Henry II, by W. L. Warren


Henry II

Note: This book is out of print, so find a good used copy. Most book websites told me I could get a new one, but what they meant was… special order a printing. Verrry expensive, and its already not a cheap book.

The life of one of England’s least-well known kings, by a college professor, at 636 pages; you’re already asleep, right? I picked this book up at the library on a school research project, and was so engrossed, I had to buy it. The details just kind of pop out the page and start create a courtly atmosphere right there on the page. Beware, if you buy it online, the picture is deciving: 636 pages of size ten single spaced typing. Its not a weekend read. But, as I will hopefully convince you below, its worth every minute.

PLOT: Henry II, successful invader at 14, married to the queen of France by 19, and king of a disorderly lawless kingdom that’d been in civil war for over 20 years by the age of 21. He held together an empire that spanned England, Wales, and half of modern France, gave birth to three kings in the Angevian line, and set many of the precedents of English law that we hold dear today. Henry was an enigma in his day: military genius, family failure, strong governmental control in an era when local barons had held sway for generations, staunch traditionalist, patron of the church, and reviled by prominent churchmen (namely Thomas Becket). The end of his life was ignomius, mainly because he didn’t discipline his children or fully destroy the villain of Europe at the time (the king of France). Overall, his influence led to many things including the flowering of chivalry and the development of the rule of law.

CON: Henry II is not the ideal role model. He was so indifferent to public opinion that he allowed scandalous rumors to go unquenched (creating the myth of Thomas Becket, who I never liked). His choice of wife was politically motivated (not uncommon), and his failure to have a strong relationship with her led to many problems. They didn’t have a picturesque marriage: the kids were divided between his and hers favorites, and eventually she led the lot of them into open rebellion against their father; not once but twice. The author is relatively discreet about all the killing that results, but even so, the bloody nature of the era can’t be entirely hidden.

PRO: W. L. Warren has an amazing prose style. His words ebb and flow in eloquent sentences that bring the era to life. Better still, its in words that the average person can understand (and if you don’t, just hang on: whole chapters are devoted to explaining unusal concepts and words from the era. Plus, there’s a glossary with page references). And the historical significance of this king cannot be minimized.

“Henry II’s consolidation and defense of his authority rested upon his mastery of the art of warfare, which in turn rested upon his ability to turn his capital resources into available wealth. Henry’s technique for enhancing his wealth was not conquest and plunder but efficient management. Of course, if this had been all, Henry II might have been remembered merely as an efficient exploiter; but it was not all, for it was Henry’s genius was to make efficient management synonymous with sound government.”

OVERALL: Highly recommended, especially to those interested in the era of knights in shining armor.

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