The Young King

Henry Plantagenet (who I’ll refer to as the young king for the rest of the post for clarity) was born in 1155 the second son of medieval power couple Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. He became their heir the following year when his elder brother William tragically died. His father’s domains were vast and formed an Anglo-Norman empire. Growing up the young king would have expected to play a significant role in the governance of this empire and to one day rule. He holds a unique position in English history to be the only prince crowned in his father’s lifetime post-1066. He is not referred to as Henry III though as he never fully acceded the throne. His father’s wish to secure the succession is understandable when you consider his youth and his mother Empress Matilda’s fight for the throne.

The young king’s first coronation took place on the 14th June 1170, but it was incredibly controversial as due to the fallout with the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, it has been the Archbishop of York who crowned him. Also, the young king’s father-in-law Louis VII of France (his mother’s ex-husband which is rather awkward to say the least!) was furious his daughter Margaret hadn’t been crowned too. Another coronation took place with Margaret included on the 27th August 1172; this time led by the Archbishop of Rouen.

Left: Coronation of Henry the Young King by the Archbishop Roger of York (14 June 1170)
Right: Henry II serves his son at the coronation feast.

As the young king had 3 younger brothers, Richard, Geoffrey and John, and with such a vast kingdom to govern it made sense that their father would divvy up the land between them, but in this he made critical errors which were to have huge ramifications on both a personal and political level. The young king was to inherit England, Normandy and Anjou. His brother Richard (largely considered their mother’s favourite) was to inherit Aquitaine and Geoffrey obtained Brittany through his marriage to Constance of Brittany. The youngest brother John was famously called ‘John Lackland’ for the lack of land he was due to inherit.

Despite these grand plans, Henry II was not exactly good at letting go. He continued to rule with an iron fist and the young king was “denied the real fruits of kingship” which naturally caused some resentment. The young king had a habit of racking up massive debts he struggled to pay, and he had a household and retinue to support which included legendary knight William Marshal. Henry’s wish to find some land for John would be the context for the opening up this brewing rift that would ultimately destroy Henry’s relationship with his sons.

Henry wanted to give some castles in the young king’s domains to John which infuriated the young king. This was the spark that set off the 1173 rebellion. Henry went to his father-in-law’s court, with his teenage brothers Richard and Geoffrey joining him. The young king also had the support of his mother Eleanor. She was captured early on by Henry’s supporters whilst travelling to meet her sons and would be imprisoned (albeit luxuriously) for the rest of her husband’s reign. The young king does not appear to have understood the intricacies of kingship, and he was ultimately an unwitting pawn of his family’s foe Louis VII. Henry II was the superior opponent and defeated his sons and Louis, and they settled peacefully as Montlouis 1174. The sons were given more property and titles, but not power, with the seeds of discontent rearing their head again in 1182 when the young king once more travelled to his father’s enemies at the French court. The promise of more money brought the young king back into the fold though.  

Portraits of English kings: Henry II, Henry the Younger and Richard I Lionheart, in the upper register, and John Lackland and Henry III, in the lower register from the Historia Anglorum

The young king died suddenly and brutally of dysentery in 1183 whilst in conflict (again) with his father and also this time his brother Richard. He begged forgiveness for his actions and died at the age of 28 on the 11th June 1183. The young king was to some degree a king without country, as he didn’t hold true sovereignty during his life. He’s largely been forgotten due to the eventful reigns of his brothers Richard and John respectively. Their father is reported to have described the 1173 rebellion as an eagle being destroyed by its eaglets. Sadly, this rebellion was a precursor for further conflict with his sons which would continue until the old king’s death. Henry did not crown his later heirs and no subsequent English monarch has repeated the coronation of an heir, perhaps warned by the young king’s example.

Henry the Young King’s Tomb courtesy of PMRMaeyaert under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 license

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

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ODNB: Henry the Young King by Elizabeth Hallam

ODNB: John by John Gillingham

ODNB: Geoffrey, duke of Brittany by Michael Jones

The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England by Dan Jones


7 responses to “The Young King”

  1. a gray Avatar

    A wonderful post! Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

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    […] second husband Henry II and their eight children: William, Young Henry, Richard, Matilda, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joan and […]


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    […] Plantagenet was never meant to rule England. His surviving elder brother Henry had been crowned in 1170 to secure the Angevin succession, but the medieval world was a deadly place […]


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