David Crouch

title.none: Harper-Bill and Vincent, eds., Henry II (David Crouch)

identifier.other: baj9928.0806.027 08.06.27

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: David Crouch, University of Hull,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Harper-Bill, Christopher and Nicholas Vincent, eds. Henry II: New Interpretations. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2007. Pp. xvii, 403. $90 978-0-843-83340-6. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.06.27

Harper-Bill, Christopher and Nicholas Vincent, eds. Henry II: New Interpretations. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2007. Pp. xvii, 403. $90 978-0-843-83340-6. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

David Crouch
University of Hull

In his historiographical introduction to this volume Nicholas Vincent points out that both in its own day and subsequently, there has been no shortage of interest in the personality, court and deeds of Henry II of England (1154-1189). There is also no lack of superlatives that could be heaped on the extent of the agglomeration of territories he ruled, for they stretched from the Tweed to the Pyrenees, from Connacht to Burgundy. He ruled more of Francia than any king since the Carolingians. Then there are the administrative, cultural, military, ecclesiastical and juridical events of his reign, each in their way destined to have consequences for many centuries after his death, in some cases up to the present day. How strange then that there is but one comprehensive modern study of his life and reign, that of Lewis Warren (Henry II. London: Eyre Methuen, 1973).

It is not that the several key aspects of his reign have not been written about by numerous distinguished historians, French, German, American and British. But it is singular that though his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, has been the subject of over a dozen books since 1900, Henry has deterred biographers. Perhaps this is best accounted for by the very challenge of the reign. A study of Henry II's life and times would have to deal with a huge weight of bibliographical assumption and debates, as well as an enormous range of contemporary sources. The greatest resource available, his over 3000 extant acts and letters, is only now about to come into print under the careful supervision of Professor Vincent: a major event in the historiography of medieval England and an epic endeavour, whatever his own modesty on the subject (18).

Warren's study of Henry II and his reign was a near-perfect exercise in historical biography, and deserves the praise it gets from the editors of this volume, but their book is still very much needed, more so than the recent revisionist attempts at "new interpretations" of the reigns of Stephen (1135-1154) and John (1199-1216). There are fourteen chapters to this work dealing with many of the central developments of the reign. It is by no means comprehensive. It arose out of a conference at Norwich in 2004 and the editors were therefore at the mercy of those who contributed and who wished their contributions to appear in print. But more than most such exercises--and perhaps a reflection of the manifest need for it--this particular miscellany has considerable weight and significance.

Unfortunately, as with almost all such volumes, it is a miscellany and the reviewer only has space to indicate where he believes most significance lies, though this is no reflection on the contributions which do not feature here. The editors chose to let the individual chapters speak for themselves without imposing a conclusion summarising where they believed the volume has led us in its new interpretations, and this perhaps does not help their claim to be revisionist. It is therefore up to the likes of me to hazard where and whether the claim can be sustained. I have for this reason concentrated my telescope on the capital ships amongst this flotilla, those which train their fire on such issues as can lead us to what might be a new view on Henry II.

A different Henry emerges in Anne Duggan's treatment of his relations with the Church. In a decisive chapter, she dismisses the idea that his relationship with the Church was even and co- operative before Becket, and using the ecclesiastical letter collections of the 1150s and 1160s illustrates how the king's displeasure made Archbishop Theobald's life a misery. The archbishop's abject fear of the king and the penalties his displeasure could bring says something about the relationship between king and hierarchy as well as the imperiousness of his agenda relating to the Church. The difficulties with Becket--which she understandably chooses to leave to one side--are not therefore quite as much a contrast to what preceded them. Historians have given too much value to the propagandist claim of Gilbert Foliot directed against his enemy, Becket, that before him all was sweetness and harmony between king and bishops. Of course, this is not quite so innovative a view as might appear, as Duggan herself acknowledges; indeed the vindictiveness and decisiveness of Henry II towards the church hierarchy was implicit as early as Frank Barlow's 1939 treatment of Arnulf of Lisieux's harassment and disgrace. What Duggan does do is further promote a new context to the Constitutions of Clarendon (1164). By her view, Henry, "an astute and cynical manager of men," was deliberately inserting the compromised Becket into Canterbury to achieve an end long worked for: formal subservience of the Church hierarchy to the level of control he had already obtained over it and paralysis of the intruding authority of the pope. Duggan affirms the view that Henry suffered a defeat over the Becket affair, and scaled down his ambitions after 1174, but in so doing points up all the more the ebullience and aggression of the king in his first decade of rule.

