Book review of Henry III: The Rise to Power And Personal Rule

by David Carpenter

Darren Baker│11 June 2020│ Get reviewOrder book


I was still waiting for my copy of David Carpenter’s Henry III: The Rise to Power and Personal Rule to arrive when a review of it by Dominic Selwood appeared. The preface, he tells us, has something about lampreys, together with a video reference on how to eat them. Selwood checks it out and informs us that it’s a bloody spectacle, but Agincourt it ain’t, and what he sees clearly unnerves him. Given that Henry is best remembered for his taste and cultivation, the thought of the king chomping down on this hideous-looking fish might make us wonder what other surprises are in store for us in the narrative.

Plenty is the obvious answer, for this is a massive biography of more than 700 pages, and it’s just volume 1. It’s not until halfway through do we learn that Henry and his queen enjoyed eating lampreys because they found other fish ‘insipid’. It’s one of many revealing anecdotes that bring the little-known king to life. For that Henry can thank Carpenter, who has proved that a reign based on peace and piety can be every bit as exciting and compelling as those seeped in war and bloodshed.

Henry III had the longest reign of any medieval English monarch, and all 56 years of it were well documented, in records, rolls, writs, letters and chronicles, easily 10,000 pages at the minimum. Digesting and organising it all into this supremely accessible biography, complemented by the famous Carpenter wit and crisp writing style, can only be described as a herculean feat. The bibliography alone runs to 26 pages of small type and shows how voluminous the studies of Henry and his reign have been. If no single biography has been produced before that takes in all this material, it’s probably because the task looked so daunting. It would take years for such an undertaking.

More like decades, as Carpenter explains in the preface. He’s been busy along the way, most notably with The Struggle for Mastery, still the finest history of Britain in the first two centuries following the Norman Conquest, and more recently Magna Carta to coincide with the 800-year anniversary of the Great Charter in 2015. Since Henry was the first king to rule under Magna Carta or a constitution of any sorts, modern historians have tended to focus their efforts on how well he did there. None of them, however, has delved into the details to quite the extent Carpenter has done here.

Readers will have to wait before getting an idea what his verdict on the king will be. That’s because of Henry’s minority, which covers the period 1216–27, almost a fifth of his reign. These are vital years to the political history of England. In 1990 Carpenter published an entire book on it of more than 400 pages. Naturally he can’t go into the minority here in the depth he might have liked, but he sets the stage for many of the problems to come, particularly with two phenomena that became entrenched during these early years of Henry’s reign: the rise of the parliamentary state and English nationalism.

We’re already sixty pages into the book before Henry is an adult and ready to assume full regnal authority. The first issue to deal with is his appearance, namely whether he had the drooping eyelid ascribed to him by Nicholas Trevet writing fifty years after Henry’s death. According to Carpenter, the droop is confirmed in a drawing of the king by Matthew Paris, which is indeed the case, but it doesn’t appear in any of Paris’s other drawings of Henry, nor does he mention it in his extensive, contemporary chronicle. If anything, he complained of the penetrative power of Henry’s vision when it came to money. It’s an important point, because a drooping eyelid would have been immediately noticed by people coming into contact with the king and perhaps had a subtle effect on their relationship. Carpenter notes that congenital ptosis, the modern diagnosis of the condition, is known to cause psychological problems in children, but he doesn’t speculate on how it might have affected Henry (if he had it at all).

The first glimpse we get of the grownup Henry is his ambition to reclaim the continental empire seized from his father King John by the French in 1204. It became an obsession for him, but Carpenter demonstrates that he had all the wrong qualities to make it a success. He was too warm-hearted, too indulgent, he lacked ferocity and a knack for the jugular. His hanging of the 80-strong garrison at Bedford when he was 16 years old is put down to the prompting of his advisers. Perhaps it traumatised Henry, for Carpenter adds that the king did not carry out a single political execution for the rest of his reign.

Carpenter also finds no evidence that Henry attended any tournaments or engaged in hunting as a past time. In short, he has no makings of a warrior king, a fact sure to hurt his introduction to modern audiences, among whom even warrior queens now seem to be the rage. When his invasion of France looked set in 1230, a poet wrote that the king should forget about his ‘love of white bread, good sauce and clear wine’ and instead strike a blow to win the hearts of his subjects. He ended up storming only a single castle during his six months on the continent. His failure to give battle to the French or at least to launch the ‘ravaging expeditions’ so beloved of his descendants left the chroniclers bewildered, and Carpenter brilliantly captures their impatience in the personal tone of the narrative. He does admit, however, that the king’s men were lukewarm themselves. They had nothing to gain from the recovery of Normandy and so were content to let Henry try and negotiate his way to victory.

