Henry II of England

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: British History 1500 and before (including Roman Britain); Monarchs of Great Britain

Henry II
By the Grace of God, King of the English
and Duke of the Normans and Aquitanians
and Count of the Angevins
Image:Henry II of England.jpg
Reign 25 October 1154 – 6 July 1189
Coronation 19 December 1154
Born 5 March 1133
Le Mans
Died 6 July 1189
Chateau Chinon
Buried Fontevraud Abbey, Fontevraud-l'Abbaye, France
Predecessor Stephen
Successor Richard I
Consort Eleanor of Aquitaine ( 1124– 1204)
Issue Henry the Young King
( 1155– 1183)
Richard I ( 1157– 1199)
Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany
( 1158– 1186)
Matilda, Duchess of Saxony
( 1156– 1189)
Leonora of England ( 1161– 1214)
Joan of England ( 1165– 1199)
John ( 1167– 1216)
Geoffrey, Archbishop of York
(illeg., c. 1152– 1226)
William de Longespee, 3rd Earl of
Salisbury (illeg., c. 1176– 1226)
Royal House Plantagenet
Father Geoffrey of Anjou ( 1113– 1151)
Mother Empress Matilda (c. 1102– 1167)

Henry II of England ( 5 March 1133 – 6 July 1189) ruled as Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy, and as King of England ( 1154– 1189) and, at various times, controlled parts of Wales, Scotland, eastern Ireland, and western France. His sobriquets 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 disputed reign of King Stephen, Henry's reign saw efficient consolidation. Henry II has acquired a reputation as one of England's greatest medieval kings.


Territorial holdings and gains: foreign enemies, allies and correspondents

Prior to coming to the throne he already controlled Normandy and Anjou on the continent; his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine on 18 May 1152 added her holdings to his, including Touraine, Aquitaine, and Gascony. He thus effectively became more powerful than the king of France — with an empire (the Angevin 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.

Life before accession

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

He married Eleanor of Aquitaine on 18 May 1152, but from May to August he was occupied in fighting Eleanor's ex-husband Louis VII of France and his allies. In August Henry 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 1153. Henry's succession was established by the Treaty of Wallingford in 1153, after he had challenged Stephen's forces at Wallingford Castle. It was agreed that Henry would become king on Stephen's death.

Civil and legal reform: struggle with the barons

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 torn down which the barons had built without authorization during Stephen's reign, and by 1159, scutage, a fee paid by vassals in lieu of military service, had become a central feature of the king's military system. Record keeping improved dramatically in order to streamline this taxation.

English Royalty
House of Plantagenet

Armorial of Plantagenet
Henry II
    William, Count of Poitiers
    Henry, Count of Anjou
   Richard I the Lionheart
    Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany
    Matilda, Duchess of Saxony
    Leonora, Queen of Castile
    Joan, Queen of Sicily

Henry II established courts in various parts of England and first instituted the royal practice 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".

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). Provision of justice and landed security was further toughened in 1176 with the Assize of Northampton, built on the earlier agreements at Clarendon. This reform proved one of Henry's major contributions to the social history of England.

Dealings with Ireland

Shortly after his coronation, Henry sent an embassy to the newly elected Pope Adrian IV. Led by Bishop Arnold of Lisieux, the group of clerics requested from Adrian a privilege authorising Henry to invade Ireland. Most historians agree that this was the papal bull Laudabiliter. W.L. Warren asserts that Henry acted under the influence of a "Canterbury plot;" Archbishop Theobald of Bec, John of Salisbury, and other Canterbury clergy wished to assert their hierarchical supremacy over the newly created Irish diocesan structure. Other historians have argued instead that Henry intended to secure Ireland as a lordship for his younger brother William.

Shortly thereafter, Henry's continental affairs distracted him. William died, and the English ignored Ireland. It was not until 1166 that it came to the surface again. In that year, Dermot MacMurrough, having been driven from his kingdom in Leinster, followed Henry to Aquitaine. He asked the English king to help him reassert control; Henry agreed to allow Dermot to gather supporters from among his Norman vassals. The most prominent of these was a Welsh Norman, Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, nicknamed "Strongbow." In exchange for his loyalty, Dermot offered Earl Richard his daughter Aoife (Eve) in marriage and made him heir to the kingdom.

The Normans quickly restored Dermot to his traditional holdings, and he even toyed with the idea of challenging for the title of Ard Ri, or High King. However, in 1171, Henry arrived from France to assert his overlordship. All of the Normans, along with many Irish princes, took oaths of homage to Henry, and he left after six months. He never returned, but he later named his young son, the future King John of England, Lord of Ireland.

The struggle with the church and Thomas Becket

As a consequence of the improvements in the legal system, the power of church courts waned. The church naturally 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.

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. Following a heated exchange at Henry's court, Becket left England in 1164 for France to solicit in person the support of Pope Alexander III, who was in exile in France due to dissension in the college of Cardinals, and of King Louis VII of France. Due to his own precarious position, Alexander remained neutral in the debate, although Becket remained in exile loosely under the protection of Louis and Pope Alexander until 1170. After reconciliation between Henry and Thomas in Normandy in 1170, Becket returned to England. Becket again confronted Henry, this time over the coronation of Prince Henry (see below). The much-quoted, although probably apocryphal, words of Henry II echo down the centuries: "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" Although Henry's violent rants against Becket over the years were well documented, this time 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 29 December 1170.

