Post-classical history



The Eagle – Henry II

The painting shows an eagle with four of its young perching on it, one on each wing with a third on its back, tearing the parent with beaks and talons, while a fourth just as big as the others stands on its neck, waiting for a chance to peck out its eyes

Gerald of Wales1

The first campaign of Henry fitz-Empress

In spring 1147, just after his fourteenth birthday, a red-headed, freckle-faced boy landed at Wareham in Dorset, to wage war on the king who had stolen his heritage. His troops were young cronies and a few mercenaries – he must have been very eloquent for them to risk their lives on a perilous adventure when he could offer only promises in lieu of pay.

Marching inland, he attacked two Wiltshire castles, Cricklade and Purton, whose garrisons were threatening his mother at Devizes. However, Cricklade easily repulsed his scratch force, as did Purton. Unpaid, his men began to desert. Henry rushed to Devizes, begging his mother for money, but she was penniless. His uncle, Robert of Gloucester, refused to help. Finally, he wrote and asked the king for funds. Hoping to get rid of the boy, Stephen paid him to go home to France, instead of trying to catch a rival who, despite his youth, was already dangerous. By the end of May 1147 Henry was back in Normandy.

If his expedition was a mere teenage adventure, to his adherents he became a king over the water. Yet no other English monarch had to fight harder for his inheritance than Henry fitz-Empress. And, after he succeeded, his achievement was nearly destroyed by his rebellious sons, the young eagles who were depicted in a mural at Winchester.

The pretender

Henry was born at Le Mans on 5 March 1133. His first visit to England began in November 1142 when he was brought over from France by his Uncle Robert. Landing at Wareham, they fought their way ashore, recapturing the port from Stephen’s supporters before marching to Bristol. There the boy saw plenty of military activity, the Earl Robert’s troops regularly raiding areas controlled by the king. Henry stayed at the castle, tutored by a Master Matthew and the canons of the local abbey, before returning to Anjou towards the end of 1143. He then received an education of a sort given to few laymen, learning to read, write and speak Latin. Throughout his life he remained fond of books, fluent Latin helping him to understand the law and communicate on equal terms with bureaucrats.

Meanwhile, having overthrown Stephen’s regime in Normandy and been formally accepted as duke by right of his wife, Geoffrey Plantagenet ruled Normandy ruthlessly. (When the canons of Séez elected as bishop a certain Arnulf, of whom Geoffrey disapproved, he had him castrated, making the chapter process through the city carrying Arnulf’s severed member in a basin – to show he was a eunuch and could not function as a bishop – then blandly denied any involvement.2) But in England, despite hopes raised by Henry’s foray, Matilda’s cause seemed lost when Earl Robert died. Early in 1148 the ‘Lady of the English’ went to Normandy where she remained in pious retirement until her death in 1167.

King Stephen was never secure, as a result of his own sheer ineptitude. One example of this was his clumsy persecution of prelates whom he suspected of supporting the empress – when he banished Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, the archbishop simply moved to Norfolk, an area outside royal control.3 Moreover, Geoffrey’s conquest of Normandy put the English barons in a quandary. If they remained loyal to Stephen their Norman estates would be forfeit, but if they supported Geoffrey they would lose their lands in England.

During spring 1149 Henry fitz-Empress returned to England, to Carlisle where he was knighted by his great-uncle, David I, King of Scots. Several English magnates joined them, planning to attack York, but scattered when Stephen appeared with an army. The king set up roadblocks along the main roads to catch Henry, fleeing south from Lancashire; however, he avoided capture by using byways under cover of darkness. Learning Henry was on his way to Bristol, Stephen’s son Eustace marched through the night in pursuit, mounting three ambushes, but, somehow, Henry reached Bristol. When he moved to Dorset, where he harried royal supporters, the king marched westward, hoping that the boy would give battle. Wisely, Henry’s advisers persuaded him to go back to Normandy.

Soon after, Count Geoffrey gave Henry the duchy of Normandy, and Henry was duly invested as duke at Rouen Cathedral, with the ducal lance, sword and coronet. Louis VII initially refused to recognize the investiture, summoning Eustace to help him evict the new duke, but their campaign failed dismally. Louis finally accepted the situation and in the summer Henry went to Paris, where he did homage to the king for the duchy. Geoffrey then announced that he would invade England. However, he died in September, aged only thirty-nine, leaving Anjou, Maine and Touraine to Henry, save for a handful of castles he bequeathed to his second son. Henry erected a tomb to his father in the cathedral at Le Mans, surmounted by his effigy on a superb enamel plaque. But Geoffrey’s best monument is his name – ‘Plantagenet’.

In 1152 Stephen attempted to have Eustace crowned king, to ensure his succession. ‘Open-handed wherever he went, he enjoyed being generous,’ the Gesta Stephani says of Eustace. ‘Because he took after his father, he treated men as equals.’4 But the same writer admits that Eustace had a vicious streak, ordering his troops ‘to show the ferocity of wild beasts’. An evil man is how The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle sees him: ‘Wherever he went he did more evil than good – he robbed the land, levying heavy taxes.’5 Whatever the truth of the matter, Pope Eugenius forbade the English bishops to crown Eustace.

