Following the disastrous reign of King Stephen, Henry's reign was one of efficient consolidation. Henry II is regarded as England's greatest medieval king.
He was born on March 5, 1133, to the Empress Matilda and her second husband, Geoffrey the Fair, Duke of Anjou. He was brought up in Anjou and visited England in 1142 to help his mother in her disputed claim to the English throne.
During Stephen's reign, the barons had subverted feudal legislation to undermine the monarch's grip on the realm; Henry saw it as his first task to reverse this shift in power. Castles which had been built without authorisation during Stephen's reign, for example, were torn down, and an early form of taxation replaced military service as the primary duty of vassals. Record-keeping was dramatically improved in order to streamline this taxation.
Henry II established courts in various parts of the country and was the first king to grant magistrates the power to render legal decisions on a wide range of civil matters in the name of the Crown. Under his reign, the first written legal textbook was produced, proving the basis on what today is referred to as Common Law. By the Assize of Clarendon (1166), trial by jury became the norm again: Since the Norman Conquest, jury trials had been largely replaced by trial by ordeal and "wager of battel" (which was not abolished in England until 1819). This was one of Henry's major contributions to the social history of England. As a consequence of the improvements in the legal system, the power of church courts[?] waned. The church, not unnaturally, opposed this, and its most vehement spokesman was Thomas à Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, formerly a close friend of Henry's and his chancellor. Henry had appointed Becket to the archbishopric precisely because he wanted to avoid conflict.
The conflict with Becket effectively began with a dispute over whether clergy who had committed a secular offence could be tried by the secular courts. Henry attempted to subdue Becket and his fellow churchmen by making them swear to obey the "customs of the realm", but there was controversy over what constituted these customs, and the church was reluctant to submit. Becket left England in 1164 to solicit personally the support of the Pope in Rome and the king of France, where he stayed for a time. After a reconciliation between Henry and Thomas in Normandy in 1170, he returned to England. Becket again confronted Henry, this time over the coronation of Prince Henry (see below). The much-quoted words of Henry II echo down the centuries: "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?" Four of his knights took their king literally (as he may have intended for them to do, although he later denied it) and travelled immediately to England, where they assassinated Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170.
In 1170, the fifteen-year-old son Henry was crowned king, but he never actually ruled and is not counted in the monarchs of England; he is now known as Henry the Young King to distinguish him from his nephew Henry III of England.
Henry and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had four sons and three daughters. (Henry also had some ten children by at least four other women, and Eleanor had several of those children reared in the royal nursery with her own children, and some remained members of the household in adulthood.) His attempts to wrest control of her lands from her (and her heir Richard) led to confrontation between Henry on the one side and his wife and legitimate sons on the other.
Henry's notorious liaison with Rosamund Clifford, the "fair Rosamund" of legend, is thought to have begun in 1165, during one of his Welsh campaigns, and continued until her death in 1176. However, it was not until 1174, at around the time of his break with Eleanor, that Henry acknowledged Rosamund as his mistress. Almost simultaneously, he began negotiating to divorce Eleanor and marry Alice, daughter of King Louis VII of France, who was already betrothed to his son, Richard. His affair with her continued for some years, and, unlike Rosamund Clifford, Alice is believed to have given birth to several of his illegitimate children.
Henry II's attempt to divide his titles amongst his sons but keep the power associated with them provoked them into trying to take control of the lands assigned to them, which amounted to treason, at least in Henry's eyes. Henry was fortunate to have on his side a knight who was both loyal and unbeatable in battle: William Marshal; Henry's illegitimate son Geoffrey Plantagenet (1151-1212), Archbishop of York, also stood by him the whole time and was the only son with Henry when he died.
When Henry's legitimate sons rebelled against him, they often had the help of King Louis VII of France. The death of his son, Henry the Young King in 1183, was followed by the death of the next in line to the throne, Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany who was trampled to death by a horse in 1186. His third son, Richard the Lionheart, with the assistance of Philippe II Auguste, attacked and defeated Henry on July 4, 1189; Henry died at the Chateau Chinon on July 7, 1189 and was entombed in Fontevraud Abbey, near Chinon and Saumur in the Anjou Region that today is part of France.
The treasons associated with the succession were the main theme of the play The Lion in Winter, which was made into a film starring Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn. Henry II and his sons King Richard and King John were also the subject of the BBC2 series The Devil's Crown and the 1978 book of the same title, written by Richard Barber and published as a guide to the tv series, which starred Brian Cox[?] and Jane Lapotaire[?] as Henry and Eleanor.
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