Book Review: “Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine: Founding an Empire” by Matthew Lewis

50419849If you go to Fontevrault Abbey in France, you will find two rather extraordinary tombs. These tombs belong to King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, the first King, Queen of the Plantagenet Dynasty, and the Angevin Empire. Their effigies tell us a lot about the couple that was buried side by side. The husband was restless; his model shows him ready to take action at any moment, with his crown upon his head and a scepter in his hand. His queen lays beside him, reading an unknown book. They seem to be prepared to watch over their kingdom and their family even beyond the grave. Those who know English history recognize their names and understand the family drama behind the scenes. We think we know the truth about Henry and Eleanor, but is there more to their story and their feuding family? In Matthew Lewis’s latest dual biography, “Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine: Founding an Empire,” he explores the relationship between this dynamic king and queen and how it shaped European and English history forever.

I would like to thank Amberley Publishing for sending me a copy of this book. I have enjoyed Matthew Lewis’s previous books, and when I heard about this one, I was pleasantly surprised. There is just something so intriguing about the lives of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and I could not wait to see how he would approach this famous couple.

Eleanor of Aquitaine was a grand heiress of France who attracted the young French King Louis VII; they would eventually marry and take on the monumental task of protecting French territories and embark on the 2nd Crusade. Eleanor showed her strength and resilience during the Crusade as rumors tried hard to tarnish her good name. Unfortunately, her marriage did not last long as the couple realized that they would never have a male heir.

As soon as they divorced, Eleanor fell in love with a young noble who was the son of Empress Matilda and Geoffrey Duke of Anjou, Henry Plantagenet. Empress Matilda fought hard against her cousin King Stephen for Henry to become Stephen’s heir during The Anarchy. Henry and Matilda would prevail, allowing Henry and Eleanor to become King and Queen of England after Stephen’s death.

It was when Henry became a father when troubles began to arise. His sons, Henry the Younger, Geoffrey Duke of Brittany, Richard, and John, would be a thorn at his side as they fought against each other and Henry for power. Eleanor was woefully caught in the middle as she strived to do what was best for her sons, even if it pitted her against her beloved husband. To top it all off, Henry had to deal with a man who he felt was right to help him reign in the power of the Church; Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. The disastrous end to their friendship would be the lowest point in Henry’s reign.

Lewis gives his readers a brand new perspective on the relationship between Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Although I knew this story rather well before reading this biography, I still found myself entranced by Lewis’s narrative with scrupulous attention to detail. I thought I knew the nature of their relationship, but I was wrong. If you want a biography that is elegant while it challenges your views on the first Plantaganet couple, I highly suggest you read “Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine: Founding an Empire” by Matthew Lewis.

Biography: King Henry V

mw03074(Born September 16, 1387- Died August 31, 1422). Son of Henry IV and Mary de Bohun. Married to Katherine of Valois. He only had one son Henry VI.

Henry V was a soldier from birth. He did so much for his country, yet he died too soon, leaving his kingdom in the incapable hands of his baby son Henry VI.

At the age of fifteen, Henry V fought alongside his father against the Welsh rebels under Owain Glyn Dwr and the English rebels under Edmund Mortimer and Henry “Hotspur” Percy. Henry’s relationship with his father in the later years of Henry IV’s life was not great. The two argued about many issues, but it was mostly about the English involvement in France. Henry IV wanted to press his claim to the French throne while France was in the midst of a civil war between the Burgundians and the Armagnacs; Henry IV supported the Armagnacs while Henry V supported the Burgundians. This issue would never be resolved between them as Henry IV would die in 1413 and Henry V became king.

As king, Henry V desired to regain the lands in France that he believed was rightfully his, but unlike his father, he was able to get the full support of Parliament to do so. Henry V tried to negotiate with the French to regain all of the old Angevin Empire,  but when that failed, he invaded on August 11, 1415. On October 25, 1415, the Battle of Agincourt took place. Even though the French had the English outnumbered, the English had longbowmen. The French lost some 6,000 men whereas the English only lost 400 men.

Agincourt was a tremendous victory for the English, but the French refused to fall. Henry V gained support from Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor and John, duke of Burgundy and started a new campaign in August 1417. In the spring of 1419, Normandy fell to Henry V. In May 1420, Henry V signed the Treaty of Troyes with the Burgundians which recognized him and his heirs  as heir to the French throne. In order to cement this new alliance, he married the daughter of the French King Katherine of Valois.

Everything seemed right in Henry’s kingdom, but he still wanted to gain more French land. In 1421, he went back to France and was able to gain control of the Dauphin’s stronghold of Meaux in May 1422. Unfortunately, in the winter of 142, Henry V fell ill from dysentery and died on August 31, 1422. He left his kingdom in the hands of his infant son Henry VI. Even though Henry V’s reign was one of the shortest of any English king since the Norman Conquest, it was one of the most successful. England was in a position of power on the world stage thanks to the actions of Henry V.