The Gothic King: A Biography of Henry III

The Gothic King: A Biography of Henry III, by John Paul Davis

Henry III has stood alone among English monarchs in having no contemporary biography. His reign (1216-1272) was long, probably overly long, and the times were exciting, even tumultuous. Biographies have been written about many of those who surrounded Henry – his wife Eleanor, his son and heir Edward, his brother-in-law and enemy Simon de Montfort, even Henry’s younger sister, Simon’s wife Eleanor. But for Henry, the quiet, decent, colorless man at the center – nada!

My hopes were high for this book. I was, alas, disappointed. Through much of the book, Henry remains stultifyingly boring. This is not entirely Henry’s fault.

The Venerable Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, described human life as

“… like the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter …[with] a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, … vanishes out of your sight into the dark winter from which he emerged.”

In The Gothic King, we have facts, and not swallows, flying in unexpectedly through one door and then immediately vanishing out the other. Davis writes, for instance,

“Christmas 1239 was once again spent at Winchester. During the festivities Henry bestowed the Earldom of the Isle of Wight on the young knight, Baldwin de Rivers.”

Why was this important to Henry? Why did he – and why should we? – care about the Earldom or about young de Rivers? We never find out. Baldwin de Rivers never again appears in the narrative. Instead, he becomes yet another name heaped upon a towering pile of names of such bewildering immensity that it becomes almost impossible to differentiate between those names who are important to Henry’s story and those that are not.

There are some bright spots. The chapter on Henry as builder is particularly enlightening. Henry was not only responsible for transforming Westminster Abbey into the Gothic wonder we see today, he also added his stamp to a roll call of English cathedrals – Worcester, Gloucester, Lincoln, Canterbury, Rochester, Litchfield, Durham, York, Salisbury, Wells, Winchester.

In addition, he expanded and improved some of England’s most iconic castles – Windsor, Corfe, Rochester, Nottingham and Kenilworth, among others. The extent to which Henry changed England’s built environment is both astonishing and under-appreciated.

Also riveting was the story of Simon de Montfort’s rise to power and his eventual downfall. The intensity of the issues, and the powerful personalities involved, left little room for distractions or recitations of the mundane, making for a far more engaging narrative.

I am awarding The Gothic King three stars. As a popular biography, it is largely undistinguished. It does have value, however, as a reference work and, thanks to its index, will fill a vacant place on my own bookshelf, helping in a small way to bridge the giant gap between bad King John and great King Edward I.