KING OF THE NORTH WIND

THE LIFE OF HENRY II IN FIVE ACTS

The Oldie - - HISTORY -

CLAU­DIA GOLD Wil­liam Collins, 397pp, £25, Oldie price £16.13 inc p&p

Henry II, the first Plan­ta­genet king of Eng­land (1154–89), in­her­ited Eng­land and Nor­mandy from his grand­fa­ther and An­jou from his fa­ther, the count; through his mar­riage to Eleanor of Aquitaine he in­her­ited a vast area of south-west France. ‘Clau­dia Gold, whose last book was a bi­og­ra­phy of Ge­orge I’s mistress, has taken on quite a task with her first leap into the Mid­dle Ages,’ wrote Dan Jones in the Sun­day

Times. She ‘ap­proaches his life in five pseudo-shake­spearean acts: a gim­mick, but also an ef­fec­tive struc­ture al­low­ing her colour­ful and sharply ob­served his­tory of a tricky reign to take shape.’

The mur­der of his es­tranged friend Thomas Becket, Arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury, arose be­cause Henry ar­ranged for his el­dest son, Henry the Young King, to be crowned as co-ruler at the age of 15. Becket re­fused to per­form the corona­tion rite, and when the Arch­bishop of York stepped into the breach, Becket ex­com­mu­ni­cated him and the younger king. Becket’s mur­der by some of Henry’s loyal knights soon fol­lowed. Henry’s own fam­ily re­belled against him (in al­liance with the kings of Scot­land and France) in the early 1170s – he de­feated them and im­pris­oned Eleanor, in­sti­ga­tor of the re­bel­lion – and again, twice, in the 1180s. For Fer­gus But­ler-gal­lie, in the

Times, what makes the book ‘such good, read­able his­tory is that its nar­ra­tive and style owe much to Ger­ald [of Wales]’, a chron­i­cler in the late 12th and early 13th cen­turies who ‘loved a good old bitch, sprin­kling his

chron­i­cles with acidic asides and di­vert­ing tales of tan­gen­tial rel­e­vance to his main nar­ra­tive’. Although ‘the tragedy of a king who started his reign a young, thrust­ing hero and ended it de­crepit and de­spised is Gold’s over­ar­ch­ing tale… there is too much glitz, too much wit, too much fun along the way for it to be just a tale of woe’. In par­tic­u­lar, ‘the Ger­ald-like asides that pep­per Gold’s nar­ra­tive are what make it, un­usu­ally for me­dieval his­tory, ri­otously en­ter­tain­ing; for in­stance, we learn that the un­for­tu­nate Inge­borg of Den­mark was im­pris­oned for 20 years be­cause King Philip of France took against her bad breath.’

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