Books

The realm of England: from the Pennines to the Pyrenees

Richard Huscraft’s vivid stories of the Angevins’ precarious mini-empire make the 12th century a joy to read about for a change

13 February 2016

9:00 AM

13 February 2016

9:00 AM

Tales from the Long Twelfth Century: The Fall of the Angevin Empire Richard Huscroft

Yale, pp.305, £20, ISBN: 9780300187250

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. One of Henry II’s daughters, Joan, was first Queen of Sicily before being offered to Saladin’s brother, Malik al-Adil, on the third crusade (she was reportedly livid). Huscroft’s account illustrates quite how far this dynasty had come — from a petty duchy in northern France to the negotiating equals of the great Sultan of Syria and Egypt.

The foundation for this growth, dynastic and military, was England’s wealth. By 1066 its Anglo-Saxon rulers had developed perhaps the most sophisticated and centralised administration in western Europe with a booming economy. This prosperity contributed to the birth of a new, more upwardly mobile society in which Thomas Becket, the son of a London merchant, could become chancellor with an administrative staff of 72 and a travelling entourage of more than 200. Among his retinue at the chancery was Herbert of Bosham, a cleric from a still humbler background, who had studied at the great university of Paris and used his skills first to support the administration of the kingdom and then, once Becket was archbishop, to engage in one of the great medieval conflicts of church and state. England’s strong economy, fostered by its precocious state, was creating a
professional-intellectual class that would, oddly, drive the kingdom towards both religious conflict and modernity.

These stories and the others like them that Huscroft deploys are wonderful soil- turners that show these matters afresh. They are, however, patchy — not through any fault of the author, but simply because a great deal less is known of the minor characters; and yet some readers may find that, on occasions, the detail with which political events are described is overwhelming. But this is the first time that many of these accounts have escaped from academia into a more accessible and enjoyable collection, revealing how these supporting actors also played their part — and this, as Sellar and Yeatman might have said, is unquestionably a Good Thing.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20 Tel: 08430 600033

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • Alain Rioux

    “England is a French colony which miscarried”… (Clemenceau)

    • Malcolm Stevas

      A conceit, or delusion, a wilful setting aside of inconvenient history: the Normans were Scandinavian conquerors who had been in Normandy a mere 150 years or so, and quarreled over the English succession – to which William had rather a sound claim as a distant cousin of Edward the Confessor. “France” at the time bore little geo-political resemblance to the present country. One might as well say Aquitaine is an English colony that miscarried, or Calais still an English town…

      • Alain Rioux

        Who Speaks a language with more than 2/3 of the vocabulary of the other?

        • ardenjm

          Ce weekend, en live sur mon blog, le must c’est le football avec le coach, un self-made man. Le dress-code? T-shirts, shorts et baskets, of course!
          2/3, you say? Yep, there or there abouts.
          ; )

        • Richard Baranov

          English is 28.3% French. Hardly 2/3 and the French are having a hard time fending off the onslaught of English.

          • Alain Rioux

            I was talking about American English, the only one which is important. You could prefer Pakistanis, I don’t care…
            P.S. French grammar is an analytical grammar. So this language is a mathematical language. Then, French isn’t bastardisation of Latin, which is a synthetic language, but an improvement!

          • Richard Baranov

            I search in vain, in your original post that you were referring to American English. How, pray tell, is one supposed to divine that from your first post or any other? Besides, what nonsense your statement is concerning American English!

          • Alain Rioux

            First, English grammar is synthetic. It has declination, genitive or ablative case, adjective before nominative, or nominative possessive, which imply that substantive is more important in English than in French. In French, this is the verb, which is important. That implies sentence’s existential understanding. So, English language is primitive compared to French. I may say the same thing for others languages… This is the reason why you see non sense in my precedent messages: because you cannot understand! Indeed, English vocabulary is more extended than French, because English talks non sense: that’s all!