The ebullience of Henry II is equally in evidence in Paul Brand's cool survey of the king's legal innovations. He provides a magisterial perspective on the activities of an aggressive king obsessed with control over legal process, and with it both the income and power it could bring. This was asserted through legislation and writs, a programme that began to gain impetus in the mid 1160s and further force in the mid 1170s with the institution of a periodic national general eyre with specific authority over criminal cases, and the novel use of the Exchequer at Westminster as a central civil court. Though they don't survive, the new courts kept written records of their pleas and issued formalised cirographs to settle disputes. Brand relates this burst of activity to the crisis of 1173-74 when Henry faced dangerous rebellions in England and Normandy. We are to assume that the king feared for the order of his realm and--like governments nearer own day which feel threatened--forced through mechanisms of control which intervened in daily life. Henry, for Brand, is an "activist" king; concerned for justice but also a politician ambitious to change the realm he had inherited.

Professor Vincent's own contribution is a packed chapter on Henry II's court; the centre of his rule over his many realms. It may be that analysing the court--as Walter Map famously said--may be to attempt to define the undefinable, but Vincent has a crack at it all the same. Such studies tend to break down into applied prosopography and this is no exception, though it is one of the more judicious exercises of its type. Furthermore he attempts some generic and difficult questions: the impact of the court's itineration; its cosmopolitanism; its wealth; its internal barriers and their guardians; and--most tellingly--the nature of the "courtliness" displayed there. He finds Henry's court a place of culture, fear, envy, formality and display. It was unique in its day and perhaps the uniqueness of its master accounts for that. There is no doubt in Vincent's mind that the vaunted culture of the contemporary Capetian court was a meagre sideshow by comparison, something implied also by Martin Aurell's recent work (The Plantagenet Empire, Harlow: Longman, 2007).

Aurell's own chapter is a perceptive and comprehensive look at the king's association with one aspect of the literary culture of his time: the Arthurian legend. Though this may seem a rather narrow theme for a chapter, in Professor Aurell's hands it is anything but that. Drawing on the same research that informed the book referred to above, Aurell weaves a complex picture of the way Henry and his intellectual janissaries turned the legend of Arthur into a many- edged weapon of propaganda against enemies foreign and domestic. Aware, as Vincent also says, of the new nature of his kingship and the shallowness of its roots, the king took hold of the world of ideas and shaped it into ideology. And though the nature of the empire Henry II created was as evanescent as Henry might himself have feared, his use of the "Matter of Britain" provided a long legacy to his descendants on the throne of the English portion of his greater realm.

Do the accumulated ideas we have seen here amount to a new interpretation of the reign and person of Henry II of England? There is no doubt that they do. Lewis Warren's Henry was a reasonable, energetic and educated man, enigmatic but decided, a perfect university head of department in fact. Reasonable men brought out the best in him, men such as Archbishop Theobald, with whom he had "amicable relations," or Bishop Hugh of Lincoln, who could make him roar with laughter at a joke at his own expense. Becket of course was anything but reasonable. But in this collection we have a Henry II who was a wilful, imperious and dangerous man, a man with a deep impulse to control everything around him. He is seen as enigmatic certainly, but the enigma is an alarming one. This is a king fully capable of the wilful destruction of careers, realms, cities and the virginity of attractive female teenagers who came too close to him.

Although Warren reacted against the dead hand of English constitutionalism--notably as represented by the work of Jolliffe on the Angevin court--still he saw Henry as consciously pursuing legal ideals, justice and administrative efficiency, impulses which created willy-nilly a centralising government and a legal system unique for its day. Warren's was to that extent still an Anglocentric book. Emerging from this collection however is a much more personalised interpretation of the reign. Henry's empire was the sum of the man. It was Napoleonic in the way it focussed entirely on the personality of its emperor. His court quailed at, yet ran after, the dynamic man around which it had formed. All legal and administrative innovations arose out of an impulse to control. No wonder this king wanted no partner in his power, the complaint indeed of his son, the Young King, when he rebelled against his father in 1173. A "cult of personality" clings to him. This Henry was not an English figure by any means, he was a cosmopolitan prince in a uniquely cosmopolitan court which attracted even Italian youths who wanted to learn to be courtiers and nobles.

Is this convincing? My feeling is that it may be an advance in understanding Henry himself, but as a "new interpretation" it still falls short of a convincing picture of his realm and reign. Too much depends on Henry still; he hogs the foreground in contemporary literature, and here too. We need to hear more about where Henry was not, and where he could not control. A potential corrective may actually be found in another chapter, Daniel Power's detailed study of Normandy in Henry II's reign. It portrays a realm where Henry campaigned and held court, but where the surviving administrative and legal record is tiny compared with that of England. As a result there is mercifully little to say about law and finance, instead the interplay of local society, court and aristocracy comes to the fore, rather than its governance, and suddenly Henry II appears as perhaps he was, a noisy but passing phenomenon in a community with its own history, development and fate; an outsider, in the way that obsessive egotists always are in their worlds.