In the traditional picture of English history Henry II is seen as one of the founders of modern English government, along with his grandfather Henry I. In between, according to the traditional view, we had the aberration of King Stephen, who let England slide into civil war before Henry II put things back on course again. This picture of history was painted largely in the 1860s by historian William Stubbs and his followers at Oxford. Stubbs was a priest, and for him history was "the place in which God's plan was acted out" (The Reign of King Stephen by David Crouch P3). He saw history as leading ultimately to a good outcome, though events might unfortunately be derailed from time to time by unstable forces. Henry II was a hero to Stubbs, a man who got England on its destined road towards modern government. This view has been very influential, perhaps because we like to think that people are in charge of history. The 1860s, however, also saw Leo Tolstoy writing War and Peace. In contrast to Stubbs' view, War and Peace portrayed history in charge of people. In Tolstoy's story Napoleon not so much invaded Russia as was dragged there by circumstance (See War and Peace, Epilogue, P1421). Today the Stubbs view of history is still influential. Politicians still give speeches in which they promise to change the world. But the history of Henry II, however, shows that people have less control than they think.
Henry II was born in Le Mans on 5th March 1133, son of Geoffrey of Anjou and Matilda, daughter of Henry I. Some attention seems to have been paid to his education. He is supposed to have studied with Peter of Saintes, someone called Master Matthew, and a leading scholar, William of Conches. These educational details aside, Henry's childhood was lived in the shadow of his mother's struggle to take the throne of England. As daughter and nominated successor of Henry I she felt her claim was strong. But Stephen, a grandson of William the Conqueror had got to England first following the death of Henry I. Stephen had seized the moment, and as a man he had support from those who did not want to see a woman on the throne. Acting quickly Stephen managed to get himself crowned king of England, and Matilda had struggled for what she felt was her birthright ever since.
From an early age young Henry threw himself into mad adventures on his mother's behalf. In November 1142 Matilda was trapped in Oxford Castle. Henry aged nine was brought to England, seemingly to act as a figurehead on a march to rescue his mother. After a dangerous winter crossing of the Channel, and a landing at Wareham, the rescue mission proved unnecessary when Matilda escaped from Oxford. Henry returned to Normandy. Back in Normandy Geoffrey of Anjou began preparing his son for leadership. But Henry was an impatient youth. In 1147 in what seems to have been a private venture, fourteen year old Henry gathered a few companions, hired a small group of mercenaries on credit, and set off for England. Rumour and fear made Henry's army many times bigger than it actually was. Nobody thought Matilda's son would just turn up in England and make a grab at the throne with a few friends and some mercenaries he couldn't afford to pay. There had to be a masterplan. Panic spread amongst the royal army as Henry 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. Henry's men started to run away, and his mercenaries demanded their money. The young man appealed to his mother, and his uncle Earl Robert for help, but both refused. Henry then made a cheeky request for money to his other uncle, King Stephen of England, the man he had come to help overthrow! Stephen, surprisingly paid the boy off and sent him back to Normandy. Perhaps this was an illustration of Stephen's much talked about weakness. Perhaps it could also be seen as a message that here was a silly boy who was not worth worrying about, and who ought to go home.
On 7th September 1151 Henry's father Geoffrey of Anjou died. Matilda by now had given up on her dream of monarchy, and passed on the torch to her son. Henry quickly consolidated his position in Normandy with determined military force. He also married Eleanor of Aquitane on 8th May 1152. Eleanor had been the wife of Louis VII of France, but had been divorced after failing to produce sons. Henry quickly snapped her up, gaining significant enhancement to his reputation in the process. Meanwhile in England Stephen and his son Eustace were making determined attempts to defeat those who felt Henry had a valid claim to the throne. Wallingford was under siege and about to fall. Henry sailed for England, crossing the Channel in January 1153. According to his biographer W.L. Warren, this was a daring and carefully planned operation, the sea crossing 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 Henry simply wanted to sail along the Normandy coast with his small force. The mid-winter gale which Warren sees Henry 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. Henry picked himself up on that Dorset beach, tried to look dignified, and pretended this fiasco was all part of a plan.
