King Henry II came to power after the Anarchy, a sixteen-year long civil war which had shaken the foundations of feudalism in England. He received a kingdom in ashes: the economic foundations of the crown were in ruins, Anglo-Norman nobles had fortified their manors to insulate themselves from royal authority, and his vast lands in Continental Europe were under constant threat. Yet Henry rose to these challenges. He would build anew the English administrative state, he would extend his holdings on the Continent at the expense of King Louis VII of France, creating the Angevin Empire. Yet his legacy is a complicated one: his relationship with his children would be fractious, and they would rebel repeatedly against his jealous withholding of power. After his death, the Angevin Empire would disintegrate, never developing into a permanent cross-Channel state, and gradually the Norman and English halves of Anglo-Norman society would diverge forever.

A contemporary depiction of King Henry II in his later life. From a 1186 CE atlas of Ireland, dedicated to the King. (via Wikimedia Commons)

A Hot-Headed Youth

In our blog series on the Anarchy, we saw the rise of Henry FitzEmpress, as he was known in his early years. The son of Empress Matilda and Geoffrey Plantagenet of Anjou, Henry was the grandson of King Henry I, and his mother had contested the English throne fiercely against Stephen of Blois, who had seized the English throne. This is the period of civil war known as the Anarchy. Born in March 1133, Henry grew up in his father’s court at Anjou, and at his mother’s in Normandy. These were some of the wealthiest courts in Europe, and though they were straitened by the necessities of wartime, Henry would have had a spectacularly privileged upbringing. As well as learning horsemanship and battlefield tactics, Henry was also an avid learner, being taught Latin by the monks at St. Augustine’s Abbey in Bristol, the stronghold of his half-uncle Robert of Gloucester. Henry was clearly a hot-head, and he even launched an abortive invasion of England aged only 14. His invasion ground to a halt when he could no longer pay his troops, and his parents refused to bail him out – strongly implying that his expedition had been unapproved. Magnanimously, King Stephen paid off the mercenaries and sent his captive back to Normandy.

This early 14th century illumination depicts King Stephen seated with a hunting bird, a symbol of nobility. (via Historic UK)

By the time he reached maturity, he was recorded as being a strong, red-haired man of short height who was not quite so charming as his father, nor as demure as his mother, but nevertheless a highly intelligent person with a prodigious memory. He was also sometimes volatile, and would turn a piercing glare upon those who displeased him. But as far as we can guess at his character from the surviving sources with their inherent biases, it seems that Henry was an energetic, if impulse, ruler who devoted his energies diligently to both administration and warfare.

Dynastic Fruition

In 1150 CE, with the Anarchy dragging on, Henry’s parents were keen to secure their dynastic future. Henry was healthy and vigorous, and their dynasty was large: as well as an elder half-brother on his father’s side named Hamelin, Henry had two younger full-brothers named Geoffrey and William. Henry’s parents chose this time to cede their claims to Henry whilst they still lived, so that succession would be undisputed. Thus, Henry inherited the Counties of Normandy, Anjou, Tourraine and Maine from his father, and the claims to the English throne from his mother. This alarming centralization of power prompted King Louis VII of France to briefly dispute the succession by naming King Stephen’s son Eustace as Duke of Normandy and sending troops to enforce his claim, but Henry handily defeated them in minor skirmishes, and reached a negotiated settlement soon after. This settlement confirmed Henry as Duke of Normandy, but it also re-affirmed King Louis as Henry’s feudal superior – this would soon become a major sticking-point for the two monarchs.

The Anglo-Norman world at the death of William the Conqueror in 1087 CE. (via California State University)

