Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint @ the British Museum

‘Thomas is the best doctor for the worthy sick’
(Inscription on a lead ampulla created before 1200 to hold some of the Saint Thomas Becket’s miracle-working blood)

Two years after his murder on 29 December 1170, Thomas Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander III and his tomb at Canterbury cathedral quickly became a site of miraculous healing and wonder cures, and one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in all of Europe, second only to Rome and Santiago de Compostela.

How appropriate of the British Museum to re-open after the long COVID lockdown with a grand exhibition devoted to one of the greatest healers this country has ever known.

The healing of Ralph de Longeville. Miracle window, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Thomas’s story

The exhibition is in the central rotunda at the museum, smaller and more intimate than the large Sainsburys gallery at the back. It is laid out in simple chronological order, with key events told in the dozen or so big wall posters and embellished in the labels of over 100 objects brought together for the first time, including rare loans from across the UK and Europe.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll quote liberally from the exhibition wall labels:

Becket was born in 1120 in Cheapside, a stone’s throw from St Paul’s Cathedral. He had a comfortable childhood. His parents Gilbert and Matilda were immigrants from Northern France, and part of a wealthy merchant community living in the commercial heart of London.

Around the age of 18 Becket went to study in Paris. After three years in Paris, Becket returned to England. He was offered the chance to work as a clerk for Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, joining a group of ambitious young men. The legal and diplomatic training that Becket received in his nine years with Theobald was life-changing.

In 1154 the archbishop recommended him as royal chancellor to the new king, Henry II, and the two men became great friends. It was the best paid position in the royal household, earning him five shillings a day. As chancellor Becket was responsible for issuing documents in the king’s name.

In 1162 Henry II nominated Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, following Theobald’s death. It was a controversial appointment. Becket was not a priest and until then had lived a worldly, secular life. The king wanted him to remain chancellor, hoping that having his friend in both positions would increase royal control over Church and State. This plan failed when Becket renounced the chancellorship and began to oppose Henry. In 1164, with tensions escalating, the archbishop escaped across the Channel.

Henry II saw Becket’s rejection of the chancellorship in 1162 as a betrayal. Over the next two years their relationship disintegrated. One issue in particular divided them. The king demanded that churchmen accused of serious crimes be tried in secular rather than religious courts. Becket refused to endorse this infringement of the rights of the Church, provoking the king’s outrage.

Henry II and Becket arguing in a genealogy of the Kings of England, about 1307 to 1327. © British Library Board – Royal MS 20 A II, f. 7v.

With the situation spiralling out of control, Becket was brought before the king and accused of trumped-up crimes. Fearing for his life, on 2 November 1164 the archbishop fled abroad. He spent six years in exile under the protection of Henry’s rival, Louis VII of France, returning on 2 December 1170. Henry II punished Becket for leaving England without his permission, confiscating his land and wealth.

Becket found himself in France at the same time as Pope Alexander III, who was locked in disagreement with Frederick Barbarossa, an emperor with vast territories in central Europe. Like Becket, Alexander was in exile and sought protection from King Louis VII of France. After making peace the pope returned to Rome. This image shows him embracing Becket before their farewell. Alexander was later responsible for Becket’s canonisation as a saint.

Pope Alexander, who had forbidden the Archbishop of York to perform the sacred act, receives a complaint from Becket. He asks for permission to excommunicate the bishops involved in the ceremony, which the pope duly grants.

The coronation of the Young King spurred Becket into action and, after agreeing a fragile peace with Henry II, he decided to return to England. Fatefully, before leaving France he carried out the sentences of excommunication endorsed by the pope.

On 2 December, Becket returned to Canterbury and the cathedral he had not seen for six years. At his Christmas court in Normandy, Henry learned that Becket had excommunicated the English bishops involved in his son’s coronation. He flew into a rage, calling Becket a traitor and ‘low-born clerk’. Four knights, Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, Richard Brito and William de Tracy, heard the king’s outburst. They hatched a plan to bring the archbishop to Henry and headed for England to arrest him.

The knights arrived at Canterbury and entered the precincts. They tried to arrest Thomas but he fled into the cathedral itself. Here the knights again tried to seize him but Thomas refused to go with them. The knights had worked themselves up into a rage and also risked major humiliation if they ended up having to leave empty-handed. Although the precise exchanges will never be known the confrontation escalated out of control and finally the knights attacked, one of them raising his sword and bringing it down to shatter Thomas’s skull. There were quite a few eye witnesses including Thomas’s clerk, Edward Grim, who tried to intervene and was injured in the struggle. All the eye witnesses agree that Thomas’s skull was shattered and a fragment of it flew to the ground.

The exhibition contains numerous depictions of the deed, as illustrations in illuminated manuscripts such as the MS containing John of Salisbury’s Life of St Thomas Becket from the British Library, one of the earliest known representations of the murder, or as carved reliefs, as shown below.

Alabaster panel showing the murder of Thomas Becket. England, around 1425 to 1450. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Appalled at what they had done the knights returned to Henry’s court in France where the king immediately grasped the significance of the catastrophe. In the years to come he made not one but two major penances to atone for his guilt and eventually took the extraordinary step of going on pilgrimage himself to Canterbury, where he stripped to a loincloth and shuffled through the cathedral on his bare knees, arriving at the altar where he was flagellated by monks.

To understand the utterly Christian worldview of the Middle Ages, you have to grasp that this was a reasonable and practical thing for a king to do. It cleansed him of his personal guilt and thus enabled his soul to enter heaven. It went a long way to winning back those of his subjects and the hierarchy of the church in Rome which had been scandalised by the murder. And so it, at the same time, fulfilled Henry’s purpose of asserting his authority over the farflung territories of his Plantagenet empire which stretched from Scotland to the Pyrenees.

The personal drama

Complicated story, isn’t it, and I’ve followed the museum’s account so closely because your opinion of the murder has to depend on a good grasp of its context and of the precise chain of events leading up to it.

At the level of personal drama, Henry and Becket had at one time been very good friends. Becket was 13 years older than Henry, better educated and in many ways a mentor to the younger man. The pair worked well together when they were king and chancellor. When Henry raised him to the archbishopric he therefore had every expectation that Thomas would be grateful.

But Thomas was also a flamboyant man, given to grandiloquent gestures as chancellor and, when he became archbishop, there is evidence from contemporary accounts that many other clerics disapproved. He had to be promoted through the hierarchy of clerical positions at top speed which many felt made a mockery of religion.

Therefore Thomas was nervously aware of his lack of deep theological training or of proper clerical experience. Combine that with a tendency to grandstand and you have an accident waiting to happen.

To this day historians debate his motives.

1. When he refused Henry’s demands to reform ecclesiastical law in order to make priests who had committed egregious crimes (for example rape or murder) subject to the secular laws of the land, did Thomas do it because he sincerely felt everyone anointed into the church was only accountable to the church – or because of his awareness that he wasn’t a ‘proper’ churchman so he was trying to curry favour with the English church hierarchy and the distant pope?

2. When he made the dramatic move of excommunicating the bishops who anointed Henry’s young son co-king, did he do it out of purely religious fervour and in order to protect the rights and privileges of the post of archbishop of Canterbury, whose ancient right it was to perform coronations and this undermined his authority. Or was he, once again, grandstanding to curry favour, this time with the pope who he met in exile in France and who explicitly approved his actions?

3. Lastly, why did he insist on staying put when the knights came to arrest him? Chances are he knew they were behaving without Henry’s explicit permission, that arresting an archbishop was illegal, and he knew any confrontation between him and the king would inevitably draw in the pope who was a staunch ally. Why not go with the knights, have it out with the king and be exonerated?

Alabaster panel from an altarpiece showing Becket’s consecration as archbishop on 3 June 1162. England, first half of the 15th century. Private Collection. © Nicholas and Jane Ferguson.

Or, as T.S. Eliot’s play on the subject considers, did Thomas want to be martyred? Facing intractable problems, not least his own sense of inadequacy and illegitimacy (as a man who lacked the deep experience required by an archbishop) did his liking for grand gestures kick in, and he taunted the knights so much they were left with no way out?

This is the view of Paul Johnson in his 1976 History of Christianity who quotes Edward Grim, who was an eye witness:

He who had long yearned for martyrdom now saw that the occasion to embrace it had arrived. (Paul Johnson, History of Christianity, 1990 Penguin edition, page 210)

And one of Thomas’s many hagiographers, William Fitzstephen:

Had he so wished, the Archbishop might easily have turned aside and saved himself by flight, for both time and place offered an opportunity to escape without being discovered.’ (ibid)

Could he have simply walked out peacefully with the knights and accompanied them to France with no fuss? We’ll never know.

The saint and healer

The exhibition really blossoms after Becket was murdered because that’s when he was transformed from one among many squabbling European monarchs and their statesman, into a premier league saint.

News of his murder spread far and wide across Europe and almost immediately people rich and poor, high and low, young and old, male and female, began making the pilgrimage to the cathedral and to the precise steps into the choir where he was hacked down. Relics were many: his clothes, his blood, his bones, his coffin, special prayers, these all helped rain down on pilgrims inestimable blessings, healings and cures.

Not only did Canterbury become by far Britain’s premier pilgrimage site but until the Reformation Thomas was the most frequently portrayed of all saints, had more parish churches named after him than any other saint, and more English boys were called after him than any other namesake.

