In the year 1153, the disastrous Civil War in England ended and its causes resolved. Since 1135, with the death of King Henry I, the realm was split over the succession. Henry I, descendant of William the Conqueror, had foreseen the need for a peaceful transition and had all his barons swear to uphold his designated heir, Empress Mathilde, is only living, legitimate heir. However, once Henry I was dead, Stephen, from a collateral branch of the family, claimed the crown and received the backing of most of the barons. Throughout his reign, King Stephen battled against the forces of Empress Mathilde, as she attempted to claim her crown. From 1147, her son, Henry Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, fought on her behalf. In 1153, King Stephen recognized Henry, Mathilde’s son, as his heir.
It was a nice compromise: Henry was Mathilde’s son, thus a descendant of William the Conqueror; through his grandmother, he was descended from an Anglo-Saxon line. Theoretically at least, there was something for everyone in his ascendancy. In a year’s time, King Stephen would be dead and Henry, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, would be crowned Henry II of England. Henry would be known for his bureaucratic organization, his good system of legislation and judicial exercise; he’d also be known for erratic behavior, disastrous family feuds (which were inevitably dynastic feuds) and the murder of Thomas a Becket. Most of that lay beyond Ailred’s lifetime. However, Henry of Anjou was already married to Eleanor of Acquitaine, the richest heiress of France whose Duchy was the lion’s share of France. She had also been Queen of France but was divorced from King Louis VII and married Henry of Anjou, a man noticeably younger than herself. When she remarried, she brought the Duchy of Acquitaine with her from under the French crown, to that of England. Her second husband, as Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, effectively subtracted that land, too from the control of Louis VII. None of these details, already in place, figure into the cover letter Ailred composed to praise Henry, presenting to him his historical works, the Lament for King David (of Scotland) and the Genealogy of the Kings of England, in 1153.
Those who live under governing monarchies have to trust in the stability of the institution to insure their basic human rights, security and prosperity. The course of governments is rarely that smooth and each new monarch is looked at with hope. A laudatory letter to an heir will not only accentuate the positive, but in doing so, remind the future monarch of the hopes of his future subjects and the virtues he should put in practice. Certainly, there’s a degree of flattery in Ailred’s letter to Henry of Anjou, but not just that; there’s also hope that things can go better and should. The historical works give the future king models of good and wise government and fear of God as well as bad examples to avoid.
Ailred would not be the first monk to write a history. The most commonly known is probably Bede’s Ecclesiastical History; it is a narrative of the Anglo-Saxon Church. It is also a theology of history through the narratives of royal genealogies, dynastic changes, kingly deeds, wars, battles and invasions. Ailred’s historical works are a lot less ambitious and less “religious” (though the ecclesial perspective and religious vocabulary are always present) and ceratinly reflect his background in the royal court. He seems to have enjoyed writing these works and would also write a history of Edward the Confessor, of Saint Ninian and of the relics of Northumbria. Modern readers seem much less interested in reading these works that Spiritual Friendship or The Mirror of Charity.
His Lament for King David considers a monarch he knew and served and admired; yet his portrait, while flattering, also points up criticism. His Genealogy is well-informed for the times–he seems to have studied The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle–and traces the English royal line back to Adam, even through the northern God Woden (understand as an outstandingly able human being, Noah’s grandson through Shem, mistaken in memory for a god). We might find these narratives quaint, even naif; Ailred took them quite seriously for kingship was sacred, even sacramental. And among all his duties, he took the time and effort to compose these works.