Henry II of England

From New World Encyclopedia

Henry II
By the Grace of God, King of the English
and Duke of the Normans and Aquitanians
and Count of the Angevins
Henry II of England.jpg
Reign October 25, 1154–July 6, 1189
Coronation December 19, 1154
Born March 5, 1133
Le Mans
Died July 6, 1189
Chateau Chinon
Buried Fontevraud Abbey, Fontevraud-l'Abbaye, France
Predecessor Stephen
Successor Richard I
Consort Eleanor of Aquitaine (1124–1204)
Issue Henry the Young King
Richard I (1157–1199)
Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany
Matilda, Duchess of Saxony
Leonora of England (1161–1214)
Joan of England (1165–1199)
John (1167–1216)
Geoffrey, Archbishop of York
(illeg., 1152–1226)
William de Longespee, Third Earl of
(illeg., 1176–1226)
Royal House Plantagenet
Father Geoffrey of Anjou (1113–1151)
Mother Empress Matilda (1102–1167)

Henry II of England (March 5, 1133 – July 6, 1189) ruled as King of England (1154–1189), Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Duke of Gascony, Count of Nantes, Lord of Ireland and, at various times, controlled parts of Wales, Scotland and western France. Henry was the first of the House of Plantagenet to rule England and founded the Angevin Empire. His sobriquets include "Curt Mantle" (because of the practical short cloaks he wore), "Fitz Empress," and sometimes "The Lion of Justice," which had also applied to his grandfather Henry I. Born in France, Henry II was as much French as English and ruled at a time when kingdoms were regarded as the personal possessions of their rulers, rather than as deriving any legitimacy from the people. His wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine was an influential figure. Wealthy in her own right, she exercised considerable power and was regent of England immediately after Henry's death.

Following the disorder that accompanied the disputed reign of King Stephen, Henry's reign saw efficient consolidation. Henry II has acquired a reputation as one of England's greatest medieval kings developing the foundations of efficient legal and administrative systems. England's long history of involvement in Ireland also dates from his reign.

Henry II had a long running dispute with the Church over its right to judge criminous clergy in ecclesiastical courts. Henry wanted one standard of justice for all his subjects. He had a legitimate interest in seeing that priests who committed serious crimes, such as murder, should be liable to punishment by the lay authorities just like any other of the king's subjects. He promoted his close friend Thomas Becket to be Archbishop of Canterbury but was offended when he took the side of the Church. An angry outburst by Henry prompted four of his knights to challenge Becket which resulted in his violent death. Henry regretted Becket's death but the event cast a cloud over the remainder of his reign.


Early life

Henry II was born in Le Mans, France, on March 5, 1133, the first day of the traditional year. His father, Geoffrey V of Anjou (Geoffrey Plantagenet), was Count of Anjou and Count of Maine. His mother, Empress Matilda, was a claimant to the English throne as the daughter of Henry I (1100–1135), son of William the Conqueror. He spent his childhood in his father's land of Anjou. At the age of nine, Robert, 1st Earl of Gloucester took him to England where he received an education from Master Matthew at Bristol.

Marriage and children

On May 18, 1152 at Bordeaux Cathedral, at the age of 19, Henry married Eleanor of Aquitaine. The wedding was "without the pomp or ceremony that befitted their rank," partly because only two months previously Eleanor's marriage to Louis VII of France had been annulled.[1]

Henry and Eleanor had eight children, William, Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, John, Matilda, Eleanor, and Joan. William died in infancy. As a result Henry was crowned as joint king when he came of age. However, because he was never King in his own right, he is known as "Henry the Young King," not Henry III. In theory, Henry would have inherited the throne from his father, Richard his mother's possessions, Geoffrey would have Brittany and John would have been Lord of Ireland. However, fate would ultimately decide very differently.

Henry and Eleanor's relationship was always stormy and eventually broke down. After Eleanor encouraged her children to rebel against their father in 1173, Henry had her placed under house-arrest, where she remained for fifteen years.

