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King Henry II


Henry was the grandson of King Henry I. His mother the Empress Matilda had been named by Henry I as heir to the throne but it had been seized by her cousin Stephen and England was now in the grip of a civil war.

Henry was born in Le Mans in March 1133.

At the age of nine he was sent by his father Geoffrey Count of Anjou to Bristol, accompanying his uncle Robert of Gloucester who was bringing a relief force to aid Matilda besieged in Oxford Castle.

He spent fifteen months studying in Bristol before returning to Anjou. Henry was well educated but he spoke only Latin and French, although he could understand several languages including English.

Henry had a passion for hawking and hunting, for which his royal court would become famous. In fact he liked horse riding so much he became bow-legged in later life.

Gerald of Wales described him as red-haired with a freckled complexion and having a large, round head, broad chest and stocky body. He often had a dishevelled appearance and was prone to fits of temper.

By the age of fourteen Henry was actively involved in his mother’s battle for the throne.

He landed in England in 1147 with a small force of men. Unable to pay their wages most of the mercenaries abandoned his cause and deserted him. He had to ask King Stephen for help to return to Normandy. In 1149 he made an unsuccessful attempt to attack York.

In 1150 Henry was made Duke of Normandy and in 1151 inherited Anjou after the death of his father.

On 18 May 1152 Henry married Eleanor heiress to the Duchy of Aquitaine.

They married just eight weeks after Eleanor’s marriage to King Louis VII of France had been annulled. The French king considered it an insult and it proved to be a constant source of discord between Henry and Louis.

A Truce is Made

Henry returned to England in January 1153.

He sought alliances with the English elite and opened negotiations with King Stephen. England had had enough of war.

Instead of pillaging the countryside Henry toured the country holding court and issuing charters.

In November 1153 a truce was agreed and Stephen formally adopted Henry as his son and heir.

Stephen died on 25 October 1154.

Henry returned from Normandy and was crowned king on 19 December at Westminster Abbey.


Henry’s Gets to Work

King Henry wanted to regain what he saw as his ancestral rights and to restore the kingdoms and territories of his grandfather.

He used military might, diplomacy and political marriages to expand and secure his domain.

At its height Henry’s realm stretched from England’s border with Scotland to the Pyrenees and he established an English presence in Ireland. It was later termed the Angevin Empire, although there was no central governance.

The long running dispute with the French king and Henry’s aggressive grab for territory and power led to constant political and military tensions in France.

In England Henry sought to re-establish royal authority. Unauthorised castles that had sprung up during the civil war were destroyed and foreign mercenaries were expelled.

High priority was given to increasing royal revenue with the introduction of new taxes and reform of the currency.

Like his grandfather, Henry promoted new men to senior positions of administrative authority, men who could be trusted to run things during his frequent absences. Henry and his court were constantly touring.

There was also reform to the judicial system. The Assize of Clarendon in 1166 brought criminal law under royal control. It established procedures for criminal justice and royal sheriffs had the authority to investigate crimes across England.

“Will No One Rid Me of This Turbulent Priest?”

In 1162 England’s Chancellor Thomas Becket was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.

Henry’s ambition to regain the royal rights and customs that existed during the reign of his grandfather also extended to the Church.

He sought to limit the powers of church courts and redefine the boundaries between royal and papal authority in England.

Becket, Henry’s long standing friend and confidant would be the man to help him do so. Right?

Unfortunately for the king, Becket became a staunch defender of church rights. They fought bitterly over the Constitutions of Clarendon, Henry’s sixteen point programme of reforms.

The relationship between them deteriorated and turned to acrimony. Becket fled to France, remaining in exile for six years.

To secure his succession, Henry had his eldest son Henry the Younger crowned by the Archbishop of York in June 1170, a ceremony traditionally carried out by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Becket returned to England on 1 December 1170 having served papal letters of suspension on several bishops and excommunicating three others who had been involved in the coronation.

On receiving the news at his court in Normandy Henry flew into a rage proclaiming “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!”

Four knights took Henry at his word and murdered Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170.

The murder caused an outcry in Christian Europe and Becket was made a saint in 1173, although Henry was not above using Becket’s martyrdom to his own advantage.


Revolt – You can’t choose your family eh?

As it turned out the biggest threat to Henry’s rule came from his own family.

Henry had at least eight children with Queen Eleanor, five sons and three daughters, as well as several illegitimate children with his mistresses.

Henry the Young King may have been crowned but neither he nor his brothers were given any real power.

In 1173 Henry, Richard and Geoffrey rose up in rebellion against their father, supported by their mother Queen Eleanor as well as France, Flanders, Scotland and several disgruntled English barons.

King Henry had to put down this Great Revolt with military action, fighting for over a year to regain control of his Angevin domains. In the end King Louis VII of France sued for peace. Queen Eleanor spent the rest of Henry’s reign confined to various English castles.

Family tensions and rivalry spilled over again in 1183. Henry the Young King and his brother Geoffrey led a revolt in Aquitaine forcing King Henry to raise an army and support his son Richard. The rebellion ended with the death of young Henry from a fever.

Richard had not been nominated as heir and rumours abounded that he was to be passed over in favour of his younger brother John.

The relationship between Henry and the new French King had broken down since the death of Henry’s son Geoffrey and King Philip II sought to exploit the tension between Richard and his father.

At a peace conference in 1188 Richard publicaly sided with the French king, paying him homage.

They launched a surprise attack against Henry who, now seriously ill with a bleeding ulcer, retreated to his castle at Chinon.

Philip and Richard forced him to agree to a complete surrender and to make Richard (the Lionheart) his heir.

According to the chronicler Gerald of Wales Henry discovered that his favourite son John had also sided against him. The shock hastened his demise and he fell into a feverish state, dying on the 6 July 1189.

King Henry II is buried at Fontevraud Abbey.