Arrow, 1973. ISBN 0-09-907110-X. 318 pages
Set in 1087 to 1100, mainly in England and Normandy, Henry of the High Rock tells the story of the early life of Henry ‘Beauclerc’, third son of William the Conqueror and later Henry I of England. Henry is the central character, and his brothers William Rufus and Robert Curthose are important secondary characters. Many other historical figures appear, including William the Conqueror and his brother Bishop Odo, Archbishop Lanfranc and Archbishop Anselm, various Norman lords, and Eadgyth, daughter of Malcolm Canmore of Scotland and Queen Margaret. Henry’s pages and retainers are fictional.
On the death of William the Conqueror, his eldest son Robert succeeds to the Duchy of Normandy, and his second son William becomes King of England. For the youngest son, Henry, there is no land, only a gift of money. Henry greatly desires lands to rule, but even when he agrees with his brother Robert to exchange a cash loan for part of western Normandy, it is not long before his two brothers combine against him to drive him from his lands. Periodically exiled, penniless and even imprisoned, Henry will find it no small task to survive his brothers’ enmity, let alone to claim what he believes should be his inheritance.
Juliet Dymoke’s books seem to be out of print, which is a pity as I liked this one very much. It covers Henry’s early adulthood from his father’s death to his coronation and marriage to Eadgyth (descended from the English royal family through her mother, St Margaret). The author says in the Author’s Note that the book adheres to the accounts of contemporary chroniclers, and that she invented only two entirely fictitious events. Henry’s dealings with his erratic brothers and the various sudden turns of fortune are dramatic enough to need little embellishment.
What I liked most about Henry of the High Rock was the characterisation. Henry gets an attractive portrayal, as one might expect for the central character and hero. His sense of justice and commitment to the rule of law, which he believes should apply even to powerful barons, is emphasised and contrasted sharply with the prevailing norm. Henry’s brother Robert, nicknamed Curthose for his short legs, is too lazy or ineffectual to keep his barons in check, and destructive anarchy reigns throughout his duchy as scores of local tyrants rampage at will. In England, Henry’s other brother William, nicknamed Rufus for his florid colouring, imposes the destructive tyranny himself. Henry, in contrast, considers that the rights and privileges of lords should not be incompatible with justice, and puts this into practice during his rule in western Normandy. So much so that even when his brothers have invaded his lands and forced him into exile, his reputation for justice gives him the opportunity to make a comeback. This portrayal of Henry is consistent with statements in contemporary chronicles, and with Henry’s later nickname, the ‘Lion of Justice’. Henry’s well-documented faults, notably a string of temporary mistresses and a striking act of arbitrary violence, are included but given a positive gloss; Henry treats his women and his illegitimate children well, and the arbitrary violence is immediately regretted. The portrayal may be rather idealised, but then the novel is told mainly from Henry’s point of view so that is perhaps to be expected.
Robert Curthose and William Rufus are also vividly portrayed, contrasting with each other as much as with Henry. Robert is indolent, self-indulgent and easily pushed around, a brilliant soldier – as demonstrated by his performance on crusade – but a hopeless ruler. I couldn’t help seeing echoes of his nephew Stephen, later (disputed) king of England, and wondering if genial ineptitude was an occasional family trait. Rufus, in contrast, has all the strength of will that Robert lacks, but with no check on his power and apparently no conscience, he is erratic, ruthless and cruel. The minor characters are also developed as individuals; for me, the most memorable was Herluin, a minor knight and a loyal follower of Henry, a devout and highly moral man living under a dark shadow.
The charming love story between Henry and Eadgyth is low-key – of necessity, as they probably hardly met before their wedding. Henry at least is open-eyed that it is a political marriage but, as he reflects, ‘how much better if love came too’.
William Rufus is famous for the mysterious circumstances of his death, killed by an arrow whilst hunting in the New Forest – just in time for Henry to claim the royal treasury and then the crown of England before elder brother Robert’s return from crusade. Exactly what happened that day remains unknown, and there are many theories of varying degrees of plausibility. The author has an intriguing solution in Henry of the High Rock, although some inferences are left for the reader to draw, rather than being spelled out.
There is no map, so readers unfamiliar with the geography of England and northern France may like to have an atlas to hand to follow Henry’s journeys. A brief Author’s Note outlines the underlying history and indicates some of the inventions used to fill in gaps.
Henry of the High Rock is the second in a trilogy about the early Norman kings, starting with Of the Ring of Earls and finishing with Lion’s Legacy. I haven’t read either of the others (although on the strength of this one, I will look out for them), and I had no difficulty following Henry of the High Rock, so it can be read as a stand-alone.
Well characterised retelling of the early adulthood of Henry I, from his father’s death to his coronation, set in England and Normandy in the late eleventh century.