To zoom out for an overview of the Anglo-Norman world: the affairs of the Kings of England and France had been irrevocably entangled by the Norman conquest of England in 1066 CE. William the Conqueror was Duke of Normandy when he seized the English crown – but Normandy was a feudal possession of the French Crown. This meant that he was at the same time both a King of England, and a feudal servant of the King of France. In a world obsessed with social hierarchy and performative homage, this was an awkward situation: who would bow to who, and who could demand what of the other? William the Conqueror seemingly recognised this: in the will he wrote shortly before his death, he allocated the Duchy of Normandy to his firstborn, and the Crown of England to his second son. But this separation of powers would not last: King Henry I, the Conqueror’s third son and the grandfather of Henry II, would reunite the claims, and seek to build a unified Anglo-Norman Kingdom. By the mid-12th century, this situation had not been resolved, and it would repeatedly throw up clashes of protocol and jurisdiction which would eventually result in the Hundred Years War a century later. Yet at the same time, we should not be seduced by the color-block depictions that modern maps of the Medieval world show us: Medieval polities did not function like modern nation-states, with defined borders and binary conceptions of citizenship. Spheres of influence, homage, vassalage and rights overlap in a geography that is more psychological than material in Medieval Europe. Thus, whilst the conflicted statues of England and France in this era is jarring, it was also elastic and durable, playing out over several centuries rather than resolving itself in a single cataclysm.

A rough map of the Angevin Empire assembled by King Henry II of England. (via History Ireland)

A Sword-Point Marriage

So, at age 18, Henry was already walking a dangerous tightrope. And an even more dangerous opportunity to expand his burgeoning empire presented itself: the hand of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor demands her own in-depth study, but for our purposes here: Eleanor was around a decade older than Henry, and she had inherited the Duchy of Aquitaine, one of the largest and most powerful feudal possessions of the French monarchy. She had been married to Louis, then the eldest son of the French King, but the couple had become increasingly bitterly estranged. She had borne him two daughters, but vitally no male heirs (by the standard of the patriarchal Middle Ages), and by the late 1140s, the couple were irrevocably separated. In a rare example of Medieval divorce, the Pope granted the couple an annulment, on the basis of consanguinity (ie. they were more closely related than second-cousins). Eleanor again become one of the most eligible women in Europe, and she and Henry conspired to wed in secret – Henry to add the Duchy of Aquitaine to his portfolio, and Eleanor to secure her political position.

This 19th century portrait of Eleanor of Aquitaine depicts her as a jealous conspirator, about to poison one of King Henry’s mistresses. “Queen Eleanor” by Frederick Sandys, 1858. (via National Museum Cardiff)

But before the couple could marry, several leading men attempted to kidnap Eleanor. In Anglo-Norman Europe, forced marriages were sadly viewed as legitimate, provided they were blessed by accepted Church authorities – and more sadly for Henry, one of these would-be kidnappers was his own brother, Geoffrey of Nantes. Feeling that Henry had usurped the County of Anjou which was his by right, Geoffrey would be a continual thorn in Henry’s side. However, forewarned of the kidnappers, Eleanor managed to evade capture, and married Henry in a secret ceremony on 18th May 1151 CE. Henry and Eleanor’s marriage would see them become one the legendary Medieval power-couples, in which she was a critical part of his state apparatus, and ultimately the matriarch of his rebel sons. They would have eight children together, who would go on to rule most of Europe. Their five sons included three Kings of England: William (who would die in childhood), Henry the Young King, King Richard the Lionheart, Count Geoffrey of Brittany, King John of England – and two of their three daughters would become Queens: Duchess of Saxony and Bavaria Matilda, Queen Eleanor of Castile, and Queen Joan of Sicily.

A 14th century depiction of Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henry II of England holding court. (via Wikimedia Commons)

An English Crown

With his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry had united most of the western-half of modern France, and his own holdings now dwarfed those of King Louis VII. Louis was furious at this sleight, and attempted to bring Henry to heel, but his campaign was ended early by illness. Whilst he was containing this threat, news reached Henry that King Stephen had placed Wallingford Castle, a major sympathetic fortress in England, under siege. Freed by King Louis’s illness, Henry raced across the Channel to deal with this threat. Little more than a year later, he would be King of England – you can read about how he achieved this significant feat without a single pitched battle in our concluding part on the Anarchy.

