Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Who Are All These Kings?: Henry II

Henry II was King of England for a period in excess of thirty years during the 12th century.

He was born at Le Mans in Maine in 1133, to the Empress Matilda, who had briefly been the effective monarch of England in 1141, and her husband Geoffrey, the Count of Anjou and later Duke of Normandy. Geoffrey was wont to wear a sprig of broom, or planta genesta, in his cap for recognition. It was this that led to the term Plantagenet, as a family name for the English Kings.

Henry was known as "Curtmantle", but also as "FitzEmpress", referring to his mother.

After Matilda returned to Normandy in 1148, the 15-year-old Henry continued his war against King Stephen, but without much success as he had neither the requisite experience nor resources.

However, his situation soon improved dramatically. Geoffrey died in 1151, and Henry became Duke of Normandy, as well as Count of Maine and Anjou.

Shortly afterwards, he was seduced by, and soon after married, Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the Middle Ages' most important women. She was ten years older than Henry, and the divorced wife of Louis VII of France. Henry now controlled more land than Louis himself, and Louis sent an army against Henry as a show of power, but this was easily repelled.

Then in 1153, Henry invaded England in an attempt to depose Stephen. He had a measure of success, and besieged Stamford among other places, but most of the fighting was done against Stephen's son Eustace.

When Eustace died, Stephen and Henry agreed the Treaty of Wallingford, by which Stephen would remain King for the rest of his life and would be succeeded by Henry.

Stephen died in 1154, and Henry duly added to his power by becoming Henry II of England. He was still only 21.

He established his authority over his considerable empire with speed and confidence. In this he was helped by Pope Adrian IV (Nicholas Breakspear from St. Albans, the only English Pope), who decreed that Henry had authority over all Britain, including Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

By 1157 he had destroyed most of the adulterine castles thrown up by barons during the recent Civil War, and had negotiated terms with Malcolm IV of Scotland, including the return of Cumbria and Northumberland to England.

He also built or strengthened other castles, notably at Dover, Newcastle-on-Tyne and Orford.

He invaded Wales to bring the various Welsh princes to heel, although he nearly lost his life when ambushed by Cynan ap Owain, the heir to Gwynedd.

By 1158, Henry had brought to England a stability that had been missing for many years.

Between 1158 and 1163, Henry was in France, being largely involved in dynastic disputes. In particular, Toulouse and Aquitaine were matters of dispute between Henry and Louis for the rest of their lives.

Perhaps the most famous aspect of Henry's reign is his relationship with Thomas a Becket. Becket, the son of a wealthy merchant, had been born in Cheapside in London, and was a personal friend of Henry. Having trained as a knight, he had to leave this when his father fell on hard times, and instead became a clerk, entering the household of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Learning quickly and becoming an expert on church law, he was appointed by Henry as Chancellor of England in 1155 and fought bravely alongside the king in France.

In 1162, Becket was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. This did not go down well with many senior churchmen as they felt that his worldliness made him unsuitable for this role. Henry, of course, was confident that he would have an ally in the top position in the church in England.

Becket, always a controversial character, changed his attitudes radically to show his commitment to the church, and became Henry's enemy.

In particular, Henry wanted priests who broke the law to be tried in civil courts, but Becket insisted that it was the right of the church to try them. After much acrimonious arguing, Becket fled to France, later appealing to the new Pope, Alexander III, who found in his favour, although Becket was still not able to return safely to England.

In the meantime, Henry was establishing himself as perhaps the most powerful man in Europe, partly by a series of dynastic marriages.

In 1170, he decided to have his eldest son, also Henry, crowned as King of England, which would elevate King Henry into a more Imperial role. To do this, however, he needed the support of both the Pope and his Archbishop of Canterbury, and grudgingly agreed to a reconciliation with Becket.

Before this could be fully resolved, though, he went ahead anyway, and had his son crowned at Westminster Abbey as Henry III. He is not the man whom history knows as Henry III, but is more often known as Henry the Young King.

Becket was furious that this had gone ahead without his formal agreement, and when he returned to England, loudly condemning the King's actions, he was treated as a popular hero.