Henry also had a number of illegitimate children by various women, and Eleanor had several of those children reared in the royal nursery with her own children; some remained members of the household in adulthood. He began an affair with Rosamund Clifford in 1165 but it was not until 1174, at around the time of his break with Eleanor, that Henry acknowledged her as his mistress. Almost simultaneously he began negotiating the annulment of his marriage in order to marry Alys, daughter of King Louis VII of France, who was already betrothed to Henry's son Richard. Henry's affair with Alys continued for some years, and, unlike Rosamund Clifford, Alys allegedly gave birth to one of Henry's illegitimate children.

While the Illegitimate children were not valid claimants, their Royal blood made them potential problems for Henry's legitimate successors.[2] William de Longespee was one such child. He remained largely loyal and contented with the lands and wealth afforded to him as a bastard. Geoffrey, Bishop of Lincoln, Archbishop of York, on the other hand, was seen as a possible thorn in the side of Richard I of England. Geoffrey had been the only son to attend Henry II on his deathbed, after even the King's favorite, John Lackland, deserted him. Richard forced him into the clergy at York, thus ending his secular ambitions. Another son, Morgan was elected to the Bishopric of Durham, although he was never consecrated due to opposition from Pope Innocent III.[3]

Building an empire

Henry's claims by blood and marriage

Henry II depicted in Cassell's History of England (1902)

Henry's father, Geoffrey Plantagenet, held rich lands as a vassal from Louis VII of France. Maine and Anjou were therefore Henry's by birthright, amongst other lands in Western France.[4] By maternal claim, Normandy was also to be his. However, the most valuable inheritance Henry received from his mother was a claim to the English throne. Granddaughter of William I of England, Empress Matilda should have been Queen, but was usurped by her cousin, Stephen I of England. Henry's efforts to restore the royal line to his own family would create a dynasty spanning three centuries and thirteen Kings.

Henry's marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine placed him firmly in the ascendancy. His plentiful lands were added to his new wife's possessions, giving him control of Aquitaine and Gascony. The riches of the markets and vineyards in these regions, combined with Henry's already plentiful holdings, made Henry the most powerful vassal in France.

Taking the English Throne

Realising Henry's royal ambition was far from easily fulfilled, his mother had been pushing her claim for the crown for several years to no avail, finally retiring in 1147. It was 1147 when Henry had accompanied Matilda on an invasion of England. It soon failed due to lack of preparation, but it made him determined that England was his mother's right, and so his own. He returned to England again between 1149 and 1150. On May 22, 1149 he was knighted by King David I of Scotland, his great uncle, at Carlisle.[5]

Early in January 1153, just months after his wedding, he crossed the Channel one more time. His fleet was 36 ships strong, transporting a force of 3,000 footmen and 140 horses. Sources dispute whether he landed at Dorset or Hampshire, but it is known he entered a small village church. It was January 6 and the locals were observing the Festival of the Three Kings. The correlation between the festivities and Henry's arrival was not lost on them. "Ecce advenit dominator Dominus, et regnum in manu ejus," they exclaimed as the introit for their feast, "Behold the Lord the ruler cometh, and the Kingdom in his hand."

Henry moved quickly and within the year he had secured his right to the succession via the Treaty of Wallingford with King Stephen. He was now, for all intents and purposes, in control of England. When Stephen died in October 1154, it was only a matter of time before Henry's treaty would bear fruit, and the quest that began with his mother would be ended. On December, 19 1154 he was crowned in Westminster Abbey, "By The Grace Of God, Henry II, King Of England." Henry Plantagenet, vassal of Louis VII, was now more powerful than the French King himself.

Lordship over Ireland

Henry II's coat of arms were displayed as gules, a lion rampant Or red background, with a golden lion on hind legs facing to the side.

Shortly after his coronation, Henry sent an embassy to the newly elected Pope Adrian IV. Led by Bishop Arnold of Lisieux, the group of clerics requested authorisation for Henry to invade Ireland. Most historians agree that this resulted in the papal bull Laudabiliter. It is possible Henry acted under the influence of a "Canterbury plot," in which English ecclesiastics strove to dominate the Irish church.[6] However, Henry may have simply intended to secure Ireland as a lordship for his younger brother William. The Pope granted Henry's request as he wished to stamp out non Catholic practices in the irish Church.

