Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Bad Rap for Henry and Eléonore

by Sherry Jones

Never had I found myself disagreeing so thoroughly with an historian. In fact, Thomas B. Costain's The Magnificent Century (first published in 1951) rubbed me the wrong way so completely that I had to put it down and walk away more than once.

My issue? His portrayals of England's King Henry III and Queen Eléonore of Provence, lead characters in my historical novel FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS.

I didn't have to read far before the author's sniping began. After one hundred pages or so of background, Costain launches into the royal wedding -- and soon thereafter is exclaiming over the extravagance of the affair as if such a thing were unheard of, as if extravagance were not expected of a king for such occasions.

"Fatuous," he writes. "Spendthift." For the rest of the tale, poor King Henry never gets a break.  Costain paints a portrait of a mercurial, petulant, impulsive and weak ruler, even giving Henry a "high neighing laugh." Talk about historical fiction!

Eléonore fares even worse. "England's Most Unpopular Queen," she was one of those high-faluting snobs from Provence.  "A most superior lot," Costain sniffs, for whom "the English people conceived a hatred ... which grew with every day."

"The Queen," he informs us, "was never happy unless surrounded by her relatives and favorites from Provence." They were unhappy with her failure to give birth to an heir four years after her marriage, he tells us, failing to point out that she was but thirteen on her wedding day. Eléonore even falls short as a mother in his assessment; she "scandalized" the monks at Beaulieu, he sneers, by insisting on staying to nurse her son -- the king's heir -- Edward back to health when he fell ill there.

We historical novelists deal with this all the time. Historians are humans and have points of view. Whom to believe? The Magnificent Century is more obvious than most in its approach, being a blatant hagiography with no pretensions toward objectivity. Costain falls squarely on the side of Simon de Montfort, Henry's seneschal, who instigated a revolution that is credited with establishing British Parliament as it exists. Costain potrays him as a democratic visionary. My research gave me a view of Montfort that is decidedly more ambivalent -- he acted as much out of ambition for himself and his sons as for the good of the common people.

I found in Henry and Eléonore a royal couple who, although far from perfect, possessed a vision for England no less valid. They might have propelled the kingdom into superpower status had their reign not followed that of Henry III's father, the tyrannical King John.

John lost some fo England's greatest landed possessions on the European continent to France's King Philip Augustus, earning John the nickname "Lackland." Weakened by unrest at home over his cruelty and corruption, he never reclaimed those lands. Losing Normandy, with all its riches, dealt a particularly harsh blow to the kingdom's treasury. In true Oedipal fashion, Henry strived for years to regain the duchy, but could not must support from his barons.

Costain is one of a number of historians who have portayed King Henry II as a weak and ineffectual king, and Eléonore as favoring her own family's interests over those of the people she ruled. In my opinion, they get a bad rap. Eléonore and Henry were intelligent, ambitious rulers who might have done much for England. Their misfortune lay in Henry's being the son of John and inheriting his father's messes -- corrupt bailiffs, whose corruption bred resentment among his people; protectionist barons loth to spend any more money on ventures overseas; a general distrust of "big government" at a time when big government was sorely needed.

Together, Henry and Eléonore refurbished Westminster Abbey, creating a splendid work of art. They created an alliance with the young Scottish king, Alexander, with his marriage to their daughter, Margaret, and kept the aggressive Prince Llewellyn from reclaiming their barons' lands in the Welsh Marches. They held onto Gascony, of which Henry was Duke, in spite of constant uprisings there. They might have gained not only Normandy but Sicily, too, had their barons supported their empire-building vision. They squelched the Montfortian campaign to end the Plantagenet reign -- Simon had already awarded lands and castles to his sons, and placed himself on the throne -- and produced, instead, a son who would become Edward I, one of England's great kings -- unless you were Scottish, Welsh, or Jewish.

Sherry Jones is the author of FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books) and several other works of historical fiction, including THE JEWEL OF MEDINA. Learn more about her and her books at


  1. I'm not very familiar with this period - but I can identify with the need to read a lot of different sources and accounts to try and tease out a "fair" picture!

  2. Yes, Rachel, writing historical fiction is all about choices.

  3. Now I'm tempted to read his book out of morbid curiosity but I'll probably throw it across the room.

  4. Thanks for you insights. It always rubs me up the wrong way when a supposed historian is more opinion than fact.

    1. Yes, Elizabeth, I agree! It does seem that historians writing in earlier decades often wrote in a more conversational -- but less objective -- style than those today. I wonder why?

  5. Norman Davies gives a good summary of the different styles of history through the last while. Interesting to consider the differences.

  6. Sherry - thanks for your post! Most annoying when historians cannot paint a more unbiased view.


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