Gerald’s character sketches of the three kings who ruled England during most of his life – Henry II (1154-89), Richard I (1189-99), and John (1199-1216) – are among the most vivid and oft-quoted descriptions of medieval kings. They are acute and witty, often salacious, sometimes malicious, and including some set in Wales.
Others had as good an opportunity as Gerald to observe the kings at close quarters, but none had Gerald’s advantages when it came to recording memorable personal impressions of them. It was Gerald’s rare talent to see the Angevins in the round, as rulers of a vast ‘empire’, most of whose lands he knew. He had been a student in Paris for many years and moved as easily in France as he did in England, whilst his upbringing in South Wales and his family interests in Ireland provided a unique vantage point from which to judge the kings. And as one of the luminaries of the 12th century Renaissance, he could compose imperishable portraits that have powerfully affected our view of all three of them.
His picture of King Henry in his fifties rings true:
[He] had hair that was almost red in colour, grey eyes and a large round head. His eyes were bright, and in anger fierce and flecked with red. He had a fiery complexion, his voice was husky, his neck bent forward a little from his shoulders, and he had a broad chest and powerful arms. His body was fleshy, and he had a very large belly, naturally so, and not due to the effects of gluttony… In order that he might keep this defect of nature under control and mitigate its effects, and improve the shortcomings of his body by the sterling quality of his mind,… He used to torment his body with an excessive amount of exercise. (The Conquest of Ireland, 1188)
Gerald’s family was well known at court: Henry II was the grandson of Henry I, while Gerald was the grandson of Henry I’s mistress, the beautiful Nest. They may have met in 1176, when Henry II rejected Gerald as Bishop of St Davids. Most likely it was Gerald’s knowledge of Ireland, gained in 1183 when he visited relatives who had settled there, and of his native Wales that caused Henry to summon him to court (1184). He spent the next 10 years in the service of Henry and Richard I, and knew them both well. Henry seemed courageous and compassionate, approachable and generous, diligent and yet short-tempered, and addicted to hunting in all weather.
To judge by Gerald’s journeys to France with Henry II (1189) and to troubled Wales, his abilities were highly prized by Henry and Richard. He had less opportunity to get to know Henry II’s eldest sons – Young Henry died in 1183, Geoffrey in 1186 – but that did not stop him from making trenchant remarks about them, especially about the silver tongued Geoffrey:
… overflowing with words, smooth as oil, possessed, by his syrupy and persuasive eloquence, of the power of dissolving the apparently indissoluble, able to corrupt two kingdoms with his tongue…
Gerald’s description of Richard is famous and set the tone of the king’s subsequent reputation:
… He cared for no success that was not reached by a path cut by his own sword and stained with the blood of his adversaries… Our lionhearted Prince, who is more than a lion… (The Topography of Ireland, 1188)
Gerald’s Irish experience was put to good use in 1185 when he accompanied Henry’s youngest son, John, to Ireland: he sailed from Milford Haven in John’s ship and spend some time with the eighteen-year-old prince. Gerald formed a not unfavourable impression of him, but after living through John’s reign he came to dislike the king vehemently: ‘a tyrannous whelp, who issued from the most bloody tyrants and was the most tyrannous of them all’. (On the Instruction of a Prince, 1217-8)
Not that Gerald’s opinions are completely reliable: they tell us as much about Gerald as they do about Henry, Richard and John. During 30 years of writing, he changed his mind about people: certainly he claimed that he was afraid to write plainly about Henry II during the king’s lifetime: and in dedicating the Topography of Ireland to Henry II (‘a western Alexander’) and the Conquest of Ireland first to Richard and then to John, he showed himself anxious for their favour.
Cleric’s outrage may partly explain Gerald’s growing criticism of Henry and John for paying scant regard to the church and neglecting their devotions. Above all, the ebb and flow of his own fortunes grossly distorted Gerald’s vision. His failure to secure St Davids made him bitter towards the kings, even venomous in gossiping about them. By the time he finished On the Instruction of a Prince (1217-8), he was deeply hostile to them all. The rebellions of Henry II’s sons and the disasters of Henry’s last years he now regarded as God’s judgement on the king’s waywardness in marrying the French king’s former wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and oppressing the church: a tyrant and deservedly fallen. Gerald’s final portrait of Henry is a caricature of certain character defects which he had observed 30 years before:
From beginning to end an oppressor of the nobility; weighing right and wrong, what is lawful and unlawful, by his own interest; a seller and delayer of justice; shifty in speech and full of craft; readily breaking, not his words only, but his pledged honour his oaths; an open adulterer; ungrateful towards God and without devotion; a hammer of the church, and born to destruction.
Gerald also believed in fate and prophecies: he became convinced that the Wheel of Fortune had begun its downward turn following the murder of Thomas Becket (1170) by Henry’s knights. Gerald’s earthly loyalties change too. Of Anglo-Norman stock, born in Wales and living mostly in England, his mind was a jumble of sympathies. His Anglo-French loyalties were gradually submerged by Welsh ones, especially when it appeared that his Welsh (and Irish) connections told against him as a candidate for St Davids. On the Instruction of a Prince reveals a grotesquely partisan Gerald who even preferred the Capetian kings of France to the Angevins he had long served. He repeated the legend of ‘an accursed race’ sprung from a demon-countess and further tainted by the immoralities of Henry II’s father and mother, and Henry’s own scandalous liaison with Eleanor of Aquitaine. He reported Richard I’s own words:
‘What wonder if we lack the natural affections of mankind – we came from the Devil, I must needs go back to the Devil’.
The Angevins’ habit of swearing by God’s eyes, teeth, feet, throat and death was symbolically blasphemous, so was their use of bears, leopards and lions as badges compare with the lilies preferred by French kings.
Compelling Gerald’s portraits of Henry, Richard and John may be, but they were dynamic constructions that offer a challenge to their would-be interpreter.
[adapted from Gerald and the Kings of the English by Ralph A Griffiths]
Ann Marie Thomas is the author of four medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, is out now. Follow her at http://eepurl.com/bbOsyz