King Henry II

Born: March 5, 1133

Le Mans, Maine, France

Reign: October 25, 1154 - July 6, 1189 (34 years)

Died: July 6, 1189

Chinon, Anjou, France (Age 56)


The future King Henry II was born the eldest child of Geoffrey Plantagenet, son and heir to the Count of Anjou, and his wife, Princess Matilda, widow of Holy Roman Emperor Henry V and the only surviving legitimate offspring (and therefore the official heir) of King Henry I of England. Due to his parentage, Henry was set to inherit a vast amount of territory. He was the ultimate heir to the counties of Maine, Anjou and Touraine (through his father) and the duchy of Normandy and the kingdom of England (through his mother). Unfortunately, when Henry I died in December 1135, the claims of Matilda were brushed aside in favor of her cousin, Stephen of Blois, who was subsequently crowned and anointed King of England just weeks after the old king’s death.

Stephen was a grandson of King William the Conqueror, through the latter’s daughter Adela, and was therefore a nephew of King Henry I. The Anglo-Norman barons had no interest in being ruled by a woman (and a presumptive and arrogant one at that) and jumped at the opportunity to put Stephen on the throne, despite their earlier oaths to Henry I that they would recognize his daughter as their rightful sovereign. Another factor in the barons’ decision was the fact that the princess was married to an Angevin, who were long-time enemies of the adjacent duchy of Normandy, and they had no desire to see Geoffrey possess any power over them. Matilda, however, was not the type of woman who would be willing to sit back passively as her cousin usurped the rights of her and her son. For this reason, an intense power struggle developed between the supporters of the two prospective monarchs which would last for nearly twenty years and has come to be known simply as “the Anarchy.”

In the opening years of Stephen’s reign, it became blatantly clear that he was no great leader and he alienated many powerful men within both the church and the nobility, a sure sign that a monarch will have a turbulent tenure on the throne. Stephen’s mediocre ruling of the kingdom opened a door for Matilda as many Normans and Englishmen began contemplating an alternate regime. Henry, meanwhile, was being raised on his father’s lands in the county of Anjou. Little is known about the prince’s early activities but it must be assumed that he was provided with a solid upbringing, a vast education and martial training. Henry got his first taste of military campaigning in November 1142 at the tender age of nine when he accompanied his uncle Robert, Earl of Gloucester (an illegitimate son of Henry I), to England to do battle against the forces of King Stephen.

Matilda had already achieved a moderate amount of success against her cousin, which had been countered by a fair amount of failure. Henry’s mother and her forces had first landed in England in 1139 in an attempt to take advantage of Stephen’s failures as a king. Setting up her headquarters at Bristol, Matilda and her half-brother proceeded to win over several influential barons to their cause and were able to capture a number of castles throughout southern England (northern England, at the time, was largely in the possession of Matilda’s uncle, King David I of Scotland). As the civil war raged on, the Angevins were able to achieve their most significant victory at the Battle of Lincoln, where they routed the royal forces and took Stephen himself captive. Matilda then had herself proclaimed Queen of England, but was unable to win over any vast amount of support for her newly established regime and was never even crowned or anointed. The royal forces countered their loss at Lincoln by decisively defeating Matilda’s army at Winchester, capturing Gloucester in the process. Matilda had no choice but to exchange Stephen for her brother. Stephen was back on his throne, but the struggle between the two factions continued, with neither side gaining any real ground.

Once he arrived in England in late 1142, Henry did not remain for long and the purpose of his visit seems to have been to accustom the English people to a boy who could very well be their future king. By the following year, he was back in Anjou. While Matilda and Gloucester were attempting to take England from Stephen, Henry’s father Geoffrey was taking steps to conquer the duchy of Normandy, a task he had been planning ever since the death of his father-in-law. Geoffrey achieved this goal completely by 1145 and proclaimed himself duke, vowing to relinquish power to his son once he came of age. The loss of Normandy was a huge blow to Stephen’s regime and represented the first time since 1066 that the duchy had not been conjoined with England.

In 1147, the fourteen-year-old Henry engaged in a hare-brained scheme that can only be chalked up to rash and ignorant youth. The prince gathered a small force of mercenaries and invaded England without the knowledge of either of his parents. Whatever Henry’s intentions were, they were unsuccessful and, after attempting to seize several minor castles, he was forced to beg his mother and uncle for money so that he may pay his men and return home. Both Matilda and Gloucester outright refused, most likely as punishment for the prince’s foolish actions. In an even stranger twist of events, Henry then asked King Stephen for the necessary funds to return home and received his wish. Stephen’s reasons for helping a boy who was undoubtedly an enemy of his can only be speculated. It could have been a simple display of generosity or a ploy to empower himself by showing his subjects that he could be merciful even to his enemies. The answer will never be known for certain.

