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Ian Stone, historian | Who was Henry II?
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Who was Henry II?

‘He is great, indeed the greatest of monarchs, for he has no superior of whom he stands in awe, nor subject who may resist him’. So wrote Arnulf, bishop of Lisieux, to Thomas Becket in March 1165. The object of Arnulf’s praise was King Henry II (1154-89). True, no one would count Arnulf among the greatest thinkers and theologians of his age, but he was right about Henry II. Even at this relatively early stage of his reign, Henry had stamped his authority across his vast dominions. King of England, Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou, Maine and Touraine, and, by right of his marriage to the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine, Duke of Aquitaine; Henry was master of territories stretching from Hadrian’s Wall to the Pyrenees. To be sure, these lands were never unified in a political or administrative sense, they always remained independent polities that just happened to share a ruler. But this fact serves only to highlight the impressiveness of Henry’s achievement in holding such disparate lands together. By the end of his reign, Henry had established his control over rulers in Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Brittany too. Henry was indefatigable. ‘The king of England is now in Ireland, now in England, now in Normandy, he seems rather to fly than travel by horse of ship’ wondered King Louis VII of France (dates). Becket was a clever man. If he had had more sense, he would have paid more attention to Arnulf’s advice.

In my last blog, we thought about Becket and the ways in which his character contributed to the dispute between the two men. But what of Henry? What made him such an implacable personality? Henry was born in 1133. He was the eldest son of Geoffrey Plantagenet, count of Anjou, and Empress Matilda (she had formerly been married to the Emperor Henry V). Matilda was the daughter of King Henry I of England (1100-35) who had been unable to secure the throne of England in her struggle against her cousin Stephen (1135-53). Her son, Henry, however, had inherited, often in the face of overwhelming odds, all his titles by the age twenty-one. Young men lacking resolve and ambition do not make their marks on the world in this way. In addition to these qualities, Henry was intelligent. He spoke Latin and French and understood English. He was able to apply his fine mind to difficult problems. The records of the English exchequer show that he quickly restored his royal revenues after the turmoil of Stephen’s reign; his legal reforms have earned him the title ‘the father of the English common law’. It is an exaggeration to claim that Henry created the common law: some of its features, such as juries, were already common practice, it would take another hundred years of application and legal discourse for it to become ‘common law’ as would we recognise it, and the men of Henry’s court (Richard of Ilchester, Richard de Lucy, Ranulf de Glanville etc.) were as responsible as the king was for the institutions and innovations which we see in these years. But then does not Henry not deserve praise for picking out and promoting men of such talents? Moreover, there can be no doubt that Henry himself played a very important role in establishing a single, coherent, national legal framework. ‘He had at his fingertips a ready knowledge of nearly the whole of history and also the practical experience of daily affairs’ wrote Gerald of Wales. 

So how did a man as talented and shrewd as Henry become embroiled in such a bitter struggle with Thomas Becket? One answer to that is Henry’s fearsome temper. His eyes supposedly flashed like lightning when angered. Once, he even rolled around the floor of his chamber screaming with rage and stuffing his mouth with the rushes which filled his bedding after one of his attendants praised the king of Scotland in his presence. To be sure, Henry was always able to take a joke. Once, Bishop High of Lincoln assuaged Henry’s royal anger – and even caused the king to burst into laughter – by teasing the king about the illegitimacy and lowliness of his ancestors. But mocking Henry’s pride was one thing; questioning his royal authority was quite another. When Becket, in his usual pompous way, once lectured the king that ‘temporal lords should be obeyed, but not against God: as St Peter says, “we ought to obey God rather than men”’, Henry flashed back ‘I do not want a sermon from you. Are you not the son of one of my peasants?’ After Becket’s flight into exile, Henry indignantly took his revenge against all Becket’s familiars by seizing their revenues and possessions, and even demanding that their families provide safe pledges. Between Becket’s stubbornness and Henry’s anger there was little ground on which to found a compromise.

One thing which particularly aroused Henry’s ire was his belief that Becket had acted treacherously. Loyalty was one quality which Henry demanded from his courtiers and attendants. What made things even worse in the dispute with Becket was that Henry had promoted and favoured Becket because he had thought that Becket to be his man. The disappointment which he felt during the quarrel must have been, in part at least, a sense of disappointment in his own judgment. How had he been wrong about this man? There was, too, little pressure on Henry to come to a settlement with his archbishop. True, Becket in exile was a nuisance. His pithy letters and threats of excommunication must have annoyed the king, but Henry had greater concerns than Becket. More, Pope Alexander needed Henry’s support against the German emperor and he was not minded to move against the king. Indeed, the pope did his best to reign Becket in, writing to the archbishop ‘we beseech your discretion, we advise, we counsel, we urge that in your whole conduct respecting your cause and that of the Church, that you display caution, prudence and circumspection, doing nothing in haste’. True, there was as much chance of Becket heeding the pope’s advice as there was of Kevin Pieterson coming in at 13-2 and thinking of the team rather than his own average, but the pope’s desperation was clear. Henry knew that and could play the long game. 

There was, however, one was in which Henry was under pressure to come to terms with Becket. Keen to assure the succession of his youngest son, also called Henry, King Henry wanted to have his son crowned king of England. And for that, he would need his archbishop of Canterbury. In my next blog, we shall see whether this would bring the two men to a reconciliation.

Featured image: By Adam Bishop – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

  • Richard Shepley

    9th April 2020 at 1:35 pm Reply


    Clear and succinct as always. It’s a bit like a Charles Dickens novel – a chapter at a time. Will it become a book?

    • Ian Stone

      9th April 2020 at 1:58 pm Reply

      Thanks Richard.
      I doubt it, I’m not sure I’m adding anything new here. This year is a very important anniversary of the denouement of this struggle, of course. Hopefully there are no spoilers there! I think by the end of the year there’ll be a lot of focus on Becket – when we can focus on something else that is.

  • […] Who was Henry II? […]

  • […] 850 years ago, in a meadow close to the village of Fréteval in the Touraine region of France, King Henry II of England and Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, two estranged friends, enjoyed a long private […]


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