Thursday, December 29, 2011


A review of S.B. Chrimes’ Henry VII (1972, original) (1999, my copy)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Henry VII has one of the more unlikely stories of any British monarch. Often times this king is overshadowed by his more (in)famous son, King Henry VIII. But King Henry VII has a greater tale to how he became king than his son does. Henry VIII was born a prince, becomes heir at the death of his older brother, and becomes King at nineteen at the death of his father. While Henry VII’s journey to the throne is much greater tale than simply inheritance, and is one of the least probable since William the Conqueror, this King Henry does not get the attention I think he deserves.

(King Henry VII)

Like the other rebel prince Henry, the Duke of Lancaster, the Earl of Richmond would have to led an army against an evil King Richard in order to claim the crown of England. However there are two key differences in their case. The first is King Henry IV captured Richard II and forced him to abdicate, where Henry VII had killed Richard III in battle. The second is Henry IV was, like his opponent, a grandson of King Edward III whose royalty was unquestionable. Henry VII was very distant in kinship with the crown. While even the sons of Richard, the Duke of York, had a clear claim to royalty, Henry was closer to French royal family than English one. Henry’s grandmother was King Henry V’s widow and a daughter of King Charles VI of France, but his English royal blood came from his mother’s family who were descended from John of Gaunt*, but through a line whose legitimacy was at best questionable.

(The evil King Richard III, who Henry must depose to take the crown)

Chrimes tells the story of this Welsh nobleman who never knew his father because he was born after his father had died. After King Edward IV takes back power from the pathetic King Henry VI, young Henry Tudor goes into exile with his uncle in France. In exile, Henry and his uncle Jasper plot a way to come power, which would not have been reached if King Richard III had not begin the demise of the York dynasty by undermining it from within. Richard deposed his nephew, King Edward V, and imprisoned him and his brother in the tower of London, never to be seen again. Henry Tudor would return at the head of an army and defeat Richard III and take the throne.

(Jasper Tudor, the uncle who raised his royal nephew when in exile)

From the point of Henry’s accession Chrimes’ story begins to turn dry. We began to lose narrative in favor of analysis. This is a shame because it loses a lot of drama that took place in King Henry VII’s reign. Henry VII had to deal various pretenders to the throne. These were pretenders not only in the sense that they just claimed to be King, but they claimed to be other people than who they really were. They would try to pretend they were the imprisoned Earl of Warwick or the late Duke of York. Henry VII would also become a diplomatic mastermind strengthening his position while not allowing his treasury to be wasted in long drawn out conflict.

One of ways this book change my outlook at King Henry’s reign was in his marriage to Elizabeth of York. I, like most, had always read deep political motivation in Henry taking the throne before marrying Princess Elizabeth. However Chimes makes the argument that there was really no other way for him to go about it.

(Elizabeth of York, begins life as the daughter of the King, briefly the sister of the King, then the niece of the King, ultimately the wife of the King, and post mortem the mother of the King.)

“Historians have often sought to make much of the fact that the marriage of Henry and Elizabeth of York, which he had solemnly promised to perform at the meeting in Rennes Cathedral on Christmas day, 1483, did not occur until some four months after Bosworth. Much play has been made of the idea that there was some profound political motive for getting himself crowned and his title declared in parliament before he entered into a matrimonial union with the Yorkist house. But it is difficult to see how he could have possibly proceeded any other way. He was necessarily obliged to ascend to the throne on the merits of his own claims, to which marriage to Elizabeth could add nothing.”

He also goes on to explain that Elizabeth was technically still a declared bastard by Parliament. Henry would have to undo this any he could only do that as King. King Henry VII also, as Henry Tudor, was attained person; Chimmes explains not once, but twice, in this book that Henry had to undo that and the only way he could achieve that was by becoming the King.

Chimmes wrote a very good book. It could have been better if it contained a tad bit more narrative a little less analysis. There are also some historical errors in book. They are little things like claiming King Charles II was never Prince of Wales and that King Henry VI was. Nevertheless, it is a very good book.

*Edward III’s son and Henry IV’s father.

Monday, December 26, 2011


A review of Charles Ross’ Edward IV (1974 original) (1997 my copy)

(Rating 4 of 5)

There is an old phrase that goes ‘never hire two brothers to work for you, because they will always be more loyal to each other than they will ever be to you, and if they are not, who can trust a man who cannot trust his own brother?’ The sons of the Duke of York were apparently not very trust worthy. Over all King Edward IV seems to have been a very good king, but his family problems would show why the House of York would not reign long after its founder.

(Richard, the Duke of York. A man who thought he should be the king, was the father of two, yet his boys showed no family loyalty)

This book is interesting not only for what it does talk about but also for what it does not. Ross never deals with the allegations of Edward’s illegitimacy other than to mention that allegations exist. I personally believe that he was the Duke of York’s son, but you would think a biographer would discuss it even if only to point out how ridiculous the allegations were.

