Gerald of Wales: The Conquest of Ireland
Book I, Chapter 46: Description of Henry II, king of the English
I have considered it not unworthy to depict for posterity the true nature of the king,
the quality of the interior man as much as the exterior; so that whoever in time to come
will be eager to hear about the notable deeds of this king, may have his entire image as
well as his face before their eyes. For the present history must not permit such a noble
man of our times to perish with his passing: nevertheless, with pardon having been
obtained of speaking the truth, short of which all history merits neither authority, nor
even the name of history. For truly the painter, whose job it is to imitate nature by art,
loses authority, if while he diligently exposes appropriate things, he passes over the
less suitable out of respect. Whence and because, "no one is born without flaws; the
best is he who is moved by the fewest," the wise man thinks nothing human foreign to
himself. For always in mundane matters, because no fortune under heaven is perfect, and
evil things are next to good, and vices are separated by virtues. As therefore good things
either of nature or of industry delight the well arranged mind once heard, thus those
things contrary to the good should not offend once recited. But because, according to that
philosopher, "It is proper to honor power with service, not to exasperate with
words;" and the comic writer, "Obsequy makes friends, truth makes hatred";
no doubt it is a fearful thing to allege anything whatsoever on occasion against that one
who can retaliate; a hard labor, and perilous more than profitable to take the opportunity
to describe in many words that one who can punish with one word. It would surely be
obliging, and surpassing our men by far, not to suppress the truth in every matter, and
nevertheless in no way exasperate the spirit of a prince.
Thus, Henry II, king of the English, was a man of ruddy complexion, dark, with a large
round head, gray eyes fierce in anger and suffused with blood, fiery mien, harsh voice,
neck bent toward the shoulders a little, broad chest, strong arms, fleshy body by flaw of
nature rather than by appetite . . . . For truly he was modest in eating and drinking,
even temperate, and so far as possible for a prince, he was given to parsimony in all
things. And so that he might repress or mitigate this injury of nature with exercise, and
relieve the flaw of flesh and spirit with virtue, devoting himself to constant war as it
were with his belly, he tormented his body with immoderate distress. For in times of war,
which frequently threatened, he scarcely gave himself any rest at all to deal with other
matters needing to be done, and also in time of peace, he allowed himself neither quiet
nor rest. For given too much to hunting, mounted on a swift horse at the crack of dawn,
now traversing the forest, now penetrating the woods, now climbing the backs of hills, he
used to spend restless days: in the evening, having returned home, either before dinner or
after, very rarely would you catch sight of him sitting down. For after such weariness, he
would customarily exhaust the entire court by standing continually. But because "it
is especially useful in life that not to have much of anything," [Terence, Andria
1.I,34], no cure is too good, he had frequent swelling of shins and feet, made worse by
attack of blows of kicking horses, which accelerated his other inconveniences of the body;
and if nothing else, accelerated the mother, or surely handmaid, of all ills - old age.
In stature he was among the medium, which happened to none of his sons, both of the
elder exceeding the median a little, the two younger below when standing. The prince was
most eloquent when without disturbances of spirit and emotion of anger, and what is
conspicuous in these times, learned in letters. He was an affable man, flexible and
polite: and however he covered up within, absolutely second to none in courtesy. Truly the
prince was so remarkable in piety, so that whenever he conquered with arms, he himself
also was conquered by great piety. Strenuous in military affairs, but prudent in peace;
nevertheless always dreading the uncertain fate of wars in matters of warfare: and with
the greatest prudence, just as the comic poet says, attempting everything else before
arms. Lamenting those lost in fighting more than a prince usually does; and more humane
toward the dead soldier than the surviving; mourning the dead for a long time and with
great grief, than caring for the living with love.
In time of urgent troubles, no one was more benign; when security had been recovered,
no one was more stern. Fierce to the unruly, clement to the conquered. Harsh to his
household, generous to strangers. Bountiful in public, frugal in private. Whom once he
hated, with difficulty did he love; whom once he loved, with difficulty did he hate.
