Reviewed by Liz Dexter
Henry II, father of Richard Lionheart and King John, husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine and murderer by instruction of Thomas Becket is, as Gold points out and the reviewers in the broadsheets emphasise, almost more known for those around him than for himself. Late in the book, Claudia Gold shares that popular opinion at the time of his death saw his story as “one of magnificent promise, which hubris had turned to dust,” and she now sees him as “a lonely tyrant” who didn’t, like the hero of a classical tragedy, glimpse self-knowledge, but “believed that he was always right and that his family would follow him, regardless”). She always backs up opinion with fact: although he developed “a talent for diplomacy”, in effect, he developed an overweening hubris and also ignored his sons’ individual characters in assuming they would be “as loyal, obedient and loving to him as he had been towards his own parents”. She fills in the gaps and makes history come alive, seeing him in that mode of a tragic hero nonetheless:
This book tells Henry’s true story, and it is a tragedy. It is the story of a great hero whose life traces an arc from ascent, to glory, to defeat, and who is brought down by a tragic flaw in his own character.
The wheel of fortune does indeed turn and his lands and glory come to nothing, even forgotten by history and current readers until now.
I have to admit to knowing little about Henry on coming to this book – perhaps because, as Gold points out in an interesting opening gambit, Shakespeare didn’t write about him. She makes the claims later in the book that had he died at x point, or had his major rival been the same age as him, his reputation would be stronger and quite different. What did surprise me coming in was the wealth of historical record that does exist from this time. While you might think the 12th century was a dark age, lost in time, many letters and laws have been collected and there were several chroniclers at work, so Gold has a variety of sources and a mass of background information to refer to, admirably handled and shaped into good notes and a comprehensive bibliography.
The first thing you find on opening this book is a series of maps and intensely complex family trees. Everyone seems related to everyone else; if they’re not already related, they marry in confusing, cross-family patterns; and the lack of variety of names means you fear you’re going to get lost in a sea of Mathildas and Isabellas (for example, Henry had two sons called Geoffrey, one legitimate, one illegitimate). It’s to Gold’s credit that she holds the threads in tight control and is able to remind us of who people are at the appropriate points. There’s also a very useful chronology in the back, handy when the book, as it kind of has to, jumps around a little.
Structuring the book into five “acts” (The Bargain, Triumph, Pariah, Rebellion, Nemesis) means that Gold takes us on a vaguely chronological journey, but because of the complexities of lands held, battles fought, marriages forged and families created, she does have to skip back and forth a bit, referring to the Great Revolt of 1173-74 before she describes it fully. In addition, there’s such a wealth of detailed information to share that she sometimes has to divert into a long discussion of the Jews in England, the creation of a more modern legal system, the relationship between the Saxon and Norman kings and their archbishops, etc. Again, it’s to her credit that these are well-signposted, headed and created and not confusing.
I won’t go into the detail of the story, as that’s what the book is for. I would say that on reading it you are forced to leave behind any modern notions of family, marriage and even brotherhood, as in this brutal society you can lock up your wife when she’s set your sons against you, they run against each other, and you can see the French king seduce your sons over to his side to run his own machinations. It’s all about power and land, sometimes about love, and often about making bad decisions in difficult circumstances. Thus it’s a modern story as well as an old one, although there are no clumsy comparisons made, even when the Crusades come in: this is a thorough work of historical scholarship (as far as I, not an expert on this time, can ascertain).
There’s a lot about poor old Eleanor of Aquitaine, “a chimera, as illusive and fleeting as quicksilver. Such is her fame, we desire to possess her, yet we know almost nothing about her” and of whom only four (possible) images survive, who, Gold reckons, was so beyond the pale in being a woman with a grasp and control of politics that she could not be comprehended by her contemporaries, who thus sought to undermine her using derogatory terms and gossip (nothing changes!). She puts down the facts as recorded, tells us when she disappears from the record, refrains from filling in gaps that aren’t covered (while reminding us, for example, that she was pregnant or with very small children for a decade and half). She shares what people said about Eleanor, discusses why they might have said it (for example, “Did Eleanor care that Henry had many partners, and was serially unfaithful? The chroniclers are silent”, and does work to revive her reputation.
There’s also a lot about the societal background, the wealth of home-grown and foreign talent that was encouraged and developed at Henry’s court – another reason why there’s so much information to work from to create this book. The web of family and scholarship across Europe and down to the Holy Land is astounding, even if it took two years to pop down to Jerusalem to help sort out a problem, and Henry even slightly inadvertently contributes hugely to the development of Oxford University. Henry’s approach to standardising the law is also surprising and fascinating, creating levels of judges and standard documents that were just not there before.
Claudia Gold has written major books before this one, on women rulers and the mistress of George I, and this history of a partly forgotten king bears out her previous emphasis, making sure the history of the women in the families she discusses, whether strong and in control of their own destinies (Henry’s mother, Mathilda, his wife, Eleanor), or moved around like marriage trophies, is included and celebrated as well as the battles and diplomacy of the men (in fact, women do lead or incite troops into battle a number of times). The effect of all the warmongering and civil warfare – and of changes in the law – on ordinary people are also explored. This makes it a modern-feeling and inclusive work of history, whilst incorporating the traditional historical tropes and values, clear-sight, ability to pick a way among the confusion and the traditional framework of the academic text. Hats off to her for handling a mass of material in so self-assured and competent a way.
Liz Dexter has seen T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral” staged in Canterbury Cathedral, on the spot the murder actually took place (shudder) but still didn’t know much about the background to Thomas Becket’s death. Now she does. Liz blogs about books at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com.
Claudia Gold, King of the North Wind: The Life of Henry II in Five Acts (William Collins, 2018). 9780007554782, 397 pp., ill. Hardback.
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