Henry II, King of England, b. 1133; d. July 6, 1189; was in his earlier life commonly known as Henry Fitz-Empress from the fact that his mother Matilda, daughter of Henry I, was first married to the Emperor Henry V. Henry himself, however, was the son of her second husband, Geoffrey Plantagenet, and inherited from him the three important fiefs of Anjou, Touraine, and Maine. Soon after his birth the English Witan were made to swear fealty to the infant prince as heir to the throne of England, but when Henry I died, in 1135, both Norman and English barons, who greatly disliked Geoffrey Plantagenet, lent their support to the rival claimant, Stephen of Blois.
Despite the confusion and civil war which marked the ensuing years, young Henry seems to have been well educated, partly in England, partly abroad. When he was sixteen he was knighted at Carlisle by King David of Scotland, when he was eighteen he succeeded to Normandy and Anjou, when nineteen he married Eleanor of Aquitaine, the divorced wife of Louis VII of France, and secured her inheritance, and when he was twenty he came to England and forced King Stephen to submit to terms. It is plain that when, a year later, upon Stephen’s death, he succeeded to the English crown, men felt that they had no novice to deal with either in diplomacy or in war.
Whether through the accident of heredity or through conscious imitation, Henry II at once took up with signal success that work of constitutional and legal reform which marked the administration of his grandfather, Henry I. The Angevin Henry was not a hero or a patriot as we understand the terms nowadays, but he was, as Stubbs has said, “a far-seeing King who recognised that the well-being of the nation was the surest foundation of his own power”.
At home, then, he set to work from the beginning to face a series of problems which had never yet been settled, the question of Scotland, the question of Wales, the frauds of fiscal officers, the defects of royal justice, and the encroachments of the feudal courts. In all these undertakings he was loyally seconded by his new chancellor, one who had been cordially recommended to him by Archbishop Theobald and one who was sufficiently near his own age to share his vigour and his enthusiasm.
There is but one voice amongst contemporaries to render homage to the strong and beneficial government carried on by Henry and his chancellor Thomas Becket during seven or eight years. All dangerous resistance was crushed, the numberless feudal castles were surrendered, and the turbulent barons were not unwilling to acquiesce in the security and order imparted by the reorganized machinery of the exchequer and by a more comprehensive system of judicial administration. The details cannot be given here.
The reforms were largely embodied in the “Assizes” issued later in the reign, but in most cases the work of reorganization had been set on foot from the beginning. As regards foreign policy Henry found himself possessed of dominions such as no English king before him had ever known. Normandy, Maine, Anjou, and Aquitaine were united to the English crown in 1154, and before twenty years had passed Nantes, Quercy, Brittany, and Toulouse had all practically fallen under English rule.
It has recently been maintained (by Hardegen, “Imperialpolitik Heinrichs II.”, 1905) that Henry deliberately adopted a policy of competing with the emperor and that he made the empire itself, as Giraldus Cambrensis seems to state (Opera, VIII, 157), the object of his ambition, being invited thereto both by the whole of Italy and by the city of Rome. If this be an exaggerated view, it is nevertheless certain that Henry occupied a foremost position in Europe, and that England for the first time exerted an influence which was felt all over the Continent.
The prosperity which smiled on Henry’s early years seems in a strange way to have been broken by his quarrel with his former favorite and chancellor. He whom we now honor as St. Thomas of Canterbury was raised to the archbishopric at his royal master’s desire in 1162. It is probable that Henry was influenced in his choice of a primate by the anticipation of conflicts with the Church. No doubt he was already planning his attack on the jurisdiction of the Courts-Christian, and it is also probable enough that Thomas himself had divined it. This, if true, would explain the plainly expressed forebodings which the future archbishop uttered on hearing of his nomination.
The story of the famous Constitutions of Clarendon has already been given in some little detail in the article England (Vol. V, p. 436). In his attack on the jurisdiction of the spiritual courts Henry may have desired sincerely to remedy an abuse, but the extent of that abuse has been very much exaggerated by the anti-papal sympathies of Anglican historians, more especially of so influential a writer as Bishop Stubbs. Henry’s masterful and passionate nature was undoubtedly embittered by what he deemed the ingratitude of his former favorite—even St. Thomas’s resignation of the chancellorship, on being made archbishop, had deeply mortified him—but when, as the climax of six years of persecution which followed the saint’s rejection of the Constitutions of Clarendon, the archbishop was brutally murdered on December 29, 1170, there is no reason to doubt that Henry’s remorse was sincere.
His submission to the humiliating penance, which he performed barefoot at the martyr’s shrine in 1174, was an example to all Europe. When the news came that on that very day the Scottish king, who was supporting a dangerous insurrection in the North, had been taken prisoner at Alnwick, men not unnaturally regarded it as a mark of the Divine favor. It is not impossible, and has been recently suggested by L. Delisle, that the restoration of the style “Dei gratia Rex Anglorum” (by the grace of God King of the English), which is observable in the royal charters after 1172, may be due to intensified religious feeling. In any case there is no sufficient reason for saying with Stubbs that St. Thomas was responsible for a grievous change in Henry’s character towards the close of his life.
The misconduct and rebellion of his sons, probably at the instigation of his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, are amply sufficient to account for some measure of bitterness and vindictiveness. On the other hand, after Henry by his penance had owned himself beaten upon the question of the Church Courts, his legal and constitutional reforms (such as those which developed the germs of trial by jury, the circuits of the travelling justices, etc.) were pushed on more actively than ever. This fact forms a strong argument for the view that St. Thomas was resisting nothing which was essential to the well-being of the kingdom. Moreover, it is in these last years of Henry’s life that we find the most attractive presentment of his character in his relations with the Carthusian, St. Hugh of Lincoln, a saint whom the king himself had promoted to his bishopric.
St. Hugh evidently had a tender feeling for Henry, and he was not a man to connive at wickedness. Again, the list of Henry’s religious foundations is a considerable one, even apart from the three houses established in commutation of his vow. Moreover, at the very end of his life he seems to have been sincere in his interest in the crusade, while his organization of the “Saladin Tithe”, like that of the “Scutage” at the beginning of the reign, marked an epoch in the history of English taxation.
The conquest of Ireland which Henry had projected in 1156 and for which he obtained a Bull from Pope Adrian IV (q.v.) was carried out later with the full sanction of Pope Alexander III, preserved to us in letters of unquestionable authenticity which concede in substance all that was granted by the disputed Bull of Adrian. The death of Henry was sad and tragic, embittered as it was by the rebellion of his sons Richard and John, but he received the last sacraments before the end came. “I think”, says William of Newburgh, “that God wished to punish him severely in this life in order to show mercy to him in the next.”