Unlike Henry IV, I do not think it would be right to describe Edward IV as a self-made king, even though he was not born destined for the crown and had to win it twice. At first he comes across as an aristocratic teenager with good pedigree that is placed on the throne by powers greater than he, led by the Earl of Warwick. However, much like Emperor Claudius of Rome, once in power he clearly knows how to use it. Far from being Warwick’s pawn he is a true king with his own ideas how to do things. Although he loses his throne in 1470 he comes right back the next year to recover it and from then on is as strong as ever.

(The Kingmaker, the evil Earl of Warwick)

(Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville would turn the Earl of Warwick against him)

King Edward IV’s son-in-law, King Henry VII, is the king most accredited with creating a very powerful English monarchy; the reason Henry is able to do so is by respecting and adding on to the system that had already been established by Edward. Although Edward's life is adventurous, in some ways, he pales in comparison with the warrior kings Edward III and Henry V; however I think Edward IV’s greatness is the fact that he did not involve his kingdom in any long foreign wars that would tact the English resources into poverty. In other words, unlike some other Kings of England he did not try foolishly prove to the world he was the rightful King of France. King Edward stayed at home and tried to improve his own kingdom. His ideas were so productive that Henry Tudor would go on to mimic them.

“To rescue the crown from financial abyss into which the Lancastrians had plunged it was no mean achievement. To die solvent was something no other English king had achieved for more than two hundred years. Henry VII had the great advantage of being able to build upon the foundations laid by his father-in-law. Indeed, the best testimony to the quality of Edward’s financial policies is the degree to which the shrewd and calculating Henry held firm to them.”(p.386)

His main problem seems to be with his own family. The reason the House of York was unable to entrench itself for the long term had to do with in-fighting amongst the its members. Edward had two younger brothers when he was king: Prince George, the Duke of Clarence and Prince Richard, the Duke of Gloucester. The elder of the two (Clarence) tried multiple times to usurp his older brother and was many times forgiven, but he tried one rebellion too much and was executed under Edward’s orders. The fact he put his own brother to death—no matter how justified—would soil his reputation. The younger seemly loyal brother was an asset to his rule and Edward trusted him. But the evil Richard would betray that trust after Edward dies, by deposing his brother's elder son and having both of his sons murdered. King Richard III would blacken the name of his lost brother who ruled England effectively for twenty years. Richard’s plans would unravel as Henry Tudor, who increases his own legitimate standing by marring the eldest daughter of King Edward IV, overthrows him.

(Doomed boys, the sons of Edward IV, King Edward V and his brother Richard, the Duke of York, murdered by their uncle's orders)

(Richard III, deposes his nephew to seize the throne but his reign is cut short by Henry Tudor)

This is a great book detailing the events of the brutal Wars of the Roses the brought the English monarchy to great highs and lows in very short periods of time. The reader is left thinking that if only Edward had lived one more decade he would have been able to put his own son, King Edward V, securely on the throne and history might have taken a far different turn. Edward IV is a tale of triumph and tragedy.

{video is from David Starkey's Monarchy

Thursday, December 22, 2011


A review of Ian Mortimer’s The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England’s Self-Made King (2008)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Ian Mortimer tells the tale of a tragic prince who lead an incredible life but has been unappreciated throughout history. Some of the lack of appreciation is understandable because his warrior son had left such an incredible legacy that his own suffers from want. The rest of it is due to an unsuccessful reign and the judgments of his time period. It is a great book filled with excitement but told with historical professionalism.

(King Henry IV)

Henry is born the son of the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, his paternal grandfather is King, and his maternal grandfather was the great warrior, Duke Henry. Throughout his life Henry would try to live the life a prince was expected to. He was a knight, he jousted, he went crusade where he fought holy battles, and he had even traveled to the Holy Land setting foot in Jerusalem. Henry had the potential to be great asset for to his cousin, the King.

(John of Gaunt, Henry's father, the Duke of Lancaster)

Unfortunately, for both Henry and his country, they had King Richard II as their monarch. Many monarchs that have been overthrown were not themselves, bad people. More often than not they were just incapable of doing their jobs and suffered the consequences of it*. Richard, however, was a pure tyrant king who created a climate of fear for his people. King Richard who had come to the throne at the age of ten was often insecure, jealous, and paranoid. He always seemed to make enemies where he could have friends. The King never understood that the rebels in the peasant revolt were actually pro-monarchist, against noble power as much as he. He did not understand his uncle, the Duke of Lancaster, was actually trying to help him. Even his mother tried to get him to see reason but King Richard II really believed that his uncle was out to get him, even though he never acted against him.

(Richard II, a tyrant king)

Through no fault of his own Henry finds himself banished from England forced into exile, unable to attend his own father’s funeral, and is disinherited. Much like Julius Caesar, Henry finds himself forced into an impossible position and acts in a similar manner. He returns to England in head of an army that grows the further he gets into the country (showing clear dislike for the people to Richard) and easily captures his rival.

