Henry II

Henry II (1133-1189) was king of England from 1154 to 1189. He restored and extended royal authority, supervised great legal reforms, and clashed with Thomas Becket.

Born on March 5, 1133, Henry II was the eldest son of Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, and Matilda, daughter of King Henry I. On her father's death Matilda failed to secure England and Normandy, but Geoffrey of Anjou conquered Normandy and in 1150 invested Henry with the duchy. On Geoffrey's death a year later Henry became Count of Anjou. To these lands he added the duchy of Aquitaine by his marriage (May 18, 1152) to Eleanor, daughter of the late duke. These lands were not independent states; they were separate fiefs of the kingdom of France, and for each of them Henry did homage to King Louis VII as his overlord. Louis, like other kings in this period, was trying to convert feudal overlordship into real authority to govern and deeply resented Henry's strength. The duchy of Aquitaine, often regarded as a great loss to Louis, was in many ways a liability to Henry; it had no internal unity, and it had never been effectively governed.


Recovery of England

In 1153 Henry led an expedition to claim the throne of England from his mother's rival, King Stephen. Many of the nobles had objected to a woman ruler; now they were ready to accept Henry, influenced no doubt by his power as Duke of Normandy to seize their Norman lands. The death of Stephen's son Eustace in August made a settlement possible, and at Winchester in November Stephen recognized Henry as his heir, while Henry left the throne to Stephen for the rest of his life. When Stephen died (Oct. 25, 1154), Henry succeeded peacefully and was crowned on December 19 at Westminster.

The new king was a tough, intelligent young man of 21, well educated, ambitious, and ruthless. His violent temper and his enormous energy soon became proverbial; he was constantly on the move, surprising friend and foe and exhausting his followers by his long journeys.

Henry's first objective was to regain all the rights and powers of his grandfather King Henry I. He reclaimed royal lands and castles, destroyed castles built without royal permission, and reorganized the machinery of finance, justice, and administration. He had a wise adviser in Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the service of able and experienced administrators such as Nigel, Bishop of Ely, and Richard de Lucy, justiciar till 1179. In the next 4 years he reasserted his overlordship of Scotland, the Welsh princes, and Brittany and married his eldest son to the daughter of the King of France; she brought as her dowry the Norman Vexin. He had already forced his brother Geoffrey to take money instead of the county of Anjou, promised to Geoffrey by their father.


Quarrel with the Church

Triumphant elsewhere, Henry met some opposition in his attempts to assert his authority over the clergy. On the death of Archbishop Theobald in 1161, he arranged the election as archbishop of Canterbury of his chancellor and friend Thomas Becket, hoping for his cooperation. But Thomas opposed him, and Henry's reaction was bitter and violent. The first serious quarrel was about the punishment of clergy accused of crimes; Henry wanted at least the right to punish them when convicted, but Thomas claimed them for the Church courts.

In October 1163 Henry demanded general acceptance of the customs of his grandfather's time. The following January at Clarendon the customs setting out the king's rights over the Church were defined in writing in 16 clauses, now known as the Constitutions of Clarendon. Thomas withdrew his acceptance, and Henry now determined to humiliate him. At Northampton in October 1164 Thomas was accused on trumped-up charges, and ruinous fines were imposed on him; it was clear that his resignation was required. Finally he fled secretly from England after appealing to the Pope. Henry had the support of some of the bishops and a reasonable case, for most of the disputed customs had indeed been exercised in Henry I's time. Pope Alexander III, hard pressed in his own quarrel with Emperor Frederick I, did not dare to offend Henry. Negotiations dragged on, but Thomas remained in exile till 1170.

In that year the dispute took a new turn. Henry put himself in the wrong by having his son crowned by the archbishop of York, in defiance of the known right of the archbishop of Canterbury to perform the ceremony. He now allowed a patched-up peace to be arranged, not mentioning the customs, and carefully avoided giving Thomas the formal kiss of peace, which would have been regarded as binding him not to harm the archbishop. Reports of Thomas's actions soon drove the king into one of his violent rages, and four of his knights, hoping to please him, hurried to Canterbury and murdered Thomas in his Cathedral on Dec. 29, 1170.

Henry made a great show of distress and prudently removed himself to Ireland while tempers cooled. The Pope still had to take care not to drive him into the party of the Emperor, and as all parties now desired a settlement, peace was made and Henry was reconciled to the Church on May 21, 1172, at Avranches. He promised to give up any customs which had been introduced in his time against the Church and to permit appeals from the Church courts in England to the Pope's court. The appeals were allowed from that date to the Reformation. The problem of "criminous clerks" was settled by a compromise in 1176. Broadly speaking, Henry conceded the point disputed with Thomas in return for the right to judge clergy accused of forest crimes.


Rebellion of 1173

By 1173 Henry seemed to have overcome all opposition. But in that year he had to meet rebellion and attack from all sides, partly as the result of his high-handed treatment of his own family. He had been constantly unfaithful to his proud wife, and he gave his sons, now growing up, titles but no power and no independent income. Eleanor and his three eldest sons now allied against him with King Louis VII of France, the Count of Flanders, King William of Scotland, and disaffected nobles in many places. But Henry had some warning (he had spies in his eldest son's household); he also had effective, paid soldiers and loyal, capable officials. His wife was captured and the rebels defeated. The Scottish king, defeated and imprisoned, had to make humiliating concessions to gain his freedom (Treaty of Falaise, December 1174).