For this act Henry was excommunicated but obtained his rehabilitation thanks to the efforts of Robert de Torigny, abbot of Mont St Michel. As part of his penance for the death of Becket, Henry made a pilgrimage in sackcloth to his tomb (see also St. Dunstan's, Canterbury), and agreed to send money to the Crusader states in Palestine, which the Knights Hospitaller and the Knights Templar would guard until Henry arrived to make use of it on pilgrimage or crusade. Afterwards, on the 21 May 1172, he was flogged in public, naked, before the door of the cathedral at Avranches, which was his capital city in Normandy. 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. In 1188 he levied the Saladin tithe to pay for a new crusade; the cleric and courtier Gerald of Wales suggested his death was a divine punishment for the tithe, imposed to raise money for an abortive crusade to recapture Jerusalem, which had fallen to Saladin in 1187.



Henry's first son, William, Count of Poitiers, had died in infancy. In 1170, Henry and Eleanor's fifteen-year-old son, Henry, was crowned king (another reason for rupture with Thomas Becket, whose other bishops acquiesced to this during Becket's exile), 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 II depicted in Cassell's History of England (1902)
Henry II depicted in Cassell's History of England (1902)

Henry and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had five sons and three daughters: William, Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, John, Matilda, Eleanor, and Joan. 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 the annulment of his marriage in order to marry Alys, daughter of King Louis VII of France and already betrothed to Henry's son Richard. Henry's affair with Alys continued for some years, and, unlike Rosamund Clifford, Alys allegedly gave birth to one of Henry's illegitimate children.

Henry also had a number of illegitimate children by various 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. Among them were William de Longespee, 3rd Earl of Salisbury, whose mother was Ida, Countess of Norfolk; Geoffrey, Archbishop of York, son of a woman named Ykenai; Morgan, Bishop of Durham; and Matilda, Abbess of Barking.

Succession crisis

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. Gerald of Wales reports that when King Henry gave the kiss of peace to his son Richard, he said softly, "May the Lord never permit me to die until I have taken due vengeance upon you."

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. After Henry the Young King died, there was a power struggle between the three sons that were left. Henry had wanted John to be the next king, but Eleanor favoured Richard. Henry had always loved John more than any of the other sons. Geoffrey tried to overcome both John and Richard, but he was unsuccessful. A horse trampled to death another son, Geoffrey II, 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. Henry's illegitimate son Geoffrey, Archbishop of York also stood by him the whole time and alone among his sons attended on Henry's deathbed. His last words, according to Gerald of Wales, were “Shame, shame on a conquered king”. Another version of the King's last words alludes to the fact that the only son to attend his deathbed was his illegitimate son: "My other sons are the real bastards".Richard the Lionheart then became King of England. This was unfortunate to Henry because he had always wanted John, his youngest son, to succeed him. John succeeded to the throne upon Richard's death in 1199, laying aside the claims of Geoffrey's children Arthur of Brittany and Eleanor.


Peter of Blois left a description of Henry II in 1177: "...the lord king has been red-haired so far, except that the coming of old age and grey hair has altered that colour somewhat. His height is medium, so that neither does he appear great among the small, nor yet does he seem small among the great... curved legs, a horseman's shins, broad chest, and a boxer's arms all announce him as a man strong, agile and bold... he never sits, unless riding a horse or eating... In a single day, if necessary, he can run through four or five day-marches and, thus foiling the plots of his enemies, frequently mocks their plots with surprise sudden arrivals...Always are in his hands bow, sword, spear and arrow, unless he be in council or in books."

Another contemporary, Gerald of Wales, described him thus: "A man of reddish, freckled complexion, with a large, round head, grey eyes that glowed fiercely and grew bloodshot in anger, a fiery countenance and a harsh, cracked voice. His neck was poked forward slightly from his shoulders, his chest was broad and square, his arms strong and powerful. His body was stocky, with a pronounced tendency toward fatness, due to nature rather than self-indulgence -- which he tempered with exercise."

In the arts

  • 13th C: " Book of the Civilized Man" is a poem believed to have been written in Henry's court and is the first "book of manners" or "courtesy book" in English history, representing the start of a new awakening to etiquette and decorum in English culture.
  • 1935: The assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket is the subject of the celebrated 1935 play Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot.
  • 1964: A fuller account of the struggle between Henry II and Becket is portrayed in the film Becket (1964) made from the Jean Anouilh play and starring Peter O'Toole as Henry and Richard Burton as Becket.
  • 1966: The treasons associated with the royal and ducal successions formed the main theme of the play The Lion in Winter (1966), which also served as the basis of a 1968 film with O'Toole reprising the role of Henry and Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine. In 2003, the film was remade as a mini-series with Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close in the leading roles.
  • 1978: Henry II and his sons King Richard and King John also provided the subjects of the BBC2 television series The Devil's Crown. The 1978 book of the same title was written by Richard Barber and published as a guide to the broadcast series, which starred Brian Cox as Henry and Jane Lapotaire as Eleanor.
  • 1989: The final chapters of Ken Follett's novel The Pillars of the Earth concern the assassination of Thomas Becket and end with Henry's penance.
  • 1994: The first decade of Henry's marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine is portrayed in the novel Beloved Enemy: The Passions of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a Novel (1994) by Ellen Jones.

Coat of arms

Henry II's coat of arms were gules, a lion rampant Or (red background, with a golden lion on hind legs facing to the side).

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