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Posted by Dr. H. Koya
King Henry II: the Muslim monarch of medieval England?
In the 12th century, furious with the archbishop of Canterbury, England’s King Henry II threatened to forsake Christianity for Islam. But how serious was he? And what would have happened if he’d actually converted? Writing for BBC History Magazine, Claudia Gold investigates
In the spring of 1168, Henry II, King of England, wrote to Pope Alexander III. While correspondence between monarch and pontiff was a matter of course, this letter was notable for the menace it projected. For Henry was threatening to convert to Islam.
It was not unusual for Henry to issue threats: they were fundamental to his arsenal of kingship, as vital as his carefully calculated thunderous outbursts, his diplomacy, the legendary speed at which he drove his armies and his unsurpassable siege warfare in inspiring awe among his adversaries. Henry did not discriminate between the recipients of his threats, from the pope to the lowly electors of Winchester, whom he once ordered to “hold a free election” but forbade “to elect anyone but Richard my clerk”.
But this was of a different order altogether. Since 1097, European crusaders had been fighting the forces of Islam in the Middle East and tenaciously hanging on to their conquests: the kingdom of Jerusalem, the principality of Antioch, the counties of Edessa and Tripoli. Muslims were seen as Christendom’s enemies.
Moreover, Henry was not simply King of England: he was also the Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Maine, Anjou and Touraine, master of vast swathes of France. One of the world’s most powerful men, he held sway from the Scottish borders to the Middle East, where his uncles ruled the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem. If Henry was serious, the ramifications across 12th-century Europe would be seismic.
Could this, then, have been more than Henry’s characteristic bombast? Is it possible that he meant what he said?
Henry was familiar with Islam. He would have studied the works of Petrus Alfonsi, physician to his grandfather Henry I, who wrote the earliest credible account of Muhammad, as well as Peter the Venerable, who ordered the first translation of the Qur’an into Latin. Although he saw Islam as a heresy, Peter thought it the greatest of all heresies – the one that most deserved to be answered.
Alongside Islam, Henry also developed an admiration for Arabic learning from an early age. He had received an outstanding education from scholars versed in the ‘new’ knowledge that was exploding out of Sicily, Spain and the Middle East. Western Europe had never experienced such an intellectually exciting period as the 12th century – later dubbed the 12thcentury renaissance – fed by a rediscovery of the classical thinkers of Greece and Rome (particularly Christian Rome after Constantine’s conversion), and by contact with the Arab world and its rich intellectual tradition in astronomy, medicine, music, architecture and mathematics.
Henry’s parents – heeding the lesson from the monk William of Malmesbury that “a king without letters is [just] an ass with a crown” – had hired the best tutors in Europe. Among them was the renowned Arabist, linguist and scientist Adelard of Bath, who had a profound impact on Henry’s education. Adelard had travelled for seven years in Italy, Sicily, Antioch and the southern coast of what would become Turkey, dedicating himself to the ‘studies of the Arabs’. He was famed for his translations into Latin of Arabic treatises on astro nomy, and introducing Arabic innovations in mathematics into England and France. Adelard dedicated De opera astrolapsus – his work on the Arabic innovation of the astrolabe – to Henry.
Alongside Islam, Henry also developed an admiration for Arabic learning from an early age
Henry’s interest continued into adulthood. He welcomed travelling scholars, not least Arab ones, to his courts. He knew enough about Arabic learning to request specific texts from diplomats travelling to Sicily and the kingdom of Jerusalem. And Henry admired the Islamic arts so much that when he built a palace for his mistress Rosamund Clifford, at Woodstock, he mimicked the palaces of the Norman kingdom in Sicily, with fountains and courtyards. The palace was later destroyed but its style, abounding in Arabic motifs, was unique in northern Europe.