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22.08.31 Kynan-Wilson/Munns (eds.), Henry of Blois

22.08.31 Kynan-Wilson/Munns (eds.), Henry of Blois

Thanks to an unusually long reign as bishop of the wealthy see of Winchester (1129-1171), Henry of Blois figures prominently in most histories of twelfth-century England and its church. Scholars have portrayed this extraordinarily influential prelate in various ways: an arch-nepotist who looked to his family’s interest; one of the wealthiest men in England; the grandson and brother of a king who was himself a kingmaker; a pluralist who held the abbacy of Glastonbury along with his bishopric; and a shrewd, calculating politician. On the other hand, he was also a reform-minded Cluniac monk and committed patron of the arts. Although contemporary chroniclers had much to say about Henry’s character and activities, Henry remains an elusive character. His correspondence does not survive, and we can hear his voice only in his extant Winchester acta and a libellus in which he explains how he managed the properties of Glastonbury. [1] The sole book-length treatment of his life and career has been Lena Voss’s slim German monograph from 1932. [2] In the present volume, William Kynan-Wilson and John Munns have collected nine studies that provide a new assessment of Henry’s place, not only in the English church, but in the transnational republic of letters that gave rise to the so-called “Renaissance of the Twelfth Century.”

The editors have not attempted to create a “collaborative biography” (3), but the various chapters flow together nicely and collectively offer a comprehensive account of Henry’s itinerary and priorities. While most of the authors make original and compelling claims, one can also identify a few common threads that provide what might be considered theses for the volume as a whole. First, the work makes perfectly clear that, despite his wealth and political entanglements, Henry’s Cluniac piety was central to his life and deserves to be taken seriously. Second, several chapters argue that his reputation as a shameless nepotist is grossly exaggerated, and that there was nothing especially unusual about the sorts of choices he made in granting episcopal offices to his family and intimates. In addition, despite his somewhat ambiguous position during the Becket controversy at the end of his life, Henry can be properly understood as an heir to the “Gregorian” tradition who doggedly protected the Church’s liberties and privileges. Finally, Henry emerges from this volume as a generous patron who sought to glorify his see through art, and who consciously sought to participate in his century’s cultural dynamism. Altogether, the essays reinforce Voss’s earlier assessment of the bishop as “ambiguous and dazzling” (21).

Kynan-Wilson and Munns begin with a helpfully organized introduction that synthesizes what is known about Henry’s life and career and then explores how various historiographical traditions have approached him, from his own lifetime through the Victorian era and into the twenty-first century. The first three chapters flesh out the biographical information with careful studies of three crucial aspects of Henry’s career. M. J. Franklin’s begins by centering Henry’s biography on his association with the abbey of Cluny, where he was certainly a monk at some point before he arrived at Glastonbury in 1126. As an English prelate Henry visited the abbey on five (and perhaps more) occasions, and helped to administer its affairs after the death of Abbot Peter the Venerable in 1156. This chapter is especially helpful in establishing Henry is an important European, rather than simply an English, ecclesiastical figure (and this in turn helps integrate the English church into continental affairs). Barbara Bombi follows with a nuanced account of Henry’s service as papal legate to England from 1139 to 1143, at the height of the civil war between his brother King Stephen and his cousin the Empress Matilda (and during which he shifted his allegiance). While Bombi concedes that Henry was certainly selected because of his familial relations with the principals in the conflict, she also affirms that he “arguably employed his legatine authority in accordance with the ideals of Church reform” (60). In the third chapter, “The Episcopal Colleagues of Henry of Blois,” Munns borrows his title from David Knowles’s classic study of bishops during the time of Thomas Becket, and carefully considers Henry’s work as a bishop in the context of the broader English Church. [3] Munns helpfully discusses all the instances in which Henry had a hand in episcopal and lesser ecclesiastical appointments, and finds little evidence for the rampant nepotism of which he has traditionally been accused. Henry certainly looked after his nephews and protégés, but “it was his causes and his institutions that he championed, and he was ready as necessary to sacrifice family relations and personal security in the process” (92).

