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Writing History for the King

Henry II and the Politics of Vernacular Historiography

by Charity Urbanski

Publication Year: 2013

Writing History for the King is at once a reassessment of the reign of Henry II of England (1133–1189) and an original contribution to our understanding of the rise of vernacular historiography in the high Middle Ages. Charity Urbanski focuses on two dynastic histories commissioned by Henry: Wace's Roman de Rou (c. 1160–1174) and Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s Chronique des ducs de Normandie (c. 1174–1189). In both cases, Henry adopted the new genre of vernacular historical writing in Old French verse in an effort to disseminate a royalist version of the past that would help secure a grip on power for himself and his children. Wace was the first to be commissioned, but in 1174 the king abruptly fired him, turning the task over to Benoît de Sainte-Maure.

Urbanski examines these histories as part of a single enterprise intended to cement the king’s authority by enhancing the prestige of Henry II’s dynasty. In a close reading of Wace’s Rou, she shows that it presented a less than flattering picture of Henry’s predecessors, in effect challenging his policies and casting a shadow over the legitimacy of his rule. Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s Chronique, in contrast, mounted a staunchly royalist defense of Anglo-Norman kingship. Urbanski reads both works in the context of Henry’s reign, arguing that as part of his drive to curb baronial power he sought a history that would memorialize his dynasty and solidify its claim to England and Normandy.

Published by: Cornell University Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xi-xii


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pp. xiii-xiv


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pp. xv-xviii

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pp. 1-7

Sometime around 1160, a Norman cleric named Wace began a history of the Norman dukes and kings of En gland at the behest of Henry II of En gland (r. 1154– 89). Wace had come to Henry’s attention after dedicating an earlier work, the Roman de Brut, to Henry’s queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Adapting material from various Latin histories, Wace...

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1. Situating the Roman de Rou and Chroniquedes ducs de Normandie

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pp. 8-37

For much of the Middle Ages there was a division between spoken and written language in Western Eu rope. Latin, which had been adopted by the early Christian church, continued to be used as the written language of much of Eu rope and the lingua franca of the Catholic Church long after it had ceased to be spoken as a native tongue. Literacy...

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2. Henry II

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pp. 38-82

Henry fi tzEmpress arrived in En gland in December of 1154 to claim the throne of a kingdom that had been ruled by his mother’s family for almost a century.1 At the age of twenty- one, Henry was already duke of Normandy, duke of Aquitaine, and count of Anjou. His father, Geoffrey the Fair of Anjou, had turned the duchy of Normandy over...

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3. The Roman de Rou

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pp. 83-147

Around 1160, Henry II commissioned Wace, a clerc lisant born on the Norman island of Jersey and living in the Bessin, to produce the first vernacular history of his maternal ancestors, the Norman dukes and kings of England.1 Wace had recently finished another vernacular history, the Roman de Brut. Based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s...

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4. The Chronique des ducs de Normandie

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pp. 148-206

Sometime around 1174, Henry II transferred the commission for a history of his Norman ancestors from Wace to Benoît de Sainte- Maure.1 Obviously dissatisfied with the history that Wace had taken almost fifteen years to produce, yet equally unwilling to abandon the project, Henry appears to have searched for a more amenable author. In...

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pp. 207-216

Since there were already perfectly good Latin histories of his Norman ancestors that would have served Henry II’s purposes (Robert de Torigny’s F redaction of the Gesta Normannorum ducum would have done an excellent job), and neither Wace nor Benoît significantly extended the material covered by their Latin sources, Henry II must...


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pp. 217-240


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pp. 241-252

E-ISBN-13: 9780801469725
E-ISBN-10: 0801469724
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801451317
Print-ISBN-10: 0801451310

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: 1

OCLC Number: 862209045
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Writing History for the King

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Great Britain -- History -- Norman period, 1066-1154 -- Historiography.
  • Great Britain -- History -- Angevin period, 1154-1216 -- Historiography.
  • Henry II, King of England, 1133-1189.
  • Normandy, Dukes of.
  • Normandy (France) -- Historiography.
  • Wace, approximately 1100-approximately 1175. Roman de Rou.
  • Benoît, de Sainte-More, active 12th century. Chronique des ducs de Normandie.
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