Henry’s position grew stronger when Eleanor of Aquitaine became his wife in 1152. Her marriage to Louis VII had recently been annulled, on grounds of consanguinity, although in reality because she had failed to produce a son. Lurid rumours surrounded her, such as her having slept with her new husband’s father – credited by Walter Map, who thought that in marrying Henry she was committing incest and brought a curse on their children. None the less, ‘incomparable’ is how the monk Richard of Devizes describes Eleanor. ‘Beautiful but gracious, strong but kind, unpretentious but wise, an unusual mixture in a woman.’6 Her assets outweighed her bad name as Aquitaine stretched from Poitou to the Pyrenees, meaning that Henry now ruled more of France than King Louis. Within a month he was at Barfleur, preparing to invade England.

Suddenly, however, joined by Eustace, Louis struck at Normandy, while Henry’s brother, another Geoffrey, rose in Anjou. ‘Nearly all the Normans thought Duke Henry would lose everything,’ wrote the Abbot of Mont Saint-Michel.7 They were mistaken. Reacting so fast that some of his men’s horses dropped dead, Henry laid waste Louis’s lands across the Norman border with such savagery that the French king asked for a truce; Henry then swung south and crushed Geoffrey.

In the meantime, Stephen was trying to eliminate Plantagenet strongholds before the invasion, tightening his blockade of Wallingford Castle in north Berkshire, whose garrison implored Henry to send a relief force or let them surrender. His response was to come in person, landing on Epiphany 1153 with 140 knights and 3,000 foot soldiers. Entering a church for Mass, the first words he heard were Psalm 71, ‘Give to the king thy judgment, O God: and to the king’s son thy justice’, which he took as a good omen. He then attacked Malmesbury in Wiltshire, one of Stephen’s own strongpoints, laying siege to the castle. This forced the king and Eustace (who had hurried back from France) to leave Wallingford and confront Henry.

Beneath a freezing downpour the two armies faced each other across the swollen River Avon, rain blowing into the faces of Stephen’s troops, whose hands became so cold that they could scarcely grip swords dripping with water. The king lost his nerve, retreating to London, aware that his barons had reached secret agreements with the duke, who was threatening their Norman estates. A truce was negotiated, leaving Wallingford in peace for six months and letting the Malmesbury garrison march out in safety.

Henry then marched through the Midlands, capturing fortresses and being joined by more and more barons. In July he began demolishing the enemy’s siege works at Wallingford, until the king and Eustace arrived with a bigger army. But Stephen’s barons refused to fight. Like the Gesta Stephani’s author, even those who supported the king saw Henry as the lawful heir to the throne. Reluctantly, Stephen agreed to open negotiations for a lasting peace.

Infuriated, Eustace ravaged East Anglia, trying to provoke Henry into fighting. In August he arrived at Bury St Edmunds, wrecking the abbey’s lands when it refused to lend him money, after which he dined in its refectory – and choked to death. Queen Matilda was dead and, although he had other sons, Stephen gave up. All he wanted was to die on the throne. In November he met the duke at Winchester, agreeing that Henry should succeed him and that stolen lands should be restored to those who had held them in 1135.

In December Stephen issued a charter recognizing the duke as his heir and promising to demolish over 1,100 castles. The settlement did not go smoothly, Henry grumbling that the king was slow in pulling down the castles. When some Flemish mercenaries plotted to kill him, Henry went back to Normandy, staying there until Stephen died from a haemorrhage in October 1154.

The restorer

All over England crowds thundered ‘Vivat Rex’ when Henry II was crowned by Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury at Westminster Abbey on 7 December 1154. Londoners gaped at the short French cloak worn by this battle-scarred veteran of twenty-one, calling him ‘court-mantle’, which shows how foreign he seemed. Yet, although a Frenchman from top to toe, Henry was a great-great-grandson of the hero King Edmund Ironside through his grandmother (Henry I’s queen), and as early as 1139 a Norman chronicler had claimed he represented England’s old rulers. ‘Nowadays, no earl, bishop or abbot is an Englishman’, the great monk-historian William of Malmesbury who was himself half-English, had written thirty years before. ‘Newcomers eat up the riches and the very guts of England, nor is there any hope of ending such misery.’8 But by 1154 speaking French was a sign of class rather than race.9

Whatever their class or race, Henry’s subjects would have been struck by his appearance. Stocky, bull-necked, slightly above average height, with coarse, reddish skin and bulging eyes, he had red hair that was close-cropped. His clothes were as rough as his looks, his one jewel a gold signet ring engraved with a lion. If quiet-spoken, his manner was brutally direct.