          • Richard Baranov

            Ah! The sour grape remarks of someone defending a has been language! You do know, don’t you that people are not that interested in French anymore. It doesn’t have much use since it was jettisoned for English as the language of diplomacy. And the ridiculous insistence on throwing a fit over not accepting English words and coining absurdities that are laughable makes it a first class joke
            Rather interesting that the rest of the world prefers the “nonsense” and primitiveness of English rather than the fossilized perfection of French. I think you are illustrate exactly why people are drifting from French, as a language of interest, it seems to be incurably arrogant in its imagined superiority. As you well illustrate!

          • Alain Rioux

            In fact, our celebrity doesn’t need any popularity, as English language. We can abandon you the entire world, because we don’t care!

          • ardenjm

            “We can abandon you the entire world, because we don’t care!”
            Et pourtant: te voilà, écrivant en anglais (un anglais approximatif d’ailleurs…)
            Quant à ta théorie pompeuse du placement du verbe et du nominatif patati patata – tout cela est un tour de passe-passe verbal (en anglais on dirait verbal jiggery-pokery). Cela ne veut strictement rien dire. Il est construit, comme argument, sur une métaphysique bancale elle-même instrumentalisée d’ailleurs avec un seul but qui est intellectuellement malhonnête: donner raison aux préjugés racistes d’un français franchouillard, un coq sur son fumier.
            La France est un grand pays, la langue française une gloire de toute beauté mais, enfin, que c’est triste de montrer son amour pour sa propre culture en crachant sur une autre – sur toutes les autres! Shame on you.

          • Alain Rioux

            En tant que Québécois, je possède toutes les raisons de mépriser l’Anglais, n’ayant pas connu Vichy. C’est d’ailleurs la raison pour laquelle le “globish” me suffit amplement… La métaphysique du verbe et de la grammaire n’est aucunement bancale, qui constate le caractère abstrait, transcendantal du français en comparaison à la vulgarité de l’Anglais. Je ne sais pas si un collabo peut réellement comprendre ça?

          • ardenjm

            “Je ne sais pas si un collabo peut réellement comprendre ça?”
            Huh?
            How am I un collabo? I speak French but I’m not French. I have a British passport and would call myself British but my origins most certainly are not British, nor are they French. But they are from a place that suffered longer and worse under the British than French Canadians. I am under no illusions about the weaknesses and failings of the nation I call home. Unlike you I feel no need to defend what is indefensible in my nation’s history. Precisely because I love this place means that I am lucid about where it has failed.

            You need to go away and think what it means to ‘belong’ somewhere.
            Your Québécois identity is predicated on the following negative: “Nous ne sommes pas Anglais.” Is that it? You define yourselves by what you reject? Really? How sad is that? When I went to beautiful Montréal and Québec I didn’t see places folded-in on themselves spiteful and negative. You do your homeland a disservice in representing them so miserably.

            More generally, we really are slipping into the absurdity of the Cry-Bully mindset.
            Everyone is a victim! Everyone has a grievance! Every moment in history a sufferance! It’s INSANE.

          • JabbaPapa

            Qu’est-ce que tu nous les saoûles avec ta crise identitaire.

            Les qualités propres des deux langues n’incluent pas toutes ces conneries.

          • JabbaPapa

            ouèp, bien parlé

          • Richard Baranov

            As if others cared! By all means abandon the world and live in splendid isolation. How very Charles de Gaulle of you. Winston Churchill wanted that pompous windbag hung as a traitor, you know, pity he didn’t get his way.

          • JabbaPapa

            Think that’s the first time I’ve seen you post something utterly stupid.

          • UKSteve

            Then you haven’t been following him 🙂 !

          • Richard Baranov

            Why, it is all fact!

          • JabbaPapa

            Your opinions about language are not “facts”.