The exhibition includes many of the precious caskets which were lovingly created to contain this or that relic brought back by pilgrims which are all beautiful examples of medieval craftsmanship, but maybe the most striking is this reliquary casket from Norway. Norway! Because apparently in Norway Thomas’s fame was such that he was second in popularity to St Olaf, the national saint.

(If you look carefully at the bottom panel you can not only see the knight hacking Thomas’s head but also the famous fragment of skull falling to the floor.)

Reliquary casket, c.1220–50 from Hedalen Stave Church, Norway. By kind permission of Hedalen Stave Church

The stained glass

In the decades following his death, the authorities at Canterbury cathedral created a new chapel devoted to Thomas. This included what became a set of 12 tall, narrow stained glass windows over six meters in height and each containing a set of four circular roundels themselves divided into segments depicting scenes not from Thomas’s life, but from the countless miraculous healings which people attributed to his powers. Hence they are collectively known as the Miracle Windows.

Five of the original windows were destroyed over the centuries, so seven survive, and one of these seven has been lovingly dismantled, removed from the cathedral and carefully transported here to the British Museum, where the four sections have been separated and are displayed at head height in a special curving gallery.

So this is a golden opportunity to see some masterpieces of medieval stained glass, really close up, beautifully presented and with the sometimes gruesome stories portrayed in each of the panels carefully described and explained.

Take the roundel which describes the sensational story of Eilward of Westoning.

Miracle window, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Eilward was a peasant who was accused of stealing in a drunken quarrel. In the panel on the mid-left he stands with the stolen items tied behind his back. A judge in a cap sentences him to trial by ordeal. Eilward fails and is condemned to blinding and castration. At the bottom left, Eilward is reclining in bed, his head bandaged from a blow. Becket appears to him in a vision, emerging from a shrine to bless him. In the middle-right panel Eilward lies bound to a plank as a man holds him by the neck and stabs his eyes while another wields a blade, kneels on his legs and reaches for his testicles.

Becket appears in a vision to Eilward. The saint makes the sign of the cross in front of his face. On waking, Eilward’s eyes and testicles grow back. The top panel shows Eilward riding a horse to Canterbury Cathedral. In the bottom centre panel a crowd gathers round Eilward as he points to his eyes while another man points at his groin to highlight his miraculous healing. The green tree at the centre symbolises his restored fertility. The panel at bottom right shows Eilward giving thanks at Becket’s tomb.

The other roundels describe in similar detail the miracle of Etheldreda who recovers from a fever, Saxeva who recovers from a painful arm and stomach ache, two sisters from Boxley who were lame and are healed, a monk called Hugh from Jervaulx Abbey who is cured, and so on. I particularly liked the story of Hugh who, at one point, suffers a catastrophic nosebleed which is depicted as a vivid flow of red streaming down from his face, on the lower left.

Detail from Miracle window showing the story of Hugh of Jervaulx, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. Note the vivid red nosebleed from the prostrate man’s face © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Move over, graphic novels!

Thomas and Realpolitik

I was already familiar with the story of Thomas Becket, possibly a little over-familiar with it and not much in the main body of the exhibition told me much I didn’t already know or changed my own personal opinion.

Influenced by secular historians like Paul Johnson, I am inclined to think of Thomas as a deliberately obstructive, showboating and irresponsible man who needlessly set out to make Henry II’s life as difficult as possible. In most accounts I’ve read, the Becket murder was a blip or side issue in the bigger picture of Henry’s lifelong struggle to maintain his Plantagenet empire. It had a seismic impact on popular culture but little or no impact on the diplomatic Realpolitik of the day. After his half-naked atonement Henry restored good relations with the pope who approved his selection for next Archbishop of Canterbury as well as other ecclesiastical posts, as well as his plans to invade and conquer Ireland. In practical, worldly terms, Thomas’s death changed nothing.

(It’s worth pointing out that the curators disagree, and include a treasured manuscript of Magna Carta, signed 45 years after Thomas’s death by Henry’s useless son, King John, in 1215, to make their case. The Charter’s very first clause, probably added at the insistence of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, states that the English Church must be free from royal interference. In the curators’ opinion this demonstrates how Becket’s dispute with Henry II continued to shape English politics long after his death. In Paul Johnson’s view this struggle between king and church was the central issue of the high Middle Ages, would remain a bugbear for centuries until Henry VIII decisively ended it with victory for the secular authority, and Thomas’s death didn’t really affect the issue one way or the other. Discuss.)

The Canterbury Tales

The exhibition has a section devoted to The Canterbury Tales, one of the key texts of English literature and, with its varied and colourful tales told by a motley cross section of late 14th century personalities all engaged on a horseback pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, as explained in the lovely words of the Prologue.

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

‘That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke’, I love that line. Who doesn’t need holp when that they are seeke?

The exhibition includes one of the earliest manuscripts which contains all 24 of the surviving stories, as well as blow-ups of the original medieval portraits of some of the storytellers (the Wife of Bath, the Yeoman, the Merchant and the Shipman). But none of the stories are actually about Thomas and, if anything, they demonstrate a woefully relaxed attitude to Christian faith and morality which would have appalled the saint and his most zealous devotees.

The suppression of a saint

The one part of the exhibition I found genuinely new and informative came right at the end and deals with Henry VIII’s aggressive erasure of the cult of Thomas.

I knew that, as part of the first steps in the Reformation and linked with the Dissolution of the monasteries, Henry had all pilgrimage sites and saints shrines shut down. I knew from Johnson’s account that Thomas’s shrine was the biggest one in the land and that Henry’s commissioners carried off a vast amount of loot, namely 4,994 ounces of gold, 4,425 of silver-gilt, 5,286 of plain silver and 26 cartloads of treasure. A generation earlier, around 1511, the Dutch reformer Erasmus and the English humanist John Colet had visited the shrine and been disgusted at its tackiness. They were offered the opportunity to kiss a prize relic, the genuine arm of St George, or to touch a manky old rag supposedly stained with the saint’s blood, and Thomas’s genuine original shoe to be kissed.

As the curators observe:

After visiting Becket’s shrine real pilgrims bought similar souvenirs, badges to pin to clothing or little flasks worn around the neck. They were made quickly and cheaply by pouring molten lead or tin into a mould. The range of Canterbury souvenirs is remarkable, from miniature bells inscribed with ‘St Thomas’ to tiny swords with detachable scabbards.

And the exhibition includes no fewer than 24 examples of these multivarious knick-knacks and gewgaws. The medieval cult of saints had degenerated to the level of Blackpool souvenirs.

Pilgrim badge, 14th century, England, showing Becket returning from exile in France.

So I wasn’t surprised to learn the specifics of the demolition of Thomas’s massive and treasure-laden shrine, that:

On 5 September 1538, Henry VIII arrived in Canterbury. During his three-day stay royal agents began demolishing St Thomas’s shrine, prising off the jewels and smashing the marble base. They packed up its precious metal in crates, which were taken to London. Becket’s bones were removed, and a rumour spread that they had been burnt and the ashes scattered to the wind.

What I didn’t know and found fascinating was the way King Henry VIII singled out the cult of Thomas for special suppression. It was because, at a political level, above the level of popular culture and religion, Thomas was a symbol of the independence of the Church and Henry’s reformation was about decisively ending centuries of squabbling, and asserting the paramount authority of the secular monarch.

This explains why, after 1534 when Henry broke with Rome and Parliament appointed him Supreme Head of the Church of England, he could not tolerate Becket’s status as a defender of Church liberty and denounced him as a traitor to the country, or the new notion of ‘nation’ which Henry was creating.

Hence the passage of laws which singled out the cult of Saint Thomas and banned it. The laws banned visual references to the saint and insisted that the very word ‘saint’ was to be expunged from the record. Henceforth he was to be referred to as ‘Bishop Thomas’. A wall label quotes from a Royal proclamation, of 16 November 1538:

…from henceforth the said Thomas Becket shall not be esteemed, named, reputed, nor called a saint, but Bishop Becket, and…his images and pictures through the whole realm shall be put down…

The exhibition closes with some quite fascinating examples of how this erasure from history, this rewriting of history, was carried out, including:

  • a book of hours where the devotional prayer to Becket has been carefully cut out, although the illustration of the martyrdom has been left (intriguingly) undamaged
  • a copy of the Golden Legend, a very popular compendium of the lives of saints, in which the text and image for Becket’s story have been crossed out with black ink
  • a manuscript containing texts for the celebration of mass, once owned by the parish church of St John the Baptist in Bromsgrove, near Worcester, in which thick red ink has been selectively smeared across prayers to St Thomas in order to obliterate them

Manuscript containing mass texts from the parish church of St John the Baptist in Bromsgrove in which prayers to ‘Bishop’ Thomas have been obliterated by red ink. Around 1450. © The Syndics of Cambridge University Library

Curators

  • Lloyd de Beer, curator, Medieval Britain and Europe
  • Naomi Speakman, curator, Late Medieval Europe
  • Sophie Kelly, project curator

Related links

Other medieval reviews

Exhibitions

Books

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

The Plantagenets (1) by Dan Jones (2012)

The House of Plantagenet held the English throne from 1154 (with the accession of King Henry II) until 1485 (when Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth).

