Lionheart and Lackland, by Frank McLynn

Portrait of a king by his esquire
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What a thrill it is for so many children to unearth, from the heavy marshes of the English history lesson, the Richards Three: the mighty warrior, the tragic boy-king, the creepy usurper. What unlooked-for, paradoxical ravishment when they learn that the Three Kings weren't like that all: that the hero was a butcher, the boy-king a tyrant, the child-killer a child-hugger. But the third stage of the process, what one might call "re-revisionism", is a bit of a let-down. They're all middlingly bad: not terrible, not glorious, just to be seen "in context".

Now Frank McLynn has managed, with narrative panache and anecdotal detail, to buck this trend. No, he says, Richard I was everything you'd hoped for, and his brother, John (the inevitable beneficiary of Richard's mythological slump), was the toad you'd always suspected.

The book's central thesis is brandished in fittingly fighting terms: "To those who say that chronicles are a poor source for medieval history, I reply that charters are an inadequate guide to human personality." One sees his point. You can't simply discount what the contemporaries said on the grounds that they might have been biased. The fact is they were there. From this conviction flows everything good and bad in McLynn's study of the last two Plantagenets to rule an Angevin Empire.

If empire it was. This book shows us how the "empire" was inherently unstable. The king of England was also the Duke of Normandy, and thus the vassal of the king of France. Henry II, by judicious marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine was Duke of Aquitaine and many other territories besides. But while this in theory made him more powerful than the King of France (more resources, more rents), he only ever held his lands in fief.

This anomaly was handed on to his son. Richard had no particular love for England, and could not speak English: rather, he always felt a passionate attachment to the rich province of Aquitaine. But Aquitaine itself emerges as something of a construct in this study. Petty lords of the region resented the Angevin dominion and made unceasing attempts to throw it off. Then there were the ever-troublesome counts of Toulouse. However many brilliant victories he might score against his vassals, Richard could never crush them completely. And this pattern was to be repeated twice over. He routinely defeated Saladin, but could not conquer Palestine while Palestine had a Muslim majority (though this majority was not quite so overwhelming as Richard supposed and as this author ought to have known). He could maul the armies of Philip Augustus to his heart's content but Philip was still the King of France, and a France increasingly angry about the Angevin presence. Short of displacing the Capetian dynasty altogether - which would have been unthinkable - Richard could do little to alter the de jure balance of power. He was trapped in three wars which could not be won outright. His tragedy is all the more poignant in that he seemed completely oblivious to it. But much of the blame must be apportioned to Henry II, whose addiction to power left his children powerless.

McLynn is right to blame John for the swiftness of the Angevin dissolution, but I must quarrel with his reasons. I can't quite see what else John could have done at the treaty of Le Goulet, which gave France a decisive seniority over the Angevin kings: most likely he knew that he was the equal of neither his brother nor his antagonist. In many ways a comic figure, John lacked the comic's most vital skill: timing.

But if McLynn's formidable research sets him firmly in the saddle of his subject, his hands are rarely on the reins. The prose is quite out of control. King John decides to "give up the ghost and flee to England". That would be quite a feat, wouldn't it? To die and then flee to England. We find the Saracens "sometimes discharging another shower of arrows towards the Franks". I just get that, but it could have been more happily phrased. Dinky archaisms abound. Thus the daughter of the Count of Barcelona "vanished into the historical obscurity that is ever the lot of most of mankind". Anachronisms, clichés and repetitions jostle for the reader's unwilling attention. "The Young King adored to spend money, but hated its reality." Again, you know what he means, but it's not much of a sentence.

McLynn writes not so much as Richard's biographer as his esquire. The partisanship is unrelenting and sometimes wrong-headed. Granted that the Lionheart can be acquitted of most of the crimes attributed to him, there remain the summary disposal of 3,000 prisoners at Acre (an atrocity McLynn does his very best to palliate) and the conquest of Cyprus, which is given a most eccentric interpretive patina. First he maintains that Richard was provoked by the aggression of its inhabitants under the renegade Isaac Comnenos, then he decides that in fact Richard had set the whole thing up and was always intending to take the island; finally, in the conclusion, where he is most concerned to rehabilitate Richard, he goes back to the original thought. Funny, that. But the moral dimensions clearly interest him little: it's the strategy, stupid! In any case, Richard's actions set a dark precedent, as he was the first, but by no means the last, to punish malefactors for the offence of Ruling while Greek.

Similarly, Philip Augustus, whose habit of mutilating his prisoners is blared out to contrast with Richard's comparative lenity, is described as "never cruel as John was". Now that needs to be "as cruel", surely. Saladin was "only an average captain", despite abundant evidence to the contrary furnished by the author himself. His peculiar judgements are bewildering enough: that he alters them without so much as a "by your leave" is too much. A touch of Henry II in all this.

I wonder also - maybe you're wondering as well - whether a dead horse isn't being flogged here. We've settled down now into the idea that Richard, for all his single-minded militarism, was basically OK, and that John, for all his talents, basically wasn't. You could argue, as many do, that when it comes toreputations as opposed to events, who cares? Well, the truth matters, be it never so trivial, and it can always bear reaffirmation. I finished this book thoroughly convinced by McLynn's thesis about Richard and John, and his book kept me locked to its pages for four hours at a stretch without my even stirring to switch on the kettle.