Heroes: Part deux (or possibly Trois)

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(We’ll get to Alan Rickman later on…he is relevant, I promise…)

 Somewhere in the annals of this mixture of history, mystery and blatant self-promotion is a post about a hero – Captain Lawrence Oates, to be precise. I’d link to it but I still haven’t worked out how to do that. Elsewhere there’s a post about an early crush of mine, Marcus Aquila, hero of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s iconic novel, The Eagle of the Ninth.

I meant to write about more of my fictional and historical heroes and was all set to do a post about the most important one of all, when blow me down! They went and dug him up! Yup, along with hundreds of thousands of other people who read Josephine Tey’s (also iconic) detective story, The Daughter of Time, I fell in love with Richard III and have never been persuaded that he killed the princes. Don’t get me wrong, he was a general at the age of eighteen and I’m sure he killed lots of people, it was a bloodthirsty time, but Tey’s argument is that Richard was a sensible and practical man and that killing the boys would be contrary to his character – and not at all sensible.

 Anyhoo, I’m not here today to witter on about Richard, I have his picture on my landing and it’s been there for more than thirty years, so he knows whose side I’m on. No, today I’m going to write about a man who has been on the periphery of my hero worship, so to speak, for a long while and it’s time I took a look at him properly.

 I’m talking about Henry of Blois. There, you knew that, didn’t you? No, I hadn’t heard of him either until I began to read Ellis Peter’s famous series about Brother Cadfael, which is set in the English Civil War (that’s the first one; we’ve had two officially and lots more equally bloody ones that didn’t qualify for the official title).

 The thing about the Cadfael books is that they’re set in the 1130s-40s which is The Anarchy, so-called, ‘when God and His Saints slept’ and the Civil War raged across the land. Here’s the potted history: The problem was that when William the Conqueror’s son King Henry I died, his only heir was his daughter Matilda (sometimes known as Maud). Shock! Horror! A woman couldn’t possibly rule England, especially as it was less than seventy years since the Battle of Hastings and although the Normans had a firm grip on the country, it could still all go pear-shaped. And everyone knew women’s brains would boil if they had to think about anything serious. Step forward Stephen of Blois, nephew to King Henry, handsome hunk, all round good egg, and – most importantly – a chap. And right behind him was his younger brother Henry, the subject of this post. Henry of Blois, the Prince Bishop of Winchester, grandson of the Conqueror as was his brother the new king, and I suspect the one who inherited his grandpapa’s brains.

 Now, I wouldn’t want you to think I know anything at all about this, by the way, it’s all gleaned from the Cadfael books and Wikipedia, but all the evidence shows that Henry was intelligent, cunning and political – for a start he survived until he was in his early seventies, which was no mean feat in those days. This is what Wikipedia says about him: As Papal Legate (and Bishop of Winchester), Henry of Blois was the most powerful, and possibly the wealthiest, man in England when his brother was unavailable.Before and after his elevation to Bishop, Henry of Blois was an advisor to his brother Stephen and survived him. He engineered hundreds of projects, including villages and canals, abbeys and smaller churches. He was most proud of his contributions to the greatest developments at Glastonbury Abbey long before the destructive fire of 1185. Unlike most bishops of his age, Henry had a passion for architecture. He built the final additions to Winchester Cathedral and Wolvesey Castle in Winchester, including a tourist tunnel under the cathedral to make it easier for pilgrims to view relics. He also designed and built additions to many palaces and large houses including the castle of Farnham, Surrey[5] and began the construction of the Hospital of St Cross at Winchester. In London he built Winchester Palace as a residence for the bishops of Winchester.

Are you keeping up? Not only was he a millionaire and a power in the land, he was a sensitive soul: Henry was also enamoured of books and their distribution. He wrote or sponsored several books including the Antiquities of Glastonbury, by William of Malmesbury, his close personal friend. He sponsored the Winchester Bible, the largest illustrated Bible ever produced. It is a huge folio edition standing nearly three feet in height. This Bible is still on display at Winchester, although it was never fully finished. His production of the Winchester Psalter, also known as the Blois Psalter, is preserved in the British Library and is considered a British National Treasure.

See? Definite hero material and modest with it, William of Malmesbury described him, saying, “Yet, in spite of his noble birth he blushes when praised.”

The reason I’m taking an interest in him is that I’ve recently had a poke around his Winchester home, Wolvesey Castle, http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/wolvesey-castle-old-bishops-palace/  It’s free to wander about in and is close to the Cathedral and the heart of old Winchester, definitely worth a visit.

Henry blotted his copybook by going over to the other side but took against his cousin Matilda, considering her arrogant and greedy so he switched sides again – and seems to have got away with it, which argues considerable charm and cunning! (Incidentally, Matilda was ‘allowed’ to be queen for a short time, crowned in Henry’s own cathedral of Winchester but sadly she got above herself and started behaving like a ‘She-King’! The nerve of the woman! So they did a deal so that Stephen was back on the throne but at his death the crown would pass to Matilda’s son, Henry of Anjou, who became Henry II of England – read all about him in the Ariana Franklin novels featuring her female doctor, Adelia Aguilar. And find out about Matilda in the excellent tv series, http://www.amazon.co.uk/She-Wolves-Englands-Early-Queens-DVD/dp/B008OH0OFW)

Anyway, back to Prince Henry. Being incurably frivolous and flighty I can’t help seeing him as Alan Rickman’s  wily, charming and incredibly sexy Sheriff of Nottingham to King Stephen’s blond, beefcake and slightly thick Robin Hood aka Kevin Costner. And because you can never have enough pics of Rickman in his prime, here he is again: alan rickman

And one small bit of promo – A Crowded Coffin is still on offer at the Amazon Kindle shop at the bargain price of 99p until 5th September. Tell your friends!

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6 thoughts on “Heroes: Part deux (or possibly Trois)

  1. I’ve just turned up a suggestion that Henry was the person who started off the hunt for the Holy Grail! http://www.thetemplebooklet.co.uk/AbbotHenrydeBloisOlsen.htm No end to his talents, is there! I think he’s too big a subject for me, but there’s a biography I’d like to read but it’s a tad pricey. Wonder if it’ll come out in Kindle form? http://www.amazon.co.uk/Henry-Blois-Twelfth-Century-Renaissance/dp/1607497530/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1378145229&sr=1-1&keywords=henry+of+blois

  2. I really enjoyed this post, Nicola [and not just for the pics of Alan Rickman]. The saga of Stephen and Matilda has always interested me, and even if you shun me for evermore, I have to state that I am a Matildaite. When I was 7, I had a lovely book of ‘Kings and queens of England’. It had landscape style pages, one of the story of that monarch and on the facing page a picture to do with that reign. Poor Matilda was shown escaping through the snow, in her red cloak. It didn’t seem FAIR. And even if it were dramatised with Alan Rickman [or a whole host of Friday Night Specials], I’d be loyal.

      • You certainly make Prince Henry sound fascinating – is there a story forming in your head about him? We all have our special people in history. One of mine is Ottoman Sultan Selim iii but I’ll restrain myself as he’s so far removed from Henry of Blois. Sometimes I think about one of those dinner parties with all one’s favourite people from history…I’d add Henry to my guest list now.

  3. That’s nice to hear, Jan, thank you. As for Alan Rickman, it’s the Voice that gets me (and a few million other women! ( Dan Stevens of Downton is another who does have the most gorgeous voice!)

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