Presumably, he inspected his new capital. William fitz Stephen described it later in the reign, boasting of the Tower and the Palace of Westminster upstream, of walls with seven double gates and many towers, of thirteen great churches and 126 smaller ones. He praises its spacious gardens and healthy air, tells how it was bordered by pastures, cornfields and meadows and a forest full of deer, and how the Thames teemed with fish. He mentions cook shops where it was possible to get venison, sturgeon or guineafowl, and extols the capital’s pleasures – tournaments on the river, hunting and hawking outside the walls. But, recalling Le Mans and Rouen, the king may not have been so enthusiastic, while the queen no doubt missed Paris and Poitiers.

Henry soon left London, travelling all over the kingdom to rebuild government. The administrative framework of Henry I’s day still existed: the most senior official was the justiciar (regent in the king’s absence overseas), a role often filled by the chancellor, who, with other senior royal servants, formed the court of the Great Council (Curia Regis), which met at Westminster Hall, hearing appeals and controlling finances. To help him, the king appointed a new chancellor, a flamboyant canon-lawyer named Thomas Becket, who had studied at Paris and was recommended by Archbishop Theobald.

Within months William Peverell of the Peak lost his huge estates, retiring to a monastery, while William of Aumale, who controlled Yorkshire, surrendered his strongholds, as did Hugh de Mortimer and Hugh of Hereford on the Welsh Marches. Many lesser lords were tamed. By 1157 the king had expelled the Scots from the northern counties and retaken castles seized by the Welsh. Demolishing illegal fortresses, he frightened ‘castlemen’ into leaving the country ‘so quickly, they appeared to vanish like ghosts’, writes William of Newburgh. William adds, ‘his primary concern was restoring order and he took care to ensure the law’s full strength returned to England, where under King Stephen it seemed dead and buried. He appointed men to administer proper justice in every region of the realm and see laws were kept, keeping down criminals and deciding disputes . . . if they got it wrong or were too lenient, he put matters right with a royal ordinance.’10

The Exchequer at Westminster (so called from a black and white cloth on the table around which its officials sat) looked after the revenue. In Henry I’s time it had met only at Easter and Michaelmas, chaired by the king or the justiciar, to audit accounts and question sheriffs about tax discrepancies, although it also supervised the collection of income from royal estates and forests, using notched wooden tally sticks as receipts and sheepskin scrolls as records (the Pipe Rolls). Under the new king it centralized financial control and, from an occasional committee, became an institution with a permanent staff.11 Royal estates lost under Stephen were recovered while sheriffs who pocketed taxes were prosecuted.

More and more English wool was being sold to Flemish weavers, so in 1158 merchants were given a better currency – silver pence containing 10 per cent more bullion than before. (In 1180 another new coinage appeared, with an even bigger silver content.) To help credit facilities the king encouraged Jewish moneylenders to settle in English cities.

What made Henry rich, however, was the legal system, to which he made a lasting contribution, introducing circuit judges, writs and twelve-man juries. He was determined England should be ruled by custom and precedent as under his Anglo-Saxon predecessors. Realizing that a central legal system would increase the Crown’s authority and its revenue, he combined into one the royal court (Curia Regis), the shire courts and the hundred baronial and manorial courts. He sent out Exchequer officials as his personal representatives; they travelled the country with armed escorts and sat in the courts next to the sheriffs, trying criminals, and dealing with disputes over land and property. All serious offences – murder, rape, robbery – were heard by these royal ‘justices in eyre’, forerunners of today’s circuit judges. Procedure was standardized, so that there could be no confusion about the law’s meaning.

Echoing Anglo-Saxon tradition, the justices summoned a panel of twelve reliable men to report anyone suspected of ill-doing and asked it if those ‘presented’ were guilty, a practice that became the jury system. Some justices stayed at Westminster, forming a tribunal – the origin of the courts of King’s Bench and Common Pleas. Recovering land stolen during Stephen’s reign was solved by the sheriffs issuing writs: one writ ordered the offender to give it back – if he refused, another summoned twelve neighbours to declare on oath who was the rightful owner. The main document setting out these reforms was the Assize of Clarendon, drawn up early in 1166, and supplemented a few years later by the Assizes of Northampton. Clarendon marks the beginning of the Common Law.12

After Clarendon, annual royal income rose from £13,000 to over £20,000, largely thanks to fines levied under the new system. Another source was feudal dues, collected more efficiently following a survey of the Crown’s major tenants. Instead of summoning knights to serve in his army or garrison his castles, the king made them pay shield money (scutage) and ward-money, which enabled him to hire mercenaries. His castles became treasure houses in which dungeons were crammed with bullion.13

Government had never broken down in Normandy and Anjou, while southwards it did not exist, authority belonging to the local aristocracy. Henry’s problems here were rebellious barons and protecting his frontiers. When his brother Geoffrey, whom the Bretons had chosen to be their ruler, died in 1157 he succeeded him as Duke of Brittany, diplomacy securing the border castles of the Vexin and giving eastern Normandy a vital line of defence. A campaign to add Toulouse to his territory was a failure, but one he would rectify within a few years.

