Henry II Plantagenet

Henry II Plantagenet
   Henry II was one of the most influential monarchs in English history. Renowned as the ruler of the vast Angevin empire that included most of France as well as England, Henry revolutionized the English legal system but became notorious for his role in the murder of Thomas BECKET, his archbishop of Canterbury.With his wife, ELEANOR OF AQUITAINE, Henry was an important patron of the arts. His final years, however, were troubled by wars with his own rebellious sons. King Henry II of England was born in Le Mans, France, the son of Geoffrey of Anjou and Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I. During Henry’s childhood, Geoffrey was fighting to secure Normandy as a part of his son’s heritage at the same time that his mother was fighting a civil war with King Stephen over the English throne. He became duke of Normandy upon the death of his father in 1151 and went to Paris to do homage for his fief to King Louis VII. Louis’s queen, Eleanor, fell in love with the young duke. Shortly thereafter her marriage to Louis was annulled, and almost immediately she married Henry, bringing with her the duchy of Aquitaine, which she held in her own right.
   In 1153, Henry took a large force to England, where he intended to do battle with Stephen. But Stephen, disillusioned by the death of his own son, Eustace, agreed to the Treaty of Winchester, recognizing Henry as his heir. The following year, upon Stephen’s death, Henry became king of England. Within just six weeks, he had pacified the country. He then set about to reform the English legal system, using itinerant justices and other royal officials to control local sheriffs and other courts. He instituted trial by jury in England, and also introduced grand juries to indict those accused of certain types of crimes. These legal reforms are what led to his conflict with his old friend and former chancellor, Thomas Becket, who, as archbishop of Canterbury, opposed legal reforms by which Henry seemed to encroach on the rights of the church.When in frustration Henry wished for someone to rid him of the “meddlesome priest,” four of his knights murdered Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170. That same year, he had crowned his eldest son Henry III in his own lifetime, hoping to avoid any question about succession after his death. Blamed for Becket’s murder, Henry traveled to Ireland the following year and subjugated it to Norman rule, ostensibly to extend the authority of the church but, in fact, to extend his own hegemony. In his absence, however, Queen Eleanor was conspiring with his sons Henry, Geoffrey, and Richard (the future RICHARD I) to usurp his throne, the newly crowned heir finding it difficult to wait to assume real power. Aided by King Louis, the three sons attacked Normandy in 1173. Henry imprisoned Eleanor and put down the rebellion, pardoning his sons. In the meantime, combating the sense that his misfortunes were the “revenge of Becket,”Henry decided in July 1174 to do public penance at Becket’s tomb, allowing himself to be scourged by an assemblage of bishops, abbots, and monks.
   In 1186, the young Henry rebelled again, this time with the encouragement of the new French king, Philip II Augustus, but young Henry died of dysentery, and with him died the rebellion.With the intent of naming his youngest son, John, his new heir, Henry demanded that Richard give over control of Aquitaine, which his mother had ceded to him. Richard, who had been heir apparent after his older brother’s death, now in 1188 began his own rebellion, aided by Philip. A very ill Henry was forced to give in to all of their demands, at the same time learning that John had also joined the rebellion. He died in 1189, cared for by his bastard son Geoffrey, the only one who had remained loyal to him. In addition to his accomplishments of centralizing royal power and reforming the court system, Henry,with his wife Eleanor, was an important patron of literary artists. The LAIS ofMARIE DE FRANCE are addressed to Henry. The Anglo-Norman poet WACE seems to have written his Roman de Brut (1155) for Henry and Eleanor’s court, and Henry is known to have also commissioned Wace to write his Roman de Rou (1160–74), though he ultimately withdrew the commission. The TROUBADOUR BERNART DE VENTADORN is known to have written verse for Eleanor, and another troubadour, BERTRAN DE BORN, is known to have been involved in the young Henry’s rebellion.
   ■ Appleby, John Tate. Henry II: The Vanquished King. New York:Macmillan, 1962.
   ■ Barber, Richard. Henry Plantagenet: A Biography. New York: Roy Publishers, 1967.
   ■ Gillingham, John. The Angevin Empire. 2nd ed. London: Arnold, 2001.
   ■ Warren,W. L. Henry II. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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