King Henry II has long enthralled Claudia Gold.
Ever since watching Peter O’Toole (Henry), sparring with Katherine Hepburn (Eleanor) in James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter – “It’s 1183 and we’re all barbarians!” – Claudia was hooked.
She surveyed the range of academic works on Henry – especially, W L Warren’s towering work, Henry II – but discovered that there was no popular biography of him. So she decided to write one of her own. King of the North Wind: The Life of Henry II in Five Acts is published by William Collins and presents Henry as the classic tragic hero whose kingship travels an arc of ascent, triumph and ultimately nemesis.
Here was a king who had all the gifts of the gods. He was charismatic, clever, learned, empathetic, a brilliant tactician, with great physical strength and an astonishing self-belief. Henry was the creator of the Plantagenet dynasty of kings, who ruled through eight generations in command of vast lands in Britain and Europe. Virtually unbeaten in battle, and engaged in a ceaseless round of conquest and diplomacy, Henry forged an empire that matched Charlemagne’s.
It was not just on the battlefield that Henry excelled; he presided over a blossoming of culture and learning termed ‘the twelfth century Renaissance’, pursued the tenets of reason over religious faith, and did more to advance the cause of justice and enforce the rule of law than any other English monarch before or since. Contemporaries lauded his greatness and described him as their ‘Alexander of the West’.
And yet it is the people around him who are remembered: his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, whom he seduced away from the French king; his sons Richard the Lionheart and John; Thomas Becket, murdered in his cathedral. Henry – so famed during his lifetime – has slipped into the shadows of history.
King of the North Wind tells how this most talented of kings came into conflict with those closest to him – to become the most haunted.