The origin of ‘plantagenet’

The name derives from Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou in north-west France (tucked in behind Normandy and Brittany) from 1113 to 1151, and here’s why:

When Henry I of England’s only son and heir, William Aetheling, drowned in the White Ship disaster of 1120, Henry took a second wife, Adeliza, in the hope of having another son, but their marriage was childless. So Henry named his daughter, Matilda, born in 1102, as his heir and called the nobles of England together to vow to accept her as monarch after his death. All he had to do now was marry her off to another royal family so she could continue the line. Henry received various offers for Matilda’s hand and eventually chose the 15-year-old Geoffrey of Anjou, son of Fulk V, Count of Anjou – for the good reason that the county of Anjou lay to the south of Henry’s kingdom of Normandy, so this alliance would secure his southern border.

Now according to legend, young Geoffrey of Anjou was not only a keen rider and fierce warrior but liked to sport a sprig of yellow broom in his hair. The Latin for broom is Planta Genista – hence the nickname Plantagenet which came, in retrospect, to be applied to the entire ‘house’.

(In actual fact, the family didn’t start using this as a family name until several centuries after Geoffrey’s death, but history now refers to the entire line as ‘the Plantagenets’ and ‘the Plantagenets’ they will forever remain.)

Anyway, when Henry I of England died in 1135, his daughter Matilda theoretically became Queen (a title everyone was uncomfortable with, so she took the title ‘Lady of England’).

But such quibbles were rather academic because Henry’s sister’s son, Matilda’s cousin, Stephen of Blois, hastened to England to lay claim to the throne himself. Although his claim was more remote than Matilda’s, he had one big advantage – he was a man.

On this basis, Stephen secured the loyalty of many of the more conservative nobles. As Dan Jones points out, the law of primogeniture i.e. the automatic succession of the first-born child of a monarch, was, during this period, only taken as a rough guideline. In practice, each new king needed the support of a majority of the nobles in order to secure the throne. And this support Stephen managed to achieve, helped by influential relatives, notably his younger son, Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester.

However, not all of the nobles of England supported Stephen, some cleaved to Henry’s original wish that Matilda succeed to the throne – and so England fell into a nineteen-year period of anarchy and civil war, fought between the brutal mercenaries of Queen Matilda and the equally brutal mercenaries of King Stephen.

It was only towards the end of the period that Matilda’s son, Henry, began to emerge as a capable leader and successful warrior in his own right. Henry won successive campaigns in England, lobbied the pope to be recognised as the valid successor to Stephen and won over regional English barons. Eventually in 1153 King Stephen recognised Henry’s right to the throne and adopted him as his ‘son’. Next year Stephen died and Henry ascended the throne as Henry II, thus ending the civil war and unifying the realm of England but also the family’s extensive lands in France.

And thus begins the real chronicle of the Plantagenet kings.

Jones’s book

Dates

Dan Jones has written a rip-roaring, boys-own-adventure version of the history of the Plantagenet kings (and queens) between the ascension of Henry II in 1154 and 1399, when Richard II was overthrown by Henry Bolingbroke, who thus became King Henry IV of England.

The Plantagenet dynasty continued for another 85 years after Richard’s overthrow, up till the day when King Richard III was cut down at the Battle of Bosworth Field and was succeeded by a new family, the Tudors; but Jones brings his account to an end at 1400, partly for thematic reasons – to continue means getting into the Wars of the Roses which is a whole new story – but mostly because of size – this paperbook book is already a hefty 601 pages long: another 85 years-worth would have made it too big and heavy to hold or read easily!

And not to worry, Jones has gone on to publish the sequel – Plantagenets II you might call it – or, as it’s actually titled, The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors. For although Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard II are all theoretically Plantagenets, the 15th century has a feel of its own, dominated by the prolonged civil war between two branches of the Plantagenet line which came to be known as the Yorkists and the Lancastrians.

Narrative history

Conventional academic history normally includes surveys of society, analyses of changing social structures, a look at the developing economy, technology and commerce, developments in law and governance, with sections thrown in about the arts, poetry, painting and architecture.

Well, none of that features in this big book. All that social, economic and cultural history has been chucked out to make The Plantagenets read almost like a novel, with Jones concentrating exclusively on the triumphs and reversals experienced by the strong central characters, the successive kings and their immediate families – scheming, strategising, involved in endless in-fighting, marrying off members of the family, making alliances, breaking alliances, raising armies of mercenaries and marching off to war. The result is ridiculously fun and readable.

Adding to the popular feel, the book is divided into seven sections with romantic titles like ‘Age of Shipwreck’, ‘Age of Empire’, ‘Age of Opposition’ and so on, giving a bright Hollywood feel to each era. And these sections are themselves broken up into surprisingly numerous chapters, 85 of them to be precise.

Given that the seven section headings each require a title page and a blank page (i.e. 14 pages with no text), this means that the chapters are an average of 601 – 14 blank pages = 587 text pages / 85 chapters = 6.9 pages long.

In other words, the chapters are short, focused and punchy, and Jones likes to end them on a cliff-hanger:

It would be here, however, that all his decades of triumph would dissolve, finally, into heartbreak. (p.99) [setting up the next chapter which describes the war which eclipsed the end of Henry II’s reign]

Yet for every month he spent on his crusade, problems loomed larger and larger for the Plantagenet empire back at home. (p.123) [describing the mounting problems facing Richard I]

All he could do was sit behind his ever-receding lines and hope for a miracle. None would be forthcoming. (p.165) [King John loses Normandy to the French]

The book often has a soap-opera-ish tone but then many of the actual events are barely believable, and the whole story presents a vast panorama of lying, treachery and blood-curdling violence on an epic scale.

All in all, this is a hugely enjoyable, racy, pacy page-turner of a popular history.

A war of all against all

It is fairly common knowledge that the Middle Ages were warlike, but it’s still breath-taking to read quite how much it consisted of back-to-back fighting. With the spring of each year came the return of the ‘campaigning season’ and off they’d go, pretty much every leader of every country, duchy, princedom, earldom and so on – keen to gain ‘honour’ and loot by attacking their nearest neighbour and reneging on every deal they’d made the previous year.

And it wasn’t just wars between ‘nations’ – after all, nations in our sense barely existed – the fighting is between everybody. Henry II was reckoned a great king in his day because he held together an ’empire’ which stretched from the border with warlike Scotland, across all of troublesome England, down through the duchy of Normandy (which he owned as a descendant of William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy), along with Anjou which he’d inherited, into Brittany which he’d conquered, and across the vast area of south-west France known as Aquitaine, which came into his possession after he married its queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, in 1152.

It comes as no surprise that holding on to all this land involved the king in non-stop conflict against the Scots in the north, against the King of France in the East, and in putting down a ceaseless stream of rebellions everywhere else, especially in the territories scattered on the periphery of his ’empire’ (namely in Poitou, Maine and Brittany).

So much is to be expected. What was a revelation to me was the extent to which Henry II ended up fighting his own family. He had four sons – William, Geoffrey, Richard and John. He parcelled out bits of the empire to each of them but they were never satisfied, his eldest son William in particular, champing at the bit for more land and more power, and in 1173 this led to ‘the Great Revolt’ when Henry’s eldest three sons united to rise against him, supported by their mother Eleanor (!) and numerous rebel counts.

It took Henry 18 months of unremitting fighting and canny diplomacy to put the rebellion down. He then showed astonishing clemency in forgiving his sons and re-allotting them their various dukedoms (Richard retained Aquitaine, Geoffrey Normandy, and so on). After all, he needed them – they were his heirs.

(The example of Henry’s wise forbearance is revisited later in the book, when bad King John and weak King Henry III are seen vindictively punishing those who opposed them – and thus creating enemies for life, not only in the enemies themselves, but animosity among their wider families and children. In this, as in so much else, Henry II showed a tough wisdom.)

But if Henry forgave his sons, he didn’t show the same clemency to his wife and rebel queen, Eleanor, who he locked away in Shrewsbury castle for her pains (and to guarantee her sons’ good behaviour). In any case, despite his forgiveness, the three unfilial boys carried on making alliances with the king of France, with rebellious counts, with anyone they could get to listen to them, and carried on non-stop plotting against their father and against each other.

At this high level of courtly politics the unscrupulous politicking, back-stabbing, levying of mercenaries and fighting small battles to put down rebels, uprisings, invasions and attacks is constant.

If there’s one conclusion from this long, violent, treacherous and cynical record it is what a terrible system of government ‘kingship’ was, when the throne so often ended up in the hands of women who no-one would follow, of psychopaths who suspected everyone of betraying them, of children who were easily manipulated by cabals and cliques, or of men who were simply not up to its almost impossibly demanding requirements.

Plantagenet or Angevin

Historians are divided in their use of the terms ‘Plantagenet’ and ‘Angevin’ in regards to Henry II and his sons. Some make Henry II the first Plantagenet King of England, while others refer to Henry, Richard and John as the ‘Angevin dynasty’, Angevin being the adjective derived from the region of Anjou, because all three were Dukes of Anjou and (Henry in particular) expanded their realm to contain all of England, Normandy, Brittany, Anjou and Maine, and Aquitaine i.e. the western half of France.

In 1204 John lost much of the Angevins’ continental territories, including Anjou itself, to the King of France. This is why the Angevin’ dynasty is considered to end with John, and John’s sin – Henry III of England – being considered the first Plantagenet, a name derived, as we’ve mentioned, from the nickname of his great-grandfather, Geoffrey of Anjou.