In the campaign that followed it seems that Henry's pretence of a plan took in many Englishmen, and many historians for that matter. Inspite of his small force, events seemed to be heading his way. Henry took Malmesbury with a surprise attack. The royal army sent to relieve the castle was demoralised by freezing weather, and was unsuccessful. Then at Wallingford Stephen had a real chance to defeat Henry, but his army refused to fight. After many years of civil war it seemed the time had come for peace. England's barons started negotiations amongst themselves. King Stephen met Henry at Winchester on 6th November 1153. An agreement was reached between them where Henry submitted to Stephen, and Stephen agreed that Henry would succeed him. There wasn't long to wait. Stephen died at Dover Priory on 25th October 1154, and after finishing the defeat of a rebel castle in Normandy, Henry crossed the Channel on 7th December, and was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey on 19th December. The new king was someone, it is claimed, who moulded his fate, but in the early days of his reign events were running with him. His succession was unopposed, unlike poor King Stephen who had to struggle with Matilda. Secondly the barons were tired of fighting. Even W.L. Warren the portrayer of Henry as master of his destiny is clear about these advantages: "The widespread desire for an end to disorder enabled Henry II to take bold decisions for the restoration of royal authority which at any time were unpalatable, and which at any other time would have been unsupportable" (Henry II by W.L. Warren P57).
England was simply ready to submit to Henry. Wales was a different matter. In the summer of 1157 a combined land and sea attack was mounted in north Wales. The chronicler Gervase of Canterbury wrote that Henry advanced with "more dash than prudence" (quoted Warren P70) and was trapped in an ambush at Flint. Several barons were killed, and Henry had to fight his way out. If Henry had been killed here, which could easily have happened, he would have gone down as a footnote in history illustrating the dangers of reckless risk taking. As it was he survived to be described by biographers as in command of every situation. Who knows why history runs the way it does, but it seems clear that Henry was riding a wave in these early years. As Shakespeare says in Julius Caesar: " There's a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune" (Act 4 Scene 3).
In four years Henry II had recovered all of the territories in England and Normandy that his grandfather had held. Then the tide seemed to turn, and events started to go against the king. One of the main reasons for this was Thomas Becket. This strange, vain and energetic man was made chancellor, but lost favour when he strongly supported an unsuccessful military attack on Toulouse. Becket was moved to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury in 1161. It seems he then harboured considerable bitterness about this loss of position at the centre of power. Becket was spoiling for a fight, and decided to make the most of what power was to be had as archbishop. In May 1163 an issue was found that would serve Becket's purpose. Henry was concerned that members of the clergy who committed violent crime were immune from secular prosecution. Becket argued for the immunity of clergy from all secular jurisdiction, in all circumstances. The bishops, fearing to admit a loophole in their carefully guarded rights, supported Becket. But Henry fought on, and by October 1164 Becket was being charged with contempt of court. The bishops were now torn between their king and their archbishop who they were now seeing as unstable and provocative. They persuaded Henry to ask the pope to intervene to depose Becket. Becket responded by fleeing abroad, and attempted to convince the pope that Henry wanted to destroy Church authority.
Canterbury Cathedral, Kent
In 1170, the king's eldest son Henry the Younger was crowned at Westminster Abbey by the Archbishop of York. This youth was being crowned in his father's lifetime to avoid succession problems.Coronations were usually the job of the Archbishop of Canterbury, so using someone else would, it was hoped, shock Becket into submission. Initially Henry's plan seemed to work, and a chastened Becket took the offer of safe return to England. Meanwhile Henry struggled to recover from serious illness, and busied himself in the relentless business of fighting his rivals. He was facing the French army on the road to Bourges when news came that Becket having returned to England an apparently chastened man, was now parading himself around like a victor. Henry may not have said "who will rid me of this turbulent priest," but some words to that effect were muttered in anger. This was enough for four knights to slip away unobserved and head for Canterbury, where they murdered Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December 1170. So much for being in charge of every situation. Hearing about the murder at Argenta on 5th January 1171, Henry shut himself away for three days. Arnulf of Lisieux wrote in a letter of his fears for the king's sanity. The French king tried to take advantage of Henry's misfortune by writing to the pope and demanding that "the sword of St Peter be unleashed to avenge the martyr of Canterbury". The pope, however, acted with restraint. Perhaps he was quietly glad to see the end of Becket. Henry was not excommunicated. He just kept his head down for a few years, dealt with a rebellion in Ireland, and was formally granted absolution in the spring of 1172. Even so Henry now had to fight the myth of St Thomas, and there was no controlling such a thing. After this Warren says Henry became more "pragmatic". He was no longer that fourteen year old boy who had arrived in England with a few knights assuming he could rule the world.
