I am so excited to be opening my Kings and Queens of England book for something other than my own enjoyment! Each of us is charged with writing a mini biography on an English monarch, and I have been assigned Henry II. Henry II was the first king of the Angevin kingdom, and he was a Plantagenet king. He ruled from 1154-1189. He took the throne from the last Norman king, Stephen, in accordance with the terms of the Treaty of Wallingford and spent the first few years of his reign restoring law and order to the country after Stephen’s lax rule. He was driven by a desire to restore the lands of his grandfather, Henry I.
Henry II was assisted by his Chancellor, Thomas a Becket, who was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Henry appointed Becket as Archbishop because he thought Becket would be an amenable Archbishop through whom he could gain control of the church’s legal system. Unfortunately, Henry II and Becket had a falling out over the question of whether clergy who committed crimes should be tried in civil or Church courts. Becket refused to comply with the king’s wishes and was exiled to France in 1164. A reconciliation was forced by the Pope, but Henry II’s exasperation with Becket led the king to order Becket to be murdered in his own cathedral on December 29, 1170. Henry II had such remorse for his actions that he did public penance at Becket’s tomb, which became a shrine and a place of pilgrimage.
The final years of Henry II’s reign were taken up by quarrels with his sons, who were incited to rebel by their mother, Queen Eleanor. Henry had separated from his wife because their marriage was not an easy one. Eleanor had gained a reputation for frivolity and looseness of conduct in her first marriage. While meeting with the King Philip II of France to stop a rebellion by Henry’s youngest son, a thunder-clap caused his horse to throw him. He died on July 6, 1189, calling for heaven’s vengeance on his rebellious family.
Above is an image of Henry II’s restored effigy. Although stylized, it gives a good impression of his general appearance. His queen, Eleanor, lived for many years after his death. She is buried beside Henry in Fontrevault.
Most of this information was contained in my book, which is presented by the National Portrait Gallery. I appreciated having this resource because the kings and queens are accompanied by their official portraits. When I was looking online for a picture to accompany this post, the portraits that come up are of Henry I and not Henry II, which I might not have known if I didn’t have a visual reference right in front of me. I would like to point out that the details of Henry II’s death are not always consistent. I read a couple mini biographies to get the information I needed. One says that he died after falling off his horse, as I have written above, but the other accounts say that he died of ulcers or some other disease. All the reports say that he died calling for vengeance on his family, though. I am not sure which account of Henry II’s death is accurate; it could be all of them, or it could be none of them. Given the highly embellished nature of medieval records, I don’t think we will ever know the true answer.