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King Henry II

Updated on February 25, 2014
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Laura has had a lifetime interest in history - especially the people and the fashions! She specialises in monarchical history.

Henry II
Henry II
Geoffrey of Anjou, father of Henry II
Geoffrey of Anjou, father of Henry II
Empress Matilda, Henry's mother
Empress Matilda, Henry's mother
Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry's wife
Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry's wife
The martyrdom of Thomas Becket
The martyrdom of Thomas Becket
The effigy of Henry II at his tomb in the Fontevrault Abbey in France
The effigy of Henry II at his tomb in the Fontevrault Abbey in France

Curtmantle: 1154 - 1189

On 5th March 1133, the baby that would someday be King of England was born at Le Mans. His father was Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, whose habit of wearing a broom plant (called Planta Genista) would later give the family the surname of Plantagenet. The baby's mother was Matilda, daughter of King Henry I of England, and the baby was named Henry for his grandfather, with the surname FitzEmpress.

In 1120, the heir to the English throne, Prince William the Aetheling, was making the crossing from Normandy to England. The departure of the White Ship was delayed owing to the amount of drinking that was going on, but it eventually set sail. However, at the end of the harbour, the ship struck a rock, and it sank. Prince William was initially rescued, but when he heard his elder half-sister crying in the water, he decided to turn around and try to rescue her. Other drowning people grabbed onto the skiff, with the result that it capsized. William the Aetheling drowned.

King Henry I attempted to produce another male heir by remarrying, but unfortunately this failed. In the end, Henry did something that was so far unprecedented; he named his daughter, Empress Matilda, as his heir, and made all his nobles swear fealty to her. In November 1135 King Henry fell ill, and on the 1st December, he died. A cousin of Matilda's, Stephen of Blois, raced to England as soon as he heard of Henry I's death, and claimed the crown for himself, despite the fact that he had sworn to be loyal to Matilda. There were not many examples of female rule in the twelfth century, and the English nobles were generally more inclined to male rule, which was well established. It was clearly a case of the saying 'better the devil you know'. It wasn't until 1139 that Matilda was able to press her claim to the throne, and she invaded England.

Whilst his mother fought for her rights in England, Henry was growing up. He had knowledge of all the languages from the French sea to the Jordan, and he was considered well versed in law. Henry first visited England in 1142, and stayed for two years before returning home. He visited again in 1147.

However, when Henry FitzEmpress landed in 1149, the first thing that he did was to travel to Scotland, where he was knighted by his uncle, David the King of Scots. He then attempted to attack York, but was defeated and he was eventually forced to flee across the Channel once more. Matilda had already given up fighting, and passed her claim onto her son. In 1150, Henry officially became the Duke of Normandy. The following year he paid homage to the King Louis VII of France for his lands in Normandy. It was here that the young duke met the French King's wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.

What did Eleanor of Aquitaine see when she met her husband's vassal? A description of Henry in later life says that had 'grey eyes...a fiery countenance and a harsh, cracked voice...his chest was broad and square, his arms strong and powerful. His body was stocky...' In short, Eleanor saw a masculine young man, who was thirteen years younger than her husband, and around ten years younger than herself. What did Henry think of the French queen? Unfortunately, the only information regarding Eleanor's appearance was that she was gracious and lovely, and remained so even into old age. Further details, such as the colour of her hair and eyes, were not recorded in descriptions written of her.

Whatever Eleanor and Henry saw, it was to prove important; within months Eleanor divorced Louis, and on 11th May 1152, married Henry secretly 'without the pomp or ceremony that befitted their rank'. It was not just a love match. Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the greatest heiresses of her time, and Henry now added Aquitaine to his growing list of lands, joining Anjou, Maine, Normandy and Touraine. He held almost half the land in France, and he hoped to add England to his burgeoning empire. They would also have eight children together - William, Henry, Matilda, Richard, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joan and John - but only half of their children would still be alive at the end of their father's reign.

In 1153, Henry landed again in England. He entered a small church, and the first words he heard were Ecce advenit dominator Dominus, et regnum in manu ejus - 'behold the Lord the ruler cometh, and the kingdom in his hand'. It was prophetic. He attacked Malmesbury, which King Stephen didn't expect, and his nobles began to defect to the young Duke. In July, Henry went to Wallingford to relieve a siege. Stephen sent out an army, but they refused to fight Henry. The King and Duke finally came to an agreement in November. Stephen declared that 'I, King Stephen, appoint Henry duke of Normandy after me as my successor in the kingdom of England...', and he died the following year, in October.

