Henry II (1133–1189), king of England, duke of Normandy and of Aquitaine, and count of Anjou
by Thomas K. Keefe

Henry II (1133–1189), king of England, duke of Normandy and of Aquitaine, and count of Anjou, was the eldest of three sons born to , daughter of , and Geoffrey Plantagenet, count of Anjou. Geoffrey's sobriquet, which is attested by several contemporary sources, has been plausibly but not certainly ascribed to his wearing a sprig of broom, Planta genista, in his helmet. But its attribution as a surname to all the kings of England descended from him until 1485, though undeniably a genealogical convenience, is factually unwarranted. That Richard II adopted the broomcod as one of his personal emblems was purely coincidental—he borrowed it from the French monarchy. Only in the mid-fifteenth century did the name Plantagenet appear as a royal surname, when , claimed the throne in 1460 as ‘Richard Plantaginet, commonly called Duc of York’ (RotP, 5.375). The name was also borne by illegitimate sons of Edward IV and Richard III. In the following century it was known to Shakespeare, thus in King John the Bastard Falconbridge, who has been identified as the illegitimate son of Richard I, proclaims that ‘I come one way of the Plantagenets’ (King John, V.vi.12). But not until the late seventeenth century did it pass into common usage among historians. In their time the kings between Henry II and Richard III were usually identified by reference to their parentage or their places of birth—Henry II himself was commonly referred to as Henry FitzEmpress.

An Anglo-Norman inheritance

Henry's birth on 5 March 1133 at Le Mans brought to fruition the plan of his grandfather and namesake, Henry I, for the English and Norman successions set in motion by the marriage in 1128 of the widowed empress and the young Count Geoffrey. Henry I had made all his barons swear oaths of fealty to his daughter and his grandson. However, the family's estrangement at the time of Henry I's death in December 1135 allowed those within the Anglo-Norman court who opposed both female and Angevin rule, or either one of these, to forswear their oaths and accept another member of the ducal–royal house, Henry I's nephew Stephen, count of Mortain and Boulogne, as their king. This momentous turn of events, followed by the inability of the empress and the count to regain the birthright of the child Henry, either through diplomacy or force of arms, led to years of war and civil unrest. In 1139 Matilda went to England, where she spent nine years before giving up the attempt to wrest control of the throne from Stephen in person. Meanwhile Geoffrey began a slow sweep of Norman defences in 1141, which ended with the fall of Rouen and the count's investiture as duke in 1144. The conquest of Normandy gave the Angevin party in England the necessary resolve to hold out until Henry came of age, assumed the duchy's leadership himself, and launched the ultimate campaign to reunite Normandy and England. True to this vision, in December 1149, within a year of his knighting at the age of sixteen by his uncle David, king of Scots, Henry became duke. Now the spectre confronting Stephen and his allies was not one of a woman trying to rule in a man's world, nor of an alien Angevin trying to conquer the Anglo-Norman world, but of a reigning Norman duke of Norman blood, a man boundless in energy and the excitement of youth.

Desperate, Stephen sought a renewal of his old alliance with Louis VII of France, who had just returned from the second crusade. The French king was at odds with Count Geoffrey over his treatment of their vassal Giraud Berlai, the seneschal of Poitou. Throughout 1150 diplomatic missions were sent by the English, Normans, and Angevins to Paris, each vying for Louis's support. The death of Abbot Suger, Louis's chief adviser, who favoured holding with the Angevins, and Geoffrey's pressing of the siege of Berlai's castle of Montreuil-Bellay, led the French king in 1151 to join with his brother-in-law Eustace, Stephen's son and count of Boulogne, in an attack on Normandy. Momentarily the Angevin cause was in jeopardy. Louis had yet to recognize Henry as duke. If Normandy were overrun, perhaps Eustace might claim the title. In any event, attacking Normandy kept Henry out of England. It was a good strategy.

Count Geoffrey remained in Anjou during the crisis just long enough to bring about a successful conclusion to his three-year siege of Montreuil-Bellay (a feat that much impressed contemporaries), and then moved with an Angevin army up into Normandy where he joined his son. Few in the French camp were comfortable with the thought of an attack on the combined Norman–Angevin armies, least of all Louis VII himself who, feeling ill, withdrew to Paris. There in August 1151 a complex process of disengagement followed in which Eustace's interests proved expendable. Geoffrey, Henry, and Louis VII met for a peace conference under the guidance of Bernard of Clairvaux. In the outcome Geoffrey made amends for his harsh treatment of the Berlai family, while Louis accepted Henry's homage as duke of Normandy—the price for which was the duke's agreement to the surrender of the Norman Vexin. Norman–Angevin arms, skilled diplomacy, and luck, ably assisted by the Cistercians, had carried the day. Son and father finally were freed to concentrate their energies on helping the Angevin party in England without compromising the security of Normandy or Anjou.

Whatever frustrations Eustace felt with his brother-in-law's about-face are not recorded; the Normans on the other hand were elated. Within days of the peace conference a war council was called to come together at Lisieux on 14 September 1151 to prepare the invasion of England. Then the unexpected happened. Count Geoffrey died after a brief illness. The catch on fortune's wheel was released. At the age of eighteen Duke Henry became count of Anjou, Maine, and Touraine, though he had not wished it so. The English invasion would have to wait while he took control of his father's county. It was precious time to lose.

Even with Henry on the continent Stephen's position in England was becoming more uneasy. Lately magnates on both sides in the civil war had adopted a policy of ‘wait and see’. They entered into private agreements among one another, intent on limiting the scope of war and protecting their territorial interests. The son and heir of Robert, earl of Gloucester (d. 1147), for example, married the daughter of Robert, earl of Leicester (d. 1168), joining in some degree of friendship the two principal rival baronial houses in the kingdom. Stephen's scope for action against the Angevin party was becoming increasingly limited. The idea that Stephen was rightfully king, but that Henry, not Eustace, was rightfully heir, had gained ground among the magnates, as it had within the church. That Stephen never tried to have the magnates swear fealty to Eustace as heir, or perform homage, shows how little store he put in the mechanism Henry I used to ensure his succession plan. After all, Stephen himself had shown how chancy a mechanism it could be. Stephen had only one recourse left, force. Rebuffed by Pope Eugenius III on the question of his son's anointing, the king gathered together all the English bishops in March 1152 in London and demanded their blessing and acquiescence in Eustace's anointing. To a man the bishops refused. Stephen had gained the throne through perjury, they said, so the son could not inherit. These were Eugenius's words, but they were Angevin sentiments, planted in their minds long ago. Frustrated and outraged Stephen imprisoned his bishops, but Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury escaped to the continent. Faced with the hopelessness of trying to bully a united English episcopate the king released the others.

Marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, 1152, and confrontation with Stephen

Henry, on the other hand, had a decisively better spring. In March 1152 Louis VII divorced his wife, , and foolishly allowed the former queen to return alone to Poitou. On 18 May in the same year, ‘either suddenly or by design’, Eleanor married Henry, whom she had met the previous August in Paris (Chronica Roberti de Torigneio in Chronicles, ed. Howlett, 4.165). These events, which in a matter of months had made Henry overlord of virtually all of western France, left observers astonished. Within weeks of the marriage he was at Barfleur ready to sail for England.

Louis VII's response to Eleanor's marriage to Henry, however, ended any chance for an English expedition in the summer of 1152. Instead Henry found himself faced the other way fighting for all his possessions, including Normandy and Anjou. Louis wanted to ruin his vassal, to confiscate his lands and redistribute them among a coalition expressly formed for this purpose. The coalition was made up of Eustace, count of Boulogne, who had rushed over from England with renewed hopes, Henri, count of Champagne, the betrothed of the eldest daughter of Louis and Eleanor, who had been declared legitimate before the divorce and promised part of Aquitaine as her inheritance, Robert, count of Perche, Louis's brother, and Geoffrey of Anjou, Duke Henry's brother. Robert de Torigni gives the details of the fighting, and reports that the duke's masterful defence of his possessions won him praise, even from his enemies. In a little more than two months, by early September, Henry had secured the Norman frontier from attack and crushed his brother's rebellion in Anjou. This was the first of many similar victories to come wherein Henry fought great coalitions over long distances in protecting his Angevin dominions. The year 1152 not only brought the duke–count great resources, it fixed his reputation. Here was a man who would be king. Finally, in January 1153, Henry, braving winter seas, sailed for England—a new endgame had begun.