William died soon after the plan was hatched and Ireland was ignored. It was not until 1166 that it came to the surface again. In that year, Diarmait Mac Murchada, a minor Irish Prince, was driven from his land of Leinster by the High King of Ireland. Diarmait followed Henry to Aquitaine, seeking an audience. He asked the English king to help him reassert control; Henry agreed and made footmen, knights and nobles available for the cause. The most prominent of these was a Welsh Norman, Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke. In exchange for his loyalty, Diarmait offered Richard his daughter Aoife in marriage and made him heir to the kingdom.

The Normans restored Diarmait to his traditional holdings, but it quickly became apparent that Henry had not offered aid purely out of kindness. 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.

Diarmait's appeal for outside help had made Henry Ireland's Lord, starting 800 years of English overlordship on the island. The change was so profound that Diarmait is still remembered as a traitor of the highest order. In 1172, at the Synod of Cashel, Roman Catholicism was proclaimed as the only permitted religious practice in Ireland.

Consolidation in Scotland

An invasion force from Scotland, led by their King, William the Lion, was advancing from the North. To make matters worse, a Flemish armada was sailing for England, just days from landing. And in 1174, there was a rebellion spearheaded by his own sons. It seemed likely that the King's rapid growth was to be checked.[7]

Henry saw his predicament as a sign from God, that his treatment of Thomas Becket would be rewarded with defeat. He immediately did penance at Canterbury for the Archbishop's fate and events took a turn for the better.[8] The hostile armada dispersed in the English Channel and headed back for the continent. Henry had avoided a Flemish invasion, but Scottish invaders were still raiding in the North. Henry sent his troops to meet the Scots at Alnwick, where the English scored a devastating victory. William was captured in the chaos, removing the figurehead for rebellion, and within months all the problem fortresses had been torn down. Southern Scotland was now completely dominated by Henry, another fief in his Angevin Empire, that now stretched from the Solway Firth almost to the Mediterranean and from the Somme to the Pyrenees. By the end of this crisis, and his sons' revolt, the King was "left stronger than ever before".[9]

Domestic policy

Dominating nobles

During Stephen's reign, the barons in England had undermined Royal authority. Rebel castles were one problem, nobles avoiding military service was another. The new King immediately moved against the illegal fortresses that had sprung up during Stephen's reign, having them torn down.

To counter the problem of avoiding military service, Scutage became common. This tax, paid by Henry's barons instead of serving in his army, allowed the King to hire mercenaries. These hired troops were used to devastating effect by both Henry and his son Richard, and by 1159 the tax was central to the King's army and his authority over vassals. Record keeping improved dramatically in order to streamline this taxation.

Legal reform

Henry II's reign saw the establishment of Royal Magistrate courts. This allowed court officials under authority of the Crown to adjudicate on local disputes, reducing the workload on Royal courts proper and delivering justice with greater efficiency. His reign saw the production of the first written legal textbook, providing the basis of today's "Common Law."

Henry also worked to make the legal system fairer. Trial by ordeal and trial by combat were still common but even in the 12th century these methods were outdated. By the Assize of Clarendon, in 1166, a precursor to trial by jury became the standard. However, this group of "twelve lawful men," as the Assize commonly refers to it, provides a service more similar to a grand jury, alerting court officials to matters suitable for prosecution. Trial by combat was still legal in England until 1819, but Henry's support of juries was a great contribution to the country's social history. The Assize of Northampton, in 1176, cemented the earlier agreements at Clarendon. This reform proved one of Henry's major contributions to the social history of England.

Religious policy

Strengthening royal control over the Church

In the tradition of Norman kings, Henry II was keen to dominate the church like the state and aspired to do away with the special privileges of the English clergy, which he regarded as fetters on his authority. So he appointed as Chancellor, Thomas Becket who enforced the king’s danegeld taxes, a traditional medieval land tax that was exacted from all landowners, including churches and bishoprics. When Archbishop Theobald died in 1161, Henry conceived what must have seemed a neat solution to the problem of the imposing of his will upon the church: installing his friend Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury.

Becket however did a volte-face and initiated a project to liberate of the Church in England from the very limitations which he had formerly helped to enforce. His aim was twofold: the complete exemption of the Church from all civil jurisdiction, with undivided control of the clergy, freedom of appeal, etc., and the acquisition and security of an independent fund of church property.

