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Talk to most people about which British monarch was 'the best' and you're likely to get the same shortlist of the usual suspects: Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria or even our present Queen. Well there is one other contender for 'best English monarch' - a man who is practically unknown to most people today.
His children, Richard and John, are both much more well-remembered than he is (thanks to the Robin Hood legend, in no small part), and even his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket1, is more famous today. So how did a king whose life story was packed to the brim with revolution, back-biting and rebellion get so easily forgotten? How did this man - who more than doubled the size of the land ruled by the King of England - end up less well-known than his own children, who became little more than self-obsessed squabbling failures? In short, why does nobody remember Henry II?
Henry II really is one of the strongest ever candidates for the 'greatest monarch in English history' crown. His achievements in law, politics and war were staggeringly wide-ranging and many endure to this very day. He managed to turn the role of King of England from that of a parochial baronial chief into what we traditionally might recognise as a 'king'. At the start of his reign, the English king was essentially in charge of what we would today consider to be England (funny that!); yet at his peak, Henry ruled an empire that stretched from the Scottish borders all the way down to the Pyrénées and included western France and parts of Ireland. Not bad for somebody who is only remembered by history buffs nowadays.
She's a Killer Queen
Henry was born on 5 March, 1133, the son of Geoffrey, Count of Anjou and Maine, and the Empress Matilda. Matilda was the daughter of King Henry I (who had ruled England from 1100 to 1135), and following her father's death (as the only surviving heir) she was expecting to inherit the throne. Owing to the reluctance of many of the nobles to support a female as monarch, the throne went to her cousin Stephen, someone who by all accounts was a nice guy but a bit of a rubbish king. During Stephen's reign, Matilda did everything she could to try and usurp him - indeed, in June, 1141, Matilda and her armies captured Stephen and deposed him. She was just about to be crowned the first female monarch of England when she raised taxes on her new subjects by such a dramatic degree that the outraged population of London rose up and threw her out, reinstating Stephen. Matilda - realising that she would probably never have the throne for herself - decided to divert her energies into ensuring that her son Henry would become the next king of England. After the death of Stephen's only possible heir Eustace in 1153, Matilda didn't have long to wait for her son to ascend to the throne. Stephen died the following year and on 19 December, 1154, Henry II was crowned in Westminster Abbey.
A point worthy of note here is that historically speaking, Henry II was the first monarch to be described as King of England as opposed to the previous preferred description, 'King of the English', thereby making him the 'first King of England'.
I Fought the Law and the Law Won
For the institution of the monarchy, Stephen's reign had been an utter disaster. Because Stephen had been very lax at dealing with rebellious and frankly impudent barons and nobles, the control that the king had over his realm had diminished. Henry saw this as his first priority - to gain control over his servants. He embarked on a campaign of demolishing castles that had been built without the authorisation of the throne and he introduced the first-ever form of taxation of his 'vassals' as a method of replacing the traditional form of service - joining the king's army. He simultaneously introduced a wide-ranging form of record-keeping in order to ensure that all of these taxes were carefully checked and collected on a regular basis.
Perhaps the biggest legacy that Henry II left to the English was the introduction of the very first proper legal system as we now know it2. Prior to Henry, the law in Britain had been very piecemeal, with trial by ordeal and trial by combat largely being used to settle disputes. Henry introduced a new series of courts around the country which he used to enforce his own rules and regulations through local magistrates, enabling these people to pass decisions on the law in the name of the king. During his reign, the first ever legal textbook was written, forming the basis of what we know today as the common law. Furthermore, Henry was responsible for the creation of the system of 12 jurors sitting in judgment of their fellow men, a system which survives to the present day.
Henry's family was a source of both immense pride and enormous woe for him. Two years before becoming king, he married the powerful, beautiful and rather wilful Eleanor of Aquitaine. They were blessed with eight children - five boys and three girls. Henry's favourite son was the eldest, also called Henry. He invested a great deal of time and love in his son and heir and even had him crowned as 'future king' in 1170 so as to prevent any squabbles over who was the rightful heir (in fact, Henry II's eldest son is sometimes referred to as 'Henry the Young King' - despite the fact he was never fortunate enough to actually ascend to the throne). However Henry's plans were sadly to come to nothing, because young Henry died in 1183, leaving his father distraught. The right of accession then passed to the next eldest son, Richard - the man who would gain the nickname 'Lionheart'.
