History of the British Monarchy, Part III: King Henry II & The Rise of the Plantagenets

Link to Part II here.

Stephen of Blois (“blue-uh“) was only the nephew of King Henry I, but he was treated like a son to the King because Stephen’s parents–the King’s siblings–had died young.

However, before he died, King Henry I proclaimed his daughter, Matilda, heir to the throne. Technically, Matilda was the rightful heir to the throne, but she was disfavored by a large segment of the English nobility–A., because she was a woman, and B., because she was married to Geoffrey, the Count of Anjou and a rival to the Normans.

The House of Anjou, referred to as the “Angevins” (they would become known as the Plantagenets centuries later) sought to acquire the territories of the Norman Empire, which included Normandy and Britain. This is why the English nobility opposed Matilda’s claim to the throne and supported Stephen’s: because while she was a Norman by blood, she was an Angevin by marriage.

Stephen was able to take the crown because he had the support of most of the nobility and the church, however his throne was contested from the start due to the fact that Matilda was technically the rightful heir to King Henry I, and because the Angevins were very wealthy, powerful and had designs on taking advantage of the power vacuum caused by King Henry’s Death. Matilda became known as “Empress Matilda” at this time because King Stephen’s wife was also named Matilda (she was, obviously, Queen Matilda) Thus began the 20-year power struggle, known as “The Anarchy,” between the Crown and the Angevins for the throne.

We will from this point refer to the Angevins as the Plantagenets for the sake of simplicity.

Before he dies, King Stephen, whose son and heir, Eustace, had died in 1153, negotiates the Treaty of Wallingford with Empress Matilda and her son, Henry FitzEmpress, who had taken over the war effort after the death of his father, Geoffrey Plantagenet, in 1151.

The treaty stipulated that Henry would succeed Stephen as King upon Stephen’s death.

Per the terms of the treaty, Henry, succeeds Stephen on the throne. At age 21, the French-speaking Henry becomes King Henry II upon Stephen’s death, and thus begins the Plantagenet Dynasty.

Henry II is William the Conqueror’s great-grandson.

England during the reign of King Stephen can be best classified as a failed state, or a rump state–defined as a remnant of a once much larger state that was torn apart due to either secession, civil war, or conquest. For nearly 20 years, the nation was in chaos, with warring factions vying for control of the crown, and with the crown itself not even controlling all the land.

Henry II’s entire life has been war–the Anarchy began right around the time he was born, and ended when he became King at age 21. Henry II is a fiery, intense man–a born soldier who has grown up knowing nothing but war, and that he was the rightful king of England.

The first order of business for Henry II is to reassert the crown’s control over all of England.

Thanks in large part to the military efforts of Henry II and his parents in their campaign against King Stephen, the crown has lost its grip on more than half of the island, even though the Anarchy is technically over. Coupled with the fact that the Norman nobility largely views Henry II as an outsider and a foreigner, he must assert his authority and find a way to bring his hostile domain to heel.

King Henry II

His solution is not to rely on the barons and nobility to administer the various duchies in his kingdom, but to promote educated and competent commoners into prominent roles of responsibility and administration. They became known as the “New Men,” (this became a more common practice with future kings down the road.) This way, he can ensure he has their loyalty — after all, he has transformed their lives. They were nothing without him. Barons and noblemen tend to be ungrateful, entitled and self-interested since they derive wealth and prestige from their family names. But these commoners owe all their success to Henry himself.

Henry’s queen is Eleanor of Aquitaine, heiress of the Duchy of Aquitaine in France. Her family’s holdings are significant, and represent a major territorial expansion for the crown:

Eleanor had actually been divorced from her first husband, King Louis VII of France, in 1152, for failing to produce him a son.

Just two months later, Henry has made Eleanor, who is ten years his senior, his wife and queen–and within a year, she has given him a son. She is known across the continent for her beauty, but beyond that, given her family’s sizable land holdings, wealth and prestige (she is a direct descendant of Charlemagne), she is a major source of Henry’s power. She is a shrewd political operator, and represents a good match for Henry II, who is more the strongman type.

Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Another of Henry II’s most valuable allies is Thomas Becket, a commoner whose uncommon political shrewdness and cunning enables him to rise through the ranks of English society and into the close circle of King Henry II. In fact, it is said that Becket is the only person in England King Henry II actually trusts. The two are drinking buddies and often go hunting together (the King is an avid hunter).

Henry names Becket Lord Chancellor of England and tasks him with bringing all England back under the crown’s control. Becket is largely able to do so, restoring law and order and rooting out any insurrectionists, by 1160.

But there is still a problem Henry faces: his power is undermined by the Church, which is loyal to the Pope in Rome, not the King. The Church in England is headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury — it has been since the 6th century and remains so today. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the most powerful clerical figure in England, bar-none — and, during the Middle Ages, perhaps the second-most powerful figure in England, period.

