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Henry II of England

Henry II (March 25, 1133 - July 6, 1189), ruled as Duke of Anjou and as 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 also applied to his grandfather Henry I. He ranks as the first of the Plantagenet or Angevin Kings.

Following the disastrous reign of King Stephen, Henry's reign saw efficient consolidation. Henry II has acquired a reputation as England's greatest medieval king.

He was born on March 5, 1133, to the Empress Matilda and her second husband, Geoffrey the Fair, Duke of Anjou. Brought up in Anjou, he visited England in 1149 to help his mother in her disputed claim to the English throne.

Prior to coming to the throne he already controlled Normandy and Anjou on the continent; his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152 added her land holdings to his, including vast areas such as Touraine, Aquitaine, and Gascony. He thus effectively became more powerful than the king of France -- with an empire that stretched from the Solway Firth 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 maintained lively communication with the Emperor of Byzantium Manuel I Comnenus.

In August 1152 Henry, previously occupied in fighting Eleanor's ex-husband Louis VII of France and his allies, rushed back to her, and they spent several months together. Around the end of November 1152 they parted: Henry went to spend some weeks with his mother and then sailed for England, arriving on 6 January 1153. Some historians believe that the couple's first child, William, Count of Poitiers, was born in 1152. Possibly Henry returned to his wife at that time for the birth, and the progress they made through Eleanor's lands marked the birth of the new heir -- with their stated purpose of "introducing the new count" to the people referring to Count William, not to Count Henry. Other historians date William's birth to 1153, and point out that Henry might still have been there nine months before William was born.

During Stephen's reign the barons had subverted the state of affairs to undermine the monarch's grip on the realm; Henry II saw it as his first task to reverse this shift in power. For example, Henry had castles which the barons had built without authorisation during Stephen's reign torn down, and scutage, a fee paid by vassals in lieu of military service, became by 1159 a central feature of the king's military system. Record-keeping improved dramatically in order to streamline this taxation.

Henry II established courts in various parts of England, and first instituted the royal pracice of granting magistrates the power to render legal decisions on a wide range of civil matters in the name of the Crown. His reign saw the production of the first written legal textbook, providing the basis of today's "Common Law".

Statue of Henry II
Statue of Henry II

By the Assize of Clarendon (1166), trial by jury became the norm. Since the Norman Conquest, jury trials had been largely replaced by trial by ordeal and "wager of battel" (which English law did not abolish until 1819). This reform proved 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 found its most vehement spokesman in Thomas 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 the secular courts could try clergy who had committed a secular offence. Henry attempted to subdue Becket and his fellow churchmen by making them swear to obey the "customs of the realm", but controversy ensued over what constituted these customs, and the church proved reluctant to submit. Becket left England in 1164 to solicit in person the support of the Pope in Rome and of King Louis VII 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.

As part of his penance for the death of Becket, Henry agreed to send money to the Crusader states in Palestine, which the Knights Hospitaller and the Knights Templar would guard until such time as Henry arrived to make use of it on pilgrimage or crusade. Henry delayed his crusade for many years, and in the end never went at all, despite a visit to him by Patriarch Heraclius of Jerusalem in 1184 and being offered the crown of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Henry's eldest son, William, Count of Poitiers, had died in infancy. In 1170, Henry and Eleanor's fifteen-year-old son, Henry, was crowned king, but he never actually ruled and does not figure in the list of the monarchs of England; he became known as Henry the Young King to distinguish him from his nephew Henry III of England.

Henry and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had five 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; some remained members of the household in adulthood.) Henry's attempts to wrest control of her lands from Eleanor (and from her heir Richard) led to confrontations 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, probably began 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 and already betrothed to Henry's son, Richard. Henry's affair with Alice continued for some years, and, unlike Rosamund Clifford, Alice allegedly gave birth to several of Henry's 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 (see Revolt of 1173-1174), which amounted to treason, at least in Henry's eyes. Henry had the good fortune to have on his side a knight 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 alone among his sons attended on Henry's death-bed.

When Henry's legitimate sons rebelled against him, they often had the help of King Louis VII of France. Henry the Young King died in 1183. A horse tramnpled to death another son, Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany (1158 - 1186). Henry's third son, Richard the Lionheart (1157 - 1199), with the assistance of Philip II Augustus of France, attacked and defeated Henry on July 4, 1189; Henry died at the Chateau Chinon on July 6, 1189 and lies entombed in Fontevraud Abbey, near Chinon and Saumur in the Anjou Region of present-day 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 children Arthur of Brittany and Eleanor.


The treasons associated with the royal/ducal succession formed the main theme of the play The Lion in Winter, which also served as the basis of a film starring Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn. In 2003, a mini-series with Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close in the leading roles reprised the story and its title.

The Devil's Crown
The Devil's Crown

Henry II and his sons King Richard and King John also provided the subjects of the BBC2 television series The Devil's Crown and the 1978 book of the same title, written by Richard Barber and published as a guide to the broadcast series, which starred Brian Cox as Henry and Jane Lapotaire as Eleanor.

Henry, Eleanor and the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries

To visit the amazing secret exchanges between Henry and Eleanor through the medium of the tapestry designs from the famous Dame la Licorne series, see:

Preceded by:
King of England Succeeded by:
Geoffrey V Count of Anjou
with Henry the Young King
Count of Maine
with Henry the Young King
Louis and Eleanor Duke of Aquitaine
with Eleanor
Count of Poitiers
with Eleanor

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45