The Anarchy was one of the worst periods in English history – a nineteen-year civil war that was so devastating that “they said openly, that Christ slept, and his saints.” There was no winner to this tragedy, but Henry, the son of the Empress Matilda and the second of that name since the Conquest, would probably come closest to claiming that title.
(edited image, the original is from the British monarchy’s official webpage – click to enlarge)
Henry II FitzEmpress [Plantagent/Curtmantle], (1133  – 1189) House of Anjou
“… the kingdom of England, which he won by the sweat of war from King Stephen, most strong in arms, although but a youth and of no account…”
Peter of Blois to Walter, Archbishop of Palermo (1177)
Some people are just born lucky, and Henry Plantagent certainly tended to fit that bill, at least in his early years. The first legitimate grandchild of King Henry I, he was born a little less than two years before the king’s death plunged the English realms into the Anarchy. The eldest child to the heir to the English throne, the Empress Matilda (hence the sobriquet FitzEmpress – one of the rare instances where it’s taken from the mother’s name or title and not the father’s) and the Count of Anjou, Geoffrey V le Bel (also nicknamed Plantagent for the broom blossom [planta genista in Latin] he often wore in his hat – a name that would be passed on to a dynasty), he became the heir apparent upon the death of his grandfather in December of 1135.
Or rather, he should have become the heir apparent – as Matilda’s cousin, Stephen of Blois, had convinced the barons to support him and crown him as king of England, Stephen’s eldest son, Eustace (who was about three years Henry’s senior) was suddenly the heir. Though it was apparent that Stephen had the approval of the barons – including a number of them who were illegitimate children of Henry I (and thus Matilda’s half-siblings), Matilda still viewed this as a seizure of her crown, and she and her husband (along with William X, Duke of Aquitaine until his death in 1137) embarked on a campaign that would eventually bring the crown jewel of the English throne, the Duchy of Normandy, under Angevin control.
Though he had been born an heir to the English throne, he spent very few of his formative years in England. When he was about nine, he spent around a year in Bristol, in the care of Robert FitzRoy, the Earl of Gloucester (his maternal uncle and, after his defection from the king, Matilda’s strongest supporter). A few years later, in 1147, there was the famous expedition that the 14 year old Henry mounted in an attempt to help his mother, landing in England with his mesnie (his immediate household) and a small number of mercenaries. However, the young Henry soon runs out of money and is forced to ask for aid to pay his troops, so that they could depart England. That didn’t make this expedition legendary – those were the facts of warfare in that period. What makes it memorable is who he asks – not his mother, or the Earl of Gloucester, but King Stephen, the very man who his raid was supposed to help overthrow! Though his reasons are never fully explained (but are commonly explained as familial courtesy or a wish to lay the grounds for an eventual peace), Stephen agrees and pays Henry’s debts, allowing the young Angevin to return home – though he would return at the head of similar raid, which was foiled two years later.
In his late childhood, the luck which was always attributed to Stephen seemed to slowly give way to that of the young Henry. Matilda had already renounced her claim to the English throne in favor of her eldest son, and in 1150 Geoffrey gave the young man a chance to prove his worth, renouncing his title of Duke of Normandy (which he had won by 1144) in favor of the 17 year old Henry, who was accepted as such by the French king Louis VII the next year. The death of Geoffrey le Bel a month after that led to Henry becoming Duke of Normandy, as well as Count of Anjou and Maine. His future was looking up, and he secretly married Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitou, who just eight weeks earlier had been the wife of his feudal overlord, Louis VII (The marriage of Louis and Eleanor was supposedly annulled due to consanguinity, which didn’t stop her from marrying Henry, who was the same degree of kin). Now adding Poitou and Aquitaine to his already immense realm, he crossed the channel once more to challenge Stephen (and the young man who had taken Henry’s rightful place, Eustace [by now Count of Boulogne]).
However, the constant civil war had made the English barons weary of war, and instead of fighting, they managed to convince the two claimants to come to a truce. The truce eventually led to peace, mainly due to the unexpected death of Stephen’s son Eustace (in what was taken as a sign of the times and proof of Henry’s luck, his firstborn son, William of Poitiers, was born the exact same day [though he died at the age of three – the only one of Henry’s legitimate children not to reach adulthood]), and Henry was recognized as Stephen’s heir – placing him where he should’ve been for the last nineteen years, a step away from the throne. However, his situation was still tenuous: if Stephen lived long enough, his younger son, William might have grown old enough to resent being passed over. Yet once more, Henry’s luck held, and within a year of becoming the heir to the English throne, he sat upon it, joining his continental Angevin holdings under the English crown.