Coin minted by King Henry II of England during his reign. (via Old Currency Exchange)

The England that Henry inherited in 1154 was a pale shadow of its former self. Contemporary documentation shows that the Crown’s income was around £10,000 in the first few years of Henry’s reign, only half of what it had been under his grandfather Henry II. Many feudal barons had taken the opportunity to build unauthorized ‘adulterine’ castles during the Anarchy, and these fortifications would prove to be a significant boon for the barons’ future disputes with Henry’s heirs (particularly King John). King Stephen had lost (or ceded) large chunks of territory to both the Kings of Scotland in the North and the Welsh Kingdoms in the West. However, Henry’s rule was aided by two factors: firstly, most of the significant challengers to his authority died soon after his coronation – his brother would-be-kidnapper Geoffrey of Nantes died suddenly in 1158, and King Stephen’s only surviving son William was dead by 1159 CE. Secondly, King Louis VII made few serious moves to oppose King Henry II of England’s burgeoning power – indeed, the two monarchs even sealed a marriage pact between their two lineages, with Henry’s infant son Young Henry betrothed to marry Margaret of France. Thus, Henry had the breathing space to roll back the Scots’ influence in the North, and launch two campaigns into Wales to reimpose the Anglo-Norman marcher earls.

The Great Seal of King Henry II of England, which adorned official proclamations and decrees. 12th century original, made by an anonymous engraver. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Personal Union

Looking at the vast size of King Henry II of England’s empire, it is puzzling to modern eyes how it would collapse within a few years of his death. Again – we should not be seduced by maps which show vast swathes of red ‘English’ territory. Henry’s lands existed in what historians call a ‘personal union’ – this means that Henry had accrued the feudal claims to those lands in his person (through a combination of conquest, inheritance and allegiance), but that those lands didn’t share anything close to a unified legal or political system. The Angevin Empire (a term coined in the 20th century by historians to describe King Henry II’s territories) has a vast array of customs, legal systems and precedents, and the vast majority of actual government was done by local officials – unified only insofar as they all paid homage to Henry. In a Europe where some Kings (particularly the Kings of France) were beginning to develop settled monarchical capitals surrounded by a permanent bureaucracy, King Henry II of England was itinerant: he spent almost his entire rule moving from place to place across his vast empire, dispensing justice, making decrees and receiving homage. He made some moves to reform the English legal system, establishing the routine use of juries in many legal cases and the establishment of a series of professional legal courts at Westminster – but we should see these as piecemeal and reactive adjustments rather than any systematic attempt to impose a unified legal system across his highly varied territories.

Miniature depicting a king dictating law to a scribe or monk, late 13th century CE. (via British Museum)

As well, Henry was continually attempting to assert his authority over the Church. In 1162 CE, he appointed Thomas Becket to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury – but the pious chancellor came out as a reformer and fought King Henry bitterly. Infamously, Becket was murdered by Henry’s knights in 1170 CE – and debate has raged ever since about Henry’s culpability for this act. Like his grandfather, King Henry II of England promoted a new generation of minor nobles to high offices, creating a class of ‘new men’ who were dependent on him personally. Thus, Henry’s Angevin Empire was not a modern state in any sense of the word, and being a wholly ‘personal’ union, it was only ever as strong as the personal qualities of its ruler. Unfortunately, we shall see how those networks of personal patronage would come up against the brick wall of dynastic succession.

The murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket, depicted in later Medieval stained glass, Canterbury Cathedral. (via The Field)

War Without and Within

Despite the initial peace overtures between King Henry II of England and King Louis VII of France, the contradictions of their feudal relationship meant that minor disputes quickly stacked up. A dispute over the County of Toulouse became a long-running sore point, but a fundamental break came in the early 1160s CE. The County of Vexin had been ceded to Louis VII as part of the betrothal arrangements between Margaret of France and Young Henry, and this had been intended to seal a détente between the two rulers. But King Louis still felt threatened: he arranged marriages between his daughters to the Counts of Champagne and Blois – a clear intention to ringfence Henry’s land. Henry felt this annulled their agreement, and so forced some Churchmen to marry Young Henry to Margaret, Louis’ daughter, and re-occupied the Vexin. Louis responded with anger, and open warfare between the two Kingdoms was only barely averted – but only for a few years. In 1167, a minor argument about tithes due for the Second Crusade lit the touch-paper again, and King Louis invaded Normandy. In a pattern that would repeat over the centuries, Louis sought allies amongst the Celtic nations in the British Isles, seeking to encircle England – in later centuries, this would become known as the ‘Auld Alliance’. King Henry II of England forestalled this invasion by attacking and destroying King Louis’ armories at Chaumont-sur-Epte, forcing the King of France to the table. Peace talks again produced some progress – but the unresolved status of their relationship still precluded any real peace.