Henry’s next journey to England came two years later when he was knighted by his great-uncle, King David of Scotland. A joint invasion of Stephen’s territories in England was then planned, but when Stephen was notified of his enemies’ activities ahead of time, the plot was spoiled. Believing he now had the upper-hand, Stephen and his elder son, Eustace, aggressively pursued Henry, hoping to bring him on to the battlefield for a decisive confrontation. But, Henry proved to be elusive and was able to find his way to the Angevin strongholds in the south and ultimately escaped back to Normandy. The following year, Henry was proclaimed duke of the region and continued his formal education.

Meanwhile, in England Stephen’s situation progressively went from bad to worse. The violent activities he and his son Eustace had engaged in during their pursuit of Henry had not exactly endeared them to the English people and the nobility gradually began to shift their allegiance towards the Angevin cause. Henry knew that he needed to strike now while Stephen was at his weakest but was continuously delayed by various events on the continent. When King Louis VII of France returned from crusade, he was livid to find that chances were likely that Normandy and England would once again be joined under a single ruler. This prompted him to invade the duchy, but he achieved little success and, by August 1151, he and Henry agreed to a peaceful settlement. Henry was formally created Duke of Normandy and paid homage to Louis VII as his vassal. The following month, Henry was delayed further still by the sudden and unexpected death of his father Geoffrey.

As the English noblemen became more and more impatient, Henry continued to stall and, in May 1152, he married Eleanor of Aquitaine, a woman eleven years his senior. Eleanor had recently been divorced from King Louis VII (for failing to provide him with a son, among many other valid reasons) and was Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, making her, by far, the most powerful woman in Europe. The marriage to Eleanor greatly increased Henry’s power and influence. He was already Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, Maine and Touraine and would now soon become Duke of Aquitaine through right of his wife, in addition to the claim he possessed to the English throne. As was inevitable though, the marriage gained the enmity of Louis VII and Henry was forced to, once again, postpone his expedition to England to fight off another invasion of Normandy. One of the French king’s allies was none other than Henry’s own younger brother, Geoffrey, who was apparently jealous of his brother’s success and his excess of land. The French invasion was a formidable one, but, in the end, Henry reigned supreme and was able to repel his enemies with relative ease, forcing Louis VII and Geoffrey to submit to his will.

While Henry was fighting off the French invasion, Stephen was taking advantage of the situation in England by laying siege to the Angevin stronghold of Wallingford. The castle appealed to Henry for aid and, knowing that there was no time to waste, the prince crossed the channel in January 1153 in the brutal cold of winter. Upon Henry’s arrival, a large number of noblemen began to defect to his cause and, though Stephen continued to resist, it was becoming clear that he was being deserted by his subjects en masse and that he would have to agree to a truce with his enemy. Stephen’s cause received an even bigger blow in August of that year when his son, Eustace, died suddenly. With Eustace dead, Stephen knew that it was pointless to resist any further and a peace was agreed to at Winchester which stated that Stephen was to reign as King of England for the remainder of his life and that Henry was to succeed him upon the former’s death. There were a number of Englishmen who opposed this compromise, but it was clear that this is what had to happen. With peace now at hand, Henry returned to Normandy to tend to his lands in the spring of 1154. However, Henry’s return to the continent was not a lengthy one, as King Stephen died that October. Two months later, Henry returned to England where he was crowned and anointed King Henry II of England at the age of twenty-one.

In the opening years of his reign, Henry was forced to concentrate on consolidating his power. He now had a vast empire that included England, Normandy, Maine, Anjou, Touraine and Aquitaine and, as can be imagined, his authority was stretched very thin. In England, Henry was successful in subduing a number of rebellious barons who, during Stephen’s reign, had been accustomed to doing whatever they pleased. Part of the subduing of the barons was to retrieve lands that they held that were actually property of the crown. After some resistance, Henry was able to assert his authority and receive the homage of all of the English nobility. The king also made a point to firmly reestablish the justice system to where it was during the reign of his grandfather, Henry I. Henry retained in royal service only a few men from the previous reign (the rest he himself appointed) and most of the policies that were put into effect by Stephen were done away with, which most contemporaries will agree was not a bad policy to follow.

In February 1156, Henry arrived in his continental territories to pay homage to Louis VII for the duchies of Normandy and Aquitaine and the counties of Anjou, Maine and Touraine and to keep an eye on the hostile intentions of both his brother Geoffrey and of the French king himself. Geoffrey had, in the past, looked to Louis VII as a valuable ally against his brother, but after Henry and Louis came to an agreement, Geoffrey, now isolated, attempted a short-lived rebellion against his brother. The rising was not successful and ended with Henry laying siege to, and ultimately seizing, Geoffrey’s castles in the Angevin marches and forcing him to accept an annuity instead. Henry then moved on to deal with several recalcitrant lords in Aquitaine and to take possession of the Briton city of Nantes before he departed back to England in the spring of 1157.

