The book – which is the first of two volumes – ends with the 1258 revolution, when magnates angry at the proliferation of courtiers from Poitou and what they perceived to be the unfair levying of taxation demanded that the King alter his mode of governing, and work with Parliament, then in its infancy. Carpenter says Henry only survived because he had constructed himself as a truly Christian king: the reader of this superb biography will long for the sequel, and the completion of the story of this enlightened, and lucky, man.
Had Henry III fathered a bastard or two, or summarily executed a jester, as he once threatened, for mocking his dignity, his portrait might require rather less oblique lighting. The Carlyle comparison may itself have occurred to Carpenter. Certainly, like Carlyle battling on with his life of Frederick the Great, Henry III’s biographer may have wished on occasion for rather less information and fewer events. But let us not quibble. Like Boswell and Froude, Carpenter has embarked on a vast enterprise now approaching masterly fulfilment. This is one of the great biographies of our times. Not the least of its achievements is its investment of so invertebrate a subject with so rich a cultural and psychological hinterland.
Carpenter has been writing his two-volume biography of Henry for 30 years, and takes us here in volume one through only the first 42 years of the 56-year reign. The effort, though, is wholly justified. No one knows more about Henry, and a lifetime of scholarship is here poured out, elegantly and often humorously. This is a fine, judicious, illuminating work that should be the standard study of the reign for generations to come.
This long book is a serious biography, and the fact it is part one of a two-volume set is the first indicator that it is a subject Carpenter has spent upwards of three decades researching. The second is his easy handling of so many interlocking strands, weaving the official records and gossipy chronicles into a vibrant account of the reign. This volume charts Henry’s life from birth to the putsch of 1258. The second will cover the rise of the barons, Simon de Montfort’s rebellion and Henry’s final years of weakness and senility.
That Carpenter can create such a vivid account of a man and age so distant is due not only to his ample gifts as a historian, but also to the rich sources for the period. Chroniclers such as Matthew Paris (a fascinating figure in himself) and Roger of Wendover, as well as chancery rolls and pipe rolls (essentially tax returns), provide a near daily record of Henry’s actions. Carpenter has served them well and one looks forward to the concluding volume. There may be more trouble ahead.