The Plantagenets: Henry II (1154-1189)

Even from a young age Henry was a born ruler. He was a firebrand speaker, full of energy and vitality. Upon his father’s death, Henry became Duke of Normandy, as well as Count of Anjou, Turlaine, and Maine in the French regions. His father was Matilda “Maud’s” second husband, Geoffrey V Count of Anjou. Henry and his mother Matilda attacked Stephen’s disputed rule in England while Henry bore the emblem of his house, the broom plant, the Planta Genesta which eventually became the name of his great dynasty: the Plantagenets. Geoffrey of Anjou Matilda’s 2nd husband was nicknamed plantagenet from the sprig of bloom (planta genet in French) that he often wore in his hat. Thus, the name became synonymous with the family’s ruling bloodline, while their immediate ancestors became known as the Angevin (or “people from Anjou”).

Henry beat back invading forces in Normandy before invading England, and his arrival on the isle was a triumphant affair. However, the nobles favored neither Stephen nor Henry. They were inclined toward divided rulership by stalemate: a weak king meant an elevated gentry. Nevertheless, the promise of peace and security plus vast new lands in France was alluring to the barons. An agreement was eventually reached in 1153. Stephen would become king and he would name Henry as his heir to the throne (both Stephen’s wife and son Eustace had already died). Within one year, Stephen would also be dead and Henry would accede the throne on December 19, 1154 in an ornate ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Henry was only 21 years old. Winston Churchill praises the reign of Henry II as one of the most “pregnant and decisive reigns in English history” (83). It brought much-needed stability to the crown after the tumultuous era known as “The Anarchy.”

A 12th century portrayal of Henry and his mother Matilda

Broadly speaking, Henry II was an enviable man, a lover of the chase and riding (despite the church’s objections), red-haired and freckled, yet he was also a moody and immersed himself in the public’s business night and day amidst frequent travel.

Henry Plantagenet quickly established a firmly Christian, Latinized kingship over the disparate English lands: England, Ireland, and Scotland. He reaffirmed the government of Henry I, and also laid claim to a vast empire: he inherited Normandy as great-grandson of William The Conqueror; he inherited Anjou (i.e. The ‘Angevin Empire’ from his mother Matilda’s second cousin Geoffrey of Anjou), and he also gained the territory of southwestern France (Aquitaine) when he married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152. She was 9 years his senior and previously married to Louis VII of France -it was a loveless and childless marriage so it was annulled and within weeks Eleanor married the vivacious young king Henry II, who now controlled more regions of France than the French King! Indeed, Henry spent much of his reign in France, rather than England.

Henry’s greatest contribution to the kingship was his reformation of the laws and institutions of England, including the establishment of Common Law as well as the precedent of trial by jury in the English royal courts. As Winston Churchill notes, “England has had greater soldier-kings and subtler diplomats than Henry II, but no man has left a deeper mark upon our laws and institutions. The names of his battles have vanished with their dust, but his fame will live with the English Constitution and the English Common Law” (89) -the latter is in reference to the Treatise on the Laws and Customs of England.


The Murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury
As part of his impressive legal reforms, Henry strongly attempted to force the Church to bend the knee and submit to the laws of the English nation, though ultimately he failed in this endeavor and the task was bitterly left to Henry VIII centuries later. Henry’s goal was to unify the administration and laws of the nation. He was successful in subordinating the baron’s and their ‘baronial court system’ to the authority of the royal courts, but he was less successful with the church. In contrast to the barons, the Church had its own set of rules, laws, customs, land-holdings, and it was accountable not the King but to the Pope.

The most famous tale of Henry II was his rocky relationship with his former friend and clergyman, the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket. In the medieval world the Church was a massive landholder that was respected even by the robber barons, but it was in constant tension with the state -it was the “root question of the European world” (Churchill, 84). In Thomas Becket, Henry thought he had found a staunch ally. Becket had loyally served Henry’s court and the establishment of the new state, but, for reasons befuddling to contemporary historians, once Becket was appointed Archbishop in 1162 he changed his tune and immediately began championing the power of the church. In the 11th century Pope Gregory became Pope and he began enforcing a rule of the church over and against the state, and Becket followed in his footsteps.

The conflict between King and Archbishop deteriorated with appeals to the papacy. Their relationship rapidly came to a head when Henry forced Becket to publicly submit to his god-ordained authority in a series of 16 articles entitled the Constitutions of Clarendon which Becket reluctantly accepted, but immediately renounced afterward claiming he was coerced and under duress in the proceedings. Following his vacillation, Becket retreated to the continent to live in French exile while the turmoil between Church and State spread to other countries like Italy and Germany. In response, Henry II crowned his young son also named Henry to become the future king, but he did not include Becket in the ceremony, spawning much resentment. Then Becket returned to Canterbury and the surrounding region of Kent became a kind of hub for rebellion and rumors circulated that Becket was excommunicating clergy who sideed with King Henry II. Upon hearing the news, in a momentary outburst that had come to define Henry, he loudly declared: “What a pack of fools and cowards I have nourished in my house, that not one of them will avenge me of this turbulent priest!” Four knights of the realm overheard the King’s words and promptly headed for the coast, crossed the Channel, and arrived in Canterbury on December 29, 1179. There, they found the Archbishop inside the cathedral and cut him down near the altar of Canterbury Cathedral in a single bloody and capricious act of vengeance.

A 12th century depiction of the murder of Thomas Becket

“…a third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he pay prostrate, at which blow the sword struck the stone paving, and the crown of the head, which was large was separated from the rest, so that the blood, whitened by the brains, and the brains, reddened with the blood, stained the floor of the cathedral with the white of the lily and the red of the rose, the colours of the Virgin Mother of the Church…” (the eyewitness testimony of Edward Grim, who was injured while attempting to shield the Archbishop).

Upon learning of the brutal assassination, all of England, including the King, was horrified. Sacred law had been violated, the tension between church and state had imploded, and Becket suddenly became a martyr while rumors circulated about the miraculous power of his robes and icons. His ghost loomed large over the remainder of Henry’s reign.


The later years of the first Plantagenet King were plagued by troubles within his family regarding the succession of the kingdom. Henry intended that England, Normandy, Maine, and Anjou should be given to his eldest son also named Henry (“The Young King”). His next son Richard was to be granted northern Aquitaine, Geoffrey was married to the heiress of Brittany, and the youngest son John was curiously not granted any lands despite being his father’s favorite son -hence his nickname John “Lackland.”

In 1173 King Henry changed his tune. He granted John several castles in Anjou which immediately caused an uproar among his three elder sons. When Queen Eleanor sided with the elder sons, some of the resentful barons across the kingdom joined sides and a full-scale revolt broke out, later called the “Great Rebellion.” It was quickly ended with the capture of the Scottish King in July 1174 and Queen Eleanor was imprisoned by King Henry for the next 15 years.

More internal squabbles continued in 1182-1183 but the crisis ended when Henry “The Younger” died of dysentery in the course of a campaign against his father thus making Richard the presumptive heir. However, King Henry divided his kingdom again which caused further strife. Richard allied himself with John and the French King against his father. King Henry’s hands were tied. He was forced to name Richard as his heir and pay homage to the French king for his lands in France. It has been called a humiliating end to a brilliant tenure as king. Henry Plantagenet died on July 6, 1189. His last words were reportedly “Shame… shame on a conquered king.”

Henry and Eleanor were buried at Fontevraud Abbey near Chinon, France.


For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

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