            The “annoying” thing I have a lot more sympathy for

          • Richard Baranov

            On the contrary, they are facts. I would drew your attention to: “The Loom of Language: An Approach to the Mastery of Many Languages “. Fredrick Bodmer. He goes into the issue at great length out of necessity since the book attempts to teach you, in practical terms, how to read almost any European language at newspaper level. His technique therefore demonstrates exactly how change occurs in language. Because he is teaching you how to understand a multitude of languages via language change, it becomes a necessity for you to understand how language mutates, as it were, in order for you to go from one language to another via understanding grammatical rules, how they change and why they change, what is jettisoned and what tricks languages employ as they change. In short he is not teaching you a language but language rules so that you can use them to read, even in languages you don’t know. The result is the more advanced a language becomes, the simpler it gets. An obvious example that he discusses at length is the grammatical number, ‘dual’ which in many ancient languages goes along with ‘singular’ and ‘plural’. In most modern languages it has been abandoned because of simplification. Sanskrit has a dual case, all modern Indian languages based on Sanskrit do not. The same could be said for modern European languages based on Latin and so on. Anyway I highly recommend the book, it is fun to realize, once you understand the ‘trick’, that you can indeed understand simple language in almost any European language.

          • JabbaPapa

            The result is the more advanced a language becomes, the simpler it gets

            Seems like a pretty dubious theory — languages tend towards becoming more efficient at cramming more information into speech or writing for less effort, but increased efficiency and “advancement” are hardly the same thing ; anyway, increased semantic density is hardly more simplicity.

            Newspapers are commonly imitative of English, because they tend to be imitative of TV, which is dominated by the USA and its cultural exports. This doesn’t make English “superior”, it just means that it has greater impact and influence now than it did a hundred or two hundred years ago.

            An obvious example that he discusses at length is the grammatical number, ‘dual’ which in many ancient languages goes along with ‘singular’ and ‘plural’.

            Number is a lot more complex than that, including in modern European languages. Grammar as it is taught to schoolchildren, with a normative and implicitly political purpose, is extremely simplistic compared to the real thing as it is studied at the University level.

          • JabbaPapa

            French continues to be the basic diplomatic language, contrary to your assertion, and whilst these comparisons between English and French are interesting and generally accurate, the notion that either of these major international languages might be “superior” to the other is ludicrous.

          • Richard Baranov

            Special pleading for French will not change reality. It is indeed a has been language superseded by Spanish and that, like it or not, is the reality despite your bombast and ridiculous assertions about a language few people are interested in learning anymore, unless they live in France. French lists third in terms of international languages, third place is appropriate after 1.English, 2. Spanish.

          • JabbaPapa

            Are you suggesting that the third most widely spoken international language should be ignored ? Seems pretty silly to me.

          • Richard Baranov

            Not at all, I didn’t imply that at all. I was merely pointing out a matter of fact.

          • UKSteve

            Just a warning – you are dealing with a world-class tr0ll, who will soon descend into ad hom attacks and nasty, self-loathing invective.

          • Richard Baranov

            And you, as we all know, are a liar. So off you go under your little rock and lick your festering resentments. As a non-troll I will ignore you entirely from now on.

          • UKSteve

            No, I point out professional liars like you, and the other Farage boot-lickers.

            Lest you forget, cretinous tr0ll, you’re the ones (with idiots like Stevas, Butcombe, et al) going around claiming that “UKIP won us the EU referendum”, when ‘Kippers were actually ordered by Farage to block / frustrate it.

            If only you weren’t so dense, and actually knew something. Anything.

  • Todd Unctious

    King John and Magna Carta were 13th century. I am not a fan of these long century ideas. A convenience for lazy historians. 1066 was patently in the 11th century too. Is he seriously saying the two biggest events in the 12th century happened 34 years before it started and 15 years after it ended?
    What the Normans were doing in Sicily and the Med around 1100 were of more interest than here in England.

    • CGR

      Its just a convenient way of bookending a period of time. Get a life.

      • Todd Unctious

        Just give it another name then. It offends tom refer to a period of 150 years as a century.

Close