King of the North Wind

by Claudia Gold, William Collins, 397pp, £25

Now that few schoolchildren study much history, and even fewer medieval times, there’s always a welcome for lively books directed at the general reader, all the more so because if any children are rashly led into the Middle Ages, they are probably required to write an empathetic piece about a day in the life of a serf or, perhaps, a reluctant nun. Kings and queens rate pretty low these days as subjects for study.

Henry II was one of medieval England’s more successful and influential kings. England was only one part of his empire, but it was the only part where he enjoyed full legitimate independent power.

He governed much of France, either in his own right, as Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou etc, or through his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine. But for these lands he was required, nominally at least, to do homage to the King of France who happened to have been Eleanor’s first husband.

Holding these territories together involved Henry in war after war, in which there were few battles but numerous sieges. Claudia Gold does her best to make this interesting, but it’s uphill work.

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