Henry quickly encounters a problem. He had promised not to take England by conquest only to fight against a perceived injustice. In later ages it would be accepted that rulers who are tyrants can be overthrown, but what Henry was going to do to Richard violated all morals of the day. He took the throne from his cousin and through Parliament had himself proclaimed King Henry IV.

The revolutionary act of disposing of a king and taking his place would condemn Henry to a difficult rule. When King Edward II (great-grandfather to both Henry and Richard) was overthrown he was replaced by his own lawful heir, King Edward III, who did not partake in his father's overthrow. Edward III would avenge his father by killing the man who deposed him, Roger Mortimer, the Earl of March. This allowed King Edward III to rule with legitimacy. Henry was the man who deposed King Richard and replaced him as king. Henry was not Richard’s lawful heir as had been Edward III to Edward II; there were multiple people who had better claims than Henry regardless of which method of succession was used**. Yet Henry deposes a king and becomes one at the same time, under the justification that Richard was a bad king. This makes the new King Henry IV vulnerable because the same standard could be used on him! In addition, as W. L. Warren pointed out in his book on King Henry II often times powerful nobles who become king, such as King Stephan, have a difficult time making the transition from nobleman to king. Henry learned the hard way that running a kingdom was not the same as running a duchy.

(Henry's famous son, King Henry V)

It has often been said that great leaders are judged by the circumstances that they faced. This is not true for King Henry IV, although he saved the kingdom from a tyrant and handled all crises that came to him rather well. His legacy was tarnished by what he had to do to become king. During his life he went unrecognized by his peers the Kings of Scotland and France. After death, he would unappreciated by his own successors, even his own son. He was Henry the Usurper and no king could glorify a usurper and remain safe on his own throne. Unlike his ancestor, William the Conqueror, he was never able to pull a show of legitimacy that the public could at some level accept.

Ian Mortimer did a great job telling the tale of a tragic figure not even the great William Shakespeare was able to give justice. I would highly recommend this book to anyone it is a great read.

*Henry's own grandson, King Henry VI, is a good example. Others were King Louis XVI of France, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.

**As Mortimer points out there were many entails but none of them could be used to create a successful argument that Henry had a hereditary right to be king.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


A review of Ian Mortimer’s The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation (2008)

(Rating 5 of 5)

The Perfect King is a very enjoyable to book to read, Mortimer seems to understand the importance of keeping the story part of history. In the telling of the life Edward III, Mortimer can be both funny and serious at the same time as any good history professor who has to lecture in front of students. His subject is a fascinating one, King Edward III came to throne after his father’s violent overthrow and for the first few years of his reign was under the thumb of the man who brought down his father, Roger Mortimer, the Earl of March. Edward would survive to dispose of Mortimer, and become one of the most successful kings in English history. He was a warrior prince who would humble France like none before him. His son, Prince Edward, would succeed in capturing France's King John II and bring to England a prisoner. One of the main themes of the book is how the King’s legacy would change through the ages. Although he was considered one of the greatest monarchs for five hundred years after his death, in the nineteenth century historians took a much more critical view emphasizing his faults and failings while ignoring his good traits and record of success. Mortimer tries to tell Edward’s story to be understood in the context of Edward’s own era.

(King Edward III the great warrior king)

(Mortimer pays for usurping the throne)

Probably the intriguing argument—if not the most famous—that Mortimer tries to advance in this book is the theory that Edward II did not die in Berkeley Castle but lived on into 1341. In the past I had never really questioned Edward II’s death not even the brutality of it. The hot poker story I had heard criticized on the grounds of it being too gruesome, but I always thought that a silly argument for it was brutal time period where people disemboweled as a form of execution. In such context the hot poker story seemed very probable to me. I still think he died at Berkeley, but this book did make me pause. The part that got me the most was the whole ‘William the Welshman’ royal pretender who is not only spared from any punishment but is also entertained at royal expense and gets to the meet the family! Maybe Edward II’s body should be exhumed to determine what age he was at before he died.

(Edward II, was he or was he not murdered)

Edward III is most famous for his war with France and his reputation is as a great warrior king. Mortimer shows in this story that Edward was an excellent and imaginative tactician who not only waged war but change the very way it was fought in the Western World. He would win victory after victory nearly reclaiming all the lands lost by his great-great-grandfather, King John.

“Until now gunpowder had only been used in sieges, with the sole exception of Mortimer’s use of ‘crakkis of war’ on the Stanhope campaign. Those had been dangerous exploding buckets by comparison with Edward’s refined guns. As well as small cannon with calibres of roughly four inches (the shot were still stone) he brought his newly developed ‘ribalds’—series of bound gun barrels designed to shoot metal bolts, like crossbow bolts. And Edward had not only developed them, he had thought of how to use them too.” (p.238)

Where Edward III does not get a lot of credit is in his abilities as a lawmaker. While his grandfather, King Edward I, had the first ‘Model Parliament’, it was actually King Edward III whose parliaments were ‘model’. It was under Edward III that the two chambers of House of Lords and House of Commons formed. It was also during Edward’s reign that the Commons had actually begun to have a real role in the making of law that was respected and consistent. Edward III had a strong relationship with the Parliament.

