Born: 5 March 1133 in Le Mans, Maine, Kingdom of France.
Succeeded: Stephen (Henry II was the son of Matilda from her marriage to Geoffrey Plantagenet, and Matilda was the daughter of Henry I – therefore, Henry II was Henry I’s grandson).
Marriage: Eleanor of Aquitaine on 18 May 1152 in Poitiers Cathedral, Kingdom of France.
Coronation: 19 December 1154.
Reign: 19 December 1154 – 6 July 1189.
Death: 6 July 1189, Chinon, France.
Preceded: Richard I (his eldest surviving son).
Henry II ascended the throne on 19 December 1154, upon the death of King Stephen. According to the historian Simon Jenkins, Henry ‘had a raging temper and a taste for revenge, yet he could be calm and conciliatory, wise and dignified.’ Similarly, the renowned monarchical historian David Starkey cites Henry II as the origin of the infamous Plantagenet rage (which we shall also see in the characteristics of the majority of his descendants) and was even known to chew carpets when infuriated.
Despite being only 21 (almost middle-aged by twelfth century standards) when he became king, Henry was already well-versed in his political knowledge, having being involved in English affairs from across the channel since he had been 14 years old. Nevertheless, he still had major tasks ahead of him. Stephen’s reign had seen civil war and anarchy – and England still had to recover to an extent. Henry’s first major duty as king was to restore territories that had been lost in Stephen’s reign. Almost immediately, he showed his political maturity: he managed to force Malcolm IV (the king of Scotland) to restore Cumberland, Westmorland, Carlisle and Northumbria back to the English Crown under the Treaty of Chester in 1157. This was the beginning of the restoration and expansion of what was to become the Plantagenet Empire under Henry II.
One of the main focal points of Henry II’s reign was his relationship with Thomas Becket. The pair had been friends since childhood, and by the time Henry was king, Becket was a royal advisor and diplomat. In 1158, Henry sent Becket on a mission to Paris with a 200-strong entourage which arrived much more lavishly than Henry himself did, thus suggesting the importance, respect and trust in which he bestowed upon Becket.
In 1162, Henry awarded Becket the Archbishopric of Canterbury. Becket initially refused, and his argument was valid: that one man could not be loyal to both the Church and the King. In the twelfth century, the Church was the most powerful unit in Northern Europe. However, in one of his biggest diplomatic mistakes, Henry overruled Becket, and Becket reluctantly took on the role.
Becket’s reluctance also led to his downfall: he went out of his way to ensure that he opposed Henry, who had given him the role out of friendship. Henry begun to feel betrayed, and in January 1164, he summoned a council to Clarendon, and presented the bishops with the Constitutions of Clarendon. They were a clear statement of Henry’s customary rights over the Church, and he required a promise from the bishops to observe Henry’s rights. Becket argued over the Constitutions for two days before eventually conceding.
Henry’s relationship with Becket collapsed after the Constitutions: there are contemporary accounts which tell us of Becket holding up a crucifix to Henry to remind him where his personal loyalties laid. Henry was furious, and out of fear, Becket fled to France.
Henry could have reacted instantly but instead took advantage of Becket’s disappearance and concentrated on English matters over the next five years. He successfully conquered Brittany, and also overhauled the English judicial system.
Nevertheless, the Becket saga was not over yet. In 1169, the question of the coronation of the heir to the throne was discussed – without Becket. Traditionally, this was always discussed between the King, the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury. When Becket found out the negotiations had taken place without him, he came back to England in 1170 with an aim to punish those who had taken part.
When Henry was informed that Becket had returned, he (allegedly) uttered one of the most famous lines in British history: “Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?”. Although this was likely a loose translation, it is contended that Henry stated: “What miserable drones and traitors I have nurtured, within my household, that they let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?”. Even so, the message was still clear: he wanted rid of Becket.
“Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?”Henry II on Becket
Or that’s what four knights sitting at the back of the room thought. As we have already seen, Henry was prone to outbursts of his temper, but unfortunately for him, the knights took him seriously. They slipped away to Canterbury, and on 29 December 1170, found Becket in the Cathedral praying at the altar. The knights (William de Tracy, Hugh de Morville, Richard le Breton and Reginald Fitzurse) murdered Becket and symbolically left him in a pool of his own blood at the church altar.
Europe was in shock. Pope Alexander III reportedly refused to speak to an Englishman for a week after he found out. Henry went into mourning for three days and was so anguished that he apparently ate his bedsheets. Perhaps the most significant element of Becket’s death was that he had been murdered in a House of God by knights – some contemporaries even saw this as worse than Judas’ betrayal of Jesus.
This major event came to be known as the ‘Crisis of 1170’, and it dominated the remaining eighteen years of Henry’s reign. His wife, Queen Eleanor, moved to the Angevin capital of Poitiers, and – similarly to Becket – tried to undermine Henry in any way she could. One way she managed this was convincing their son Richard to pay homage to Prince Philip Augustus of France (King Louis VII’s son and heir). Henry’s position collapsed. He fled to Ireland in October 1171 and stayed there for the rest of the year in the vain hope that things would either be forgotten or forgiven.