He had finally come into the inheritance he had been born to, and yet, it was not as great an inheritance as it could have been. As I’ve mentioned before, nineteen years of internal strife had left England weakened financially and politically. The first years of his reign were spent trying to rebuild the England of Henry I: the many unauthorized castles built during the Anarchy were torn down, royal authority was reasserted under a strong king, and the rulers of Wales and Scotland were compelled to return the lands that they had claimed in the chaos of civil war.
However, his restoration of royal authority came with costs: battles with the Church, specifically his hand-picked Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, discontent, especially among the Poitevin and Aquitanian barons that were vassals of his wife, and intermittent warfare with France. Henry was a very hands-on ruler, but the sheer size of the realms he governed made such a process impossible, even for someone as renowned for speed and mobility as he was. Despite this – or perhaps because of it – Henry never stayed very long in any one place, as there were always new threats to deal with.
When it came to outside threats and rebellions from his barons, he was fine – as perhaps the most decisive and competent military leader of his generation, he was generally able to stifle anything that he was presented with (perhaps more of that famous luck of his). What he couldn’t control, however, was his own family. Though his eldest child, William, had died at the age of three, he and Eleanor had managed to produce seven more: Henry (Hal, in order to distinguish him from his father, born in 1155), Matilda (b. 1156), Richard (b. 1157), Geoffrey (b. 1158), Eleanor (b. 1162), Joanna (b. 1165) and John (b. 1166) – a group whose future were of the highest aspirations: a duke, a duchess, two queens and three kings.
While the daughters never proved to be much of a nuisance to Henry (they were married off early in life – all but forgotten by their family in most cases). However, his abundance of male progeny would soon come back to haunt him, for more reasons than one. Foremost in his mind was inheritance – though by custom the eldest son, Hal, stood to receive the crown, Henry felt that it was only necessary for him to ensure that his younger sons stood to gain, if only to prevent them from turning against their brother. To that end, Hal was given England, Normandy, Anjou and Maine as his future inheritance, while Richard stood as his mother’s heir, to gain Aquitaine and Poitou. To Geoffrey, Henry entrusted the duchy of Brittany – whose young duchess, Constance, was his ward. This was Henry’s solution: three sons, with less than four years separating them in age, promised three different, very ample inheritances.
The division might have worked, had there not been another son: John, born eight years after Geoffrey. By the time of his birth, Henry had already promised and divided his domains – and there was nothing left for John (the basis for his famous epithet, Lackland). Henry hoped to marry him off to an heiress, bringing her dowry into his possession, but the lack of land in his name stifled any negotiations. John is generally regarded as his father’s favorite, and Henry’s attempts to give him an inheritance were to play a role in the unraveling of everything that he had worked so hard to rebuild.
Following the tradition of the Capetian kings of France, Henry had Hal crowned as his junior king in 1170, hoping to give his son a chance to learn the practice of kingship while Henry was still able to advice him. Following this example, they soon had Richard invested as Duke of Aquitaine (though he retained the title Count of Poitou – his father was still the titular Duke, jure uxoris [in right of his wife]), and Geoffrey as Duke of Brittany (though he wasn’t formally invested until 1181, when he married Constance). Though the sons had titles and allowances, the three of them (especially Hal) were not given any real control of the lands that they were to rule over.
The lack of power and money was enough to strain relations between the three brothers and their father, but it was the fourth who would provide the spark of rebellion. While his three eldest sons had titles and aspirations, he still had nothing to give John. When he attempted to give him three castles in what Hal saw as his domain, the young king was brought to odds with his father, fleeing to Paris and his father-in-law, the French King Louis VII. He was soon joined by Richard and Geoffrey, and their mother, Eleanor, was captured while attempting to join her sons.
However, it was not just the family that rose up against him – many barons, especially in Brittany, were hoping to replace the hard-lined Henry with his much more agreeable son, Hal. The rebels were also bolstered by foreign aid: not only Louis VII, but also the counts of Blois and Boulogne (relatives of King Stephen), the count of Flanders, and the king of Scotland, William the Lion. However, with the thoroughly un-marital Louis leading this coalition, it wasn’t that hard for Henry to defeat his enemies in detail, ending the revolt after eighteen months. In another instance of Henry’s luck, the capture of the Scottish king happened the day after he did penance for his involvement in the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. While he made peace with his sons, and even offered them greater freedoms than they had before the revolt, they were still not content – and while he had been kind to his sons, he would not do so to his wife, leaving her in captivity for the rest of his reign. Meanwhile, Henry had managed to expand his realm even more, sending an expedition to Ireland in 1175. While the native presence was not completely subjugated, enough of a foothold was established to allow Henry to name John Lord of Ireland two years later.
