Plantagenet (March 5, 1133
- July 6, 1189), was Duke of Anjou and King of England (1154 - 1189) and,
at various times, controlled parts of Wales, Scotland, eastern Ireland,
and western France. His soubriquets include "Curt Mantle" (because of the
practical short cloaks he wore), "Fitz Empress," and sometimes "The Lion
of Justice," which had been used for his grandfather Henry I. He would
be known as the first of the Angevin Kings.
Following the disastrous reign of King Stephen, Henry's reign was one
of efficient consolidation. Henry II is regarded as England's greatest
He was born on March 5, 1133, to the Empress Matilda and her second
husband, Geoffrey the Fair, Duke of Anjou. He was brought up in Anjou and
visited England in 1142 to help his mother in her disputed claim to the
Prior to coming to the throne he already controlled Normandy and Anjou
on the continent; his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine added her land holdings
to his, including vast areas such as Touraine, Aquitaine, and Gascony.
He was thus effectively more powerful than the king of France with an empire
that stretched from Solway almost to the Mediterranean and from the Somme
to the Pyrenees. As king, he would make Ireland a part of his vast domain.
He also was in lively communication with the Emperor of Byzantium Manuel
During Stephen's reign, the barons had subverted feudal legislation
to undermine the monarch's grip on the realm; Henry saw it as his first
task to reverse this shift in power. Castles which had been built without
authorisation during Stephen's reign, for example, were torn down, and
an early form of taxation replaced military service as the primary duty
of vassals. Record-keeping was dramatically improved in order to streamline
Henry II established courts in various parts of the country and was
the first king to grant magistrates the power to render legal decisions
on a wide range of civil matters in the name of the Crown. Under his reign,
the first written legal textbook was produced, proving the basis on what
today is referred to as Common Law. By the Assize of Clarendon (1166),
trial by jury became the norm again: Since the Norman Conquest, jury trials
had been largely replaced by trial by ordeal and "wager of battel" (which
was not abolished in England until 1819). This was one of Henry's major
contributions to the social history of England. As a consequence of the
improvements in the legal system, the power of church courts waned. The
church, not unnaturally, opposed this, and its most vehement spokesman
was Thomas à Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, formerly a close friend
of Henry's and his chancellor. Henry had appointed Becket to the archbishopric
precisely because he wanted to avoid conflict.
The conflict with Becket effectively began with a dispute over whether
clergy who had committed a secular offence could be tried by the secular
courts. Henry attempted to subdue Becket and his fellow churchmen by making
them swear to obey the "customs of the realm", but there was controversy
over what constituted these customs, and the church was reluctant to submit.
Becket left England in 1164 to solicit personally the support of the Pope
in Rome and the king of France, where he stayed for a time. After a reconciliation
between Henry and Thomas in Normandy in 1170, he returned to England. Becket
again confronted Henry, this time over the coronation of Prince Henry (see
below). The much-quoted words of Henry II echo down the centuries: "Who
will rid me of this turbulent priest?" Four of his knights took their king
literally (as he may have intended for them to do, although he later denied
it) and travelled immediately to England, where they assassinated Becket
in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170.
In 1170, the fifteen-year-old son Henry was crowned king, but he never
actually ruled and is not counted in the monarchs of England; he is now
known as Henry the Young King to distinguish him from his nephew Henry
III of England.
Henry and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had four sons and three daughters.
(Henry also had some ten children by at least four other women, and Eleanor
had several of those children reared in the royal nursery with her own
children, and some remained members of the household in adulthood.) His
attempts to wrest control of her lands from her (and her heir Richard)
led to confrontation between Henry on the one side and his wife and legitimate
sons on the other.
Henry's notorious liaison with Rosamund Clifford, the "fair Rosamund"
of legend, is thought to have begun in 1165, during one of his Welsh campaigns,
and continued until her death in 1176. However, it was not until 1174,
at around the time of his break with Eleanor, that Henry acknowledged Rosamund
as his mistress. Almost simultaneously, he began negotiating to divorce
Eleanor and marry Alice, daughter of King Louis VII of France, who was
already betrothed to his son, Richard. His affair with her continued for
some years, and, unlike Rosamund Clifford, Alice is believed to have given
birth to several of his illegitimate children.
Henry II's attempt to divide his titles amongst his sons but keep the
power associated with them provoked them into trying to take control of
the lands assigned to them, which amounted to treason, at least in Henry's
eyes. Henry was fortunate to have on his side a knight who was both loyal
and unbeatable in battle: William Marshal; Henry's illegitimate son Geoffrey
Plantagenet (1151-1212), Archbishop of York, also stood by him the whole
time and was the only son with Henry when he died.
When Henry's legitimate sons rebelled against him, they often had the
help of King Louis VII of France. The death of his son, Henry the Young
King in 1183, was followed by the death of the next in line to the throne,
Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany who was trampled to death by a horse in 1186.
His third son, Richard the Lionheart, with the assistance of Philippe II
Auguste, attacked and defeated Henry on July 4, 1189; Henry died at the
Chateau Chinon on July 7, 1189 and was entombed in Fontevraud Abbey, near
Chinon and Saumur in the Anjou Region that today is part of France.
Richard the Lionheart then became king of England. He was followed by
King John, the youngest son of Henry II, laying aside the claims of Geoffrey's
son, Arthur, and daughter, Eleanor.
The treasons associated with the succession were the main theme of the
play The Lion in Winter, which was made into a film starring Peter
O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn. Henry II and his sons King Richard and King
John were also the subject of the BBC2 series The Devil's Crown
and the 1978 book of the same title, written by Richard Barber and published
as a guide to the tv series, which starred Brian Cox and Jane Lapotaire
as Henry and Eleanor.