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22.03.11 Carpenter, Henry III

22.03.11 Carpenter, Henry III

With this massive study--the first of two volumes from David Carpenter on the longest reign of any medieval English king--the last gap in the Yale English Monarchs series for the medieval rulers is halfway to closure. In a project or series launched by David Douglas with his biography of William I in 1964 and now carrying us from Aethelstan through Elizabeth I (and to some who came after 1603), Carpenter offers a monumental volume that will stand as the foundational pillar of work on this up-and-down monarch and those around him. With The Minority of Henry III (1990) and The Reign of Henry III (1996) and a long string of related articles to his credit, Carpenter’s experienced hand presents us with what is basically traditional political history of the highest order. With the exception of two chapters on Henry’s piety and his court, we move chronologically from his coming of age to the baronial and parliamentary coup of 1258 that ended his quarter century of personal rule. With much detail regarding personnel, royal finances, the role of patronage, and his military campaigns, we follow the king though a never-ending series of the ups and downs that marked his many years on the throne. A man born into a role for which he was not best suited offers an intriguing challenge to the historian-biographer, aided here by the wealth of record sources in addition to a wealth of narrative sources (primarily but not exclusively Matthew Paris). The complicated tale being told, while centering on Henry, has a considerable focus on his queen, on his principal advisors, on a wide sweep of opponents and rivals and competing families, all playing their parts in a shifting panorama of success, adversity, and failure.

Because this engaging study mostly focuses on the politics of Henry’s long reign and because this is a tale Carpenter knows so well and tells with clarity and impressive erudition, rather than tracking the events of Henry’s reign in a year-by-year fashion, this review will explore some themes that ran through and helped define his kingship, for better or for worse. One theme is the international and/or imperial nature of Henry’s reign. We naturally and even casually identify him as “king of England,” this obviously being his main title and our main area of concentration. However, Carpenter sheds much light on the king’s interest in and commitment to a much wider sweep of the map: Wales, Scotland, and the English pale of Ireland, of course, and Gascony (which he successfully held) and Poitou (not recovered) and Normandy and Anjou (lost in 1214 and beyond reclamation), not to mention generally good relations with Louis IX of France, the queen’s brother-in-law. Then, beyond these places and political units, legacies transmitted by Henry’s predecessors, what we can label as his foreign policy had a much wider reach: Germany and the Empire, with Henry’s brother Richard as the elected emperor, and Sicily where his son Edmond did not become king, and the destinations of a Crusade (whether to the eastern Mediterranean or North Africa and never actually undertaken), and a bumping of heads with Alfonso X of Castile and a possible war with Navarre. Furthermore, embedded in Henry’s interest in this broad sweep of so much of Christendom are the resulting controversies over special taxes, commitments to the papacy, and the mobilization of an army--all sources for running quarrels and sometimes ending in a highly visible failure that cost both men and money.

Another theme is the ubiquity of “foreigners.” In his early days it was the heavy hand of Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester, a position inherited from John, although Peter was originally from Touraine. And after Peter had been stripped of office and power, the king married the daughter of Raymond Berengar V, count of Provence and of the House of Savoy. This, needless to say, was the door-opener for a wave of Savoyards, some family and others just parts of networks and retinues until their presence amounted to some 170 folk, with many in high office and/or making advantageous marriages. Then, to set against these foreigners, in came a host of Henry’s half-siblings from his mother’s second marriage to Hugh X of Lusignan, all eager and willing for high office and the lucrative treatment appropriate for close kin. Both groups, given their aristocratic birth and continental connections, were well rewarded, but as Henry’s policies foundered and his largesse became strained, English hostility to these families became fierce and widely articulated. Moreover, as the two networks were often hostile to each other, they posed a perennial problem that Henry never worked to solve, had this been within his capabilities.

