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Henry the Young King, 1155-1183 Hardcover – September 13, 2016
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This is indeed “the first modern study of Henry the Young King, eldest – and little known - son of Henry II, but it is also much more than that.
As the author shows, Henry the Younger was crowned at age fifteen by his father precisely because Henry II wanted to avoid the succession wars that had plagued the death of his own grandfather (Henry I, the last son of William the Conqueror). The young king did indeed play a key role in his father’s Empire and did a lot for the prestige of the Plantagenet through his very successful participations in tournaments across Northern France.
However, he was constantly denied direct rule of England, Normandy or Anjou by his father. This was a major problem since at the time, and as Matthew Strickland shows so well, lordship over land was both the main source of power and of wealth. It was also the main sources of influence and patronage because grants of fiefs was what allowed a lord to reward his followers and household knights. Without any of this, and although Henry the Younger was at one point in time allowed to govern Normandy on behalf of his father as some kind of temporary regent, he never had any real power.
What made things worse from the Young King’s perspective, as also shown in the book, is that Richard, as Count of Poitou, rules over it and over Aquitaine while Geoffrey, his other younger brother, got Brittany. From Henry II’s perspective, and after his eldest son’s first rebellion, he always seemed to have feared a repeat, which finally happened and never trusted him with any real and significant power. This, again, tended to drive him into the arms of the Kings of France, first Louis VII and then Philippe II, who were, of course, too happy to stir up trouble against their much too powerful neighbour and vassal.
One point where the book’s summary is somewhat incomplete and where it fails to do the book full justice is with regards to Eleanor of Aquitaine. She did encourage Henry’s first rebellion against his father. However, as Matthew Strickland shows, it is not sure how much encouragement the crowned King without a kingdom really needed. Her role in his second uprising seems to have been much more limited or even non-existent, partly because her husband had imprisoned her by then and partly because Henry the Younger was by then attacking Richard and disputing Aquitaine from his, and Richard (the future “Lionheart”) was “mummy’s favourite”, just like John was “daddy’s favourite”…
Also included in the book are discussion about the Young King’s relationships with two rather extraordinary characters of the time. One was Thomas Beckett, who was his tutor when the future Archbishop was still his father’s Chancellor and friend. The other as William Marshall, who is likely to have been one of his master in arms and one of the leaders, or perhaps even the leader at one point in time, of his household knight. In both cases, however, Matthew Strickland describes fascinating pictures of both characters, showing them to be very much men of their time and not the “paragons of virtue” that they have been portrayed to be, and even portrayed themselves to be, as in the case of William Marshall.
Finally, and although this is an excellent book that I will therefore rate five stars, readers should be aware that this is a scholarly piece, with full of references, discussions and footnotes, and a comprehensive bibliography to boot. The point here is that it is not written for the so-called “general reader” and may seem a bit heard to read at times. However, the contents are such that I, at least, found it very much worthwhile persevering…
Henry Plantagenet, 'The Lion in Winter.'
The line above from James Goldman’s play, The Lion in Winter is delivered by King Henry II of England (1133-1189) but it could equally well have been said by his eldest son, Henry the Young King, who is the subject of this superb biography by Matthew Strickland. The Young King (1155-1183) was the eldest of the five legitimate sons of King Henry II to survive infancy. In order to ensure the smooth transfer of power after the death of his royal father, who controlled a virtual empire of land extending from the north of England to the south of France, Young Henry was crowned King of England, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou at the age of fifteen while Henry II was still alive. Yet, although there were successful precedents in Scotland and elsewhere, this ‘anticipatory succession’ proved to be unworkable. Although Young Henry was an anointed king with a measure of authority, his father ensured that essentially he held only the title. The elder Henry continued to govern through agents placed at the young man’s court, thus attenuating or indeed stifling, any real exercise of power. The son felt that he had been gelded and eventually rebelled against his father with the active support of his mother Queen Eleanor and his younger brothers.