King Henry I (1100-1135)

Youngest son of William the Conqueror, King of England and Duke of Normandy, Henry I groomed his own son William Aetheling for the succession, having him named co-ruler when he turned 16, as was the custom.

The drowning of this son in the White Ship tragedy (the Aetheling and a group of courtiers were aboard ship in Barfleur harbour drinking late into the night, at which point the captain ill-advisedly set off to sail back to England in pitch darkness and crashed into some rocks) left the succession to the throne vacant.

Henry’s first wife was by now dead, so he quickly remarried the nubile young Adeliza of Louvain, in the hope of having another son, but their marriage was childless. So as a last resort, Henry declared his daughter, Empress Matilda, his heir. She had been married to the Holy Roman Emperor when just eight, but he had died and she had returned to England. Now Henry quickly remarried her to Geoffrey of Anjou who was just fifteen, in 1128. Their marriage was difficult but eventually Matilda did her duty and gave birth to two sons, Henry (who would become Henry II) and Geoffrey, in 1133 and 1134. Then, after a day hunting, Henry fell ill after – according to legend – consuming ‘a surfeit of lampreys’ at dinner, and died on 1 December 1135.

The Anarchy (1135-54)

After Henry I died without a male heir, his daughter Matilda claimed the throne but was beaten to it by her cousin, Stephen, who ruled the centre of England as King Stephen, while Matilda managed to establish a base in the West Country, with regular incursions by her allies in the East and North. Both sides hired mercenaries, mainly Flemish. Over the next 19 years hardly a part of England wasn’t ravished and burnt by these hated foreigners. England became a wasteland.

King Henry II (1154-1189)

Cut to a generation later and young Henry – Henry FitzEmpress as he was called ‘Fitz’ meaning ‘son of’ and Queen Matilda often being referred to as an empress – is turning twenty.

Henry has shrewdly married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152 and plots to overthrow the ageing king Stephen. The major obstacle to Henry’s plan to take back the throne of England was Stephen’s own son, Eustace. But Eustace did everyone a favour by dying in 1153, just as Henry mounted an invasion of south England backed by Norman forces. Now lacking an heir, and faced with Henry and Matilda’s sizeable forces, King Stephen made a deal, declaring Henry his heir and adopting him as his ‘son’ – and then very conveniently dying the next year (1154).

Thus Henry smoothly succeeded to the throne and became King of England, Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Count of Anjou, Count of Maine, Count of Nantes and sometime Lord of Ireland.

21 when he came to the throne, Henry was clever, resourceful and aggressive, and faced almost continual warfare from the King of France and neighbouring counts and dukes for the next 37 years. He not only held his empire together but expanded it south towards Toulouse, while seizing Eastern Wales and East Ireland, repeatedly defeating his enemies, while also finding time to supervise reform of the tax and legal systems, especially in England.

Maybe the most striking thing about these kings is the way the way England continued to be only one of their realms. English historians see them as English kings concerned with English law etc, but Henry and his sons Richard and John were as much or more concerned with courtly politics, appointments, the laws and customs and even the smallest castles and lords in Normandy, Brittany, Poitou, Maine, Anjou or Aquitaine as well.

The simplest proof of this is that when Henry II, caught up in his last campaign (against his eldest son Richard who had rebelled against him, in alliance with the king of France), realised that he was dying, he headed not north to England, but south into his home domain of Anjou, dying at Chinon Castle and asking to be buried at nearby Fontevraud Abbey. This abbey is also the last resting place of his queen Eleanor, and their son Richard I. It’s only by bending the truth that we call these early Plantagenet rulers ‘English’. They were something else, really, for which no modern word quite exists. Rulers of the Plantagenet Empire.

Henry had five legitimate sons with Eleanor of Aquitaine:

  • William (b.1153) who died aged 3.
  • Henry the Young King (b.1155) who died aged 28 in the midst of fighting against his father and brother Richard.
  • Richard (b.1157) who became king in the middle of waging a military campaign against his own father (one chronicler said that his father’s corpse, laid out in the chapel at Chinon, began to bleed from the nose when Richard approached it – and who would blame it!).
  • Geoffrey (b.1158) the sneaky devious one who was involved in countless plots against his father and brothers but died in a tournament in 1186, aged 27.
  • John (b.1166) who schemed relentlessly during his brother Richard’s absence in the Holy Land. While Richard was away, John handed over much of the Angevin empire to King Philip Augustus of France in return for being allowed to rule it, and then plotted with Philip to try and prolong Richard’s captivity in Germany. What a creep.

King Richard I (1189-99)

It is interesting to learn that Richard was always closest to his mother, Eleanor. Once is father Henry II had given him her territory, the Duchy of Aquitaine, Richard refused to be budged from it despite Henry II’s complicated plans to move his sons around the empire and frequent generous offers to Richard. No. Aquitaine was his!

When the Saracen leader Saladin seized Jerusalem in 1187 all Europe was shocked and Henry II negotiated a peace with his enemy King Philip of France in order to ‘take the Cross’ and go crusading to the Holy Land. But Henry died in the midst of the rebellion against him led by Richard and so the onus to take up the cross fell on the latter, a doughty warrior who, of course, was to go on and earn the sobriquet Cœur de Lion or Lionheart.

As for Henry, so England was only one of Richard’s many realms and one he wasn’t particularly attached to, always preferring his ancestral homeland of Aquitaine. Richard mainly regarded England as a cash cow and mulcted it mercilessly in order to fund and provision a huge fleet for the crusade. (Richard is widely quoted as having said that if he could have sold London to raise funds, he would have.)

Richard rampaged across the Mediterranean, seizing Cyprus for his empire and alienating other European notables engaged on crusade. Once actually in the Holy Land he won some famous campaigns, including recapturing the port of Acre, but he never got near recapturing Jerusalem and he alienated many important European leaders with his braggadochio.

In his absence the condition of his empire decayed. King Philip of France (who had returned early from the crusade, in anger at Richard’s bossiness) now attacked Normandy, and England was brought to the brink of civil war between the forces of the chamberlain Richard had appointed, William Longchamps, and rebel nobles allied with his slimy brother, John.

While all this was happening at home, the crusade dragged on but a) Richard was physically ill for most of it b) military might turned out to be even between the Crusaders and Saladin, leading to a costly stalemate.

Eventually, Richard signed a peace pact with Saladin allowing for Christian pilgrims to visit Jerusalem in peace, and set sail, vowing to return.

It was only on the return journey that Richard discovered just how many enemies he had made in the Holy Land, and just how blackened his reputation had become. Travelling overland from the Adriatic, Richard was caught and imprisoned by Leopold of Austria who he had insulted at the siege of Acre (by refusing to let Leopold enter the captured city on equal terms with himself and Philip of France, and then by ordering Leopold’s standard inside the captured city to be torn down).

Leopold now sold Richard on to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, who promptly insisted that England pay a vast ransom for Richard’s release. Despite lobbying from the King of France and his brother John to keep him imprisoned, loyal nobles in England eventually raised the ransom and paid the Emperor, who released Richard. He had been in prison from Christmas 1192 to February 1194.

Back in England, Richard set about raising more money in order to put this realm back on a sound footing, before setting off to Normandy to reclaim the territory the King of France had seized in his absence.

It was in the south, in Aquitaine, that Richard met his death, unexpectedly shot from the battlements of the castle of Châlus-Chabrola, as Richard suppressed a relatively minor revolt by Viscount Aimar V of Limoges. Richard was hit in the shoulder by a stray crossbow bolt. Trying to pull it out, he snapped off the shaft leaving the metal arrowhead deep in his shoulder. The surgeon who removed the metal arrowhead hacked deep into the flesh and muscle to get at it. The wound became infected and then gangrenous. Richard died in his mother’s arms, in agony. He was 41.

Richard was buried in the same church – Fontevraud Abbey near Chinon – as the father he had spent so much energy rebelling against (Henry II).

King John (1199-1216)

‘England’s most callous and remorseless king’ (p.216)

Richard had married Berengaria of Navarre in 1191 during his sojourn in Cyprus. Despite eight years of marriage they failed to produce any children. Richard’s death without an heir was the trigger for the dissolution of the empire his father had so laboriously built up and defended.

Towards the end of his life Richard had nominated his nephew, Arthur of Brittany, the son of his late brother Geoffrey, to be his heir, and when Richard died, Brittany declared for Arthur. But England declared for John, while Aquitaine was left to fight for.

John’s lack of political nous, his ability to rub everyone up the wrong way, his reputation for treachery, and his uselessness as a general all contrast sharply with the ascendant French king, Philip II, who had come to the throne in 1180 as a 15-year-old. (John, born in 1166, was 33 when he came to the throne; Philip, born in 1165, was one year older and infinitely more experienced and canny.)

As English people we tend to focus on the failures of bad King John, but this is to miss the point that Philip was the star king of the age, not only going on Crusade, but fighting off a north European alliance at the crucial Battle of Bouvines, which was a defining moment in the unification of France. Philip won Normandy and Brittany and most of Aquitaine from John, as well as extending French possessions further to the south-east.

Philip built a great wall around Paris, re-organized the French government, reined in his nobles and brought financial stability to his country. All in all he transformed France from a small feudal state into the most prosperous and powerful country in Europe and no wonder contemporaries came to call him Philip ‘Augustus’ during his lifetime (in reference to the Roman emperor Gaius Octavius Thurinus whose success in extending and bringing peace to the Roman Empire earned him the title ‘Augustus’).

