This dramatic history of the man who could have been up there with England’s greatest kings is more like a story in three parts than the author’s five.
Part one is the biblical section: who begat whom and who killed whom in the vestry with a blunt instrument. Necessary but a little slow.
Part two is the reward for this: the life of a brilliant king, known as the King of the North Wind because of a yomping ability that would put the Paras to shame; he could march the length of England and win the battle.
More impressive were his changes to the legal system, which he overhauled, leaving us with what we have today. A man who obsessed over detail, he never stopped working and needed very little sleep, ideal for restructuring a nation’s legal system. It’s true that the law meant revenue for the Crown but Henry was just as interested in justice.
His innovations included making justice more accessible via the use of circuit judges, taking power from the hands of local landlords, who had hitherto had legal powers — an obvious source of corruption and wrong-doing.
His judge’s decisions were written down — everything was written down — and sent back to London, so judges could compare and develop earlier rulings, introducing case law and common standards.
But what most people know him for was the murder of Thomas Becket, and the section around this incident is a real page turner — not bad for a story that is nearly 1,000 years old. Gold makes it clear that Becket was not entirely blameless, although lopping off the top of a man’s head in church is never right. The knights who did the deed bitterly regretted it and were all soon dead; Henry himself at least made out to be devastated, but he was as expert at spin as Alistair Campbell close to a millennium later, and knew penitence would look good. He later made full use of the benefits of appearing to pay devotion to the soon-canonised Thomas.
The other commonly known facts — he was the father of Richard Lionheart and King John, and married to Eleanor of Aquitaine — are also covered at length.
Part three is the decline of Henry. Undoubtedly brilliant, he suffered from arrogance and an inability to see things from his family’s point of view, and treated his sons appallingly. This decline is harder to read, because in the main Henry is a hero and we all hate to see heroes fall, self-inflicted or not. If he died at the right time, he would be one of the greats.
What is remarkable is the amount of historical data that Gold has excess to: while she often cannot comment on what people actually thought, the 12th century is remarkably well recorded and she draws on many contemporaneous accounts, often reproduced in language that is clearly understandable today.