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John Hosler published his study of Henry’s military career in 2007, its specialized focus complimented rather than superseded Warren’s work.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