Henry II: An Assessment (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Henry II: An Assessment

Q1: Study sources 2, 3, 5 and 6. According to these medieval historians, why was Henry II a good king?

A1: William of Newburgh (source 2) claims that Henry II had "a strict regard for justice" and "gave serious attention to public order" after he became king. Peter of Blois (source 5) agrees with Newburgh and points out that he went into "the country inquiring into what everyone was doing, especially judges whom he has made judges of others". Ralph de Diceto (source 6) supports this view and argues that Henry discovered "that the sheriffs were using the public power in their own interests... he entrusted rights of justice to other loyal men of his realm". Gerald of Wales (source 3) was impressed with Henry's military skill in winning " victories in remote and foreign lands".

Q2: Why would modern historians be interested in finding out the dates when William of Newburgh, Gerald of Wales, Ralph de Diceto, and Peter of Blois wrote and published their accounts of Henry II.

A2: Historians are interested when people wrote and published accounts of Henry II for several different reasons. This information might help the historian discover whether the writer was describing events he had actually witnessed. If the author wrote his account soon after the event had taken place, there is less chance of him making factual errors. However, if the accounts were written a long time after the event had taken place, the historian would want to know what sources the author had consulted before writing his account. If these authors wrote and published their accounts while Henry was still alive, it is possible they would have been too afraid of their king to say bad things about him.

Q3: How important are sources 4, 7 and 10 in helping historians understand Henry II?

A3: Sources 4, 7 and 10 are all illustrations from manuscripts and provide no real information that help us understand Henry II.

Q4: Select sources from this unit that would be helpful to a historian who wants to find out about Henry II's relationship with the Church. Explain why you have chosen these sources.

A4: In source 9, Gerald of Wales claims that because of the expense of fighting so many wars Henry "drew into his own treasury... the revenues of the churches." Gerald also claims that Henry was so busy he "could scarcely spare an hour to hear mass". Source 8 indicates that Henry liked to decide who should become the leaders of the Church. In the writ that he sent to those electing the Bishop of Winchester, Henry told them who they had to choose.