Book Review: The Restless Kings, by Nick Barratt

A detailed and fascinating look at the Plantagenet dynasty in the 12th and early 13th centuries.

The arguments, betrayals, wars and reconciliations between between Kings and Queens, father and sons, and brothers.

Historian Nick Barratt has produced a detailed and fascinating look at the Plantagenet dynasty in the 12th and early 13th centuries. Second only to the Tudors, this is my favourite period in English history and this book skilfully unravels the power struggles, bitter family rivalries and long-lasting – even to today the author argues – consequences of the reigns of these restless kings.

Henry II came to the English throne following a bitter civil war between competing descendants of William the Conqueror. He also held extensive lands in what is now France but then was a collection of powerful and largely independent dukedoms.

His marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, the divorced wife of the king of France, brought him further land in France and strengthened his position there. However, his relationship with Eleanor deteriorated over the years as she and Henry played favourites with their four sons – the young Henry, Geoffrey, Richard the Lionheart, and John Lackland.

The restlessness of the kings in the title refers to the need for medieval leaders to see and be seen in all their dominions in order to discourage other claimants. Through complex alliances with feudal overlords, and often through marriage, rulers sought to maintain and, of course, expand their power base. Barratt’s lively style provides a good account of perhaps Henry II’s greatest achievement, which was to establish a system of justice which stood the test of time and maintained the royal courts as the highest courts in the land.

Unfortunately, this insistence on the royal prerogative was ultimately responsible for the breach between the king and Thomas Becket, once Henry’s great friend and chancellor, when he became Archbishop of Canterbury. The account of the martyrdom of Thomas following this disastrous falling out, which resulted in the English monarch paying homage to the pope until the Protestant Reformation under Henry VIII, is written with great clarity and vivid detail.

Barratt’s book is well-researched and includes quotes from contemporary sources. Although this is not written as an academic account, I would still have preferred the author to provide references for these quotes. For instance, it would be good to know the source of the speech attributed to Thomas when the knights stormed into the cathedral at Canterbury. The book does however, have an excellent index which allows the reader to follow the path of particular individuals.

If you are unfamiliar with this historical period, may I suggest you seek out the film The Lion in Winter.Althoughthe dialogue is, of course, fictionalised, the story provides a good overview of the period. Then follow up by reading this excellent book to further understand the arguments, betrayals, wars and reconciliations between father and sons, between brothers, and between Henry and Eleanor.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: October 2018
RRP: $39.99

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