The man

Two stories explain why his subjects liked Henry II. When he called Bishop Roger of Worcester a traitor for not coming to court, the bishop (who was Robert of Gloucester’s son) retorted that the king was ungrateful after all his brothers had done to help him gain the Crown – he had taken away three-quarters of the family estates, letting one brother grow so poor that he had been forced to join the Hospitallers: ‘That’s how you repay family and friends, that’s what people get for helping you.’ When some sycophant rebuked Roger, Henry told the man he was an oaf: ‘Don’t think that because I speak as I like to my cousin the bishop it gives you a right to insult him.’ Then he asked Roger to dinner, during which they had a very friendly discussion.14

Bishop Hugh of Lincoln angered the king by excommunicating a royal forester who ill-treated peasants. Next time he came to court, Henry, sitting on the ground and stitching a fingerstall, ignored him. Calmly taking a seat next to the king, Hugh whispered, ‘You look like your cousins at Falaise’ – alluding to William the Conqueror’s mother, daughter of a tanner. Henry laughed so much that he rolled on the ground, before explaining the joke to his courtiers.15

Because Henry fascinated chroniclers, we know a lot about him. Gerald of Wales recalls bloodshot eyes flaming with rage, a big paunch, a mania for hunting, inattention at Mass. He says the king regularly broke treaties, comparing his greed for money to that of Elisha’s covetous servant, Gehazi. Even so, Gerald praises Henry’s humanity, his pity for those who fell in battle and preference for a peaceful solution; for example, when things went badly, nobody was more courteous. Gerald also states that Henry never altered his opinion of anyone he disliked on first sight and rarely changed his mind about somebody to whom he took a liking.

‘In making laws and improving government he showed extreme intelligence, very clever at finding new, unexpected ways of getting what he wanted,’ says Walter Map, Gerald’s fellow courtier. ‘He was always affable, polite, unassuming. In troubled times, he never complained. But on his endless journeys he travelled like a common carrier and did not bother about accommodation, showing no consideration for his entourage . . . He spent whole nights without sleep, seemingly tireless . . . personally, I think his excessive activity was not so much due to lack of self-control as fear of growing fat.’

Map stresses the king’s accessibility. ‘Whenever he went outside, he was mobbed by crowds, pulled this way and that, dragged along. Astonishingly, he listened patiently to what they were saying even when being yelled at or violently shoved and pushed, never rebuking anybody or using it as an excuse to lose his temper. If the pestering became really unbearable, he stayed calm, retreating to a quieter place. He was never proud or puffed up . . .’16

Map also describes how Henry reimbursed skippers wrecked while shipping his court across the Channel. Courtiers dreaded these crossings in tiny, clinker-built transports, particularly during winter. So did the king, who had his own ship, the Esnecca (‘Sea-Snake’), and went to confession before embarking – sailing on lucky feast days such as Candlemas or postponing a voyage because of an ill omen. Such fears are understandable. In March 1170, 400 courtiers, including the royal physician, were drowned en route from Normandy.

On land, Henry lived on horseback as his realm stretched from the Tweed to the Pyrenees, from the Shannon to the verge of the Ile de France. Much of his time was spent hearing law cases and drafting charters. His entourage dropped from exhaustion, his secretary Peter of Blois recalling how the king stopped at places with shelter for himself but none for courtiers. After wandering by night for miles through dense woodland, they would come to blows over who should sleep in a pigsty.

Clarendon and court life

One of the places in England where Henry could relax was Clarendon, ‘in which I delight above all other’.17 On a low hill amid woodland, 3 miles from Salisbury, this was a hunting lodge he transformed into a palace around a courtyard, with chambers where he could sulk, an aisled hall 50 ft wide and 80 ft long for assemblies, wooden cloisters where he walked in wet weather, and a huge wine cellar. Yet Clarendon can have been scarcely more comfortable than his castles. Rooms reserved for royal privacy were mere closets, while, save for a few portable windows of oiled cloth, there was no glazing, only wooden shutters, which in winter meant choosing between rain, snow or darkness. The air was thick with smoke, its sole exit through holes in the roof.

A large deer park contained the fallow buck that was the principal game, although red deer, boar and hare were also hunted. Henry set off at daybreak, riding into the woods and up into the hills, says Gerald of Wales. From Shrovetide to midsummer he pursued the otter. Walter Map comments on his knowledge of hawks as well as hounds, and he flew peregrines and gyrfalcons, possibly even sea eagles. Brutal game laws cowed poachers of whatever class in the royal forests (game parks) that covered a third of England

Yet, as a Frenchman who spent only a third of his reign in England, Henry’s favourite residence in his entire lands was not Clarendon but Chinon. On a low hill over the Vienne before it flows into the Loire, this key stronghold was the nerve centre of Plantagenet France and the ‘defensive pivot’ of his empire.18 He replaced its old buildings with a massive fortress, from whose tall keep (the ‘Tower of the Mill’) watch could be kept for miles around.

