Monday 8th October was the opening night of Henry II, the last in a cycle of three new plays about Reading Abbey and the dynasty who founded it, each focusing on a key historical figure: King Henry I, his daughter the Empress Matilda, and his grandson Henry II. The plays were commissioned from playwright Beth Flintoff, and produced by the enterprising Reading-based theatre company, Reading Between the Lines, with support from the Arts Council. The plays have been hugely successful, playing to packed and enthusiastic houses and receiving excellent reviews. The second play, Matilda the Empress, was voted one of the top new plays in Britain in 2017 in The Guardian’s annual poll.
I have been involved as historical advisor since the start of the cycle. I’ve provided contextualising notes for the programmes, talked about the historical context at public previews for the plays, done interviews about the plays on local radio, and took part in a programme for BBC Berkshire about Henry I, the founding of Reading Abbey, and the first play in the series. It has been a huge pleasure and enormous fun to work with such a brilliantly talented theatre group.
Second-year undergraduate students, taking the course that I run on public history, have also worked with the theatre company on the plays. Some of them contributed to the background research (and were shocked to discover that elite medieval men greeted each other with a smacking kiss on the lips). Others assessed audience reactions to the plays, and explored strategies for reaching even wider audiences. Dani and Toby Davies, who run Reading Between the Lines, have been very generous with the time they have spent talking with the students, and this has been a very fruitful collaboration.
The first two plays in the Reading Abbey cycle dealt with dark matters. Henry I founded Reading Abbey in despair at the deaths of his admired (if not, perhaps, loved) wife, and then of his only son and heir in a shipwreck. Henry was the youngest son of William the Conqueror, and his route to the throne involved the violent death of one brother, William Rufus (shot while hunting in the New Forest), and the defeat and imprisonment of another.
In his determination to impose his rule on England and Normandy, Henry himself was capable of acts of extreme violence, on one occasion blinding and mutilating the two daughters of one of his own illegitimate daughters. The play explored Henry’s need for redemption, as well as his grief, as the motivation for the founding of the abbey where he himself would be buried.
The second play worked through the implications of the loss of Henry’s male heir, and his determination to ensure that his daughter inherited the English throne, which resulted in a civil war known as ‘the anarchy’. Matilda was first married to the Emperor Henry V, and proved an effective consort and regent for her husband. After his death, Matilda married count Geoffrey of Anjou, but that was not a happy relationship. Matilda never called herself countess of Anjou: always Matilda the Empress.
Her attempts to seize (or reclaim) the English throne from her cousin and rival, Stephen of Blois, revealed the problems for women who have or want power – problems which have not vanished, as present commentary on Hilary Clinton and Theresa May suggests. Matilda was seen by many as an arrogant virago, when she must have felt she was merely trying to emulate her father’s approach to ruling. Matilda never secured the throne for herself, but she did arrange for her son to inherit as Henry II. The play ends with Matilda meeting exhausted refugees from fierce fighting around Reading, bringing home the destruction that the war for the throne wrought on the lives of ordinary people – among them a mason working on the construction of Reading Abbey.
The final play, by contrast, is lighter in tone, set in the peace following the end of these conflicts. It is almost a romantic comedy of courtly manners – some, as contemporary chroniclers and household accounts show, robustly scatological. It revolves around the consecration of Reading Abbey in 1164, at a time when Henry II and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, were still enamoured of each other, long before she betrayed him and sided with their sons in revolt in 1173. However, this was precisely the stage at which Henry’s conflict with his advisor Thomas Becket reached boiling point – and it was Becket who, as archbishop of Canterbury, would consecrate the great new Abbey Church in which Henry II’s grandfather lay buried.
The Empress Matilda would die three years later, but at that moment in 1164 many thought that she would have the wisdom to reconcile the two men. To add to the family entertainment, Beth Flintoff has introduced Queen Eleanor’s daughter from her previous marriage, Marie of France, soon to be married to the count of Champagne, who has turned up at the consecration of Reading Abbey disguised as a female troubadour… After all, this is a play, not a history lecture, and ‘what if’ is legitimately the order of the day. The historical advisor advises, but then enjoys the fantasies and fictions!