“Edward was a man who listened to his representatives, and held a dialogue with them, even if he did not or could not agree to their demands. Although it is the mass of legislation passed by his grandfather, Edward I, that caught the attention of early legal historians, prompting them to call that king ‘the English Justinian’ (referring to the great Byzantine Emperor who codified the Roman Law), Edward III was no less of a legislator. But his methods were different: he was a lawmaker not a lawgiver. He made laws responding to parliamentary demands. Sometimes these demands allowed him to promote his own agenda for legislation; at other times the measures were all but forced upon him as a result of his need to maintain a high level of taxation. Sometimes even he had his own wishes presented to him in the form of a petition from a magnate. But the parliaments of Edward III are remarkable for the breadth and depth of the parliamentary dialogue between king and people. So great was Edward’s contribution that one modern scholar has assigned him the title of ‘Second English Justinian’, putting him on a footing equal to that of Edward I, the codifier of the English Common Law.” (p.308)

One of King Edward III lasting achievements was the creation of the Order of the Garter. An association of twenty-six knights including the King and the Prince of Wales that continues to exist to this day.

(Prince Edward, the Prince of Wales, known as the Black Prince. He was the man who would have been king and one of the first Knights of the Garter.)

“It was at this point that Edward founded—or, to be exact—completed the foundation of the Order of the Garter. On St. George’s Day 1349, at the very height of the most horrific disease the kingdom had ever seen, Edward held a great tournament at Windsor during which he formally instituted his Order of twenty-six men who would joust and pray together once a year, and conduct themselves everywhere like proud Arthurian knights.” (p.263)

(King John II of France, captured by the Black Prince)

Edward tried in every way to be a good king although he was from perfect. Nevertheless, he was an amazing king. It is unfortunate that he outlived his glory, his sanity, and his own heir apparent.

{Video was posted by B29Productions on YouTube}

Sunday, December 18, 2011


A review of Michael Prestwich’s Edward I (1988)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Michael Preswich’s Edward I is a great book with only one flaw. One the biggest questions, to me, about King Edward I is: exactly why is he called Edward the First when there was not one, not two, but three Kings Edward before him. In addition to having multiple predecessors with his name, Edward Longshanks was also named after the previous King Edward, Edward the Confessor. Yet nowhere in this book does this subject even come up! When I first read this book back in college, I asked my professor, Phil Cole of the University of Southern Maine, if he knew why the Hammer of the Scots was labeled number one, and he confessed he had no idea. I assume that Edward is listed as the first of his name because of Norman Conquest; although I have never found any official statement to that fact. Apparently in England they only count the kings and queens that occurred after the Norman Conquest.

(King Edward I)

During his time as a prince, young Edward, had some sympathies with the reform movement amongst the barons of England, but he would ultimately side with his father King Henry III against the reformers led by Simon De Montfort. When England broke into civil war it looked for a while that the reformers might actually win. Edward himself was captured but he and his father would ultimately prevail and Montfort would be dead.

(Scary statue of Edward I)

After helping to secure his father’s throne Prince Edward left England and went on crusade. His crusade, like many of them, was a very overrated experience and although Edward was proud to have gone. The Prince was grateful for the prestige his crusade gave him and always wanted to go again, but his adventure in the East did not led any significant accomplishment. What I found most fascinating was the way children were regarded in the middle ages. Since college I have known that people in the past, emotionally, kept their young children at arm’s length. This was due to the child mortality rate at the time. Nevertheless I was stuck by Edward when he found out he lost his first-born son he seemed not to care, but when he was told he had become King because his father had died he cried nonstop. When questioned by this behavior he declares that he can always have more sons but he only had one father. Some logic in that I guess but it is very cold.

(Edward's rival king, Philip IV of France)

As King, Edward is known for three things: the ‘model’ parliament, the conquest of Wales and the near conquest of Scotland. All three of these things are very well covered by Prestwich. Prestwich is always fair giving Edward credit where he thinks the old king deserved it but at the same time making it clear that he was not quite the ‘English Justinian’ that he was always made out to be.

(St. Edward's chair)

In parliament, he did pass a great deal of important legislation such as the two Westminster Acts. However what he is most known for is the composition of parliament, making sure it was represented by all interests of the kingdom. However, Prestwich points out that the composition of parliament was something done for the King’s convenience not anyone else’s.

“Although there were no clear rules defining who was entitled to receive summons to parliament, it is obvious that the king was looking for men whose advice he valued, and whose local power and authority he could not ignore. There was something of a concentration of men who held estates on the borders near Wales and Scotland, a natural reflection of their military importance. If a man was sufficiently distinguished, he might be summoned even though he was not a tenant-in-chief, or particularly wealthy.” (p.447)

(Model Parliament, a dramatized non-historical scene)

Even though Prestwich dispels a lot of myths about this medieval king, he does not try to deny his importance to the British Constitution. It was Edward’s actions that allowed the Parliament to form into what it did and history shows other actions could have sent it to a different direction.