About one in six of the population of England were clergymen, many of whom were not ordained to the priesthood. All clergy could claim the right to be tried in ecclesiastical courts where they would invariably receive a more lenient sentence than if tried in the criminal courts of the land. Henry's problem was the need to restore order after the chaos which marked the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda. The king's officials claimed that over a hundred murderers had escaped their proper punishment because they had claimed the right to be tried in church courts.

So at Clarendon Palace on January, 30 1164, the King set out sixteen constitutions. In the anarchic conditions of Henry II's predecessor, Stephen, the church had extended its jurisdiction in the void. It was claimed that Constitutions would restore the judicial customs observed during the reign of Henry I (1100–35), while in fact they were a part of Henry II's larger expansion of royal jurisdiction into the Church and civil law, which was the defining aspect of his reign. Secular courts, increasingly under the King's influence, 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 the Archbishop, Thomas Becket, before the Royal Council. However, Becket had fled to France and was under the protection of Henry's rival, Louis VII of France.

The King continued doggedly in his pursuit of control over his clerics, to the point where his religious policy became detrimental to his subjects. By 1170, the Pope was considering excommunicating all of Britain. Only Henry's agreement that Becket could return to England without penalty prevented this fate.

Murder of Thomas Becket

The martyrdom of St Thomas from the St Thomas Altarpiece commissioned in 1424, from Meister Francke by the Guild of English Merchants in Hamburg

In June 1170, the archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury held the coronation of Henry the Young King in York. This was a breach of Canterbury's privilege of coronation, for which the Pope suspended the three. But for Becket, that was not enough, and in November 1170, he excommunicated all three. While the three bishops fled to the king in Normandy, Becket continued to excommunicate his opponents in the church. Soon word of this reached Henry who was in Normandy at the time. After these latest reports of Becket's activities, Henry is reported to have raised his head from his sickbed and roared a lament of frustration. Passionate words from the angry king, reputedly, "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" - a provocative statement which would perhaps have been just as riling to the knights and barons of his household at whom it was aimed as his actual words. Bitter at Becket, his old friend, constantly thwarting his clerical constitutions, the King shouted in anger but most likely not with intent. However, four of Henry's knights, Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Moreville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton overheard their King's cries and decided to act on his words.

On 29 December 1170, they entered Canterbury Cathedral, finding Becket near the stairs to the crypt. They beat down the Archbishop, killing him with several blows. Becket's brains were scattered upon the ground with the words; "Let us go, this fellow will not be getting up again." Whatever the rights and wrongs, it certainly tainted Henry's later reign. For the remaining 20 years of his rule, he would personally regret the death of a man who "in happier times...had been a friend".[10]

Just three years later, Becket was canonized and revered as a martyr against secular interference in God's church; Pope Alexander III had declared Thomas Becket a saint. Plantagenet historian John Harvey believes "The martyrdom of Thomas Becket was a martyrdom which he had repeatedly gone out of his way to seek...one cannot but feel sympathy towards Henry".[11] Wherever the true intent and blame lies, it was yet another failure in Henry's religious policy, an arena which he seemed to lack adequate subtlety. And politically, Henry had to sign the Compromise of Avranches which removed from the secular courts almost all jurisdiction over the clergy.

Succession crisis

Henry II's attempt to divide his titles amongst his sons but keep the power associated with them provoked them into trying to take control of the lands assigned to them, which amounted to treason, at least in Henry's eyes. Gerald of Wales reports that when King Henry gave the kiss of peace to his son Richard, he said softly, "May the Lord never permit me to die until I have taken due vengeance upon you."

When Henry's legitimate sons rebelled against him, they often had the help of King Louis VII of France. Henry the Young King died in 1183. After his death, there was a power struggle between the three sons who were left. Henry had wanted John to be the next king, but Eleanor favored Richard. Henry had always loved John more than any of the other sons. Geoffrey tried to overcome both John and Richard, but he was unsuccessful; a horse trampled him to death in 1186. Henry's third son, Richard the Lionheart (1157–1199), with the assistance of Philip II Augustus of France, attacked and defeated Henry on July 4, 1189; Henry died at the Chateau Chinon on July 6, 1189, and lies entombed in Fontevraud Abbey, near Chinon and Saumur in the Anjou Region of present-day France. Henry's illegitimate son Geoffrey, Archbishop of York stood by his father the whole time and he alone among Henry’s sons attended Henry's deathbed. Henry’s last words, according to Gerald of Wales, were “Shame, shame on a conquered king.” Another version of the king's last words, “my other sons are the real bastards," alludes to the fact that the only son to attend his deathbed was his illegitimate son Geoffrey.

