Childhood & Early Life
Henry was born on March 5, 1133, at Le Mans in France to Empress Matilda and Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou, Touraine, and Maine. He was the eldest of three brothers, Geoffrey VI and William being the other two. His claim to the English throne came through his maternal grandfather and Matilda’s father, Henry I. The King of the English during the Anarchy, Stephen of Blois, was his uncle.
After her father’s death in 1135, Matilda was named the successor but Stephen promptly occupied the English throne and was recognised as the Duke of Normandy. The situation quickly degenerated into a civil war. Geoffrey, feeling the time was correct for an attack, took control of the duchy of Normandy, while on a different front, Matilda and her half-brother Robert of Gloucester continued their struggle against Stephen.
It is quite likely that Henry spent the early years of his life in his mother’s household and when she moved to Normandy, he accompanied her. At about seven, He came to stay in Anjou with his father.
In late 1142, Henry, accompanied by Robert, went to Bristol, following the instruction of his father. The South-Western English town was the epicentre of Angevin opposition to Stephen and the importance of Henry’s presence there was more than symbolic. It stopped the criticism against Geoffrey that he was not doing enough in the war against England. Henry returned to Anjou in 1143 or 1144.
Though he lacked both his mother’s seriousness and his father’s charm, Henry was forceful and confident. He studied under some of the best tutors of the time, grammarian Peter of Saintes and scholastic philosopher William Conches. He was instructed by a magister named Master Matthew at Robert’s house. Besides the formal education, he studied the canons of St Augustine's in Bristol.
He came back to England in 1147 with a small group of mercenaries and invaded Wiltshire. Though it did cause some initial panic, the attack did not surmount to anything. Henry was not able to even pay his mercenaries and neither his mother nor Robert was willing to pay off his debts. Surprisingly, he sent an appeal to Stephen who took care of the outstanding wages. Henry retired back to France with his dignity intact.
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Accession & Reign
The violence between the factions had simmered down by the late 1140s with barons from both camps suing for individual peace. The English Church was weighing options of promoting a peace treaty. Around this time, Louis VII, the King of France, returned from the Second Crusade. He instantaneously recognised the power Geoffrey has garnered in his absence.
Geoffrey declared Henry as the duke of Normandy in 1150 and Louis retaliated by naming Eustace, one of Stephen’s sons, as the rightful heir to the duchy and instigated an attack on Normandy to rout Henry. Upon his father’s suggestion, Henry accepted Louis as his feudal lord, paying homage to him, and in turn, Louis authorised him as the Duke.
Due to his father’s death in 1151, Henry had to postpone his plans of his second expedition to England for some time. The delay served an ulterior purpose as well. He had expressed his desire to marry Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine in past. Eleanor was already married to Louis but had not borne him a male heir. Thus Louis pursued annulment of the marriage and was ultimately granted so. Only eight weeks after that, on May 18, Henry wedded Eleanor.
The marriage was not only a personal slight to Louis, but it also jeopardized the future inheritance of his two daughters with Eleanor. The marriage also brought more French lands under Henry’s possession than Louis’. It would create an enmity between the two men and their respective dynasties that would last well beyond their lifetimes.
Henry and Eleanor would have eight children together: five sons, William (born 1153), Henry (1155), Richard (1157), Geoffrey (1158), and John (1166), and three daughters, Matilda (1156), Eleanor (1161), and Joan (1165).
Louis formed a coalition against Henry that included Stephen, Eustace, and Henry’s younger brother, Geoffrey, who claimed that Henry was expropriating him of his inheritance. The ensuing skirmishes only strengthened Henry’s hold on his lands.
He finally travelled back to England in 1153, crossing the sea amid winter storms. Seeing that the active civil war was about break out in the island again, the clergies took initiative and brokered peace between the warring parties. In the summer of 1153, ‘Treaty of Wallingford’ was agreed to between Stephen and Henry at Winchester Cathedral. It made Henry Stephen’s adoptive son and successor and in exchange, the former paid homage to the latter.
Henry inherited the English throne sooner than he had previously imagined, as Stephen died of a stomach disorder on October 25, 1154. He landed on English shore on December 8, and 11 days later, he and Eleanor were crowned the King and Queen of England at Westminster.
In April 1155, the royal court assembled where most of the English nobility swore fealty to Henry. However, several potential rivals still persisted, including his brothers, Geoffrey and William, and Stephen’s remaining son, William. But with their deaths in the coming few years, Henry’s position as the king became relatively secure.
