Henry II, the Best of the Plantagenets

The Plantagenet Era began in 1154 and continued through fourteen British monarchs and 331 years. Reportedly, the family’s surname came about because Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, wore a sprig of flowering broom (Planta genista) as part of his daily dress. Therefore, the family became the Plantagenets. The period was marked by costly wars with France and Scotland. Developments in English law, most pronounced in the Common Law, and unique architectural trends were also of note.

Undoubtedly, the best of the Plantagenet kings was Henry II, who ruled from 1154 to 1189. With Henry’s succession, the Angevin Empire, which stretched from the Cheviot Hills to the Pyrenees, was brought under one ruler. Immediately upon his coming to the throne, Henry II set about destroying the “barony” power, which was established during Stephen’s reign.

Henry II supported Church reforms. For example, the Constitution of Clarendon held priests accountable in civil court for their crimes. However, the Pope did not approve the Constitution, and Thomas á Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, would not sign off on the reforms. Therefore, the Archbishop and Henry quarreled again and again. When Becket published papal letters that voided Henry’s Constitution of Claredon, Henry’s knights killed the Archbishop to rid the country of the man’s influence.

Henry II and Thomas á Becket

In 1155, Pope Adrian IV issued a papal order, which gave Henry dispensation to invade Ireland and to bring the Irish Church under Rome’s control. In 1166, Dermot McMurrough, King of Ireland, appealed to Henry for English king’s assistance in fighting off a confederation of other Irish kings. Henry sent a force led by Richard de  Clare, the Earl of Pembroke. This was the beginning of an English presence in Ireland. In 1171, Henry invaded Ireland and is accepted as Lord of Ireland.  At the Council of Cashel, Henry forces the Irish clergy to submit to Rome’s authority.

Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine

Henry II (5 March 1133 – 6 July 1189), also known as Henry Curtmantle, Henry FitzEmpress or Henry Plantagenet, ruled as King of England (1154–89), Count of Anjou, Count of Maine, Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitane, Count of Nantes, and Lord of Ireland; at various times, he also controlled Wales, Scotland, and Brittany. Henry was the son of Geoffrey of Anjou and Matilda, who was the daughter of King Henry I and took the title of Empress from her first marriage. He became actively involved by the age of 14 in his mother’s efforts to claim the throne of England, and was made the Duke of Normandy at 17. He inherited Anjou in 1151 and shortly afterwards married Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose marriage to the French king Louis VII had recently been annulled. King Stephen agreed to a peace treaty after Henry’s military expedition to England in 1153, and he inherited the kingdom on Stephen’s death a year later. Still quite young, he now controlled what would later be called the Angevin Empire, stretching across much of western Europe.

As Henry’s reign progressed he had many children with Eleanor, and tensions over the future inheritance of the empire began to emerge, encouraged first by Louis VII and then Louis’s son and successor Philip Augustus. In 1173 Henry’s heir, “Young Henry,” rebelled in protest against his father; he was joined by his brothers Richard and Geoffrey and by their mother, Eleanor. France, Scotland, Flanders and Boulogne allied with the rebels against Henry. The Great Revolt spread across Henry’s lands and was only defeated by his vigorous military action and talented local commanders, many of them “new men” appointed for their loyalty and administrative skills. Henry was mostly generous in victory and appeared for the moment to be at the height of his powers, but Young Henry and Geoffrey revolted again in 1183, resulting in Young Henry’s death. Despite invading Ireland to provide lands for his youngest son John, Henry struggled to find ways to satisfy all his sons’ desires for land and immediate power. Philip successfully played on Richard’s fears that Henry would make John king, and a final rebellion broke out in 1189. Decisively defeated by Philip and Richard and suffering from a bleeding ulcer, Henry retreated to Chinon in Anjou, where he died.

Henry II’s Children (from left to right) William, Henry, Richard, Matilda, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joan, and John

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2 Responses to Henry II, the Best of the Plantagenets

  1. Sophia Rose says:

    Very informative post! I wasn’t familiar with the fact that he took Ireland just so that John could have land. Interesting about how its apparently possible to have too many sons being almost as bad as having no sons.
    Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Eleanor of Aquitaine – The mother of all Plantagenets « plantageneta

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