Henry’s wealth and influence allowed him to spend lavishly on his see and its possessions, and the next three chapters discuss some of the most striking physical monuments to his career: the improvements he made to Winchester Cathedral (John Crook), the splendid new additions to the episcopal palace of Wolvesey adjacent to the cathedral precinct (Martin Biddle), and the “Winchester Bible” that Henry commissioned, probably around 1160 (the late Claire Donovan). Most of the main construction of the cathedral was completed by the time of Henry’s accession, so his contributions centered around modifications to the choir and the north transept, where he built what has been called a “treasury” as well as a Holy Sepulchre Chapel. With painstaking and marvelously illustrated summaries of the evidence, Crook shows how Henry’s construction of new homes for saints’ relics (especially those of Swithun, whose cult he sought to promote) reflected his ambitions to raise Winchester’s status. At the same time, he built the treasury to safeguard his own gifts, which made these building projects possible.

Henry’s additions to the palace of Wolvesey similarly reflected his ambitions for his see, as well as his political entanglements. Martin Biddle’s chapter offers extraordinarily helpful reconstructions of the entire complex, while also discussing details like the recent discovery of water pipes, which can help identify stages in the construction process. Biddle convincingly argues that Henry not only added a new east wing to serve as a site for gatherings (possibly including Church councils) but also significantly fortified the palace. Given that Wolvesey endured the disruptions of the 1140s without major damage, this project seems to have been successful.

The contribution of Claire Donovan, to whose memory the volume is dedicated, offers a thoughtful and engagingly revisionist interpretation of the creation of the great Winchester Bible, which Henry probably intended as a gift for the monks of Winchester. She argues convincingly that rather than assigning the illustrations to a single master who oversaw the project, Henry recruited top artists (now known by such delightful descriptors as “the master of the leaping figures”) from abroad to illuminate the manuscript in collaboration. In its ornateness as well as its diversity of styles, this bible stands as testament to Henry’s singular vision for his church.

The final three chapters explore how Henry and his contemporaries sought to represent episcopal power. Kynan-Wilson begins by recounting a well-known story from John of Salisbury’s Historia Pontificalis, in which Henry is teased in part for his penchant for buying up antique sculptures in Rome, but proceeds to offer an original and nuanced analysis of how the memory of Rome figured into the bishop’s self -representation. Henry represented himself as another Cicero (as much for political as literary reasons), envisioned Glastonbury and Winchester as “second Romes,” and so situated himself “at the vanguard of a wider aesthetic-concept in medieval Europe” (208). Matthew Mesley then traces the varying portrayals of Henry’s power and piety in William of Wycombe’s Life of Robert of Bethune, Gerald of Wales’s Life of Saint Remigius, and Henry’s own Scriptura about his stewardship of Glastonbury. While William used Henry’s power and piety to advance his case for Robert’s canonization, Gerald placed him into Remigius’s hagiography in ways that highlighted his reforming impulses. In his Scriptura, Henry demonstrated how a good bishop could render account for an ecclesiastical institution’s property while “articulating Glastonbury’s rights and privileges, with a view as well to enhance its historical traditions” (228). Finally, Edmund King considers the evidence for the end of Henry’s life, not only offering a more positive assessment of Henry’s role in the Becket conflict than some earlier historians have allowed, but also considering the authenticity of some of the documents. Intriguingly (and convincingly), King suggests that Henry’s two so-called “death-bed charters” in fact represent a “pastiche” assembled in the thirteenth century: “If we feel that we can hear Henry’s voice in these documents, it is because the monks could still hear his voice” (246).

One of the great achievements of this volume is to give readers a clear sense of Henry of Blois’s character despite a relative lack of first-person evidence. Here we find a bishop who was both conventionally pious and unusually effective at leaving his mark on both the political and physical landscape. Thanks to its comprehensive coverage and its helpfully thorough bibliography, the book will serve as an ideal starting place for students working on Henry himself, but also on the English Church during and after the tumult of the 1140s. It also must be noted that, like all of the “New Interpretations” offerings from Boydell,Henry of Blois has been produced with great skill and care, and is replete with lovely plates, as well as helpful diagrams and charts throughout.



1. English Episcopal Acta VIII: Winchester 1070-1204 (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 1993), 205-211.

2. Lena Voss, Heinrich von Blois, Bischof von Winchester (1129-71) (Berlin: Emil Ebering, 1932, reprinted Vaduz: Klaus Reprint, 1965).

3. David Knowles, The Episcopal Colleagues of Thomas Becket (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1951).