Book Review: Tales from the Long Twelfth Century
by Richard Huscroft
Yale University Press, 2016
Richard Huscroft, history teacher at London’s Westminster School, has chosen for the subject of his new book, Tales from the Long Twelfth Century, a perennially interesting historical melodrama: the dark, veritably Atreidean family dynamic of England’s King Henry II, his queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their children, especially their sons, Henry the Young King, Richard, and John – all set against the backdrop of the tumultuous and luridly colorful 12th century. Charles Haskins came at this story from a cultural angle in his The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century; Desmond Seward told it from the psychological angle in his book The Demon’s Brood, and Thomas Costain made a sprawling, Technicolor epic out of the story in four volumes many decades ago.
Huscroft uses a portrait-gallery approach to historical investigation throughout his book. In a short series of muscular, fast-paced chapters, he takes his readers through the story of Henry’s kingship in all its high-powered pathology, and he stresses both the public and hence the international aspects of it all:
Henry II’s fraught and troubled relationship with is wife and their sons dictated the course of his reign to a significant extent; how he managed his children’s upbringings, their education, their marriages and their inheritances was a crucial factor in causing wars and bringing them to an end. Other rulers were happy to get involved in the quarrels that beset Henry’s family and to play on the tensions within it for their own gain and advantage. The stability of England and France depended on such things regularly from the 1160s onwards; in the 1170s they nearly led to disaster for Henry II in the greatest rebellion he ever faced, and the Young King was at the heart of it until his death in 1183.
The Young King, young Henry, who was crowned during his father’s lifetime, is in many ways the star of Huscroft’s book, which is refreshing, since he’s under-chronicled in popular history (Matthew Strickland’s forthcoming biography of him, also from Yale, will, as the saying goes, fill a much-needed gap). But as was usually the case in his lifetime, it’s Richard the Lionheart who hogs the limelight in these pages, charging off to battle, being poetic, getting captured – even after his agonizing death in April 1199 from a gangrenous wound he still manages to commandeer the narrative, as love of him prompts his sister Joan to exact vengeance on the archer who killed him, even though legend has it that Richard himself forgave the man:
The most direct route from southern France back to Anjou passed through or near Limoges, close to the site of Richard’s death. It could have been around here that the man who shot the fatal bolt was brought before Joan. Having been seized by Mercadier and sent to her, the story goes, it was on Joan’s orders that the nails of his hands and feet were pulled out, he was blinded and then skinned before, still breathing, he was drawn by a team of horses. It was behaviour such as this that led the writer of this graphic account to describe Joan as ‘a woman whose masculine spirit transcended the weakness of her sex.’
In this instance and quite a few others like it throughout his book, Huscroft is clearly intending that “the story goes” to blanket over a multitude of potential questions. Here, the writer of this graphic account – which is only a little more believable than would be an account of Joan killing the man with a team of dragons under her telepathic command – is Roger of Howden, an Angevin chronicler known for his unreadable sobriety; the account isn’t much like him, which not only decreases its reliability but calls for a bit more contextualization than Huscroft tends to give it.
But then, Tales from the Long Twelfth Century is obviously intended to be more of a Chaucerian romp through the annals than an in-depth work of historical analysis (even the chapter titles reflect this, “The Disciple’s Tale,” “The Warrior’s Tale,” etc.). It’s unfailingly lively and personal, and it seizes on most of the flashier promise of King Henry and his riotous times. It’s the kind of book in which a few “the story goes” are not only expected but welcome.