Henry II

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Henry II (1133-89) was King of England (1154-89).

Henry was one of the most able of English kings. He came to the throne at a time when the legal and social fabric of England had all but disappeared in the civil war of much of the previous 19 years, and set about repairing the institutions of law and administration. By strength of character, some persuasion, and a mixture of brute force and clever stratagem, he brought the barons of the realm back under the control of the crown, and set about creating a system whereby the effective administration of the his dominions was not contingent on the king’s presence.

The first of the Angevin kings of England, he brought with him the titles of Count of Anjou from his father, Duke of Normandy from his mother’s line, and Duke of Aquitaine as right of his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine. He was lord of three fifths of what is now France, as well as England; an enormous area given the atrocious roads of the time and the notoriously fickle sea conditions between England and the Continent. That he kept his lands under a good degree of control for most of his reign, and managed to improve the civic, justice and economic institutions, indicate not only ability, but enormous stamina. He spent most of his reign travelling.

Whilst expert in statecraft, he was still given to bouts of temper and passion, especially when he perceived himself thwarted in his aims. The tragedy of Thomas Becket is an example here. A fit of temper and thoughtless words brought about the death of a good man (though one as pig-headed and sure of his own right as his sovereign and one-time friend.)

Perhaps his greatest failure was in the allocation of his domains to his sons in a will in 1169. His decision to give his youngest son, John, three castles in Anjou, after first denying him any estates, (hence “John Lackland”) incited his three eldest surviving sons, Henry ("the Young King"), Richard and Geoffrey, to revolt in 1173. His wife sided with them. The remainder of his reign was to be plagued by the need to keep his family under control. King Louis VII of France and, after 1180, his successor Philip II were a constant irritant as one offspring or another (or all) enlisted aid from the old enemy (and Henry’s feudal overlord…as Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou, and Duke of Aquitaine Henry owed fealty to the king of France; and each year went to him and swore the oath on bended knee.)

He died in 1189 shortly after losing a campaign against a coalition of Richard and John with Philip and having to sign a humiliating peace.

His reforms in the administration of his realms, and his strengthening of the rule of law enabled these institutions to withstand, by and large, the prolonged absences of Richard I and the struggle between King John and the barons during the following two and a half decades.

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