The subtitle of Mary McAuliffe's rendering of the lives of William the Conqueror and his descendants promises an interesting read. The author's goal is to write a good "story" about the relationships between the French and English monarchs by examining the lives of William, Richard I, and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Taking the Château- Gaillard at Les Andelys as its starting point, the book embarks upon explaining why a king of England could build a mammoth castle virtually on the back stoop of the French royal domains. Although the book does deliver on bloodshed, betrayal, and revenge, it offers nothing new to those familiar with the history of medieval Europe.
The book is divided into five sections. It starts with the "prophecy of Merlin," taken from Geoffrey of Monmouth's history of the kings of England. The chapters in this section introduce the main characters that will be the focus of McAuliffe's discussion: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, and the Capetian kings who opposed them. Part II of the book goes back to the origins of the tension and dispute between the twelfth-century kings of England and France. Here McAuliffe discusses the formation of Normandy and the descendants of the founder of the Norman dynasty, Rollo--most prominently Henry II and his family. The fortress at Gaillard figures in these chapters as a way of framing her narrative. The third part of the book focuses on the exploits and accomplishments of the Lionheart. Here McAuliffe examines Richard's role on the Third Crusade, but also his relationship--political and intimate--with King Philip II Augustus of France. The section ends with Richard's capture on his return from Crusade. Section IV focuses on Richard's return from capture and the crusade. His relationships with his two nemeses, Philip and his brother John, are discussed in detail. The book concludes in the fifth section by tracing the end of the Plantagenet presence in northern France and the loss of the Angevin Empire. The construction and loss of the fortress at Les Andelys figures prominently in these pages and is an innovative way of framing discussion of the political give-and- take between the Plantagenet and Capetian monarchs.
McAuliffe is to be commended for bringing medieval history to a popular audience and the "story" is engaging. Unfortunately, the interpretation of the events and figures is so out of date and biased that the book perpetuates misconceptions about these kings and queens. A glance at the bibliography reveals that the author has not read some of the seminal works on Eleanor, Henry II, or Philip II Augustus. Indeed the majority of her sources were published before 1990. While some of these works are solid and reputable, their ideas have been nuanced--if not overturned--by more recent scholarship.
For instance, the Eleanor of Aquitaine who emerges from these pages is very much of Eleanor of the "Black Legend." She vacillates between the overtly sexual queen to the passive prisoner. There is no discussion of Eleanor as a ruler of Aquitaine or adviser to her sons. Indeed, at a time when Eleanor was actually ruling Aquitaine for Henry II, McAuliffe characterizes her time in there as leaving England in a snit over Henry II's affair with Rosamond Clifford. Eleanor's support of her son John as he transitioned to being king is described as her being "bossy." Neither the recent volume of essays on Eleanor nor Ralph Turner's recent biography is cited. Instead the author relies overmuch on Amy Kelly's classic, but grossly outdated, Eleanor and the Four Kings.
The kings of France fare little better under McAuliffe's hand. An overtly pro-English bias is palpable and stems from the fact that McAuliffe relies nearly exclusively on the English sources, which are not consumed critically. Instead of the capable kings described in the sources and modern scholarship, the Capetian kings are cartoonish figures whose main purpose is to make the kings of England look good. Louis VII emerges as a monkish dolt, while Philip II Augustus serves merely as a foil to the brilliance of Richard the Lionheart. Once again the standard works on these kings go uncited and unconsidered. John Baldwin's magisterial work on Philip II Augustus is missing from the notes or bibliography as well as any credible biography of Louis VII. This bias is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Richard I is "Richard the Lionheart" throughout the book, but Philip II is only "Philip II Augustus" on the last page of the book, even though his contemporaries called him "Augustus" just as they had called Richard "Lionheart."
At times in the narrative, McAuliffe also exhibits a lack of understanding of the medieval past, perhaps as a result of her training in modern European history rather than that of the Middle Ages. Medieval piety, in particular, receives harsh treatment as pious kings are dismissed as "irreligious" because of their disagreements with the church. In the discussion of the Third Crusade, the author brushes with irresponsible anachronism by referring to the Muslim Ismailis as "terrorists."
This book was penned with a more general audience in mind and some might consider it for use in the classroom. Clash of Crowns, however, is inherently poor history that perpetuates ahistorical interpretations of the medieval past. While a good narrative history is always welcome, one that sets back the historical clock a generation ultimately does more harm than good.