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Henry II certainly in the last few years (the Anouilh play with its lustful, loutish king; the film; and most recently Thomas) has been subsidiary to Becket ""for long Christendom's most popular saint,"" and, with the exception of one biography (ignored in the long bibliography here), J. T. Appleby's in 1962, neglected. Barber's unconditionally reasonable and considered portrait, while perhaps making no greater concession to the general reader, is a work of scholarly substance and makes full restitution to Henry as a man and as a monarch. Frugal, determined, decisively energetic (""moving in intolerable stages like a courier""), literate in a country which was only nascently intellectual, Henry quickly re-established order in a land spoliated by wars and the barons, stabilizing and centralizing authority, extending its power and prestige abroad. One failure, the attempt to make Becket his primate in order to ensure control over the Church, led to the long struggle which, once enjoined, ended only many years later; a second, to control his sons, led to the last years of conspiracy against him so that when he died, his last words were to be ""Shame, shame on a conquered king."" Still the final triumph is really Henry's--as he emerges here--an absolute king who used power well and in the interest of his people, and Mr. Barber's biography serves him well.

Publisher: Roy