It was at this point that Henry made his notorious outburst "Is there none will rid me of this turbulent priest?" There is considerable doubt as to whether Henry was really appealing for the assassination of his Archbishop, but whether or not he intended it, that is what happened.

Four knights decided to show their loyalty to the King, and promptly murdered Becket within Canterbury Cathedral.

The murder was outrageous, and shocked the Christian world. The four knights did penance and Henry wore sackcloth and apologised to the Pope. Becket was swiftly canonised, as early as 1173.

But everyone realised that Becket, had he lived, would have caused more and more trouble and embarrassment, and it was in everybody's interests for him to be out of the way.

And for Canterbury, it was the start of a hugely profitable tourism enterprise which continues to this day.

After this, things continued to go badly for Henry, who was head of perhaps the most dysfunctional Royal family in England's history.

Henry the Young King was crowned again at Winchester in 1172, after he had complained that he was King in name only, and at the same time was made Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou.

But he was still not satisfied, and was joined by his brothers Richard and Geoffrey in open rebellion in 1173. They were supported by their mother, the redoubtable Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had drifted apart from her husband some years before. Henry had her arrested.

William the Lion, King of Scotland, joined in, hoping for the return of Cumbria and Northumberland. He was defeated, and imprisoned for a while at Richmond Castle. It was in 1173 that Henry II sacked and virtually destroyed the old town of Leicester, in retaliation for its Earl's support of his sons.

In 1180, Louis of France died and was succeeded by Philippe II, an intimate friend of Henry's son Richard and keen to destroy the power of the Plantagenet family.

Henry the Young King died in 1183, and Henry's third son Geoffrey was killed in an accident at a tournament in Paris in 1186.

The focus of discontent now shifted to the rivalry between Henry's surviving sons. Richard was the eldest surviving son and was Eleanor's favourite, while John was the youngest and Henry's favourite.

In 1189, in France, Henry faced the army of Philippe of France and his own son Richard, and was horrified to find that his favourite, John, was also lined up against him.

This finally broke Henry's spirit, and having agreed terms with Philippe at Colombieres, had a massive haemorrhage and died at Chinon Castle, with curses against his sons still on his lips. He was buried at Fontevrault Abbey.

An aged and broken man, he was in fact only 56.

His wife Eleanor, however, lived on until she was 82, and continued to exert an influence over her sons.

Richard succeeded his father as Richard I.

It is a shame that Henry II's reign should have been overshadowed by the Becket affair and by the awful intrigues and open hostilities amongst his family, for early in his reign he had been a strong monarch who had given England far more stability than the country had had for many years. Gerald of Wales, having given an unflattering physical description, praised Henry's eloquence and learning.

Henry and Eleanor produced a good number of children.

William died at three years old in 1156 at Wallingford and was buried at Reading Abbey.

Henry the Young King died at Martel Castle in France in 1183 and was buried at Le Mans Cathedral, being later moved to Rouen Cathedral.

Matilda married Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria. She died in 1189 and was buried at Brunswick Cathedral.

Richard succeeded his father as Richard I and reigned until his death in 1199.

Geoffrey, Earl of Richmond and Duke of Brittany died in 1186 after an accident at a tournament, and was buried at Notre Dame in Paris.

Eleanor married Alfonso VIII, King of Castile. She died in 12154 and was buried at the Abbey of Las Huelgas in Spain.

Joan married William II, King of Sicily and later Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse. She died in childbnirth in 1199, and was buried at Fontevrault Abbey in France.

John succeeded his brother Richard as King of England, and died in 1216.

Henry also had several illegitimate children.

By Ikenai, the daughter of a knight: Geoffrey, Archbishop of York; William Longespee, Earl of Salisbury; and Peter.

By Alice, daughter of Louis VII of France, who was at the time betrothed to Henry's son Richard: a daughter and three other children of unknown sex, who all died young.

By Nesta, wife of Sir Ralph Bloet: Morgan, Provost of Beverley.

By Alice de Poerhoet: a child of unknown sex.

By unknown mothers: Matilda, Abbess of Barking; Hugh of Wells, Bishop of Lincoln: and Richard.