On a bitter January morning Duke Henry and King Stephen, each at the head of his troops, met face to face near Malmesbury separated only by the River Avon, swollen by winter rains. Torrents of rain and sleet poured down upon the two armies. Yet it was not adverse weather conditions that prevented the all-out battle the duke and king sought as the moment of final reckoning. Barons on both sides, like the church, desired peace, not wanting to engage further in the risks of war. Stephen lost confidence in the magnates serving him, agreed to a truce, and withdrew to London. For the next six months it seemed as if both men intentionally avoided one another in their campaigns. Stephen still held the loyalty of the major towns, like London, with their vast resources of money and manpower. Henry moved about making grants and concessions to churches and magnates. Rewards were given to longtime supporters, such as the Fitzhardings of Bristol, while enticements for defection were offered to royalists. When the dominant magnate in the midlands, the earl of Leicester, openly declared for the duke, the strength of the king's cause suffered measurably. And when, in late July or early August, Henry finally marched to relieve the Angevin outpost of Wallingford, holding out under siege even after the death of its lord Brian fitz Count, Stephen had to react. However, their confrontation at Wallingford ended in the same fashion as it had at Malmesbury: the opposing armies refused to fight.

Peace negotiations, which had been progressing behind the scenes throughout the year, now were conducted in the open. Archbishop Theobald took part with Bishop Henry of Winchester and others in fixing the terms. The basic idea went back to the early 1140s; Stephen was to remain king as long as he lived, Henry would inherit after his death. Feeling betrayed, Eustace left his father's court for East Anglia in a destructive rage. Eustace's sudden death on 17 August 1153 ended any hesitation Stephen might have had about concluding the negotiations. He seemed most concerned with securing and enlarging the inheritance of his youngest son, William. In the first weeks of November, Stephen and Henry met at Winchester where the king adopted Henry as his heir. William was well provided for by being ensured of his mother's extensive lands in England (she had died in May 1152), the Anglo-Norman estates conferred on his father by Henry I, the cross-channel lands of the earls of Warenne which were to come to him through marriage, and other significant properties, towns, and castles in England. If William was not to inherit the kingdom, he would be its greatest magnate and rule independently, as his brother had, in Boulogne. By this arrangement Stephen preserved his family's honour and future power as best he could under the circumstances. From Winchester king and duke went on to London, where during the Christmas holidays a notification executing the treaty was prepared and witnessed at Westminster.

Henry's succession to the English throne, 1154

No one at the outset of 1154 could easily have predicted how long the treaty would hold, whether the civil war in England was truly finished. Powerful forces had combined to put a stop to the war, not the least of which was pressure from the papacy skilfully manipulated by the Angevins. But Bernard of Clairvaux and Eugenius III had died in the summer of 1153 along with Count Eustace, whose coronation they had helped prevent. The Angevin victory, if it was to be maintained, would have to depend after all upon Stephen's continued co-operation and the goodwill of the barons themselves. And when Duke Henry hastily quit England for the continent in April after a plot against his life by Flemish mercenaries had been uncovered, it could not have been foreseen that Stephen, even at the age of sixty, would die only months later in October, and that Duke Henry would become king within a year of the treaty, unopposed, as happened on 19 December 1154.

In retrospect the events of 1151–4 were extraordinary. They brought into being an Angevin dominion scarcely imaginable in the 1140s, centred on the older Anglo-Norman state, but including much of central and southern France. It would take four more years, however, for the young King Henry to secure this vast dominion. As it happened, no cleric, no magnate, no family stood for long against the new king–duke, and in this he, who as a child had felt denied his rightful place, took great satisfaction. Later, reflecting on the early accomplishments of his reign, Henry II proudly boasted that he had attained the authority of his grandfather, Henry I, who ‘was king in his own land, papal legate, patriarch, emperor, and everything he wished’ (Letters of John of Salisbury, 2.581).

Personality, habits, and appearance of Henry II

Contemporaries have left a vivid portrait of this first Angevin king, who at once was an immovable and moving force. Henry was of medium height, with a strong square chest, and legs slightly bowed from endless days on horseback. His hair was reddish, lightening somewhat in later years, and his head was kept closely shaved—a picture to which the image on his tomb at Fontevrault is very true. His blue-grey eyes were his most distinctive features, described by Peter of Blois as ‘dove-like when he [was] at peace’, but ‘gleaming like fire when his temper [was] aroused’, and flashing ‘like lightning’ in bursts of passion (Patrologia Latina, 207.48–9). Ever restless and ever travelling, Henry, to Herbert of Bosham, was like a ‘human chariot dragging all after him’ (Patrologia Latina, 190.1322). Famous for his rapid movements, he often seemed to appear out of nowhere as if ‘he must fly rather than travel by horse or ship’ (Diceto, 1.351). And as he hurried through the Angevin provinces he investigated what was being done everywhere, and was ‘especially strict in his judgement of those whom he has appointed as judges of others’ (Patrologia Latina, 207.48–9).

Gentle and friendly, Henry nevertheless displayed a ferocious temper common to his Angevin ancestors, which struck terror into those around him. A misplaced word of praise for the king of Scotland one morning threw him into a fit of rage in which he ‘fell out of bed screaming, tore up his coverlet, and threshed around the floor, cramming his mouth with the stuffing of his mattress’ (Robertson and Sheppard, 6.71–2). Tireless, he preferred to stand rather than to sit, which caused great discomfort among his courtiers. Always approachable, he took care to listen with patience to petitioners, and his memory was unusually sharp. He was generous to those who experienced misfortune, once paying for the losses of sailors hit by a violent storm during one of his numerous channel crossings. His leisure hours were divided between hunting, hawking, reading, and intellectual debates with a circle of clerks or visiting monks. At moments of tumult at court he fled in silence to his beloved forests, seeking a solitary peace in the wild. Once he loved someone the bond was unbreakable; those whom he hated remained unforgiven. And, although from many points of view he was liberal with his family, he denied them the one thing they cherished the most and only he could give, unrestricted power.

Geoffrey fitz Count's revolt, 1155–1156, and Henry's ascendancy

In the autumn of 1155 Henry de Blois, the bishop of Winchester, fled into self-imposed exile at Cluny, clearly signalling that no resistance to Henry II's rule in England was possible after the king's methodically decisive actions in breaking the power of the few barons who defied him following his coronation. If anything, Henry II's most serious challenge in his first year as king arose on the continent, not in England, and came from his own brother, Geoffrey. In December 1155 Geoffrey raised a revolt in Anjou calling for the fulfilment of their father's will—that when and if Henry gained England, he should turn over the Touraine, Anjou, and Maine to Geoffrey in completion of his inheritance, which in 1151 had included the strategically located castles of Chinon, Loudun, and Mirebeau.

At word of the revolt Henry II crossed from Dover to Wissant on the coast of Boulogne in January 1156, and reached Rouen by 2 February. In the next weeks a family conference was held in the Norman capital to discuss the fraternal dispute. Several Angevin family members directly or indirectly affected gathered there: Henry II, , his youngest brother, Matilda, his mother, Sibylla, countess of Flanders (his aunt), and Geoffrey. Henry saw to Geoffrey's diplomatic isolation by securing papal and Capetian assent to his retention of Anjou. Indeed, Henry performed homage to Louis VII for Normandy, Anjou, and Aquitaine the very week before the conference began, and had sent an embassy to the English pope Adrian IV months earlier, with a request to be released from the oath he had sworn, to uphold the will, because he had done so under duress. Perhaps this isolation, or the promise of a fair hearing by the family in Empress Matilda's presence, is what drew Geoffrey away from his Angevin strongholds to Rouen. Whatever the case, a peaceful resolution of the conflict could not be agreed upon. When Geoffrey withdrew from Rouen into Anjou, Henry followed.

Not until the summer of 1156 did Henry finally coerce his brother into submission. Later in that same year, after Geoffrey had renounced his claims to their father's lands in favour of an annuity and possession of a single castle (Loudun), Henry helped him to become the new count of Nantes, extending Angevin power along the Loire into Brittany. With Anjou firmly in hand, Henry, joined now by Eleanor, journeyed to Aquitaine, where he punished the vicomte of Thouars for supporting his brother's revolt. And if any lingering doubt over the propriety of Henry's overlordship of Anjou remained, it was removed with Geoffrey's unexpected death a short time later in 1158. By this date England, Normandy, Anjou, and Aquitaine were all under control, and Henry II, at the age of twenty-five, stood foremost among the princes of Western Christendom.

Henry II's success in governing his vast dominions with their varied populations and frontiers rested, in part, on his boundless energy and pragmatism. His energy is seen in his constant travels, his pragmatism in his selection of advisers. Among a group of ten or so of the king's most influential advisers during the late 1150s and 1160s were: his uncle Reginald, earl of Cornwall; his mother, Empress Matilda; William d'Aubigny, earl of Arundel, Queen Adeliza's widower; the justiciars Robert, earl of Leicester, and Richard de Lucy; the king's youngest brother, William FitzEmpress; the English chancellor Thomas Becket; the Norman constable Richard du Hommet; the archbishops Theobald of Canterbury, Roger of York, and Rotrou of Rouen; Arnulf, bishop of Lisieux; and the archdeacons of Poitiers and Canterbury, Richard of Ilchester and Geoffrey Ridel. These individuals, with few exceptions, came from an older generation, one once divided by civil war, yet now working largely in harmony with their king–duke. Of this group, only Becket would prove a major disappointment. Too late Henry recognized the mistake of advancing his once faithful chancellor to be primate of all England. The lesson was harsh.

