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16.12.15, Huscroft, Tales from the Long Twelfth Century

The Medieval Review

16.12.15, Huscroft, Tales from the Long Twelfth Century

Richard Huscroft's examination of the Angevin empire is timely in light of the recent "Brexit" vote as he states "...the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries constituted an era like no other. This was a period when England was integrated as it has ever been into the wider international landscape" (xxi). Tales from the Long Twelfth Century: The Rise and Fall of the Angevin Empire is not a thesis-driven book. Rather, the author hopes to tell Angevin history in a "fresh and unusual way" (21). Instead of the typical political narrative that focuses solely on the Angevin royals, Huscroft uses the life experiences of other important figures to tell the tale of the "long twelfth century." Although this approach may not have been employed for Angevin history, others have used individual stories as a path into the medieval past; Eileen Power's iconic Medieval People comes most readily to mind. Huscroft's volume is a welcome addition to the history of the Angevins, but it is important to note that the audience for this book is not academic. Rather, Huscroft hopes to reach a more general reader.

Tales from the Long Twelfth Century is organized into three rather predictable sections: The Birth, Growth, and Death of the Angevin empire. Each section includes two to four chapters discussing the experiences of a prominent personality of the time. In part one, the narrative begins with William Atheling, as his death in the disaster of the White Ship is frequently cast as the departure point for Angevin ascendancy. The sinking of the White Ship paved the way for the Empress Matilda to become Henry I's heir, resulted in Matilda's marriage to Geoffrey of Anjou, and the birth of Henry II, whose inherited lands and marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine forged the Angevin empire. Huscroft brings to life the family interactions of Henry and his children in a refreshing way by eschewing the usual interpretation of royal family life as male-centric and disaffected. When discussing legitimate heirs, he includes daughters in his analysis and portrays Henry as loving his children, both legitimate and illegitimate. Yet the rise of the Angevins was not a foregone conclusion as Matilda had to battle her cousin, Stephen, for the throne. To highlight the struggles of those involved in this conflict, as well as the shifting of alliances and alternating loyalties that came with a twenty-year civil war, the next chapter highlights the life of Hugh Bigod, who lived during the reign of four different monarchs.

The second part of the book includes four chapters that examine the major conflicts and accomplishments of the Angevins between the reigns of Henry II and Richard I. The tale of "the disciple" starts this section. Here Huscroft uses the life of Herbert of Bosham to engage with the conflict between Henry II and Thomas Becket. Bosham was one of Becket's closest friends and ultimately wrote an account of Becket's martyrdom. Hence Bosham was well placed to provide insight into the clash between king and archbishop. This chapter explores how Bosham and Becket both stood up to King Henry. Huscroft provides an interesting narrative of these events, although Bosham's perspective is sometimes eclipsed by the two titanic figures of Becket and Henry. Moving from tensions between secular and sacred, the book next examines the territorial expansion of the Angevins. Richard Fitz Gilbert of Clare, earl of Pembroke, or "Strongbow" as he came to be called, is used to relay this "tale" of a warrior involved in the Angevin conquest of Ireland. Strongbow's individual tale emerges powerfully from these pages. This "warrior's tale" also serves as an exemplum of another prominent theme of Henry's reign: how men under Henry II were able to rise through the ranks. Like Becket and Bosham, however, Strongbow also incurred Henry's disfavor and the king's response to Strongbow's power sets the stage for conflict explored later in the book between Henry's son John and William de Briouze.

The next tales relate the experiences of two children of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine: their eldest son Henry Fitzroy and Joan, their third daughter. Along with the Becket conflict, the often-dysfunctional relationship between Henry and his children is a central focus of Angevin history. In spite of the fact that Huscroft says that the life of Henry Fitzroy is intended to illustrate the lifestyle and experiences of the Angevin aristocracy, the strand of aristocratic life often gets lost in the tangled relationships between Young Henry and his father and brothers. The "princess's tale" is more successful in keeping the focus on Joan, at the same time highlighting Angevin participation in international politics through their alliances and marriages. Joan, perhaps best known as the sister whom Richard I offered in marriage to Saladin's brother, led a fascinating life, which allows Huscroft to touch upon some of the important political currents of the late twelfth century. Moreover, Joan's relationship with her brother Richard was one of affection and mutual support, hence providing a counterpoint to the previous discussion of Henry Fitzroy and the usual depiction of the children of Henry II and Eleanor.