At first it might appear that this book is another story of dysfunctional parents and their offspring. After all, as Queen Eleanor herself remarks in 'The Lion in Winter', ‘What family does not have its ups and downs?’ Yet Matthew Strickland’s biography is far from another rehearsal of Plantagenet strained relations. It is a pleasing and overdue study of the life of a young man who has been overlooked and sometimes slighted by historians. It is also a vivid reconstruction of the political, military, social and religious life of the Middle Ages.
Since The Young King died prematurely at the age of twenty-eight, the historical sources in which he features are fewer than those available to biographers of his brothers Richard and John but Matthew Strickland makes fair use of the documents at his disposal and he interprets the silences very well. As the Young King was involved in an abortive rebellion against his father, contemporary chroniclers give conflicting accounts of his character. Writers attached to the court of the elder Henry depict him as a black-hearted ingrate, a second Absalom, while those of the Young King’s own household are kinder. The latter recall his knightly courtesy, his generosity and excuse his appetite for power as youthful frustration and the influence of wicked counsellors. Alas, it seems that most modern commentators have taken the former view. The historian W. L. Warren, for example, calls the Young King ‘…a charming, vain, idle Spendthrift’ (‘Henry II’, Methuen, 1991, p. 118). Nevertheless, by a judicious use of the sources together with some insightful and entirely reasonable assumptions, Matthew Strickland reveals a more nuanced picture of the Young King. He brings the actions of the father and son into relief, favouring neither. Strickland explains Henry the Elder’s stance but ultimately does not excuse it. England was Henry II’s main source of revenue. Normandy connected his continental lands with England and Anjou was his patrimony; naturally he wished to remain in control. Similarly although it is true that a consideration of the Young King’s life under a somewhat jaundiced optic would make it easy to agree with Warren that he amounted to nothing so much as a spoiled brat, Strickland counters by drawing our attention to his courage, his patronage of the arts and the profession of knighthood, his interest in the law. All these are well argued. From this reading too, it would be possible to believe that he was a better, relatively more sensitive man than his brothers. The author's consideration of the Young King's possible nervous exhaustion towards the end of his life is moving. Yet one feels sympathy for the commoners who worked the land, who were too often the victims of Plantagenet, inter-familial conflict. In this meticulously researched book, the author lays bare the horrors of warfare, particularly the activities of the bands of routiers (the worst of mercenaries) who were employed by the nobility despite the prohibition of this by the Church. By the end of the text, the reader will know more about siege warfare. The details, such as the building of gallows outside a besieged town or castle, are absorbing. (Evidently the anticipation of a slow death by strangulation could be more persuasive than heavy missiles.)
One particularly fascinating part of the biography is where the influence of Thomas Becket on the Young King (and vice versa) is considered. One would have thought, after all the ink which has been spilled on Becket, that there could be nothing more to say but here is a fresh optic under which to view the controversy. It seems that, after the elevation of his son to the throne of England, Henry II intended to rule the country through his old friend and confidant, Thomas Becket, conveniently made Archbishop of Canterbury as well as Chancellor. Apparently with malice aforethought, Becket stymied this plan by resigning the Chancellorship after he became Archbishop. Matthew Strickland suggests that had Becket acquiesced with Henry II's plan, all would have been well but his perfidious action in resigning the Chancellorship, led directly to the rebellion of 1173-74 which surely implies that the Young King would have quietly accepted his father's rule through Thomas Becket but not through any other channel. No doubt this will engender further debate.
‘Henry The Young King’ is a professional work, planted thick with interesting foot notes but these need not distract the leisure reader. The references and magnificent bibliography are tucked away at the end of the text. There are short extracts of Medieval Latin peppered through the text which are always accompanied by an English translation. Their use brings the reader closer to the Middle Ages and Latin words such as ‘losengers’ meaning tale-bearers (or ‘clipes’ as would be said in Scotland) are captivating.
*It would have been appropriate however if Yale university Press had done better by this first, hardback edition of a fine piece of scholarship and published at least some of the plates in colour.*
Matthew Strickland has written a book which will surely become a classic benchmark in medieval biography. His subject’s vexed life might have been hard to live but as predicted in 'The Lion in Winter' it reads well, ‘Henry The Young King’ reads very well indeed.