Jones chronicles John’s loss of almost all the continental parts of the Angevin empire. For the first time, a Plantagenet king really was forced back into these British islands and could now truly be described as an English king. The surprise of this section of the book is how firm and effective John’s rule actually was in Britain, where he extended Plantagenet rule over all of Wales and most of Ireland.

John was fascinated by law and instituted circuits of judges, himself taking a close interest in even trivial law cases. In the height of his reign from 1207 to 1212 he devised countless new ways to extract money from his nobles, as well as turning on the small but wealthy Jewish community in England with terrifying rapacity, torturing wealthy Jews till they handed over more or less all their belongings to him.

With these devices John became the richest of the Plantagenet kings, and yet the loss of Normandy and his unscrupulous money-raising turned the aristocracy against him. A series of revolts in the 1210s led to lengthy negotiations over a peace treaty. This expanded – as medieval texts had a way of doing – into a complete set of rules which king and nobles should abide by, and was given the name of the Big Charter, or Magna Carta. The nobles forced King John to sign it at Runnymede in East Berkshire in June 1215.

It was news to me that the Magna Carta was:

  • less a bill of rights than a peace treaty between the king and his rebellious barons
  • that it failed – within months it was renounced by the king and his main supporter, the pope, and open rebellion broke out again

As civil war erupted both sides raced to seize London and the rebel barons succeeded. In January 1216 Philip of France’s son Louis landed with a French army and was warmly welcomed into rebel-held London. Deprived of money, support and arms John’s forces took to picking off rebel strongpoints and he was campaigning in East Anglia when, in late 1216, he contracted dysentery and died, leaving his nine-year-old son to inherit a country divided between rebel and loyalist forces.

P.S.

Arthur of Brittany

John hadn’t ascended the throne uncontested. On Richard’s death in 1199 he was certainly the eldest surviving son of Henry II, but an elder brother of his, Geoffrey, although he had died in 1186 (aged just 27) had had a son, Arthur, who succeeded his father to become Arthur I, Duke of Brittany.

John’s claim was supported by the bulk of the English and Norman nobility and he was quickly crowned at Westminster Abbey, backed by his mother, Eleanor. But young Arthur was supported by the majority of the Breton, Maine and Anjou nobles and received the support of Philip II, King Of France.

For the next four years the two were involved in a complex powerplay involving complex interactions of allies and enemies. In 1202 John’s forces captured young Arthur and John sent him to the castle at Falaise (or Rouen, according to some accounts). It isn’t known for certain what happened next but one chronicler says that, one night, drunk after dinner, John went to Arthur’s cell, murdered him, weighted his body with a stone and threw it into the River Seine. Whatever happened, Arthur never re-emerged, and the rumour of his death alienated the entire population of Brittany from John, and eventually became well known throughout France and England. When Philip II of France invaded England in 1216 he cited John’s alleged murder of Arthur as one of the pretexts.

Interdict and excommunication

Among the other perils of being a 12th century king (or emperor or count or prince or duke) was having to manage your relationship with the pope. When the archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter, died in 1205, John proposed a successor but he was rejected by the cathedral chapter for Canterbury. Both sides put their proposals to the pope who turned them both down and imposed his own candidate, Stephen Langton. Infuriated, John banned Langton from entering England and seized the church’s property. The pope retaliated by placing the entire country of England under an Interdict, in March 1208, prohibiting clergy from conducting religious services, with the exception of baptisms for the young, and confessions and absolutions for the dying. John seized land and estates belonging to the church, prompting the pope to personally excommunicate John in November 1209. Jones’s account of all this is very funny, John’s lead characteristic being complete indifference to the Interdict and excommunication.

Eventually both sides saw a solution was required and in 1213 the papal legate brokered a deal whereby John offered to surrender the Kingdom of England to the papacy for a feudal service of 1,000 marks, and agreed to pay back the huge sums he had gouged out of his clergy and church during the Interdiction. It sounds like a bad deal but in fact it won the pope over to John’s side and he gave unstinting support to the king throughout the Magna Carta crisis. Pope Innocent in fact excommunicated the barons who forced John to sign the Big Charter, and then excommunicated King Philip of France when he invaded England in January 1216. Hard not to conclude that excommunications were thrown around like smarties.

King Henry III (1216-1272)

‘Born without a father, abandoned by his mother, never allowed to grow up watching another king rule, all his life dominated by others: Henry was from the start a poor candidate for the Crown…’ (p.266)

Henry III had such a long reign because he came to the throne aged just 9. He was the oldest son of King John and his wife Isabella of Angoulême. As we’ve seen, his father died in the middle of what became known as the First Barons’ War (1215–1217). The rebel barons had allied with the crown of France and the French had invaded England, led by the king’s son, Prince Louis, the future Louis VIII. There followed a year and a half of complex manoeuvres, sieges and battles, notably the second Battle of Lincoln (p.222) where an army led by the 70-year-old William Marshall managed to defeat the pro-French English barons. These land defeats were accompanied by several sea victories against the French – before Louis finally gave up and signed the Treaty of Lambeth relinquishing French claims to the English crown.

Henry was humourless and devout and, as he matured, became increasingly obsessed with the last Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor. He was impressionable and remained under the influence of older guardians till well into his 30s, allowing them to fleece the country in the usual way, despite the limits supposedly set by Magna Carta. First Hubert de Burgh and then Peter des Roches gained influence over Henry, and used their positions to award law cases in their own favour, seize land, divert royal revenue to their own families etc, prompting a number of uprisings and virtually small-scale civil wars.

During Henry’s reign the Magna Carta, along with the Law of the Forest, were reissued and widely distributed. Generally ignored under John, it was only during Henry III’s reign that these documents began to take hold as a list of rights and duties which a king was expected to obey. They formed the basis of the notion that, in order to have his way – and especially raise money for foreign war – the king could be held to account to the numerous clauses of the two documents. In other words, that the king had to bargain and barter for financial support.

Such was Henry’s misrule that a consistent body of barons now began to meet three or four times a year to consult on Henry’s actions. One of them is referred to as a ‘parliament’ in a document of Henry’s, in 1236 (p.251). And this is how the English Parliament began, sitting in judgement on an incompetent king. As early as 1233 there was talk of deposing the king.

Simon de Montfort came from France and was the latest in a line of strong father figures that Henry seemed to need. Simon married Henry’s widowed sister, Eleanor of England, in 1238, shocking commentators; usually royal women were kept as bargaining chips to marry off to foreign kings not mere aristocrats. The king’s brother Richard of Cornwall, briefly rose in revolt against the marriage, until paid off.

As the 1240s rumbled along de Montfort and Henry fell out. After a mad project to conquer Sicily barely got off the ground, though incurring huge debts in the mid-1250s, the barons, once again, rebelled against an incompetent Plantagenet king. Summoned to Oxford to give money and support to Henry’s scheme, the barons refused to a man, and instead imposed the Provisions of Oxford, an extension of the Big Charter rights, with the insistence that England be ruled by a council of 25 barons elected by their peers, and a new innovation – that justice in the shires should be administered by four knights who would go on circuit to review law cases (p.261).

These were followed by the Provisions of Westminster in 1259 which lay down far-reaching reforms in administration. Henry had become ‘a dithering irrelevance’ in his own land (p.263).

Having read these accounts of the reigns of King John and Henry III, what they really amount to is the glaring fact that rule by one man was a terrible, terrible system, which seemed to have embedded in its essence institutional corruption, favouritism, unfair and arbitrary taxation, brutal torture and execution on trumped up charges, personal vendettas, and the pursuit of mad, exorbitantly expensive foreign wars.

Alas it would take another 400 years of personal rule by various incompetent kings before Oliver Cromwell’s regime took opposition to its logical conclusion and cut off the head of yet another incompetent, spendthrift ruler, thus chastening and limiting all his successors.

The only successful campaign of Henry’s rule was carried out by the Earl of Salisbury, who secured the land around Gascony in south-west France, thus establishing a 200-year-long commercial connection with this important wine-growing region.

But for the rest, Henry was ultimately forced, under the Treaty of Paris, to go to France and kneel before the French King Louis IX, and do him formal obeisance, and renounce his claims to Normandy, Maine, Anjou and Poitou.

If there’s a dramatic plotline to his long reign it’s in the relationship with Simon de Montfort. Born in France, Montfort inherited the earldom of Leicester and arrived in the English court in the 1230s. His fierce Catholic faith and manly confidence (he had already been on several crusades) dazzled the impressionable Henry who, as mentioned, married him to his sister Eleanor. But relations slowly became strained, as de Montfort presumed on their friendship to borrow money against the king’s name in 1239. de Montfort was also squeezed out by the arrival of the de Lusignan clan from France in the 1240s, who also began to manipulate the impressionable king.

A long line of disagreements – over Henry’s mismanagement of a campaign in Poitou, and then over de Montfort’s heavy-handed administration of Gascony – led to de Montfort becoming the leader of the rebel barons in the later 1240s and into the confrontations of the 1250s, where he led the deputation which forced Henry to accept the Provisions of Oxford.

A complicated sequence of failed negotiations led up to the Battle of Lewes on 14 May 1264, the first set-piece battle on English soil in a century. The rebels won, capturing the King, Lord Edward, and Richard of Cornwall, Henry’s brother and the titular King of Germany. This led to the Great Parliament of 1265 (also known as de Montfort’s Parliament). For the first time representatives were invited from all the counties and selected boroughs of England. Voting rights were discussed. All this is the seeds of modern democracy.

