I’ve spent most of the past four years buried in the twelfth century, researching and writing King of the North Wind, a biography of King Henry II of England.
The book published, I’ve now re-joined the twenty first century – only to wonder idly whether this great and most outward-looking of English monarchs would have been a Brexiteer?
I know, I know: it’s a silly question. Henry FitzEmpress was a medieval king who ruled as an autocrat and died 800 years before the European Union was conceived. So yes, it’s a stupid question, but it’s still interesting (and fun) to speculate what he would have made of Brexit – as it is with some other of our illustrious kings and queens.
So, William the Conqueror? A Remainer, I feel: there would’ve been little enthusiasm for Brexit from that quarter. Henry V, however – that lover of cross-Channel jaunts to fight the French – would have been all for Leaving. Henry VIII was fond of getting his own way, so a Leaver too. Elizabeth I would have tried her best to make it work from the inside, but I fear she would have felt compelled to leave in the end. Charles I: a Remainer, if only for recourse to the ECJ as a final court of appeal. The latter Victoria would have gone whichever way Disraeli bid her do so – even better, if the choice was irksome to Gladstone. Edward VIII would have been a Remainer, albeit for the wrong reasons. As to our current queen, she won’t tell, and we certainly shouldn’t ask.
What, then, of Henry II? Creator of the Plantagenet dynasty of kings, a monarch who won and held an enormous empire that that matched Charlemagne’s and included half of modern-day France. Henry’s court was the most open and cultured in Europe, attracting scholars, writers, artists and musicians from across the known world.
What would Henry have made of the EU? All those nation states bound together, all that concentration of power, all that trading might. Faced with an empire the size and influence of the European Union, I don’t believe Henry would have treated it as a behemoth to be despised. He was too much the visionary prince for that. He would’ve imagined the possibilities, and treated the EU with respect.
Henry would’ve charmed and wooed his fellow leaders; he’d have harried them, fought with them, and played them off, one against the other. He learned from his mother Matilda to ‘spin out the affairs of everyone … and keep the aspirants to them hanging on in hope’: his game would’ve been the long one.
Henry would not have cared for a partnership of equals. Drawn by the potency of a European combine, he would have sought to dominate, and determined to shape the institution in his image and to his beliefs.
He would have made bold, calculated displays of power. In a dispute with Louis VII, Henry attacked and destroyed the French king’s arsenal. But rather than wallow in victory, he evacuated the small town of Andely and let Louis put on a great show of sacking this now empty citadel. Henry played the power game consummately: project strength to your rivals, but leave them their dignity.
Henry was a pragmatist; domination of Europe would have been his ambition, but had he tried and failed, he would have been content to go his own way. He would have left – but would have done so smartly, at a time and in a manner that most advantaged his kingship. He would have directed all his considerable energies and ambition into building an independent empire to protect his interests, extend his power and needle his neighbours.
Henry II was never afraid to lead. He took the crown after years of civil war under his predecessor King Stephen had left England destitute and demoralised. Within only a few years, Henry had expelled foreign mercenaries from England, torn down every illegal castle erected in the civil war, united the nobles, refilled the treasury coffers, commissioned a great programme of building works, and embarked upon a remarkable series of legal and judicial reforms that live on to this day as the English Common Law system. His court was brilliant and international – the best scholars, artists, architects, scientists from every corner of the known world; they all came to Henry.
Even when at his most vulnerable and attacked on several fronts – when everyone predicted his kingdom would be lost – Henry marshalled his forces and moved his armies with such speed and determination that he completely overwhelmed his enemies.
Henry II was far from perfect: he could be impetuous, he made mistakes (appointing Thomas Becket archbishop of Canterbury, for one) and he failed to train a successor. Imperfect he may have been, but Henry was always a leader.
It is leadership that we lack today. If our leaders had been thoroughly and consistently committed to the European project over the past half century, if they had determined to lead it and shape it, as France and Germany have, we might today be a citizenry more receptive to the European idea. Such leaders we did not have.
And as we stand on the threshold of departure, where is the leadership now? Where is the ambition, the determination and the imagination to excite us with prospects of national renewal as we look to seek our fortune in the world again, unshackled and free-as-you-like? It is nowhere. Our rulers, it seems, prefer to dissipate their energies into tearing great chunks out of each other, rather than exercising courageous leadership and inspiring the rest of us to follow.
If there was a moment when this country needed Henry-like leadership to seek common cause, bring us together, and fill us with fire, it is now. Who will step up?