King Henry II

King Henry II

Henry, the eldest son of Matilda, the daughter of Henry I, and Geoffrey Plantagent, Count of Anjou, was born in Le Mans in 1133.

Although he married twice, Henry only had two legitimate children, William and Matilda. (He had at least another twenty outside marriage.) When his son William drowned in 1120, Henry decided to ask his barons to accept his daughter as the country's next ruler. The barons were not happy about this but after much discussion they accepted Henry's request.

When Henry I died in 1135, some of the barons did not keep their promise to support Matilda. The Normans had never had a woman leader. Norman law stated that all property and rights should be handed over to men. To the Normans this meant that her husband Geoffrey of Anjou would become their next ruler.

The people of Anjou (Angevins) were considered to be barbarians by the Normans. Most Normans were unwilling to accept an Angevin ruler and instead decided to help Stephen, the son of one of William the Conqueror's daughters, to become king.

For the next eighteen years there was civil war between the supporters of Matilda and Stephen. As neither side was strong enough to achieve an outright victory, the result was a long conflict that created a great deal of hardship for the people of England.

Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou had three sons. At the age of fourteen Henry, the eldest son, arrived in England from Anjou with his own army to help his mother in her fight against Stephen. Henry also fought in France, and with his father managed to capture Normandy from Stephen. Later, when Geoffrey died. Henry inherited Normandy, Maine and Anjou. His marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152 also brought another large area of France under his control.

It was now clear to the barons that Stephen would never be able to achieve total victory over Matilda. They put pressure on Stephen to bring an end to the civil war and in 1153 negotiations began between the two sides. It was eventually agreed by the Treaty of Westminster that Stephen would remain king until he died. In return, Stephen had to accept Matilda's son Henry as his heir.

Henry did not have to wait long to become king as Stephen died the following year. Henry was now the undisputed ruler of the empire that had been created by his great grandfather, William the Conqueror.

When Stephen died in 1154, Henry became king of England. Henry spent the early part of his reign establishing control over England's powerful barons. His first step was to destroy all the castles that had been built during Stephen's reign. Henry II also announced that in future castles could only be built with his permission.

From an early age Henry had been trained as the next king of England. Queen Matilda had employed the best scholars in Europe to educate her son. Henry was a willing student and never lost his love of learning. When he became king Henry arranged for the world's best scholars to visit his court so that he could discuss important issues with them. One of his close friends said that Henry had a tremendous memory and rarely forgot anything he was told.

Henry spent many hours studying Roman history. He was particularly interested in the way Emperor Augustus had successfully managed to gain control over the Roman Empire. Henry realised that, like Augustus, his first task must be to tackle those that had the power to remove him.

This meant that Henry had to control England's powerful barons. His first step was to destroy all the castles that had been built during Stephen's reign. Henry also announced that, in future, castles could only be built with his permission. The new king also deported all the barons' foreign mercenaries.

Henry then took action to unite the people of England. He allowed several of Stephen's officials to keep their government posts. Another strategy used by Henry was to arrange marriages between rival families.

Once Henry had complete control over England, he turned his attention to the rest of the British Isles. In 1157 Henry forced the king of Scotland, Malcolm IV, to surrender Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmorland to England. Henry also invaded Wales and Ireland, but their successful use of guerrilla tactics made complete control over these countries impossible.

When Henry became king he appointed Thomas Becket as his chancellor. Becket's job was an important one as it involved the distribution of royal charters, writs and letters. The king and Becket soon became close friends. Becket carried out many tasks for Henry II including leading the English army into battle.

When Theobald died in 1162, Henry chose Becket as his next Archbishop of Canterbury. The decision angered many leading churchmen. They pointed out that Becket had never been a priest, had a reputation as a cruel military commander and was very materialistic (Becket loved expensive food, wine and clothes). They also feared that as Becket was a close friend of Henry II, he would not be an independent leader of the church.

