You have until 31 July to decide who you want to be crowned the Rex Factor champion, but how to make up your mind? We’ve already done one blog on why you should vote for Alfred the Great, but he has some very stiff competition and Henry II is a very credible alternative. So, read on to find out why you should cast your vote for Henry II.
Henry II was born in 1133, coming of age during the 19-year civil war known as The Anarchy between his mother, the Empress Matilda, and her cousin, King Stephen. The death of Stephen’s heir led to him recognising his rival, Henry II, as heir, allowing Henry to accede unopposed in 1154. For many, this would have been a daunting situation to inherit, but Henry restored law and order in England, reclaimed territories lost to Scotland in the north, and with his boundless energy stormed around his Angevin empire keeping his lands in check. Henry was a huge character, always either on the move or working on the administration of his realms. He also had a notorious temper, once growing so angry that he started chewing the carpet, and it was his temper that would almost prove the ruin of his reign. In an attempt to increase his control the church, he appointed his chancellor, Thomas Becket, as Archbishop of Canterbury. When Becket went native and opposed Henry, the dispute saw Becket exiled for years before finally an accord was reached and Becket returned, only to excommunicate his enemies upon arrival. When Henry heard of this, he shouted “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and promoted in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!” Hearing of this, four knights went to Canterbury and brutally murdered Becket at the altar of the Cathedral. This could easily have destroyed Henry, particularly when he suffered the Great Revolt of 1173-74 – a rebellion of three of his sons (including the future Richard the Lionheart) allied with the King of France, Scotland and various other powerful nobles. Henry saw off all these rebellions though it was his sons who would prove his undoing – in 1189, Richard was determined to go on Crusades but feared to do so without Henry confirming that John would not supplant him in the succession. Failing to receive sufficient assurance from Henry, Richard rebelled in alliance with the King of France, Philip II and Henry, possibly already mortally ill, was forced to submit and died soon after learning that his favourite son, John, had also abandoned him.
Henry presided over the Angevin Empire, which consisted not only of England but also the French territories of Normandy, Brittany, Maine, Anjou, Poitou, Aquitaine, Gascony and Bordeaux – more even than the King of France! To this he added Ireland in 1171 and, following the capture of William the Lion, he garrisoned southern Scotland. And he kept his control over this vast empire by his ceaseless movement, rushing around at great speed to head off any rebellion before it had a chance to fester – the King of France quipped that “he must fly rather than travel by horse or ship”. He also saw in significant developments in English castles, not only in his ability to successfully capture the old castles of the Anarchy but in building newer, better castles such as Dover. In his prime, Henry II was as powerful as they come.
In many ways, Henry II is quite similar to Alfred the Great – both were militarily successful but also intelligent men who sought to rule well. However, while Alfred was a pious man and lacking nocturnal activities to trouble the tabloid headline-writers, Henry II was positively turbo-charged when it came to scandal! His marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine (an older woman by ten years) came just a few weeks after she had divorced the King of France. He went on to sire c. 11 illegitimate children and his relationship with Rosamund Clifford led to Eleanor encouraging her sons to rebel against him in the Great Revolt, after which she was imprisoned for the rest of Henry’s reign. Richard was later due to marry the King of France’s daughter (by a different wife!), Alys, but this failed to materialise due to the fact that Henry had started having an affair with her instead! And all of this before we get to the murder of Thomas Becket. In Henry’s defence, he probably did not intend for this to happen, but the murder scandalised Christendom and is one of the most notorious moments in the whole of English royal history.
Given Henry’s imperial hegemony and supreme scandal-making, you might expect being a good and just ruler to be his achilles heel – you would be wrong! On his accession, Henry restored central authority after the Anarchy, banishing foreign mercenaries and restoring royal finances. He expanded on the itinerant justices of his grandfather by having a series of trusted men touring the country every other year in circuits (under Henry I it was one area at a time). Most significant was the Assize of Clarendon (1166), seen as the foundation of English Common Law with its focus on trying case on the basis of evidence and (to a certain extent) by jury. Henry himself took a strong interest in such matters, returning from a hard-day of riding/scandalising to debate issues with his scholars and was said to have lain awake at night working through judicial language. Henry also showed care for some of his less fortunate subjects, sending grain to feed 10,000 during a famine in Maine and Anjou, employing a Templar knight to distribute 1/10 of royal court food to the poor and granting protection to victims of shipwrecks.
Like Alfred, Henry was relatively young when he died in 1189 at 56, perhaps worn down by his incredibly active life. However, he ruled from 1154-89 (34.75 years) – the 11th longest reign in English history though at the time the third longest behind only Henry I (35.33 years) and Aethelraed the Unready (38.08 years).
Although they effectively ended up literally at war with each other, in the early years Henry and Eleanor enjoyed a passionate relationship that yielded 8 children, of whom 4 survived Henry. For Henry I, the absence of sons would throw the nation into chaos whereas for Henry II, it was the presence of sons (greedy for land) which would cause him his greatest woes.
What should by now be apparent is that Henry ticks every box in terms of the factors: a huge empire; scandal that reverberates through the ages; good rule that left a major beneficial legacy; a long rule, and plenty of children. In fact, in the original podcast series Henry scored more points than any other monarch, making him the top seed. A huge and likeable character with a good sense of humour, a very impressive reign both in its power, its scale and its long-term legacy – how could he not deserve your vote? Throw in a court that includes Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart, John, Thomas Becket and future saviour of England William “the greatest knight who ever lived” Marshal and you have a family story to rival the Tudors.
Devil’s Advocate – Why you should NOT vote for Henry
Despite being so good in every category, Henry II does have some glaring flaws which might give you pause before you cast your vote. Despite his Angevin Empire, there is a distinct lack of a great battle to Henry’s name – most of his territory was achieved through inheritance or marriage, while the campaigning that enlarged his territory never involved a Hastings/Crecy/Agincourt of which legends are made. It’s hard to get away from the fact that his reign ends somewhat ignominiously, made to surrender by his son and the King of France, lamenting “Shame, shame on a conquered king!” It’s strange, given the content of his reign, that Henry II as a name is not perhaps as famous as his rivals and perhaps this is partly because the Becket affair tends to overshadow the rest of his reign.
However, does a great king need to have a great battle if he is successful enough not to need one? He may have ended in defeat, but it only bears the sad air of finality because it was followed by Henry’s death (he was not killed in battle or executed so the reign could have gone on were it not for his health failing). As it was, his territories remained in place under Richard and though John lost it all, the Plantagenet dynasty would be the longest in English history.