Henry II Takes His Crown

After years of the brutal civil war known as The Anarchy, the usurper Stephen of Blois died and Empress Matilda’s son was crowned King Henry II on 19 December 1154.


The new monarch was the grandson of King Henry I of England, but he was not the only great-grandson of William the Conqueror in England. King Stephen’s second son, William I of Blois, the Count of Boulogne, was a potential rival for the throne, in spite of Henry’s ‘adoption’ as Stephen’s heir.  William, however, had no desire to see further civil war, and was willing to let his cousin have the crown. In exchange, King Henry II made sure William was rewarded handsomely, allowing him to become a major land owner and peer as the Earl of Surrey, jure uxoris through his wife, Isabel de Warenne, 4th Countess of Surrey.

King Henry II was not as handsome as his father, Geoffrey the Fair, having red-hair, freckles, and a head that was a little too large in proportion to his squat, barrel-chested and bow-legged body, but the king had such energy and charisma that he was nonetheless considered immensely attractive. His forceful personality also came with an impulsive temper, and his hot-headed selfishness would cause him grief more than once during the course of his life. 

His newly-wedded wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, the former Queen of France whose marriage to Louis VII had recently been annulled so she could wed Henry, was crowned as Queen of England alongside King Henry. Although their marriage would later break down due to Henry’s recklessness and his habit of acquiring mistresses (including his son’s teenage fiancée, Alys of France), for the first 20 years of their union they were passionately in love with one another. Henry trusted Eleanor, leaving her as regent and allowing her to govern her own dower lands of Aquitaine.


King Henry and Eleanor would have 8 children, 7 of whom would survive to adulthood. Sadly, the king and queen would outlive most of their grown brood, and the children would have a very contentious relationship with their father during their lives.

The_Children_of_Henry II of England

During his reign King Henry II expanded his territory into parts of Wales and Scotland, as well as pushing the boundaries of his lands on the continent. He would eventually control more land in what is now modern-day France than anyone since the Carolingians. King Henry also invaded Ireland, claiming territory there under his sovereignty as part of the Lordship of Ireland. Before his death his domain had grown into an immense kingdom historians named the Angevin Empire.

Henry II Plantagenet Angevin Empire

King Henry’s quest for power often led him into conflict with a power within his kingdom’s boarders – the Church. His main nemesis in the church was his former friend and Chancellor, Thomas Becket, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Becket and King Henry fought so viciously that the archbishop fled to the French court, where he appealed to the pope and excommunicated Anglo-Norman officials who sided with the king against him.

Henry II and Beckett

The men seemed to reach peaceful end to their disputes in the summer of 1170, when Becket returned to Canterbury, but the archbishop foolishly excommunicated three more of the king’s supporters shortly before Christmas. King Henry was livid with rage and reportedly cried out, “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!”

Four of the king’s knights became determined to prove to Henry that they were loyal, and went to Canterbury to arrest Becket for breaking his word to the king. The archbishop resisted and seems to have insulted the knights, and in a fury they hacked him to death on 29 December 1170 right in from of the altar of the cathedral.


Becket’s death caused an international scandal. The archbishop was hailed as a martyr, and canonized. The pope demanded that King Henry find and punish the men who murdered Saint Becket. King Henry told the pope he couldn’t find them and anyway he was busy. This vexed the pope to no end. Finally, Henry gave into to pressure from his own courtiers regarding the fear of another interdict on England and negotiated the Compromise of Avranches with the papacy.

In exchanged for papal forgiveness for killing Becket, King Henry promised to go on a crusade and be a good, obedient son of the Church. However, the king had his fingers crossed behind his back, because he never went on crusade and wasn’t noticeably more obedient to church authorities until he needed their help during a civil war. 

Eleanor and Henry II and two eldest sons

In 1173, Henry’s three eldest surviving sons, “Henry the Young King, Richard, and Geoffrey, rebelled against him with the aid of their mother. King Henry battled the Great Revolt by utilizing “talented local commanders, many of them “new men” appointed for their loyalty and administrative skills” and kept them loyal with the promise of rewards. He also wed his daughter, Eleanor, to King Alfonso VIII of Castile to secure an ally on the boarder of Aquitaine. Finally, he got the church back on his side by performing an act of public penance for his part in the murder of Thomas Becket. The king openly confessed his sins in Canterbury on 12 July 1174, and then allowed each bishop present to strike him five times with a rod, and allowed each of the 80 monks of Canterbury Cathedral to give him three blows with the rod as well. King Henry also gave gifts to the shrine and spent a night in vigil at Becket’s tomb.