“Although parliament had played a very significant part in the political struggles of the late 1250s and 1260s, it would have been possible in the 1270s and 1280s for it to become something much more like the French parlement. That body was a specialized legal tribunal, with its own expert, learned staff, attended only rarely by the king himself. It was far superior to the English parliament in terms of records that were kept, and the professionalism of its staff, but its importance was much less, for it could never stand for the community of the realm, as the English parliament could. Had Edward not chosen to summon large numbers of magnates to his parliaments, along with representatives on occasion; had he not chosen to receive petitions, often in considerable quantity, in parliaments; then there might have appeared in England a small, specialized parliament, little more than a legal committee of the royal council, along the French lines.” (p.460)

King Edward’s other far lasting contribution was the conquest of Wales. Kings of England since the days of William the Conqueror had been receiving homage from Welsh princes, although they never sought to rule Wales directly. Prestwich argues that the wars were largely provoked by the Prince of Wales himself, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, for refusing Edward homage and openly aiding his enemies such as the allies of Simon de Montfort.

“Although it is possible to criticize much that Edward did in Wales, the fact remains that he was in the end thoroughly successful. Of course his resources were immeasurably greater than those of the Welsh, but the Welsh had succeeded in retaining a considerable degree of independence in the face of powerful English kings ever since the Norman Conquest. Edward had now taken a major step towards the eventual political unification of the British Isles, though in his later years he was to find that he could not repeat in Scotland what he had achieved in Wales.” (p. 232)

(The loser, The last non-English Prince of Wales)

Edward is probably most famous for his almost conquest of Scotland. This fame has increased since the 1990s because of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, which I acknowledge as the source of my interest in King Edward I. In that movie, Patrick McGoohan portrays King Edward and he does bring the character to life. However, it needs to be pointed out that the movie is not very historically accurate.

The war was primarily caused by Edward’s bulling. Asked to oversee a succession dispute, King Edward picks the right candidate in John Balliol, but then proceeds to completely humiliate him to the point the new King cannot control his own country. Edward deposes the Scottish King John who turns out to be, unfortunately, more a loser than King Edward’s grandfather the English King John*. Although it had seemed to Edward that he had conquered Scotland, he would find he would have to keep reconquering it to the point it would bankrupt his treasury, Edward would win only a Pyrrhic victory over William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. Robert would go into to become King of Scotland while Wallace would suffer a terrible death.

(Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland)

“From Edward’s point of view, there can have been no doubt whatsoever that Wallace was a traitor who deserved to die a traitor’s death. The king may appear today to have been ungenerous in failing to recognize the obvious qualities of his victim, who had shown a great capacity for leadership. Yet Wallace had not conducted his campaigns according to the chivalric code of the day, and there is no reason why Edward should have treated him with compassion or respect.” (p.503)

In the end this a great book about a fascinating individual. He was a giant among men both literally** and figuratively. Historians had been fascinated by him ever since, even to the point of opening his coffin in 1774. Michael Prestwich does a very good job separating the man and the legend.

(Coffin opened in 1774)

*It is interesting to point out that neither England nor Scotland ever had another king named John.

**He was well over six feet in an age where that was rare.

Monday, October 31, 2011


A review of W.L. Warren’s King John (1961)

(Rating 5 of 5)

King John the first, last, and only is famous for two things, and one of those things he did not really do. As a prince, he is known to have chased around Robin Hood—that is fiction. As the King of England, he signed the famous Magna Carta; he did do that, but Warren points out that it is not quite the historic event that many thought it was. W.L. Warren attempts in this biography of King John to strip way the myth—particularly negative myth—about a ruler who in his view was quite competent but just really unlucky.

(King John of England, not quite what people think)

Historical giants surround King John throughout his life. His father is the famous King Henry II who established Common Law in England. His mother is the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was the wife of two kings and the mother of two kings . His famous brother Richard the Lionhearted, was a celebrated and overrated crusader. His archrival is King Philip II of France, known as Philip Augustus, who begins the process of transforming France into a nation by expanding French royal power at the expense of King John. Amongst these great people John seems small by comparison and his reputation suffers.

“The persisting images are of Henry as a strong and beneficent ruler, of Richard as a glamorous hero, and of John as a villainous failure; but these sharp contrasts reflect the attitudes of the more influential of the chroniclers rather than real differences of personality. The dominant impression of Henry is closest to reality, that of John furthest removed.” (p.4)

(King Philip II of France, known as Philip Augustus, was one of France's greatest kings who achieved much at John's expense)

Warren describes John as the son who was most like his father—who is generally regarded as great monarch. Like his father, John is interested in governing his kingdom. This passion is in direct contrast to his brothers who saw kingship as something that was prestigious but not something one needed spend their energies on. As a ruler, John is a great politician who suffers from a lot of reverses. The fact the he manages to survive all of them is testament to his ability but that is not to say he his actions should not invoke criticism. How he handled the loss of Normandy was not one of his prouder moments.

