Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2022), Reviews, Volume 30

Oxford University Press
£95 per hardback volume
ISBN 9780198738213

Reviewed by Jesse Harrington

This new series provides a complete edition of the letters and charters of Henry II, king of England from 1154 to 1189. It represents the culmination of three decades’ labour in archives, libraries, project files and card indexes by Nicholas Vincent and a plethora of supporting scholars, building on still earlier foundations laid by the late Sir James Holt, who initiated the project in 1972. Vincent’s edition greatly updates and replaces Léopold Delisle and Élie Berger’s earlier edition of a century ago, which printed only a quarter of Henry’s surviving royal charters. It not only adds to the total number of available documents from this significant reign but also provides them in their best form with expert analysis and presentation.

Henry II has long been of special interest to Irish historians. It was Henry who linked Ireland with the English Crown for the first time and who oversaw, through his delegated representatives, the establishment of an English royal presence and nascent colonial administration on the island. He was the king to whom Strongbow and his adventurers swore fealty; who sought the controversial licence Laudabiliter from the Englishman Nicholas Breakspear (Pope Adrian IV), ostensibly to enter Ireland and reform its church; who arrived in Ireland with an army to receive the submission of most of the Irish kings in 1171–2; and who had his son John (later King John) named ‘lord of Ireland’, among his various efforts to control the newly conquered. Besides his role in specifically Irish history, Henry is perhaps most often recalled as the king on one side of the dramatic ‘Church and State’ controversy that culminated in the infamous murder (and rapid canonisation) of his former friend and rival Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury. He was also the founder of the House of Plantagenet, which ruled England until the Tudors; the architect of the ‘Angevin empire’, which stretched from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees; and the administrator whose itinerant judges laid a foundation of the common law, the legal system still used by about a third of the world’s population today.

It is the breadth of that political and administrative activity that makes an edition of Henry’s letters and charters of such interest and importance. As Vincent observes in his foreword, Henry’s realm was ‘the best documented polity in twelfth-century Christendom’, presided over by a king whose 35-year reign provides ‘a more extensive collection of royal charter materials’ than the combined 100 years of two of his nearest twelfth-century royal rivals, Philip Augustus of France and Alfonso VIII of Castile. Indeed, the documentary output of Henry’s reign is surpassed only by the contemporary papacy, whose chancery had to deal with the whole of European Christendom. Thus, ‘mile for mile’, Henry’s realm is ‘far better documented … than even that of the popes’.

The present edition publishes or lists some 4,640 items, including, in five volumes, a main series of 3,039 letters and charters (mostly in Latin, but with a small number preserved in Anglo-Norman or early Middle English), drawn from 286 repositories in Europe and North America. Of these, roughly 10% (324) have never previously been described or noticed, while more than 1,000 have never been published in their full text. A distinct sixth volume contains appendices and concordances: these include royal letters relating to the Becket conflict, a selection of pipe roll writs and charters, documents issued by Henry before his accession as king, documents previously misattributed to him and letters addressed to him. These six volumes have been available since December 2020, while a seventh, providing indexes for persons and places, subjects and manuscripts, is due to appear in July 2022. An eighth, to provide a complete critical and historical introduction to this material, is promised for a later date. Further volumes have also been planned, featuring the charters of Henry’s wife, brothers and sons.

Editing so many primary sources into an edition is exacting work, requiring rigour, patience and an array of skills besides historical knowledge—such as in languages, archival research and palaeography—which is why the publication of such editions is an uncommon occurrence. Yet such editions are cornerstones of the historical enterprise, opening the sources to researchers in a single, accessible and well-organised series. As sources, letters and charters are crucial direct evidence for the individual economic, legal, social and political acts that they represent. They provide the minute detail which allows the present-day historian to supplement and correct the narratives provided by medieval chroniclers. They are also a necessary foundation for the difficult but important task of reconstructing the careers and itineraries of the personages who appear in them, as grantor, grantees, addressees and witnesses—including kings, nobles, and ecclesiastical and royal officials.

Henry’s Irish charters make up a small portion of the present total, which corresponds with the relatively brief time he spent in Ireland itself. Of the 3,039 main items which survive and appear in the present edition, most are from England, with about 500 from Normandy and only about 40 known from Ireland. In Irish terms, however, this number is respectable. For comparison, the surviving royal charters of the native Irish kings of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (as edited by Marie Therese Flanagan, Oxford University Press, 2005) number only fifteen, with an additional eight lost acta identified. Moreover, as Vincent highlighted at the Invasion 1169 Conference, held at Trinity College Dublin in 2019, Henry’s Irish charters have been little studied. They also differ in character from his charters elsewhere, which mostly benefited the church; in Ireland they were mostly issued to laymen. Among the texts in this edition are grants to the men of Bristol and Chester (313, 583), important for the history of Dublin; to the men, abbeys and churches of Dublin (783–8, 4064–7); to the Hospitallers of Jerusalem in Dublin (1363) and the Templars in Dublin, Waterford and Wexford (1378); and to the Norsemen of Waterford (2790). Another noteworthy entry is the Treaty of Windsor (686), made in 1175 between Henry and Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair, king of Connacht. Other charters not specifically relating to Ireland are nonetheless important for the careers and itineraries of figures who played notable roles in Irish history, such as the royal clerk (later archbishop of Dublin) John Cumin.

