LondonKing Henry II
1133-1189
 
 
 
 
 
The first King of England from the House of Plantagenet was Henry II. Henry was the great-grandson of William the Conqueror. His claim to the English throne came through his French grandmother and mother, Empress Matilda. Matilda should have been Queen regnant but her cousin Stephen usurped the English throne.
 
Henry was born in Le Mans, France on 5 March 1133. His father was Geoffrey Plantagenet, Duke of Anjou and his mother was Empress Matilda, granddaughter of William the Conqueror and rightful heir to the English throne. Henry was brought up understanding that he should have been King of England and that it was his duty to depose the usurper, King Stephen of England.
 
Henry was a red headed, freckle-faced, stocky child, very intelligent and with a quick temper. He was extremely energetic, athletic and strong and spent as much time as he could out in the fresh air, walking and riding.
 
When he was nine he was taken to England to pursue his education in Bristol. Two years later, in 1144, he returned to Normandy and completed his studies.
 
Henry had an outstanding knowledge of the law. He was a talented linguist and an excellent Latin speaker. He was particularly interested in government and would sit on councils whenever possible. His interest in the economy was reflected in his own frugal lifestyle – wearing casual clothes and eating sparingly.
 
Although Henry had a rough, loud voice, he was modest, had a good sense of humour, mixed easily with all classes of people, and ensured that one tenth of the food brought to court was distributed to the poorest subjects. He had an exceptional memory and would recognise anyone whom he had met and pertinent things about them.
 
He had one vice, his violent temper which, on more than one occasion, got him into trouble.
 
Marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine 
Aged 19 Henry married Eleanor of Aquitaine, a very wealthy woman whose possessions, when added to Henry’s, made Henry the pre-eminent contender for the English throne.
 
Although Henry and Eleanor’s marriage was stormy, they managed to have 8 children – William, Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, John, Matilda, Eleanor and Joan. William died in infancy, and Henry should have succeeded his father but things did not go according to plan.
 
For a start, Henry’s wife spent her time siding with her sons in their efforts to gain more power from their father. The marriage totally disintegrated after Eleanor encouraged her children to rebel against their father in 1173. Henry was forced to have her placed under house arrest for 15 years. Although Eleanor was 11 years older than Henry she outlived him and saw both Richard and John become kings of England.
 
Henry also sired a number of illegitimate children for whom he adequately provided. They had no valid claim to the English throne but they were always seen as a threat.
 
So the scene is set – Henry determined to become rightful King of England thus securing the vast lands of France, Ireland and England for his descendants.
 
Henry’s mother, Empress Matilda had not succeeded to getting the English throne for herself and her son. In 1147 they tried unsuccessfully tried to invade England. Between 1149 and 1150 Henry tried again. This time he was successful, making his way to Scotland where he was knighted by his great uncle, King David I of Scotland, at Carlisle.
 
A couple of months later, in January 1152, they landed in England with 36 ships, 3,000 men and 140 horses. He quickly secured a treaty with King Stephen which assured his succession, on Stephen’s death, to the throne of England.
 
Crowned King Henry II of England
In Westminster Abbey on 19 December 1154 he was crowned King Henry II of England. His full title was ‘king of England, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, count of Anjou’. He was now more powerful than the King of France himself.
 
Henry’s reign of England was notable for a number of reforms, most notably legal ones. First he dealt with the rebellious barons who had erected unauthorised castles and were refusing to provide military service.
 
He also worked hard to improve the legal system, establishing Royal Magistrate courts which could deal with local disputes. He tried to make the legal system fairer by replacing trial by Ordeal and Trial by Combat with a system of 12 man juries. These juries assessed whether an offence should be prosecuted by the royal court.
 
Henry II was keen to have secular law predominate over the law of the church. The clergy had a free hand, and were not required to obey laws of the land that conflicted with the governance of the church. Henry wanted the laws of the land to be obeyed by all, clergy and the people alike.
 
In 1155 the position of Lord Chancellor became vacant. Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury suggested to Henry that a young protégé of his, Thomas Becket, would make an excellent chancellor.
 
Thomas Becket was 15 years older than Henry but they had a lot in common. Thomas was the son of a Cheapside property owner and spent a good deal of his youth staying on the estate of one of his father’s rich friends. There he learned to ride a horse, hunt, behave like a gentleman, and joust. From the age of ten Thomas received a brilliant education in canon and civil law both in England and France.
 
When Thomas Becket returned to England he attracted the attention of Theobald who entrusted him with several important missions to Rome and finally made him Archdeacon of Canterbury. Thomas’s enthusiasm and efficiency led Theobald to making his recommendation to King Henry.
 
Henry’s desire to be absolute ruler of both his subjects and the clergy started a big struggle for power between the Crown and The Church. As a start, Henry decided to do away with the special privileges of the English clergy. As Chancellor, Becket enforced the king’s traditional medieval land tax that was exacted from all landowners, including churches and bishoprics. This created both a hardship and a resentment of Becket among the English Churchmen.
 
Thomas Becket was loyal to his king, a cheerful companion and happy to join in with court activities. He seemed devoted to Henry's interests carrying out his work with firm and yet diplomatic thoroughness. Henry considered Thomas as a good friend who shared his aims and objectives.
 
