I’ve read two biographies by Darren Baker recently and it pains me to report that I am not a fan. What I was looking for was a couple of approachable books about Henry III and Simon de Montfort, who both sounded like compelling subjects. Having found this pair by Baker, which were described as engaging and which seemed to have a very clear thesis and point-of-view, I thought I’d hit the jackpot.
Alas. There are two issues here, I think, and they are present in both books. First, although Baker’s writing is certainly not academic, it is also not clear. Granted, he was not assisted in his task by thirteenth-century parents, who seemed to delight in naming their children Edward, Eleanor, Richard, and Henry. But Baker did nothing to clearly differentiate between all of the Edwards and Eleanors and so I was forever flipping back to remind myself of whom he was writing at any given moment. This is just a symptom of the larger issue: Baker struggles to give the reader context for anything that happens, and so the reader struggles to understand why, for example, Henry III is suddenly being held captive in his own tower.
Secondly, Baker has an odd fixation with the idea that Henry III was a great king. Look, you guys, I am not claiming to be an expert on the medieval British monarchy but I have now read two books by Baker that make this argument and I am not at all convinced. I’ll grant you that Henry was pious and a lover of the arts, and that he seems to have been relatively generous and charitable. Still, if I were to use two words to describe Henry III, “hot mess” would leap to mind long before “great king.”
I have often said that if George W. Bush had just been allowed to become a baseball commissioner, he would have led a happier if relatively more obscure life and spared the country an absolute disaster of a presidency. Henry III was much the same case. He was born to be an artist. If only fate had not intervened and made him king at the age of nine, he might have been a happier man, and England might have been the better for it. Unfortunately, though, he came to the throne at a young age, his mother abandoned him soon thereafter, and he was subsequently raised by courtiers to believe that he was born to rule. And so he seems to have grown up to be a spoiled and entitled adult, constantly running out of money, rarely thinking through his actions, and often making decisions out of fits of pique instead of any kind of strategy or principle.
(To give Henry his due, he loved Westminster Abbey and his attention to it is much of the reason that it is as beautiful and well-kept as it is today, and I sincerely respect that because it is one of the most glorious buildings I have ever set foot in.)
As for Simon de Montfort, I never got a good sense of him because Baker — even when ostensibly writing a biography of Simon de Montfort — is far less interested in him as a person, and never makes an effort to look at him without applying the prism of Henry III’s perspective. I often had the feeling that Baker was repurposing his Henry material into a second book.
So this brace of books was disappointing. After getting a very good grounding in Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their children, I don’t feel that I’ve learned a huge amount about this period. Which is a shame, because the rise of Parliament and the captive monarchy seem both interesting and significant.
I was tempted to find another biography of Henry III — I did, after all, read four books about Alfred the Great all in a row — but as it turns out I do not have the same investigative zeal for Henry and Simon. For now, I am moving on to Edward I, but I’m prepared to backtrack once David Carpenter’s two volumes on Henry III are complete.