Back in England, Henry’s two biggest priorities were the respective pacifications of Scotland and Wales. During Stephen’s early reign, King David I of Scotland had conquered the northern English counties of Westmorland, Cumberland and Northumberland. When Henry was knighted by his great-uncle, he had agreed that he would recognize Scottish sovereignty over the subdued regions if and when he himself became King of England. Now that he was actually king, Henry had no intention of allowing David’s grandson and successor, Malcolm IV, to hold the lands. Instead of marching north with an army, Henry chose the diplomatic route and asked Malcolm to meet him in northern England. When the two kings met, Henry asked Malcolm kindly but firmly to return the counties in question to his control. Not wanting to make a powerful enemy, Malcolm agreed to Henry’s demands and performed homage to the English king. Malcolm was rewarded for his amicability with the earldom of Huntingdon and the issue was considered settled.

Wales, on the other hand, was a completely different issue. Though the province was under the nominal control of the English crown, Wales had always maintained a semi-autonomous standing and the native Welshmen were none too happy when outsiders interfered with their society. Any control that Henry I had over the region seems to have disintegrated during Stephen’s reign and Henry II wanted to make sure that he would not face any significant problems from the unpredictable Welsh citizens. Therefore, Henry marched into Wales with the intention of subduing Prince Owain of Gwynedd, by far the most powerful of the Welsh barons and the closest thing they had to a leader. Though the campaign did not begin well (at one point Henry himself was believed to have been killed), Henry was ultimately able to force Owain to submit to his will and pay homage to him.

With Scotland and Wales bent to Henry’s will (relatively speaking), the English king decided, in the summer of 1158, to once again return to the continent to settle several other territorial disputes. One area that Henry wished to have back in his possession was a disputed piece of land on the border between Normandy and the French royal demesne known as the Vexin. This was accomplished through a marriage treaty in which Henry’s eldest surviving son, also named Henry, was to marry Princess Margaret, daughter of Louis VII, when the two children came of age. As a condition, Margaret was to be put in Henry’s custody until her marriage and the Vexin was to be her dowry.

Henry then turned his attentions to Brittany, another semi-autonomous region (similar to Wales) whose lordship had long been disputed. The duchy (if it could indeed be called that) was, at this point, under the nominal command of Duke Conan IV. Henry had helped Conan ascend to his current position and had also awarded him with the earldom of Richmond in the English peerage. Given these facts, it can be imagined that Henry was angry when the Briton duke seized possession of Nantes upon the death of the former’s brother Geoffrey. After a consultation with Louis VII, Henry was given the power to do what he saw fit to subdue Conan and subsequently mustered an army. But, before the English king got the opportunity to make use of said army, Conan submitted to his will and ceded Nantes to him. Henry then recognized him as Duke of Brittany, though the status of the duchy remained ambiguous.

King Henry’s next plan for territorial gain involved pressing his claim to the county of Toulouse, a fairly remote area bordering Aquitaine on its southeastern corner. The king’s claim to Toulouse came, as was the case with Aquitaine, through his wife Eleanor, who was a great-granddaughter of Count William IV, but through a female line, which gave her a distinct disadvantage over Toulouse’s current count, Raymond V, who inherited the county through a male line. But, Henry cared not for the details of Raymond’s superior claim and set about making preparations for retrieving what he believed to be his wife’s rightful inheritance. After an unsuccessful attempt to subdue Count Raymond by way of diplomacy, Henry gathered a slew of allies from his various lands and invaded the county. Henry made minor gains but his expedition hit a major roadblock when Louis VII, whose sister was married to Count Raymond, decided to travel to the city of Toulouse and personally defend it.

Louis’ defiant actions most certainly jeopardized the fragile peace that had been maintained between himself and King Henry and the latter actually staged attacks on the French royal demesne in order to distract Louis, but without success. With his army being destroyed by plague, Henry was forced to cut his campaign short, settling for attaining only the county of Quercy. Meanwhile, the allies of Louis VII had launched a counter attack on Normandy, prompting more hostilities to erupt. In the end, a truce was agreed to (where the marriage between Henry the younger and princess Margaret was confirmed), but the relationship between Henry and Louis VII was clearly broken, seemingly for good this time. Louis VII demonstrated the fact that he was separating himself from Henry by marrying Adele, sister of Count Theobald of Blois, a county that bordered Henry’s lands in Normandy, Maine and Touraine. The French king then furthered his alliance with Blois by marrying his two daughters to the count’s two nephews. Henry then countered Louis’ hostile alliance by attaining approval from the Pope for the marriage of his son to Margaret of France, which occurred in November 1160 expressly against King Louis’ wishes. By the spring of 1161, the two kings seemed to be, once again, on the brink of war, but, at least for the time being, both sides agreed to keep the peace.

In the months following the latest peace with Louis VII, Henry spent his time strengthening his hold on his continental territories before departing for England in early 1163. Henry’s top priority at the time was to quell the recalcitrant behavior of Prince Rhys of Deheubarth in Wales. This was easily enough done and, in an attempt to reassert his authority over his rebellious subjects, he required all of the Welsh princes and Malcolm IV of Scotland to pay homage to him. It appears that this was not the wisest move on Henry’s part and the fact that relations between England and Scotland became strained and the Welsh began to become more restless then usual after the submission, proves that the Welsh and Scots took a certain amount of offense to the English king’s test of loyalty.

