Henry I (who reigned over England and Normandy from 1100 to 1135) is remembered primarily for "Conan's Leap," when he heaved the treacherous Conan Pilatus from a tower, and for his death from an alleged surfeit of lampreys. He deserves better from history, and Hollister's magisterial biography, 40 years in the making, accords him fuller regard. Begun in 1962, the long-delayed manuscript perished in a 1990 fire. Hollister began reconstructing the book but died in 1997, before its completion. Frost, his former Ph.D. student, finished the job. They persuasively cast Henry (youngest of William the Conqueror's three sons) as a major English monarch. Left no land by his father, Henry outwitted one brother; the other one died in a hunting accident. King at 31, Henry I rebuilt baronial alliances, established a charter rectifying governmental abuses, married twice and, having lost a legitimate son, left his kingdom to daughter Matilda. She, too, had to fight to hold onto it, because Henry's nephew Stephen, who suffered stomach problems ("his diarrhea probably determined the history of England... between 1135 and 1154"), initially kept her from the crown. Hollister spares nothing about Henry's reign, yet convinces that his rule was orderly and reasonable in the context of those turbulent times. He "surrounded himself with systematizers" and sought only to reconstruct his father's domains. The drama lay in sibling rivalries, church-state clashes and the ever-changing followers and opponents whom the astute king co-opted, outmaneuvered or crushed. Henry, writes Hollister, "transformed his court from a gang of itinerant predators into a company of well-controlled courtiers," but one almost needs a scorecard to keep track of the players. Illus. not seen by PW. (June)
Forecast:Primarily for scholars, this may find a larger readership with its vivid portrait of unruly medieval England.
Release date: 06/01/2001