Gifted men were attracted to Henry’s court, hoping for a bishopric or a lucrative office, although Gerald of Wales called it a hell. It was regulated with impressive ceremony, by heralds who blew trumpets and marshals with wands. Despite preferring rough clothes, on formal occasions Henry wore rich robes and, from the 1170s, was ‘rex dei gratia’ in charters – addressed as ‘Lord King’ in French or Latin, or ‘God hold thee, King’ in English.19 Petitioners knelt before him or threw themselves on their faces.

There were men at court who discussed Plutarch between the hunting and the drinking bouts. Henry enjoyed their conversation while they respected his intellect. Gerald praises his memory and knowledge of history, Map his command of languages, Peter of Blois his fondness for reading and learned discussion. (Like all medieval men he read aloud, to himself.) Fifteen books are known to have been dedicated to him, which shows their authors thought he might at least look at them. The authors included the Exchequer official Richard fitz-Neale, the jurist Ranulf Glanville and four chroniclers. Admittedly, Gerald of Wales grumbled he had wasted his time by writing his Topography of Ireland for Henry.

What really interested Henry were legends of King Arthur and Merlin’s prophecies, popularized by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of England, translated as the Roman de Brut by Wace (who dedicated it to Queen Eleanor) and by Marie de France’sLais. According to Gerald, Henry unearthed Arthur’s bones at Glastonbury, informing the monks that a bard who sang of ancient Britain had told him the body would be found 16 feet down, in a hollowed-out oak tree.

Court life was colourful, with tournaments and banquets where roast crane was served. Entertainment went on until after midnight. Music was provided by harpers, viol players and minstrels, stories were told by professional storytellers and jesters, there were jugglers, tumblers and clowns. A certain Roland le Fartère was given a small manor in Suffolk by the king on condition that every Christmas he gave a jump, a whistle and a fart before Henry and his courtiers. (Unum saltum et siffletum et unum bumbulum.)20 So many prostitutes flocked to the court that a ‘marshal of the whores’ was appointed to control them.

Before a marriage producing seven children Henry fathered a number of bastards, the most notable being Geoffrey Plantagenet. He also seduced several ladies, one of whom married Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, after bearing the king a son. Even before the birth of his last child by Eleanor, he began an affair with Rosamund Clifford. Little is known about her except that she was the daughter of a knight from the Welsh Marches, young and very beautiful, and that the king kept her at the royal palace of Woodstock, within easy reach of Clarendon. When she died at the nunnery of Godstow in 1176, Henry buried her in a tomb before the high altar, a shrine at which, on his instructions, the nuns burned candles.

Henry terrified the toughest courtier. His rages verged on insanity, like the tantrum described by Becket in 1166 when he ripped off his clothes and ate the straw on the floor. However, what frightened them more was his inscrutability. As W. L. Warren (his best biographer) put it: ‘He was no godlike Achilles, either in valour or in wrath; but in cunning and ingenuity, in fortitude and courage, he stands not far below the subtle-souled Odysseus.’ 21

A disputed succession

England had never known such prosperity, while the Plantagenet territories in France were unusually peaceful. Yet Henry nearly destroyed it all by announcing what would happen after his death – his eldest son Henry would rule England, Normandy, Anjou and Maine; Richard Aquitaine; Geoffrey Maine; and John Ireland.22 The flaw was that each son had set his heart on inheriting everything. Henry did not expect them to rebel and the mural at Winchester Castle mentioned by Gerald shows how much the discovery of their treachery hurt. ‘The eagle’s four young are my sons, who won’t stop tormenting me till I’m dead,’ was how he explained the mural. ‘The youngest of whom I’m so fond will hurt me more painfully and fatally than the rest put together.’23 What encouraged the boys to rebel was Henry’s moral defeat by Thomas Becket.


Although genuinely devout, giving alms to the poor on a large scale, the king was determined to rule the Church in his territories, ignoring Pope Adrian IV’s grumble in 1156 that he would not let clerics appeal to Rome. When the Bishop of Chichester declared in his presence that no bishop might be deposed without papal authority the king commented, ‘Quite right, a bishop can’t be deposed’, then gestured as if pushing with his hands: ‘But he can be ejected with a good shove.’24 It is unsurprising that his relations with the bishops were deteriorating by the time Theobald of Canterbury died in 1161.25

The pope at the time of Theobald’s death, Alexander III, was threatened by an anti-pope, ‘Victor IV’; this enabled Henry to secure his chancellor Thomas Becket’s election as primate in 1162, after a hasty ordination. Forty-four years old, the big, hawk-nosed Norman (who had actually been born in London in Cheapside) was so congenial that Henry could not do without his company; he even rode into Becket’s hall, jumping his horse over the high table, then dismounting and demanding food. Henry thought that, as his best friend, the new archbishop would do whatever he wanted. But during the last century the great reforming pope Gregory VII had insisted that clergy were immune from the laws governing laymen; a view with which Becket agreed.