Later that year, Henry focused his attentions more on the English justice system and strove to eliminate the great deal of violence and corruption that was occurring in his kingdom on an all-too-often basis. One of Henry’s goals was to curb the devious activities of clerks, who were under the jurisdiction of the church of England and therefore could not be subjected to secular law. When church officials heard of their king’s intended plan, they were abhorred. The leader of the church, Archbishop Thomas Beckett of Canterbury, was the most vocal opponent to the king. Before being upgraded to the Archbishopric of Canterbury in 1162, Beckett had served seven years as the king’s chancellor. Beckett displayed an unusually large amount of pomp and extravagance for a man of the cloth and possessed a great deal of military prowess as well. In the early years of the reign, Beckett had established himself as one of Henry’s most trusted advisers, in addition to being one of his closest friends.

The two had undoubtedly quarreled in the past, but this situation was by far the most serious lapse in their relationship to date. Beckett had the unanimous (if reluctant) support of all of the English bishops, a fact that angered King Henry even more, who felt that the justice system should return to operating as it did during his grandfather’s reign, where clerks were subject to secular law. In January 1164, Henry presented a document known as the Constitutions of Clarendon to the bishops which stated that the crown was to have supreme authority over all ecclesiastical matters within England. At first, Beckett seems to have been willing to come to some sort of a compromise (albeit under pressure). This amicable mood, however, did not last for long and, soon after, Beckett was once again in open defiance of the crown. The king did not react well to this betrayal and began to make arrangements for Beckett to be deprived of his see at Canterbury. When even the bishops began to desert his cause, Beckett was forced to flee to the continent and managed to convince the Pope that he was the victim in the situation.

Knowing there was nothing he could do at the current moment without gaining the enmity of Rome, Henry decided to concentrate his attentions elsewhere. The new Scottish king, William I, was showing himself to be a hostile neighbor and the situation in Wales was swiftly deteriorating, prompting Henry to invade the latter in July 1165. Victory, however, did not come as easily for Henry on this expedition as it had in the past. In fact, due to inclement weather, it did not come at all and the king was forced to settle for reinforcing the areas along the Welsh marches. Henry remained in England for about another year, putting a number of legal reforms into effect, before departing for the continent in March 1166.

Upon arriving on the continent, Henry’s first task was to curb the increasingly violent activity occurring in the marches between Brittany and his own lands. Henry marched into Brittany at the head of an army and decimated several castles before formally deposing Duke Conan, whom he felt was doing a lackluster job of controlling his own duchy. In a brilliant display of diplomacy, Henry betrothed his son Geoffrey to Conan’s daughter and heiress, Constance, and received the homage of the Breton noblemen, thereby making him de facto Duke of Brittany. Henry’s next priority was to put down various rebellions within his dominions in Aquitaine, which he was able to accomplish with a relatively great amount of success considering the volatile and autonomous nature of the duchy.

Meanwhile though, Louis VII, emboldened by the birth of his son Philip in August 1165, was stirring up further trouble by offering sanctuary to Thomas Beckett and by urging the Scots, the Welsh and the Bretons (who represented the three regions in which Henry’s sovereignty was most disputed) to rise against their overlord. Various other minor to moderate disputes aggravated the situation further and the two monarchs began to stage attacks on each other’s lands until a temporary truce was agreed to in August 1167. Henry took this time to put down further rebellions in Brittany and Aquitaine. The Bretons turned to Louis VII for aid against the English king, which angered Henry and prompted him to launch more raids on the French king’s domains near the Norman marches. Both sides though, were weary of the constant fighting and, by the end of 1168, they were inclined to sue for peace.

The two monarchs met in Montmirail in January 1169 in which the two primary focuses of the conference seemed to have been the division of the Angevin empire between Henry and his sons and the reconciliation of Henry and Thomas Beckett. Henry’s plan for his empire went as follows: His eldest son, Henry, was to inherit England, Normandy and the ancestral Angevin counties upon his father’s death; The second son, Richard, was to inherit his mother’s duchy of Aquitaine; and Geoffrey, the third son, was to hold the duchy of Brittany in right of his wife Constance. Louis VII was content with this plan because it allowed him to deal with a number of vassals, all of whom would have limited power, as opposed to one “super-vassal,” represented by King Henry himself.

