Thursday, 7 January 2016

King Henry II, the first Plantagenet ruler of England

On 19th December 1154 the coronation of King Henry II of England took place in Westminster Abbey, thus beginning the rule of the Plantagenets that would last until 1485 and the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth.

Born in 1133, Henry spent his early childhood in France, having been born at Le Mans to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, and his English wife Matilda, who was a daughter of King Henry I. Geoffrey was in the habit of wearing a spring of yellow broom in his hat, and as the Latin name of the plant is “planta genista”, the nickname of Plantagenet became his surname and that of his only son.

Henry was educated partly in France and partly in England, so he was no stranger to English ways and customs when he became king.

He became involved in the civil war between his mother and her cousin, who usurped the throne of England and reigned as King Stephen from 1135. At one stage, when aged only 14, Henry had launched a military adventure of his own without his parents’ approval and had to appeal to Stephen to find the funds for him to return to France when the money ran out to pay his mercenary army. This may be an indication that Stephen regarded the war as being solely between him and Henry’s mother, and that could be a reason why he was willing to agree to the throne passing to Henry when he died.

When Henry arrived for his coronation he was wearing a short French cloak that earned him the nickname of “Curtmantle”. He was accompanied by his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was eleven years his senior.

Henry’s reign would last for 35 years. He proved to be a much stronger king than Stephen had been, and he laid the foundations for the English legal system. However, he also faced opposition not only from abroad – he ruled large parts of France as well as England – but on the home front, where his three eldest sons rebelled against him in 1173-4. However, he is probably best remembered for the falling out he had with his former friend Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury, which led to the latter’s murder in 1170 and Henry’s remorse when he realised what his intemperate words had led to.

© John Welford

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