Henry II was born at Le Mans, Maine, on March 5th 1133, the eldest son of Geoffrey Count of Anjou and Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England and widow of Emperor Henry IV of Germany. Geoffrey was given the surname Plantagenet because of his habit of riding through his domains with a sprig of the Broom Plant, Planta Genesta, stuck in his cap.
Red-haired, stocky, with a thick neck, often scruffily dressed, Henry was neither as handsome and charming as his father, nor as reserved as his mother. He was energetic, able, intelligent, well-educated and given to infantile fits of temper. He became one of England’s most effective kings.
At the age of nineteen, he was Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou and Maine. When he married Eleanor of Aquitaine he also became Duke of Aquitaine. His crowning as King of England at the age of 21 ended the civil war that chroniclers called ‘the nineteen years when Christ and the Saints slept’ and others called ‘the Anarchy’.
Henry curbed the power of the barons and strengthened the authority of the Crown. He reformed the law and the law courts by establishing Royal Magistrate courts in place of baronial courts, empowered the exchequer to deal with property disputes – of which there were plenty in the wake of the civil war – and instituted Common Law in place of such practices as trial by combat and trial by ordeal. He also streamlined the techniques of administration. Often embroiled in war because his form of government ran contrary to those who profited from their independence, Henry was only as cruel as he needed to be. Rather than lopping off heads, he fined or confiscated or, in extreme cases, imprisoned. Even the most unrepentant rebel usually found his property reinstated after a short time.
As a ruler he was a genius. As a father and husband he was a good deal less successful.
Following the tradition of the French kings, Henry had his son and heir crowned in his lifetime. Young Henry was only fifteen at the time and no doubt he enjoyed wearing a crown and lording it over his younger brothers, but he wanted some of the power that went along with his new status. His father, perceiving qualities in the boy that were not to his liking, refused to share power with him. Similarly, Richard, who was Eleanor’s heir in Aquitaine, and Geoffrey Duke of Brittany in right of his wife, were not allowed to rule independently of the officers Henry set over them.
All three boys were still in their teens when they rebelled against their father in May 1173. The war was known as the Great Revolt. King Louis of France was Young Henry’s father-in-law and no doubt stirred up a poisonous brew for those youngsters to devour. In support of the Young King were King William of Scotland, the counts of Boulogne, Flanders and Blois. In England four earls, all with axes to grind, joined the rebellion. In fact, there were rebels in all Henry’s vast territories with the exception of Normandy. The situation was serious enough to undermine Henry’s authority and disrupt his government.
Most of the rebels were malcontents who refused to be reconciled to Henry’s rule and no doubt he could have predicted who they were. But there was one whose inclusion among the rebels must have come as a vast shock : his wife, Eleanor.
During Henry’s reign, Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right and ex-Queen of France, had become something of a nonentity. In the hope of gaining back some of the power she had lost through her marriage, she joined her sons. She was apprehended by her husband’s men as she rode to Paris to join her sons disguised as a man.
Because the revolt was so widespread there were several campaigns, but Henry focused his attention on Normandy and then on England, overcoming his enemies piecemeal. By August of the following year he had triumphed on all fronts. As usual he was magnanimous in victory. The barons and their liegemen who fought against him were permitted to receive possession of lands they held fifteen days before his sons rebelled. Two English earls were imprisoned for two years but then had their lands restored to them. King William paid a high price for backing the losers. He became the liegeman of Henry for all his lands and was required to perform an act of submission at York. The three sons were not only forgiven but rewarded. Henry assigned revenues to all.
As for Eleanor, there was no forgiveness for her. The wound she had inflicted cut the deepest. She remained Henry’s prisoner for the rest of his life, with due comfort and courtesy. In later years she was allowed greater freedom and from time to time Henry permitted her to see their sons.
This was not the only war Henry fought against his sons. The later ones were to have tragic consequences.
Henry II is the main character in my new book The First Plantagenet.