Henry II Plantagenet, surnamed Curtmantle, was the grandson of Henry I of England, and great-grandson of William the Conqueror His mother, the Empress Matilda, had been in line to inherit the English throne, but it had been usurped by her cousin Stephen of Blois. He was born at Le Mans on 25 May 1133, an auspicious day as it was traditionally considered to be the start of the new year.
Henry’s Early Life and Acquisition of the Throne of England
At the young age of 15, Henry was ceded his father’s title and became Duke of Anjou and Maine. His father Geoffrey left for Palestine, and later became King of Jerusalem by marriage.
Henry was determined to recover his birthright, and invaded England with the aid of his mother and uncle, Robert, Duke of Gloucester – a bastard son of Henry I. This invasion was unsuccessful and Henry returned to his base in Normandy.
In 1149 he was knighted by his great-uncle – King David of Scotland – and in 1152, consolidated his position by marrying Eleanor of Aquitane, heiress of Aquitane and Poitiers, and recently divorced wife of the French king. The marriage of the two was hasty and without pomp and splendour, but it increased Henry’s French lands to the extent that he held more land than the French King himself.
In 1153 Henry invaded England again and managed to secure for himself his place in succession after Stephen. Stephen died in late 1154, and Henry was crowned at Westminster Abbey – the first king to be crowned King of England – as opposed to King of the English.
Henry’s marriage naturally brought him into conflict with the French king, Louis. Not only did Henry owe Louis homage for his French lands, but he had married the wife that Louis had set aside for failing to produce a male heir – the wife that despite being so much older than Henry, had already given birth to a son.
Henry ruled his French and English lands with a firm grip – a relief from the period of unrest during Stephen’s reign. A period recorded by the chroniclers as being a time ‘when Christ and his Saints slept’. The young couple also went to work at filling the royal nursery, and soon had a thriving and quarrelsome young family.
Henry’s Marriage and Family
Their first son had died early, but Henry had his second son – another Henry – crowned during his lifetime, following continental custom. The would soon bring him into conflict with his erstwhile best friend, Thomas a Becket, ex Chancellor, and now Archbishop of Canterbury.
The next son Richard, eventually known as the Lionhearted, was Eleanor’s favourite son and he inherited her domains in France, becoming Duke of Aquitane at a rather early age. This also led to bitter conflict between Richard, his father and his brothers.
The fourth son, Geoffrey, was betrothed to the young Countess Constance of Brittany, a ward of Eleanor’s, while the youngest son John was nicknamed ‘Lackland’ for lack of patrimony.
The Martyrdom of Thomas Becket
The quarrel between Henry and Thomas a Becket began after Henry the Young King was crowned. Thomas disagreed with this practice, and so had refused to crown the young king – a traditional duty of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry had therefore had the Archbishop of York crown his son, which enraged Thomas.
Henry had also expected his old friend to support him as wholeheartedly as he had when he was still Chancellor, and was unpleasantly surprised when Thomas put the church before secular affairs.
Thomas was briefly exiled, and England lay under threat of excommunication, while the Archbishop remained at the French Court of Louis VII, Henry’s old nemesis. Louis however managed to effect a reconciliation between the two men, and Thomas returned to England.
Peace was not to last long however; when Thomas attempted to excommunicate the primates that had performed Young Henry’s coronation, Henry II was heard to exclaim “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?”
This complaint was taken as an order by four of Henry’s knights, who promptly rushed off to Canterbury and brutally murdered the Archbishop inside the cathedral. This act sent shock waves throughout Europe, and haunted Henry for the rest of his life. He publicly repented of his hasty speech, and allowed himself to be publicly flogged by monks as he walked through London.