Magazine article The Spectator

'Tales from the Long Twelfth Century: The Fall of the Angevin Empire', by Richard Huscroft - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Tales from the Long Twelfth Century: The Fall of the Angevin Empire', by Richard Huscroft - Review

Article excerpt

Most people know more about the 12th century than they think they do. This is, as Richard Huscroft reminds us in his lively new history, because it is a story often told. Stephen and Matilda. Thomas Becket's murder. Richard the Lionheart. Bad King John and Magna Carta. These are the familiar friends of Sellar and Yeatman's 'guide to all the history you can remember'. Huscroft sets out to find a new way in to this history through its oft-forgotten supporting cast -- the men and women caught up in the political eddies caused by the great -- and gives us ten tales from an assortment of princesses, adventurers, clerics and exiles.

The long 12th century started in 1066 with the Battle of Hastings and ended with the death of King John in 1216. It was a time in which England and its Norman rulers survived a civil war, became the most powerful family in western Europe, and then lost it all. England had not been used to such volatility. Before the Conquest there had been 50 years of peace, but a new cross-Channel aristocracy dragged the kingdom into the perpetually fractious world of francophone politics -- one that, with its myriad dukes, counts, claimants and chancers, was mad as a basket of bellicose frogs.

As dukes of Normandy, the new kings of England had a long land border to defend against rivals in Maine, Brittany, the Vexin and beyond, and so were drawn to alliances with their neighbour's neighbours. One such was Stephen of Blois, who married a daughter of William the Conqueror and whose son, Stephen, would then contest the English throne when William's scion, Henry I, died. This, Huscroft shows, would not have happened had Henry's son, William, not sunk with his White Ship in 1120. Stephen's claim to the throne rested on the testimony of Hugh Bigod, one of the age's great movers and vacillators, that Henry I, on his deathbed, had given his kingdom to Stephen (he almost certainly didn't).

Civil war between Stephen and Matilda (Henry I's daughter) followed, ending with Stephen accepting that Matilda's son by Geoffrey of Anjou (whence Angevin), Henry II, would inherit the kingdom. This Henry's marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine meant that the kings of England were now de facto rulers of all the land between the Pennines and the Pyrenees and capable of acting on a larger stage than any of their predecessors. …

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