That brings us to the final chapters of the book, 300 pages in all, covering the last fifteen years of Henry’s personal rule. They begin with the ‘years of division’, marked by the rivalry between the king’s Lusignan half-brothers and the queen’s Savoyard uncles. Historical consensus likes to blame the Lusignans and the outsize patronage and favours they received from Henry for much of the ill feeling aroused against foreigners at this time, but Carpenter acknowledges their contribution to the security of Gascony, their acceptance among the ancestral nobility, and the predominance of Englishmen in their retinues. The same cannot be said of the Savoyards, who may have given good advice and worked hard on behalf of Henry’s diplomacy, but the costs didn’t justify their worth. ‘What a dance he had led the king’, writes Carpenter of one of them. Another miss with ‘foreign aid’ was the marriage alliance with Emperor Frederick II. He too turned out to be a blowhard. Other marriage alliances proved far more successful and Carpenter notes the prestige they brought to the nobles houses of England. He also shows us that Henry’s council and household in this period, with just one or two exceptions, consisted exclusively of Englishmen.

Other dissension at this time was clearly the king’s work. Relations between him and the church were ruptured over the election of bishops. Henry was determined to influence the outcomes and he mostly got his way, but it alienated leading clerics and some of his choices proved provocative or backfired. He couldn’t get parliament to grant him taxation because he refused to yield any power. When they sought to impose a constitution on him in 1244, he appealed to their shared sense of destiny. ‘You depend on me and I on you, since if I am rich, you are rich, if I am poor, you are poor.’ He made other noteworthy speeches, all to no avail. Carpenter demonstrates throughout the book how Henry coddled his magnates as a way of maintaining peace throughout the realm. The peace he got, but the downside was the magnates became little potentates who felt free to oppress their subjects without royal interference. The grievances that led to the revolution of 1258 were as much about them as the king.

Henry was aware of what was going on in his kingdom, but he never went beyond lecturing his magnates and sheriffs to be good lords and officials and to know their Magna Carta. Carpenter bemoans that he never undertook sweeping reforms the way his contemporary Louis IX did, but the different experience and personalities of both men resist easy comparisons. The discerning Louis used patronage to command obedience, the easy-going Henry believed there was plenty to go around, if not today then tomorrow. Unlike Louis, Henry felt no need to make restitution to his subjects to atone for his sins. Louis could eat frugally, wear a hair shirt, and ignore his wife all he wanted, but Henry was going to continue rolling out the sumptuous feasts, slipping into the silkiest of robes, and taking delight in his family. If Louis wanted to sit under an oak tree and dispense justice, that was fine, Henry was content to rely on his own judges. Carpenter remarks on the many learned men who sat on the king’s bench, as well as the corruption scandal that engulfed one of them.

The king did get involved in cases that came before him while on tour or when they demanded his personal attention. When a highway robbery racket was exposed near Winchester in 1249, he was doubly furious because Winchester was his home town and some of the perpetrators were said to be part of his household. In the memorable scene described by Carpenter, Henry herded the jurors into the great hall and ordered them to name the masterminds of the racket. When they demurred, he told the guards to close the doors and warned the jurors they had just one more chance to sing. They did.

The greatest crisis Henry had to face in these years was the threat of losing Gascony, the last English province on the continent. He sent Simon de Montfort there to restore order, but Simon’s heavy-handed tactics soon sparked an all-out rebellion. Henry was forced to sack him and go there himself to clean up the mess. This, the king’s third attempt at leading troops abroad, proved successful and Gascony was saved to England for the next two hundred years. Carpenter superbly recounts the tension of this expedition in 1253–54 and the war footing with Castile. Needing money, Henry asked the queen, serving as the regent, to summon parliament to request a tax. The result was the first election of local representation in parliament, but Carpenter credits this innovation to Henry’s brother Richard of Cornwall and not to Eleanor of Provence. The paper trail suggests it could have been either one, if either one, but Eleanor was the regent and, as Carpenter admits, she authorised far more letters than Richard did despite being pregnant and giving birth during her regency.

Richard of Cornwall is another admirable character in Carpenter’s book, called a ‘pillar of the regime’. He took over the regency after Eleanor sailed to Gascony and ran the government ‘with remarkable vigour and perception, giving a striking demonstration of how different his kingship would have been from his brother’s’. Carpenter feels his knowledge, shrewdness and mental ability is ‘Henry painted in much broader and more emotional strokes’. What we’re not told, however, is that Richard wasn’t the first choice to succeed Eleanor as regent, apparently because others found him vain, boastful and all about himself. Carpenter’s assertion that Richard, after three rebellions, was steadfastly loyal to the king is also easily challengeable. Certainly Henry would have had more success with parliament had Richard truly worked on his behalf, and the one assembly where Henry needed him the most, in 1255, Richard openly opposed him.

