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.

Dec 222016


On this date in 1135 Stephen of Blois (c. 1092/6 – 25 October 1154), known in Norman French as Étienne de Blois (then Étienne d’Angleterre) – grandson of William the Conqueror – became king of England. For me for many years, because of the shamefully biased way I was taught history, Stephen existed only in lists of monarchs, and I barely remembered that England even had a king named Stephen. Yet his reign was very turbulent, and extremely important for what came later. He was the last of the kings styled “Norman” (the dynasty founded by William I). After Stephen came the Angevins (Henry II, Richard I, and John) whose rule (and territories) marked a major shift in English history. Stephen’s reign was dominated by what historians usually call “the Anarchy,” a perhaps polite term for civil war. I can’t understand why historians want to speak of the 17th century war between Parliament and the Monarchy in England as THE Civil War. There were many civil wars in England, notably the Wars of the Roses, and the war between Stephen and the Empress Matilda, his cousin. All left an indelible mark on the country.


One point that is not stressed nearly enough by English historians, is that one cannot strictly call England an independent nation at this time, although patriots like to think it was. To do so is to succumb to a species of what is usually called “Whig history” – that is, past events are always seen in terms of where we are now. So . . . England is an independent nation now, therefore it is fitting to talk about it as an independent nation from the time of William the Conqueror. This is fallacious nonsense. William did, indeed, unite the lands of previous Anglo-Saxon (and Danish) leaders into one polity, but it was not distinct from his holdings in Normandy: it was a province. Subsequent rulers felt that way also because they held lands on the continent as well as England, and spent more time abroad than in England (Richard I being a prime example). Until John, English was not their native language, and they certainly did not think of themselves as English.  It is well past time to get over the idea that the piece of real estate that is now England has been waiting in the wings to become a nation-state from time immemorial. Stephen and his kin saw England as part of a fluid conglomeration of provinces to be fought over in a neverending game of chess.  I don’t have space to explore Stephen’s reign in detail. Here’s some highlights.

Stephen was born in the County of Blois in France. His father, Count Stephen-Henry, died while Stephen was still young, and he was brought up by his mother, Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders. Stephen became part of the court of his uncle, Henry I of England, rose in prominence and was granted extensive lands. He married Matilda of Boulogne, inheriting additional estates in Kent and Boulogne that made the couple one of the wealthiest in England.


Stephen narrowly escaped drowning with Henry I’s son, William Adelin, in the sinking of the White Ship in 1120. The White Ship was a newly refitted vessel captained by Thomas FitzStephen, whose father Stephen FitzAirard had been captain of the ship Mora for William the Conqueror when he invaded England in 1066. Thomas offered his ship to Henry I to use to return to England from Barfleur in Normandy. Henry had already made other arrangements, but allowed many in his retinue to take the White Ship, including William Adelin; his illegitimate son Richard of Lincoln; his illegitimate daughter Matilda FitzRoy, Countess of Perche (not to be confused with the Empress Matilda); and many other nobles. Stephen begged off at the last minute and that spared his life. Because of reckless, possibly drunken, navigation, the ship, in attempting to beat Henry’s ship to England, struck a rock and sank with almost complete loss of life of those on board.

William Adelin’s death left the succession of the English throne open to challenge. When Henry I died in 1135, Stephen quickly crossed the English Channel and with the help of his brother Henry of Blois, a powerful ecclesiastic, took the throne, arguing that the preservation of order across the kingdom took priority over his earlier oaths to support the claim of Henry I’s daughter, the Empress Matilda. He was probably right in principle (despite less honorable motives) given that the English, by and large, were not ready to have a queen as monarch even though her claims to the throne were stronger than Stephen’s.


The early years of Stephen’s reign were largely successful, despite a series of attacks on his possessions in England and Normandy by David I of Scotland, Welsh rebels, and the Empress Matilda’s husband, Geoffrey of Anjou. In 1138 the Empress’s half-brother Robert of Gloucester rebelled against Stephen, threatening civil war. Together with his close advisor, Waleran de Beaumont, Stephen took firm steps to defend his rule, including arresting a powerful family of bishops. When the Empress and Robert invaded in 1139, however, Stephen was unable to crush the revolt rapidly, and it took hold in the south-west of England. Stephen was captured at the battle of Lincoln in 1141 and was abandoned by many of his followers and lost control of Normandy. Stephen was freed only after his wife and William of Ypres, one of his military commanders, captured Robert at the Rout of Winchester, but the war dragged on for many years with neither side able to win an advantage.

