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.
Henry’s contribution to the development of the English legal system was important, and is treated well here. Nevertheless, it’s the story of his relationship with Thomas Becket, the friend he made first Chancellor and then Archbishop of Canterbury, for which he is remembered. It has been the subject of novels, plays and films. Jean Anouilh, Gold notes, saw it as homoerotic, though she sensibly adds that we can’t possibly know.
Be that as it may, they fell out when Becket became archbishop on account of his determination to defend the Church courts and the liberties of those in holy orders. Henry, like all the members of his family, had a vile temper, and – again – we shall never know if he intended his angry outburst against Becket to be acted upon. It is quite likely that the subsequent murder of the archbishop before the altar in Canterbury Cathedral was an example of what in Nazi Germany was known as “working towards the Führer”. It turned out to be the catastrophe of Henry’s reign. It might have been a fatal one, but he did his utmost to express his penitence, and even turn this to his advantage.
He left the murderers to the Church, which required them to go on crusade to the Holy Land and, in a dramatic scene, Henry humbled himself before Becket’s tomb and allowed himself to be scourged. How severely may be doubted. Gold, quoting the chronicler William of Newburgh, tells us that “he was flogged, first five strokes of the whip from each of the prelates present, and then three lashes from each of the 80 monks”. After which “he sat on the ground and he sang psalms and prayers all night, without getting up for any bodily needs”. A couple of days later he rode to London.
Medieval men were tough, but one can only conclude that this was a piece of theatre, the lashes light, no more than tickles really.
The last 20 years of Henry’s life and reign were disturbed by quarrels with his sons, several times happy to ally themselves with the French king against their father. Gold assures us that he was a loving father, which indeed he may have been, as long as his sons were obedient and had no mind of their own.
The eldest, also called Henry (Gold sensibly spells it “Henri”), was crowned King of England when young, almost 20 years before his father’s death, but denied any authority and, indeed, independence. He became a star on the tournament circuit (his father thought tournaments wasteful), but this was no substitute for power. The second son, Richard, was his mother’s favourite, destined to rule Aquitaine as its duke.
Eleanor, resenting her husband’s interference in the Duchy, encouraged her sons’ rebellion. Her reward was to be imprisoned for the rest of her husband’s life, while he vigorously occupied himself with mistresses.
Filial rebellions were sporadic, the last one involving the youngest son, John. Gold doesn’t question the assertion of various chroniclers that he was Henry’s favourite. He may have been that, but Henry can have seen little of him and failed to provide him with lands of his own. So it is quite possible that the assertion was made for its dramatic quality. This is one of the problems. Anyone writing a biography of a medieval king for the general reader must rely on the chroniclers while rarely being able to test their veracity. It’s a dull chronicler who doesn’t prefer a good story to a boring one.
Sixty or so years ago, Alfred Duggan wrote a splendid family history of the early Plantagenets. He called it Devil’s Brood because it was rumoured that this really rather ghastly family were descended from Satan – Count Fulk of Anjou’s wife, Melusine, being the Devil’s daughter; hence their foul temper and wickedness.
Claudia Gold is a serious historian who isn’t interested in such nonsense. If her life of Henry is less entertaining than Duggan’s racy family history, it is still very enjoyable.