Henry II penance

Finally, after 18 months of fighting, King Henry made peace with his rebellious sons. “Henry and Young Henry swore not to take revenge on each other’s followers; Young Henry agreed to the transfer of the disputed castles to John, but in exchange the elder Henry agreed to give the younger Henry two castles in Normandy and 15,000 Angevin pounds; Richard and Geoffrey were granted half the revenues from Aquitaine and Brittany respectively.” The king’s greatest anger was reserved for his wife, and he kept Queen Eleanor effectively imprisoned the rest of his life.

Peace wouldn’t last, though. Henry’s adult sons were determined to have autonomy, and the king was determined to keep them dependent on him. Young Henry once more revolted against his father in 1183, but died of dysentery on 11 June, effectively ending the insurrection. Henry the Young King died without an heir, and King Henry II now needed to sort out succession. He decided his son Richard would be crowned King of England, but one without any power until Henry himself passed away. The king’s third son, Geoffrey, would keep the Duchy of Brittany, and John – the beloved son who had never rebelled – would replace Richard as the Duke of Aquitaine.

Richard wasn’t about to give up the Duchy of Aquitaine, where he had grown up, to become a powerless would-be king, however. It wasn’t just about power either; Richard had been given Aquitane by his mother and he loved the land as he loved her. He even wore the ring of St Valerie, considered the personification of Aquitaine. Richard felt so strongly about it that he actually went to war against his father in 1184, but had to give up when King Henry dragged Queen Eleanor to Normandy and threatened that he would give Normandy to Geoffrey. As dramatized in The Lion in Winter, Richard surrendered Aquitaine to his father at his mother’s urging. 

King Henry also wanted to leave a kingdom to his youngest and most beloved son, John. Alas, he was swimming upstream with that. John had all the kingliness of dead fish. John went on an expedition to Ireland in 1185 with the intent to become a true master of that land, but instead he “offended the local Irish rulers, failed to make allies amongst the Anglo-Norman settlers, began to lose ground militarily against the Irish, and finally returned to England within the year.” Henry was making plans to send John back to Ireland with advisors to try to make the idiot a king there once more, when word reached the king that Geoffrey had died in Paris during a tournament accident.

King Henry wanted his widowed daughter-in-law, Constance, Duchess of Brittany, to come to England so he could be guardian of her children … including the unborn baby she carried. If the baby was a boy, he would be the new Duke of Brittany, and Henry wanted him to be raised loyal to his Plantagenet kin. Likewise, Geoffrey’s best friend, King Philip Augustus, wanted control of the duchy’s heirs. Philip threatened to invade Normandy, while simultaneously suggesting to the already angry Prince Richard that they could go on a crusade together ASAP if King Henry would stop being so belligerent.

King Philip and Richard were close friends by this point … and many argued they had become lovers. Philip certainly helped Richard out in November 1188, when he offered to give in about the disputed lands on the continent, if Henry would 1) finally wed Philip’s sister Alys of France to Richard 2) name Richard as the sole heir to the empire. This quickly devolved into a massive row when Henry refused to rule out the idea of John inhereting the kingdom. An infuriated Richard reportedly claimed he couldn’t marry Alys anyway, because his dad had already seduced her and gotten her pregnant and then he “publicly changed sides at the conference and gave formal homage to Philip in front of the assembled nobles.”

Philip and Richard went to war against King Henry, and this time the old king was on the ropes. He was suffering from a bleeding ulcer, and no longer had the strength to fight as he once had. After Henry fell back to his castle at Chinon, where he agreed to Richard’s demands to be named heir and Philip’s demands that Richard marry Alys. Prince John, seeing which way the wind was blowing, broke Henry’s heart by publically siding with his brother in the fight. The knowledge that his favorite son was a turncoat little weasel who only was only loyal as long Henry could still benefit him was too much for the king to bear. King Henry II died on 6 July 1189 at age 56, and was buried at Fontevraud Abbey.


Richard the Lionheart was now sovereign of the Angevin Empire. The new king went on a crusade as soon as he could, but never married Alys of France, much to King Philip’s dismay. 

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