Judges told Henry that theft, robbery and murder were committed by clerics, who included not just priests but church doorkeepers and even church sweepers. They could only be tried by ecclesiastical courts, whose harshest penalties were defrocking or flogging. Henry was outraged by four cases in particular: those of a Worcestershire cleric who raped a girl and knifed her father; a Bedfordshire canon who murdered a knight; a Wiltshire priest who had also committed murder; and a London clerk who stole a silver chalice.26Becket refused to surrender them to the secular authorities, but had the canon banished and the clerk branded, sentencing the priest to lifelong penance in a monastery. It did not mollify the king.

King versus archbishop

In January 1164, during a council at Clarendon, Henry introduced laws stipulating that clergy and laity must settle disputes in the royal courts, and that clerics found guilty by church tribunals must be defrocked and handed over to his own courts. Appeals to Rome were forbidden. The ‘Constitutions of Clarendon’ took Archbishop Thomas by surprise. While refusing to put his seal on the document, he reluctantly gave verbal assent. Then he changed his mind, arguing that to try clerics in lay courts amounted to a double trial. Henry responded by using Becket’s refusal to let a vassal be tried by a lay tribunal as grounds for arraigning him for contempt of court, besides suing him for ‘debts’ incurred when chancellor. Summoned before a council of the realm at Northampton in October, the defiant bishop was so awe-inspiring that the assembled magnates dared not pronounce sentence, and he fled to Flanders.

From abroad Becket excommunicated Henry’s ministers, calling on the king to atone for the harm he had done the Church, and threatening to excommunicate him too. But the English bishops supported the king, allowing clerics to be tried by lay courts. Henry attempted to obtain Rome’s support, so unsuccessfully that he swore he never wanted to see a cardinal again, if it meant turning Muslim. Finally, Pope Alexander placed England under an interdict, which forced Henry to let the archbishop return at the start of winter 1170. Ominously, the king refused to exchange the kiss of peace with him.

Before he left France, Becket excommunicated the Archbishop of York and two bishops for crowning Henry’s son without his permission. In Normandy, when, during Christmas 1170, York warned Henry he would never have peace while Thomas lived,27 the king bellowed that courtiers whose careers he had made were traitors in letting him be treated so disgracefully. Four knights immediately set off for Canterbury where they surrounded the archbishop in his cathedral. Although he could have escaped, he let them hack him to death, one blow slicing off the top of his skull and spilling his brains on the paving.

Henry reacted more like a friend than an enemy. In tears, he kept to his room for three days, refusing to eat. Aware that the Church would use the universal horror to wring concessions from him, he avoided Pope Alexander’s commissioners by going to Ireland.


In 1155, at Henry’s request, Pope Adrian IV had granted him the entire country of Ireland, sending an emerald ring in token of investiture, in the hope that conquest would bring the Irish Church under papal control. But the king had deferred an invasion. What forced his hand now was a group of Anglo-Norman barons from Wales led by Richard, Earl of Clare (‘Strongbow’), who, except in the mountains and bogs, easily routed Irish tribesmen armed with axes, javelins and long knives. Now, having subdued all Leinster, Strongbow was acting as an independent prince.

Henry arrived in October 1171 with an army on 400 ships, staying for six months, most of the time in a wattle-and-daub palace at Dublin. Strongbow and the barons submitted to Henry’s lordship – and were thus regranted the lands they had conquered – while many native kings paid homage, although not the High King, Rory O’Connor. At Cashel, Henry presided over a council of Irish bishops, who swore fealty. Without fighting a single battle, when he left in April he was recognized as ‘Lord of Ireland’ by three-quarters of its rulers.

He came back to find Europe blaming him for Becket’s martyrdom. At Avranches Cathedral in spring 1172 he admitted before the papal legates that he had been unwittingly responsible, swearing on the Gospels how deeply he regretted it and promising to accept any terms. These were: sending 200 knights to defend the Holy Land, cancelling the Constitutions of Clarendon and restoring the see of Canterbury’s lands. After public penance, Henry received absolution. But while the English clergy regained their legal immunity, the king lost very little. Within a decade, most of the disputes for which Becket died had been resolved by negotiation.28

The Young King’s rebellion

The Becket affair misled Henry’s enemies in England and France into thinking he was insecure. A Lincolnshire knight, Roger de Estreby, claimed that St Peter and the Archangel Gabriel had told him to warn Henry that if he went on Crusade and obeyed their commands, he would reign gloriously for another seven years – otherwise, he would die within four. Among the commands were to condemn no one to death without fair trial, ensure every man entered into his inheritance, dispense justice without bribes, reward services to his ministers and officials, and expel all Jews minus their money and bonds.