The few gains he did score are mentioned, and it’s important, because Henry is a king who needs his due. He’s perennially unsure of himself, which shouldn’t be surprising given his childhood. Abandoned by his mother, burdened by his father’s legacy, surrounded by old men always putting their own agendas first. So great was the impact of his minority that it was hard to forget he was a boy king once. Evidently Henry himself sometimes forgot it. He once annulled a charter because he claimed it had been made under false pretences, adding that he was underage at the time of issue, but as Carpenter points out, the king was already 23. Carpenter doesn’t believe that Henry was being deliberately deceitful, because he wasn’t clever enough for that, rather he had convinced himself that he had not truly become his own man until his personal rule began in 1234.

It’s just one of many examples of Henry’s ‘simplicity’, the catch-all word used by chroniclers to describe what they saw as the king’s naiveté and inability to think things through. He was a simpleton, basically, and Carpenter himself blames the problems that beset him and the realm on his lack of maturity and intelligence. Indeed, he rams the point home by declaring that none of Henry’s immediate predecessors could ever be called ‘simple’. It’s the same with the king’s contemporaries. They are always wise, circumspect, masterful, visionary, terms never applied to Henry himself. As for why these competent people were happy to serve such a weak and ‘pusillanimous’ (wimpy) monarch, the answer is why not. Where they led, he followed.

This was apparently the case in the first years following the minority. Henry adhered to the counsels of Hubert de Burgh, formerly his principal regent, and after he was ousted, Peter des Roches, the French-born boyhood tutor and guardian of the king. It’s easy to see each man as a father figure to Henry, and perhaps he saw them as such, because he continuously turned a blind eye to their shenanigans and manipulation of his trust. Hubert lined his pockets with the royal bounty, while Peter pushed Henry to act more authoritarian, to forget about the niceties of Magna Carta. Under future reigns, both men would have faced the grimmest of executions, but it was the nature of the times, and Henry’s piety, to forgive and rehabilitate, even if it only worked against him in the end.

This section covers more than a hundred pages and throughout it you can feel Carpenter’s exasperation with the king, as if he’s telling him, ‘You damn fool. Get a grip!’ He doesn’t need to say what’s obvious, that Henry commands no respect, and Carpenter for one isn’t going to give him any until he mans up. His writing reflects this. The king, who’s famous for his temper, doesn’t calm down, he’s calmed down. We can imagine minders patting him on the head, whispering words of comfort into his ear. That’s it, sire, take a deep breath. Just relax.

Carpenter’s opinion of the young king in these dismal years is withering, but what of the men around him? He’s contemptuous of Peter and his gang, whose assault on Magna Carta he could only find dangerous and distasteful. Hubert, on the other hand, seems to evoke admiration. Carpenter even presents him as co-ruler. It’s always ‘Henry and Hubert’, and when it’s not that, ‘Hubert and Henry’. While admitting there’s much to be said against Hubert, he feels his long service to Henry in winning the civil war and reclaiming power for the monarchy outweigh his incitement of anti-foreigner hatred and violence or his treasonous sabotage of Henry’s dreams of re-conquest. However much these things happened, we should remember that a less ‘gullible and grateful king’ would have made sure they didn’t.

Then there’s Richard Marshal, who conducted a guerrilla war against Peter’s regime in 1233–34. The latest interpretation of this conflict suggests Marshal blundered his way into it, but Carpenter is having none of it. He follows the line of the chroniclers at the time, who believed Marshal’s only motivation was to protect Magna Carta and Englishmen from grasping foreigners. Carpenter does not deny the obvious hypocrisy. Marshal was happy to thumb his nose at Magna Carta when it suited him, and being a recent liegeman of the king of France, he was more the foreigner than Peter. But none of that withstanding, he’s a heroic figure fighting against an unjust regime. His spurning of peace offers, his deliberate humiliation of Henry, whom his propagandists derided as ‘the boy king’, and his horrific depredations in alliance with the Welsh do not move Carpenter to outrage. Rather he eulogises Richard Marshal as a ‘precursor of Simon de Montfort’.