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The Plantagenets 1154 - 1216

Governments throughout history have liked to give the impression that they are in control. In Shakespeare's Hamlet, evil King Claudius has to hurriedly send Hamlet to England, but he makes sure to give the impression of having planned the journey for some time. The accession of Henri Fitzempress Plantagenet, first of the Plantagenet kings, might have been a very similar story.

Henri, the son of the Count of Anjou, knew that King Stephen of England, was vulnerable after years of civil war. It was also clear that Henri had a legitimate claim to the English throne through his mother Matilda, daughter of the former English king, Henry I. According to his biographer W.L. Warren, in January 1153 Henri organised a daring and carefully planned operation to invade England. The sea crossing was made with bravery and determination inspite of a severe mid-winter gale. Warren sees his man as someone who "never allowed himself to become the victim of circumstances" (Henry II P49). But according to other authors, Norman Davies in The Isles for example, Henry didn't even intend to go to England at all in January 1153. Davies claims there is evidence to show that Henri simply wanted to sail along the Normandy coast with his small force. The mid-winter gale which Warren sees Henri bravely defying actually, in the view of Davis, blew the helpless Norman ships across the Channel and dumped them on an English beach somewhere in Dorset. The fact that Henri's force was small tends to lend weight to the idea that this wasn't initially an invasion attempt. Henri only had 140 knights and around 3000 foot solders with him, not much to subdue a country. It would also be a very unusual decision to try and make a sea bourne invasion in January, crossing a rough stretch of water in unpredictable sailing ships. In Davies' version of events Henri picked himself up on a Dorset beach, tried to look dignified, and pretended this fiasco was all part of a plan. Whether Warren or Davis are correct, or whether reality fell somewhere between the two versions, it is often the case that history is portrayed as more organised than it really is. To say, as Warren does, that Henry II, or anyone else, is never the victim of circumstance is ridiculous. Indeed Tolstoy, in his great historical novel War and Peace, had a view that the more apparently powerful a person seems to be, the more a web of circumstance converges upon them, the less powerful they are. We often see power where it does not exist, in our fears of what other people can do. Henri himself had experienced this effect. As a fourteen year old boy he had set off for England with a few friends and mercenaries he could not pay, hoping to support his mother's struggle against King Stephen. Nobody thought Matilda's son would just turn up in England with a few friends and some unpaid mercenaries. There had to be a master plan. Panic spread amongst the royal army as Henri and his Monty Python force tried to take Crickdale and Purton Castles. Finally the royal army realised what they were dealing with, and began to fight properly. Perhaps a similar thing happened in 1153, except this time the royal army did not pull itself together, and failed to realise they were facing a man who had been washed up in Dorset by mistake.


Canterbury Cathedral

Whether by accident or design, or the usual mixture of both, Henri Fitzempress Plantagenet became Henry II in 1154. The flag of the Plantagenets featured three lions, and those lions remain associated with England to this day. It is three Plantagenet lions that adorn England football shirts.

Henry II was an energetic king who spent a great deal of time travelling around his kingdom. Some of the tensions of his reign are revealed at the remarkable polygonal Orford Castle in Suffolk. This castle seems to protect the kingdom against invasion from the sea. In reality it was protecting the kingdom against invasion by mercenaries hired by rebellious East Anglian barons. The many sided castle seems to see trouble in every direction, and this was true of Henry's reign. As well as facing political enemies, Henry also struggled with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket over control of the church. In 1170 some careless words from Henry led to Becket being murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. Pilgrims began flocking to Canterbury in Kent after Becket was canonised in 1172. The usual pilgrimage route followed Becket's last journey, from Southwark Cathedral to Canterbury. The Eastbridge Hospital founded to provide accommodation for poorer pilgrims once they reached Canterbury still survives, and can be visited in Canterbury High Street, Kent.

Henry had five sons and three daughters with his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and a dozen illegitimate children with a number of women, including the fiance of his son Richard. Perhaps unsurprisingly father and sons did not get on. Henry spent his last years fighting wars with Richard. Read more on our Henry II page.

Statue of Richard I outside the Houses of Parliament

In 1189 Henry was succeeded by Richard, known as Coeur de Lion, or "Lion Heart". Richard spent ten years as king, and was only in England for six months. The rest of the time he was away fighting crusades in the Holy Land, struggling to engage with elusive enemies, and starting battles with allies to ease the frustration. The Trip to Jerusalem Inn where some of Richard's knights and men at arms found accommodation still exists below Nottingham Castle. Nottingham was one of Richard's favourite castles, which he took from his brother Jean Sans Terre, using siege tactics in 1194. Many historians have condemned Richard for his long absences from England, and for his obsession with war. In other histories he remains a colourful hero. Read more on our Richard the Lionheart page.

In 1199 Richard was succeeded by Henry II's youngest son Jean Sans Terre, known as King John. John has a reputation as an evil king, but he is in fact one of the most interesting and misunderstood of English monarchs. Self interested nobles forced the signing of the Magna Carta in a meadow called Ranimed, or Runnymede near Windsor in June 1215, where a memorial now stands. This is seen as the revolutionary foundation of civil liberties, particularly in the United States. In fact it was an attempt by the nobility to protect their traditional rights of inherited authority. History is not a climb up a ladder. Often effort in one direction, will result in development in another. As we saw in the conflicting accounts of Henry's succession to the throne, history is often a lot more messy than we think.