Henry II of England: The Controlling King

Henry II of England
c. 1133 – July 6, 1189

His desire for control would cause his downfall. Henry II was born during 1133 in Le Mans, France. His father, Geoffrey Plantagenet, was the count of Anjou, Maine, and Touraine. His mother, Matilda, was the daughter of King Henry I of England. Matilda instilled in her son the belief that he was destined to inherit the English throne.

Matilda

During Henry’s childhood, his mother focused on securing the English throne. As the only surviving legitimate child of Henry I, Matilda was his heir. However, the idea of an English queen proved unpopular. After King Henry’s death, Matilda’s cousin, Stephen, capitalized on this sentiment. He quickly arrived in England and seized the crown in December 1135. Matilda could only watch on from France as her birthright was stolen from her.

As the years went by, Matilda made attempts to overthrow King Stephen. Although most of her efforts ended in stalemates, Matilda’s most effective attempt occurred in 1141. Matilda’s half-brother, Robert, led an army against Stephen’s forces and won. As a result, Stephen’s capture allowed Matilda to return to England for her coronation. However, her arrogance caused her expulsion from London, and Stephen got reinstated.

Gaining Power

Eleanor of Aquitaine
Eleanor of Aquitaine

In September 1150, Geoffrey died. Upon his father’s death, Henry inherited his titles and lands. On May 18, 1152, the 19-year-old increased his standing by marrying the 28-year-old Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor was the former wife of King Louis VII of France. After their divorce, she resumed her title of duchess of Aquitaine.

Henry now had control over Normandy, Anjou, Maine, Touraine, and Aquitaine. His land holdings encompassed western France and nearly half of the country. Because of this, the duke’s power rivaled a king’s. With his affairs in order, Henry and his army departed to England.

Invasion of England

In January 1153, Henry’s forces landed in Malmesbury. As both men’s armies clashed, Stephen gradually lost support. His troops were demoralized and began to mutiny. Henry also started making alliances with alienated nobles, further eroding Stephen’s support.

August 1153 proved to be a turning point in the war. In early August, King Stephen’s heir, Eustace, died. He had succumbed to illness. Devastated by his son’s death, Stephen finally relented. He agreed to meet with Henry and discuss peace terms.

In November 1153, King Stephen and Henry signed a treaty. As part of the agreement, Stephen would remain as king until he died. After his death, Henry would succeed him as his adopted heir. The truce effectively ended the civil war that had been ongoing since 1135. Peace had finally been restored in England.

Duke to King

In late October 1154, King Stephen died. Henry was in Normandy and would return to England in December. When he arrived to be crowned, he brought his pregnant wife Eleanor and heir William. On December 19, Duke Henry was crowned King Henry II. His ascension established the Plantagenets as England’s new royal family.

Thomas Becket

Thomas Becket
Thomas Becket

In 1155, Henry II met Thomas Becket. This meeting proved to be a pivotal one for both men. Thomas had served as Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury’s protege. At Theobald’s suggestion, Henry considered Thomas for the chancellorship. The intelligent, hard-working Thomas impressed the king, and he was subsequently appointed chancellor.

Initially, both men had a strong friendship. Thomas Becket proved to be a capable administrator and quickly gained Henry II’s trust. He led troops and met with emissaries on the king’s behalf. Henry viewed Thomas as a good friend, a loyal servant, and a link between the monarchy and the church. The king knew that if his plans for reforming the justice system were to succeed, Thomas’s expertise would be required.

Archbishop of Canterbury

In 1161, Theobald died. Seeing an opportunity, Henry II decided to make Thomas Becket the new archbishop. Despite the resistance of Canterbury’s monks, Thomas was appointed. As the king celebrated, he failed to realize the impact that the appointment had on Thomas. Feeling unworthy, Thomas decided to change his life radically.

Thomas Becket rapidly transformed from a secular administrator to a devoutly religious leader. He resigned from being chancellor and devoted himself to church affairs. Although both men were initially still friends, their relationship soured. Henry II quickly realized that Thomas would prevent any reform attempts that came at the church’s expense. Since the king wanted the power to prosecute church officials, Thomas adamantly opposed him.

King vs. Archbishop

For years, the English justice system was divided into two parts: canon law and secular law. Canon law prosecuted clerical crimes, while secular law prosecuted non-clerical crimes. The king and his government only had authority in secular law. They were restricted from canon law as that was the church’s right. Because of this, anyone affiliated with the church couldn’t be prosecuted by the king.

Henry II saw the flaws in this type of system. Instead, the king sought to create a unified legal system that dispensed justice impartially. Since this new system would take power away from the church, Thomas Becket opposed it. Feeling betrayed by his friend, Henry ordered the clergy to submit to his authority. When Thomas refused, the king became infuriated.

After a heated exchange between both men in October 1163, Henry II threatened Thomas Becket. If Thomas didn’t proclaim the supremacy of the monarchy over the church, there would be violence. After making his proclamation, the archbishop fled to France for safety. In retaliation, the king seized Thomas’s properties, persecuted his supporters, and exiled his relatives.

