with a tone of sorrow over his subject’s troubled relationship with his ambitious sons and their quarrels over the succession.  Warren never lets his sympathy for Henry sympathy color his analysis of the king, however, as he offers acute judgments that are all the more persuasive for the clear prose in which they’re offered. The author’s gift for delivering perceptive points in a direct and coherent way helps to explain why the book has become such an influential study of the king and his era. Though its size may deter some, for those who persevere they are likely to finish it with as clear and as thorough an understanding of Henry and his reign as is possible to find between the covers of a single book. It is a hard act for the others to follow.

Review of “Henry II: A Prince Amongst Princes” by Richard Barber

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.

Review of “Henry Plantagenet” by Richard Barber

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.

On to Henry II!

Henry II, from The Gospels of Henry the Lion, c. 1175-1188

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.