The Medieval Review 17.03.12


Strickland, Matthew. Henry the Young King, 1155-1183. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. pp. 472. $40.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-0-300-21551- (hardback).



Reviewed by:


John Hosler
Morgan State University
john.hosler@gmail.com

I remember first meeting Matthew Strickland in 2005 in Swansea, where we conversed about Henry "the Younger," the second-born son and eventual co-ruler of King Henry II of England. I had recently defended my dissertation on Henry II's wars, and he was working on a short treatment of the young king that was eventually published in a now-standard volume of essays. [1] Due to horrendous timing--the sort that can torment a scholar with sleepless nights--my own book on Henry II appeared in the same year, which meant that I had been unable to consult it before proofing and vice versa. C'est la vie. Once I did read Strickland's essay, however, it was obvious that he had discovered a fertile and understudied topic. The present book under review represents the end product of this particular strain of his research.

Henry the Younger was an important character in one of the more powerful dynastic families of the middle ages, the Angevin rulers of England. His father, Henry II, ruled for thirty-five years, and in that time greatly expanded his domains past the traditional regions of England and Normandy and into such locales as Ireland, Brittany, Poitou, and Aquitaine, creating in the process what some historians are keen to dub "the Angevin Empire." His mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, still fires popular imaginations with her character and place in the histories of powerful medieval women and courtly life and literature. Of the three brothers who survived him, two (Richard and John) went on to become kings of England themselves, and notorious ones at that. The great counterparts and periodic adversaries of the Angevins were the Capetian kings Louis VII and Philip Augustus, and young Henry's relationship with the former contributed to the outbreak of the great revolt against Henry II in 1173. On 14 June 1170, young Henry was crowned co-ruler of England at Westminster by the bishops of Durham, London, and Salisbury and the archbishop of York: the event ignited the ire of the exiled Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, who had famously feuded with Henry II over clerical rights. The coronation set in motion a chain of events that resulted in his martyrdom on 29 December of that same year. Living in a notorious family full of engaging personalities, participating in wide-ranging Anglo-French warfare, receiving the crown of a dominant kingdom, and figuring into one of the most-famous murders in European history: clearly, young Henry lived in and contributed to some interesting times.

One is immediately taken in by the size and specificity of this book. Strickland's approach is narrative, chronological, and presented in fourteen rather tidy segments, with some chapters covering but a single year of Henry's life and no chapter covering more than five. Clocking in at 325 pages of text and nearly a hundred more of endnotes, the level of detail Strickland offers on the young king's life is impressive indeed, especially given that he only lived for twenty-eight years and never sat as sole monarch. The result is a meticulous biographical crawl that is more reminiscent of books with longer-lived subjects. It is perhaps unavoidable that much of the text deals with contextual issues surrounding Henry's life, especially the many and varied exploits of his father and the overall political climate engendered thereof. Still, I am struck by exactly how much documentation relates specifically to young Henry: Strickland has mined the sources thoroughly and liberated a somewhat-hidden story from the shadows of the larger-than-life personalities surrounding and dominating it. Readers of modern history ought to be astounded. Most medievalists, I suspect, have stories of their modernist counterparts making such remarks about the middle ages as, "there's such little evidence" or "you have so little to work with": this book belies such naïveté with authority.

The organization of Henry the Young King befits the lived experiences of its subject. The opening chapter is an historiographical introduction of young Henry and the sources for his life. Given the mass and variety of source material produced during England's "golden age of historiography" (as put by Antonia Gransden), biographical studies of the Angevins have long necessitated such components. Strickland offering in this regard is refreshingly brief on the respective details of each medieval author, introducing them in stride with the events of young Henry's life. More casual readers and history enthusiasts will not be turned off by scholarly detail here, nor throughout the rest of the book.