1172 may have seen an easing of problems with the Church, but 1173 saw the outbreak of power struggles between the king and his sons. Henry the Younger, impressed by his coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey, now wanted power. This feckless eighteen year old wanted England, or Normandy or Anjou. Father said no. Eleanor, the queen chose to support her son over her husband, and had to be arrested. Soon the situation was getting out of hand as four powerful earls switched their allegiance to Henry the Younger. Powerful figures in Normandy did the same. Fighting broke out in Normandy in May 1173. In England there was fighting around the rebel stronghold of Leicester. Then Earl Robert of Leicester shipped a force of mercenaries to Suffolk where he was supported by Earl Bigod. Henry's predecessor Stephen has gone down in history as the monarch who let England slip into "The Anarchy" of civil war. But Henry II, who was supposed to put it all on track again, was now fighting his own civil war. There are a number of ironic parallels between the civil wars of Stephen and Henry. For example Stephen is often criticised for not giving enough support to the barons who lived in the border region with Wales. This, apparently demonstrated his ineptness. But Henry, whose reputation as a king is so much higher than Stephen, also finds himself fighting a civil war after losing the support of the same border, or "marcher" barons: "Generally speaking those who openly rebelled were the... marcher barons whose independence and status had declined, and those who felt they gained less than their due from Henry II" (W.L. Warren P122 - 123). Warren is talking of his beloved Henry here. He could just as well be talking about the maligned Stephen.
View of the Channel from Admiralty Casement, Dover Castle, Kent
The attack in Suffolk was beaten off, but then in spring 1174 an attack came from William of Scotland, in alliance with northern rebels led by Roger de Morbray. Once again Henry narrowly survived, only to find himself fighting another attack from Philip of Flanders who had invaded with the help of Hugh Bigod. Rebel soldiers captured Norwich, and things looked very precarious for the king. A desperate Henry reacted by going to Canterbury and staging a symbolic penance at Thomas Becket's tomb. After this things went better for Henry, and of course the improvement was put down to God's approval of the royal display of penitence. In July 1174 William of Scotland was captured when his force, quite by luck, was caught unprepared near Alnwick Castle. Then between August and September 1174 the threat from King Louis in Normandy was defeated. Somehow Henry had survived the civil war. He was magnanimous in victory, resisting all calls for execution of rivals. Instead he set about demolishing the castles of rebel barons. Castles that survived demolition were swapped around between barons in an attempt to make sure that no castle became too closely associated with an individual. Henry is often credited with laying the foundation for England's government and legal system, and in his effort to make sure that all castles were at the King's disposal perhaps we can discern a shift. Castles until this time tended to reflect the power of individuals. Following Henry's reign they became more associated with the government in general. Thousands of pounds went into building Henry's ambitious Newcastle Castle Keep and Dover Castle as state castles. At the end of Henry's reign, the Jews of York, threatened by rioting bigots fled to York's government castle, Clifford's Tower hoping for protection. In these events we see government beginning to exist as something separate from powerful individuals. There are also hints that government was moving away from an activity centred solely on the king. The machinery of government was taking on an independent existence, as seen in the founding of permanent law courts at Westminster Hall. Henry delegated power to viceroys, who could act within an administrative framework, but did not have to clear every decision with the king. This was a risky policy since it was clear that people to whom the king delegated power tended to want more. But Henry had no choice. He was old, and tired, and the world seemed ready for such an approach. As usual, though, this wasn't a plan. It was more an evolution from circumstances that at the time saw Henry simply hanging on and hoping for the best.
Henry spent his last years in endless squabbles with his sons, who continued to demand power. This did not end with the death of Henry the Younger in June 1183. His next oldest son Richard decided to ally himself with the French king, Philip and attack Anjou. This was too much for Henry. His sons were "real bastards" according to chroniclers quoted by Simon Schama in A History of Britain. The king died exhausted and disillusioned at Chinon on 6th of July 1189. To the end Henry was buffeted by circumstance. Amazingly he became known to history as a man who directed destiny.