King Henry even sent his eldest son Henry to live in Becket's household. The younger Henry was reported to have said Becket showed him more fatherly love in a day than his own father did for his entire life. This emotional attachment may have influenced the young Henry to later turn against his father.
 
Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury 
Following Theobald’s death, Henry appointed Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Thomas immediately switched his loyalty from his king to The Church and turned from being a supporter of Henry’s reforms to being an opponent.
 
In 1164 Henry brought in 16 legislative procedures aimed at decreasing ecclesiastical interference from Rome. Secular courts would also have jurisdiction over clerical trials and disputes.
 
Henry's authority guaranteed him majority support, but the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury refused to ratify the proposals. Henry was characteristically stubborn, and on 8 October 1164, he called Thomas Becket before the Royal Council to answer charges of contempt of royal authority and corruption in the Lord Chancellor’s office. Convicted on the charges, Becket stormed out of the trial and fled to France seeking the protection of Henry's rival, Louis VII of France.
 
Henry would not give up his battle to control the clerics. Becket was fighting the reforms from France and suggesting excommunication as a means of bringing Henry to heel. By 1170 the Pope was threatening to excommunicate all of Britain if Henry did not stop his reforms. The separation of England from the Church of Rome was avoided by Henry agreeing to allow Thomas Becket to return to England without penalty.
 
By now the rift between the head of the Church of Rome in England, Archbishop Becket, and King Henry II was complete. Henry’s authority was being thwarted on all sides and his temper boiled over. Within the hearing of his knights and barons he shouted “What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric!!”
 
Who will rid me of this turbulent priest? 
These words have been interpreted and gone into legend as meaning “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” Thomas Becket’s fate was sealed. Four of the King’s knights overheard their king's cries and decided to act on his words. On 20 December 1170, Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton violated the sanctuary of Canterbury Cathedral and murdered Thomas Becket.
 
Just three years later, Pope Alexander III declared Thomas Becket a saint, and a martyr in the fight against secular interference in God's church.
 
Even though Henry may not have ordered the heinous crime, his reign has been forever tainted by the murder. He spent the next 20 years of his reign regretting the loss of his good friend and companion. From the time of Becket’s murder, any subsequent problems Henry had during his reign, with his wife and his rebellious children, he believed were as a result of what had happened at Canterbury.
 
Henry’s reign influenced British history in a number of different ways. A power struggle was taking place in Ireland and King Diarmait MacMurcjada of Leinster sought assistance from Henry. Order was restored but there was a price to pay.
 
In 1171, Henry arrived from France, declaring himself Lord of Ireland. All of the Normans, along with many Irish princes, took oaths of homage to Henry, and he left after six months. He never returned, but he later named his young son, the future King John of England, Lord of Ireland.
 
The loss of Ireland’s independence to England caused great hatred for 800 years. In 1172 Roman Catholicism was proclaimed the only permitted religious practice in Ireland.
 
In 1174 an invasion force from Scotland was advancing from the north, and a Flemish armada was only days away from landing on English soil. Henry saw his predicament as a sign from God, that his treatment of Thomas Becket would be rewarded with defeat. He immediately did penance by going barefoot to Canterbury and joining the thousands of pilgrims to Becket’s shrine.
 
Things took a turn for the better with the armada being dispersed in the English Channel and Henry’s forces decimated the Scots at Alnwick. King William of Scotland was captured and imprisoned and Southern Scotland passed into the hands of Henry. His kingdoms now spread from the Solway Firth in Scotland almost to the Mediterranean and from the Somme to the Pyrenees.
 
Rebellion by Henry's offspring 
Henry’s children were bickering over their father’s accession plans. Henry’s constant changing and revising of his inheritance nurtured jealousy in his offspring. Young Henry and Richard moved against their father and his succession plans by trying to secure the lands they had been promised. They lacked the manpower and experience to trouble their father unduly. The king crushed this first rebellion and was fair in his punishment; Richard for example, lost half of the revenue allowed to him as Count of Poitou.
 
In 1182 Young Henry, Richard and Geoffrey were fighting each other for their father’s possessions on the continent. Effectively, civil war had broken out in King Henry’s family. On 11 June Young Henry died of dysentery, the uprising collapsed and the remaining brothers returned to their lands. King Henry occupied Young Henry’s possessions to keep the peace.
 
In 1184 the two youngest brothers, Geoffrey and John attacked older brother Richard hoping to get possession of Aquitaine before it came to them by inheritance. Richard was an extremely accomplished military commander and had no trouble defeating his two younger siblings. Geoffrey died two years later, leaving only Richard and John to succeed their father.
 
By 1189 Richard thought his father was favouring his young brother John far too much. Fearful that this favouritism would lead to Richard being written out of his father’s will, he joined up with Henry’s greatest enemy, Philip Augustus, King of France. Together, Richard and Philip invaded Henry's heartland of power, Anjou. The unlikely allies took northwest Touraine, attacked Le Mans and overran Maine and Tours. Defeated, Henry II met his opponents and agreed to all their demands, including paying homage to Philip for all his French possessions.
 
Henry died in France in 1189 
Shortly after this disaster and deserted by his wife and all his children, both legitimate and illegitimate, Henry died on 6 July 1189 at Chinon in France. He was buried at Fontevauld Abbey.
 
Henry’s warrior son (Richard the Lionheart) was crowned King Richard I of England, on 1 September 1189 at Westminster Abbey.