As for the quarrel with Beckett, Henry was willing to forgive his archbishop if the former renounced his harsh criticism of the Constitutions of Clarendon. At first, the archbishop was surprisingly receptive to the proposal. But, soon after, in one of his trademark sudden changes of heart, Beckett renounced his compromising attitude and seemed more obstinate than ever before, greatly angering both Henry and Louis VII. Beckett was able to convince the French king to take his side (made easier by King Henry’s brutal suppression of the rebels on his lands), but this did little to reconcile the archbishop with his master. When Henry decided to follow the old French tradition by having his heir crowned and anointed during his own lifetime, he had the ceremony performed by the Archbishop of York. This was a direct slight to Beckett considering the fact that English kings had always been anointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

If the king’s intention was to strong-arm the archbishop into submission, this strategy seems to have worked. In July 1170, the two men met at Freteval and made their peace. The meeting resulted in Beckett’s return to his see, with the promise of re-crowning Henry the young king. Henry was unable to witness the archbishop’s return, as he was distracted by a fairly serious illness that impeded his travel, and by yet another quarrel with King Louis (this time they argued over who had the right to appoint the new Archbishop of Bourges). By the year’s end though, Henry was receiving reports from England that Beckett was once again showboating and creating trouble with his haughty behavior. To this day, eight hundred and fifty years after the fact, it is by no means clear as to what the king said or did to set off the subsequent events. Many historians have concluded that Henry asked the rhetorical question “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?,” or something along those lines. Having overheard these words, four knights were prompted to brutally murder Archbishop Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral, and this is exactly what happened on December 29, 1170.

As can be imagined, Henry was distraught that his rash words had caused the death of a man who he had once considered to be a good friend, and many rulers throughout Europe, including Pope Alexander III, shunned the English king in the aftermath of Beckett’s murder. Ultimately though, the Pope’s anger subsided and decided to absolve Henry of his grave sin. After a brief trip to Ireland, where Henry quelled the rebellious activities of Richard de Clare, the new Lord of Leinster, without even having to do battle, Henry travelled to Normandy to be absolved of his involvement in Beckett’s murder and to agree to the Compromise of Avranches with the English bishops. The Compromise stated that Henry was only permitted to punish the church if it had done something that specifically threatened the safety of his regime.

Henry spent the following year or so attempting to control his subjects in Aquitaine, who were at odds with neighboring Toulouse. By February 1173, Henry had succeeded in making peace between the two regions and received the homage of Count Raymond of Toulouse, while also betrothing his youngest son, John, to the daughter of Count Humber of Maurienne. Part of the supposed marriage deal was that John would ultimately be given the castles of Chinon, Loudun and Mirebeau in Anjou. These castles, however, were within the boundaries of the inheritance of Henry the Young King. If the this was not frustrating enough, the younger Henry was also unhappy with the fact that, though his father had him crowned and determined his inheritance, he had not given him any lands or incomes to sustain his position during the elder king’s lifetime.

As time went by, it became more and more apparent that the Young King would rebel against his father’s strict rule. Having a basic idea as to what was about, Henry II prepared to move against his eldest son, but the Young King fled to the French court, taking his younger brothers, Richard and Geoffrey, also unhappy with their lack of power, with him. It also appears that even Queen Eleanor was in on the plot and she was promptly arrested (despite attempting to escape her husband disguised as a man) and put under house arrest, where she would remain for the next sixteen years. Meanwhile, Louis VII pledged his support for the Young King, who then proceeded to buy the support of a number of the French king’s vassals, as well as, King William of Scotland (the latter of whom was promised the counties in northern England his brother Malcolm had surrendered. In addition to these powerful allies, the rebel coalition was joined by a whole slew of barons from both England and the continent who had become disgruntled with the regime of Henry II.

The two primary targets of the rebels were Normandy and England, the two most powerful parts of Henry’s empire, and the fighting officially began in the former in May 1173. Though the rebels were able to make moderate gains in the duchy, Henry was able to fight them off with no substantial amount of difficulty. With this accomplished, the king moved into Brittany and easily forced the rebels there to surrender. Meanwhile, in England, many of the king’s castles were put on alert as rebels held a firm hand over the midlands and King William of Scotland reaped havoc in the northern counties. The king’s men, however, fought valiantly for their master’s cause and neither side could say they held the upper-hand in England. Henry himself continued to make progress on the continent as the winter months set in. When the fighting was renewed in the spring of 1174, Louis VII and his allies devised a plan to force Henry to cross the channel to England so that they would be free to raid Normandy. Therefore, William of Scotland put more pressure on the northern counties and mercenaries were sent over from Flanders to put the English more firmly in the vice. The rebel forces made significant (though not overly substantial) gains and Henry was finally forced to go to England in July.

Once he arrived in England, Henry immediately travelled to Canterbury where he visited Thomas Beckett’s tomb to beg forgiveness for his actions which had caused the archbishop’s death. It is not clear as to what Henry was hoping to accomplish by doing this, but his luck turned around substantially after the Canterbury visit. In the north, the people had risen up against King William and handed the Scottish king a rather humiliating defeat at the Battle of Alnwick, where William himself was taken prisoner. After William’s defeat, the remaining rebel-held castles in England surrendered rapidly and, by the following month, Henry was firmly back in control of his kingdom and returned to Normandy. There, Louis VII had been attempting to gain ground against him (mainly by besieging Rouen), but without much success. The momentum clearly belonged to Henry and, once word arrived that the English king was back in Normandy, Louis VII had no choice but to seek peace terms.

