Skip to main content

Henry II, King of England, (1154-1189)

The Heir to the Throne

Henry II had been adopted as heir to the throne of England and Dukedom of Normandy by King Stephen two years prior to his death. It was the first undisputed succession to the English throne in over 100 years. His empire ranged from the Scottish borders in the north to the Pyrenees. He was a powerful, rich man and was in a much superior position to the King of France.

King Henry II

King Henry II

Henry's early years

The main initiative of Henry's early years of power was to restore the lands lost by King Stephen. He used diplomatic means rather than force to persuade the King of Scotland, Malcolm IV to restore Cumberland, Westmoreland and Northumbria in the north to the English crown. In 1157 and 1165 he took up arms against the welsh princes Owain of Gwynedd and Rhys of Deheubarth but with little effect owing to welsh guerrilla tactics and heavy rain. From this date Henry started to live with his welsh neighbours rather than take arms against them. Henry moved against Ireland in 1169, sending in the Lords from the Welsh marshes (borders) initially and only joining them in the campaign of 1171 -2.

The vastness of his empire

Henry II had a large empire separated by what could at times be a narrow but tempestuous strip of sea- the English channel. Henry had inherited the titles of King of England, Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Anjou. With these titles also cam the claims of his predecessors on other territories. Thus he seized and controlled Nantes in 1156 where he installed his brother Geoffrey as count, an expedition was made against Toulouse in 1159 in which he captured Cahors and Quercy; a further expedition recovered Vexin in 1160 and finally a successful invasion was made of Brittany in 1166 which led to its occupation. Henry's son became Duke of Brittany.

Henry's large empire was prosperous. There were rich communities in the valleys of the major french rivers, The Seine Loire and Garonne which became centres of learning, art, poetry and music unlike England which struggled behind Europe in social niceties. The essentials of trade, wine and salt were produced in Aquitaine  and Anjou and these were traded for the quality English broadcloth. Trade was easy as the producers and consumers were united under the same ruler.

Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury

Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

Thomas Becket

If Henry II is remembered for anything, it is not his consolidation of territory or finances but the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. A version of the story is taught to all children in England and the story is usually as follows:

In June 1162 Thomas Becket was invested as Archbishop of Canterbury despite the opinion of many churchmen that he was not worthy of such elevation. The King had promoted Becket because he liked him, but despite this Becket decided that from day one he would strive to do well at the job, even if that meant opposing the King. The Church and King quarrelled over anything and everything with the King replacing friendship with anger. The major issue that brought problems to a head was the issue of "criminous clerks", should clerics who had committed offences be tried i lay or ecclesiastical courts. At a council at Westminster in October 1163 Becket demanded that it should be an ecclesiastical court whilst the King demanded a lay court. The Pope, Alexander III advised Becket to be more giving in his negotiations with the King but he failed to take heed of this advice.

In January 1164, the King summoned a Council at Clarendon. He read the assembled bishops a clear statement of the King's customary rights  over the church which became known as the "Constitution of Clarendon". Becket argued against the constitution for two days but then gave in and he and the bishops promised to observe the customs of the King. Once Becket had recovered from the ordeal of the negotiations he decided to withdraw from the agreement. Henry summoned Becket to court to answer some false charges that he laid before him. Being found guilty ( who would oppose what the king wanted?), Becket was sentenced to the forfeiture of his rich lands wherein he fled abroad to seek the advice of the pope, leaving the English church leaderless and in confusion. Did they follow Becket's teachings or did they follow the Constitution of Clarendon, most followed the latter and supported the King.

IN 1169 negotiations between the King, pope and Archbishop began as Henry wished his son Henry to be crowned as heir to the throne to avoid any succession disputes. The coronation took place without the Archbishops presence or permission and in 1170 Beckett returned home to take vengeance agains those who had been involved with the coronation.

Scroll to Continue

Henry II, who was sick and tired of the priests attitude said the famous words "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" Four of his knights, anxious to please the King, took this as an order and rushed ff to Canterbury where on 29th December 1170 they murdered Becket in his own cathedral. Becket was canonised in record time and lives on in popular memory as the Archbishop who symbolised resistance to an oppressive state. In reality with Becket gone Henry was left to do what he did best, which was to rule and hold on to his vast empire.

Dividing his lands

Henry decided that on his death his lands should be shared between his sons. Henry, was to have Anjou, Normandy and England; Richard was to have Aquitaine and Geoffrey was to have Brittany. The conquest of Ireland in 1185 meant that there was land left to John, the youngest son, as well. The sons became rebellious, they wanted power but their father still had a strong hold on power and was an experienced ruler. The situation changed when Henry died in 1183 and Geoffrey died in 1186 leaving only two sons, Richard and John. Richard decided to strengthen his position by forming an alliance with the new King of France, Philip Augustus II and this happened just as Henry's strength was failing and he was losing control of his empire.

The Death of King Henry II

King Henry died on 6th July 1189 at Chinon in France. He kept his good health until the last few weeks of his life riding through his dominions in England, Ireland and Europe. His empire was large, communications by ours standards were poor and during his reign there was the inevitable growth of local justice systems and common law as government became increasingly more complex. At his death the situation of the heir had not been settled.

Other Hubs in the series


CASE1WORKER (author) from UNITED KINGDOM on February 18, 2011:

Thanks for stopping by Susie- my aim is to get history into bite sized chunks that people can read as a series

SUSIE DUZY from Delray Beach, Florida on February 18, 2011:

Good history information, thanks.

CASE1WORKER (author) from UNITED KINGDOM on February 17, 2011:

dahoglund- let me know what you fing- or better still hub it!

thanks for reading this and glad that it is a discussion point

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on February 17, 2011:

I'll have to keep an open mind about Becket and find out more about him.

Related Articles