In the mid 1170s, King Henry II seemed to be at the height of his power. He had triumphed over his adversaries in the Great Revolt of 1173 to 1174. His legal reforms continued apace: between 1176 (the year of the Assize of Mort d’Ancestor) and his death in 1189, there were no fewer than eight judicial peregrinations of his justices in eyre. The generally effective Ranulf de Glanvill was appointed justicar in 1180.However, in reality, there were ominous portents in the 1180s, that were ultimately to threaten Henry’s authority.
- Chief among these harbingers was the continued opposition of Henry’s sons, especially Richard. The death of two of Henry II’s sons in the 1180s, Henry the Younger (1183), and Geoffrey (1186), strengthened Richard’s position. Not only was he ruler of Aquitaine in his own right; but after 1183, he was Henry’s heir. Emboldened, Richard now demanded that Henry recognise him as heir to Normandy & Anjou, as well as heir to England. Fearing that Richard would become too powerful, Henry refused these demands. As in the father/son quarrels that preceded the Great Revolt of 1173 to 1174, Henry II was probably too rigid; but Richard then upped the stakes by allying with the King of France against his own father, Henry II.
- Richard’s alliance with France represented a greater threat to Henry than the similar agreement of 1173/1174. The reason was that Henry’s enemy of 1173/1174, King Louis VII, had died in 1180. He had been succeeded as King of France by his fifteen-year-old son Philip Augustus. Philip was the superior of his father: he was intelligent, calculating, and in all ways a Machiavellian ruler, bent on the destruction of the Angevin Empire. Too late, Henry underestimated the power of this unholy alliance of Philip and Richard. In November 1188, Philip deliberately challenged Henry by recognising Richard as heir to the Angevin lands. In 1189, Richard & Philip launched a joint assault on Henry’s French lands, symbolically driving Henry from Le Mans (his birthplace) in May 1189. Worse was then to follow. Enfeebled by increasing poor health, Henry’s morale had been hit by the desertion of his erstwhile supporters (including his son John). In July 1189, Henry was forced to accept humiliating peace terms from Philip & Richard. By then, the strain of governing his Angevin dominions for 35 years finally took its toll. Henry retreated to Anjou, where he had grown up as a boy. He died at Chinon on July 6th 1189. A few days later the Gotterdammerung was completed when Henry’s corpse was ferried down the River Vienne for burial by the nuns at Fontevraud Abbey near Anjou. About twenty years later, his remains were joined there with the corpse of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine: hero and heroine at last re-united in death.
Contemporary assessments of King Henry II
It is reassuring to know that contemporary chroniclers tried to give a balanced assessment of Henry II, pointing out his vices as well as his virtues. However, what is impressive about contemporary opinion is their unanimous view on Henry II’s desires for peace. William of Newburgh writing in the mid 1190s after Henry’s death, stated that, “in his exalted position in the state he was most diligent in defending and promoting the peace of the realm.” Later on, William of Newburgh repeated his assertion of Henry’s desires for peace, “he abhorred bloodshed and the sacrifice of men’s lives.” Significantly, William of Newburgh’s views were echoed by a ‘foreign’ chronicler, Gerald of Wales, also writing in the mid 1190s. Gerald wrote, “Strenuous in warfare, he was very prudent in civil life. But always he dreaded the doubtful arbitrament of war, and with supreme wisdom, in accordance with the ancient comic poet, he essayed every method before resorting to arms.” If for no other reason, Henry II’s commitment to a general peace policy throughout the Angevin Empire would earn him our high regard.
Present –Day assessments of King Henry II.
- I have deliberately selected today, Saturday 10th December 2011, for my final assessment of King Henry II. The reason is that exactly 75 years ago, on 10th December 1936, King Edward VII abdicated the British throne; essentially the result of his refusal to forego his relationship with Mrs. Simpson. By so doing, King Edward VII gravely weakened the position of the monarchy in the UK. The contrast between Edward VII’s irresponsible attitude as monarch and King Henry II’s sense of duty as King is profound.
- About ten years ago, in 2002, the BBC conducted a famous Poll of the ‘100 Greatest Britons’, voted for by the general public. Twelve ‘reigning’ monarchs/princes featured in the Top 100. Interestingly seven of these twelve monarchs were medieval kings or princes (over 50% of the total), they were: King Alfred the Great, Prince Owain Glyndwr, King Henry V, King Robert the Bruce, King Richard III, King Edward I, and, yes, King Henry II. Henry II may have only figured at Number 90; but it is still impressive that he made the Top 100 List at all. For too long, Henry’s reputation has been marred by the Becket affair (see my blog of 30th December 2010 – ‘Henry II and Archbishop Becket’). For too long, King Henry II has been a classic example of Mark Antony’s famous dictum: ‘The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.’ [Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 2]
- Perhaps the real worth of King Henry II is now becoming more appreciated by British people – even if Henry was beaten into 90th place by Britons such as Johnny Rotten (87th – I like to think that Henry would have seen the amusing side to this vote).
I think that best summary of King Henry II is given by Professor David Carpenter, Professor of Medieval History at Kings College, London, and author of the excellent study of medieval Britain: ‘The Struggle for Mastery’ (Penguin,2003). On page 244 of his book, Professor Carpenter summarises Henry II’s achievements as ruler: “Here also was a king with a real sense of care for his kingdom, who had restored its mutilated frontiers, recovered the rights of the crown, restored peace and order and built the common law.”
When listening to Wagner’s opera, ‘Gotterdammerung’, especially Siegfried’s ‘Rhine Journey’ and ‘Funeral March’, I see Henry II embodying the role of Siegfried. I hope you have found parts of this year’s blog absorbing. In 2012, I hope to analyse the reign of Henry II’s grandfather, King Henry I, who runs Henry II fairly close in the monarchical stakes.
We shall see.
In the meantime, enjoy the Christmas and New Year celebrations. In fact, why not follow medieval tradition, and celebrate the whole Twelve Nights of festivities!