At Westminster Abbey on 19th December 1154, King Henry II was crowned beside his Queen. The uncertain regime of Stephen was over, and the new King's reign had begun. He was very different to his predecessor. King Henry was down to earth and it was said that 'he does not take upon himself to think high thoughts...he does not magnify himself as more than man...'. Henry also gained the nickname of 'Curtmantle', because unlike the English fashion, he wore a short cloak. Indeed, King Henry II did not have a love of fine clothes, and spent most of his time in his riding gear. He didn't settle anywhere for long, and had the ability to pop up anywhere in his empire, something which greatly annoyed his opponents.

In 1156, the King had to leave England. His younger brother Geoffrey had been stirring up rebellion in Anjou. Around the same time, Prince William died, but his mother would have been consoled when she gave birth to Henry's first daughter, a girl named Matilda for her paternal grandmother. The King made peace with his brother, but Geoffrey was satisfied when the people of Nantes and lower Brittany chose him to be their Count. This would keep Geoffrey happy until his death two years later, when Henry would claim Nantes with his brother's death. The year 1158, as well as Geoffrey's death, also saw Prince Henry betrothed to Princess Margaret, the daughter of Louis VII, with the Vexin as a dowry.

Henry launched a campaign in 1159 to take Toulouse from the French. However, Louis VII arrived in Toulouse, and Henry was reluctant to attack him as he was a vassal to Louis for the lands he held in France. Henry's barons advised him not to attack the French King. Among Henry's counsellors was a man named Thomas Becket. He advised the King to attack Toulouse, but he was outvoted.

Thomas Becket had begun as a clerk in the service of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury. His rise in the King's favour was meteoric. Becket liked to wear fine clothes and often looked smarter than the King, who liked to make fun of him. On one occasion Becket and the King were riding in winter through London, when they came across an old beggar freezing in the street. King Henry pointed out that it would be charitable to give the old man a warm cloak, and after a short struggle, succeeded in taking Becket's fur cloak and gave it to the old man.

Archbishop Theobald died in 1161 and the King considered his options. Henry decided that Becket should become the Archbishop. He wanted to make reforms to the Church and he believed that these reforms would be easier to achieve if he had the Archbishop of Canterbury on his side. Everybody who heard Henry's plans for Becket were aghast. Empress Matilda wrote to her son and advised him against it. The monks of Canterbury were against it as well, but Henry did not listen. When Becket became Archbishop, he resigned his post as Chancellor, leaving Henry stunned.

When Henry returned to England from the Continent in January 1163, he was ready to push ahead with his church reforms. He wanted the rights to punish those in the Church who committed crimes. There were reports of members of the Church murdering and assaulting people, and they were going practically unpunished. Becket objected to this and all of Henry's proposed reforms, which were called the Constitutions of Clarendon. King Henry II, with his highly developed sense of justice, was appalled that Becket would oppose criminals in the Church being prosecuted by the state. It was the beginning of one of the greatest feuds in history. By 1164, the King and the Archbishop's relationship had deteriorated so greatly that the King accused Becket of embezzlement, committed when he was Chancellor. Becket panicked, and fled England.

It wasn't until 1169 that Becket and Henry came face-to-face again. The Archbishop said in front of spectators, '...I now submit myself to your mercy and judgement...' but he added '-saving God's honour'. This in effect made his apology useless. Becket had not changed.In the following year, the King had his son Prince Henry crowned as a junior king, which was an old custom; thereafter, his son would be known as Henry the Young King. Becket reacted furiously to this, as it was the duty of the Archbishop of Canterbury to crown kings; instead it was the Archbishop of York who crowned the Young King.

When Henry was holding court in Normandy, he learned that Becket had returned to England and had been excommunicating people and punishing those who helped with the crowning of the Young King. Henry lost his temper and called the Archbishop a 'low-born clerk' and raged against those who 'let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt'. Hearing these words, four knights slipped away unnoticed. On the 29th December, the four knights arrived at Canterbury Cathedral and attempted to arrest Becket, but he resisted. They then lost their tempers and proceeded to brutally murder him.

The murder of Thomas Becket was condemned by all and Henry found himself under threat of excommunication from the Pope. Henry spent time from 1171 until the following year in Ireland, trying to escape the problems he had in Europe. He was also forced to drop his church reforms. Becket had achieved in death what he had opposed in life.