Later Years

In the British Isles, Henry's triumph was decisive and final. In France too his prestige had never been greater. He made generous terms with his sons; the king of France was cowed. The king of Sicily sought his daughter Joanna in marriage; the kings of Castile and Navarre chose him to arbitrate between them in 1177. But his sons were dissatisfied and jealous, always ready to fly to arms and to ally with the most dangerous enemy of their house, the young king of France, Philip II. Philip had many grievances against the king of England, and he exploited the situation for his own advantage. The heir to the throne, Henry "the young king," died while in rebellion against his father (June 11, 1183); the new heir, Richard, opposed by force Henry's plan to endow his youngest son, John, with Aquitaine. Finally both allied with Philip against their father, who was forced to make a humiliating peace and died 2 days later (July 6, 1189). He was buried in the abbey church of Fontevrault, where his effigy remains.


Administration and Justice

The most constructive and enduring part of Henry's work lay in England. Here his reign saw continuing advances in the techniques of government, based on those made under his grandfather. The administration became more elaborate, more professional, and better documented, but always under the King's control, as Henry demonstrated in 1170, when he suspended all the sheriffs, sent commissioners to inquire into their behavior, and subsequently dismissed all but seven of them. The King's court was still a general center of government, but finance and justice were becoming provinces for experts, such as the treasurers Nigel, Bishop of Ely, and his son Richard, Bishop of London, who wrote the first account of the working of a government office, the Dialogue of the Exchequer.

In law and the administration of justice, progress was dramatic. Only a few points can be noted out of many. Judges were sent out on circuit from the royal court with increasing regularity, ensuring uniformity and central control. The Assizes of Clarendon (1166) and Northampton (1176) laid down new rules for the presentment of criminals by sworn freemen, who had to cooperate with sheriffs and the itinerant justices. Henry and his lawyers also made use of the Roman legal concept of a distinction between the possession of property and the absolute right to property. By the Assizes of Novel Disseisin and of Mort d'Ancestor those who had been violently dispossessed of their land could get trial in the king's court, not by the old crude method of duel but by the evidence of sworn neighbors. The treatise On the Laws of England describes the new system. King Henry wanted order, power, and the profits of justice; his lawyers, Richard de Lucy and Ranulf de Glanville chief among them, could draw on great experience and the revived knowledge of Roman law to carry out his wishes.

Further Reading on Henry II

The best biography remains L. F. Salzman, Henry II (1914). Also useful is John T. Appleby, Henry II: The Vanquished King (1962). General accounts with emphasis on England are given in J.E.A. Jolliffe, Angevin Kingship (1955; 2d ed. 1963), and Frank Barlow, The Feudal Kingdom of England, 1042-1216 (1955; 2d ed. 1961). Important legal developments of the reign are lucidly treated in Sir Frederick Pollock and Frederic William Maitland, The History of English Law before the Time of Edward I (2 vols., 1895; 2d ed. 1899). Amy Kelly, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings (1950), is a fascinating story told from the point of view of Henry's queen.

Additional Biography Sources

Amt, Emilie, The accession of Henry II in England: royal government restored, 1149-1159, Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK; Rochester, NY, USA: Boydell Press, 1993.

Barber, Richard W., The devil's crown: Henry II, Richard I, John, Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books, 1996.

Barber, Richard W., The devil's crown; Henry II, Richard I, John, London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1978.

Bingham, Caroline, The crowned lions: the early Plantagenet kings, Newton Abbot Eng.; North Pomfret, Vt.: David & Charles, 1978.

Butler, Margaret, The lion of Christ, New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1977.

Butler, Margaret, The lion of England, New York, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan 1973.

Butler, Margaret, The lion of England: a novel of Henry I, London, Macmillan, 1973.

Butler, Margaret, The lion of justice, New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1975.

Butler, Margaret, The Lion of Justice, London; New York: MacMillan London, 1975.

Butler, Margaret, This turbulent priest, London: Macmillan, 1977.

Cooke, Carol Phillips, Through a glass darkly: the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine, S.l.: M.H.I., 1990 (Concord, N.C.: Concord Print. Co..

Corfe, Tom, Archbishop Thomas and King Henry II, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Corfe, Tom, The murder of Archbishop Thomas, Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Co., 1977, 1975.

Duggan, Alfred Leo, Devil's brood: the Angevin family, Bath: Chivers, 1976.

Fry, Christopher, Play, London, New York, Oxford University Press, 1971.

Gillingham, John, The Angevin empire, New York: Holmes & Meier, 1984.

Gittings, Robert, Conflict at Canterbury: an entertainment in sound and light, London, Heinemann Educational, 1970.

Goldman, James, The lion in winter, Harmondsworth, Middlesex; New York: Penguin Books, 1983, 1964.

Warren, Wilfrid Lewis, Henry, London, Eyre Methuen 1973.

York, Robert, The swords of December, New York: Scribner, 1978.