Thomas Returns

Henry II and Thomas Becket eventually made peace in 1170. Thomas returned to England, but his time in exile hadn’t changed his views. He once more agitated the king. Enraged by his former friend’s actions, Henry asked at court who would get rid of Thomas for him.

Despite Henry II asking a rhetorical question, four of his knights took the king’s words literally. On December 29, the knights broke into Canterbury Cathedral. When they attempted to arrest Thomas Becket, he resisted. In return, the knights killed him. Due to the knight’s actions, Thomas’s death stained Henry’s reign.

Aftermath

Henry II faced significant backlash in both England and Europe over Thomas’s asassination. The king retreated to Ireland to escape Pope Alexander III’s wrath. After six months in exile, the pope and king reconciled. Henry returned to England, but the price was steep. The king had to submit to the pope’s authority for forgiveness.

Family Rebellion

Pope Alexander III had somewhat humbled Henry II. However, he remained a strong and feared king. After the controversy over Thomas Becket’s death had ended, Henry began to have another issue: his family. In 1173, Queen Eleanor and their sons started a rebellion against the king.

The rebellion itself wasn’t a spontaneous act. It was the result of Henry’s desire to have absolute control over his kingdom. The king had prevented his heir, Prince Henry, from exercising any political power. He also denied giving Richard and Geoffrey authority over their French territories. Finally, Henry refused to return control of Aquitaine to Eleanor.

Richard I of England
Prince Richard of England

In 1173, the family’s pent up resentment and frustration finally erupted. The rebellion initially surprised Henry II. His wife and son’s uprising quickly gained many supporters across England. Even France and Scotland sided with the rebels. As a result, the king had to fight on multiple fronts. However, Henry’s forces ultimately persevered and won against the rebel armies.

Rise in Prominence

After the rebellion had ended, Henry II forgave his sons and rewarded them. The king did this to avoid another uprising. However, Henry’s forgiveness didn’t extend to his wife. For her betrayal, he imprisoned Eleanor. Due to overcoming multiple adversaries, Henry’s victory over the rebellion established him as Europe’s most prominent ruler.

Second Rebellion

For eight years, Henry II’s sons remained loyal to their father. However, in 1181, Prince Henry became enraged after being denied control of Normandy. The prince then set off a chain of events that culminated in him allying himself with his brother Geoffrey against Richard. Prince Henry had not only wanted to gain Normandy but secretly Richard’s Aquitaine too. By March 1183, King Henry attempted to prevent his son’s conflict from escalating.

Despite Henry II’s efforts, a short war ensured. The conflict only de-escalated after Prince Henry’s death in June 1183. With his succession plans ruined, Henry decided to re-arrange his remaining son’s inheritances. The king wanted his youngest son, John, to inherit Aquitaine instead of Richard. However, Richard felt offended by his father’s plan. The prince always felt that Aquitaine belonged to him and refused to accept Henry’s decision.

Philip II of France

Philip II of France
Philip II of France

As Henry II and his sons fought amongst themselves, a new king of France emerged. After the death of Louis VII in September 1180, the 15-year-old Philip II took the throne. Initially, Henry didn’t view Philip as a threat. The French king was young and his small country surrounded by English held lands. However, the young king gradually proved to be a bigger threat than Henry had anticipated.

Philip II possessed a cunning mind and desired to break English control over France’s lands. To this end, the king made alliances with Henry II’s sons against the king. Whenever a Plantagenet conflict occurred, Philip always offered his aid to the princes. After the death of Geoffrey in 1186, Richard became Philip’s primary ally against Henry. By 1187, both men invaded English controlled Berry.

Final Years

By the mid 1180s, Henry II was in his early 50s and had begun to show his age. Despite slowing down, the king still led his army. Unfortunetly for Henry, he wouldn’t be victorious against Richard and Philip II. On July 3, 1189, the sickly king finally admitted defeat. After reluctantly agreeing to their terms, Henry departed.

On July 6, 1189, the old king succumbed to his illness. Henry II’s death was allegedly hastened after learning that his favorite son John had joined Richard. The once prestigious king’s life had ended in failure. His wife and four sons had all conspired against him. Henry had even been humiliated by the much younger Philip II.

Conclusion

Henry II overcame many obstacles throughout his life. As a young man, he earned the English throne. After Thomas Becket’s death, Henry gained the pope’s forgiveness. When his family rebelled, Henry defeated them and their allies. However, his controlling nature led to his eventual downfall. Despite this, the king successfully established the Plantagenets as England’s rulers for the next 330 years.

Sources

Cawthorne, N. (2012). Kings & Queens of England: From the Saxon Kings to the House of Windsor. London: Arcturus.

Jones, D. (2014). The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England. New York: Penguin Books.

Knowles, M. D. (2020, January 1). Henry II. Retrieved January 5, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-II-king-of-England.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Andy Tree

I'm a European history enthusiast who seeks to share his passion with others. I hope to inform and inspire readers with my posts!

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