But Henry’s son, Prince Edward, escaped from captivity and rallied royalist nobles as well as Welsh rebels and this led to a pitched battle with de Montfort’s forces at Evesham (4 August 1265), which was a decisive royalist victory.

Jones describes how a 12-man hit squad was commissioned to roam the battlefield, ignoring all distractions, with the sole task of finding and killing de Montfort. They succeeded. Montfort’s body was mutilated, his testicles, hands and feet cut off. To later generations he became a sort of patron saint of representative government. Today, De Montfort University in Leicester is named after him.

Henry III was once again titular king but he was a broken, dithering old man. The real power in the land during his last few years was his forceful and energetic son, Edward (named after Henry’s icon, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, Edward the Confessor) who turned out to be a very different character from his saintly Saxon namesake.

[To be continued…]


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Other medieval reviews

King John by Marc Morris (2015)

I loved Marc Morris’s History of the Norman Conquest because it gave such a thorough explanation of the background, build-up, events and consequences of the most famous moment in English history, so I was looking forward to reading this book and it is certainly good – but not as good as the Conquest one, and I spent some time, as I read it, trying to figure out why.

1. The long historical build-up to John’s reign

I think the main reason is that the central feature of King John’s reign (1199 to 1216) is the complete collapse of the huge and elaborate ’empire’ created by his predecessors – Henry I (his grandfather), the great Henry II (his father) and King Richard, his swashbuckling brother.

The pressures John faced trying to hang on to the south (Aquitaine), the middle (Anjou) and the north (Normandy) of France, along with the large and fractious realm of England, as well as managing relations with Scotland, Wales and Ireland – all these only make sense if you have a good grasp of how this patchwork ’empire’ had been slowly and effortfully acquired by his father and brother in the first place.

So anyone describing John’s reign would have to give a fair amount of space to this ‘back story’. Thus Morris has to start his story with the advent of Henry I (1100) and explain how his son and heir, William Aetheling, was lost in a disastrous shipwreck (1120) which – since Henry had no other sons – led him to the desperate expedient of trying to impose his daughter, Matilda, as his heir on his reluctant nobles. When Henry I died in 1135 Matilda’s claim was immediately contested by her cousin, Stephen of Blois, who managed to secure the throne of England and ruled as King Stephen (1135 – 1154) but under constant assault from the forces loyal to Queen Matilda in the west and north of England leading to 20 years of exhausting civil war.

Eventually, in the event-packed last few years of his reign, Stephen’s own son and heir, Eustace, died young (in 1153) and Stephen was forced to accept the son of Matilda and her husband, Geoffrey Count of Anjou, Touraine and Maine, Henry, as his heir. Geoffrey enjoyed the sportive nickname of Plantagenet, and so this name was also given to his son, Henry.

The very next year Stephen himself died (1154) and young Henry Plantagenet assumed control over a complex web of territories – England from Stephen, Normandy via his grandfather the Conqueror, Anjou, Touraine and Maine from his father and, via his shrewd marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, possession of Aquitaine, a huge slab of south-west France, maybe a third the land area of the present-day France.

Because Henry’s central inheritance (from his father, Geoffrey) was of the Duchy of Anjou, the ’empire’ is often referred to as the Angevin Empire, Angevin being the adjectival form of Anjou (as Poitevin is the adjectival version of the neighbouring region of Poitou).

Just holding on to control of these far-flung territories needed every drop of this remarkable man’s confidence, aggression, cunning and ruthlessness. But it is only by understanding how the ’empire’ came about, almost by accident, that we can understand the context of problems which he and his sons – first Richard (1189-99) and then John (1199 to 1216) – would inherit:

  • How to maintain the disparate French possessions in the face of continual uprisings by local counts and lords?
  • How to fight off the continual attacks and threats of successive French kings – Louis VII and Philip II?
  • How to keep the aggressive Scottish kings bottled up in Scotland?
  • How to secure more land in Wales?
  • How and when to interfere in the troublesome island of Ireland?
  • How to manage relations with the pope, especially when you seem to be at loggerheads with one or other of your archbishops? (England has two archbishops – of Canterbury and of York)
  • How to pay for it all by raising the maximum amount of taxes but not alienating the fractious competing nobles of England?
  • And, above all, how to manage all this while coping with all the adult members of your family politicking and conspiring against you?

This context, this historical backdrop, the events of the 60 or 70 years prior to John’s accession (in 1199) are key to understanding John’s predicament.

2. Use of flashbacks

Rather than deal with this long historical run-up in a straightforward chronological account, Morris takes the risky decision to start his narrative in the middle of John’s reign, starting with a detailed account (along with pictures and two maps) of the French King Philip II’s siege of the Plantagenet castle of Château Gaillard, on the River Seine, 20 miles south-east of Rouen in 1204.

Having painted this scene, in chapter two Morris jumps all the way back to the birth of the family empire in the early 1100s (as outlined above). Chapter three returns us to the Château Gaillard siege (which turned out to be one of the longest and most gruelling in medieval history). Chapter four jumps back again, to 1189, when Henry II died and his son Richard succeeded.

This chapter takes us through the first half of Richard’s ten-year reign – his adventures on the Third Crusade (1189-92), his capture on his return through Europe, his imprisonment by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI and his final release after his regents in England had raised an enormous ransom for him in 1194 – then abruptly stops.

The next chapter picks up the thread of John’s reign in 1205 after the end of the Château Gaillard siege and the humiliating failure of his English nobles to join an armed flotilla designed to attack King Philip of France, then follows events of the ‘campaigning season’ of the following year, 1206.

We are just getting our head round this context when the next chapter whisks us away from all that, to pick up the second half of King Richard’s reign from 1194 and carry it on through to the first years of John’s reign, 1202.

And so on. For well over half its length the book flicks back and forward between a ‘present’ narrative and historical flashbacks. I think I can see why: he didn’t want to start his book with 60 or 70 pages of solid exposition before he gets to John’s coronation. But, for me, it doesn’t work.

Comparison with Dan Jones

It just so happens that I read Morris’s book  in parallel with Dan Jones’s jaunty, boys-own-adventure account of the entire Plantagenet dynasty. This tells the story outlined above but in a traditional chronological order and a direct comparison between the two suggests that, although Morris’s book is more scholarly and nuanced, Jones’s narrative is not only easier to read but gives you a much better cumulative sense of the issues at stake for all these rulers:

  • how the Angevin empire was originally created
  • the tremendously complex shifting alliances it required to keep it together
  • the history of the other major players involved, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, like Henry II’s rebellious children, like the pesky kings of France
  • as well as the litany of difficulties Henry, Richard and John all encountered while trying to tax the bolshy nobles of England
  • and the challenges of keeping the bloody church and interfering pope onside

To put yourself in the place of these (horrible) rulers you have to understand the constant pressure they were under from all sides (and the constant pressure they themselves exerted in the never-ending conflict which was medieval high politics). And the only hope you have of understanding why William of Scotland or Llewylyn of Wales or Louis of France attacked when and how they did, is to have a sense of the cumulative relationships between them and Henry or Richard or John, and the accumulated grudges or alliances or betrayals which feed into their behaviour.

It is hard enough to follow when presented clearly and simply so, for me, Morris’s approach made it hopelessly confusing. I quite quickly decided to read the chapters of his book out of the textual order he’s placed them in (reading chapters 2, 4, 6, 8, then 1, 3, 5, 7).

Detail

Dan Jones is shrewd to start his 600-page account of the Plantagenets with the sinking of the White Ship in 1120, which really seems to be the mainspring of the whole Plantagenet story. But his chronological approach also allows him to give events a properly detailed treatment as they occur – logically enough, there is a set of chapters devoted to Henry II and Richard I, before we get to the birth and youth of John.

Morris, by contrast, often skips over these earlier events in order to get to the ostensible subject of his book the quicker. He has to tell us something about the events of earlier reigns because John grew up under them and spent most of, for example Richard’s reign (1189-1199) politicking and conspiring against his brother – but he tends to skimp on details of Richard’s activities.

Thus he tells us simply that, en route to the Holy Land in 1191, Richard conquered Cyprus, in one sentence (p.72). Jones goes into much more detail, giving us a full description of Richard’s two-pronged assault on Cyprus (pp.118-119) and giving a typical snapshot that, once he’d conquered, Richard forced all Cypriot men to shave their beards off!

Similarly, Morris skips very briskly over Richard’s time in Palestine to focus on John’s scheming back in England. But we need to understand the detail of Richard’s activities in Palestine in order to understand how and why he managed to alienate so many of his Christian allies with such parlous consequences: we need to know that he scorned Philip of France so much that Philip eventually packed up and returned to Paris. And when the vital city of Acre was finally taken from the Muslims after a prolonged siege in which many Christian knights died of fighting or sickness (1191), Richard managed to infuriate Leopold Duke of Austria. Leopold had been involved in the siege for a year before Richard arrived and had demanded an equal place at the front of the victorious Crusader army as it rode into the fallen city along with Richard – but Richard rejected this request and added insult to injury by having Leopold’s flag torn down from the ramparts of Acre.

