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Henry II - 1154-1189

Key Facts about Henry II

Henry Plantagenet was ruler of the largest kingdom in Europe of his day. He was the Duke of the Angevin Empire, King of England, and through his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, he had inherited all south-western France as far as the Pyrenees. This vast domain, in which independent-minded barons were reluctant vassals, provided a never-ending challenge to a King determined to unite his kingdom.

His able lieutenant in England was the priest Thomas Becket, whom he made first Chancellor, then Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry was not a King who would allow the Church to usurp his authority, however, and in 1164 he introduced the Constitution of Clarendon which limited Church power. Clarendon also introduced trial by jury and laid the foundations of English common law.

Though controlling the powerful Church, Henry did not contemplate a break with Rome, and to aid Pope Adrian IV, he undertook an invasion of Ireland in order to restore Irish church connections with Rome. This led to later invasions for more secular reasons which paved the way to Henry being accepted as Lord of Ireland.

Henry was constantly and frenetically on the move to keep a watchful eye over his vast territories. He spent only 13 years of his 34-year reign in England, but he insisted that horses were always kept ready for his use in abbeys all over the country. No one knew when he would make his sudden appearances. He seemed to be everywhere at once. Remorselessly he forced law and order upon the kingdom. He strengthened the legal system, imposed taxes, and curbed the unruly barons by pulling down their castles. All in all, Henry was an outstanding king, but in a monumental row with the Church he met his match in Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Henry declared that the Church was subject to the law of the land, but with superb arrogance Becket told him that the Church was above it. It was a collision course, and everyone knows the dramatic outcome. Henry's short temper blazed out: 'Isn't there anyone who'll get rid of this wretched priest?' And instantly four of his knights, dutifully taking the hint, galloped off to Canterbury, cracked open Becket's skull and prised out his brains on to the cold cathedral floor. The effect on Europe was electrifying.

Henry realised that Becket, dead though he was, had triumphed. A martyr. A saint. A victim of monstrous sacrilege in his own cathedral. A gigantic gesture of penitence was necessary, so Henry walked barefoot into Canterbury, wearing nothing but a shirt. He knelt at the cathedral porch. Then, with bleeding feet, he made his way to the spot where the murder had taken place and kissed the stone where the archbishop had fallen. After a ceremony of penitence and absolution he submitted to being beaten: three strokes from each of the eighty monks, and five strokes from each of the various bishops and abbots. Still muddy and unwashed, he then spent the whole of the next night in the dark cathedral crypt, fasting and praying, and nearly catching his death of cold.

Although Henry is known for pulling down castles he disapproved of, he was equally energetic in building and enlarging castles he enjoyed living in. The lower half of the famous Round Tower in Windsor is his. He enlarged the fortifications at Gloucester and Guildford, refounded Waltham Abbey as a penance for Becket's murder, and converted the hunting lodge at Woodstock in Oxfordshire into a palace where he lived with his mistress, Rosamund Clifford, the 'Fair Rosamund'. 'Fair Rosamund's Well', where his famous concubine is said to have bathed, is still to be seen in the grounds of Blenheim Palace, but no trace remains of the 'bower' or labyrinth that Henry is said to have built for her.

Only two of Henry's sons survived him - Richard and John. His firstborn, William, who was born four months after his wedding to Eleanor of Aquitaine, died as a toddler, but the next son, Henry, born in 1155, was actually crowned in Westminster Abbey when he was fifteen, while his father was still alive. It was a French custom to crown the heir, to ensure a smooth succession. The young Henry was known as 'The Young King', so for thirteen years it was possible to say that England had two kings. The Young King continually annoyed his father by demanding and expecting more power and authority than Henry was prepared to give him, and there was much friction between them. However, the Young King died of dysentery when he was twenty-eight, so never succeeded to the throne.

Henry's other sons conspired against him towards the end of his life, helped and encouraged by Eleanor his wife, who became estranged from him when 'Fair Rosamund' made her appearance. Henry put Eleanor under house arrest in Winchester for sixteen years. It wasn't until his death in 1189 that she regained her freedom and power.

Henry's reign was an odd mixture of success and failure. He was enraged at the disloyalty of his sons, who joined the King of France to defeat him in battle. His dying words, after he suffered a stroke, show how deeply and bitterly he regarded himself as a failure: 'Shame, shame on a conquered King!' Arguably, however, his constructive and firm rule had been of immeasurable benefit to England.

Key Events during the Reign of Henry II

1154 - Henry II accedes to the throne upon the death of his second cousin, Stephen.

1155 - Henry appoints Thomas Becket Chancellor of England.

1162 - Henry appoints Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury.

1164 - Henry introduces the Constitutions of Clarendon which leads to a violent quarrel between Henry and Thomas Becket.

1166 - The Assize of Clarendon establishes trial by jury for the first time. Henry orders an enquiry into all the crimes commited since the beginning of his reign.

1167 - Matilda dies. Oxford University is founded.

1170 - Henry and Becket are reconciled, but quarrel again. Becket is killed in the north transept of Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December.

1171 - Henry invades Ireland. Henry is accepted as Lord of Ireland.

1173 - Becket is canonized.

1173-4 Henry's sons lead a rebellion against him.

1189 - Henry dies at Chinon Castle in Anjou.

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