Dec 192017

On this date in 1154 Henry II was crowned king of England, along with his queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, at Westminster Abbey. Henry, and his two sons, Richard and John, sometimes referred to by historians as the Angevins, sometimes the Plantagenets, have had a tough time being assessed fairly by history, literature, and the general public. I’ve posted repeatedly about how Richard and John have been treated strangely, mostly by Victorian and Whig historians. Henry also has had his ups and downs in the histories of Victorians to the present day, and I doubt that he will ever get a dispassionate treatment. My feeling is that unless you lived in those times, you’ll never truly know what they were like.

“There’ll Always Be an England” (more accurately “There’s Always Been an England) is a strange lens through which to view history.  At one time or another, the rulers of what is now England, or significant parts of it, along with many of the citizens, spoke Gaelic, Latin, Old German, Old Norse, Danish, and French. English came rather late in the succession. If you view England from the present, you can see it as always being a solitary, defiant part of an island, rather disconnected from continental Europe, and, judging by Brexit, that sentiment is alive and well in many parts of the country. But certainly, in Henry’s day, stretching back to William the Bastard and the Conquest (with a capital “C”), England was not much more than a money-making bit of a European empire as far as its kings were concerned, and not important enough to spend a whole lot of time in, or worrying about. Peasants, of course, saw things differently. Richard (Lionheart) had virtually no interest in England, except as a place with enough money to fund his exploits in Europe (not to mention bailing him out of capture), and on Crusade. Henry, likewise, saw England as a component of his Angevin empire in France, although he did spend considerable time there trying to consolidate his holdings after a disastrous civil war between his mother, Matilda, and Stephen of Blois. Both claimed to be the rightful heirs to the throne of England, and each controlled significant parts of the country for the period now commonly called the Anarchy (1135 – 1153).

Henry’s accession to the throne of England was a clear end to the Anarchy, but it did NOT mark the (second) beginning of an English nation as an independent sovereign state with Henry at the helm, as many historians claim. I give that mantle to John, who was the first king in the Norman succession who spoke English as his first language, and the first king in the Norman succession to live primarily in England, and look primarily to England as his power base and stronghold. Henry could understand English, but he always spoke either Norman French or Latin. Henry did consolidate a power base in England, expand his Angevin empire into Scotland and Wales, and initiate laws and institutions that still exist in England in radically altered form, it is true.  But it is not fair to say that Henry established England as England, separate from continental Europe. If anything, the Normans and Plantagenets (Henry included), were an interruption of the process of consolidation of England as an independent, autonomous nation begun under Anglo-Saxon kings, such as Edmund and Alfred, and restored under the Tudors. In between the Normans and the Tudors there were an awful lot of Henrys, all with their part to play.

Henry’s mother, Matilda, was the granddaughter of William I, and cousin of Stephen of Blois, grandson of William. Stephen’s mother, Adele, was William’s daughter. At the time that Stephen was crowned king of England, the country was not quite ready to have a queen even though her father, Henry I, was the previous monarch. Stephen seemed like a better choice at the time, to put it bluntly, because he was a man, not because he had a better genealogical claim to the throne than Matilda. Matilda disagreed. She had proven her chops as empress. Hence the Anarchy, when for almost 19 years Stephen and Matilda fought it out. Why this period is called the Anarchy and not the First English Civil War escapes me. When we talk about THE English Civil War(s) these days we mean Charles versus Cromwell.  But the civil war between Stephen and Matilda was every bit as bloody and considerably longer. Why aren’t the Wars of the Roses called civil wars either? What makes the Stuarts so special?

In any case . . . back to Henry II.  He’s now chiefly remembered for being the king who (perhaps) ordered the murder of Thomas Becket, although the details are still murky, and popular opinion, such as it is, is generally “informed” by plays and movies, and not by actual primary documents of the time.  Henry is generally portrayed as an irascible tyrant and Becket as a piously fervent servant of God and country. Both portraits owe more to dramatic license than actual history.

Henry controlled more of France than any ruler since the Carolingians (yellow and orange shaded areas). These lands, combined with his possessions in England, Wales, Scotland and much of Ireland, produced a vast domain often referred to by historians as the Angevin empire. But it was not really an empire in the classic sense of a domain with a coherent structure or central control. Instead, it consisted of a loose, flexible network of family connections and lands, with local laws and customs applying in different territories, although common principles underpinned some of these local variations. Henry traveled constantly across the empire, and these travels coincided with regional governmental reforms and other local administrative business. This practice has led some historians to conclude that the reforms Henry instituted in England created a lasting notion of England as a distinct, and distinctive, nation. These claims seem overblown to me.

It is true that Henry’s reign saw significant legal changes in England and Normandy. By the middle of the 12th century, England had many different ecclesiastical and civil law courts, with overlapping jurisdictions resulting from the interaction of diverse legal traditions. Henry greatly expanded the role of royal justice in England, producing a more coherent legal system, summarized at the end of his reign in the treatise of Glanvill, an early legal handbook. Despite these reforms it is uncertain if Henry had a grand vision for his new legal system, and the reforms seem to have proceeded in a steady, pragmatic, but piecemeal, fashion, rather than from a core set of principles. Indeed, in most cases he was probably not personally responsible for creating the new processes at all, but delegated the duties to local officials.

I’ll leave the last word to Sellar and Yeatman from 1066 And All That. They defined Henry as a “Just King” with the following pronouncement:

HENRY II was a great Lawgiver, and it was he who laid down the great Legal Principle that everything is either legal or (preferably) illegal.

Makes as much sense as the pontifications of most historians.

There are not many recipes from the 12th century that are much use for recreating typical dishes, but there are a few. A MS was recently discovered in Durham which contains mostly medicinal concoctions, but has a few recipes for sauces. Likewise, Alexander Neckam’s treatise de utensibilis has some recipe suggestions. But we are talking about lists of ingredients, not actual, full-blown recipes. Nonetheless, you could make a sauce for a roast from the ingredient lists. One “lordly sauce” that is commonly offered by bloggers involves combining cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, pepper, ginger, and cinnamon. Some want you to combine them in equal amounts; some want you to have equal amounts of the first five, and then cinnamon equal to all the others combined. Either way, the next step is to add breadcrumbs equal to the quantity of spices, and then mix it all to a thick sauce with vinegar. There is no mention of cooking the mixture, but, usually, a suggestion that the mix should be bottled up and kept to mature (in the manner of what came to be called ketchup).

In the modern kitchen I could see such a brew being used to season a gravy made from pan juices from a roast. In fact, it’s quite similar to gravies I make at this time of year for beef. It has a modern (English) Christmas feel to it, but would have been more year-round in Medieval times (in noble households). It was customary to cut large chunks from a roast and place them on trenchers of bread. Then the diner could use a personal knife to hack off bits of meat and dip them in a bowl of sauce. It’s a bit reminiscent of beef au jus in modern times, except the sauces were much more flavorful.