Richard the Lionheart then became King of England. John succeeded to the throne upon Richard's death in 1199, laying aside the claims of Geoffrey's children Arthur of Brittany and Eleanor.

In the arts

  • Thirteenth Century: "Book of the Civilized Man" is a poem believed to have been written in Henry's court and is the first "book of manners" or "courtesy book" in English history, representing the start of a new awakening to etiquette and decorum in English culture.
  • 1935: The assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket is the subject of the celebrated 1935 play Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot.
  • 1964: A fuller account of the struggle between Henry II and Becket is portrayed in the film Becket based on the Jean Anouilh play and starring Peter O'Toole as Henry and Richard Burton as Becket.
  • 1966: The treasons associated with the royal and ducal successions formed the main theme of the play The Lion in Winter, which also served as the basis of a 1968 film with O'Toole reprising the role of Henry and Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine. In 2003, the film was remade as a television film with Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close in the leading roles.
  • 1978: Henry II and his sons King Richard and King John also provided the subjects of the BBC2 television series The Devil's Crown. The 1978 book of the same title was written by Richard Barber and published as a guide to the broadcast series, which starred Brian Cox as Henry and Jane Lapotaire as Eleanor.
  • 1989: The final chapters of Ken Follett's novel The Pillars of the Earth concern the assassination of Thomas Becket and end with Henry's penance.
  • 1994: The first decade of Henry's marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine is portrayed in the novel Beloved Enemy: The Passions of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a Novel by Ellen Jones.


  1. John Harvey, The Plantagenets (London: Fontana) 1972. p.49 ISBN 0006329497
  2. Ralph V. Turner and Richard R. Heiser, The Reign of Richard Lionheart: Ruler of the Angevin Empire, 1189-1199 (London: Longman) 2000. ISBN 0582256593
  3. British History Online Bishops of Durham. Retrieved 25 October 2007.
  4. John Harvey, The Plantagenets (London: Fontana) 1972. P. 49. ISBN 0006329497
  5. John Harvey, The Plantagenets (London: Fontana) 1972. p.50 ISBN 0006329497
  6. Warren, W.L. Henry II (Yale University Press, 2000) ISBN 978-0300084740
  7. John Harvey, The Plantagenets (London: Fontana) 1972. p.47. ISBN 0006329497
  8. John Harvey, The Plantagenets (London: Fontana) 1972. p.49 ISBN 0006329497
  9. John Harvey, The Plantagenets (London: Fontana) 1972. ISBN 0006329497
  10. John Harvey, The Plantagenets, p.45
  11. John Harvey, The Plantagenets. (London: Fontana) 1972. p.45

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Barber, Richard. The Devil's Crown: A History of Henry II and His Sons. Conshohocken, PA: 1996. ISBN 9780585100098
  • Bartlett, Robert. England Under The Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225. NY: Oxford University. 2000. ISBN 9780198227410
  • Harvey, John. The Plantagenets. London: Fontana. 1972. ISBN 0006329497
  • Turner, Ralph and Heiser, Richard. The Reign of Richard Lionheart: Ruler of the Angevin Empire, 1189-1199. London: Longman. 2000. ISBN 0582256593
  • Warren, W. L. Henry II. Berkeley, CA: University of California. 1973. ISBN 9780520022829

External links

All links retrieved June 25, 2024.

Preceded by:
King of England
Succeeded by: Richard I
Duke of Normandy
Preceded by:
Geoffrey V
Count of Anjou
with Henry the Young King
Count of Maine
with Henry the Young King
Preceded by:
Louis and Eleanor
Duke of Aquitaine
with Eleanor
Count of Poitiers
with Eleanor
Succeeded by: William
Preceded by:
Geoffrey V
Count of Mortain
Succeeded by: William III


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