Cast of Ravens
William III and the Defense of European Liberty
George the Magnificent: A Portrait of King George IV
Successful kingship, like all great leadership, defies analysis. The Plantagenet Henry II of England handed on to posterity a shining reputation as a great administrator and a great man, while his son John, certainly more intelligent and probably more able, is one of the great villains of English history. Only one thing is clear: intellectuals had little chance of success in this exacting profession.
In the Middle Ages kingship was physically as well as mentally exacting. The exercise of power was personal and could rarely be delegated with safety and success, which meant that a king like Henry II, with dominions as broad as Charlemagne’s, was constantly on the move; from Chester to Rouen, Rouen to Toulouse, and back through Le Mans to London and York. If he neglected one part of his territories for more than a few months he faced an arduous task on his return.
His habits were at once the wonder and despair of those around him. Frugal in both eating and drinking from fear of corpulence, he was no lover of comforts; restless to a fault, he never sat down except to eat. He would hear state business even at mass, and was always travelling, moving in intolerable stages, like a courier; and his followers made this their chief complaint against him. To the four things that Solomon called hard to discern—“the way of an eagle in the air, the way of a serpent upon a rock, the way of a ship in the midst of the sea, and the way of a man with a maid”—this age had added a fifth, or so they were accustomed to say: the way of King Henry on his journeyings.
On 24 April, 1172 he was in the depths of Wales, on May 16 he was at Gorron in Maine, having outstripped the couriers bringing news of his coming, and caught the delegates of Pope Alexander III unawares; his speed was little short of diabolic. His most eminent successors, like Edward I, Edward III, and Henry V, were to show this same energetic mobility.
More than four centuries later, and kingship had changed very little, largely because communications had not changed. Parliament, which Henry II had never known, was growing more important with every generation, but on the other hand the majesty and dignity of the king had been enhanced by the Reformation, which gave him the last word on what his subjects were to believe as well as how they were to worship. The theory of the Divine Right of Kings gave him a spiritual sanction which had hitherto depended, however remotely, on papal approval; he was no longer “his Grace” but “his Majesty.” But the coalescing of national territories, the strengthening of central governments, the rapid spread of nationalist feelings, elevated the monarchs of western Europe into national leaders, imaginary representatives of their people, as well as mere rulers. The grotesqueries and fatuities of James I concealed an able mind; he won the respect…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.