THE RESTLESS KINGS
HENRY II, HIS SONS & THE WARS FOR THE PLANTAGENET CROWN A THOROUGH & READABLE ACCOUNT OF THE MOST DYSFUNCTIONAL ROYAL FAMILY IN ENGLISH HISTORY
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.