King Henry II – Plantagenet King of England

King Henry II was the first in a long line of Plantagenet kings of England. Also known as Henry Plantagenet, Curtmantle or FitzEmpress, Henry was the son of Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou, and grandson of King Henry I. He grew to be a charismatic, intelligent man, who could speak many languages, which proved useful when communicating across his multi-lingual territories as king.

However, Henry II was also renowned for his fiery temper, and extreme outbursts of anger. Perhaps this aggressive temperament made the king successful in controlling his vast Angevin lands, while also making peace after years of civil war left by King Stephen.

King Henry II and the Angevin Empire

The Angevin Empire was not really an Empire. It wasn’t like the Holy Roman Empire, and some argue that King Henry II’s lands were not centralised, powerful or large enough to be a proper empire. Still, the territories Henry ruled were indeed vast, ranging from Scotland down to the South of France, and was the largest ’empire’ in Western Europe.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

King Henry II already ruled lands in France as Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Count of Maine and Count of Nantes. Henry’s territory and power was soon increased again, with a marriage to a formidable wife to be.

Eleanor or Aquitaine

The King of France, Louis VII, annulled his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, as no male heir could be produced. Henry and Eleanor married the same year, expanding Henry’s territory further. So much so in fact, that Henry ruled more land than his overlord, Louis VII of France!

Eleanor of Aquitaine was a powerful woman, and one of the wealthiest women in Europe. She inherited the Duchy of Aquitaine from her father, William X, in 1137. Later on in her marriage to King Henry II, she would prove to be a force to be reckoned with, and would not take second place to any mistresses of the king!

Accession to the English Throne

In 1153, Henry invaded England with a small army, and with gathering Angevin support he tried to conquer the north of England. However, a truce was formed with King Stephen much to the outrage of Eustace, Stephen’s son. Shortly after, Eustace died suddenly and Stephen had no choice but to accept Henry’s accession to the throne of England. King Henry II now ruled over England and most of France.

King Henry II the Castle Breaker

The first agenda on Henry’s list as king, was to re-establish royal authority and complete dominance, over the powerful Anglo-Norman barons. These barons had been doing as the please, pretty much, during King Stephen’s reign and the Anarchy civil war. Creating their own realms within the kingdom, and ruling as they please. This, in the eyes of King Henry II, had to be stopped. Henry set about destroying all unlicensed castles across England, tearing down and slighting so many, that the king would become known as the ‘Castle Breaker’.

The next task on his list, was to regain his lost territories in Northumbria and Cumbria, from Malcolm IV of Scotland; and secure vassalage from the princes in Wales. These were successful campaigns, and a few years after King Henry II’s accession to throne, England was stable. Henry could now afford to travel extensively throughout his territories in England and France, spending most of his time in the latter. His lands would flourish under his control, and Henry was secure in the knowledge that he had the backing of Pope Adrian IV (an Englishman, born Nicholas Breakspear), who fully recognised Henry’s kingship and his authority over Ireland.

King Henry II establishes Assizes of Clarendon and Northampton

Lawlessness and land ownership entitlement was a big problem during this time, and something that needed controlling. Land owners leaving the country for extended periods on Crusades, would return to find squatters taking up home in their castles and houses. Mercenaries left over from the civil war, who no longer had lords to pay them, would begin spates of robbery and violence.

In 1166, King Henry II set about to improve procedures relating to common law, in the Assize of Clarendon, to address these issues. At the royal hunting lodge of Clarendon, Henry and his lords established the first trial by jury, consisting of 12 men in each hundred and 4 men in each township. The jury would be responsible for naming any criminal suspected of serious crimes in their area, including robbery and murder. Usually amputating a foot was the punishment, however execution was also used for more serious crimes. However, this led to some miscarriages of justice, where accusers would wrongly accuse defendants of crimes they perhaps did not commit.

In 1176, the assizes were updated with the Assize of Northampton. Forgery, counterfeiting and arson where now included in the list of crimes, and punishment could be the amputation of a hand too. Furthermore, the Assize of Northampton appointed six groups of justices to tour the country. Their role was to uphold the rights of land owners, making the possession of land guaranteed by law. This allowed judges to recover lost lands for their returning true owners. These assizes managed to transfer power from local barons to the royal court and judges.

King Henry II and the Murder of Thomas Becket

King Henry II was growing increasingly concerned over the Church’s power and dominance. Henry, who was renowned for his ability to control and establish order under his command, found that he could not do so with the Church, and in particular his once friend, Thomas Becket. Thomas Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury, and held significant power.

Henry, who was cracking down on lawlessness, had delivered the Constitutions of Clarendon to the church, for them to sign and approve. The Constitution was an attempt to curb the Church’s power and the extent of Papal authority in England. Restoring the judicial systems back to the royal court, just as they were during the reign of Henry’s grandfather, King Henry I. One of the laws in the Constitution was that all priests would have to be tried in a royal court, under a royal judge, if they had committed a crime. Before this law, they would have been tried by a bishop instead.