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One of the biggest challenges facing the new king was the absolute disarray following the Anarchy. He declared himself as the heir of Henry I, and began reconstruction of his kingdom. The intermediate 19 years of Stephen’s rule were portrayed as chaotic and violent and Stephen was named a usurper. Henry presented himself as a monarch who was welcoming to counsels, consciously setting himself apart from his mother’s method of administration.
He pushed back the territories of the King of Scotland and the local Welsh lords beyond the pre-civil war borders, restoring the Anglo-Norman supremacy in the island,
In 1160, Louis and Henry sought peace with each other through a marriage alliance between Louis’ daughter Margaret and Henry’s eldest surviving son, Young Henry. As the prospect of permanent peace seemed possible between the two, Henry turned his focus towards the Duchy of Brittany and Toulouse. While he did bring the Breton duke to heels, his campaign to Toulouse sparked his rivalry with Louis once more. A second peace treaty was negotiated in 1162, supervised by Pope Alexander III.
The tension between the two rulers continued to persevere throughout the 1160s, and culminated in an open war in 1167. Louis attacked Normandy and a furious Henry reciprocated by putting Chaumont-sur-Epte, a town where Louis stored his military arsenal, to flame.
After a private truce with the French King, Henry looked to consolidate his power in France by betrothing his son John to the daughter of the Count of Savoy and marrying his own daughter Eleanor to Alfonso VIII of Castile.
Henry launched a successful invasion to Ireland in 1171. The treaty of Windsor was signed in 1175, which stipulated, among other things, that the high king of Ireland, Rory O’Connor, would pay homage to Henry.
The Thomas Becket Controversy
Arguably the biggest international incident during Henry II’s reign was the Thomas Becket controversy. Becket, who was one of minor lords raised to power and authority by Henry, was his English Chancellor. After the death of Archbishop of Canterbury Theobald of Bec in 1161, he forced the clergies to accept Becket as archbishop. His feud with the Church was long-standing and he probably believed that, with Becket at the helm, he would be able to impose more control over the Church.
Becket, however, renounced his relationship with the King and turned pious. In 1170, Henry had Young Henry crowned as the Junior King by the Archbishop of York. An enraged Becket excommunicated several supporters of Henry from the Church. Upon hearing of this, Henry infamously remarked, “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and promoted in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk.”
In response, four knights went to Canterbury without a direct order from the king and hacked Becket to death on December 29, 1170. It was a political and administrative disaster that would haunt Henry for years to come.
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The Great Revolt & Surrender
All of Henry II’s sons except John rose in rebellion against their father in 1173, with support from Eleanor and Louis. Henry moved quickly and decisively. He imprisoned Eleanor and defeated his sons’ allies one by one. He also performed penance in Becket’s tomb in Canterbury, dubbing the ‘Great Revolt’ as a divine punishment. Louis proposed peace talks in 1174, formally bringing an end to the conflict.
In the years after the ‘Great Revolt’, both Young Henry and Geoffrey died and Richard grew close to Philip, Louis’ son and the assertive and calculating new king of France. It was quite evident that Henry preferred John over Richard. Richard, being well aware of it, demanded to be named his father’s successor, only to be refused repeatedly.
Richard gave formal homage to Philip in front of his father in a peace meeting attended by the nobility of both countries. By now Henry’s health was deteriorating due to a bleeding ulcer, which would prove to be fatal.
Henry II returned to Anjou with Philip and Richard in hot pursuit. The opposing parties met at a negotiation at Ballan, where Henry accepted the offer of complete surrender. He died on July 6, 1189, and was buried in Fontevraud Abbey, where, later, Eleanor and Richard would join him.
Personal Life & Legacy
According to contemporary scholars, Henry II was handsome and had freckles and a shock of red hair. Short and stocky, he had bowed legs from riding. The entire Plantagenet dynasty is infamous for their explosive temper, and Henry, the founder, was even more so. Chroniclers have characterised him to be a bully and added that he had a piercing stare and would often appear sullen.
Besides his children with Eleanor, he was the father of Geoffrey (born 1152), Archbishop of York and William Longespée (1176), third Earl of Salisbury from other women.
Though intensely disliked by his contemporaries, Henry is remembered as the first ruler to bring England under one kingship. The Plantagenet dynasty was the longest reigning royal house in the history of the country.