The quarrel with Becket, 1163–1169

In July 1163 at the Council of Woodstock, Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, infuriated Henry by attacking a crown project to turn the annual aid paid to sheriffs into royal revenue. Henry shouted, ‘By the eyes of God, it shall be given as revenue and entered in the royal rolls: and it is not fit that you should gainsay it, for no one would oppose your men against your will’. To which Becket is said to have responded, ‘By the reverence of the eyes by which you have sworn, my lord king, there shall be given from all my land or from the property of the church not a penny’ (Robertson and Sheppard, 2.373–4).

Becket's behaviour in 1163 and in the coming years, as his quarrel with Henry II intensified, was conditioned in part by his choice of a role model—Anselm of Bec, archbishop of Canterbury and defiant opponent of William II and Henry I. A month or so before the Woodstock confrontation Becket had lobbied, albeit unsuccessfully, for Anselm's canonization at the Council of Tours. A biography of Anselm, now lost, had been prepared by John of Salisbury in support of canonization. As R. W. Southern remarked, ‘Henry II might have noted an ominous significance in his [Becket's] admiration for Anselm’ (Southern, 337).

When Henry promoted Becket to the see of Canterbury in May 1162, he was expecting a Lanfranc, a Roger of Salisbury. What he got instead was a reincarnated Anselm, and an imperfect copy at that. Becket, unlike Anselm, proved to be an inept politician whose defiance, justified or not, hopelessly alienated the king and his counsellors. The series of miscalculations started in 1163 with Becket's attempt to restore, as Anselm had done, tenures lost by the archiepiscopal see, reached a climax in January 1164 with the death of Henry II's brother, William FitzEmpress, and ended with the archbishop's own murder in 1170 at the hands of a former member of the prince's entourage. It is a story of struggle for castles, baronies, and political influence, a story of two individuals, Thomas Becket and William FitzEmpress, tied together by fate in death, deaths which left their imprint on the remainder of Henry II's reign.

Soon after Woodstock the king and archbishop quarrelled again, this time over church–state issues: the archbishop's right to excommunicate tenants-in-chief without first consulting the king, the king's rights with regard to clerks charged with serious crimes. Alarmed by Becket's behaviour and compelled by his own need for systematization, Henry in the autumn of 1163 pressed the English bishops to recognize certain customs regulating the interaction of church and state. Predictably Becket refused to assent to any customs that would weaken church prerogatives. Henry responded decisively, stripping the archbishop of the castles and baronies of Berkhamsted and Eye, which he had retained from his days as chancellor. All that was left to Becket now was Canterbury itself.

Stung by the king's move, Becket lost little time in repaying in kind. He used his office to ruin Henry's plans for the marriage of William FitzEmpress. After the death of King Stephen's son, William of Blois, Earl Warenne, in 1159 Henry sought his brother's marriage to Isabella, the earl's highly connected and wealthy widow. This Becket now prohibited on the grounds of consanguinity, and it was within his right to do so since the two were distant cousins. For the moment Becket had his revenge. Henry kept the game and the rivalry alive by selecting Berkhamsted as the site for his Christmas court. Here, in apartments the archbishop had had built for his own pleasure, planning for the Council of Clarendon took place. Revenge begot revenge.

William, angry, sought consolation and advice in Normandy from his mother, Empress Matilda. What soothing words she had for her youngest son are unknown. William died on 30 January 1164, just two days after the conclusion of Clarendon. Henry was distraught over the news of his brother's death. More than that, he held Becket directly responsible. The quarrel was now more than a fight over payment of aids, castles, or church independence; it was personal.

Becket, and other members of the English episcopate, had taken oaths at Clarendon to uphold sixteen ancient customs governing relations between the king, his courts, and the church, set down for the first time now in writing in the celebrated constitutions of Clarendon. One of the principal constitutions, or clauses (no. 4), dealt with appeals to Rome—they were not to proceed without the king's approval—and another (no. 3) with the disposition of criminous clerks—they were to be tried in an ecclesiastical court and, if found guilty, defrocked and remanded for sentencing as a layman by a secular court. With close to one-sixth of the adult population in clerical orders, this last innovation was as pervasive and invasive as the prohibition of direct appeal to the Roman curia. The majority of the remaining fourteen clauses outlined limits on ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and one in particular (no. 7) sought direct control over the church's use of its spiritual weapons by requiring that before any baron or royal officer was excommunicated, or their lands placed under interdict, an appeal must be made to the king himself. In all ten of the constitutions were later condemned by the pope, and even Henry's sagacious mother disapproved of the innovation of having the English bishops swear to them in writing. But Henry, acting out his vision of his grandfather, who had been ‘everything he wished’ in his land, evidently wanted little to be left to ambiguity. Following Clarendon king and archbishop kept their distance: Henry by choice, Becket on the advice of Pope Alexander III, an exile in France. Alexander was a former papal chancellor and as such an experienced canon lawyer. Whatever sympathies he harboured with the archbishop's challenge of so-called ‘evil customs’ fostered by the English king, political pragmatism kept him from seeking a confrontation with the sovereign of fifty Anglo-French bishops. Alexander's pre-eminent concern was Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’, the German emperor, whose Italian policy and support for two successive antipopes, Victor IV and Pascal III, had forced him to France and the protection of Louis VII. This was not the moment to disturb the balance in which matters were suspended. Becket, however, could not be restrained, and Henry could not forgive.

In late 1164, after Becket had imprudently tried to leave the kingdom without permission, he was summoned first to London and then to Northampton to answer a series of suits, the most problematic of which related to his tenure as royal chancellor. A few days into the Council of Northampton it was evident to everyone that Henry, encouraged by his advisers, intended to break the archbishop of Canterbury, with incalculable financial repercussions for those who might support him. The trigger was the demand for an accounting for more than £30,000 in revenues that had passed through Becket's hands as chancellor—an impossible request, the more so since the accounting was demanded of him on the spot. Rather than humble himself and ask for Henry's mercy, the archbishop chose defiance. Brandishing his cross he strode out of the castle hall and miraculously escaped a throng of angry courtiers through an open gate. The flight from Northampton ended in Flanders; Henry did not see the archbishop again for five years. Eventually Becket found refuge at the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny, protected, as was Alexander III, by the French king. From this point the quarrel became ‘a side issue in the papal schism and Henry II's relationship with Louis VII’ (Barlow, Becket, 134). Henry II let Alexander and Louis know that any extreme action against the English crown or church would be met with a complete repudiation of allegiance and a counter-alliance with Frederick I. This message took on a more certain reality in 1165, when the emperor's chancellor, Rainald, archbishop of Cologne, was welcomed in Rouen and London on a mission to join the houses of Anjou, Hohenstaufen, and Saxony through a series of marriages, and at the continuation of these negotiations at the diet of Würzburg, where Henry's ambassadors, carried away, perhaps, by the excitement of the moment, are said to have participated in an oath swearing never to recognize Alexander as pope.

The murder of Becket and its consequences, 1169–1172

Becket seemed to thrive emotionally on the turmoil and intrigue surrounding his exile, as if it were some great diplomatic dance. The roads through France and the channel ports were alive with envoys and secret messengers to and from the papal curia, English, French, German, and Sicilian courts, and the archbishop's own expanding international nexus of confidants and supporters. What Henry II disliked most of all, beyond his former friend's sheer ingratitude, was this revelry in self-importance and intrigue—the personality of the anti-authoritarian, incapable of working within established hierarchies, claiming always the principled ground of a higher authority. In an interval of several months during 1169–70, when Alexander III, Frederick I, Louis VII, and Henry II all sought solutions for their own differences, which in the end enabled Becket to regain his primacy, the archbishop put revenge ahead of peace and excommunicated his English ‘enemies’ upon landing in England. And yet Becket's action was not taken without provocation; Henry himself must be assigned a fair share of blame for the uncertainty of their rapprochement reached at Fréteval in July 1170 and its disastrous collapse. He failed to make effective provision for the restoration of confiscated lands and revenues, and, equally important, he avoided giving a public expression of his settlement with the archbishop by exchanging a kiss of peace with him.