A great deal of Henry's reign was spent at war with rivals who wanted to take over the territory he controlled in Europe. Not only did Henry manage to successfully protect this territory, but was able to add to his empire making him the most powerful monarch in Western Europe.

When Henry was in England he spent most of the time travelling. Henry believed that it was important that people saw their ruler as much as possible. He argued that this encouraged the people to remain loyal to their king.

Henry was full of energy. When he was not working on government business he loved hunting. Even when he arrived back home it was said he rarely sat down.

Henry, unlike most kings, cared little for appearances. He preferred hardwearing hunting clothes to royal robes. Henry also disliked the pomp and ceremony that went with being king.

Henry believed people had to earn respect. He was often rude to members of the nobility. He was quick to lose his temper and often upset important people by shouting at them. Yet, when dealing with the poor or a defeated enemy. Henry had a reputation for being polite and kind. He also had a great sense of humour and even enjoyed a joke at his own expense.

An extremely intelligent man with tremendous energy, Henry made several important legal reforms and is considered to be the founder of English common law. Henry's attempts to reform the courts controlled by the church led to conflict with Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In 1163, after a long spell in France, Henry arrived back in England. Henry was told that, while he had been away, there had been a dramatic increase in serious crime. The king's officials claimed that over a hundred murderers had escaped their proper punishment because they had claimed their right to be tried in church courts.

Those that had sought the privilege of a trial in a Church court were not exclusively clergymen. Any man who had been trained by the church could choose to be tried by a church court. Even clerks who had been taught to read and write by the Church but had not gone on to become priests had a right to a Church court trial. This was to an offender's advantage, as church courts could not impose punishments that involved violence such as execution or mutilation. There were several examples of clergy found guilty of murder or robbery who only received "spiritual" punishments, such as suspension from office or banishment from the altar.

The king decided that clergymen found guilty of serious crimes should be handed over to his courts. At first, the Archbishop agreed with Henry on this issue but after talking to other church leaders Thomas Becket changed his mind. Henry was furious when Becket began to assert that the church should retain control of punishing its own clergy. The king believed that Becket had betrayed him and was determined to obtain revenge.

In 1164, Becket was involved in a dispute over land. Henry ordered Becket to appear before his courts. When Becket refused, the king confiscated his property. Henry also claimed that Becket had stolen £300 from government funds when he had been Chancellor. Becket denied the charge but, so that the matter could be settled quickly, he offered to repay the money. Henry refused to accept Becket's offer and insisted that the Archbishop should stand trial. When Henry mentioned other charges, including treason, Becket decided to run away to France.

Becket eventually agreed to return to England. However, as soon as he arrived on English soil, he excommunicated (expelled from the Christian Church) the Archbishop of York and other leading churchmen who had supported Henry while he was away. Henry, who was in Normandy at the time, was furious when he heard the news and supposedly shouted out: "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" Four of Henry's knights, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, Reginald Fitz Urse, and Richard Ie Bret, who heard Henry's angry outburst decided to travel to England to see Becket.

When the knights arrived at Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December 1170, they demanded that Becket pardon the men he had excommunicated. When Becket refused, they hacked him to death with their swords.

The Christian world was shocked by Becket's murder. The pope canonised Becket and he became a symbol of Christian resistance to the power of the monarchy. His shrine at Canterbury became the most important place in the country for pilgrims to visit.

Although Henry admitted that his comments had led to the death of Becket, he argued that he had neither commanded nor wished the man's death. In 1172 Pope Alexander III accepted these arguments and absolved Henry from Becket's murder. In return. Henry had to provide 200 men for a crusade to the Holy Land and had to agree to being whipped by eighty monks. Most importantly of all. Henry agreed to drop his plans to have criminal clerics tried in his courts.

Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine had five sons (William, Henry, Richard I, Geoffrey and John) and three daughters (Matilda, Eleanor and Joan). During the last years of his reign Henry's wife and sons constantly plotted against him. Henry died in 1189.

