The English Monarchs series has brought the highest standards of historical scholarship to the wide audience. Leading historians scrutinize the lives of the kings and queens of England and explore the cumulative impact of the longest permanent governing institution in Europe.
This outstanding biography is a revealing portrait of a complex and fascinating figure, the book is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the politics and culture of the English middle ages. Much learning, skillfully deployed as here, evokes pleasure as well as admiration.
A book to be recommended
on 14 October 2006
A great piece of narrative history, well written, easy to follow and very informative. An invaluable source for students of the period and although a little dated, (first published 1973) still a great read.
on 1 September 2015
I have to admit, Henry Plantagenet, King of England, Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou and Maine, Duke (by Marriage) of Aquitaine and Lord of Ireland is a personal favorite of mine as one of the great kings of England. His tale is extraordinary, as by marriage and inheritance he became the most powerful monarch in Western Europe, as (in theory) he was master of the British isles, having received the homage of the King of Scotland, most of the Welsh Princes as well as the kings of Ireland. Added to this was his control over most of Western France, which he inherited, gained by marriage, or pressed by force of arms.
Henry II should never have been king of England though, in fact he should never have been born. During the reign of his grandfather, henry I, Henry's son and heir died in the disaster of the White ship, when numerous barons lost their heir's when the ship tried to set sail from Normandy to England in the teeth of a storm. The death of Henry I's heir, caused a drastic change, as Henry's daughter, the Empress Matilda (she had married the Emperor of Germany) was recalled to England, a marriage was formed with Geoffrey, Count of Anjou and then henry I had his barons recognize her as his heir, not once, but three times. Civil war broke out though upon henry's death as other family members pressed the claim of Stephen of Blois to the throne (a cousin) and for the next 15 years a long protracted civil war was waged. Henry II eventually won out upon his majority, and he would spend the better part of his reign establishing and strengthen royal control, to maintain the dignity and power of the throne 'as it was during the time of his grandfather', while dealing with rebellious barons, The French and eventually his own sons whose desires for lands and power grew faster then Henry was willing to sate them. Henry's life ended ind efeat as his son Richard, allied with the French King Philip defeated him in battle and he died shortly there after.
W L Warren rights a fantastic biography of the Henry II. While acknowledging that no private letters of henry exist so we will never truly know the man, what we can gleam from his actions gives us an exciting tale indeed, masterfully brought to life by the author. The book is divided into 4 sections, Politics and warfare up to 1182,starting with the disaster of the white ship and then looking at the struggles of Matilda to start with, then the bulk of Henry's reign, then looking at his relations first primarily with France and then with the other parts of Britain. We then look at how the vast possessions of Henry's realm were governed, the great reforms he brought in to government and law (Henry II is widely regarded for establishing the basis of English Common Law) . The third section looks at Henry's relationship with the Church and then finally we look at the last section of Henry's reign, including the second revolt of his sons and the final one involving his Son Richard and Philip of France. The book may be old (Over 20 years now) it is still the definitive guide to this, one of the greatest Kings of England..
This is currently the standard biography of Henry II and as such is a weighty volume, 630 pages of text plus indices etc.
Being that Henry lived in the twelfth century the biographer has to work hard to gain assessments as to whose veracity he can be convinced, and the labour required is very evident here, especially in the chapters on Henry's work regarding the development of law, where countless examples of his practice are explored in detail.
The book is structured in an unusual way, the first part summarising his history and political achievements, and then, in turn, are considered the developments in law and government of England, the relationship with the Church and of course Becket, and finally his relationship with his sons.
It is a fault in this book that almost nothing is said about his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. In fact he says, 'To judge from the Chroniclers, the most striking fact about Eleanor is her utter insignificance in Henry II's reign.' Between page 121, which is where Warren briefly discusses her alienation from Henry, and her involvement in his feud with his sons, her name is hardly mentioned until briefly again in the closing pages.
However the behaviour of Richard in the closing years of Henry's reign is hardly comprehensible without imagining major involvement from Eleanor, and to ignore her is unfortunate. But written records are no doubt scanty, and to do Warren justice he does indicate in the briefest of ways where her influence may have been felt.
Henry's achievements were of course fantastic, and Warren clearly delineates his extraordinary energy, intelligence, practicality, genius for administration, his complete lack of interest in the trappings of glory, and also his temper.
Like most people these days he while acknowledging Henry's contribution to the schism with Becket tends to come down firmly on Henry's side. He sees Becket's persistence as unwarranted and foolish. Of course we live in a secular age but Becket was no fool and gave everything he had, which was a lot, in the service of the Church, just as he had in his previous capacity as Henry's Chancellor to the king. In so doing they played out the two of them the balancing act between spiritual and temporal authority which was the theme of Christendom for many centuries from the time of St Augustine onwards.
For me personally the most fascinating part of the book is the closing chapters where the relationship between Henry and his sons is gone into: the charming and cynical Henry the Younger, the devious but effective Geoffrey, the courageous Richard and John, whose character I feel is explored less than the others.
Richard is not very fashionable these days, again its a secular age, and his subsequent involvement in the Crusade is not very pc. Warren while acknowledging his courage, also describes him as naive in not understanding the complex political games his father was playing. Henry refused to confirm that Richard would succeed him and Warren thinks Richard should have realised that this was all a game to keep him honest, and not taken it so hard. But Richard was the only one of Henry's sons that Henry could actually rely on to do a good job of looking after the territories assigned to him, and it wasn't until the closing weeks of Henry's life that he turned against him for more than the odd stormy afternoon.
Henry was arguably the greatest of English monarchs, and this book does him no disservice.
on 21 August 2013
Warren provides the definitive biography of Henry II, one of the most important of England's medieval monarchs. Not only is the book brimming with information but it also a pleasure to read. The author has style, something that used to be an essential attribute of an historian, and for some still is.
on 4 March 2015
W.L. Warren's Henry II is not only the best book on the period it covers, it is also one of the very best history books I have ever read. Warren has an enviable clarity of mind, he picture of the past has a coherent clarity which makes his various theses highly convincing. It is most definitely not a work of popular history, although I think with a little perseverance even a person unused to academic works of History would find this book highly enjoyable.
Particularly impressive is Warren's treatment of the Becket episode. This is so often approached with too broad a brush stroke: seen in terms of a single issue, or in terms of a particular character trait, Warren gives us a nuanced, balanced, and altogether lively account which, to my knowledge at least, has no equal.
on 11 September 2013
This is a good scholarly examination of Henry II's reign but the structure of the book makes it repetitive and lacking in drama. There is a brief overview to start and then more detailed chapters on the Church, law, governance etc. The result is that dramatic events such as Henry's clash with Thomas Beckett have to be pieced together from different chapters. This renders the story a little dry and unexciting.