Henry II: The Creator of a Dynasty

On the 19th December 1154, Henry was crowned King of England. His accession marked the beginning of the Angevin dynasty, the end of the Anarchy and the expansion of the Anglo-Norman empire.

Henry II

Born on the 5th March 1133, Henry was the eldest son of Empress Matilda and her second husband Count Geoffrey of Anjou*. Rulers from Anjou were known as the Angevins, which is how Henry’s dynasty got its name. Although his parents were a spectacularly bad match as husband and wife, they both shared ambition. As Matilda tried to claim England, Geoffrey set his sights on Normandy. Growing up with these two ambitious and tenacious figures ensured Henry learned what it meant to be a leader at a young age. He developed a strong personality with historian Dan Jones describing himself as “conspicuously brave, albeit rather reckless” especially in his early years when he travelled to England to wage war at the age of 13!

Henry II and his mother Empress Matilda

His father Geoffrey was a significant influence, and Henry took part in his long-running Norman campaign which was ultimately successful. Geoffrey invested Henry as Duke of Normandy in 1150, a significant position in Western Christendom and a title held by his grandfather Henry I and great-grandfather William the Conqueror before him. Sadly, Geoffrey died unexpectedly the next year; the loss of his father who had taught him so much must have been a significant emotional blow to the 18-year-old. Geoffrey had prepared him well though and Henry was capable of managing Normandy and his father’s domains of Anjou, Maine, and Touraine. The following year Henry then obtained Aquitaine, a vast and impressive province, through his marriage to the awesome Eleanor of Aquitaine.  This marriage caused a stir, to put it mildly, as her marriage to the King of France had only been recently annulled. In Henry, Eleanor must have seen something of herself as she was also ambitious and politically savvy. In a short space of time Henry had amassed extensive land holdings, but he wanted England and nothing was going to stop him getting it.

The civil war in England had caused nothing but pain and misery with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recording how, “they said openly that Christ slept, and his saints. Such, and more than we know how to say, we suffered nineteen years for our sins”. Stephen’s entire kingship had been dominated by his usurpation of the crown. He wanted his son Eustace crowned in his lifetime to secure the succession but no one would agree to such an action. After some skirmishes between the two sides in 1153, it looked like Stephen was considering making Henry his heir, to finally stop this agonizing conflict. Naturally his son Eustace wasn’t too happy about that but, conveniently for Henry, Eustace died suddenly leaving the door wide open for the Treaty of Wallingford which confirmed Henry as Stephen’s heir.

Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine

Henry may have expected at least a bit of a wait before acceding to the English throne, but Stephen died the following year in 1154. In just four years Henry had gained Normandy, Anjou, Maine, Touraine, Aquitaine and England! An incredibly vast empire that would be difficult to govern, but this young Angevin was ready to rule. The contemporary chronicler Henry Huntingdon described the joyous moment, “England, long numbed by mortal chill, now you grow warm, revived by the heat of a new sun. You raise the country’s bowed head, and with tears of sorrow wiped away, you weep for joy.”

This was the beginning; the moment Henry had been waiting for. In the 35 years that Henry would go on to rule England** he was a talented peripatetic king with “37 per cent of [his] time…spent in the British Isles, 43 per cent in Normandy, and only 20 per cent elsewhere in France beyond the duchy’s borders”. This was an impressive feat and Henry had boundless energy, his legs even described as slightly bowed due to his constant travelling by horseback. Henry and his wife Eleanor would go on to have 9 children: William, Henry, Matilda, Richard, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joan and John. Tragically their eldest son William died in early childhood, but the rest of their children would survive to adulthood living fascinating lives which we’ll explore over the coming weeks.

Henry II and his children: William, Henry, Richard, Matilda, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joan and John

What do you think of Henry II? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!

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*Interesting side note: Geoffrey’s father Fulk of Anjou married Melisende Queen of Jerusalem who you can find out more about here.

**A key event in Henry’s reign was the murder of his one-time friend Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. I recently attended the British Museum exhibition about this which you can read here.


ODNB: Henry II by Thomas K. Keefe

The Plantagenets by Dan Jones

This History of the English People 1000-1154 by Henry of Huntingdon

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle edited and translated by Ann Savage

Angevin Dynasties of Europe 900-1500: Lords of the Greater Part of the World by Jeffrey Anderson

Kings & Queens: The story of Britain’s monarchs from pre-Roman times to today by Richards Cavendish and Pip Leahy

Wikipedia: Henry II, Count Geoffrey of Anjou, Treaty of Wallingford.

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