Primary Sources

(1) William of Newburgh, History of English Affairs (c. 1200)

After the miseries they had endured the people hoped for better things from the new monarch, especially as Henry gave signs... of a strict regard for justice... In the early days he gave serious attention to public order and exerted himself to revive the laws of England, which seemed under King Stephen to be dead and buried.

(2) Gerald of Wales, The Conquest of Ireland (c. 1190)

No one can doubt how splendidly, how vigorously, how skillfully our most excellent king has practised armed warfare against his enemies in time of war... He not only brought strong peace in England... he won victories in remote and foreign lands.

(3) The Chronicles of Peter of Blois (c. 1185)

With King Henry II it is school every day, constant conversation with the best scholars and discussions of intellectual problems... He does not linger in his palaces like other kings but hunts through the country inquiring into what everyone was doing, especially judges whom he has made judges of others.

(4) Ralph of Diss, Pictures of History (c. 1180)

Henry sought to help those of his subjects who could least help themselves. When the king found that the sheriffs were using the public power in their own interests... he entrusted rights of justice to other loyal men of his realm.

(5) Writ issued by Henry II to those electing the Bishop of Winchester (1171)

I order you to hold a free election, but forbid you to elect anyone but Richard my clerk.

(6) Gerald of Wales, The Conquest of Ireland (c. 1190)

Henry dreaded war... and grieved more than any prince for those lost in battle, mourning them with a grief far greater than the love he gave to the living. He could scarcely spare an hour to hear mass... The revenues of the churches he drew into his own treasury... as he was always engaged in mighty wars, he spent all the money he could get, and lavished upon soldiers what was due to the priests.

(7) Peter of Blois, Henry's secretary, in a letter to his friend Henry FitzEmpress (c. 1185)

If the king said he will remain in a place for a day.... he is sure to upset all the arrangements by departing early in the morning. And you then see men dashing around as if they were mad... If, on the other hand, the king orders an early start, he is sure to change his mind, and you can take it for granted that he will sleep until midday. Then you will see the packhorses loaded and waiting, the carts prepared, the courtiers dozing, traders fretting, and everyone grumbling... Many a time when the king was sleeping, a message would be passed from his chamber about a city or town he intended to go to... But when our courtiers had gone ahead almost the whole day's ride, the king would turn aside to some other place... I hardly dare say it, but I believe that in truth he took a delight in seeing what a fix he put us in.

(8) Herbert of Bosham, The Life of Thomas Becket (c. 1188)

The king (Henry II) demanded that the clergy seized or convicted of great crimes should be deprived of the protection of the Church and handed over to his officers, adding that they would be less likely to do evil if... they were subjected to physical punishment.

(9) Bishop Foliot to Thomas Becket at their meeting at Clarendon (1164)

These hands, these arms, even these bodies are not ours; they are our lord king's, and they are ready at his will whatever it may be.

(10) Thomas Becket in a letter to Henry II (1166)

There are two principles by which the world is ruled: the authority of priests and the royal power. The authority of priests is the greater because God will demand an accounting of them even in regard to kings.

(11) Conservation between Henry II and Thomas Becket, quoted by Roger of Pontigny in his book Life of Thomas Becket. (c. 1176)

Henry II: Have I not raised you from the poor and humble to the summit of honour and rank?... How can it be that after so many favours... that you are not only ungrateful but oppose me in everything.

Thomas Becket: I am not unmindful of the favours which, not simply you, but God the giver of all things has decided to confer on me through you as St Peter says, '"We ought to obey God rather than men."

Henry II: I don't want a sermon from you: are you not the son of one of my villeins?

Thomas Becket: It is true that I am not of royal lineage; but then, neither was St Peter.

(12) The Constitution of Clarendon (1164)

Clerks, accused of any matter shall, when summoned by the king's justices, come into the king's court... And if the clerks be convicted... the Church must not any longer protect him.

(13) Andreas Trevisano, Italian ambassador to England between 1497 and 1502.

If the criminal (in England) can read, he asks to defend himself by the book... if he can read it he is liberated from the power of the law, and given as a clerk into the hands of the bishop.