These details are vital because both Philip and Leopold returned to Europe before Richard and spread the blackest possible rumours about Richard’s treachery, lack of chivalry and so on, to anyone who would listen. When Richard finally decided to abandon the Crusade and return to England (prompted by news of the ruinous feud which had grown up between his chancellor William Longchamps and his enemies supported by John) Richard discovered that he was now a wanted man across most of Western Europe. So that when his ships were blown ashore in north Italy and he tried to make his way in disguise through Austrian lands, Richard was soon recognised, arrested and taken to the court of the very same Leopold who he had so fatefully insulted in Palestine – who promptly threw him into prison.

For sure Richard’s imprisonment, and the vast ransom demanded for his release, are all dealt with by Morris because they all impinge on the state of England and on John’s scheming (John was in his late 20s during the ransom crisis) – but the story makes much more sense, acquires a fuller depth of meaning, if you’ve been given a really good account of Richard’s activities in Palestine, and this Jones does better than Morris.

King John

King John

Notable aspects of John’s reign

It is in the second half of Morris’s book (chapters 9 to 14) – once he drops the flashback structure – that it becomes measurably more detailed and immersive than the Jones account. Having had a run-up of 150 pages or so you begin to have a feel for certain key players in the story – the ill-fated William de Brouze who John hounded into exile, imprisoning and starving to death his wife and son – or the remarkable William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke, whose career spanned five monarchs, and who managed to survive accusations and punishments from the erratic John and went on to become guardian and regent for John’s young son, Henry III, when he succeeded in 1216.

And you get a feel for the relentless turnover of events: every year sees all the players on the board – the Scots, the Welsh, the numerous Irish and Anglo-Irish, the King of France, the nobles of Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, Main, Poitou, Angouleme, Gascony and so on, all girding their loins and setting off to fight each other, in a bewildering blizzard of alliances which shift and change at the drop of a hat. This second half of Morris’s book becomes really gripping, providing much more detail than Jones’s limited space can, and judiciously weighing evidence, balancing the accounts of the different contemporary chroniclers, as he gives a week by week account of John’s difficult confusing reign.

Some highlights

His reign lasted 17 years (1199 to 1216).

John Lackland While a boy under King Henry II John acquired the nickname ‘Lackland’ because his older brothers were all given substantial provinces to rule except for John, who was too young. Towards the end of his reign, the nickname was ironically revived to describe the way he had lost most of the Angevin Empire.

The loss of Brittany Arthur, Duke of Brittany From the very start of John’s reign there was an alternative ruler, Arthur, son of John’s elder son Geoffrey (who himself had died in 1186). Arthur was born in 1187 and so was 12 when King Richard died in 1199.

Arthur inherited from his father the title of Duke of Brittany, and his Breton nobles proved remarkably loyal to him, while Arthur himself sought help and advice from French King Philip II. The situation was worsened by the fact that back in 1190 Richard had officially declared the infant Arthur his legal heir (during his peace negotiations with Tancred of Sicily, p.67). On his death-bed Richard changed his mind and proclaimed John his heir, fearing Arthur was too young for the job – but the Bretons, and everyone opposed to John, took Arthur as a figurehead for their cause.

The to and fro of successive alliances and peace treaties whereby Arthur allied with Philip, then John, then Philip again, came to an end when, in one of the rare military successes of his rule, John captured Arthur, who was leading a force besieging his grand-mother, Eleanor, at the Château de Mirebeau in Anjou.

John sent his nephew to a series of castle prisons. The contemporary chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall reports the story that John sent two knights with orders to mutilate the duke but that his gaoler, Hubert de Burgh, refused to let them – a legend which quickly spread and later provided the central plotline of Shakespeare’s play, King John, as well as heaps of wonderfully sentimental Victorian illustrations, like this one.

Prince Arthur and Hubert de Burgh by William Frederick Yeames (1882)

Prince Arthur and Hubert de Burgh by William Frederick Yeames (1882)

Young Arthur was moved to Rouen prison in 1203 and never heard of again. Quickly the rumour got about that John had had Arthur murdered, though whether getting others to do it or, in one version, murdering his nephew himself in a drunken rage, has never been confirmed. The rumour was enough for many people, nobles and commoners alike, throughout his realm, and John became known as the nephew-killer. In response the nobles of Brittany rebelled against John and he never regained their trust.

The loss of Normandy Meanwhile in 1204, to the East, King Philip II of France began a major offensive against Normandy, bypassing the stronghold of Rouen and picking off smaller towns – Falaise, Cherbourg. Rouen begged John (in England) for reinforcements and John tried to mount an armed expedition to help them, but was stymied by the reluctance of his own nobles, who showed up late or not at all. When it became clear that no help was coming from England, Rouen surrendered to King Philip and the remaining strongholds of Normandy followed suit. The 139-year union of England and Normandy, created by William the Bastard in 1066, came to an end in 1204.

The loss of Aquitaine In April 1204 Eleanor of Aquitaine died, old and full of years (a little over 80). With her died the loyalty of most of the dukes and counts of the massive region to the Plantagenet regime in the form of the unattractive John. They rose up, seized whatever strongholds remained loyal to John and, within months, the largest part of the Angevin Empire was lost.

Tough taxes With the loss of most of the Empire, John’s sphere of activity was vastly reduced and now confined to the British Isles. Here he became famous for instituting ferocious new taxes. At that time many simple activities of the nobility traditionally required permission and a nominal fee to be paid to the king, for example for the smooth succession of an heir or the arrangement of a new marriage. John pushed these customary dues much deeper into every aspect of noble life and hugely increased the fees, by up to 1,000%. Anyone who questioned his right to do so was arrested or forced into exile and their lands confiscated. There was a ‘forest tax’ for anyone found breaching the rules of the Forest. John hiked these and extended the definition of ‘forest’ to include agricultural land and even towns. There was a tax known as ‘scutage’, which knights could pay if they didn’t want to answer the king’s call to join an army: John hugely increased this and applied it for new purposes. He applied another tax known as the Thirteenth, and in 2008 another tax, known as the tallage (p.182). He relentlessly mulcted everyone and everything throughout his reign.

The failed 1205 invasion In 1205 John used this money to organise a massive invasion of Normandy, recruiting thousands of knights and soldiers and building (or hijacking) enough ships to create a war fleet of 1,500 vessels. But – at the last minute his leading nobles and knights backed out – afraid of chaos in the realm if John were killed (he had no heir), afraid they would find no support in the French realms which had so solidly gone over to King Philip, afraid of losing their lives and remaining goods.

And so John was left to gnash his teeth and weep tears of frustration. In fact John did mount several expeditions to France later in his reign, in one of them landing in Bordeau and marching inland to seize castles in his traditional heartland of Anjou. But always he had to retreat before the superior forces of King Philip II, or the Bretons or Normans or the Gascon nobles, sometimes reinforced by armies from over the border in Spain.

Two wives King John had two wives, both named Isabella. In 1189 Henry married John off to Isabella, Countess of Gloucester, when he was 23 and she was 16. In fact they were half-second cousins as great-grandchildren of Henry I, and thus within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity, and on this basis John had their marriage annulled by the Church in 1199, just before he acceded to the throne. He then married Isabella of Angoulême in 1200, when she was just 12 years old. The marriage gave him possession of lands in the centre of Aquitaine but also, unfortunately, led to the enduring enmity of Hugh IX le Brun, Count of Lusignan, to whom she had been betrothed and who John was widely seen as stealing her from. The enmity of the de Lusignan family and their allies was a contributory factor to the loss of Aquitaine in 1204 when Eleanor died.

The Papal Interdict Archbishop Hubert of Canterbury died in 1205 and the monks secretly elected one of their own as his successor. King John and the English bishops refused to accept their choice and appointed John’s favorite, John de Gray, in his place. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) refused to accept either candidate and instead arranged the election of his friend Stephen Langton, in 1207. Furious, John expelled the monks of Canterbury who fled to France. The pope responded by placing England under Interdict in 1208. The interdict suspended Christian services and the administration of sacraments (except baptism, confession, and last rites). Even the dead were denied Christian burial. Ordinary people would have experienced an eerie phenomenon – for the first time in their lives church bells – which rang at numerous times of day for various services – fell silent and remained silent. John in fact turned the situation to his advantage, imposing lucrative fines and threatening imprisonment to bully the clergy. Innocent III retaliated by excommunicating John and eventually declared John ‘deposed’ in 1212, absolving his subjects of their allegiance to him.

In fact John, at a low point in his fortunes in 1213, made the shrewd move of completely and totally humbling himself to the papal legate, declaring England as the pope’s belonging and himself only a humble vassal. Innocent II was delighted and from that point onwards (for the last three years of his life) treated John with notable indulgence and favouritism. The interdict was lifted and after five long years, the church bells of England were allowed to ring again.

The Jews There were probably only a few thousand Jews in all of Britain, but they were in a vulnerable position. They were allowed to carry on the business of lending money – forbidden to Christians – but only on the king’s sufferance. The crusading fervour at the very end of Henry’s rule led to violent anti-Jewish pogroms on the day of Richard’s coronation and for weeks afterwards, leading to the horrible climax of the entire Jewish community of York being hounded into York castle and preferring mass suicide to facing the baying mob outside. In 1210 John imposed a massive tax or ‘tallage’ in 1210, extracting some £44,000 from the community. At first he wanted only a percentage of their loans but this escalated to become a percentage of all their possessions. Roger of Wendover tells the gruesome story of a Jew of Bristol who was imprisoned and had one tooth knocked out every day until he gave in and handed over all his wealth to the king. Leading Jews were hanged as an example. And then, in John’s last full year of 1215, there were further attacks on the Jews, extracting money under torture. It took the Jewish community a generation to recover population and belongings after this onslaught.

