King Henry II

King Henry II was the first Plantaganet King of England, famous for his stormy relationship with Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Henry II seems to struggle to make an impact upon popular history. His reign falls in a century flanked by the Norman Conquest and Magna Carta. As great grandson of William the Conqueror, husband to Eleanor of Aquitaine and father of two of our more familiar monarchs, Richard the Lionheart and King John, it would seem understandable that he is often forgotten.

Henry II of England

Born to Count Geoffrey of Anjou and Empress Matilda in 1133, Henry inherited his father’s duchy and became Duke of Normandy by the age of 18. At 21 he succeeded to the English throne and by 1172, the British Isles and Ireland had acknowledged him as their overlord and he ruled more of France than any monarch since the fall of the Carolingian dynasty in 891. It was Henry who set England on a path to becoming one of the world’s most dominant nations.

Henry’s reign was littered with continuing disputes with his main rival, King Louis VII of France. In 1152, before he became king of England, Henry had dealt Louis the ultimate blow by marrying Eleanor of Aquitaine, only eight weeks after the annulment of her marriage to the French king. The problem for Louis was that he had no son and if Eleanor was to have a boy with Henry, the child would succeed as Duke of Aquitaine and remove any claim from Louis and his daughters.

Henry claimed the royal succession from King Stephen (pictured below) in 1154 after a long and destructive civil war, ‘The Anarchy’. On Stephen’s death, Henry ascended to the throne. Immediately he was faced with problems: a large number of rogue castles had been built during Stephen’s reign and there was widespread devastation as a result of the destructive war. He realised that to restore order he needed to retake power from the powerful barons. He therefore undertook a massive reconstruction of royal government, overthrowing all changes made after the death of Henry I in 1135.

Stephen, as imagined by a non-contemporary unknown artist, about 1620

Henry reinvigorated England financially and effectively laid the basis for English Common Law as we know it today. Within the first two years of his reign he had torn down almost half the castles that had been illegally constructed by land owners during the civil war and stamped his authority upon the nobility. New castles could now only be built with royal consent.

Changing the relationship between church and monarchy had also been on Henry’s agenda. He introduced his own courts and magistrates, roles traditionally played by the church. He often rejected any Papal influence in order to enhance his own royal authority over the church.

The 1160s were dominated by Henry’s relationship with Thomas Becket. After the death of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1161, Henry wanted to exert his control over the church. He appointed Thomas Becket, who was at the time his chancellor, to the position. In Henry’s eyes he thought this would place him in charge of the English church and he would be able to retain power over Becket. However, Becket seemed to change in his role and became a defender of the church and its tradition. He consistently opposed and quarrelled with Henry, not allowing him to assert royal authority upon the church.

By the year 1170 Henry’s relationship with Becket had deteriorated still further and during a session of royal court he is supposed to have said, ‘someone rid me of this turbulent priest.’ These words were misinterpreted by a group of four knights who proceeded to murder Thomas Becket in front of the high alter at Canterbury Cathedral. This event caused shockwaves throughout Christian Europe and has tended to overshadow the great things Henry managed to achieve.

Murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral

The land under Henry’s control became known as the ‘Angevin’ or ‘Plantagenet’ empire and was at its greatest extent in 1173 when Henry faced the biggest threat in all of his reign. It did not come from abroad or from the church. It came from within his own family. Henry’s sons opposed their father’s intention to split his lands equally amongst them. The eldest son, known as Henry the Young King did not want his inheritance broken apart.

The revolt was led by the Young King and he was assisted by his brother Richard, the kings of France and Scotland as well as many barons from England and Normandy. Defeating this year-long rebellion was perhaps Henry’s greatest accomplishment. Despite having to defend himself on nearly every front of his empire, one by one Henry forced his enemies to retreat and accept that his dominance would not be broken easily. In this revolt, he successfully captured and imprisoned King William of Scotland at the Battle of Alnwick, forcing him to once again accept his overlordship of Scotland. Just before the battle Henry publicly repented for the death of Thomas Becket who had since become a martyr. He claimed the rebellion was his punishment. The resulting capture of William was seen as divine intervention and Henry’s reputation dramatically improved.

In the wake of this great victory, Henry’s dominance was recognised across the continent with many seeking his alliance so as not to fall out of favour with him. However, the family fractures never truly healed and any grievances Henry’s sons held were only temporarily resolved. In 1182 these tensions reached breaking point again and open war broke out in Aquitaine which ended in a stalemate and during which Henry the young King died of illness, making his brother Richard the new heir.

Henry II
A portrait of King Henry II

The final few years of Henry’s reign up until his death in 1189, were tormented by disputes with his sons. He had fashioned a large empire and made England a powerful nation. Yet in the attempts of his sons to keep the Angevin Empire from being divided, they inadvertently began the process which tore it apart through their constant bickering. Henry died of disease on 6th July 1189, deserted by his remaining sons who continued to war against him.

Although not a glorious end to his reign, it is Henry II’s legacy that remains proud. His empire building laid the foundation for England and later, Britain’s ability to become a global power. His administrative changes remain embodied in church and state to this day. He may not have been the most popular king amongst his own contemporaries but his contribution to future English society and government deserves to be more widely acknowledged.

This article was kindly written for Historic UK by Chris Oehring of @TalkHistory on Twitter.

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“Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest!” Fateful words supposedly uttered by King Henry II which set in motion the events which led to the murder of Thomas Becket...

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