On 21 February 1173, Pope Alexander III canonised Thomas Becket, and he became known as St Thomas Becket, and was glorified by the Church for his martyrdom. Henry knew there was no escaping the Crisis of 1170 anymore, and eventually paid penance at Canterbury in 1174. The contemporary chronicler Ralph de Diceto stated that ‘[Henry II] subjected his flesh to harsh discipline from cuts with rods, receiving three or even five strokes from each of the monks in turn…’. Henry had not only publicly paid penance, but – in an excellent propaganda move – had acknowledged his wrongdoing in the Crisis of 1170 and shown himself to repent his sins physically.
However, despite being overshadowed by the Crisis, the early 1170s were the height of Henry’s power as king on the Continent. It was at this point that he decided to partition his dominions between his sons: Henry the Young King was given his father’s (Anjou, Normandy and England); Richard was given his mother’s (Aquitaine); Geoffrey was given Brittany (the recent acquisition of 1169), but it was not until 1185 that his youngest son John was given his other major acquisition, Ireland.
Clearly, nothing was ever going to be easy under the first Plantagenet. From 1173 onwards, Henry was plagued by his rebellious sons, who constantly argued over their newly acquired territories. What should have made matters easier was when the Young King Henry died in 1183, and Geoffrey died in 1186. However, Henry II’s favouritism of John over Richard complicated his problems further as he wanted to grant John more territory than Richard, despite the fact that Richard was going to be his heir, as his eldest surviving son.
After paying homage to Philip some years before, Richard officially made an alliance with Philip (now Philip II of France upon his father Louis VII’s death in 1179) in 1187 with regard to the crusades. This alliance also helped Richard’s position when Henry II wanted to concede Aquitaine (Richard’s territory) to John.
Henry II eventually died a miserable man on 6 July 1189 after a 33 year reign in Chinon Castle in the Kingdom of France, inundated with quarrels between his sons. But what legacy did he leave behind?
David Starkey argues that ‘Henry had remade the monarchy…Thanks to his restless energy, commanding personality and indomitable will, Henry II had made himself the greatest king in Christendom.’ This is a fair assessment of Henry II. He rescued England from Stephen’s disastrous reign, expanded the Angevin Empire in France, left behind a financially stable England for his successor Richard I, and demonstrated genuine remorse over the Crisis of 1170.
Thomas Becket’s death was clearly the main factor which puts a stain on Henry II’s reign, but he cannot be judged on this alone. In the greater picture, Henry’s achievements far outnumber his mistakes, and he was largely responsible for creating a dynasty that was to become the powerhouse of Europe over the next two centuries.
Born: 8 September 1157, Beaumont Palace, Oxford, England.
Succeeded: Henry II (eldest surviving son).
Marriage: Berengaria of Navarre (the first-born daughter of King Sancho IV of Navarre) on 12 May 1191 in the Chapel of St George, Limassol, Cyprus.
Coronation: 3 September 1189.
Reign: 3 September 1189 – 6 April 1199.
Died: 6 April 1189, Châlus, Duchy of Aquitaine, France.
Preceded: John (his younger brother).
Richard I (better known as Richard the Lionheart) had spent the majority of his life living in France and travelling around mainland Europe. In hindsight this was very valuable – he was well aware that being a ruler of England meant that he ruled more than just England, and had lands on the Continent to protect and govern, too.
After being made Duke of Aquitaine in 1172, Richard spent most of his time there. In 1187, his friendship with Philip Augustus culminated in their pact to crusade together, when catastrophe hit Christendom after word was spread that the Muslim leader Saladin captured Jerusalem. Richard was the first prince in Northern Europe to ‘take the cross’ (a promise to crusade) and pledge to recover the Holy Land.
However, due to the ongoing familial quarrels at the end of his father’s reign, Richard did not set out on crusade until July 1190 – ten months after his coronation as King Richard I of England. Both Richard and Philip set out on what was to be the Third Crusade together. Little did he know at the time, but Richard did not set foot in England again until March 1194.
Despite Richard making alliances over Europe en route to Jerusalem (including his marriage to Berengaria of Navarre in Cyprus in 1191), he also made enemies. Two of his most notable enemies were Duke Leopold V of Austria and Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor. Richard had humiliated and insulted Leopold with regard to the division of the spoils after the Fall of Acre in 1191. He had not given him nearly as much as he should have done, and this came back to haunt him in the following weeks.
Just several weeks after leaving Acre, Richard was shipwrecked in the Adriatic Sea. He tried to disguise himself as a Templar (from the secret order of the Knights Templar), but fell into Leopold’s hands. He was left imprisoned in Dürnstein, Austria, and eventually a ransom of 35,000 kilograms of silver was paid for his release.
Although Richard was unable to recapture Jerusalem from Saladin, he still achieved arguably much more than his predecessors and successors who are typically associated with warfare, including William I (r. 1066-89), Edward III (r. 1327-77) and Henry V (r. 1413-22).