When Becket landed in Kent on 1 December 1170, he landed alone without the king, who had promised to make the journey with him. For reasons of his own, Henry had broken this promise and others. The return of lands and revenues taken from the see of Canterbury during the exile had not been wholly effected, nor had expected restitutions been made to members of the archbishop's household. And, while the citizens of Canterbury and London seemed genuinely happy to have their archbishop with them once again, royal officers displayed an open hostility, going so far as refusing to allow Becket to visit the young Henry, his former ward, who at that moment was residing in England, and whose coronation by the archbishop of York on 14 June 1170 had greatly exacerbated relations between Becket and the English bishops who had continued to support Henry II. Had the king accompanied Becket as planned, the excommunications might have been forestalled and the affronts to archiepiscopal dignity blunted; and events might not then have spun so easily out of control. Certainly, Henry knew how volatile Becket could be; even so, when he heard the news of the recent excommunications, he let his own fury explode with words hung with a challenge: ‘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!’ (Robertson and Sheppard, 1.121–3; 2.429; 3.127–9, 487), later rendered in oral tradition: ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ (Lyttelton, pt 4, 353). Four knights took up the challenge, sped from Normandy to England, and later in the afternoon of 29 December confronted Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. Whether their original intent was murderous remains unclear. But at least one of the knights, Richard Brito, had personal cause to see Becket dead, for he cried out as he struck the archbishop with his sword: ‘Take this for the love of my lord William, the king's brother!’ (Robertson and Sheppard, 3.142).

When he heard the terrible news, Henry went into seclusion for three days and then employed all his diplomatic skills and resourcefulness to distance himself from the murder. Clergy all over Europe were outraged. Pope Alexander even refused to speak to an Englishman for more than a week upon learning of Becket's martyrdom. Pressure arose on all sides; an interdict was threatened, then proclaimed. Henry feared excommunication, and took measures to prevent papal legates from entering his lands, closing the channel ports behind him when he left the continent for Ireland—a journey with momentous consequences for that island, and its involvement with the Anglo-Norman world. Only in 1172, when Henry had reappeared from Ireland, did the storm finally end. The king met Alexander III's legates at Avranches in May and submitted to their judgment. In what became known as ‘the compromise of Avranches’, Henry admitted that, although he never desired the killing of Becket, his words may have prompted the murderers. Kneeling at the door of the cathedral in a full and abject display of penance, the king accepted the legates' terms for reconciliation: to maintain his obedience to Alexander III as long as he treated Henry as a ‘Christian king’; to take the cross and set out for Jerusalem, or, if he wished, to fight the Moors in Spain; never again to impede lawful appeals to the pope in ecclesiastical suits; to abolish all customs introduced by him injurious to the church and no longer to require bishops to observe them; to restore all its possessions to Canterbury; and to bestow his peace on all Becket's followers. With this, Henry was absolved and the quarrel, at last, resolved. Made wiser by experience, Henry made no further overt efforts to impede appeals to Rome (though he was sometimes able to exert a degree of control over them), and he increased his donations to religious houses, though not to the point of lavishness. His reward for his new flexibility was control of the English church in all important respects as complete as his grandfather's had been, given perfect expression in the famous writ addressed to the monks of Winchester Cathedral priory in 1173, ‘I order you to hold a free election, but nevertheless, I forbid you to elect anyone except Richard my clerk, the archdeacon of Poitiers’ (Poole, 220).

Still, these unsettling times brought on a new problem Henry II never quite proved able to manage: the disaffection of his queen, Eleanor, and their sons. The death in 1167 of the Empress Matilda had removed an experienced voice whose wise counsel might have prevented the coming perpetual family crisis. Where before Henry had seemed the master of his success, he now became its uncertain prisoner. And, not without irony, he found the salvation of his kingdom in St Thomas.

Family problems

Queen Eleanor and Henry II had eight children, all but one of whom survived infancy. In 1170 their four sons and three daughters ranged in age from fifteen to three years old. The eldest daughter, , was wed to Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony. Her sister Eleanor was betrothed to Alfonso, king of Castile. The eldest surviving son, , was married to Margaret, daughter of Louis VII of France and his second wife, Constanza of Castile, while another son, , was betrothed to her uterine sister, Alice. Their brother, , was betrothed to the heir of Brittany, Constance, in whose name Henry II had taken over governance of the duchy from her father, leaving the youngest children, and , as yet without provision. Henry also had an illegitimate son, William [see ]. After two marriages and four daughters, Louis VII finally had had a son and heir, Philip, with his third wife, Adèle de Blois. Adèle's own brothers, the counts of Champagne and Blois, had been married to the eldest daughters of Louis's marriage to Eleanor in the early 1160s. The French king may well have looked to the day when his son and heir would rule over a kingdom whose prominent barons were his brothers-in-law. Certainly it was in Louis VII's mind that the Angevin dominions be broken into their constituent parts in the next generation. Under the treaty of Montmirail of 1169 Henry II had agreed to as much, by formally designating Henry as the heir to England, Normandy, and Anjou, Geoffrey as the heir to Brittany, and Richard as the heir to his mother's Aquitaine. Again in 1170, a few months before Thomas Becket's murder, while Henry II lay seriously ill at a small castle near Domfront on the Norman frontier with Maine, he made out a will reaffirming that inheritance scheme. More importantly, Henry II had engineered the anointing of his son and namesake as co-king of England that summer, fixing the English portion of the inheritance in a fashion that had eluded Stephen. But there were two absences from the anointing—the archbishop of Canterbury, whose right it was to crown the kings of England, and the younger Henry's wife, Margaret, who should have been made a queen. No doubt Henry II calculated the effect of the anointing on Louis VII and Becket as influencing the French king into pressuring the archbishop to quit his exile, return to England, and redeem both their honours by a second crowning—one that included the French princess. The calculation worked. Becket did return, but the consequences were tragic. In his manipulations Henry II snared himself, giving Louis VII the advantage of playing off the sons against the father.

In May 1172 Henry II returned to Normandy, having spent seven months in Ireland, to receive absolution from the papal legates awaiting him there concerning complicity in Thomas Becket's murder. Once reconciled with the church he was willing to accede to Louis VII's wish for a recrowning of young Henry with Margaret's inclusion as his queen. This was done at Winchester in August. Earlier that summer Richard had been formally installed as duke of Aquitaine in separate ceremonies at Poitiers and Limoges in the presence of his mother, Eleanor. So the inheritance scheme worked out in 1169 was taking on a greater reality, although Henry II never intended to give up any of his authority soon. If anything he was intent on maintaining his ‘old path of family politics and territorial expansion’ (Gillingham, Richard the Lion Heart, 62). He had been working on a marriage proposal with Humbert, count of Maurienne, since 1171. The count's lands controlled all the passes through the western Alps. Since Humbert had two daughters but no sons, Henry II was willing to pay a vast sum of money to secure the marriage of his youngest son, John, to the count's heir, whichever daughter she might turn out to be. A meeting took place at Montferrat in the Auvergne in early February 1173 to draw up an agreement. Later in the month the court moved to Limoges where Raymond, count of Toulouse, with the kings of Navarre and Aragon looking on, performed homage in turn to Henry II, Henry, the Young King, and Richard.

It was a splendid display, one far removed from the necessary humiliation of Henry's scourging by the papal legates as part of his absolution months before. The young king had watched that scene, and well may have wondered where he fitted into this one. When his father, at Count Humbert's urging, agreed to give the Angevin castles of Chinon, Loudun, and Mirebeau to the five-year-old John to finalize the marriage arrangement, young Henry exploded in anger. Louis VII already had pointed out to his son-in-law that he was twice crowned, but not lord, in any real sense, of anything. He now demanded that his father hand over any one of his inheritances: England, Normandy, or Anjou. He was after all within days of his eighteenth birthday, about the same age as Henry II was when Count Geoffrey released Normandy. The demand was promptly refused. It is hard to imagine that what occurred next was completely spontaneous. Eleanor, Henry II discovered, was plotting against him with their sons. And, behind the plotting, stood his overlord, the king of France.

The ‘great rebellion’, 1173–1174, and its aftermath

In the civil war that consumed the next two years Henry II once again proved himself the luckiest and most resourceful of princes. With the kings of France and Scotland, the counts of Boulogne, Flanders, Dreux, and Blois all arrayed against him, with his wife and sons in rebellion, with their rebellion supported by numerous barons throughout the Angevin dominions, he triumphed. And he triumphed from a distance. The count of Boulogne's death from a chance crossbow shot in the summer of 1173 ended the campaign of his brother, the count of Flanders, deep into Norman territory that year, while Eleanor's capture and imprisonment, as she tried to leave Poitou to join her sons in Paris, prevented her involvement in the war. Similarly, the capture by the king's men first of the earl of Leicester, son of the former justiciar, in the autumn of 1173, and then of the king of Scotland in the summer of 1174, broke the back of the rebellion in England. On each of these occasions Henry was elsewhere. He effectively managed his men and resources from afar, trusted his subordinates to perform their jobs, and chose the right moments to intervene in person. The size of the Angevin dominions was never an important factor in their defence. What was important was the sheer talent of the administrators and barons upon whom Henry relied: their capacity to take charge, the protection and control of transportation routes, on both land and sea, the loyalty of churchmen and townsmen, the ready wealth used to hire mercenaries, and Henry II's own renowned defensive genius and capacity for instant attack. Even so, many of the problems that had brought about the civil war remained.

