Henry II of England

I. Early life A. Birth B. Family C. Education D. Marriage

II. Reign A. Early difficulty B. King’s personality C. Government policies D. Thomas Becket

III. Death A. Achievements B. Sons revolt C. Successor

Henry II Henry II was the first of eight Plantagenet kings. He neither ignored his island kingdom nor dragged it into continental trouble. Along with Alfred, Edward I, and Elizabeth I, Henry II ranks as one of the best British monarchs.

Henry II was born in Le Mans, France in 1133. Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, and Matilda, daughter of Henry I, were his parents. Henry’s younger brothers were Geoffrey and William (Bingham 22; Tabuteau 185).

Henry’s father gave Henry the best education possible at that time. Peter of Saintes, who was a well-known poet, was Henry’s first tutor. Adelard of Bath also taught Henry. William of Conches and Henry’s other previous tutors instilled in Henry the appreciation for literature. Soon after Henry II’s education, he became Duke of Normandy. With the death of his father, Henry II became the Count of Anjou at age eighteen. Once he became Count of Anjou, Henry married Eleanor of Aquitaine on May 18, 1152, in the Cathedral of Poitiers. Their children were William, Henry, Matilda, Richard, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joan, and John (Bingham 22; “Henry” 835-836; Tabuteau 185).

Once Stephen, who was a well-known king, died, Henry II became lord of all land between the Pyrenees and Scotland (“Henry” 835). Henry had to deal with problems as soon as he became king. Once the Danish kingdoms established themselves in Ireland, the Danish colonists were at war with Irish people and the Irish people were at war with themselves. King Henry II realized he needed to stop all the chaos with a conquest of Ireland. In a few months, every part of Ireland except Connaught was under King Henry II’s control. The regions that the British controlled slowly dwindled away and soon vanished (Larned 114-115).

Even though Henry II was a king, he did not resemble a king. He had a freckled face, gray eyes, and tawny hair. He also had a very short temper. At times, King Henry II would be as ruthless as a savage (“Henry” 835).

In 1166, Henry instructed all the sheriffs to make lists of known or suspected criminals. The accused person did not go through trial by jury; instead, he or she went through trial by ordeal. The accused person had their hands and feet tied together and then dropped in a lake. A person who sank was considered innocent, and a person who floated was guilty of the crime (McKay 413).

By not letting barons collect taxes, Henry II removed the baronial power. Sheriffs took the place of the barons. This method was very effective. Henry II also used the 1/10 tax in 1188. This tax was placed upon Saladin to gather money for the crusades against the Mohammedans (Larned 116-117).

Henry II sought to make an unambiguous definition of the individual powers of church and government; so, he drew up the Constitutions of Clarendon. It consisted of sixteen articles saying, “that the accused clergy could continue to be tried in church, but, if they were found guilty they would be turned over to the secular courts for punishment.” The advantage of a person reading or speaking Latin was very great because he or she would be tried in church. The church usually was very lenient against criminals (Schultz 35).

King Henry II filled the vacancy of the archbishop of Canterbury with his best friend Thomas Becket. Thomas Becket was a well-educated man, who accomplished many great tasks in his existence. Thomas Becket unwillingly took the archbishop of Canterbury seat. Thomas Becket warned the king that he was not going to be a puppet for him. King Henry II and Thomas Becket had a huge disagreement concerning criminals in the church. The knights of the king secretly went to the cathedral in Canterbury and murdered Thomas Becket on December 29. Henry II was disgusted with what his knights had done; he claimed that he did not advise them to kill Thomas Becket (Larned 112-115).

King Henry II had two great achievements. One of his achievements was centralized government system. The system was actually handed down from King Henry I, the Curia Regis. These smaller king’s councils, otherwise known as exchequer courts, would be charged with the upkeep and maintenance of King Henry II’s financial system. He also introduced a centralized court at Westminster, where five barons permanently presided to handle judicial business. This court became known as the “Court of Common Pleas”. Henry II imposed a scutage tax on the people. By doing this, Henry II was able to employ mercenaries to act as his soldiers, thereby eradicating the bonds of loyalty that knights would have to their lieges (Larned 118-120).

From the old Roman concept, King Henry II became legislator. He wanted a wider respect for royal authority. He came up with the English common law, which was the basis for America’s legal systems. The basis of the English common law was judge-made law and trial by jury. The law was irreversible and even the king was under the law (Schultz 34).

For all achievements that Henry had accomplished, it would be his own family that would be his undoing. Not wanting to see his vast empire crumble, Henry divided his empire among his progeny, and instantly the quarreling between his sons began. When Henry stepped in to try to halt the fighting, the brothers turned against him. In alliance with the French King, Louis VII, the brothers began revolts in their respective holdings, where they were acting as lords in their father’s name. Fortunately for Henry, the common people did not want to return to the days of baronial oligarchy, and stood against the princes, in support of their king. With the aid of the common man, King Henry threw down the revolts. Once the fighting died down, he promised the princes annual revenue, but still refused to share his power. Finally, with two sons dead (prince Henry and Geoffrey), Henry was defeated by prince Richard in 1189. Richard, who was in league with Philip Augustus, forced Henry II to accept his demands. Henry at this point was already a dying man, and was crushed by the betrayal of his sons. He would die at age fifty-six two days after the formal acceptance of Richard’s demands (Bingham 23; Schultz 34).

King Henry II outlasted rebellions, wars, and controversy to productively run one of the Middle Ages’ most dominant kingdoms. He was very precise in fulfilling his high expectations of the country. (“Henry” 835). Sir Winston Churchill Kt said, “Henry II Plantagenet, the very first of that name and race, and the very greatest King that England ever knew, but withal the most unfortunate . . . his death being imputed to those only to whom himself had given life, his ungracious sons…” (http://www.britannia.cow/history/monarchs/mon26.html).

Works Cited

  • Bingham, Caroline. The Crowned Lions. Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978.
  • “Henry.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1991.
  • Larned, J. N. A History of England. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1900.
  • McKay, John, etal. A History of World Societies. Dallas: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992.
  • Schultz, Harold J. British History. Harper Perennial Publishers.
  • Tabuteau, Emily Zack. “Henry II.” World Book Encyclopedia, 1997.
  • Henry II: British Monarchs. Britannia.com, 2000. Two pages. August 29, 2000. http://www.britannia.cow/history/monarchs/mon26.html