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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

IX. Latin Chroniclers from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Centuries

§ 7. Henry of Huntingdon

Of the early twelfth century chroniclers, Henry of Huntingdon enjoyed, for generations, a popular repute second only to that of William of Malmesbury. Modern criticism, however, has largely destroyed Henry’s claims to rank as a first-rate historical authority, and in neither style, accuracy, nor fulness of detail is he worthy of any serious comparison with William. Henry himself appears to have rated his powers at quite as high a value as William’s; for he prefaces his chronicle with a floridly rhetorical and ambitious disquisition upon the “prerogatives” of history. But he possessed neither the learning nor the patient industry of William, and his studied endeavours after rhetorical ornament only serve to accentuate his pretentiousness by the side of his great monastic compeer. Henry was a secular clerk, who lived under the patronage, first of Robert Bloet, bishop of Lincoln, and afterwards of his successor, Alexander of Blois. It was, as he tells us, by command of Alexander that he wrote his History of the English, and he probably compiled the greater part of it between 1125 and 1130. The work was dedicated to Alexander; and the prefatory letter ends, characteristically, with an invocation in verse both of the Divine blessing and of the approbation of his episcopal patron. The entire History, frequently revised and extended, ends with the year 1154. Its earlier portions are borrowed, with many embellishments, from Bede and the Old English Chronicle. In many places Henry simply translates from the old English annals, and among his translations is a metrical version, though much curtailed, of the famous song on The Battle of Brunanburh. Henry prided himself on his accomplishments in verse, and his History is decorated with many poetical passages. Of his work, as a whole, the best that can be said is that it shows some sense of design, and of proportion in its execution; he treats of the history of England up to his time as dividing itself naturally into the four periods of the Roman, the Saxon, the Danish and the Norman occupations. It is when he comes to deal with the Norman dominion and especially with the events of his own time, that he is most disappointing. At the beginning of the seventh book he states that, after having so far relied upon either “ancient writers or common report,” he is about to “deal with events which have passed under” his “own observation, or have been told to” him “by eye-witnesses.” Neither in the seventh nor in the eighth book do we find much to justify the expectation thus raised. Henry was a facile writer, but a perfunctory historian. “He was ambitious, but not laborious; literary, but not exact; intelligent, but not penetrating. He formed large projects, but was too indolent to execute them satisfactorily.” Henry’s rhetorical pages are brought to an appropriate close with a glowing peroration, in verse, celebrating the accession of King Henry II. What appears to have been at one time intended to stand as the eighth book of the History is a treatise On the Contempt of the World—a letter, addressed to a friend named Walter, upon the fortunes of “the bishops and the illustrious men of his age.” This work, both the title and the motive of which remind us of more imposing literary achievements by greater men, contains many vivid portraits of Henry of Huntingdon’s famous contemporaries.