He delighted more than he should in many hunting birds, stooping in flight for prey,
and dogs, chasing wild beasts with sagacity of scent . . . If only he had been as
dedicated to his devotions as to hunting.
After the grave offenses of his sons against the father, at the instigation of their
mother, as they say, he was a flagrant violator of his his marriage vow. From a certain
natural inconstancy, he was a willful and frequent transgressor of his word. For often
when matters came to dire straits, he preferred to deviate from his word rather than from
his purpose, and to have his word more easily invalid than his deed. Indeed in everything
he did, he was an overseer prudent and moderate; so that despite this, he proved himself a
procrastinator of law and justice, the cure somewhat exceeding the illness; and not
without enormous burden to his people, a stubborn responder to everything. When justice,
which God sets forth for no price, was set forth for a price, though priceless, he
publicly turned all to his own profit and left many heirs of Gehazi [cf. II Kings 5:20-27]
in both church and state.
He was a most diligent author and observer of peace; incomparable giver of alms, and
well-known sustainer of the land of Palestine; lover of humility; oppressor of fame;
destroyer of pride; filling up the hungry with good things; and sending away the rich and
scattering the idle. [cf. Luke 1:53] "Exalting the meek; casting down the powerful
from their seat." Presuming many detestable usurpations of those things which are
Gods; and with zeal of justice, but not from wisdom, joining the rights of the
kingdom with the rights of the priesthood, displaying everything in himself alone.
He was a son of the church, having obtained the honor of the scepter from her, but was
either unmindful of or dissembling the benefit of sacramental anointing, applying scarcely
an hour to divine mass of the sacred host; and in that time itself, devoting himself more
to counsels and such conversations about the strength of the kingdom or to matters of
state, than to devotion. He sent the revenues of vacant churches into his personal
treasury; and as the whole may be spoiled by a little yeast, while the treasury received
what Christ claims for himself, always with new delays arising, he squandered the whole
treasure, giving to impious soldiers what ought to have been given to priests.
He planned many things with the greatest caution, arranging prudently many things;
which nevertheless, not according to his designs, seemed to turn often to the contrary.
Nor at any time did any great inconvenience emerge which did not begin from domestic
causes. The father loved the children of his legitimate line with natural affection, but
regarded them in their more advanced years disapprovingly, more like a step-father. And
although having such famous and illustrious sons, nevertheless, with a great impediment of
absolute happiness, always favored his heirs with dislike, which perhaps they deserved.
And because human prosperity can be neither permanent nor yet perfect, such was the
wonderful malice of fortune, whence he ought to have had joy (gaudium), thence he
had the sword (gladium), whence security (securitatem), thence the ax-blow (securim),
whence peace (pacem), thence plague (pestim), whence strength (fortitudinem),
thence ingratitude (ingratitudinem), whence quiet and tranquillity, seeing thence
the greatest tumult with restlessness. At last, it seemed to happen either from some flaw
of the marital bond, or from revenge for some crimes of the parent, that there was no true
peace, neither of the father with the sons, nor of the sons with the father, nor among the
At once, the pretenders to the kingdom and the disturbers of its peace having been
beaten down, the brothers and sons and also any strangers, domestic and foreign, for a
long time he enjoyed everything according to his wish. And if only he had recognized this
final divine favor to him, with worthy deeds of merit, even at the end.
Whomever even once he had seen carefully face to face, although finding himself in a
great multitude every day, never more did he hold him unfamiliar. Whatever he had heard at
any time in his memory, never could he let it fall from his mind. He had at hand prompt
notice of nearly all history, and experience of nearly everything. And let me conclude in
few words: had he been unto the end a chosen vessel for God, and turned himself to His
obedience, among the princes of the world he would have been incomparable by his many
endowments of nature.
Gerald of Wales: The Conquest of Ireland, Book I, Chapter 46: Description of
Henry II, king of the English
©1994, translated by Scott McLetchie. Permission granted for non-commercial
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© Paul Halsall, August 1998