In the aftermath of the rebellion, Henry was surprisingly lenient with those who had turned against him. He assigned his sons Henry, Richard and Geoffrey with various incomes so that they may sustain their respective positions and allowed most of the barons who had rebelled to keep their lands. Certain lords were imprisoned and others were forced to tear down certain castles that they possessed, but there were no executions, which is nothing short of stunning. It seems that King William of Scotland was the only one to face a punishment that could be looked at as at least somewhat harsh. The Scottish king was forced to humble himself by publicly submitting to Henry and giving up several castles within Scotland, though the latter did not even press his rights as overlord to any great extent. All in all, events remained fairly quiet within Henry’s dominions in the years following the great war.

The only belligerent who was not discussed in the peace talks of 1174 was Louis VII, a man who, more so than many of the other participants, had been made to look rash and foolish at the hands of his fellow monarch. Without a definitive peace settlement between the two kings, their relationship, if anything, remained fairly tense and there continued to be a number of territorial disputes that needed to be worked out. A formal agreement was not drawn up until the fall of 1177, when the Pact of Ivry was completed, with papal intervention. The Pact settled all existing border disputes between Henry and Louis and it is claimed by numerous historians that it paved the way for the Third Crusade. Three years later, Louis VII died and was succeeded by his fifteen-year-old son as Philip II, a man who would cause a great deal of trouble for King Henry. In February 1182, Henry drew up his will and, from that point on, took on a substantially lesser role in the day to day governing of his empire, leaving much of the responsibilities to his sons and his ministers.

It was not until 1182 that tensions within the royal family would, once again, boil over (though it would be difficult to make the case that they had not been gradually building in the years after the great war). Henry II had believed that he had satisfied the ambitions of his sons, at least for the time being, by assigning them their own leadership posts and incomes, but this was apparently still not enough for his eldest son. The Young King had, by this point, grown into a greedy, wasteful and irresponsible man who did not seem to change at all from his teenage days, despite the fact that he was now in his late twenties. Though he preferred to spend most of his time on the jousting or hunting fields, as opposed to in the council chamber, the Young King had come to the conclusion that, when Henry II died, he himself, as the eldest son, should inherit the entire Angevin empire.

The younger Henry was already heir to England, Normandy and the counties of Maine, Anjou and Touraine (Brittany, though technically under the control of his brother Geoffrey, who served as duke, was looked at as a mere appendage of Normandy), but he was furious that his brother Richard would have control of the large duchy of Aquitaine. Richard made the situation even more tense when he refused to pay homage (as his father had commanded him to) to the Young King. During his tenure as duke, Richard had proved to be an effective leader in all of the wrong ways as he brought his barons into submission through treachery and brutalization, depriving men of their rightful inheritances in some cases, while torturing or executing those who stood in his way. It is true that, in such a ruthless age, it was important for a ruler to keep a firm hand on his magnates, but the concepts of mercy and compromise that had worked so well for Henry II seemed to completely escape Richard and the duke and his men were accused (most likely with good cause) of plundering, raping and murdering innocent citizens in their quest for complete domination over the duchy. Combine this with the fact that the Aquitainian nobles were notorious for their fierce independence, and the Young King had little trouble winning over a number of these disenchanted barons to his own cause.

In what must be called, in retrospect, an ill-fated decision, Henry II decided to trust his eldest son and sent him to Aquitaine to act as a mediator, whose task was to help bring the tensions between himself and Richard, and Richard and his barons, to an end.  When Henry II followed his son to the city of Limoges, he was fired upon. This happened several times before he finally realized that the Young King had once again betrayed him and was now in open rebellion. Fortunately for Henry II, the Young King and his allies were, to say the very least, ill-prepared, and as the old king laid siege to the city of Limoges, Duke Richard proceeded to put down the rebellion with deadly extremity. With his own men turning on him, the Young King had no choice but to flee the castle that his father was in the process of besieging and to attempt to call in reinforcements. However, while on his travels, the Young King picked up dysentery, became violently ill and died in June 1183 at the age of twenty-eight. When his death was discovered, all of the barons who had joined him in rebellion, surrendered to Henry II or Richard, including the king’s other son, Duke Geoffrey of Brittany, who had been easily convinced by his eldest brother to join the doomed rising.

The years following the death of Henry the Young King began in relative quietude. It would soon become clear though, that these final years of the life and reign of Henry II would be dominated by the deteriorating relationships between the king and two powerful men: his son Richard and King Philip II of France. When the Young King died, it seemed obvious that Richard, as the eldest surviving son, would take his place as his father’s heir in England, Normandy and Anjou, therefore leaving more land that could be left to his youngest son, John (who up to this point had not been given an inheritance, earning him the affectionate nickname, “Lackland”). The king had anticipated that Richard, realizing that he would be succeeding to a far greater inheritance, would willingly hand over the duchy of Aquitaine to John, but this was not the case. Richard claimed he had no intention of surrendering part of his rightful inheritance, prompting John and his other brother, Geoffrey, to send an army into Aquitaine, without success.