In 1173, the eldest sons of Henry II - Henry the Young King, Richard and Geoffrey - rose in revolt against their father. Henry the Young King had been crowned but was denied any real power. He chafed at this, and when his father gave the six year old Prince John three castles, the Young King reacted by going to the French court and seeking help from Louis VII. Richard and Geoffrey both joined shortly after. The King believed that Queen Eleanor was responsible for pushing Richard and Geoffrey into rebellion, and had the Archbishop of Rouen advise her to reconciliate with the King. Eleanor tried to escape Aquitaine and head to the safety of the French court, but she was recognised en route and found herself arrested. The sons' rebellion continued until winter, when arms were laid down, but picked up again the following year. Henry's supporters were defeated at Leicester, Northampton and Nottingham. Henry came to England in the summer, bringing Queen Eleanor as his captive. The sea was wild, and the sailors did not want to risk the King's life. King Henry said that if God favoured him, he would reach port safely, and he did. Henry made a pilgrimage to Canterbury and did penance for the death of Thomas Becket.

Shortly after, the King became victorious by capturing the King of Scots, who had been joining in the rebellion. Many who rebelled against King Henry II surrendered quickly or were subdued, and he was able to leave England again. Henry then proceeded to thrash Louis VII, who sued for peace. Henry had won, and he restored his sons to his side, though he never quite trusted any of them again. As for Queen Eleanor, she would remain under house arrest for the rest of her husband's life. Henry would never forgive her, and at one point he attempted to divorce her, though it came to nothing. In the mid-1170s, Henry II was the most influential monarch in Europe. He signed a peace treaty with Louis, and he was also called upon as an arbitrator in a number of disputes. The King would also do his best to sit in judgement on state cases that came to his attention. The French King came to England in 1179 to pray at the tomb of Thomas Becket, and Henry gave him a tour of Dover Castle.

By time Henry reached the milestone of his fiftieth birthday, his old rival Louis VII was dead and replaced by his son Philip II, who would later be known as Philip Augustus. The Young King had also renewed his demands for more power, which his father refused. In June 1183, the Young King died of dysentery. Richard was now heir to the English throne. However, Henry wanted Richard to give Aquitaine to his brother John, who had no lands of his own (and would later be nicknamed 'Lackland' because of this). Richard refused. He also attacked the borders of Brittany, which belonged to his other brother, Geoffrey. Henry then ordered Richard to give the power of Aquitaine back to his mother, and this time Richard agreed. Queen Eleanor was still King Henry's captive, so in reality it was King Henry II who wielded the power of Aquitaine.

Henry's second surviving son, Geoffrey, died in 1186 in Paris after being injured in a jousting accident. After this, relations between France and England deteoriated. King Philip's half-sister Alice had been betrothed to Richard for twenty-five years, though King Henry had never allowed them to marry. Henry had a reputation as a womaniser (most notably with his mistress, Rosamund de Clifford) and rumours circulated that Princess Alice was in fact yet another of the King's conquests. By late 1188, relations between Richard and King Henry were severely strained. Richard believed that Henry intended to pass him over as heir and name his favourite child, John, as his heir.

The King was ill in January 1189, and sent messages to Richard begging him to come to his side. Richard did not go to his father. In June, Richard and Philip II attacked Le Mans, where Henry was staying. The old King retreated. On the 3rd July, the King was desperately sick, but he dragged himself to a peace conference with Philip II and Richard. He had to be held upright on his horse. Philip gave the King a list of demands to which he agreed. The King then had to be taken to Chinon by litter as he had no more strength to ride.

At Chinon, the King requested a list of all those who had defected to Richard. At the top of the list was the name of his favourite child, Prince John. The King sunk once more into illness, despairing of his son's infidelity.

On the 6th July 1189, King Henry II died at the age of fifty-six. He had transformed England into a profitable nation, and had controlled a great empire. He had also secured the English succession; for the first time since the death of Prince William the Aetheling, there was a definite heir to the throne.

History has remembered Henry II primarily for the murder of Thomas Becket, and Henry has been transformed into a tyrant against whom Becket, the tragic hero, fought. Nothing could be further from the truth. The King sought to treat all his subjects as the same, whether they were ordinary citizens or men of the church, and bind them by the same laws. It was Becket who wished to uphold the status quo and continue to protect those churchmen that committed serious crimes. Henry should be remembered as a law-giver and as a man whose ideas and principles were ahead of his time.

Was Henry II unfairly maligned by history in regards to Thomas Becket?

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