The Canterbury Cathedral today.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury dies in 1162, Henry II replaces him with Thomas Becket. The church is appalled. Becket has no clerical experience, and has never been known as a devout man of God. It’s clear what Henry is doing: installing one of his loyalists into the most powerful clerical position in the land in order to bring the Church to heel. It’s a move that, in theory, will result in Henry II gaining near-absolute power. Becket owes his entire life to the King. Surely he will do what is expected of him and be Henry’s puppet.

But upon taking over as Archbishop, Becket undergoes a radical religious conversion and turns away from Henry. Or perhaps it was his grand plan all along.

Becket resigns as Lord Chancellor, signifying that he is completely independent from the crown now. Far from turning the Church into the Crown’s pawn, Becket becomes a constant thorn in the King’s side. One of the main goals for King Henry is changing the Church policy that prevents clergy from being tried for their crimes by the crown. All crimes committed by clergymen in this time are handled by the Church, and Henry wants to change that, which would allow him to severely undercut the power of the clergy and make them accountable to him. But Becket refuses to allow this.

In 1170, in a clear act of defiance to the king, Becket excommunicates three bishops who, at King Henry’s wish, crown the King’s oldest son, Henry, as heir apparent. He becomes “Henry the Young King” and is co-ruler with his father, at least in name (more on him in a bit).

Becket has legitimate grounds for his actions, however. It is and has always been the Archbishop of Canterbury’s exclusive privilege to coronate new kings, and Henry II deliberately excluded Becket from the ceremony. Becket goes on a wider purge and excommunicates not only more bishops but also noblemen loyal to the King. Being excommunicated, of course, means literally being damned to hell. This is no small thing.

Henry II is enraged. While holding court, he finally loses it. Becket has pushed him over the edge. The king, according to legend, erupts, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest!?”

But another, more accurate account says that first, a baron cries out to the king, “My Lord, while Thomas Becket lives, you will have no peace, no quiet no prosperity!” To which the King responds, What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household? Faithless to their lord, and who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?!”

Was it a rhetorical question? Or was the King dropping a hint? Whatever it was, four knights believe they understand what their King was asking. They leave at once, setting off across the Channel — at this point, the King of England lived in Normandy, not London — and head for Canterbury.

Location of Canterbury in England

On December 29, they arrive and confront the Archbishop. They draw their swords and began hacking away at the unarmed, defenseless Becket, chopping the top of his head off and leaving his lifeless, mutilated body at the blood-soaked altar. One knight even scoops Becket’s brains out of his open skull and strews them about. All the while, clergymen look on.

A 13th century illustration of the murder of Thomas Becket.

The murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket remains one of the most infamous moments in the history of England. To this day, it remains a stain, perhaps a defining one, on the legacy of King Henry II.

Henry II maintains that he never wanted Becket killed. His intent was not to tell his men to go kill Becket. Henry is said to be utterly devastated. Though it was years earlier, Becket was at one point the King’s closest and most trusted adviser, official and friend.

Becket quickly becomes a martyr. Word spreads throughout England and all across the continent that Henry had explicitly ordered the murder. Becket is canonized by the Church within months, and the Pope even threatens to excommunicate England entirely. Henry is able to avoid this by sending 200 knights to the Holy Land.

The damage to the King’s public image is significant. But even his reputation among those closest to him has taken a hit. Within a few years, Queen Eleanor and the King’s sons are plotting against him. Henry the Young King, the heir in waiting, has not actually been given any real power by his father despite the title. He grows resentful.

For the next 18 years, Henry II is in constant and intermittent conflict with his sons, who are aided by their mother and, interestingly enough, her ex-husband, King Louis of France.

Henry has alienated his family by way of his controlling nature. He may have named his oldest son, Henry, co-King and heir, but he has hardly done anything at all to prepare the boy for his eventual accession. He’s got his men collecting taxes and administering Eleanor’s territories in Aquitaine, and even sells off some of the land in a deal for himself.

Eleanor, by now living in Aquitaine with her favorite son, Richard, has had enough. Richard, set to inherit the lands his father has sold off, is also ready to take action. Henry the Young King turns against his father when, expecting to be given the immensely important Castle of Chinon in central France, is skipped over in favor of his youngest sibling, six-year-old John. Chinon is strategically crucial for exercising control over the Plantagenet empire, and the Young King felt he should inherit it. But King Henry is simply too reluctant to hand anyone close to him any sort of meaningful degree of power, lest they turn on him, like his old pal Becket did.

It doesn’t work. In fact, it backfires spectacularly.

With his wife, Queen Eleanor, and his two teenage sons, Henry and Richard, firmly against him, he now finds himself in a similar position to his old uncle King Stephen. War is imminent. Eleanor, Henry and Richard win the support of King Louis VII of France— Eleanor’s ex-husband, recall — as well as much of the French nobility.

King Louis VII has obvious reasons for wanting to take down Henry II. For one, Henry is married to Louis’ ex-wife. To make matters worse, Eleanor had not been able to produce any male heirs for Louis, but gave Henry six. Plus, the English crown controls half of France at this time. England is far more powerful and wealthy than France at this time, and King Louis sees the discord in the English royal family as his opportunity to weaken England and improve the lot of his own kingdom.