In May 1170, to ensure an undisputed succession Henry had had his fifteen-year-old eldest son, also named Henry, crowned king at Westminster by the Archbishop of York. Unfortunately the ‘Rex Filius’ or ‘Henry III’ was greedy. Hoping to take his father’s place, he went to his father-in-law King Louis for help, joined by his brothers Richard and Geoffrey, who had been secretly encouraged by their mother. In 1173 rebellions in favour of the ‘Young King’ broke out on both sides of the Channel, while Louis attacked Normandy and the Scots raided down into the Midlands. Northampton was sacked, Nottingham and Norwich went up in flames, and for a time there was anarchy in London.

Among those who rebelled were the Earls of Norfolk, Chester, Derby and Leicester (son of the king’s justiciar), with many lesser lords. In the words of Ralph de Diceto, a future dean of St Paul’s, they did so because the Old King ‘punished oppressors who plundered the poor’.29 Young Henry offered lavish rewards. In England old Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, who looked back to the ‘freedom’ of Stephen’s reign with nostalgia, was to have a bigger chunk of East Anglia; William, the King of Scots would take the three northern counties (as in Stephen’s time) and his brother Cambridgeshire; while Philip of Flanders was promised all of Kent. Normandy, the revolt’s real centre, was going be carved up in the same way.

But in October Hugh de Lacy routed Leicester’s Flemish mercenaries at Fornham in Suffolk, where peasants with bad memories of foreign ‘castlemen’ from the previous reign massacred 3,000 fugitives, drowning them in the marshes. Confined to the North and Midlands, the rebels had no proper strategy while the Old King possessed better troops. His hand was strengthened when Queen Eleanor was caught fleeing to Paris – dressed as a knight and riding astride – as a consequence she was unable to mobilize her barons in Aquitaine.

Next spring, having routed his Breton enemies the Old King dealt with the Scots. Before doing so, he had himself flogged by the monks of Canterbury at Becket’s shrine; within twentyfour hours some Yorkshiremen had captured King William in a Northumberland fog, whereupon the rebellion in England collapsed. Henry then returned to Normandy, driving out Louis. By autumn 1174 all his enemies had sued for peace.

Henry allowed the Young King two castles in Normandy with an annual allowance of £15,000, besides providing for Richard and Geoffrey. The King of Scots was released after acknowledging Henry as overlord and surrendering five key strongholds. The biggest loser was Queen Eleanor, who spent several years in confinement. Meanwhile, as the war reminded people of the miseries of Stephen’s time, Henry had no more trouble in England.

Abroad, it would be different. One-eyed, red-faced, unkempt, charmless, a timid young man fearful of assassins and hardmouthed horses, Philip II of France was a brilliant statesman who dreamed of making his kingdom what it had been in Charlemagne’s day, and was determined to conquer the Plantagenet lands. He acquired a war chest by expelling Jews from his territory and seizing their money.

Only seventeen, Henry’s second son Richard, as titular Duke of Aquitaine, had been given the job of cowing the barons of the Angoumois, Limousin and Périgord. He did so savagely, Gerald of Wales commenting that Richard was only happy when marking his steps with blood. He was also accused of ‘abducting his vassals’ wives, daughters and women folk, and using them as concubines before handing them on to his troops’.30

Egged on by Geoffrey, the Young King told the Aquitanian barons that he would make a kinder duke than Richard. The Old King tried to defuse the situation, commanding his three sons to make peace. Early in 1184 he told Richard and Geoffrey to do homage to their oldest brother. Richard refused, saying he was his mother’s heir, whereupon the Young King and Geoffrey seized his city of Limoges. Their father spent all Lent trying to evict the pair, his horse being hit by a crossbow bolt on one occasion.

Leaving Limoges, the Young King plundered the shrines at Rocamadour and Grandmont (where he knew his father wanted to be buried) to pay his troops, but contracted dysentery, which killed him in June. He had been so handsome and eloquent that Walter Map called him ‘a little lower than the angels’, while adding he was like Absalom, a parricide who desired his father’s death.31 Even so, Henry threw himself on the ground and howled on hearing of his death. When the king asked the rebel troubadour Bertran de Born, ‘You used to boast of your brains – what’s happened to them?’ and Bertran answered, ‘I lost them the day you lost your son’, he burst into tears.32

Besides wrecking Henry’s plans, the Young King’s death unsettled his brothers even further. Geoffrey and John each hoped for the Crown despite their father announcing that Richard had taken the Young King’s place as heir and would be responsible for Normandy, Anjou and England – Geoffrey was to continue in Brittany, while John would take over in Aquitaine. However, Henry had not bothered to explain this to Richard, who fled to Poitou and gathered troops, refusing to leave. For the moment his father accepted the situation, but Richard did not trust him.

Another problem was Alice of France, Philip’s sister, to whom Richard had been betrothed since 1169, and who lived at the English court. Henry was rumoured to have fathered a bastard on her, which was why he would not let the marriage take place. In any case, Richard, repelled by the girl’s ugliness, wanted to marry Berengaria of Navarre. Trying to set all three sons against each other, Philip offered to cede the Norman border territory of the Vexin in perpetuity if Henry granted it to a son who married Alice.