In the end, King Henry had to accept that John would not get Aquitaine and now looked to set up his youngest (and favorite) son as Lord of Ireland. John was sent with an army to attempt to pacify the rebellious island, but was unable to accomplish anything at all (mainly because of blatant incompetence, as most contemporaries will claim) and the mission was dropped completely. Henry, meanwhile, wanted to punish his son Richard for his recalcitrant behavior and actually went so far as to bring his wife Eleanor, who was Duchess of Aquitaine in her own name, out of prison and demand that Richard hand over the duchy to his mother. This he willingly did but, to pour more salt on the wound, Henry refused to officially name Richard as his heir to England, Normandy and Anjou, and there was certainly to be no coronation during his lifetime for Richard as there was for Henry the Young King. There can be no doubt that his father’s refusal to acknowledge him as heir to his empire greatly angered Richard, but, for the time being, it was an effective policy on the king’s part to keep his eldest son in line.

In January 1185, Henry was offered the crown of Jerusalem by the city’s dying, leper king, Baldwin IV. The kingdom was in grave danger of being lost to the Muslims, led by the charismatic Saladin, and Jerusalemites felt this could be prevented if they had a strong leader to protect them. Henry refused outright to accept the crown, knowing he had enough problems to deal with in his own domains, but did agree to take the cross and participate in the Third Crusade. The king (along with various other European rulers) levied  what has come to be known as the Saladin Tithe on his subjects to help cover the expensive cost of the crusade, but was never able to join it himself. By this point, the quarrel between Henry and Philip II of France was beginning to intensify.

Since Philip’s accession to the throne in 1180, the two monarchs had stayed on fairly cordial terms and Henry even aided his fellow king on several occasions in various disputes between Philip and his vassals. But, King Philip was young, ambitious and anxious to prove himself and was none too happy about the fact that Henry’s lands covered over more of France than his own (even though the English king technically held Normandy, Anjou and his other continental territories as Philip’s vassal). The two began to clash incessantly over what seemed to be fairly petty border disputes in contested areas such as the Vexin and the counties of Toulouse and Berry. A further dispute arose in August 1186 when Henry’s son Geoffrey, who held Brittany in right of his wife, was killed in a jousting accident and Philip felt that the duchy should now pass directly into his hands. The conflict escalated when Count Raymond of Toulouse appealed to Philip II for aid against the Angevins. Philip, who felt the county rightfully belonged to him (as opposed to Henry, who felt it was actually part of the duchy of Aquitaine), reprimanded Henry and threatened to invade Normandy if he did not desist his pestering of the people of Toulouse. As can be imagined, King Henry did not take very kindly to this threat and, by the spring of 1187, he and Philip were on the brink of a full-scale war. Though several skirmishes broke out, Philip’s primary strategy of turning Prince Richard against his father was ineffective (at least on this occasion) and a two-year truce was reluctantly agreed to.

From that point on though, Philip II and Richard began to grow increasingly close and the French king renewed his strategy of sowing the seeds of discontent between the prince and his father, spreading rumors that Henry planned on disinheriting Richard in favor of John. Richard, who for all his ferocity, bravery and charisma was no intellectual, began to give Philip’s comments genuine thought and his relationship with his father gradually deteriorated. Even though the truce had been made for two years, King Philip was receiving more complaints against Angevin rule from various vassals and began to raid the marchlands of Henry’s territories in 1188. This prompted Henry to strong-arm Philip into submission, but would not accept any of the terms that the French king offered to him. More seriously though, it seems that Richard had finally reached his wit’s end and, with rumors still flying about that Henry was planning on naming John as his heir, would not wait another day to be named heir to the Angevin domains himself. Though several attempts were made at reconciliation, nothing ever materialized and, by the spring of 1189, open hostilities had broken out as Richard, with King Philip’s assistance, began to attack Henry’s lands in Maine.

Knowing that Richard was most likely their next king, many of the local barons capitulated without a fight and by July, Richard had conquered the entire county and had his sights set on Normandy. Henry managed to escape to his stronghold of Chinon, but his health had been in rapid decline for several months now and it soon became clear that he was a dying man. For this reason, Henry had little desire to see the conflict with his son continue and agreed to make peace with Richard and Philip II. Unfortunately, the terms would not be in Henry’s favor and were nothing short of humiliating. The king was forced to officially acknowledge Richard as his heir; to pay liege homage to Philip II for his continental possessions; and to pay the French king a large indemnity and hand over to him several castles. If this disgraceful treatment was not enough, Henry then asked to see a list of the primary men who had joined Richard in rebellion against him and, to his utter abhorrence, discovered that his favorite son John had been amongst the rebels. Many contemporaries and historians alike have concluded that the discovery of John’s betrayal was the final catalyst that brought about the death of the ailing king. Henry II gave up the ghost on July 6, 1189 at the age of fifty-six. His eldest surviving son succeeded him as King Richard I of England, and as Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine and Count of Anjou, Maine and Touraine.

