Two new books explore the triumphs and tribulations of an underrated king – Henry II

22 September 2018

9:00 AM

22 September 2018

9:00 AM

Poor old Henry II: once fêted as one of England’s greatest kings, he has long been neglected. Accessible books on Henry were few and far between until, like the proverbial buses, three came along in fairly rapid succession. Richard Barber’s 2015 contribution to Penguin’s Monarchs series offers a concise and excellent summary of Henry’s reign; and now we have two more appearing almost simultaneously (though both curiously omit Barber’s work).

Henry deserves the attention. As Count of Anjou, he wrested the throne of England from Stephen in 1154 after the exhausting civil war known as ‘the Anarchy’ when, a chronicle attests, ‘Christ and His angels slept’. Having prudently married Eleanor of Aquitaine two years earlier, following the annulment of her marriage to King Louis VII of France, and having retaken Northumbria from the Scots, Henry now ruled England and half of France. The origins of the Troubles in Ireland can be traced back to his reign, with the Anglo-Norman colonisation of Wexford in 1171.

This Angevin empire was the source of both his wealth and his greatest problems. The question of dividing up his lands for inheritance and deciding who of his four surviving sons (Henry the Young King, Duke Geoffrey of Brittany, Duke Richard of Anjou and John Lackland) should get what, meant that the older Henry could not rest from his tireless labours of acquisition, for his sons fought, as only families can, over the spoils of the old king’s legacy.

The revolt of 1173–74 saw Henry’s entire adult family arrayed against him: it was the ultimate crisis of his reign, after which, for the final 15 years, he maintained a constant vigilance against his sons. Even his (inexplicably) favourite, John, turned against him at the last; one chronicler wrote that when the sickly king heard of John’s betrayal he died of a broken heart. These dramatic machinations are explained especially well in Nick Barratt’s The Restless Kings.

But the drama was not confined to land-grabbing. There was also the murder of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his cathedral. Henry appointed Thomas to this plum role because, as Gold notes, he was ‘the most intimate of his friends’. But Becket went sanctimoniously native, leading to a great power struggle between church and state. His ‘martyrdom’ ensured that the church won the moral victory (much to the delight of Henry’s enemies abroad). Henry made a pilgrimage to Becket’s tomb in Canterbury, ‘publicly playing the part of the sorrowful penitent’, writes Claudia Gold; here he was whipped to atone for his guilt by association. One does not imagine that the monks administering the ‘lashing’ put much effort into it.

For constitutionally minded Victorians, it was above all Henry’s comprehensive legal reforms that elevated him to one of England’s foremost kings. Barratt echoes their verdict:

Henry’s greatest legacy from this period of reconstruction was the creation of a legal system that offered common judicial processes for all his subjects, at the heart of which was the principle that royal justice stood supreme over local or regional courts.

Henry went on to corrupt this same system.

Gold cites the 1968 film The Lion in Winter as a major influence on her engagement with the king. In the film, as in both books (Barratt’s especially), we see Henry’s royally dysfunctional family realistically portrayed as being constantly at odds with each other — father, mother and siblings all. Central to the family conflict is the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine (played by Katharine Hepburn), who memorably sums up their violent times: ‘Of course he has a knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives! It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians!’ Eleanor, married to two kings and mother of another two, was imprisoned by Henry for some 16 years for supporting and encouraging the revolt of 1173–74.

Gold broadens out the coverage to offer some assessment of the impressive cultural achievements of Henry’s court. Both she and Barratt discuss Gerald of Wales’s well-known account of Henry commissioning a mural for his palace at Winchester: an eagle under attack by its four eaglets intending to feast on their father. Gerald has Henry explaining to viewers: ‘These four young eagles are my four sons, who will cease not to persecute me even unto death.’

This alternative family portrait is a neat, if possibly apocryphal, artistic summary of Henry’s familial tribulations. (Neither here nor elsewhere do historians suggest that the idea probably comes from images of a pelican feeding its young with its own blood, a popular illustration in medieval bestiaries.) The cultural achievements should not be overstated when considering one of Henry’s favourite entertainers, Roland the Farter, who was charged each Christmas with performing a synchronised jump, whistle and botty-burp (bumbulum). Barbarians indeed. I’m sure I can hear him trumpeting the success of both books.

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