22 September, 2013

Henry of the High Rock, by Juliet Dymoke. Book review

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.


Rick said...

High time that Henry I got in on some of the hist-fic action!

(Yes, I did see that the book was published in 1973 ....)

Carla said...

There don't seem to be all that many novels about Henry I, one reason that I was quite pleased to find this one.
I suppose with the famous Norman Conquest (the most, possibly the only, memorable date in English history) and the mysterious death of William Rufus before him, then the wars between Stephen and Empress Maud followed by the glamorous Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and the antics of the 'Devil's Brood', Henry I has rather a lot of competition :-)

Kathryn Warner said...

This sounds excellent. I seem to have previously missed it, somehow, but many years ago read some of Juliet Dymoke's historical novels and enjoyed them.

Daphne said...

I have this one but haven't read it yet. Glad to hear you liked it - especially since the two books about him I have read weren't very good (The Supplanter by Pamela Hill and Plaidy's The Lion of Justice which I thought was just dire).

Carla said...

Kathryn - I would definitely recommend this one. I'm looking out for Juliet Dymoke's other historical novels now.

Daphne - It's ages since I read Jean Plaidy's Lion of Justice and I can't remember it at all now (which I suppose says something in itself). I did think her Tudor and Stuart novels were her best, and the ones set in other historical periods were often disappointing. I haven't heard of The Supplanter at all. What did you not like about it?

Annis said...

I think it's a pity rthat Dymoke's work hasn't been reprinted - more worthy of reissue IMO than many of the rather pedestrian Plaidy novels now seeing the light of day again.

"The Ring of Earls" is excellent- a moving novel about Waltheof, Earl of Northumbria (yes, the same one who features in Elizabeth Chadwick's "Winter Mantle").

Carla said...

Annis - Yes, I'd be very happy to see Juliet Dymoke's books back in print if this one is at all typical. I thought it was excellent.

I'm looking forward to reading Of the Ring of Earls.

Annis said...

I have to confess I own copies of Pamela Hill's "Supplanter" and "Curtmantle" (about Henry II), both of which are still unread and might remain that way. I have read some fairly dire oldies, of which Philippa Wiat's "Cartismandua" remains the most memorably awful!

Some years ago I did read a historical mystery by Jeremy Potter about Edith (later Henry I's queen), set in and around Romsey Abbey. "Death in the Forest" revolves around the death of one of William I's quarrelsome sons and poses the question- who is most prepared to go to any lengths to get the throne and the girl? Quite well done, though I think "Trail of Blood" was probably Potter's best.

Just noticed that the long OP "Death in the Forest" has been reissued as an ebook. Some of it can read on Google books if anyone's interested in checking it out.

Constance Brewer said...

Hmm, that's more of a time period I might read. Sounds interesting.

Carla said...

Annis - oh, dear, why? I looked up 'Supplanter' and noticed the cover looked quite old-fashioned. Is it another 'dire oldie'?

Surprised that Edith would have been able to get involved in solving mysteries in a nunnery - being young and high-born (hence, presumably, a marriage prize, even though her family had been effectively dispossessed), I wouldn't have thought she would have much freedom. Quite different from a middle-aged herbalist/apothecary like Cadfael :-)

Christophe Brooker in 'The Saxon and Norman Kings' offers this pithy comment on William Rufus' death and the surrounding controversy: 'The most that can be said is this: if Rufus's death was an accident, Henry I was an exceptionally lucky man'. Which I think is about the best summing up I have seen.

Constance - I would recommend this one. Sadly out of print, but you may find a copy in a library or second-hand.

Annis said...

Daphne's comments made me wonder if "Supplanter" was yet another turgid oldie, and I just don't think I can face one of those at the moment!

Potter's Edith-as-sleuth might be a bit unlikely, but (as far as I can recall) she is treated as a postulant and closely supervised by her aunt, the Abbess (a right dragon). She doesn't act in an anachronistic way like, for example, Cassandra Clare's fictional nun Hildegard, who gallivants unaccompanied all over the shop.

Edith gets to meet William I's sons when they are out hunting in the New Forest and call on Romsey Abbey's hospitality, partly as an excuse to check out Edith, who's reputed to be a beauty, as potential bride material.

Rick said...

Well, some people are just lucky!

And, of course, we know that fortune favors the prepared.

Carla said...

Annis - The aunt is a dragon in Henry of the High Rock as well. I'd assumed it was narrative convenience, but now I wonder if there's some historical source for that. There might be a snippet in a chronicle somewhere that gives a (possible) clue as to her character.

What's the setting for Cassandra Clare's Hildegard? I don't think I've come across those; what are they like?

Rick - And that some people make their own luck...

Annis said...

Sorry, meant to say Cassandra Clark. Cassandra Clare writes fantasy for teenagers :)

Clark's historical mystery series features a 14th century Cisterian nun/abbess whose licence to behave as she wishes strikes me as very period-inappropriate, and I know others have felt the same way about this series. I gave up reading them after the second one.

Carla said...

I did wonder about the name; isn't Cassandra Clare the author of the Very Secret Diaries LOTR fan fiction? Those were quite a hoot, but a bit far removed from a 14th-century abbess. (Although, given your comment about the Hildegard series, maybe not so much as all that...?)

Annis said...

Forgot to add that it was Oderic Vitalis who said in his "Ecclesiastical History" that Edith/Matilda's abbess aunt Christina was vehemently opposed to her niece's marriage with Henry and that she (Christina) was a perverse virago much addicted to scolding!

Carla said...

Many thanks, Annis! So there is a historical source for Christina's dragonish behaviour.

Annis said...

Now I'm having doubts - was it Eadmer on Anselm? My brain cells are rapidly diminishing! I know I saw that "perverse virago" phrase somewhere. I think that it's in Eadmer's Anselm where Edith complains that her aunt regularly took to her with a rod and that she herself never wanted or was intended by her father to be professed as a nun. Apparently abbess Christina utterly detested the usurping Normans and didn't want to see their reign legitimised by marriage into the Saxon royal line.

Carla said...

Well, one can see Christina's point of view on that. I wonder what she thought of her brother Edgar Aetheling?
Didn't Anselm convene the church conference that looked into whether Edith was legally able to marry? There might well have been a detailed description of the conference in Eadmer's Life of Anselm.