Henry and the Tides of Time

The latest blog post comes from Arendse Lund, a doctoral candidate at UCL, who will spend 6 months at Lambeth Palace Library cataloguing the legal manuscripts as part of a LAHP-funded project titled “Descriptive Variances in Lambeth Palace Library’s Law Manuscripts.”

Although the Anglo-Saxons didn’t leave many written histories behind, the Venerable Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, along with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, are rare exceptions. This deficit posed a problem to early scholars. But by the beginning of the 12th century, a retrospective writing of such historical accounts came into vogue. By that time, William of Malmesbury had finished both his Gesta regum Anglorum and Gesta Pontificum Anglorum. Eadmer of Canterbury had composed his Historia novorum, which subsequently became one of the sources for the Chronicon ex chronicis by John of Worcester. Simeon of Durham chronicled the continuity of the clerical community of Durham despite viking and Norman invasions in his Libellus; he also later wrote the Historia regum Anglorum et Dacorum. Suddenly England was rich with learned Latin chronicles detailing the history of the English.

Into this zeitgeist enters Henry of Huntingdon (c. 1088-1157), who begins writing his Historia Anglorum. Henry was a 12th-century English historian and the archdeacon of Huntingdon. While his greatest accomplishment was the writing of what was supposed to be a single book on the history of the English, it eventually spiralled into numerous volumes covering everything from the Roman invasion of England to the miracles of English saints and ending with an (incomplete) version of the reign of Stephen of Blois.

The incipit for Historia Anglorum (MS 118, f.1r)

Lambeth Palace Library has two early copies of the Historia Anglorum: MS 118 and MS 327. The first, MS 118, is a beautiful 12th-century copy written in a protogothic script on clean vellum in a neat two-column format with large margins on three sides. There are consistent incipits and explicits demarcating individual books within the manuscript, many of which are accompanied by rubrication and functional, but well-formed, initials.

The compilation of many later copies of the manuscript are based on this one. MS 118 is divided into 12 books; unlike other manuscripts, such as the British Library’s MS Arundel 48, there are nearly 11 folios consisting of the laws of Cnut inserted into the middle of the sixth book. The old epilogue of MS 118 functions as a new introduction to book eight and Henry further inputs three epistoles, noting in his typically understated manner that the epistoles’ inclusion at this point would be neither “useless” nor “disagreeable.”

In contrast to MS 118, MS 327 is a well-worn and frequently-used vellum copy of the text. The manuscript itself is from the late 12th or early 13th century and written in later protogothic script with a much more pointed hand. The scribe is much sloppier and there are frequent scribal and reader corrections throughout. There are irregular margins at the top, perhaps due to its rebinding, and the scribe slightly but consistently runs over the ruling lines into the right-hand margins.

There are several much later hands in evidence adding readers’ marks and context to the manuscript. A later reader added a list of the rulers of England up until Henry IV at the beginning of the manuscript. Then a 16th-century hand expanded the list to Elizabeth I with a notation that the she was still on the throne. Later, the 17th-century Archbishop Sancroft wrote in a title for the manuscript on the first folio. Another reader came through and drew crosses on multiple pages, added book numbers and now faded notes.

MS 118, f. 93r


The same excerpt in MS 327, f. 94r


Bishop Alexander of London (1123-48) requested that Henry write these chronicles and therefore Henry addresses his prologue to him. Writing in a high brow manner, Henry uses rhetorical flourishes and historical allusions to flaunt his learnedness and classical education. He quotes Horace as an example of the heroic men that history records, cites Moses, Oziah, and Miriam as teaching morals, and references Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica to show his involvement with sources from the not-too-distant Anglo-Saxon past.

Henry also uses the prologue to pat himself on the back for committing to such an undertaking. He argues that it is the knowledge of past events that form the “main distinction between animals and rational creatures” and informs the reader that “there is nothing in this world more satisfying than to clearly tell the history of people.” In an obsequious manner, he declares that he writes this history in obedience to Alexander’s commands and rains praises upon the prelate. In the main body of the Historia Anglorum itself, Henry retreats behind the chroniclers and sources he invokes in compiling this massive history; his prologue becomes his chance to front his own involvement. Considering how incredibly time-consuming the Historia Anglorum turned out to be — unsatisfied and adding additional sections, Henry worked on it for the rest of his life — let’s give him credit where credit is due.

King Cnut commands the waves to halt their advances (MS 118, f. 105r)

Henry’s work is organized around a simple theory: There have been five large invasions of England and each was a punishment from God for the sinfulness of the people. These five invasions are: 1) the Romans, 2) the Picts and the Scots, 3) the Angles and the Saxons, 4) the vikings, and finally 5) the Normans. Henry draws on both Old English and Latin sources to describe each of these invasions and the subsequent effects upon the island and its people.

Alongside translations of Old English sources, Henry works in several entertaining stories, although of uncertain origin. Henry tells how the Danish King Cnut (r. 1016-1035) wins the English throne, marries King Æthelred’s widow, conquers Norway, makes a pilgrimage to Rome, and dies in 1035 at Shaftesbury. This leads up to probably the most well-known story Henry records — that of King Cnut and the tide. As Henry tells it, at the height of Cnut’s power, the king goes to the seashore and commands the incoming tide to halt. He orders the tide to wet neither his feet nor his robe, announcing that as he is the master of the land, so must the tide listen to him. Unsurprisingly, the tide continues to rise regardless. Cnut decrees that the power of kings is limited; after all, the earth, sea, and heaven only obey divine law. Henry lauds Cnut and remarks that “there was never so great a king of England.”

Henry uses this scene to depict the wisdom and humility of Cnut, demonstrated through the king’s understanding of the futility of commanding nature. The story has been since distorted in retellings to falsely represent the naivety of Cnut in attempting to control nature. However, this contorted reading has turned Cnut’s humility into a show of pride. The noble king from Henry’s version has become a vain and foolish monarch and, as such, the story has experienced a great and lasting success as a memorable anecdote.

A library stamp on the final folio under a reader’s later notes on the text (MS 118, f. 206v)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s