The format of Vincent’s edition will be familiar to charter specialists, and particularly to readers of the ongoing English Episcopal Acta series (British Academy/Oxford University Press), on whose spirit it is based. The main items are listed alphabetically by recipient and assigned a number by which they can be referenced. A concordance in the sixth volume cross-references each with Delisle’s earlier edition. Where possible, each surviving item is introduced with a summary in English, a list of the manuscripts in which it is found, its editorial history (a bibliographic list of prior appearances or summary notices of the item in print) and a discussion of the form and likely date of issue. This is followed by a reconstruction of the full original text, complete with a critical apparatus noting variants of each word or phrase in the scribal copies in which it is found. There is no full translation of any of the original texts, as is typical for this kind of edition.

Where the letters or charters are known but the original is lost, the item is marked by an asterisk and given a summary of where the item is known from and what it is thought to have contained. For example, a grant of the former kingdom of Limerick in 1177 (4082) is known only from an abstract by the contemporary English chronicler Roger of Howden. A grant to the cathedral and see of Cashel (516), confirming Cashel as an ecclesiastical possession and perhaps dating from Henry’s arrival in 1171, is known only from a later petition from the archbishop of Cashel to King Edward I in c. 1275/6, which itself only survives in later printed form. A charter issued to the men of Cork in c. 1171–89 (690a) is similarly known only from a later letter of King John.

The edition also notes those items whose authenticity may be doubted. Thus, notifications of the arrival in Ireland of Henry’s representative William Fitz Audelin c. 1171–3 (935), a confirmation of the land of Kinsealy, Co. Dublin, to Hamund Fitz Torkill c. 1175–6 (1011) and a grant of the abbey of Glendalough to Abbot Thomas c. 1174–81 (1133) are listed as either ‘spurious’ or ‘reworked’, with reasons given as to why. Items that have been rejected (4208–46) in this edition are included in a separate appendix; appearing there, for instance, is a grant of land in Leinster to William Marshal (4231), reidentified as a grant by King John.

Some items can be quite short; others are longer. The notification of Henry’s 1177 grant of the former kingdom of Cork as the hereditary possession of Robert Fitz Stephen and Miles de Cogan, and of the city as a custodial possession (1008), covers two pages, one for the Latin text and one for the discussion and apparatus. One letter to Pope Alexander at the height of the Becket dispute (2996) is nearly four pages, of which half comprises the original Latin text and half comprises the remainder. Considerably longer again, a notification of Henry’s confirmation of possessions and liberties to Caen, Saint-Etienne Abbey (410), covers seventeen pages, of which fifteen pages comprise the Latin text of 3,500 words while the remainder comprise the apparatus. I have yet to notice any obvious error, other than an apparent mistake in the aforementioned no. 1133, of ‘1150s’ for ‘1170s’.

The foreword gives an engaging account of the genesis and trajectory of this important project, along with a valuable reminder that the maturation and publication of a work on this scale can take significantly longer than the funding councils might often wish. There is no one better placed or equipped than Vincent, a prolific scholar and arguably the doyen of living English historians of Henry II and his family, to have undertaken and completed this crucial work. The debts to scholars, living and deceased, since Holt’s initiation of the project 50 years ago are graciously acknowledged. It is a towering contribution to current and future scholarship.

At £95 each, the six published hardback volumes come to £570 (approx. €685). This price tag rises if one includes the forthcoming volumes. Although impressive in its achievement and elegant in its presentation, this is a reference series for the professional historian, independent researcher or university student, not the casual reader. The choice to list alphabetically by addressee or recipient, rather than chronologically or regionally, is the right decision for ease of identification and for a broad-minded view of the Plantagenet realm, but it means that there is no single volume, or subset of volumes, that can be extracted as of specifically Irish interest. The greatest value of the volumes already published will be for the reader of medieval Latin and the charter specialist, as the sources are provided in the original language, with only summary English description rather than full translation. Nonetheless, for such specialists, and for historians of this transformative period in Irish, English and European history more generally, a contribution of this magnitude promises both a renewal of the field and an indispensable resource for many decades to come.

Jesse Harrington is a Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellow at University College Cork, researching the life and legacy of St Lorcán Ua Tuathail, archbishop of Dublin, 1162–80.


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