First, the estrangement of Henry and Eleanor offered no ready resolution. Whatever the motives for Eleanor's rebellion—anger at her husband's affair with , a longing for real political power away from her husband's shadow, fear of the permanent vassalage of Aquitaine to the English kings have all been suggested—Henry blamed her for the civil war and never again either trusted her or forgave her. In 1175 he tried to persuade a papal legate, visiting England on other business, to annul their marriage. After the annulment Eleanor was to be placed in seclusion at the convent of Fontevrault. Later in 1176 the younger Henry, Richard, and Geoffrey vigorously protested against their father's intentions. Even Rotrou, archbishop of Rouen, one of Henry's closest confidants, refused to sanction such an idea. Family and court opinion aside, Alexander III's rejection of the proposal ended the initiative. What Henry decided upon instead was Eleanor's continued imprisonment, keeping open the wound occasioned by her rebellion.

Second, Henry was unable, or unwilling, to accommodate the reasonable expectations of his eldest son. Where after 1174 Richard was allowed a certain freedom as duke of Aquitaine, and Geoffrey, following his marriage to Constance of Brittany (1181), much the same in that province, Henry III, as the younger king was sometimes called, was never given outright a territory of his own to rule. He died in 1183, aged twenty-eight, once again in rebellion against his father.

Problems of succession, 1183–1186

The Young King's death, far from settling matters, threw the Angevin dominions into yet another succession crisis. It had been easy for the kingdom of France. When Louis VII became incapacitated in 1179, his only son Philip, a youth of fifteen, succeeded him. Henry II's misfortune was to have too many sons. And the hostility of the Angevin males towards one another had become a common feature of political interaction by the 1180s. Even if Henry had, in fact, resigned one or more of his territories, there is little reason to believe that Richard, Geoffrey, or John ever could have coexisted peacefully. Before Henry would name Richard as his heir to England, Normandy, and Anjou, he wanted Aquitaine for John. Richard saw no usefulness in giving up real power over his duchy for the empty mantle of his elder brother, so he baulked. Henry could have gone ahead and declared Richard his heir anyway. The spectre of a permanent union of Aquitaine with Anjou, Normandy, and England, though, might have proved too much a threat for the French monarchy to ignore, and would certainly have alienated Geoffrey and John. Everything was tangled. John had been promised the county of Mortain and the earldoms of Cornwall and Gloucester. Geoffrey was earl of Richmond by right of his wife, and had designs on Normandy. Making Richard heir to England and Normandy without just compensation for the other sons would only lead to further trouble. Not designating Richard heir would lead to trouble too. Besides this, there was the issue of Richard's betrothal to Alice, the half-sister of Philip Augustus. On several occasions the French king pressed for the marriage to take place. She had been with the Angevin court since 1169; the delay was scandalous. Yet, beyond Henry's own rumoured affection for Alice, he had justification for putting off this marriage. He did not want Richard falling in with Capetian in-laws as Henry, the Young King, had done. Some immutable law seemed at work. The effect of keeping Philip and Richard apart was to bring Philip and Geoffrey closer together. Just before Geoffrey's accidental death at a Parisian tournament in August 1186 he had been boasting that he and the French king were going to devastate Normandy. And although death removed another son from the equation, the year ended with the succession question unsolved.

Philip Augustus and Count Richard, 1186–1187

While Geoffrey's departure from the stage of Angevin family politics closed one door for King Philip, another was opened to him. He claimed the wardship of the eldest of Geoffrey's two daughters and, with her, custody of the whole of the duchy of Brittany. Henry II was not about to compromise the Angevin lordship of Brittany in any way, especially since he knew Geoffrey's widow, Constance, was in the early stages of pregnancy (she gave birth to a son, Arthur, in March 1187). The future of the Breton inheritance too was uncertain. The English king employed a favourite tactic of medieval politics—the delay—to put Philip off. In early October 1186 a royal embassy headed by William de Mandeville, earl of Essex and count of Aumale, the English justiciar Ranulf de Glanville, and the former vice-chancellor Walter de Coutances, archbishop of Rouen, was dispatched to the French court to request a truce regarding this matter. They asked for the truce to last until mid-January. After successfully completing their mission, two of the ambassadors, William and Walter, were sent back again to ask for an extension of the truce until Easter, about the time Constance was due to give birth. This second request met with a cool reception. Earl William was in charge of castle defences in upper Normandy. It seems that a kinsman of his, Henry de Vere, constable of Gisors, had found the French building a castle in the vicinity and had attacked the workers, killing the son of an important nobleman. Outraged, Philip had arrested all the king of England's subjects on the French side of the border. In retaliation French subjects found on the Norman side of the border also had been arrested. Although all those who had been arrested were released shortly afterwards, tensions remained high.

Henry expected a full-scale war. In December, Ranulf de Glanville went into Wales to recruit mercenaries for a campaign in Normandy. Welsh mercenaries had been used with great effect in the civil war of 1173–4 and Henry had come to rely upon them. By January 1187 Philip was attacking in the area of Gisors and Henry had begun to collect his forces for a massive movement of supplies and personnel from England to the continent. One group that attempted the winter crossing from Shoreham in Sussex to Dieppe was lost at sea with a large part of the king's treasure. Henry himself crossed from Dover to Wissant in late February, and was met by the counts of Flanders and Blois, who escorted him to Normandy. The French barons, it appears, were not seeking the battle King Philip apparently wanted. A meeting in April between the two kings ended without any reconciliation. Henry then divided his army into five groups: one under his command, the others under the commands of William de Mandeville, the king's sons Richard and John, and Henry's natural son , since 1182 chancellor of England. Richard and John took their groups into Berry where in June they came under siege by Philip's forces at Châteauroux. Upon learning this Henry marched with a great army to their relief. Philip was caught, his prestige at risk. This was his first open attack on the Angevins. His father had tried on numerous occasions to defeat his Angevin counterpart, and had faltered. Philip decided to risk all in a pitched battle. Henry showed himself equally determined.

Every morning for the next fortnight the two opposing armies, separated by the Indre River, arrayed themselves in battle formation, while individuals from both sides, well acquainted with the dangers of pitched battle, sought a settlement. Rumours flowed back and forth. Troops from the county of Champagne were said to have been bought off by the English, causing much concern among the French. Henry became worried when he found out that Richard, swayed by the count of Flanders, was meeting in secret with Philip. Somehow Richard persuaded Henry to agree to a truce, and promptly left with Philip for Paris. The armies rejoiced in the peace. Alarmed, Henry sent messengers to recall Richard; he had been down this path before.

Final years and death, 1187–1189

Henry and Richard were reconciled in time, though the succession issue still divided them. Philip kept up the pressure by massing an army on the Norman border and threatening an invasion if Henry, among other things, did not proceed with Richard's marriage to Alice. At this point international events further complicated the problem. In the summer of 1187 news of the losses at the battle of Hattin in the Holy Land shocked and depressed Westerners. The fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in October of the same year made the need for a crusade all the more urgent. At a conference on 21 January 1188 the kings of England and France, and a host of French barons, Richard included, took the cross. Later that month the famous ‘Saladin tithe’ was proclaimed at a conference in Le Mans. While Henry II went into England from the conference to oversee the collection of the tithe, Richard was drawn to Aquitaine to suppress a revolt. After this he became embroiled in a fierce war with the count of Toulouse. His successes in this war caused King Philip to invade Berry, hoping to attract Richard's attention away from Toulouse. The fighting brought Henry II out of England. He landed back in Normandy in July with a large force of Welsh and English troops. Battles erupted all along the frontiers of the Angevin and French dominions; towns were burnt, villages destroyed. With no end to the fighting in sight, and pressure for a crusade continuing to build, a preliminary peace was agreed upon in November, but only after the counts of Flanders, Blois, and others had refused to participate any further in the hostilities. As details of peace were being worked out in a meeting between the two kings, Philip asked for Richard's marriage to Alice, and that the barons of England and the rest of the Angevin dominions swear an oath of fealty to Richard as Henry's heir. More importantly, in front of those present, Richard asked if his father would recognize him as heir. Henry, trapped by the legacy of Henry, the Young King, kept silent. In a startling move, Richard then knelt before Philip and rendered him homage for Normandy, Anjou, and Aquitaine. All that Henry had sought to avoid came to be.