The Old King hoped John at least would be satisfied by becoming King of Ireland. Now eighteen, John set off for his new kingdom in April 1185, Pope Urban III sending a crown of peacocks’ feathers set in gold for his coronation. It never took place. When he landed, John upset the Irish chieftains, pulling their beards and jeering at them, after which he replaced veteran Anglo-Norman commanders by young cronies whose campaign swiftly ended in defeat. Taking refuge in the coastal towns, he spent his time drinking and whoring until Henry recalled him in September. In retrospect, it is possible that John’s behaviour may have been deliberate, to avoid spending the rest of his life in Ireland.

In the month John sailed for Ireland, Henry ordered Richard to hand Aquitaine back to Eleanor, who had been released from captivity. Although this looked like a setback for Richard, it guaranteed his succession to the duchy, as he and his mother were devoted to each other. Despairing of Aquitaine, next year his brother Geoffrey sought Philip’s help in securing Anjou. A small, swarthy man, he is referred to by the chronicler Howden as that son of perdition (the name given to Judas by the Gospel) while Gerald of Wales calls him a smooth-tongued hypocrite, always stirring up trouble. But in Paris, plotting against his father and brethren, Geoffrey was kicked to death by a horse during a tournament. There is no record of Henry showing any grief.

The betrayal

As the oldest surviving son, Richard saw himself as heir to the entire Plantagenet empire. But, some time during 1187, he learned that Henry had written to King Philip, suggesting Alice should marry John, who would inherit Aquitaine and Anjou. Suspecting that his disinheritance was being planned, Richard allied with Philip, who invited him to Paris, where they slept in the same bed. War was averted in January 1188 by news that Saladin had captured the Holy City: Henry, Richard and Philip all swore to go on Crusade. However, the expedition was delayed by rebellion in Poitou and by war between Richard and Raymond of Toulouse – both secretly set in motion by King Philip.

In summer 1188 Philip intervened openly. In response, Henry assembled an army of Anglo-Norman knights and Flemish mercenaries. (Among them was the famous William Marshal, who had been head of the Young King’s military household.) Instead of a battle there was a meeting between the two kings in August under an elm tree near Gisors, which the French king left on the pretext of sunstroke – in order to prolong hostilities without fighting. Henry and Richard continued the campaign until Henry ran out of money and disbanded his army. All this time Philip was playing upon Richard’s paranoia.

At a meeting in November between the English and French kings at Bonsmoulins in Normandy, when his father refused to acknowledge him as heir, Richard cried, ‘Now I know what I thought impossible!’ Then he publicly did homage to Philip for Normandy, Anjou, Maine and Aquitaine. An attempt at reconciliation next Easter failed because Henry still refused to acknowledge Richard as heir. Meanwhile, Aquitaine supported Richard and Brittany was in revolt.

By now Henry was increasingly unwell. Early in June 1189, the two kings and Richard met at La Ferté-Bernard, joined by a papal legate who was anxious for the Crusade to start. Philip demanded that Henry let Alice marry Richard and guarantee his succession, while John must go on Crusade. Richard made the same demands. Henry proposed, instead, that John should marry Alice and take over Aquitaine, which was rejected out of hand. When the legate threatened to put France under an interdict if Philip did not make peace, Philip accused him of taking bribes and ended the conference.

Philip and Richard now invaded Maine, catching Henry by surprise at Le Mans on 11 June. Its people fired the suburbs, but the French rode through the flames into the city and Henry fled, pursued by his own son. His escort included William Marshal, who deliberately charged at Richard. ‘For God’s sake, don’t kill me, Marshal,’ he begged. ‘I’m not wearing armour.’ ‘No, I will not kill you,’ replied William as he ran his lance into Richard’s horse. ‘I shall leave that to the devil.’33

‘O God, today you humiliated me by stealing the city I loved most on earth, where I was born and bred!’ cried the Old King. With his bastard son Geoffrey and a few followers, he fled into the forest, reaching Chinon before he collapsed. Then Philip captured Tours, another key stronghold. Feverish with blood poisoning from a wounded heel, Henry met the French king at Villandry, where he was further shaken by a bolt of lightning that just missed him. Held up in his saddle, he agreed to make his barons swear allegiance to Richard, pay a cash indemnity and go on Crusade with Philip. Exchanging a kiss of peace with Richard, Henry whispered in his ear, ‘God grant I don’t die before I have my revenge on you!’34

Returning to Chinon, Henry learned of the desertion of John, whom he had contemplated making his heir. He moaned, ‘Shame on a conquered king!’, calling down God’s curse on his sons. He died on 6 July. Before his burial in the abbey church at Fontevrault Richard came to see the corpse. A torrent of blood flowed from its nostrils, enraged even in death.


Henry II’s most enduring monument is not the battered effigy at Fontevrault, but in England, where no ruler has ever left a deeper, more lasting mark.

In accepting pre-Conquest legal customs, the Normans had unknowingly committed themselves to becoming Englishmen, and Henry made certain they would do so by creating the Common Law.

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