Contemporary depiction of Henry’s great rival, King Louis VII of France – from his Grand Seal. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Nobles within the Angevin Empire could always seek to improve their own personal positions by flirting with rebellion, and Louis would always have the incentive to patronize their causes in pursuit of weakening King Henry II of England. Thus, real peace was always elusive – and the early 1170s would see the deterioration of this instability into a serious dynastic problem for Henry. With his sons reaching the age of maturity, they would begin to first bicker for, and then loudly demand their due. Seeking to provide some stability amongst the deteriorating stability of the Empire, Henry would resurrect a tradition from the Anglo-Saxon past, crowning his son Young Henry as co-king in 1170 CE. But this would not mollify him: he would join his brothers in opposing his father, and leading a brief but violent civil war. In this, they would receive patronage from the most powerful woman in Europe: their mother Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of King Henry II of England. The Great Revolt against Henry in 1173-4 CE is a complex morass of feudalism, and so deserves its own in-depth blog. For our purposes here, Henry was saved by a group of Anglo-Norman nobles in England, and by the military defeat of a Scottish invasion in the North of England. King Henry’s sons were enfeoffed with more power in the rebellion’s aftermath, though they fell to fighting amongst one another in the 1180s. Interestingly, future King John was the only one of King Henry’s sons to remain loyal to him throughout this troubled period.

The coronation of Henry the Young King in 1170 CE, depicted in the Becket Leaves (c. 1220-1240, attr. Matthew Paris). He is not included in the regnal numbering of English kings because he predeceased his father. (via Wikimedia Commons)

A Bitter End

Henry’s plans for a secure peaceful succession were rapidly unravelling: King Henry and Richard (the future Lionheart) conducted a joint campaign against Young Henry to force the junior King to accept a redistribution of lands in 1183 CE – but the Young King died of dysentery whilst defending his claims. Broken-hearted, King Henry asserted that Richard would now ascend to the throne after his death – but he would not be crowned as co-king. The ageing King and his eldest surviving son were now deeply estranged.

The impenetrable royal fortress at Chinon was King Henry II’s stronghold in the Loire region, where he would die in 1189 CE. (via Touraine Loire Valley)

The new King of France, Philip Augustus who assumed the throne in 1180 CE, gleefully exploited this rift, making peace overtures to King Henry II of England. At a face-to-face meeting between the monarchs, Philip Augustus offered Henry all of the territorial concessions he had desired, on the condition that he marry Richard to one of ex-King Louis VII’s daughters. Henry remained ominously silent. Richard, perceiving this as a personal sleight of the highest degree, made public homage to Philip as his feudal overlord. This move made a fresh war with France an inevitability: with Richard as a leading commander on the French side. By now, Henry was ailing, and could reportedly barely mount a horse. In the following campaign, Henry was almost captured, and fled to his stronghold at Chinon. There, he received news that John, loyal throughout his civil wars, had deserted to Richard’s side. According to contemporary sources, this was the final blow for Henry, and he died on 6 July 1189 CE, aged 56. He was buried at the nearby Abbey of Fontevrault, where he would be joined by Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1204.

The tomb lids of King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine at Fontevrault Abbey. (via Univerity of Pittsburgh)

King Henry II of England can be viewed in two ways: either he was a highly capable administrator who not only rebuilt the Kingdom of England after a devastating civil war, but also managed one of the largest Kingdoms in European history – beset by the unjust demands of his greedy sons, and ultimately defeated by them. Or, he was a violent and fiery bully, who used political violence to jealously guard power, creating a network of personal dependencies which excluded others from their share of power – even indulging the stochastic murder of an Archbishop. The fact is, both of these Henries are true. King Henry II of England remains a most fascinating figure: the first Plantagenet King, the first ruler of the Angevin Empire, and a critical formulator of the modern English state.


About Charles J Lockett

Ever since Charles was a lad, he’s been a history obsessive – summer holidays were always spent dragging his family around Welsh castles! He pursued that passion through University, studying Early-Modern Europe and the French Revolutions, receiving his MA in Politics from the University of Sheffield. Nowadays, he is a writer specialising in history and politics, based in Yorkshire, UK. In his spare time, he is a Dungeon Master, aspiring fantasy novelist and cat dad.