Assessment and Analysis

When historians study the life, reign and achievements of King Henry II, it is difficult not to look upon the man with great admiration. It is true that he was not the fierce warrior that his son and successor, Richard, was. He also did not possess the charisma and overall likeability that his eldest son, Henry the Young King did. “But, the fact that Henry was able to use his intellect, his diplomatic skills and his natural instincts to rule over such a large amount of territory, and for a fairly lengthy amount of time, is truly astonishing.

At its peak, the “Angevin Empire,” as the territories Henry II collectively ruled over have come to be known, included England, Normandy, Anjou, Maine, Touraine, Brittany, Aquitaine and, in various degrees of sovereignty, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Toulouse. It would be these duchies and counties that future kings such as Edward III and Henry V, among others, would fight so hard to win back  after a majority of them were lost during the reign of Henry’s son John. The kings of France would indeed not completely recover all of the lands that had once made up the Angevin empire until 1453. One question that must be asked is: How is it that Henry II was able to successfully maintain such a vast empire, even in the face of such vast opposition?

One of the reasons for Henry’s luck lye in his birthrights. As the grandson of Henry I of England, and the son of his only surviving child, Princess Matilda, the younger Henry arguably possessed the most legitimate claim to the kingdom of England and the duchy of Normandy. As the eldest son of the Count of Anjou, he was the obvious heir to the counties of Anjou, Maine and Touraine. Already, this was a rich and massive inheritance. Henry, however, looked to gain more and accomplished this through two important diplomatic marriages. The first of these unions was his own marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, the eldest daughter and heiress to a duchy that covered more of France that the actual French royal demesne. Years later, Henry scored another huge victory when he had his son Geoffrey betrothed to the heiress of Brittany, making himself de facto duke of the duchy until his son came of age. It is true that Henry held all of these territories, excepting England, as a vassal of the King of France. But, both Louis VII and Philip II both knew that there was only so much that they could do to a man who held such massive power at his disposal.

Henry was able, in a way, to extend his “empire” even further by keeping a firm hand on several disputed areas. Scotland, despite having their own king, was dependent on England in many ways (mainly financially) and Henry was easily able to assert his authority over Kings David I and William the Lion. Ireland and Wales were much more disorganized but, when needed, Henry led armies into these rebellious lands and proved to them that he was not to be meddled with. The duchy of Aquitaine was another difficult area to maintain because of the obscurity of the its boundaries and the fierce independence of its local lords. Considering theses issues, Henry was able to do a remarkable job of maintaining at least a certain amount of order and was even able to somewhat bring the disputed county of Toulouse under his control (even if only nominally).

Henry’s birthrights and marriages, however, were not the only reasons why he was able to hold together such a vast amount of territory for so long. Though Henry was, inevitably, forced to rely on a number of ministers to take care of the day to day business in his many territories, he was, undoubtedly, the archetypal, do-all governor who showed a genuine interest in matters of state and the welfare of every inch of his domain, qualities that his sons, for the most part, did not share. Henry knew exactly when to be firm, and when to be merciful. He knew when to jump into battle, and when to seek peace terms. Most of all though, Henry was able to learn from his mistakes. When his subjects rebelled against him, he did not brutalize them into submission. Instead, he discovered what the underlying problem that had caused them to rebel in the first place was, and did his best to fix it and make sure it did not happen again. For all of these reasons, Henry was able to hold the respect and admiration of a majority of his contemporaries, and continues to be looked at in a positive light by historians, over nine hundred years after his death.

In England, Henry II is best known as the founder of the Plantagenet dynasty, which would sit on England’s throne until it was finally deposed in 1485. The name Plantagenet has, over the years, caused a great deal of confusion and only really began to be used as a surname for the family in the mid-fifteenth century when Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, was pressing his claim to the throne over the house of Lancaster during the Wars of the Roses. Plantagenet is actually a combination of two different words: “planta” and “genista.” Combine these two words together and the result is the term for the broom flower that Henry’s father Geoffrey could frequently be seen wearing in his cap. The descendants of Geoffrey Plantagenet are also frequently know as the Angevins, or the House of Anjou (given the fact that Geoffrey himself was Count of Anjou). Finally, it must be noted that the House of Plantagenet did not become specifically well-known as Kings of England until at least the reign of Henry’s grandson, Henry III. As was the case with their Norman predecessors, the Plantagenets looked at their continental territories as the bigger prizes in comparison to England. It was only when King John lost a majority of these lands that he and his descendants began to concentrate on forming England into the world power and political colossus it would later become.


W. L. Warren, Henry II

Make a Free Website with Yola.