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Ian Stone, historian | The Coronation of Henry the Young King
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The Coronation of Henry the Young King

In my last blog on the dispute between King Henry II and Thomas Becket, we saw how formidable a character Henry was. He had, by the age of twenty-one, assumed power in territories which stretched from Hadrian’s Wall in the north to the Pyrenees in the south and, throughout his reign, he impressed friend and foe alike with his energy and intelligence. His ascent to the throne of England, however, had been a particular challenge, and Henry knew that, to protect his dynasty, he had to plan for the succession after his death.

In June 1170, Henry and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had four sons and three daughters. The two eldest daughters, Matilda and Eleanor, were married or betrothed to princes in Germany and Spain as Henry sought to build diplomatic alliances against King Louis VII of France. Henry had even made tentative plans to betroth his youngest daughter, Joanna, who had only been born in 1165, to a Spanish prince. Plans had already been made, too, for Henry’s three adolescent sons. The two eldest, Henry, later known as the Young King, and Richard, later known as the Lionheart, were married or betrothed to daughters of Louis, in a corresponding attempt to secure peace with the French king. A marriage had also been arranged between Geoffrey and Constance, who was heiress to the Duchy of Brittany. King Henry had planned for the division of his territories among his sons too. Prince Henry, as the eldest son, was to inherit England, Normandy and Anjou, all lands which King Henry himself had inherited. Richard, Eleanor’s favourite son, would become Duke of Aquitaine, that is the territory which Henry had added to his dominions through his marriage to Eleanor, and Geoffrey would become Duke of Brittany through his marriage to Constance. No provision had then been made for Henry’s youngest son, John, who was then only two. Consequently, he would come to be known by many as John Lackland. Yet these plans would slowly fall apart as princes Henry, Richard and Geoffrey all met untimely deaths. Indeed, in 1199 John would actually succeed to all the territories his father had held. But in 1170, Henry and Eleanor might well have felt quite pleased that everything had been so satisfactorily arranged.

All that remained now was to secure these plans. After all, Henry’s mother, Matilda, had been designated as heir to thrones of England and Normandy by her father, and what had happened then? Her titles had been claimed by her cousin Stephen and a ferocious civil war had been unleashed. And this after the nobles had sworn allegiance to her as heiress to the throne. King Henry was not going to take any chances. He would have his son, Henry, crowned as king while they both still lived. For King Henry, not only would this assure the succession, it would allow father and son to work together ruling England, with his son gradually assuming more responsibility as he grew wiser, so that the king could concentrate on defending and ruling his continental dominions. Plans for the coronation had actually been made as early as 1161 or 1162, in which plans, Becket, who was then chancellor of England, had played an important role. In 1163, the king of Scotland and several Welsh princes had even done homage to King Henry and his son. The dispute with Becket had thrown the strategy into disarray. Who, after all, would anoint and crown Prince Henry if not the archbishop of Canterbury? But King Henry had not given up the idea. Far from it. Ever with an intelligent eye on the future ramifications of his actions, the king spotted an opportunity. If he were to arrange for his son’s coronation to take place now, without Becket, then Becket would lose a great deal of the leverage he was wielding by refusing to officiate. In addition, Becket was sure to be outraged, perhaps to the extent that he would end his exile to return to England; if nothing else, he would want to punish any churchmen involved in the business. His return might also be expedited by Louis of France. Louis would have expected his daughter, Princess Margaret, who was married to Prince Henry, to be anointed as queen. If the ceremony went ahead without that provision, then surely Louis would put pressure on Becket to return to England and ensure that Margaret was anointed forthwith. After six years of stalemate, Henry saw a chance to raise the stakes.

There was, of course, one problem. The right to crown the king of England belonged to the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1161, however, when the archbishopric was vacant after the death of Theobald, the pope had issued bulls granting the Archbishop of York the power to perform the coronation. Henry had these letters in his possession still. He would have known that many understood that they were now quite out of date. He also would have known that Becket, on hearing rumours of the king’s plans, had successfully petitioned the pope to forbid the coronation without Becket’s involvement. But Henry could supress word of the prohibition and the earlier bulls gave his plans a semblance of legality at least. Thus, on 14 June 1170, Roger de Pont l’Évêque, the Archbishop of York, with the help of ten other English and Norman bishops, crowned Prince Henry in Westminster Abbey.

Why were so many bishops willing to defy the senior prelate in England and support the king in his plans? Gilbert Foliot, bishop of London, who had perhaps wanted to become archbishop himself, had opposed Becket’s elevation to Canterbury from the start. He had certainly seen little in the time which had passed since to change his mind. Gilbert is reported to have called Becket a ‘born fool’. Others, such as Roger, could be considered as more moderate in the dispute. But in the absence of an Archbishop of Canterbury, he, as Archbishop of York, was the senior churchman in England and he had been able to secure some privileges for his office from the king. Essentially, however, Becket’s intransigence and stubbornness had alienated many of the bishops, men who should have been his staunchest supporters, and they had long made their peace with the king. What would now happen to them when word of the coronation reached Becket and the pope? How would Becket respond to Henry’s dramatic move?

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