Scotland When he came to power John turned down King William the Lion of Scotland’s demand to have the province of Northumbria returned to him. The two remained on reasonable terms until in 1209 John heard rumours that William planned to ally with King Philip of France. John invaded Scotland and forced William to sign the Treaty of Norham, which gave John control of William’s daughters and required a payment of £10,000.

Ireland John was made ‘Lord of Ireland’ by his father as long back as 1177, when he was just 11. When just 19 he was sent there by his father but, along with his youthful courtiers, created a very bad impression, making fun of the local nobles’ long beards. During his reign there was conflict not only between the caste of Anglo-Irish rulers who had settled in Ireland since the Conquest, and the native lords, but also among the natives themselves. John played all sides off against the other, and in 1210 led a major expedition to Ireland to crush a rebellion by the Anglo-Irish lords and impose English laws and customs.

Wales was divided into roughly three parts, the border or ‘marcher’ regions with England, ruled over by a handful of powerful Anglo-Norman lords, south Wales/Pembrokeshire owned by the king directly, and wilder North Wales. The leading figure was Llywelyn the Great, to whom John married off one of his illegitimate daughters, Joan, in 1204. In 1210 and 11 Llywelyn launched raids into England. John retaliated by supporting a range of Llywelyn’s enemies in the south and in 2011 launched a massive raid into North Wales. However Llywelyn’s forces retreated and John’s army was reduced to near starvation in the barren lands around Snowdonia. But the next year he came back on a better planned attack, ravaging Llywelyn’s heartlands, burning villages, towns and cities, until Llywelyn sent his wife, John’s daughter, as emissary to beg for peace. Peace was signed at, of course, a steep price, then John sent his mercenary warlords into South Wales to secure the territory and build defensive castles.

By 1212 John had lost almost the entire continental empire, but solidly secured the grip of the English crown over the neighbouring British countries. But all mention of peace is deceptive, even inappropriate in the context of the Middle Ages. The very next year John had to go to the aid of William of Scotland who faced pressing danger from a usurper and had barely finished doing this before Llywelyn led a concerted attack to reclaim his lost territory in north Wales, along with uprisings by lords in central Wales.

Basically, every year there was conflict – and in more than one theatre of war – with players shifting alliances from year to year based on short-term strategy. This is what makes medieval history so difficult to follow in any detail.

The Battle of Bouvines I’d never heard of this battle, but both Jones and Morris says it has a similar talismanic importance in the history of France as the Battle of Hastings has for England. It was the climax of the series of incursions John made into French territory in the previous few years. John had amassed a force of English nobles and foreign mercenaries (all paid for by his brutal taxation) and was campaigning in central France, while his allies – a force of German, English and Flemish soldiers – was being led by Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor, in the north. John’s plan was for his forces to draw King Philip II south while his German allies took Paris, leading to the decisive crushing of King Philip, for him to regain all his lost French land and the Emperor Otto to seize the Low Country.

In fact John had already suffered a defeat when he was forced to abandon the siege of La Roche-au-Moine due to the reluctance of his Poitevin allies to engage in a pitched battle against King Philip’s son, Louis. In the retreat his infantry were badly mauled and he only just made it back to La Rochelle, losing all the gains of the campaign to the French.

So everything now depended on the northern army of the Emperor. This caught up with Philip’s main army on 27 July 1214, and rapidly attacked. The battle turned into confused mayhem but slowly the cavalry charges of the French began to tell. By the end of the day the Emperor had fled, his army was defeated, and a collection of rebel nobles had fallen into Philip’s hands.

From the French point of view, their strongest enemies had created their strongest possible alliance and thrown everything against the French – and failed. A chapel was built, Masses were sung everywhere, the students of Paris danced in the streets for a week, according to one chronicler. The Battle of Bouvines confirmed the French crown’s sovereignty over the Angevin lands of Brittany and Normandy, and lost them forever to the English crown. It was the climax of John’s decade of brutal taxation and war plans: and it was a complete failure.

A few hours of bloody mayhem at Bouvines had confirmed that [John]’s loss of Normandy, Brittany and Anjou would be permanent. (p.235)

Magna Carta

The barons’ rebellion The failure of this campaign tipped many of England’s nobles over into open rebellion. Morris says there were about 160 barons in England and now most of them openly denounced and defied John. For several years there had been calls to return to the good old days of Henry II or even before, embodied in calls to restore the charter Henry II issued on his accession. Numerous hands – probably involving the archbishop – were involved in creating a draft document which started with traditional calls for good rule but then went on to address specific issues of John’s reign. The climax of the Barons’ Rebellion came when one of their forces – a self-proclaimed ‘army of God’ – seized London ahead of John’s representatives in May 2015. Now they had access to all his treasure and the taxation rolls of the Exchequer.

John camped with his forces at Windsor and representatives of both sides met half way, in the meadows at Runnymede. Here the document we call Magna Carta took shape and was swiftly stamped and agreed by John.

The key thing about Magna Carta is that it was a peace treaty between the two armed sides; and that it failed. Within weeks open conflict broke out again and John took his foreign mercenaries on a rampage through East Anglia, killing and raping all the supporters of the rebel barons, destroying crops in the fields, burning everything. It was on this last final orgy of destruction that he decided to take a short cut across the Wash into Lincolnshire but was caught by the tide and lost his entire baggage train, including all his jewellery and treasure, the crown of England and his priceless collection of Holy Relics. And he got dysentery. It was a blessing for everyone when he died on 19 October 1216.

There is no doubting John was a wicked, evil man, a coward who screwed his country and tortured countless victims in order to extract a vast fortune from his subjects which he then squandered on mismanaged military campaigns. He lost almost the entire Angevin Empire which he’d inherited, and he left his country in a state of bitter civil war.

Morris’s book includes at the end a full translation of the Magna Carta into English but that is all. Obviously his preceding historical account gives a blow-by-blow description of the events leading up to it, and to the issues raised by John’s misrule, which the charter seeks to address and limit. And briefly describes how the charter – a failure in its own day – was reissued under later kings, widely distributed, and became a set of standards to which medieval kings could be held to account. But somehow just stopping with the translation and nothing more felt a bit… abrupt.

Plantagenet trivia

  • King Henry I carried out a brutal recoinage of the realm’s money in 1125 in which he ordered the mutilation of all his moneyers – the people who had official permission to mint coins, namely the removal of their right hands and genitals
  • Right at the end of his life Henry II took the Cross with a view to going on Crusade and recapturing Jerusalem. In 1188 he instituted ‘the Saladin Tithe‘, a levy of 10% on all revenues and movable properties across England. In the end it raised some 100,000 marks, though Henry died before he could go on Crusade. The administrative machinery created to claim the tithe was used four years later to raise the enormous ransom required to free Richard I from his imprisonment by the Holy Roman Emperor.
  • King Richard founded Portsmouth Royal Naval dockyard.
  • Richard in his usual impetuous way, finding himself in negotiation with Tancred ruler of Sicily, promised to betrothe Arthur (then aged 4) to one of Tancred’s daughters (aged 2), though the wedding never took place.
  • In his passion to go on crusade, Richard weakened the Crown by selling off or mortgaging a huge number of Crown lands and goods. He is said to have quipped, ‘I would have sold London if I could find a buyer.’
  • King John founded Liverpool in 1207.
  • the word Exchequer derives from the large chequered cloth laid out a table on which debts were counted out using a device like an abacus (p.167).

Glossary

  • amercement – a financial penalty in English law, common during the Middle Ages, imposed either by the court or by peers
  • castellan – the governor or captain of a castellany and its castle
  • distrain – seize (someone’s property) in order to obtain payment of rent or other money owed
  • interdict –  in the Roman Catholic church a punishment by which the faithful, while remaining in communion with the church, are forbidden certain sacraments and prohibited from participation in certain sacred acts
  • forest eyre – the main court of the Forest Law in the medieval period was the Forest Eyre, which was held at irregular intervals by itinerant justices
  • Forest Law – laws separate from English Common Law designed to protect game animals and their forest habitats from destruction. Forest Law offenses were divided into two categories: trespass against the vert (the vegetation of the forest) and the venison (the game).
  • justiciar – a regent and deputy presiding over the court of a Norman or early Plantagenet king of England
  • moneyer – any private individual who is officially permitted to mint money
  • scutage – also called shield money (from the Latin scutum meaning ‘shield’) in feudal law payment made by a knight to commute the military service that he owed his lord
  • tallage – a form of arbitrary taxation levied by kings on the towns and lands of the Crown

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Historia Anglorum by Henry of Huntingdon (1154)

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)

The history

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.

Latin

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 of the work 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. His purpose was 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 loud, 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 judgments 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 designed 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 e.g. conquering a town and massacring all its inhabitants before burning it to the ground – and thus earned the wrath of God.

Henry’s 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 awesome plan. And if the demonstrable sufferings imposed on the English are part of God’s plan, they must have the same meaning which all suffering has in Christian theology namely, as 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 of the Crusading leaders.

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 of the city, 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 and 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 Testament Christian moralising is bracing, terrifying and gruesomely fascinating.

This edition

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 i.e. the build-up to the Norman Conquest, the Conquest itself 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.

This 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


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