Yet Richard did not wholly lose out regarding Jerusalem. Historian Dan Jones argues that the Treaty of Jaffa (signed on Wednesday 2 September 1192) enabled the crusader states to survive for another century at least: the three-year truce meant that Saladin kept Jerusalem, but had to agree to allow a limited number of Christian pilgrims access to the Holy Sepulchre. The Christians kept everything they held between Tyre and Jaffa. Even so, the True Cross remained in Saladin’s hands.
On his way back from the Holy Land, Richard was captured by Henry VI, the Holy Roman Emperor. He spent eighteen months imprisoned at Trifels Castle in modern-day Germany, from December 1192 to February 1194. Yet despite his imprisonment, prior planning had saved Richard. He had promoted the royal advisor Hubert Walter to Archbishop of Canterbury, and he successfully ran England, and quashed attempted rebellions from Richard’s younger brother John and his supporters (who attempted to overthrow Richard’s reign while he was away on the Third Crusade). Walter also raised enough money to pay two-thirds of the King’s ransom: 100,000 marks. This was roughly the same cost as a crusade.
Yet things did not go so smoothly on the Continent. Philip II had fallen out with Richard by 1192, and in Normandy (one of Richard’s dominions he had inherited from Henry II) Philip had overran the Vexin, and also came close to capturing Rouen – something which the French failed to do in completion until the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453).
Upon his release from prison in February 1194, Richard visited England from March until May, where his brother John begged for his forgiveness over his attempted rebellions. Richard eventually forgave him, citing that John was ‘just a boy’ – he was 27 years old.
Richard returned to the Continent in June 1194, and rather than attempting to crusade again, he wisely devoted the next five years of his reign to recapturing lost territory while he had been both crusading and imprisoned. Surprisingly, Richard’s reign was a time of relative peace with Scotland – definitely something his later successors failed to achieve.
Unfortunately, gaps in Richard’s itinerary from 1194-99 make it difficult to understand where he was, although it is largely agreed upon that the majority of his time was spent in Normandy.
At the Siege of Châlus-Chabrol in Spring 1199, Richard was hit with a crossbow, while defending himself with a frying pan. Whether it was down to his arrogance of knowing he was a good fighter, or his slower reactions due to his age, we will never know. Richard tried to remove the crossbow bolt himself, but the metal stayed wedged in his shoulder, and he eventually died of gangrene after a slow and painful illness on 6 April 1199.
Richard had no legitimate children (although he did have a bastard son, Philip of Cognac) so the Crown naturally passed onto his younger brother, who became the infamous King John.
What can we say about Richard’s reign? The fact that Richard is more often remembered by his epithet (Richard the Lionheart) rather than his regnal number (Richard I) says a lot: he is largely remembered as a crusader king. Even today, his statue stands tall and proud outside the Houses of Parliament, highlighting his importance and reputation in English history. Also, despite the fact he spent a mere six months of his reign in England, he is still very much an English king, associated with the Arthurian imagery which glorifies him as an English warrior even today.
Historians also tend to regard him highly: Dan Jones says that ‘he left [the Holy Land] as a living legend. Hated by some, revered by others, feared by all.’ Similarly, David Starkey states that ‘he was popular with his subjects and admired by contemporaries as the very model of a good king.’
This rings true: John of Joinville, writing in the 1250s said that Muslim mothers would tell their unruly children “Hush! Or I will send King Richard of England to you!”. Moreover, the early fourteenth century English Benedictine monk and chronicler Ranulf Higden cited Richard as the quintessential English hero: as precious in the memory of English people as Alexander had been to the Greeks, Octavian to the Romans and Charlemagne to the French.
To follow such a strong king as Henry II was no easy task, but Richard I managed this as if he had been born to inherit the crown. His legacy as one of the greatest kings in English history is still strong today. The same cannot be said about his successor John. More will be said about that next time though!
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If you found this interesting, or you’d like to read more around it, here’s a list of books I can recommend. I’ve used some of them in this blog post (see the books in bold) and cited the relevant authors where necessary. The majority of these books can be picked up cheaply second-hand from websites such as eBay, Amazon and Abe Books.
Thomas Asbridge, The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land (London: Simon and Schuster UK Ltd, 2012)
John Gillingham & Ralph A. Griffiths, Medieval Britain: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)
John Gillingham, Richard I (Yale: Yale University Press, 1999)
Chris Given-Wilson, Chronicles: The Writing of History in Medieval England (London: Hambledon and London, 2004)
Simon Jenkins, A Short History of England (London: Profile Books Ltd, 2012)
Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England (London: William Collins, 2012)Dan Jones, The Templars: The Rise and Fall of God’s Holy Warriors (London: Head of Zeus Ltd, 2018)
Nigel Saul (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)
David Starkey, Crown and Country – The Kings and Queens of England: A History (London: Harper Press, 2010)
Nicholas Vincent, A Brief History of Britain 1066-1485: The Birth of the Nation (London: Robinson, 2011)