When presented with the truth (as we know it) of history, the legends that have risen in its place seem all the more frustrating. Take for example the lives of Richard the Lionheart and his brother John, both medieval kings of great renown in their era (though for very different reasons), brothers whose lives were replete with ferocious battles, political intrigue, and fantastic adventure across their ever-expanding world.
In the 800 years since their reigns, however, their exploits proved too complex for the popular imagination, no matter how enthralling they may have been. Instead, the two kings were relegated to supporting roles in the tale of the fictional Robin Hood, a simplistic morality play which pales in comparison to the Lionheart’s epic clashes with Saladin in the Holy Land or John’s amoral machinations to seize power in Western Europe. It’s likely that the legend supplanted the reality simply because the world of Richard and John is too complex to be explained and faithfully rendered by word of mouth in easy to remember vignettes. Real life is messy, and cannot be confined to parables or campfire tales.
With Richard and John: Kings at War, historian Frank McLynn proves that it’s possible to make these far-off times and the tales of those who populated them not only comprehensible, but intensely exciting. McLynn’s meticulous research and flashy, entertaining prose brings life to the titular monarchs and their dysfunctional family which was known in their time as “the devil’s brood”. The family of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine could be described as nuclear, not because they represented normalcy but because their interactions were devastatingly explosive.
Richard was his mother’s favorite, while John found the favor of his father. Together with their brothers Henry the Young King, and Geoffrey, they were caught up in the affairs of medieval politics and in a bloody civil war in which the family was pitted against itself for control of the Angevin Empire. It is this conflagration in which Richard gained his fame and influence by defeating Henry II, and where an adolescent John learned his skill for treachery by deserting his father when the going got tough. On his deathbed, Henry II informed his illegitimate son (also named Geoffrey), that his sons with Eleanor were “the real bastards”.
With the civil war settled and Richard reigning supreme, the story begins to reach full gallop. It’s clear that McLynn feels strongly about Richard, stepping in to defend the king against the misguided analyses of contemporary critics who attempt to apply modern standards and mores to a man who lived in a very different time. McLynn is adamant that it would be unfair to judge the actions of these historical figures without understanding how their decisions were seen in the context of their era, and through methodical citations, he provides the reader with a wealth of perspectives from which fully informed conclusions can be drawn.
As the narrative follows Richard’s consolidation of his power in Europe, his reputation-making campaign against Saladin during the Third Crusade between 1189 and 1192, and his final years locked in battle with his rival, Philip Augustus of France, it’s hard not to develop a fondness for the Lionheart, whom McLynn describes as a “perfect paladin,” the epitome of the gallant knight. Though he was imperfect as all men are, brash, bold, and haughtily assured of his blessed status, he was also a man of distinguished action and brilliance, as evinced by his abilities as a leader and by the high esteem in which even his enemies held him.
On the flip side, John does not fare as well. True to the tale of Robin Hood, he schemes and plots while Richard is away on his crusade, with the intent of seizing control of England’s vast wealth for himself. When he finally does become king, his reign is marked by turmoil, much of it fueled by his avaricious lust for power, money, and women. He is, as McLynn says, “cruel, treacherous, cowardly, and politically inept”, prone to episodes of mania and bouts of crashing depression. Paranoia rules his mind, perhaps afraid that those around him are secretly plotting against him because he himself could never maintain loyalty for too long. McLynn’s dislike of John is as evident as his admiration of Richard though he more than justifies it with a litany of offenses that shocked even his medieval counterparts and briefly got him excommunicated.
Richard and John: Kings at War is by no means an easy read. McLynn is a talented writer, and it is clear that he does not believe that reading should be a passive experience. He expects his readers to exert some effort, to engage in a dialogue with his book and participate in the exploration of the topic. That’s not to say that reading Richard and John feels like work. That couldn’t be further from the truth. McLynn’s engaging style encourages thought and makes following him through the travails of these two figures a pleasure.
McLynn’s presence is felt on every page, and it’s his voice that keeps the narrative moving swiftly as he weaves the rich life stories of Richard and John with a vivid and essential portrait of the political and social climate of the 12th and 13th centuries. His prose is laden with gems, and is a true treasure-trove for lovers of language. He feels no compunction about using words like “uxorious” or “jacquerie” freely where appropriate, respecting the reader enough to believe they will seek out its meaning if they do not already know it, eager to add to their lexical quivers. He launches adjectives like arrows, and they fall around their target in a fierce volley.
Of the Young King, McLynn says “he was vain, shallow, irresponsible and impatient… a hedonist and a wastrel, permanently in debt; he was prodigal, improvident, insouciant, and foolish.” In his words, Magna Carta, the keystone of constitutional law provoked by King John’s rapacious rule, is “a farrago, an olio, a gallimaufry”. Readers will relish the opportunity to converse with an author who loves language and isn’t afraid to use it.
Richard and John: Kings at War is everything a historical biography should be. McLynn has a keen eye not only for history, but for storytelling and the importance of artfulness in writing. He invites the reader into a world fully populated with colorful characters, endearing heroes, and detestable villains, and through their stories manages to enthrall, proving that, properly told, the true story can be better than fiction.
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