Thomas Becket refused to accept and sign this new law. King Henry II was outraged, and a heated argument followed at the great council in Northampton Castle, in 1164.  Thomas Becket and his family were forced into exile, and fled England, remaining in exile for six years. During the six years, the Pope acted as an intermediary between King Henry II and Thomas Becket. Becket, at one point, threatened to excommunicate England, but the Pope voted for a more diplomatic solution.

Thomas Becket in Exile

In 1170, Henry eventually compromised, and allowed Thomas Becket to return to England. However, in June that year, more trouble would follow. The Archbishop of York, the Bishop of London and the Bishop of Salisbury crowned King Henry II’s son, Henry the younger, as heir apparent. Thomas Becket found this a breach of Canterbury’s privilege of coronation and excommunicated all the Bishops. Upon hearing this news, King Henry II flew into another rage, and uttered:

Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?

Thomas Becket

Four of Henry’s loyal knights, William de Tracy, Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Morville, and Richard le Breton interpreted this as a royal command, and set out to find Thomas Becket. Becket was found in Canterbury Cathedral in December 1170, and was almost expecting the knights as they arrived. They surrounded Becket, and brought down blow after blow of heavy swords onto Becket’s head and torso, splitting his head wide open and apparently spilling is brains out across the stone floor.

News of Thomas Becket’s death spread quickly, and was widely condemned. King Henry II was devastated by this death, and could not believe that his words uttered on that fateful night, would result in the Archbishop’s murder. Thomas Becket was later canonised a saint and martyr, in 1173, by Pope Alexander III, and in 1174, Henry paid penance by entering Canterbury Cathedral in bare feet, and knelt before Becket’s tomb. He was then flogged by the priests in further penance.

King Henry II and his Family Rebellion

King Henry II had already confirmed Henry the younger, his oldest son, as heir, who would inherit Anjou and Normandy (His first son, William had died at a young age of a seizure). Richard, Henry’s third son, would inherit Aquitaine; Geoffrey, Henry’s fourth son, would inherit Brittany and John, Henry’s fifth son, would inherit Ireland. But frustrated by the lack of real power and authority, Henry’s sons were becoming rebellious and after Thomas Becket’s death, King Henry II’s powerful reign began to crumble around him.

Revolt of 1173–74

Henry’s wife Eleanor of Aquitaine was growing resentful about Henry’s passion for mistresses. A powerful woman, Eleanor plotted to overthrow Henry while visiting Poitiers, and to advance her favourite son’s (Richard) ambitions.

In 1173, Henry the younger, Richard and Geoffrey rebelled against Henry II, encouraged by Eleanor. They first invaded Normandy, along with the Bretons from Brittany and the King of France, who were appalled at the murder of Thomas Becket. But ultimately the rebellion failed and was quashed by Henry. Further rebellions continued in the North of England, while Nottingham and Norfolk were burned.

King Henry II, who was dealing with the Normandy rebellion, returned to England to address the uprisings there. Local royalists managed to surprise and capture the Scottish rebel king, William the Lion, and soon after, the rebellion was crushed. Henry’s sons then swore allegiance back to their father once more, as their lord and king. Queen Eleanor was placed under house arrest. Only John, Henry’s youngest son, appeared to remain loyal to Henry through this time.

In the summer of 1183, Henry the younger contracted dysentery and later died of fever, aged 28. As he was dying, Henry gave penance for his rebellion against his father, and wished to be reconciled with him. Upon his death, King Henry II was said to exclaim:

He cost me much, but I wish he had lived to cost me more

Henry II’s woes would continue with the death of his third son, Geoffrey, who died in 1185, after being trampled in a tournament accident, aged 27. Geoffrey’s good friend and ally, Prince Philip of France, was devastated. The two had allied against King Henry II on a number of occasions.

By 1189, Richard’s relationship with his father, Henry II had deteriorated. King Philip II of France exploited this and allied himself with Richard, despite being friends with Henry II initially. Both Philip and Richard wanted Henry to name Richard as his heir, but Henry was stalling. At this, Richard publicly paid homage to Philip in front of the nobles and launched a surprise attack on Henry II.

King Henry II, now very weary from ill health, had no choice but to negotiate a surrender. Worse still, Henry had discovered that his only loyal son, John had turned against him and allied with Richard. This was the last straw for Henry, and he died (apparently from a broken heart) 2 days later in July 1189, aged 56, at Chinon Castle in France.

King Henry II Facts

  • Henry II was born on 5 March 1133, Le Mans, France
  • His father was Geoffrey, Count of Anjou
  • His mother was Empress Matilda
  • He was crowned on 19 December 1154 at Westminster Abbey, aged 22
  • He married Eleanor of Aquitaine, daughter of William X, Duke of Aquitaine
  • He had 8 legitimate children, most notably: Henry the young king, Richard I, John Lackland
  • He died on 6 July 1189 at Chinon Castle, France aged 56
  • He was the first Plantagenet King of England and ruled the largest territory in Western Europe

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