Chapters 2 and 3 begin the proper narrative and concern the boy's upbringing and training for an elite life. From my perspective, this is the most remarkable portion of the book. Most biographies of English monarchs are rather brief on the subject of childhood: such issues, even for royal babies, can be poorly documented, and I suspect modern editors prefer that authors move quickly to "the action" of an active political career. Yet Strickland has unearthed some fascinating elements of young Henry's life and explains them thoroughly. The topic of his education is particularly interesting, when Henry was moved into the household of then-chancellor Thomas Becket for tutoring. Strickland makes a persuasive case for considering the two figures in tandem. Henry II wished for his son to be crowned as co-ruler as early as 1162, the same year that Becket was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury. The anticipated participation of Becket in Henry's coronation, and the actual participation of young Henry in Becket's consecration, presents an interesting image of the ways in which medieval church and state were interlinked. The king had strategic reasons for elevating his close friend to the chair that went beyond customary notions of a wish to control the English church (the standard interpretation). Strickland argues, "Henry II intended the coronation of his eldest son in 1162 and Becket's elevation to the archbishopric of Canterbury to be the foundation of a regency government in England" (47). This is downright intriguing: could Henry II have been seeking a foundational intertwining of secular and ecclesiastical governance that could strengthen over time, one based not on a legal but rather a personal framework? The king's wily reputation is legendary, and such long-term scheming only enhances it further.

Of course, events played out rather differently when the coronation was delayed. As chapters 4 through 6 progress, the lives of young Henry and Becket proceed in opposite directions: while the former trained and prepared for rule, the latter intensified the conflict with his king and ultimately fled into exile. The reader is then pulled headlong into the Becket dispute, as Henry was finally crowned co-ruler in 1170 and the archbishop was murdered in his own cathedral. Central to the story is, in fact, young Henry, for Becket's final insults stemmed from his conception of Canterbury's rights vis-á-vis the coronation, a subject in which he had been intimately involved off and on for eight years.

Having effectively integrated young Henry into a central political role, Strickland then proceeds to the adult portion of his life. In chapters seven through nine, an older and more independent young Henry emerges with the revolt against Henry II. The war of 1173-1174 has received steadier attention from historians in the last ten years, and this updated narrative is a useful contribution. Nonetheless, it feels less insightful than other portions of the book, not only because of the recent studies but also because the revolt has always been the best-known phase of young Henry's life. Moreover, the major thrusts of the war were initiated not by him but by his allies King William the Lion of Scotland, Louis VII, and Earl Robert of Leicester. As an unavoidable result, Strickland's detailed military narrative departs very often from young Henry's role and focuses on the strategies and tactics of others. Once defeated and chastened by his father, he appears in the remaining chapters busy at tournament and rather involved in continental politics. Chapter thirteen, "The Brothers' War," is an updated account of young Henry's last rebellion, in which Henry II and Richard opposed the co-ruler and his third brother, Geoffrey, at the siege of Limoges in 1183. Strickland concludes his book with a chapter on his subject's death, translation, burial, and posthumous reputation, the latter of which included the advent of a smallish cult at his tomb in Rouen.

Henry the Younger's life was inseparable from that of his father, and therein lies the challenge of writing a biography such as this. Strickland is, functionally, writing and revising the history of Henry II's reign while attempting to extricate the place of his oldest son in order to judge him on his own merits. Doubtlessly the narrative approach makes such an endeavor difficult: the subject's youth requires so much of the book to explore context, context, context. On the other hand, I am unsure if a topical or thematic approach, for example, would have yielded better results; I also suspect that a shorter, tighter narrative of young Henry would have generated reviews demanding...more context! And as it happens, the formidable scope and detail of the book offers a dual benefit: we now have a fresh and comprehensive examination of the bulk of Henry II's reign, over which W.L. Warren's dated but seminal biography still looms large. [2] But Strickland's reinterpretation of young Henry's life, both apart from and in conjunction with his father's, also deserves celebration. Despite my own familiarity with the sources, I was pleasantly surprised by the numerous and interesting details of his life that I had somehow passed over. In that it fills a major hole in the history of the Angevin kings, this book belongs on the shelf of any historian working on twelfth-century, Anglo-French military or political history.

--------

Notes:

1. Matthew Strickland, "On the Instruction of a Prince: The Upbringing of Henry, the Young King," in Henry II: New Interpretations, ed. C. Harper-Bill and N. Vincent (Leiden, Brill, 2007).

2. W.L. Warren, Henry II (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).



Copyright (c) 2017 John Hosler



Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login