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}

Sunday, October 16, 2011


A review of Frank McLynn's Marcus Aurelius: A Life (2009)

(Rating 2 of 5)

Frank McLynn's account of the life and world of Emperor Marcus Aurelius does lack for detail. McLynn explains the life of a young Roman aristocrat who lives in a world of increasing inequality. To use a modern phrase, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. To put a more precise point on it, the Augustan Principate as a system government now seems to be suffering from the same fate as the Republican Senatorial establishment that it had replaced. Rome is facing great troubles and the government that is supposed to solve Rome's problems is either ignoring them at best or encouraging them at worst.* Gaining the notice of the Emperor Hadrian, young Marcus is adopted into the imperial family and is put on the direct path to the imperial throne. After an over two decade stint as the presumptive heir under Emperor Antonius Pious, he ascends to the imperial throne. As emperor he does many things but very little to solve Rome's larger problems.

Frank McLynn comes across in his writing as very knowledgeable about various topics, unfortunately it can somewhat drag his writing down. I understand why stoic philosophy is important to understanding Marcus Aurelius as a person. So McLynn, as the biographer, feels the need to explain stoic philosophy. However in contrast with author Anthony Everitt, who was able to explain stoicism in one page with a few examples**, McLynn not only dedicates a whole appendix to it, but he also drags on for entire chapters on the Emperor's view and writings on the topic. It is also one thing to sum up how his work is observed in later time periods when discussing his legacy and impact in the final chapter, however in the middle of the book I do not need to know how the Emperor's philosophy measures up Immanuel Kant. Often while reading this book I felt the need to yell “Get to the point, already!”

The structure of the book leaves a lot to be desired. For example I like to have my table of contents to tell me the pages of each of the individual chapters not just the introduction, preface, and appendixes. As a reader I find that a full table of contents helps me pace myself while reading. As a reviewer a full table of contents in a book it makes the book easier to go back over. He also has inconsistent capitalization of titles, McLynn will sometimes capitalize titles and other times he will not. For example, you will see King Louis IX of France and emperor Hadrian of Rome.

During the course of the book McLynn often refers to Marcus Aurelius as the 'greatest of the emperors of Rome' even occasionally adding the adverb 'unquestionably'. The funny thing is, the way Marcus Aurelius and his reign are described in the book gives the reader the impression he was a substandard emperor at best. This could highlight the author's low view of all of Rome's emperors—his views on Hadrian are very different from Anthony Everitt's. Nevertheless it comes off as an odd claim. I, myself, tend to judge leaders on three main criteria. The criteria I use are: how did the state*** look before leader X took over; how did leader X respond to the problems that he or she encountered; and what was the condition of the state when leader X left relative to when his or her time began. Clearly, the 'greatest emperor' was Augustus. He entered politics when Rome was being rocked by civil wars, he ended the civil wars and established a new form of government far more effective than the earlier one it replaced, and left Rome more powerful than ever in the stable hands of Emperor Tiberius.**** In contrast, Marcus Aurelius is handed Rome from Emperor Antonius Pious—who I always viewed as being a sort of Calvin Coolidge of Ancient Rome, an emperor who neatly managed the Empire, tended to trust his subordinates to do their jobs, with no major crisis hitting the Roman Empire during his watch as head of state—; his response to the problems that faced Rome were only effective in the short term (he defended the borders but had never quite solved the problems); and lastly he left the Roman Empire to his psychopathic son, Emperor Commodus.

In the end, I would recommend this book to someone with a strong handle on academic jargon and love of philosophy. If you just want to read about Rome stick with Adrian Goldsworthy.

*This is my personal observation not the author's.

**Everitt discussed Stoic philosophy in his book Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome when explaining the Stoic opposition to the Flavian emperors.

***You can substitute 'state' with kingdom, empire, or organization of any kind.

****Emperor Tiberius was not always great but at the start of his reign he was not that bad. In general, he was a capable ruler.

{Scene from the movie Gladiator, not a very historically accurate movie but Richard Harris plays a very good Emperor Marcus Aurelius}