“Richard himself could not have beaten that combination. If Richard had lived for another five years, though, there would have been one notable difference in the course of the campaign. The king himself would have been on the heights above Les Andelys as dawn broke, to give the single of the combined attack on the French camp; however ready the Normans were to surrender, Philip would not have been able to march up the valley of the Orne to Caen without fear of sudden assault by Richard and his household cavalry; and even when all else had gone, Richard would have been urging the citizens of Rouen to arms, and parrying the first assault with blows from his great sword. John stayed in England biting his nails.” (p.99)

Throughout the book Warren tries his best to present what John was like as a person. Part of his negative reputation comes from the fact that most the people who disliked him were nobles whose interests would often conflict with the royal interest. These nobles, as the most literate men of the kingdom would often wright the history of John's reign. King John was often could show great acts of kindness with the average everyday people who worked for him.

“On the other hand he will make presents to men who have served him well—barrels of wine, it may be, or even a hundred head of deer. When he hears that the son of his henchmen William Brewer has fallen into the hands of the French, John helps to pay his ransom. When his valet Petit falls ill and has to stay behind in Somerset, the sheriff is instructed to see that he wants for nothing. John was, it seems, the old-fashioned kind of paternalistic employer who is intolerant of laxity in his workers but ready to set his own shoulder to the wheel, able to talk familiarly with the lowest of them, and remember their birthdays and their babies. John’s trouble was that he could not get along with the men who claimed to be his fellow directors.” (p.145)

Magna Carta has been considered by people since the 17th century to be the most important aspect of King John’s reign. However, Warren points out that the whole event was overrated and what we were taught in school is mostly a false image.

(Popular image of a defeated king forced to sign a document limiting his royal power, not quite what happened)

“One of the most remarkable things about Magna Carta is the obscurity of its antecedents. This obscurity extends from the dating of the charter itself, back over the preceding negotiations and parleys to the muster of rebellion. One of the few things that can be said with certainty is that the hallowed tradition, derived largely from Wendover, is false which pictures a baronage united in arms against the Crown, confronting a cowed and humiliated king at Runnymede on 15 June 1215, and obliging him, with praiseworthy restraint, to set his seal to a statement of constitutional liberties with it had drawn up. It does not make the picture more true merely to darken the colours by saying that the baronial rebels were reactionaries pursuing selfish class interests.” (p.224)

The important thing about Magna Carta is not what it actually was but an idea that it came to represent. That idea is: a government is legitimate only if it has the consent of the governed, that idea became the bedrock of Anglo-American thought on government.

“As such it opened the way to periodic revisions of custom and law, and implied that the government should not be conducted to damage the governed. Moreover, merely by existing it was a standing condemnation of the rule of arbitrary will. Even in the emasculated form in which it eventually got on to the statute book, an appeal to Magna Carta was a shorthand way of proclaiming the rule of law. Its actual provisions exercised little influence on the development of the constitution until misinterpreted by 17th century lawyers to mean trial by jury, and no taxation without the consent of representatives; yet their interpretations are not wholly absurd, for they accurately reflected the spirit if not the purpose of the 13th century original. It should be remembered, however, that the charter which the 17th century politicians studied with such zeal was not the one issued by John in 1215, but a truncated and modified version promulgated by his son, Henry III, in 1225.” (p.240)

King John is a great book. I would recommend this book to anyone who wanted to know more about the life a reign of one of the most important (not great) monarchs in the history of the world. This book shows the reader the truth behind the historical events surrounding the signing of Magna Carta, and the revelation that maybe John is not the villain history holds him to be.

{Video is from the 2010 movie Robin Hood where King John is played by Oscar Isaac. This version of Robin is very different from the classic version.}

Friday, October 28, 2011


A review of W.L. Warren's Henry II (1973)

(Rating 5 of 5)

King Henry II is one of the most fascinating rulers of the Middle Ages. A man of deep passion and great ability he ruled not only England for over thirty years but he was also the master of half of France. Henry’s lordship over half of France was a situation that did not please the two French kings that Henry had to deal with in the course of his reign: King Louis VII and his son Philip II.

The book begins with the disaster of the White Ship that killed Prince William, King Henry I's son and heir. The premature death of the King's son sent all of England into chaos as King Henry's surviving daughter, Empress Matilda, and her usurper, King Stephan, battled for the throne. Henry sees action at a very young age, yet, he never allows himself to be governed by it. Henry was a king who also appreciated diplomacy, he could both fight and talk.

(King Henry II of England)

The book is divided into several sections. The first of these deals with Henry's political career. A career that includes his unusual rise to the throne, his political marriage, his struggles with the church and the King of France, and the rebellion of his sons. The author uses the rest of the sections to take a closure look at the various aspects of King Henry's reign.

(Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry's famous queen)

Henry II is most remembered amongst political scientists and the legal profession for establishing a system of courts under what would be called the Common Law. King Henry was able to achieve this by pretending to be carrying on the old classical traditions of Anglo-Saxon England despite the fact he was doing something completely different. Warren was also described to the reader that this evolving judiciary was very fluid and times very confusing because of the personality of the King himself.

“Clearly the curia regis existed wherever a delegate of King Henry acted in his name. It also, of course, existed wherever King Henry himself happened to be. This could be anywhere for the king and his household were continually on the move. In the thirty-four years of his reign Henry II spent Christmas at twenty-four different places. He crossed the English Channel at least twenty-eight times and the Irish Sea twice.” (p.302)

Although King Henry II considered it his personal duty to do justice by his subjects, they were still his subjects and the government was his personal entity. Warren is quick to point out that this should not diminish the achievement of this King and his reign, for King Henry did try to do right by his subjects and his reign left a positive legacy.

“Royal power under Henry II could be discriminatory, violent, arbitrary, wilful, and selfish—for monarchy was still personal, and it was Janus-faced. Nonetheless, its weakness should not be allowed to obscure its virtues; and in the long run its customary impartiality, its respect for legal principle, its equation of right and law, and its sense of justice, were more important in moulding the traditions of English government than its lapses into tyranny.” (p.395)

One of Warren's theories to how positive the government structure left by King Henry II was viewed, was in the rebellion against King Henry's son King John that led to the Magna Carta. King Henry was a king who knew that kingship came with responsibilities, and the Magna Carta was made to remind King John of what his father should have taught him.

“Magna Carta was to condemn the defects of royal government by the high standards which that government had itself inculcated; and it was Henry II who taught his subjects the remedy against the abuse of power—the rule of law. This was his greatest paradox.” (p. 396)

One of the issues that I completely agree with Warren on is the King Henry/Thomas Becket rivalry. Despite Hollywood claims to the contrary, Thomas Becket was the jerk and King Henry was the just ruler. King Henry II, the ruler of the kingdom, wanted to be able to enforce laws on all of his subjects, including members of the clergy. So if a member of the clergy—which according to Warren consists on one sixth of the kingdom—commits a crime he has to be held accountable. However, Becket did not feel the same way. Becket wanted the clergy to be above the King's law yet have clergy be able to hold the secular royal officials to the church is law.

“That relations rapidly deteriorated was initially not Henry's fault but Becket's.” (p.453)

Becket was so drunk on his own power it is hard at times to take him seriously. Warren points to issues and arguments where Becket even tends to make up or exaggerate facts in order to support his case! He is hardly the person I would want as a leader for he was so bull headed he could not be asked in good faith to negotiate to a reasonable compromise. King Henry II should be recognized as a hero who saved England from a total theocracy. If Becket had his way the King of England would be an agent of the Archbishop of Canterbury, instead of the other way around. Unfortunately King Henry ranting in anger would make some overly anxious knights go on to slay the Archbishop and make him a martyr. Although Becket's personal reputation was strengthened by death his cause justly died.

(Becket was a dink who the world should not miss)

I also found Warren’s theory that King Philip II of France is in some ways Henry’s true successor to be interesting. King Philip mimicked Henry’s court and, like Henry, did his best to give good government to his subjects. Henry’s lessons were appreciated by his enemy in ways his sons could never pick up on.

(The tomb of Henry and Eleanor)

I highly recommend this book. W.L. Warren does a great job explaining the life and times of one of England's most famous and enlightened rulers, King Henry II.

{Videos have Peter O'Toole playing of Henry II in the classic movies Becket and A Lion in Winter}

Sunday, October 23, 2011


A review of C. Warren Hollister's Henry I (2001)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Warren Hollister's Henry I was published posthumously. The work was completed and edited by Amanda Clark Frost. The book is a great legacy for not only the life and career of the subject but for the author as well. Hollister tells the story a young prince, who as his father's youngest son was not going to be expected to be a king himself, but ended up as one of the most powerful rulers in Western Christendom.

The story of Henry I begins a few years after his father's conquest of England. As the youngest son of the Conqueror, it is unlikely that he will ever rule anything since his three older brothers will come first. Even after the death of the second oldest and the almost disinheritance of the oldest*, young Henry was only left with a small sum of money and no land. However after the accidental death** of his closest brother, King William II, Henry lays claim to the crown of England. Up to this point, he had lived his life as either the King's son or the King's brother, now he was the King himself.

(King Henry I of England)

Known as the King who created the exchequer, Hollister describes King Henry I to be an administrative wonder. As king, Henry would issue multiple laws and actually took the time to have them widely published. More interested in governing his kingdom and duchy than waging war, Henry's reign would leave a legacy of peace. In one exciting adventure he did manage to wrest Normandy from his disinherited older brother Duke Robert. They fought in the battle of Tinchebray, a conflict that lasted only an hour compared to the battle of Hastings forty years earlier. (Interestingly, the battle of Tinchebray literally reversed the battle of Hastings for this time the King of England conquered the Duke of Normandy.)