We’re talking, of course, about the Sicilian business, the controversial plan conceived by the papacy to put an English or French prince on the throne of Sicily in place of the German imperial family. Richard had turned down the offer, judging it to be too expensive (he later got a better price for the empty crown of Germany) but Henry eagerly accepted it for his second son, who was a boy at the time. The English church hated it for the taxes they had to pay to fund it and the barons resented not being asked their advice on it. According to Matthew Paris, it was simple Henry at his foolish worst and Carpenter couldn’t agree more. Indeed, he goes out on a limb and declares that the king ‘signed up to the most ridiculous agreement ever made by an English monarch’.

It’s a stretch to say the least. We only have to look into the next reign to see Henry’s son Edward I being duped into giving Gascony to the French on their promise to give it back, which they didn’t. That blunder precipitated the greatest political crisis of Edward’s rule and the costs of retrieving Gascony far exceeded the Sicilian business. Carpenter is not like most people, however, who register their disgust with Henry for being a tool of the pope. He shows that Henry had every reason to be grateful to the papacy, who laboured hard to save his throne, indeed his very life. Had the French-backed English rebels won in 1216, they would have surely made King John’s sons Henry and Richard disappear.

What offends Carpenter is that Henry had several chances to back out as the conditions became steadily worse. Unlike previous examples of the royal determination and doggedness, Henry gets no sympathy here. We can sense it in Carpenter’s tone, his earlier exasperation now infused with contempt. His criticism at this point becomes almost personal, as if carrying around Henry with him for forty years has engendered some latent hostility. Certainly the king deserves a lashing if, as Carpenter suggests, he had come full circle and returned to the foolish simplicity of his youth. And yet there’s no denying that Henry got belated consent to go forward with the venture from some very able councillors, the majority of whom had no vested interest in it, and that he may have been on to something from the perspective of European politics in the 1250s and the fulfilment of his crusade vow. And this is not to mention that the Sicilian business resulted in the long hoped-for peace treaty with France, one of the greatest political achievements of the age. Nope, the weight of opinion then as now has found nothing good about it. By itself, it did not provoke a political revolution as commonly believed, but it did help push the realm over the edge as other problems, including famine, factionalism and revolts in Wales and Scotland, began to pile up.

This is where we come to the end of volume 1. It’s April 1258 and Henry has made another request for a tax for Sicily. The usual scenario has the barons fed up with his rule and intimidating him into handing over the government to their safe keeping. The king is reduced to a figurehead and we will have to wait until volume 2 to see how that turns out. This bit of high drama is based on a single account that appears in the annals of Tewkesbury. ‘Although one may question some of the details’, says Carpenter, ‘the gist is perfectly believable’. Believable maybe, but for me, too problematic for belief (Latin pun, biblical quote, tax to be based on one-third the value of the entire realm). In my view, there was certainly intrigue going on at court, a plot hatched by the queen to get rid of her Lusignan in-laws because of their growing influence over Edward, but the trap wasn’t sprung until the reforming parliament at Oxford was well underway. Even afterwards Henry was a willing partner in the reform government, although he suspected early on that Simon de Montfort might be up to no good. Sure enough, within months Simon had sprung his own trap.

Sticking with a palace revolution, Carpenter ends the narrative on this cliff-hanger. All that’s left is an assessment of Henry and his reign up to that point. His accomplishments get a little over a third of the 16 pages. In addition to rebuilding the abbey, there is Henry’s conscious effort to rule a kingdom at peace and to respect ‘the spirit and letter of Magna Carta’. His failures, however, are more numerous and make for some rather bleak reading. Suffice it to say that for Carpenter, Henry could never measure up to his friend and brother-in-law Louis IX. It’s not for nothing that Louis is a saint and Henry ain’t, but everything could have been different, Carpenter laments, had the English king imitated the French king, had been of a ‘different mettle and mentality’. He then adds, however, that Henry would have needed ‘far more determination and imagination than he possessed’ to actually make it happen. The problem, it seems, was in the man himself.

Carpenter nevertheless feels that a negative conclusion would be all wrong, and well he should, because this is an extraordinary book, sure to become a milestone in the history of biographical writing. Forget the inspired research, organisation and presentation, here we see a rather unknown historical figure suddenly appear before us like an explosion out of nowhere, a new nebula, if you will, in the night sky, the brilliant light illuminating all the drama, joy and heartbreak that defined this one individual and his times. To continue the metaphor, it’s a truly stellar achievement.

And yet the bleakness persists to the end. After finding some balance for Henry’s failings in his piety, Carpenter questions whether it wasn’t in fact compromised by his miscues. That all the feedings and fancy celebrations fooled no one about his true ability, character or intentions. It foreshadows what lies ahead, because Henry, after more than 40 years on the throne, has the fight of his life in front of him, and no other medieval king of England faced an opponent quite as tough and talented as Simon de Montfort. By the looks of it, Henry hasn’t got a chance, but Carpenter chooses to go out on a bold note. It will be that piety, that reputation for being a ‘most Christian king’, that ultimately saves him and the monarchy.