There was little room for negotiations this time. While truces were agreed upon, the first lasting through Christmas, another extending through March, then Easter, nothing could bring Richard to depart on crusade now without having secured his inheritance, and nothing could bring Henry to recognize Richard publicly as his heir. King Philip was the pivot; his interests lay in causing the Angevins as much trouble as possible, although he might be turned if a suitable arrangement were devised for his sister, Alice. In a parley at La Ferté-Bernard on the Maine–Blois border Henry tested Philip's attachment to Richard by offering to settle a long-standing dispute over the Vexin with Alice's marriage to John. The offer also played against Richard's fears of losing the major part of the Angevin dominions to his younger brother. The parley took place in the last week of May 1189. Behind the scenes Henry had been preparing for war. Mercenaries had been recruited again from among the Welsh, troops brought over from England, and an army readied in Normandy at Alençon. Instead of leaving the area after the parley, Philip and Richard caught Henry unawares by overrunning local castles and marching on Le Mans. On 12 June, with the city on fire, Henry was forced to flee for his life, narrowly escaping capture by Richard. Inexplicably he stopped only hours short of the safety of Alençon, where his army awaited him, and slipped back into Anjou, going on some 200 miles to Chinon. The king's health had been failing for several months, and this last exertion in the summer's heat caused his illness to become all the more intense. Unable to prevent the continuing collapse of Anjou's defences, Henry was persuaded by the counts of Flanders and Burgundy to reach a settlement. On 4 July near Azay-le-Rideau, Henry II, visibly ill, listened as conditions were read out to him in the presence of Richard and Philip. Added to the old demands for Alice's marriage and Richard's recognition were an indemnity of £20,000, the surrender of key castles, and a willingness to follow Philip's pleasure in all things. Henry agreed, but defiantly whispered in Richard's ear, ‘God grant that I may not die until I have my revenge on you’ (Gir. Camb. opera, 8.296). Too weak to ride back to Chinon, Henry was borne thither on a litter; he died there two days later, on Thursday 6 July 1189, his heart finally broken by the discovery that his youngest son, John, too, had joined his adversaries. He was buried at the abbey of Fontevrault. With this the family quarrels ceased, and the Angevin dominions passed intact to the next generation. Ironically, despite all Philip's machinations, Richard carefully stepped into a position of power as great as, perhaps even greater than, that of his father.

Henry II and the politics of success

During the years of family tumult Henry II seems to have found his most gratifying moments of affirmation in Canterbury at the shrine of Thomas Becket. Before 1170 the king is known to have visited Canterbury only twice, once briefly in 1156 and then again in 1163. Starting in 1174, however, Henry made at least ten, perhaps thirteen, visits to Canterbury, and had intended another. Indeed, the king went so often to Becket's shrine that the author of the Gesta Henrici secundi described his visits as ‘customary’ (Gesta … Benedicti, 1.207). Henry's obvious devotion to the shrine came from the mythologized fact he himself promoted: at the very minute of the very hour in July 1174 that the embattled king had emerged from Canterbury Cathedral, ending an all-night vigil, William the Lion of Scotland was captured far off in northern England. Contemporary hagiographers and historians alike drew from these events the lesson Henry wished. God, to many minds, in recognition of the king's reconciliation in spirit with St Thomas, had intervened in the affairs of men; Henry's enemies were vanquished, his rule validated. Joining Henry at the shrine on various occasions were his sons Henry, the Young King, and Richard, Louis VII of France, Philip, count of Flanders, Theobald, count of Blois, and William, archbishop of Rheims—all losers in the great war, all now courting saint and king. If Henry, as it is said, hated pomp, surely he loved theatre. And nowhere was Angevin theatre more pronounced than at Canterbury.

The control of England and Normandy

Given the totality of Henry's victory over his enemies in the war, it is remarkable that he did not indulge in wholesale confiscations of baronies. Rebel families on both sides of the channel regained most of their lands over time, although their castles were summarily destroyed or occupied by the king's men. But if Henry's sons had disappointed him, their allies and sympathizers had disappointed him more. Never again would any of his barons be allowed to challenge him. The tightened grip touched friend and foe. Bristol, the former Angevin stronghold long coveted by the crown, was simply taken from William, earl of Gloucester, while the earldom itself was promised by marriage to the king's son John. When Reginald, earl of Cornwall, died in 1175, leaving three daughters as heirs, this earldom too was set aside for John. The son of William d'Aubigny, earl of Sussex, gave up Arundel Castle on his father's death. Even the justiciar Richard de Lucy returned Ongar Castle on his retirement. In Normandy Bishop Arnulf of Lisieux, implicated in Henry III's rebellion, was later hounded from office. When William le Gros, count of Aumale, died in 1179, his daughter married William de Mandeville, earl of Essex, one of the king's best friends and the man in charge of the Norman defensive network of castles based on Gisors. Earl William headed a newly prominent group of courtier–managers in Normandy with English interests or experience. The older dominance of Beaumont, Tancarville, Montfort, Tosny, Gournay, and others was eclipsed by the elevation of Stuteville, du Hommet, St Jean-le-Thomas, Verdun, Cressy, Bardolf, Pipard, Paynel, St Martin, Fitzralph, and Mandeville.

This Anglicization of Norman administration during the 1170s and 1180s took place in both personnel and practice. In 1176 Richard of Ilchester, bishop of Winchester, was given the job of reshaping the duchy's finances along the lines of the English exchequer. After completing this task, the bishop turned over the seneschalcy and government to William fitz Radulf, sheriff of Nottingham and Derby, who relocated to Caen. The bailiff of Exemes in 1180, Gilbert Pipard, was at times in his career sheriff of Gloucester, Hampshire, and Lancaster, a justice in England on the great eyres of 1176 and 1178, and a member of John's household during his unfortunate Irish expedition. The same year another sometime English justice, Hugh de Cressy, acted as constable of Rouen, while the Stutevilles, who held royal castles and shrievalties in northern England, were entrusted with Arques and Lyons-la-Forêt. Alfred de St Martin, castellan of Driencourt, formerly castellan of Hastings and Eu, began his career as a household knight of John, count of Eu, and through the king's grace married the count's widow, Alice, daughter of William d'Aubigny, earl of Arundel, about 1176. He controlled her considerable maritagium and dower in England, worth 23 knights' fees and £143 sterling in annual rents, making him as wealthy as any English baron beneath the magnate class. The king–duke's Anglicization policy placed Normandy solidly under Henry's domination and effectively ended any chance of Norman disloyalty sparking another revolt, as it had in 1173. In the end, however, his unwillingness to name Richard as heir to Anjou, Normandy, and England, as the count of Poitou wished, undermined Henry's mastery of international politics, and he died in 1189 a broken man.

Visible expressions of power

Henry II clearly understood power, its uses, its trappings. To awe his contemporaries he consciously employed any combination of the features of impressive size and quality of construction and finishing in the structures he built. The historian Robert de Torigni reacted in ‘astonishment’ when first viewing the leper house the king had constructed in 1161 at Caen, and he was equally astounded by the scale of royal or ducal building projects undertaken that same year throughout Normandy, Aquitaine, Maine, Anjou, the Touraine, and England. He tells of castles, parks, royal residences, manor houses, hunting lodges, and more, all under repair or in new construction. This display of taste and wealth, on a scale as vast as the Angevin dominion itself, was meant to project an aura of strength and prosperity, and was connected, perhaps, with a perceived need to refashion a reputation diminished by the failure of the Toulouse campaign of 1159. Later, when Henry built the famous Everswell at Woodstock for his mistress Rosamund Clifford—a great house centred on a spring, with rectangular pools and a cloister, similar to the marvellous palaces of Norman Sicily and to fictional palaces like those depicted in the romance of Tristan—he added a useful element of mystery and romance to his subjects' image of the ‘old king’ triumphant over the ‘young king’ and his brothers. During the course of his reign Henry came to understand well the power of architectural statement. The magnificent square keep at Dover, with its surrounding mural towers raised majestically above the white cliffs in sight of an old Roman lighthouse (largely complete by 1184 at a cost of over £6500), might have been fashioned to deter the odd invader, yet daily spoke with eloquence ‘this is my kingdom’ to the more numerous pilgrims and princes intent only on going as far as the shrine of St Thomas at Canterbury. Other massive building projects initiated by Henry II—hospitals at Bayeux, Rouen, Le Mans, Angers, and Fontevrault; churches at Witham, Waltham, Cherbourg, Mortemer, and Grandmont; an embankment 30 miles long beside the Loire between Saumur and Tours; bridges at Rouen, Angers, Saumur, and Chinon; castles at Scarborough, Newcastle, Nottingham, Orford, Osmanville, Gisors, Ancenis, and Chinon; and palaces at Windsor, Clarendon, Quévilly, and Saumur—attest to the king–duke's pervasive interest in architecture. The famous octagonal kitchen at Fontevrault with its radiating apses and pyramidal stone roof, also attributable to Henry's patronage, resembles monastic kitchens found elsewhere in the Loire region (Vendôme, Saumur, and Marmoutier), and kitchens as far away as Normandy (Caen) and England (Canterbury). A dominion bound by few institutional commonalities was evolving, under Henry II's guidance, a common culture in stone.