Thus begins the Great Revolt of 1173–74. At the outset, things are dire for Henry II. His territories in Europe are in open revolt, plus the King of France is mobilizing against him in the East. Young Henry has entered into an alliance with King William of Scotland, who launches an invasion of England from the North. Young Henry has promised William and King Louis, plus numerous barons in both France and England, considerable territory if they aid him and emerge victorious. Young Henry wants to win at all costs, even if he hardly has a Kingdom to rule over when all is said and done. You get the impression that it’s mostly personal with his father.

In the summer of 1174, in order to rally public support amid flagging fortunes in the war, King Henry II travels to Canterbury and walks barefoot through the town in commoner’s garb. Throngs of townsfolk gaze in wonder at their king, stooping to such a level.

He enters the Canterbury Cathedral and proceeds to the shrine where St. Thomas is buried in the crypts. Henry kneels in front of the tomb and commands the monks to begin whipping him. It is said that 100 take turns striking the king as he kneels before his old friend’s shrine. His back is bloody and raw from more than 300 lashes, but this public act of penance and self-flagellation sufficiently atones for his role in the Archbishop’s murder four years earlier.

The Penance of King Henry II

The very next morning, Henry’s forces capture King William of Scotland, in a major reversal of fortune for the crown. The King now longer has to worry about his northern flank and can focus on the threat from France.

The timing, however, is most significant: it seems to represent God’s clear and undeniable approval of King Henry II. The capture of William just a day after Henry knelt at Becket’s tomb seems divinely granted — a miracle, even. This turns public opinion among the English barons decisively toward the crown.

Henry II soon thwarts the French rebellion, and in 1174, Henry II and Louis VII sign the Treaty of Montlouis. The Young King, Richard and Geoffrey surrender and beg their father for forgiveness, which they are granted on the condition that they would quell the various remaining rebellions against their father in France. Eleanor, captured just before the outbreak of the Revolt, remains under house arrest for years to come.

However, by the early 1180s, a rift grows between Richard and his brothers, Young Henry and Geoffrey. By this point, Richard is now in alliance with his father against the revolting Young Henry and Geoffrey. The conflict does not last long, however, as Young Henry catches dysentery and dies in 1183. Geoffrey dies in 1186, leaving only Richard and his younger brother, John, now in his early 20s, as the only candidates to succeed their father.

The choice should be Richard, but having been betrayed by Richard once already, the King is wary of him. On top of that, the King and John are very close. While Richard, Young Henry and Geoffrey spent much of their lives growing up with their mother, Eleanor, John was raised by Henry and is Henry’s favorite son. Richard, and everyone else, know it.

Everyone including the newly-crowned King Philip II of France. Philip took over the crown when his father, Louis VII, died in 1180. Richard and Philip had been close friends ever since King Louis joined them in their failed effort to oust King Henry. Now King of France, Philip is in Richard’s ear, telling him that Henry is certain to name John his heir and snub Richard.

Whether Philip genuinely believed it or only said it in hopes of driving a wedge between Richard and the King, and thereby weakening England’s grip on France, is anyone’s guess. There is at least a decent chance Henry was planning to snub Richard. The King was, as we know, a notorious control-freak distrustful of virtually everyone around him.

At any rate, by 1188 Richard resolves that he will not leave the question of succession up to his father. Beyond the succession, Richard is eager to go off and fight the Muslims in the Holy Land. A year earlier, Saladin’s forces had captured Jerusalem, which Christian forces had captured and held since the First Crusade in 1099. During this time, the consensus across Europe is that it is necessary to go retake the holy city, and Richard believes King Henry is dragging his feet on the matter.


Now in a formal alliance with his friend King Philip, Richard takes up arms against King Henry in the early summer of 1189. King Henry seems to offer only token resistance in the campaign. This is because he’s dying and he knows it; he has been suffering from a bleeding stomach ulcer for a while now, and has no will to wage a war. Mostly, he desires to die in peace in Anjou.

Richard and Philip quickly slice through Henry’s forces and surround the King at his castle in Chinon. The King agrees to surrender and name Richard, now 32, his successor, along with all of Richard’s other demands for land and money. At this point, the King can barely sit upon his horse. He’s a broken man, and on death’s door.

On July 6, 1189, King Henry II dies. He’s 56 years old. The first of the Plantagenet kings has died after a 35 year reign. His last words are said to be, “Shame. Shame on a conquered king.”

However, King Henry II has much to be proud of. He inherited a fractured and failed state and turned it into a unified and respectable kingdom; he reasserted the authority of the crown, and that is no small thing. He left the empire in better shape than he had inherited it. Certainly his reign was not without controversy, but no monarch’s reign is without controversy.

The burial site of King Henry II


King Henry II (1133–1189) — Pts 1-3

Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty: Betrayal — Part 1 of 4 (The Plantagenets Documentary)

King Henry II

Leave a Reply