However, the machinations of the king’s sons never stopped. Geoffrey, finally married off to Constance, had managed to fall in love with both his wife and her subjects – no mean feat, considering that Henry’s treatment of the duchy left almost every Breton noble with a hatred of the Angevins. Meanwhile, Hal was again not content with his allowance, and asked to be granted lands in order to be able to support his mesnie – and while Henry did agree to increase the allowance that his son had, he would not give him any lands. Henry could now see that another revolt was brewing, and he worked quickly to try and make sure that this one never got off the ground.
Unfortunately, his method of doing so was not successful: when he attempted to have his younger sons do homage to their elder brother for their lands – something that Richard refused to do (perhaps because Aquitaine and Poitou were not part of the paternal inheritance – all rights to the duchy and the county came through his mother). When forced to do homage, Hal decided that he would not accept it, and the situation that Henry had tried to defuse quickly blew up. Hal (with Geoffrey’s help, no doubt) managed to convince many disaffected Aquitainian and Poitevin barons that life would be much better if Hal, not Richard, was Duke of Aquitaine. With the barons in revolt and a force of Geoffrey’s Bretons threatening Poitou, Richard was forced to appeal to his father for help, which he received.
Still, even with the king in the fray for himself, the revolt would not have dissipated quickly, save for a turn of fortune. It was bittersweet for the king, though: while the revolt had ended, it had collapsed because its figurehead, Hal, had died on 11 June 1183, leaving Richard as his father’s assumed heir. However, conscious of what had happened after crowning Hal as his junior king, Henry did not crown Richard – indeed, he refused to name an heir, sowing seeds of suspicion that the king intened to pass over Richard and Geoffrey, handing the crown instead to John.
These suspicions meant that revolts would not end. When Richard refused to hand Aquitaine to John in exchange for being named the heir to England, Normandy and Anjou (probably because he was what that had done to his brother), Henry angrily told John that if he wanted Aquitaine, he would have to take it by force – words said in an Angevin rage, much like the words that had led to the death of Thomas Becket thirteen years previously. Though he had the backing of Geoffrey, John simply couldn’t match his brother in warcraft, and his Aquitainian adventure was ended quickly and unfavorably.
This time, the cycle of revolt proceeded by age. Next to revolt was Geoffrey, who still had some of his Breton lands held by Henry. Like his elder brother, Geoffrey died in rebellion to his king and father, dying from wounds incurred in a tournament on 19 August 1186 . While the deaths of two of the three main schemers would suggest that the revolts of his sons would be less common now, Richard tried his best to prove that this was not the case. Unhappy with his father’s refusal to name an heir, Richard now allied himself with the young king of France, Philippe II, and while the call for a new Crusade brought a brief halt to the fighting, the last years of Henry’s life were spent fighting his son and the French king.
With the French king still young and relatively inexperienced, Henry must have thought that this revolt would crumble as easily as the others had. Sadly for him, that was not the case – age and wear had caught up to him, and his luck turned against him. Routed from his birthplace of Le Mans, he finally lost the loyalty of his youngest son, as John switched his support to Richard and Philippe. Sensing his end was near, he turned from a march to Normandy, instead turning south to Touraine. He died on 6 July 1189 in Chinon, betrayed by all but a few of his followers (William Marshal among them, as he had entered Henry’s service a few years after the death of his original lord, Hal) and, as William of Newburgh stated, “hated by almost everyone”, his last words supposedly “Alas, the shame for a king to be thus overcome! Alas, the shame!”
Henry’s reign was a mixed success: though he was successful in guiding England (and the monarchy) to recover what had been lost during the Anarchy, his realms were also probably too large to be managed efficiently – and when he attempted to enlist his sons to help him, it sparked a lust for more power that would not end until two sons and the father had died. Even with the incessant revolts on the continent, England itself was left more untouched than the other realms, and the crown that was passed to Richard was much more prestigious than the one that Henry himself had received thirty-four years earlier – and for that reason alone, we may consider his reign a success.