Courts and counsellors in Henry's reign

But Henry II's real power, despite the greater size of the Angevin dominion, derived from his stewardship of the older Anglo-Norman state, from its wealth, its manpower, its institutions. In the period from December 1154 to July 1189, 37 per cent of Henry's time was spent in the British Isles, 43 per cent in Normandy, and only 20 per cent elsewhere in France beyond the duchy's borders. Thus for 80 per cent of his reign as king–duke Henry II travelled or resided in the realm of his mother's Norman ancestors. In England he stayed most often in an area marked by a line drawn from Portchester up to Salisbury and on to Gloucester and Worcester, across to Northampton, down to London, and down again to Portchester: for the most part the Thames valley and central Wessex. In Normandy, Henry was found most often in the upper Cotentin peninsula, the region of the Orne River valley, the Roumois, and the Norman Vexin. His main administrative centres, on the evidence of charter issues, were Westminster–London, Winchester, Woodstock, Rouen–Quévilly, Caen–Bur, and Argentan. If one of these centres stood above the rest, it was Rouen, where courtiers from the Angevin dominion came in larger numbers than to any other site.

From the outset of his reign Norman and English advisers dominated Henry II's court. Although the witnesses to his charters tend to be fewer on average than those of previous king–dukes, attestation statistics from over 2500 acts present a reasonably accurate portrait of Henry's inner court. Notably lacking from this select group are men whose origins derived from the county of Anjou. The inner court, the first twenty-five of whom are ranked here according to their attestations, included: Richard du Hommet, the constable of Normandy (371); Manasser Biset (298); Thomas Becket, chancellor of England, later archbishop of Canterbury (296); Richard de Lucy, the English justiciar (249); Reginald de Dunstanville, earl of Cornwall (240); Geoffrey Ridel, archdeacon of Canterbury, later bishop of Ely (165); Richard of Ilchester, archdeacon of Poitou, later bishop of Winchester (163); Ranulf de Glanville, the English justiciar (136); Hugh de Cressy, constable of Rouen (135); Arnulf, bishop of Lisieux (130); John of Oxford, dean of Salisbury, later bishop of Norwich (130); Reginald de Courtenay, lord of Okehampton (123); Robert, earl of Leicester, justiciar of England (120); Rotrou de Newburgh, bishop of Évreux, later archbishop of Rouen (111); Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury (107); Richard de Camville (107); Walter de Coutances, archdeacon of Oxford, later bishop of Lincoln and archbishop of Rouen (100); Roger, archbishop of York (99); Philip de Harcourt, bishop of Bayeux, former chancellor of King Stephen (97); Hugh du Puiset, bishop of Durham (95); William de Mandeville, earl of Essex and count of Aumale (91); William Fitzaudelin, marshal and royal steward (91); Warin Fitzgerald, chamberlain of the English exchequer (90); Robert de Chesney, bishop of Lincoln (89); and William fitz Radulf, the Norman seneschal (79). The English pipe rolls provide other indicators of the level of the inner court's involvement in Anglo-Norman governance. For example, William de Mandeville, Walter de Coutances, and Richard du Hommet and his sons are reported to have crossed from England to Normandy no less than twenty-one times on the king's business between 1174 and 1189.

Angevin governance

Like Henry II's court the surviving evidence for Angevin governance in general is predominantly Anglo-Norman, and more completely English. No financial accounts from this period similar to the English pipe rolls remain at all from lands outside the Anglo-Norman state, while those for Normandy regrettably cover only two years (a partial roll from 1180 and a fragmentary roll from 1184). Although much detail of government can be found in various histories of Henry's reign, only the Norman historian Robert de Torigni, abbot of Mont-St Michel, provides a significant chronicle from the perspective of a western French author. Curiously no Angevin was inspired to write a geste of the count who became king. But from an English court perspective the works of Ralph de Diceto, Roger of Howden, Jordan Fantosme, Gerald of Wales, Gervase of Canterbury, and William of Newburgh provide a collection of histories unrivalled by those for any other twelfth-century king. These histories set beside the pipe rolls (1155–89), the Dialogus de Scaccario, and the legal treatise known as Glanvill, testify to the achievement of English government under Henry II—a government of which the king and his advisers were duly proud. The practice of regular countrywide visitations by justices, together with the maintenance of central royal courts for managing finances and hearing civil litigation, in place by the mid-1170s, allowed for the creation of a coherent body of national custom which in the thirteenth century evolved into the English ‘common law’. Historians, always curious as to origins, need look no further than Richard of Ilchester, Geoffrey Ridel, John of Oxford, Richard de Lucy, Ranulf de Glanville, and, of course, Henry II himself, for the fathers of this law.

Walter Map's account of a conversation with Ranulf de Glanville relating to royal justice highlights the importance of Henry's presence, or near presence, to the smooth functioning of a national system. After hearing a case Glanville adjudicated in favour of a poor man, Map remarked with some wonderment, ‘Although the poor man's judgement might have been put off by many quirks, you arrived at it by a happy and quick decision.’ To which Glanville replied with some pride, ‘Certainly we decide causes here much quicker than your bishops do in their churches.’ ‘True,’ countered Map, ‘but if your king were as far off from you as the pope is from the bishops, I think you would be quite as slow as they.’ With these words both men laughed knowingly (Map, 509). Henry II may have distanced himself often from his tumultuous, whirling court for the solitude of forest and hills, or lost himself in the pleasures of the hunt, but he paid attention. According to Gerald of Wales, the king ‘had at his fingertips a ready knowledge of nearly the whole of history and also the practical experience of daily affairs’ (English Historical Documents, 2.417–18). The men with whom Henry surrounded himself and to whom he entrusted the governance and defence of his dominion loved the active life, the excitement of ruling, as he did. William Fitzaudelin, the Irish marshal and a frequent attestor of the king's charters, is said to have been ‘ambitious for power at court’, and, although acquisitive, ‘loved the court no less than he did gold’ (Gerald of Wales, Expugnatio, 173). Henry understood these men. He managed them; they managed the dominion. And to contemporaries this king–duke stood above his predecessors.

Law and judicial administration under Henry II

Although sometimes distant from England, Henry II was never an uninterested manager. He is reported to have lain awake at nights working through in his mind the proper judicial language to give form to his ideas of government (De legibus, 3.25). Through a series of inquests and assizes (royal edicts acceded to by the barons in council) a coherent and centralized bureaucratic system, built on foundations laid by the Saxon and Norman kings, evolved. Sheriffs, other local officials, and even local landholders, were brought under scrutiny in 1170 to demonstrate that corruption on any level would no longer be tolerated while the king was absent on the continent. The assize of Northampton (1176) increased the powers of itinerant justices at the expense of the sheriffs, while the assize of the forest (1184) brought the regulation of forest offences, previously based largely on the king's whim, into the realm of customary law.

The possessory assizes made it easier for all the king's subjects, not just élites, to prosecute claims to lands and inheritances, lost, or withheld, within recorded memory or the memory of the local community. There were in the beginning four writs initiating actions under these assizes: novel disseisin, designed to answer the question of whether a plaintiff had been unjustly and without cause ejected from his freehold; mort d'ancestor, asking whether a plaintiff's ancestor had been possessed of disputed land, and whether the plaintiff was his heir; darrein presentment, which applied the principle of mort d'ancestor to ecclesiastical benefices, to ask who had last presented to a disputed living; and utrum, which sought to establish whether land was held by secular or spiritual services. These writs—which were the monopoly of the king's courts—and the quick proceedings they fostered allowed jurors to determine whether individuals had been in possession of a property (seisin) and unjustly dispossessed (disseisin), but not the actual legal property right in the matter. If the thornier issue of right was raised in court, as an alternative to the duel as the means of proof, there could be recourse (after 1179) to the ‘grand assize’ in which twelve knights of the shire carefully looked at descent as far back in time as possible to resolve the question of property rights, as opposed to who had recently had possession.

The inquest of knight service of 1166, recorded in documents as the Cartae baronum, was the first country-wide listing of knights' fees, and was used by Henry's exchequer to increase the potential yield from military taxation by a quarter to one-third. The ‘Saladin tithe’ (1188) represented an innovative attempt to raise money by taxing personal property. The assize of Arms (1181) revived the ancient Anglo-Saxon fyrd by fixing the level of military preparedness demanded of freeholders, not on the amount of land they had, but on their annual income. And the most momentous development of the reign, perhaps, can be found in the assize of Clarendon (1166) by which the principle of jury-inquest in criminal cases first came to be applied on a national level. According to this assize (which was reinforced at some points by that of Northampton ten years later) four lawful men brought together from every township, and twelve from every county hundred, were compelled to denounce before their sheriff, or the king's justices, all malefactors within their jurisdictions. The names of those who may have fled these jurisdictions were also recorded, and provisions outlined for their apprehension and trial. Suspects of particularly evil repute were to abjure the realm even if they succeeded in clearing themselves by the ordeal, which was still the normal means of proof in criminal cases. No special franchises were immune from the newly established presenting jury, later called the grand jury. Thus the kingdom's myriad competing feudal jurisdictions fell before a uniform royal judicial administration, which owed much of its effectiveness to the increasingly frequent and well-organized activities of the king's justices itinerant. Henry's thinking in this regard, only anti-baronial as far as it was pro-royal, may, ironically, have been influenced by the successes of a centralizing papal monarchy, knowledge of which the king had intimately, if painfully, acquired through his quarrel with Becket. But, while the papacy was busily erecting an imperial-like church bureaucracy, Henry II's managerial policy of involving juries at the local level in English affairs led more beneficially to what A. B. White has called ‘self-government at the king's command’.