To offer a third theme: Henry’s piety. While in many ways this might seem a saving grace to set against his political blunders, his short-term bursts of anger (and then of forgiveness), and his lack of any zeal for combat in the field, this enthusiasm also posed problems, mainly touching how much royal income it consumed. First, a lasting memorial. Henry’s enduring monument to his piety (and to his devotion to his cherished cult of Edward the Confessor), Westminster Abbey, was now being rebuilt to the highest standards and sometimes employing as many as 300 to 400 workmen. Henry’s keen personal interest in the architecture, the decoration, and the shrine of the Confessor gave England a worthy counterpart to Louis IX’s St. Chapelle, and if the latter held the Crown of Thorns, its English rival had both a sacred body and some of Christ’s blood.

Other forms of royal piety stretched to feeding and clothing the poor, both on a daily basis and with astounding openness at some of the great festivals of the church. In his peregrinations through his realm, royal generosity enriched and glorified places he passed by, touching some 20 Dominican and 30 Franciscan houses, among others. Before he would leave the realm, Henry often covered his tracks by a pilgrimage, mostly but not limited to the East Anglian sites of Walsingham, Bromholm, and Bury St Edmunds. Lastly, and still with us as a few fragments on Chancery Lane, was the domus conversorum to house those Jews who chose to convert. Though the tallage upon them was a good source of income, what brought their souls into the embrace of Christianity was deemed as even more desirable, and at times the domus housed as many as 80 or 100 people, probably more women than men.

There is much more, of course, and Carpenter devotes considerable attention to the great nobles and noble families. Those of William the Marshal and the Clare earls of Gloucester are well covered, as are Henry’s long and uneven relations with Simon de Montfort--setting us up for Volume II--with a balanced view of Simon’s many shortcomings and his undoubted strengths. The descent of the heirs in these and other great families and the entanglements of marriage, and wardship and remarriage, thicken the plot, for readers today as for those who lived them out. Another towering if impersonal presence: Magna Carta. It stood behind much of the political head-bumping that marked the reign--due process and judgment of peers, remarriage of widows, rights and liberties of the church, etc. The great charter is listed over 60 times in the book’s index, as the gold standard created to define the limits of royal power.

This biography of a king rests, as we said above, on a rich variety of sources (8 pages of primary sources in the bibliography). One aspect of 13th-century documentation is the amount of precise numerical detail that Carpenter has extracted. Royal piety becomes more than a quick phrase when we are told that Henry gave away 452 robes at Christmas 1236, 313 at Whitsun 1237, and 410 at Christmas 1237. Between 1245 and 1252 he gave away 2769 rings, 931 brooches, 814 cups, 144 belts, and 65 basins. When Henry played host to king Alexander of Scotland, the kitchen had to deal with 7000 hens, 2100 partridges, 125 swans, 115 cranes, 125 peacocks, 200 pheasants, 400 rabbits, 1300 hares, 400 pigs, 70 boars, nearly 1000 deer, 10,000 haddock, 68,500 loaves of bread. Of course, dining on this scale was exceptional and extreme, but to a man who often had 500 or 1000 paupers fed in one day, it was hardly a novel exercise of splendor and extravagance.

Lastly, the king himself. One is tempted to say that he was not the right man for the job, little choice that he had. Henry was too easily led, too easily influenced, too quixotic. Nor did these characteristics go unmentioned, either by Matthew Paris or others, and the label of rex simplex was attached to him early in his reign. Though his deep and generous piety was usually deemed as commendable, it was not enough to redeem him for his shortcomings, and others, including his son Edward, were foils who seemed more in keeping with the demands and ideals of the day. Medieval kingship was not an easy burden, with the constant need for more money, with its dependence on officials who would be honest and loyal and capable, and with the personal presence of a leader. This book covers many years, many people, and many forms of activity and expenditure. It leaves us with a sense of gratitude for Carpenter’s academic skills and his patience. In a pleasing personal touch, Carpenter adds a few touches of his own--the pleasure of being at Reims in the morning and at Westminster by that same evening, or of remembering that he was warned to avoid the hot stove on his first visit to the Abbey when he was a four-year-old, accompanying a father who would become dean there. We look forward to Vol. II and its informed interpretation of the dark days that lay ahead.