Henry II - King of England

Henry II - King of England
Henry II - King of England

Henry II was the first of the Plantagenet kings of England, reigning from 1154 to 1189. He was born in 1133 in LeMans, France. From his mother, Matilda, he inherited a claim to the English throne, as she was the daughter of Henry I of England (r. 1100–35). From his father, Geoffrey, he gained the titles of count of Anjou and duke of Normandy, in France.

His power and influence in France were considerably enhanced in May 1152 when he married Eleanor, duchess of Aquitaine, who two months earlier had divorced King Louis VII of France. Eleanor’s lands included Aquitaine, Tourraine, and Gascony. Together, Henry and Eleanor controlled more land in France than did the French king, from whom Henry nominally held the duchy of Normandy as his vassal.

Henry’s ascension to the English throne was not easy because the Crown had been usurped by Stephen of Blois (1135–54) upon the death of Henry I. King Stephen I fought Matilda and Henry vigorously, but when his son and heir died, Stephen agreed to terms that allowed Henry to ascend to the throne after his reign ended.


Henry did so in October 1154 at age 21, and then quickly moved to establish his authority over the feudal lords of the realm, demanding that they tear down their illicit castles and fortification built under Stephen.

Henry’s goal was to restore royal power and prerogatives to what they had been under his grandfather, Henry I. He succeeded in reviving several royal institutions that Henry I had established, most notably the system of royal justice and the exchequer.

In the case of the former, he pushed the system of royal justices riding circuit throughout England into a powerful tool through which he earned the loyalty of the freemen and burghers of the realm. His courts used a standardized or “common” law throughout the realm, providing a welcomed alternative to the courts presided over by the local feudal lords, who were notorious for protecting their own interests.

Henry’s judicial system utilized a jury of 12 sworn men who testified concerning criminal activity or contentious issues in their locale. These elements of royal justice were codified by the Assize of Clarendon in 1166. Another major innovation under Henry was the paying of “scutage” or a monetary fee in lieu of military service by a vassal of the king.

Not only did this system enhance royal revenues, it made the king less reliant upon the feudal levy when going to war. While Henry was still very much a feudal king and the government dependent upon his forceful and energetic personality, his reforms put into place a solid royal bureaucracy, which, under his Plantagenet successors, would give a tremendous degree of stability to the English monarchy.

Henry’s efforts to extend royal justice to include the English clergy met with considerable resistance by Thomas Becket, his onetime friend and chancellor. Appointed archbishop of Canterbury in 1162 by Henry, Becket surprised the king by defending the independence of ecclesiastical courts and the immunity of the clergy from royal justice. Henry issued the Constitutions of Clarendon in 1164, which reaffirmed the right of the king to punish “criminous clerks,” and forced Becket to sign the document.

Shortly thereafter, Becket fled the realm (1164) only to return in 1170. When he again began to oppose the king over the issue of royal versus ecclesiastical authority, he was murdered by four of Henry’s vassals. Public sentiment swung against Henry at this point, and he was forced to back down, agreeing to allow clergy to be both tried and sentenced in ecclesiastical courts.

In his later life Henry faced numerous rebellions by Eleanor and his sons, mostly of his own making. His long-running extramarital affairs enraged Eleanor, and his attempts to strip Eleanor and his son Richard of Aquitaine led to open conflict in 1173–74. War again broke out between the king and his sons Richard and John in 1189, which concluded with the defeat of the king. He died shortly thereafter on July 4, 1189.