Henry II and Magna Carta

Given these innovations, it is perhaps surprising that the later resentment of the Angevin system implicit in Magna Carta might have been fostered by Henry II's mastery of men and government. Certainly many of the barons at Runnymede in 1215 saw John's excesses as expansions of those of his father. Both the Waverley annalist and Ralph of Coggeshall link Henry with John in propagating the host of ‘evil customs’ addressed in the great charter. William of Newburgh, however, offers a somewhat more objective truth on this score. To William, the complaints about Henry's government in the king's own lifetime, warranted perhaps in the cases of forest fines and unduly long episcopal vacancies, understandably softened in later years, following exposure to the rule of his successors. Indeed, the predatory nature of English government in the fifty or sixty years on either side of the year 1200, as viewed by modern historians, is more illusionary than real, at least with regard to the upper classes. Recent analyses of military taxes and of scutages, under the Angevin kings, indicate that the wealthiest landowners were either forgiven their assessments or never assessed at all. A similar study of fines offered the crown for the control of heirs' estates in the period 1180–1212 shows procedures in place to protect the investment of custodians through favourable terms of mortgage with low or no annual payments. The nature of the financial burden placed on people lower down the social scale is less clear, though the sum of £12,305 collected by the exchequer from the forest assizes of 1175, an enormous amount for the time, was paid by smaller landholders, not magnates. Comparable evidence for the ‘Saladin tithe’ of 1188, the carucatage of 1198, and the seventh of 1203 is missing, but the thirteenth on incomes and moveables of 1207 brought in some £57,431, again mostly from churches and non-élites. It may well be, then, that the negotiators of Magna Carta tapped a collective anger in many who believed that Henry II was as culpable as John in driving the monarchy towards excess, whether or not the burden of the Angevin system actually fell equally on all English subjects.

Henry II's historical reputation and identity

Gerald of Wales, annalist of the Anglo-Angevin intervention in Ireland, regarded Henry II as ‘our Alexander of the West’ (Gerald of Wales, Topography of Ireland, 124). The author of the Dialogus de Scaccario, Richard fitz Nigel, bishop of London, wrote in his youth a history of Henry, now lost, titled Tricolumnis, wherein one of three columns chronicled his lord's noble deeds, ‘which are beyond belief’ (Dialogus, 27). Gerald of Wales, again, best gives perspective to contemporaries' perception of Henry's martial exploits:
he not only brought strong peace with the aid of God's grace to his hereditary dominions, but also triumphed victoriously in remote and foreign lands, a thing of which none of his predecessors since the coming of the Normans, not even the Saxon kings, had proved capable. (English Historical Documents, 2.410)
Gerald goes on to list these triumphs, beginning with the subjection of Ireland and the domination of Scotland through the capture of William the Lion, ‘contrary to anything that had ever happened before’. Gerald continues his account by noting the king–duke's vast French inheritances of Maine, Anjou, Touraine, Poitou, and Gascony, to which Henry had added the Vexin, the Auvergne, and Berry. The good-natured Louis VII, in Gerald's eyes, was no match for Henry II, who ‘even desired to extend into the Roman Empire, taking advantage of Frederick Barbarossa's troubles’ with his Italian subjects. The opening for expansion through the alpine valley of Maurienne almost came off with the ill-fated marriage contracted with Count Humbert for John. This proposed marriage, viewed against the background of the king–duke's marrying his daughters to the heirs of the duchy of Saxony, and the kingdoms of Castile and Sicily, suggests an imperialist bent to Henry II's outlook captured in a boast attributed to him by Gerald, that ‘the whole world was too small a prize for a single courageous and powerful ruler’ (English Historical Documents, 2.410). Henry's dreams of empire, present perhaps from early childhood, fired the imagination of courtiers like John, count of Eu, who went so far as to date a charter of 1155 ‘at Winchester in the year in which the conquest of Ireland was discussed’ (Flanagan, 305). And indeed, what William II had only boasted he would perform, Henry II achieved, as the first king of England both to visit and to claim authority in Ireland. At Henry's court nothing was beyond discussion for ambitious knights and clerics; with Henry II Plantagenet as their lord, all the world was within reach.

But who was Henry II? Richard the Poitevin derisively referred to him as the ‘King of the North Wind’ (Meade, 279). Less poetic, but more accurately, Ailred of Rievaulx called Henry the ‘cornerstone of the English and Norman races’ (Patrologia Latina, 195.711–38). Yet for modern historians Henry's identity—perhaps ethnicity is the better word—is problematic. He was ‘king of the English’ but spoke only French and Latin. To many modern legalists he is the father of the English common law, yet he is buried at the nunnery of Fontevrault in France, a land more influenced by Roman law. He spent the majority of his reign in Normandy, was schooled as a youth by William de Conches, the greatest Norman philosopher of his day, but is labelled ‘Henry of Anjou’ by twentieth-century writers. Early in life he adopted the title ‘Henry son of the Empress’ for worthwhile political reasons—his claim to the Anglo-Norman inheritance of Matilda, his mother—and rarely employed the name of his father, Geoffrey Plantagenet. Whereas William, Henry's youngest brother, changed the inscription on his seal after 1154 from ‘William son of Empress Matilda’, to ‘William brother of Henry King of England’, Henry remained known to the end of his life as ‘FitzEmpress’. The chronicler Roger of Howden, a member of Henry II's entourage, always refers to his lord king as ‘son of the Empress’ when describing the celebration of a Christmas court—December marking the beginning of Henry's regnal year as well as the traditional new year (Chronica … Hovedene, 1, 213 ff.). Even the distant annalist of Inisfallen, in recording the momentous events of 1171, wrote, ‘The son of the Empress came to Ireland and landed at Waterford’ (Flanagan, 174). Indeed, Henry II encouraged this identification with his mother, her ancestors, her former imperial station. Only later did his father Geoffrey's epithet ‘Plantagenet’ come to define the family and, with this definition, its first English king.

Modern English historians' thoughts on Henry II's reputation vary. To the Victorian William Stubbs, Henry stood with Alfred, Cnut, William the Conqueror, and Edward I as the ‘conscious creators of English greatness’ (Gesta … Benedicti, 2.xxxiii). Stepping back for a wider view of the stage on which Henry played, Stubbs lamented that the king's chance to lead a grand crusade, which ‘might have presented Europe to Asia in a guise which she has never yet assumed’, was ruined by a thankless wife, loveless children, and a pernicious French overlord (Gesta … Benedicti, 2.xix–xx)—a scenario given vivid visual expression for twentieth-century cinema-goers in Anthony Harvey's film The Lion in Winter (1968), in which Peter O'Toole plays King Henry with panache. A similarly wistful reflection on Henry's lost promise surfaces in W. L. Warren's sympathetic biography:
The course of history might have been radically different if Henry II, instead of devoting himself principally to the pursuit and exploitation of the rights of lordships which fell to him fortuitously, had turned his energies to forging the unity of the British Isles. (Warren, Henry II, 627–8)
That Henry could have done something more to change history, the history of the Middle East, the history of Ireland, had he been allowed and had he wished, shows the uncompromising faith of Stubbs and Warren in his greatness, his potential to be, as Gerald of Wales expressed it, truly the ‘Alexander of the West’. And behind this vision and these feelings lies a belief in the ability of the individual to determine history, a belief in great men. Historians such as Christopher Brooke and Frank Barlow agree, and yet there is dissent from those who disavow the ‘great man’ theory. For Bryce Lyon, the legal strides made in England during Henry's reign owed more to his choice of advisers than to Henry's own interest in or mastery of the law, while Michael Clanchy credits English constitutional development in this period to the impersonal force of the spreading use of the written word, a technological advance, the product not of English genius, but of a ‘brilliant time in Western Europe’ (Clanchy, 154, 158, 161). In the end, wherever historians focus their attention—on individuals or impersonal forces—the scope of Henry II's life and the records of his reign provide a tantalizing wealth of material to which they are sure to return again and again. Perhaps this is legacy enough.



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U. Cam., Angevin family Acta project


penny coin, BM · seals, BL · seals, TNA: PRO · tomb effigy, Fontevrault Abbey, France [see illus.] · tomb effigy, replica, V&A · wax seals, BM

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Henry II (1133–1189): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/12949