Henry of Blois was one of the towering figures of twelfth-century England. Grandson of William the Conqueror and brother to King Stephen, he played a central role in shaping the course of the Anarchy that characterized much of his brother's reign. Towards the end of his life he presided, albeit rather reluctantly, over the trial of Thomas Becket. For over four decades he held the bishopric of Winchester and the abbacy of Glastonbury in plurality and, between 1139 and 1143, effectively governed the English Church as Papal Legate. Raised and tonsured at Cluny, Henry considered himself a spiritual son of Peter the Venerable and, if no great thinker or writer himself, he was intimately engaged with those that were. He travelled extensively, and was twelfth-century England's most prolific patron of the arts. It is surprising, therefore, that no substantial study of him in English exists. Michael R. Davis does us a service in attempting to rectify that.
His contribution, however, is a difficult one to review. In part, this is because its intended audience is so unclear. The work is described as a biography. Of its six hundred and twenty-nine pages, by far the majority (342 pp) constitute appendices, with only one hundred and seventy-one given over to the main text. The remainder, for the most part, comprise a substantial bibliography, endnotes, and twenty-five pages of black and white illustrations.
Davis' intention appears to be to provoke further scholarship on Henry, and in this he is to be commended. This must also be the rationale for the somewhat unusual amalgam of material presented. The appendices are predominantly translations into English of Latin sources and lend the volume an air of serious scholarship. The main biographical text, on the other hand, is best described as an accessible introduction to its subject that relies heavily (and consciously) on previously published material. It is written with lively enthusiasm, but contains little new. Its merit lies in the fact that Davis brings much of this material, some of which has not been published in English, together for the first time and presents it in easily digestible portions. The text is divided into twenty-six short chapters, each approximately five or six pages in length. The first chapter briefly sets the scene; the next seventeen chapters then take us chronologically through Henry's life; the remaining seven chapters prior to the Conclusion then address specific aspects of Henry's character, career, or influence. So, for example, there are chapters on Henry as a builder, as a patron of the arts, as a benefactor, and in his specific capacity as bishop of Winchester. "A Blois Miscellany" in Chapter 25 deals very briefly with subjects such as Henry's appearance, his revenue from the Stews of Southwark, his morals, and his "pets."
The larger part of the book, six of the seven appendices, consists of translations of Latin documents into English, and is the fruit of much hard work. The burden could perhaps have been lessened by a more discriminating selection (it is not clear that a whole page (384) need be given over to the translation of an entirely mundane reference in the Annals of Margan to the death of William Giffard, Henry's predecessor in Winchester, for example), but this is a minor point. In providing translations of a significant selection of letters, of the relevant sections of M. J. Franklin's edition of Winchester's episcopal acta (English Episcopal Acta, viii, 1993), and of references to Henry in contemporary sources, all in one place, Davis provides a useful body of reference material. Bizarrely, given the extent of the project, a handful of the sources that appear remain in Latin, such as the extracts from Gerald of Wales (399-402) and Ralph de Diceto (445-446). The reason for this is unclear. Appendix V then contains selected material from the Regesta Regum Anglo- Normannorum. Here again discretion could perhaps have been used. A good number of the lengthy acts appear to have been translated purely on the grounds that Henry's name appears amongst the witnesses or signatories, and a list of these may well have sufficed. Appendix VI contains royal charters issued to Winchester Cathedral, and Appendix VII a selective list of the holders of key offices during Henry's life.
At this point, a word or more must be said about the quality of the book's production, not least because it constitutes such a fundamental part of the reader's experience. Davis offers the book through PublishAmerica, a company dedicated to making it as easy as possible for authors to get into print. Unfortunately, this means that authors receive minimal editorial support (according to the company's website, submissions are reviewed by the publisher within 24 hours, corrected final proofs are expected to be returned by authors within 48 hours of receipt). The result, on the evidence of this volume at least, should serve as a curative for any academic tempted to bemoan the relatively high level of interference or slow pace of progress offered by their editors from more traditional publishing houses. The problems begin on the book's cover, where the sub-title "Prince Bishop of the Twelfth Century Renaissance" [sic] is bereft of hyphens. Inside, barely a page is devoid of editorial error, and many are rather more riddled. Combined with the author's perhaps over-enthusiastic literary style, this makes the book difficult to read and, more importantly, undermines much of the confidence a reader might hope to have in its authority. In selecting examples illustrative of both the colorful authorial tone and the want of editorial rigor, the reviewer is rather spoilt for choice. Two will have to suffice. When we learn that "Having stated his case and ending with a dramatic flourish, Henry dropped the hot potato of what to do with the king into the laps of the assembled archbishop, bishops and abbots, not all of whom agreed with the papal legate" (68), or that at the Hospital of St Cross "a bed, clothing, coarse bread, one dish of the plat de jour [sic] and a cup of wine was the daily portion. The daily feeding thirteen [sic] residential poor and infirm and one other hundred [sic] poor, rising at one time to two hundred, was no mean feat. Added to this volume you must consider the fact that the one hundred poor were allowed to carry their uneaten portion away with them" (142), we do so, alas, in an entirely characteristic idiom. Davis cannot be blamed for the concept of sustenance by means of "a 'doggy bag' via de Blois" (142), but he might have been advised not to cite it.
Given that the number of works on Henry is so small, there are then some surprising omissions from an otherwise impressive bibliography. For example, Davis appears unaware of Jeffery West's paper on Henry and the Arts, presented at the 2007 Battle Conference and subsequently published in the Conference Proceedings (as well, for that matter, of West's entry on Henry in The Grove Dictionary of Art). Chapter 21, on "Henry the Builder," would have benefitted from a reading of Nicholas Riall's article on Farnham Castle in Medieval Archaeology (2003). The intentions of this book are laudable, and if he has helped to raise Henry's profile then Davis is to be thanked for that. The compilation of the material here into a single volume will make others' engagement in further study (one of Davis' stated aims) an easier prospect. There are, however, a number of difficulties and those seeking an authoritative work on Henry of Blois should approach the book with caution.