The final section of the book traces the "death" of the Angevin Empire through four chapters. Several of these tales have resonance with those from previous sections. For example, Arthur of Brittany leads off this section. His death, like that of William Atheling, had a profound impact on Angevin history. But instead of helping to establish the Angevins, Arthur's death contributed to their downfall. As Richard I had not designated an heir, his brother John and his nephew Arthur both asserted their right to be king. Although John was crowned king, Arthur remained a threat and ultimately died while imprisoned by his uncle. Huscroft argues that while the implication of John in Arthur's death was not the sole cause for the dissolution of the Angevin Empire, it was a major factor. He portrays Arthur's death as undermining support for King John, which eventually culminated in civil war and the issuing of the Magna Carta. Building upon this point, Huscroft next examines the "friend's tale" of William de Briouze. William began as a close confidant and supporter of John, but the unraveling of the Angevin polity under John and John's increasing vindictiveness toward those he thought opposed him resulted in de Briouze and his family meeting a tragic end. Huscroft offers here a portrait of John that emphasizes strength over weakness, and "pragmatic politics" rather than outright tyranny. The next chapter further probes the problems within John's reign and focuses on the exiled Stephen Langton. As Langton has been suggested as a possible contributor to the drafting of the Magna Carta, the events leading up to its creation are traced through the experiences of Langton and his interactions with both pope and king. The final chapter provides a contrast to the preceding discussions of John's enemies and allies. Nicola de la Hay and her family, like that of the de Briouze, experienced both John's support and displeasure. Yet she was able to survive and even came to John's aid in holding the castle of Lincoln for John in the midst of the civil wars. Nicola also outlived John and out-maneuvered those who would dispossess her. As such, her "tale" is a fitting summary to the rise and fall of the Angevin Empire. The book concludes where it began, with a quote from Gerald of Wales to explore how those recorded in the book's "tales" would have viewed the demise of the Angevin Empire.

Tales from the Long Twelfth Century offers an engaging approach to the history of the Angevin Empire. Although Huscroft does not offer any new information, repackaging history in this way is an innovative method of bringing this history to life. By telling the "tales" of those directly involved in Angevin history, Huscroft succeeds in personalizing the past. This makes the history more memorable, for by relating individual experience the larger events and trends of history are made personal and not abstract. General readers will find such an approach palatable and more digestible. But because this is essentially a political narrative, Huscroft concentrates on the political elites. Those interested in learning about how merchants or peasants experienced this history will have to look elsewhere.

The figures who Huscroft includes as subject for his "tales" demonstrate the wide scope of Angevin action. The "tales" cover a range of experience. They have geographical and gender breadth as they span the boundaries of the Angevin Empire and examine the lives of two women. Clerical and lay experiences are also both represented. There are several excellent maps and genealogical charts to help place these individuals in their geographical, family and temporal context.

The central tension of this book is balancing the larger history with the individual lives selected to represent the era. Regrettably, the book does not always maintain this balance and the larger personalities of the time--Becket, Henry II and John I--overshadow the lives that are the subject of the tales. This is particularly true in the chapters on Herbert Bosham and the young king Henry. Furthermore, there are several missed opportunities throughout the book for expanding on the history of the individuals rather than reverting to the well-rehearsed political narrative. For example, discussing the knights who made up the household of Henry Fitzroy would have been an excellent spot to develop what it was like to be a young aristocrat (which was the purported the focus of the chapter). Instead, the narrative moves on to yet more information about the conflict among the Angevin siblings.

The theme of missed opportunities is apparent other ways. At several points in the book, Huscroft characterizes the interpretation of a particular event or figure as "debated" or "disputed." Yet he does not provide a citation indicating what the debate is or which historians have contributed to the dispute (43, 49, 64, 150). This is a serious problem as it prevents the reader from investigating such debates or familiarizing themselves with the historiography. These oversights prevent this book from being useful in the classroom--which is unfortunate indeed since in many ways this book would be well-suited for the undergraduate market. Similarly, Huscroft often makes judgements about particular sources, yet why he chooses to believe or discredit these sources is not always made clear. At points he seems to accept what the chroniclers say at face value, even though at other times he acknowledges that medieval chroniclers often wrote with a particular agenda in mind. Although the book does not provide a formal bibliography, there are readings suggested for each chapter, which are minimal at best. The scholarship on medieval women is scant and what is cited does not include more recent studies of queens or aristocratic women. Even in his narrative, Huscroft reverts to the outdated trope that any aristocratic woman with power was by default "extraordinary." Finally, although the book includes some lovely images, they are not integrated into the text or sign-posted throughout the narrative. As a consequence, any interplay between text and subject matter is lacking.

Using individuals to convey the history of the Angevin empire is an appealing way of framing the past. Ultimately, Huscroft mostly achieves his goal of telling the political history of these decades. But the book does not break any new ground and tends to revert to the traditional explanations for the rise, decline and fall of the Angevin empire. However, Huscroft is to be commended for attempting a new approach; one which will undoubtedly appeal to those fascinated by the antics of those who populate the pages of this book.