Normally, this would have caused Henry few sleepless nights. However, he had by this stage of his reign fallen out with his wife Eleanor, partly because of a long-term affair he had enjoyed with Rosamund Clifford. When his marriage to Eleanor finally broke down in 1174, Henry made an attempt to marry Alice, the daughter of King Louis VII of France (Louis had actually been Eleanor's first husband until they divorced after she fell in love with Henry!). However, Alice was already engaged to Henry's son Richard. Such behaviour simultaneously alienated Eleanor, Louis and Richard and started to drive a wedge between Henry and all of his children. Soon, Henry's children would attract the nickname 'The Devil's Brood' - a rather emotive but quite accurate description of how they undermined their father. And always, behind the scenes, pulling the strings and encouraging the rebellion, was Eleanor of Aquitaine. Following the breakdown in her marriage, Eleanor refused to hand over to Henry the lands she had brought to the marriage - as far as she was concerned, they were hers to give away, not her husband's.
In order to win back the loyalty and allegiance of his sons, Henry decided to confer titles upon them, granting them nominal control of many of his territories. However Henry didn't count on his sons usurping his control and turning on him - all actively encouraged by Eleanor, of course. To add insult to injury, none of Henry's sons particularly liked each other, and often turned on each other too - truly a nest of vipers.
The Church and the Crown
Henry II didn't just have trouble with his family - he had huge squabbles with the church, which culminated in one of the most shocking incidents between the Church and the Crown in English history. Things began when Henry started to assert his authority over the courts throughout the land. With the arrival of Henry's courts, the power and influence of the Church over the affairs of common people began to diminish. When the Archbishop of Canterbury died in 1162, Henry appointed one of his best friends and drinking partners to the post - a man called Thomas Becket. Henry fully expected his rabble-rousing friend to behave himself and to defer to the King on most matters - but Henry was in for a major shock. Thomas underwent an astounding change of character upon becoming Archbishop and became what we would perhaps now call a 'born-again' fundamentalist.
Henry and Thomas's first major falling out came over the issue of ecclesiastical courts. Since the establishment of the local magistrate courts, priests and clerics were shocked to discover that they were no longer protected by the church. Previously, they could only ever be tried of crimes by an ecclesiastical court, but Henry introduced a law meaning that 'criminous clerks' could be tried in royal courts just like everyone else. Becket refused to allow this, pointing out that men of the church should not have to answer to secular courts. Becket fled England in 1164 and went to lobby for the support of both the Pope and the King of France. Some six years passed before the Pope negotiated a truce between the two men and Becket was permitted to return to England in early 1170. However, shortly after his return, the two fell out yet again. Becket took it upon himself to excommunicate3 all of the English bishops who had supported Henry during their squabble, thereby enraging both the king and reopening many of the old wounds that had barely begun to heal.
Legend tells it that upon hearing of Becket's latest bad behaviour, Henry snarled to his court:
Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?
Four knights, perhaps on Henry's direct instruction, or perhaps hoping to curry favour with the king, decided to do just that. They travelled down from London to Canterbury and on 29 December, 1170 hacked Becket to death in front of the main altar of Canterbury Cathedral. Full of guilt and remorse for his actions, Henry agreed to the penance imposed by the Pope - he gave way on the issue of 'criminous clerks' being only tried in church courts and paraded in sack-cloth and ashes in front of Canterbury Cathedral where he was flogged by the monks.
Get Yer Souvenir Blood-Stained Surplices 'ere!
Becket soon became known as a martyr for the church, and Canterbury Cathedral became a spot of pilgrimage where many miracles were said to have taken place. Just three and a half years later, the cathedral burnt to the ground, but the donations by pilgrims and sales of souvenirs over the next few hundred years to see the spot where Thomas Becket was martyred, paid for the rebuilding of the beautiful cathedral which is still drawing the crowds in Canterbury to this very day.
By 1189, Henry's days were numbered. He was engaged in a huge conflict in Normandy with his own son Richard. During previous skirmishes with his own family members, Henry had never known the King of France to campaign directly against him - however, on this occasion, Richard was fighting alongside King Philip II of France. Henry was attacked and his army defeated on 4 July, 1189; he died two days later at Chinon. He was 56, and although he apparently died of natural causes (blood poisoning), it is likely that the betrayal and pain he felt after having been defeated by his own son played a major part in his demise. His final words are supposed to have been:
Shame - shame on a conquered king.
Henry was succeeded by his son Richard I ('The Lionheart') who would rule for the next ten years. Henry's youngest son John would inherit the throne from Richard, leading England through a period of history in which many of the fine works and notable achievements his father had been responsible for would be carelessly thrown away. But that, as they say, is another story...