A royal tragedy
Henry II was a titan of the 12th century, but his legacy today is almost forgotten
An image in the chronicle of Matthew Paris, monk of St Albans, shows Henry IIin conversation with a group of stonemasons. Five hundred years later, in his Constitutions of 1738, author James Anderson did not make much of Henry II in his history of Freemasonry. Yet masons remain fascinated by this image of Henry talking to a man holding a level.
King of the North Wind provides a fascinating portrait of a king who used ambition, determination, charisma and blitzkrieg warfare to forge a kingdom that stretched from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees. Living on near to no sleep, he spent his life on the road, criss-crossing his realm to hold together the largest empire England would rule until the 17th century.
Gold draws a portrait of a philosopher king: a platonic prince raised by scholars with an interest in everything around him. At Henry’s court, every day was a school day, according to contemporary French cleric Peter of Blois. The 12th-century historian Gerald of Wales called Henry the ‘Alexander of the West’ – the sort of man who would have stopped at a building site to ask his master builder and masons about their work.
THE BATTLE WITHIN
The book’s dramatic structure carries the reader towards the great battle in Henry’s life – the one against himself. And just as with many other great heros, Henry fails.
The young prince started life hungry, ambitious and confident but ended it an exhausted man, with his wife and children repeatedly striving to arrange his death.
Anyone interested in medieval Anglo-French history will appreciate the vast amount of detail in the book, which is a timely and welcome addition to the growing popular literature on the Plantagenets.
Review by DKS
King of the North Wind: The Life of Henry II in Five Acts, by Claudia Gold, published by William Collins, 352 pages, £25