Of the four sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry the young king was the only one beloved by the people. He had all the requisite attributes to make him a popular figure. He was tall, handsome, charming, and he distributed largesse with a liberal hand even though he seldom had two coins to rub together. He was also a hero of the tourney circuit.
But, as his parents knew, he was also improvident, irresponsible, vain, idle, deceitful, and surrounded himself with sycophants and parasites. Desperate to rule lands of his own, he had led a rebellion against his father and then made war on his brother Richard, who ruled Aquitaine. When that war fizzled out, he wandered aimlessly through southern Aquitaine, picking up mercenaries here and there and robbing shrines to pay them. At Rocamadour, among the valuable objects stolen was the famed Durandel, the sword of Roland.
It was the middle of June. Henry II was still prosecuting the siege of Limoges, which was winding down. Messengers told him the young king was at Martel and gravely ill with dysentery and fever. They said he was unlikely to live and he begged his father to come so he could obtain his forgiveness. Henry didn’t believe them. He was reminded of the crossbow bolt stuck in his cloak and the one that lodged in the shield of his bastard son, the deceit, and the betrayals. Henry knew how it would be: he would arrive to find a miraculous recovery had taken place, and his son would cozen him with tears and smiles and all that boyish charm that he knew how to use to such effect.
The messengers tried to assure him it was no trick, but he sent them away, and his men were relieved that he was not about to walk into a lethal trap.
But was Henry beset by doubts? Was it just his suspicious nature asserting itself? What if his son really was dangerously ill? He must have been tormented by the image of his ill son waiting vainly for him to arrive, dying without the consolation of knowing that he was forgiven and loved even to the end.
At Martel the young king was indeed mortally ill. A physician was found who got a potion into him. His friends, his intimates, watched over him, bathed his face, cleaned him and changed his linen when he soiled himself.
There were lucid periods, and that was when he expressed his agony over his sins and his fear of damnation. He begged his companions to send to his father, whom he had so deeply offended, contrary to the decrees of Heaven itself. A priest attended him. He made a good confession and received Extreme Unction, but it wasn’t enough. At his request, his friends made a bed of ashes and cinders on the floor and laid him upon it. He asked if his father was coming and they assured him he was on his way. He never knew that Henry had refused his dying request because delirium seized his mind as his youthful body rotted from the inside.
King Henry had often been contemptuous of his son’s ne’er-do-well friends, but they had shown themselves true friends. None deserted him. They cared for him tenderly on his sickbed and eased his passing with their love.
When it was over, they took him to Grandmont, the very house from which they had stolen the only object of intrinsic value, Henry’s gift, a gold and jeweled crucifix a few weeks earlier. The monks prepared him for his final rest, said the prayers that would dispose God to deal mercifully with his sins, and awaited the king’s instructions regarding the disposition of the body.
Henry was in a peasant’s cottage beyond the siege lines with some of his intimates when a monk of Grandmont was brought to him. For many years he had had a close relationship with Grandmont, a house dedicated to austerity and poverty, where he wished to be buried. He thought the monk had come to request compensation.
The message the monk brought was that the young king was dead. He was twenty-eight years old.
Perhaps King Henry found some comfort in knowing that his son had faced death courageously and with true repentance. But did he ever forgive himself for not answering that plea?
Henry II and the young king are characters in my book ‘The First Plantagenet.’
Sources: Henry II by W.L. Warren, Wikipedia.