(The Conqueror's eldest son, Robert Curthose, the man who should have been King was disinherited by his father for his consistent betrayals)

Hollister goes into great detail discussing the various aspects of the reign of King Henry I. One the most important problems that King Henry faced were his struggles against the Church over the King's rights vs. the Church's rights. His struggles with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Anslem, a feud which would echo another two generations later but with far less deadly results. In this case the King in the Archbishop were able to work out a compromise that both could live with. Their successors would not be so lucky.

(Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury)

I do have some technical quibbles with the book. Hollister refers to King Henry's first wife as Queen Matilda II, in order to avoid confusion with Henry I's mother who was also Queen Matilda. The problem is it is wrong. Queens consort do not receive numbers, only queens regina do. For example the modern Queen of Great Britain is Queen Elizabeth II not Queen Elizabeth V.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to know more about England in the 12th century or about the life of one of its better monarchs. Hollister was a very good writer and it is sad that he is no longer with us.

*Robert was able to inherit Normandy but denied England.

**And it does appear to have been accidental.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


A review of David Douglas' William the Conqueror (1964)

(Rating 5 of 5)

William the Conqueror tells the story of the most unlikely of individuals who became one of the most powerful rulers in the eleventh century A.D. William of Normandy was born in 1028, because his father Robert, the Duke of Normandy, had seduced a young woman named Herleve, the daughter of a local tanner. As an illegitimate child, William had no legal claim to any inheritance. Nevertheless, William would be made heir to one of the most powerful duchies in France. Not only would he inherit Normandy but he would hold on to it despite attacks on every front imaginable. He would go on not only to rule Normandy but he would cross the English Channel and conqueror that island kingdom, and his descendants have ruled their ever since*.

(King Henry I of France, William's patron, rival, and wife's uncle)

David Douglas covers William’s, in royal terms, lowly birth as the illegitimate child of tanner's daughter, whose father nevertheless recognizes him as his heir. His father was able to get the King of France to back his son's rights because, as duke, Robert stood by King Henry I when he was danger of losing his kingdom**. William goes on to rule the duchy with strength. He even gains the ability to stand against his earlier supporter, the King of France, to maintain his independence. When a succession crisis breaks out in England, William manages to do what King Phillip II of Spain, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Adolf Hitler have since all failed to do: conqueror England by force. The Norman Conquest would move England from the Scandinavian cultural sphere back to the sphere of Latin Europe as it had been during the time of the Roman Empire.

(Edward the Confessor, childless king whose death leads to a showdown)

(King Harold, he loses England to William)

“In any case, the attackers had been given an opportunity to recover. Duke William doffed his helmet, and having displayed himself to his men as still alive he succeeded in restoring order among them. The issue was, none the less, still in doubt. Harold's position had been weakened, but it was still strong, and both sides were becoming exhausted. It was at this juncture, apparently, that William introduced a new element into his conduct of the battle, Hitherto the attacks of his horsemen and his footmen had been uncoordinated: now they were to be combined. William, it is said, ordered his archers to shoot from a distance high into the air so that their arrows might fall on the heads of the defenders, and at the same time he sent his weary horsemen once again up the hill for yet another attack. This time they were successful. It was perhaps now that Harold himself was killed, and now the defenders were overwhelmed, and the hill position taken. A group of housecarls managed to rally for a while at a spot unsuitable for cavalry in the rear of the main position, and to inflict damage on their pursuers. But there could no longer be any doubt of the outcome. The flight became general and soon turned into slaughter, until at last, as darkness was beginning to fall, the duke called off the pursuit and brought his force back to the hill itself. He encamped for the night amid the carnage.”(p.201)

(The Bayeux Tapestry)

Reading this book I came to the conclusion that King William I of England had much in common with Emperor Augustus. As the first Emperor of Rome, Augustus tried to maintain the allusion of continuity with the classical Republic, while in reality he was completely dismantling it and establishing the Principate. As the King of England, William tried to maintain the allusion of continuity with the Anglo-Saxon kingdom, while in reality he was in the process of restructuring his new kingdom to the same manner in which he governed Normandy.

(William I of England (top) had much in common with Emperor Augustus(below))

This book is very well organized but it does tend to move up and down the time line a great deal in order to cover various aspects of the reign of William I both as a duke and a king. I do want to point to an error in the table of contents: two chapters, ten and eleven, are missing from the list. Fortunately the 'lost chapters' are still in the text. I would still strongly recommend this book to anyone. Professor Douglas is very good at examining one of the most well-known but least understood historical figures in William the Conqueror.

*Although 'rule' may not be the appropriate word for his modern descendants over the last few hundred years. There was also the brief interlude between 1649-1660 known as the Commonwealth.

**The King of France during this time period only directly ruled a small portion of his kingdom with the great vassals, such as the Duke of Normandy, ruling the other areas.

{The first video was produced and posted on YouTube by the BBC and the second video produced and posted by historyteachers}