History of War - - REVIEWS -

Au­thor: Nick Bar­ratt Pub­lisher: Faber & Faber Price: £20.00

Henry II. Eleanor of Aquitaine. Richard the Lion­heart. Thomas Becket. John Lack­land.

They are among the most vivid per­son­al­i­ties in English his­tory, ca­pa­ble of in­spir­ing schol­arly bat­tles and great art in medi­ums not even in­vented when they were alive nine cen­turies later. This new his­tory is a wel­come prospect, run­ning from the Anar­chy, when Matilda, Henry’s mother, and Henry’s cousin Stephen dragged Eng­land and Nor­mandy into civil war, through Henry’s own tu­mul­tuous reign – which in­cluded the mur­der of his arch­bishop, Thomas Becket, and in­sur­rec­tions led, in turn, by all his four sons. The nar­ra­tive con­cludes with the reigns of Henry’s sons, Richard – who led a life of such high ad­ven­ture that it would seem wildly im­prob­a­ble in a novel – and John – who un­wit­tingly laid the foun­da­tions for the rule of law in Eng­land when he signed the Magna Carta. This is the sort of his­tory to drag peo­ple away from so­cial me­dia.

What Bar­ratt does, and does ex­tremely well, is tell the story of th­ese war­ring gen­er­a­tions, and the con­stant shift­ings of for­tune and op­por­tu­nity that raised them up and brought them low. So for a con­cise, grounded ac­count of the rise and fall of the Angevin Em­pire, and the begin­nings of an Eng­land that de­fined it­self against its ri­val across the English Chan­nel, this book is ideal.

How­ever, the char­ac­ters never quite come alive. This is sub­jec­tive, in­volv­ing the mys­te­ri­ous alchemy of words, ex­pe­ri­ence and mem­ory that makes ev­ery en­gage­ment with the writ­ten word unique to the par­tic­u­lar per­son and book. It may be that the book’s sweep is too broad – after all, whole books have been writ­ten about par­tic­u­lar episodes in the lives of th­ese peo­ple – but this re­viewer found The Rest­less Kings just a bit dull.

Dull should never be a word ut­tered any­where near Henry or Eleanor, let alone their prog­eny. How did Bar­ratt achieve this op­po­site of lit­er­ary alchemy, and turn his­tor­i­cal gold not quite into lead, but maybe into slightly tar­nished sil­ver?

This is cer­tainly not a bad book: the story

(and it is a com­plex story run­ning over three gen­er­a­tions) is told clearly, and Bar­ratt’s judge­ments are sound and rea­son­able. His bal­anced ac­count of the death of Becket nicely es­chews the par­ti­san­ship of the schol­arly re­assess­ment that turned the 19th-cen­tury mar­tyr into the 20th-cen­tury politi­cian, view­ing the con­fronta­tion be­tween Becket and Henry as the tragic re­sult of their per­son­al­i­ties and roles. How­ever, Bar­ratt never quite man­ages to make the per­son­al­i­ties of th­ese larger-than-life peo­ple, who be­strode Europe with the sort of flam­boy­ance that puts to­day’s stars into dull re­lief, spark into life.

There are hints: when he quotes the lament of Henry on the death of his first-born son, who had twice re­belled against him: “He cost me much, but I wish he had lived to cost me more.” Or the warn­ing King Philip of France sent to John that their mu­tual en­emy, John’s brother Richard, was go­ing to be re­leased from his cap­tiv­ity: “Look to your­self; the devil is loose.” But th­ese sparks sput­ter out on the page, never quite ig­nit­ing into the sort of char­ac­ters that leap out of the pages of the book and into the imag­i­na­tion.

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