Stephen became increasingly concerned with ensuring that his son Eustace would inherit his throne. He tried to convince the Church to agree to crown Eustace to reinforce his claim but Pope Eugene III refused, and Stephen found himself in a sequence of increasingly bitter arguments with his senior clergy. In 1153 the Empress’s son, Henry FitzEmpress, invaded England and built an alliance of powerful regional barons to support his claim for the throne. The two armies met at Wallingford, but neither side’s barons were keen to fight another pitched battle. Stephen began to contemplate a negotiated peace, a process hastened by the sudden death of Eustace. Later in the year Stephen and Henry agreed to the Treaty of Winchester, in which Stephen recognized Henry as his heir in exchange for peace, passing over William, Stephen’s second son.


Stephen’s decision to recognize Henry as his heir was, at the time, not necessarily a final solution to the civil war. Stephen might potentially have lived for many more years, whilst Henry’s position on the continent was far from secure. Although Stephen’s son William was young and unprepared to challenge Henry for the throne in 1153, the situation could well have shifted in subsequent years—there were widespread rumors during 1154 that William planned to assassinate Henry, for example.

Certainly many problems remained to be resolved, including re-establishing royal authority over the provinces and resolving the complex issue of which barons should control the contested lands and estates after the long civil war. Stephen burst into activity in early 1154, travelling around the kingdom extensively. He began issuing royal writs for the south-west of England once again and travelled to York where he held a major court in an attempt to impress upon the northern barons that royal authority was being reasserted. After a busy summer in 1154, however, Stephen traveled to Dover to meet the Count of Flanders; some historians believe that the King was already ill and preparing to settle his family affairs. Stephen fell ill with a stomach disorder and died on 25 October at the local priory, being buried at Faversham Abbey with his wife Matilda and son Eustace.

Today’s date is also famous because of the acts of another king – Alfred the Great, who was not really king of England, as such, but did style himself king of the English (or Anglo-Saxons). On this date in 877 Alfred the Great passed a law that no servant should work for the 12 days following the winter solstice. This was in the days before Christmas was a widespread holiday.

Alfred is the only king of the English (or England) to be called “the Great.” His lot (Ethelred, Aelfric, etc.) all tend to be forgotten in the school history books except for simple children’s stories like Alfred (or should I say Ælfrǣd) and the burnt cakes. REAL English history apparently starts in 1066. Any fule kno that. (The latter is a test to see how old you really are). Another pathetic example of Whig history.


The story of Alfred and the cakes is, of course, apocryphal – a Victorian invention that has the merit of being a story we can all relate to. Oh, the pots I have burnt! Supposedly he was in hiding and plotting his next attack on the Danes when he was taken in by a peasant woman who asked him to watch her cakes cooking whilst she attended to other things. The poor man got lost in his battle plans and so let the cakes burn, which earned him a tongue lashing from the woman who was unaware that he was her king. I’m not sure whose side I’m on. The smell of smoke emanating from the kitchen whilst I am lost in my writing is painfully familiar. Fortunately I live alone . . . and those who know me well know that cooking and smoke are not strange bedfellows in my house. In any case, here’s a recipe for cakes that may be like Alfred’s, and are certainly seasonal. They are similar to scones.


King Alfred’s Cakes


1 cup flour
¼ cup sugar
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp ground nutmeg
3 tbsp butter, cut into small pieces
½ cup raisins, dried apricots, prunes or other dried fruit, cut into pieces
1 large egg
⅛ cup heavy whipping cream
⅛ cup orange juice


Preheat your oven to 425°F.

Mix all the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Cut in the butter until the mixture is crumbly. (I use a food processor for speed). Stir in the fruit.

In a small bowl, mix the egg, cream, and orange juice.

Pour the egg mixture into the dry ingredients and mix until all is moist. Turn on to a floured surface and knead gently. Then break the dough into small cakes and shape them with your hands to form rounds.

Place the cakes on a greased baking sheet and bake for 8-10 minutes or until golden. DO NOT LET THEM BURN !!!

Serve warm with butter.