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}

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