The Medieval Book Reviews 8: The Gothic King: A Biography of Henry III by John Paul Davis

Henry III (r. 1216-1272) is one of England’s least known Kings. Despite reigning for fifty-six years – the majority of the thirteenth century – there are few people today who can list the main achievements and accomplishments of his reign. Henry III’s father, King John, is famous as the villain of the Robin Hood legends and his son, Edward I “Longshanks” became part of popular culture through the Oscar winning film, Braveheart. Henry III, however, remains an enigma.

The chronicles written in the King’s own lifetime provide a mixed account of his character, praising his private virtues but critiquing his statesmanship. In The Gothic King: A Biography of Henry III, the first popular biography of this obscure King since the nineteenth century, John Paul Davis, author of Robin Hood: The Unknown Templar and Pity for The Guy: A Biography of Guy Fawkes reveals the full impact of Henry III’s reign on thirteenth century England – and the royal palaces and cathedrals that still stand today.

Henry III’s most lasting legacies were his building projects and Davis’s chapter on the King’s architectural interests, “Henry the Builder” is the strongest section of the book. A devotee of Edward the Confessor, Henry commissioned the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey from a Saxon monastery to the soaring Gothic church that is the setting of royal weddings and coronations today. Henry III also made improvements to numerous palaces including Windsor Castle and the Great Hall of Winchester Castle. Like Edward the Confessor, Henry III was renowned for his piety and was inspired by the architecture of his time.

The best known political events of Henry III’s reign were the battles of the Second Barons Revolt led by his brother-in-law Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester which are dramatized in Sharon Kay Penman’s historical novel, Falls the Shadow. As a founder of the modern system of parliamentary democracy, Montfort is far more famous than Henry III, and his wife, the King’s sister, Eleanor, was recently the subject of an engaging biography by Louise Wilkinson.

Another one of Henry III’s famous opponents was Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Wales, who remains a legendary figure in Wales and the subject of historical novels such as Penman’s Here Be Dragons. Describing these conflicts from Henry III’s perspective, Davis turns a critical eye to both Montfort and Llywelyn, revealing the Welsh Prince’s ruthlessness in the border regions and the reforming Earl’s lack of support from his fellow barons and critical junctures. The result is a more balanced account of both the long conflict between thirteenth century England and Wales and the numerous disputes between Henry III and his barons.

The Gothic King is not simply a biography of Henry III but a complex portrait of his times. The King ruled an England that was increasingly intertwined with the rest of Europe and the wider world. Davis describes how fish merchants in Yarmouth were bankrupted when demand for pickled herring in what is now Russia collapsed because of the turmoil created by the invasion of Genghis Khan’s Mongol Hordes. The King’s long and happy marriage to Eleanor of Provence made him part of a vast royal extended family as the queen’s sisters married rulers of France and Sicily. Henry III’s own sisters married the King of Scotland and Holy Roman Emperor, increasing the links between thirteenth century England and the rest of Europe.

While Davis provides a detailed account of the political events of Henry III’s reign and the King’s extensive building program, he devotes far less attention to the social history of the era. Since Henry III is relatively unknown to popular audiences, more details about the flavour of his court would have made the biography more engaging. There are repeated references to the places the King held his Christmas celebrations with little description of what these festivities entailed or the King’s role as leader of such grand occasions. The reader is also left to wonder how the royal family dressed, what they ate and the nature of thirteenth century English court etiquette. Henry III’s mother, Isabella d’Angouleme also receives little attention in the narrative.

In The Gothic King: A Biography of Henry III, John Paul Davis brings one of England’s most obscure monarchs to life. Henry III reigned during a time of unprecedented change, which saw the birth of England’s parliamentary democracy, new links between the British Isles and the rest of the world and changes to palaces and churches that still stand today.

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