Henry of Huntingdon

Henry of Huntingdon
(ca. 1084–1155)
   Henry was the archdeacon of Huntingdon who, at the request of Alexander, bishop of Lincoln, composed a history of the English people from early Anglo-Saxon times through the accession of King HENRY II in 1154. His Historia Anglorum (History of the English People) first ran up to the year 1129, but its popularity was such that Henry revised the text three more times before his death, ending his final version with the end of Stephen’s reign in 1154. He seems to have died about 1155, when a new archdeacon was appointed.
   Henry was probably born near Ramsey in Huntingdonshire sometime before 1085. His father, Nicholas, was himself archdeacon of Huntingdon. Henry may have been educated in the household of Robert Bloet, bishop of Lincoln from 1093–1123. Upon the death of Nicholas in 1110, Bishop Bloet appointed Henry to his father’s post as archdeacon, a fact that suggests Henry was already a priest by this time. It should be noted that clerical celibacy was not enforced in England prior to the early 12th century, so that Henry’s inheriting his father’s position as archdeacon was not particularly unusual. Henry was apparently married himself, and his son Aristotle also became a cleric. In his Historia, Henry derides the English church councils of his time that sought to ban clerical marriage.
   It was Bishop Bloet’s successor, after 1123, who asked Henry to write his Historia. The only other recorded fact of Henry’s life concerns his trip to Rome with Archbishop Theobald, undertaken in 1139. Stopping at the Abbey of Bec en route to the papal city,Henry became acquainted with the Norman historian Robert of Torigni, who at the time was in charge of the abbey’s large manuscript collection. Robert apparently showed Henry a new Latin history by GEOFFREY OFMONMOUTH, the HISTORIA REGUM BRITANNIAE (History of the Kings of Britain), with its elaborate treatment of the King ARTHUR legend as “history.” In a letter written to a Briton friend named Warinus, Henry summarizes Geoffrey’s text, and includes in his summary a number of details about Arthur’s last battle that are not in any extant manuscripts of Geoffrey’s Historia. Henry adds, as well, a note about how the Bretons claim that Arthur is not dead, and are waiting for his return.
   In his own Historia, Henry relied particularly on BEDE and the ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE for the earlier sections, and seems also to have been familiar with the work ofWILLIAM OFMALMESBURY. Thus Henry’s history, up until the year 1126, is of little independent value. However, the material after that date, for the last part of the reign of King Henry I and for all of King Stephen’s reign, in Henry’s Historia is a valuable contemporary account. There are, however, some difficulties with the text. For one thing, Henry had a tendency to change his opinions of people as he wrote subsequent revisions of his text, so that in his earliest characterization of Henry I, for instance, he condemns the king for cruelty, lust, and avarice, but in a later revision, he omits his criticism, except to say that the king needed money in order to govern effectively. Another difficulty is that Henry’s often entertaining anecdotes are generally untrustworthy as historical fact, even though many of them are quite memorable, such as the story of how Henry I died when he refused to listen to his doctor’s warning against eating lampreys. A third aspect of the Historia that might affect its reliability is Henry’s tendency to use events as opportunities to moralize, particularly about the downfall of the rich and powerful as examples of the vanity of worldly success. Henry is the author of a number of other works, including the gloomy and moralistic Epistola ad Walterum de contemptu mundi (Letter to Walter on contempt for the world) and eight volumes of epigrams in Latin. But by far his most important work is his English history.
   ■ Henry of Huntingdon. Epistola ad Warinum, in Chronicles of the Reigns of Stephen, Henry II, and Richard I, edited by Richard Howlett. London: Longman, 1885.
   ■ ———.Historia Anglorum: The History of the English People. Edited and translated by Diana Greenway. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
   ■ ———.The History of the English People, 10001154. Translated from the Latin, with an introduction and notes by Diana Greenway. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
   ■ Partner, Nancy F. Serious Entertainments: The Writing of History in Twelfth-Century England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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