It is my considered opinion that the sweetest relief from suffering and the best comfort in affliction that this world affords are to be found almost entirely in the study of literature. (Prologue to The History of The English People)
Henry was born around 1088 to a Saxon mother and a Norman father, who was archdeacon of Huntingdon. Aged 12 he was sent to the school at Lincoln Cathedral where he received a thorough grounding in the medieval subjects of grammar, rhetoric and logic, but most of all, the mother of all knowledge, Theology. He lived in the household of the Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Bloet, who had been chancellor to King William II (William Rufus 1087-1100) and was one of Henry I’s closest advisers. So he was an eye-witness to the lifestyle and culture of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy and court of the time. When his father died he was awarded the archdeaconry of Huntingdon and canonry of Lincoln, posts he would hold until his death in 1156.
Nothing is more excellent in this life than to investigate and become familiar with the course of worldly events. Where does the grandeur of men shine more brightly, or the wisdom of the prudent, or the discretion of the righteous, or the moderation of the temperate, than in the context of history? (Prologue. 1)
A new bishop of Lincoln was appointed in 1123 and soon discovered that his canon (Henry) was a diligent, intelligent and widely read man, who had already composed some letters on moral subjects and poetry. Around 1124 the bishop commissioned Henry to write a history of England and its people from the earliest times to the present day. This Henry promptly set about doing, producing after ten years a long detailed chronicle starting with the legendary – and widely believed – founding of Britain by a refugee from the Trojan War, the completely fictional Brutus, down to the reign of King Henry I (1100-1134). For the earlier parts he leaned heavily on the Venerable Bede’s magnificent Ecclesiastical History (732), and subsequently relied on versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which Henry knew and understood well enough to translate into Latin.
But Henry’s maturity happened to coincide with a vital period of medieval history, the Anarchy during the reign of King Stephen (1135-1154). Luckily for us Henry continued to update his History, adding new books filled with eye witness accounts or reliable information about all the key events of the period. New versions of the history were issued until just before Henry’s death in 1156: at that point the Anarchy had come to an end with the coronation of King Henry II and Henry’s History, in its final version, ends with a hymn of praise to the new ruler.
Henry’s History was written in Latin though, apparently, a Latin which was deliberately simple and easy to read yet also stylish and exciting. He wanted to write for the widest possible (educated) audience and there is evidence that many copies were made and his history widely read and praised.
Rhetoric not history
Henry’s concept of history was different from ours. Although it contains many facts and stories found nowhere else, that wasn’t his prime purpose in writing his History. These were threefold: first, to demonstrate his grasp of the classical arts of rhetoric. The most striking and enjoyable aspect of Henry’s history is the stirring speeches he gives leading nobles and kings on the eve of the various battles. These are completely invented and follow a set pattern laid down in manuals of rhetoric, but that doesn’t stop them being extremely powerful, especially if read out, no – declaimed – in a Laurence Olivier or even Winston Churchill voice.
History as God’s will
The recorded deeds of all peoples and nations… are the very judgements of God. (Prologue. 3)
The second and main aim of Henry’s History was to praise God and show His workings in the world. Throughout the book, on every page, he asserts that this or that incident was deliberately deigned by God to show that the wicked will be punished and the virtuous rewarded, that those who enjoy God’s grace will triumph and those who ignore God will fail. Henry’s God is the medieval God, not some remote Ultimate Being of later centuries and other traditions, but a strong-minded, earnest and often angry God who intervenes at all levels of society and the universe, making castle walls bleed, making comets in the sky go backwards as evil omens, intervening to help the righteous crusaders win against the infidel Muslims, or overthrowing proud kings like Henry I.
A number of kings or dukes or earls die suddenly at the height of their powers. Instead of attributing this to chance and the complete absence of medicine, as we do, Henry generally points out that the deceased had just committed some deed of wickedness exorbitant even by the standards of the time eg conquering a town and massacring all its inhabitants before burning it to the ground. His mind is always looking to the deeper meaning, the revelation of God’s plan, which he is convinced is implicit in all human history.
History as morally improving
Which brings us to the third of Henry’s purposes, to teach morality. God has arranged all human history so as to make it a series of lessons in good and wicked behaviour, and therefore it is the historian’s duty to bring this out, to point out the virtue of the virtuous and the wickedness of the evil, in order to raise and improve the reader.
In this work the attentive reader will find what to imitate and what to reject, and if, by God’s help, he becomes a better person for this emulation and avoidance, that will be for me the reward I most desire. (Prologue. 4)
Thus the central event of the history – the Norman Conquest – is not just a calamity but Henry sees it – arguably, given his profound Christian faith, can only see it – as part of God’s plan; and if the demonstrable sufferings imposed on the English are part of God’s plan, they must have the same meaning all suffering has in Christian theology namely, a punishment for the sufferer’s wickedness, a purging of sin, a cleansing of evil. For Gildas in his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, for Bede in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, for Henry in his History – when bad things happen to people it is because the people are bad and deserve it. God cannot be wrong. And all History is controlled by God. Therefore the wrong resides in the victims: the victims are themselves to blame.
Behold the glittering vengeance of God!
It is a theology drenched in the Old Testament and, like the ancient Israelite authors, it narrates the deeds of mighty men in order to show a fierce and vengeful God smiting his enemies and raising those who worship and fear him; while the godly scribe/prophet/archdeacon records it all for the edification of future generations.
Henry gives a particularly long account of the trials and tribulations of the First Crusade, every victory a proof of the godliness of their cause, every defeat caused by the lack of faith or wickedness of one or other leader. The remoteness of his attitude to our modern one is typified by the notorious capture and sack of Jerusalem, three days of murder and looting in which the Western soldiers decimated the population, killing Muslims, Jews and Christians, raping women, looting everything they could remove, until the streets were piled with corpses. To the modern reader this is a disgusting holocaust, a massacre, not only wicked in itself but having a disastrous affect on the reputation of the Franks, the Latins, the entire West for generations afterwards. For Henry it is a famous victory and ‘the sons of God cleansed the holy city from impure nations’.
Henry’s record of events is interesting. His set piece speeches are invigorating. His anecdotes are entertaining and colourful. And his untempered, unquestioningly Old Testment Christian moralising is bracing, terrifying and gruesomely fascinating.
This Oxford University Press edition is not the text of the entire history. It is a selection which mainly amounts to the final three books of the history, covering the period from 1000 to 1154 ie the build-up to the Conquest, the Conquest and its aftermath, the reign of brutal King William Rufus, wise King Henry I, and then the lamentable anarchy of King Stephen’s reign – 96 paperback pages, in all, fairly short. It also includes Henry’s short letter On Contempt For The World, Drawn From my Own Experience and a short essay on The Miracles of the English.
The edition was prepared by Diana Greenway, Professor of Medieval History and the Institute for Historical Research, University of London. She is the author of the Oxford Medieval Texts version of the full Latin text of the History, along with a complete English translation (1996) which I would dearly like to read but which, alas, currently retails for £225.
This paperback edition has an informative introduction, useful maps and family trees (vital for this period) as well as copious notes, especially good at pointing out where Henry was wrong and misleading in his account. Altogether this is a very attractive, useful and thought-provoking paperback edition of this riveting and enlightening work
- Historia Anglorum (OUP short edition) on Amazon
- Historia Anglorum – full Oxford Medieval Texts edition – on Amazon
- Henry of Huntingdon Wikipedia article