The First Three King Henrys
England was ruled by eight kings named Henry between 1100 and 1547, all of them being remarkable men who made a mark on English history. Here is a short account of the first three of them.
King Henry I
Henry was the fourth son of William the Conqueror. He was born in 1068 and was therefore 19 years old when his father died. The throne of England went to William’s third son, also named William, because Robert was given charge of the Dukedom of Normandy in his father’s will. The second son, Richard, had been killed in a hunting accident some years before.
In 1100 William II suffered the same fate as his brother, and in the same place, namely the New Forest in Hampshire. However, there is some doubt as to whether William’s death was really accidental or the result of a murder plot on Henry’s part. At all events, Henry lost no time in seizing the royal treasury and having himself crowned King.
In order to prevent Duke Robert from making a bid for the English throne, Henry invaded Normandy in 1106, defeated Robert in battle and imprisoned him in Cardiff Castle, where he died in 1134.
As King, Henry was a determined and efficient ruler who improved the process of tax collection and reformed the courts by combining the practices of Anglo-Saxon England with Norman ideas of justice.
The great tragedy of Henry’s life was the loss of his only son, William, in a shipwreck in 1120. Henry nominated his daughter Matilda as his heir, but on Henry’s death in 1135 the throne was seized by his nephew Stephen and a long period of civil war ensued.
King Henry II
He was born in 1133 as the son of Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, and Matilda, the daughter of King Henry I. He became king in 1154 on the death of King Stephen, who had usurped the throne from Matilda on the death of the older Henry in 1135.
Henry II was therefore the first king of a new dynasty, which was officially termed Angevin (from Anjou) but the kings were more popularly known as the Plantagenets, from the nickname of Count Geoffrey who regularly wore a sprig of yellow broom (Planta genista) on his headgear.
Stephen’s reign had been a period of chaos of England in which the barons had become local warlords who offered little allegiance to the king. Henry’s first task was therefore to assert his authority, which he did in part by bringing in legal reforms, some of which have persisted to the present day.
His marriage in 1152 to Eleanor of Aquitaine added to his French estates, which meant that his realm extended from Scotland to the Pyrenees.
Henry’s strong rule, and intolerance of dissent, brought him considerable trouble. The most notorious incident during his reign was the murder, in his own cathedral, of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170. This followed Henry’s angry words at Thomas’s refusal to do what Henry wanted, after which a group of four knights took this as an order to kill Becket, which is what happened.
Henry also managed to alienate his own family, leading to open rebellion by his wife and three of his four sons. The revolt had not ended when Henry died in 1183 and was succeeded by his son Richard.
King Henry III
Born in 1207 as the son of King John and grandson of King Henry II, Henry was only nine years old when his father died in 1216. The first years of his reign were therefore managed by competent regents who included William Marshal.
Henry declared himself to be of age in 1227 but he did not take full control until he was 29.
As king, Henry was full of bright ideas but lacked sufficient drive and determination to see them through, although he was able to oversee the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey.
A generally weak king, Henry was opposed by the barons, who called for government to be in the hands of competent ministers rather than the king. Chief among these opponents was Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, who established England’s first Parliament and also led an armed revolt against Henry. De Montfort was indeed the effective ruler of England for a time.
Henry’s worst defeat was at the Battle of Lewes in 1264, but Henry recovered due largely to the efforts of his warlike son Edward. When the armies clashed again, at Evesham in 1265, de Montfort was killed along with many of his followers and Henry was able to resume his reign.
When he died in 1272 after a reign of 56 years, Henry was succeeded by Edward.