Henry II, the Greatest Plantagenet and the Dynasty’s Founder
The bitter civil war between king Stephen and his predecessor’s daughter, Matilda, saw numerous ups and downs, and devastated England. It finally came to a negotiated end in 1153, after king Stephen agreed to designate Matilda’s son, Henry Plantagenet, as his heir. The latter ascended the throne as Henry II, following Stephen’s death in 1154, and founded the Plantagenet Dynasty which ruled England for centuries.
Henry II (1133 – 1189) was probably England’s most transformative king, and his reign, from 1153 to 1189, saw the laying of some basic foundations that shaped England ever since. He was born to Matilda, daughter of England’s king Henry I, and Geoffrey the Fair, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy. Henry became ruler of Anjou and Normandy following his father’s death in 1151. The following year, he married Eleanor of Aquitaine, Europe’s greatest heiress, and added her duchy to his holding. When he succeeded to the English throne in 1154, he became Europe’s greatest monarch, ruling what came to be known as the Angevin Empire, whose territories stretched from the Scottish border to the Spanish Pyrenees.
Henry saw the delivery of justice as a king’s key function, and revolutionized England by reorganizing its legal system, with the help of his chancellor, Thomas Becket. Henry eventually fell out with Becket when the latter objected to the king’s efforts to curb the power and privileges of the clergy. It ended with Becket’s murder, but while king and chancellor had still been on good terms, they transformed England.
Henry laid the foundations for the English common law system that shaped England, and through it the US and the rest of the Anglophone world. The Assize of Clarendon in 1166 established basic criminal justice procedures, courts, and prisons to hold those awaiting trial. Henry expanded the role of the royal courts by granting them the power to settle disputes that used to be handled by alternative systems, such as ecclesiastical courts. In so doing, he imposed judicial uniformity throughout England. That uniformity was furthered by his Eyre system of circuit courts, in which royal judges traveled all around England to adjudicate criminal and civil cases. He also expanded the role of juries, and codified English law. His courts gave fast and clear verdicts, enriched the treasury, and extended royal influence and control.
Henry’s legal system provided a degree of stability and predictability that was rare in the medieval world, and rarer still as subsequent jurists and future governments strengthened and solidified it. Much of Britain’s future success as a trading, industrial, and imperial giant, rested upon the foundations laid by Henry II’s 12th century legal reforms. English – later British – entrepreneurs, secure in their property and trusting their legal system, could conduct business with a confidence that gave them an edge over foreign competitors operating in less secure and stable investment environment. The future British Empire, built on commerce, owed much to Henry.
What is perhaps most remarkable is that Henry II did all that against the backdrop of a tumultuous reign in which he had to repeatedly go to war against his own family, setting a pattern of Plantagenet intra-familial rivalry. Henry’s wife and children kept raising armed rebellions against him, and he spent much of his reign fighting his own Plantagenet brood, going to war against family members in 1173, 1181, and 1184. Henry commissioned a painting depicting him as an eagle with three of its young tearing it apart with their beaks and talons, while a fourth hangs back, waiting for an opportunity to pluck out its parent’s eyes. He died in 1189 of a broken heart upon learning that his youngest and favorite child, the hitherto loyal and obedient John (of Robin Hood and Magna Carta fame), had finally betrayed him and joined his brothers in yet another war against their father. John had been the fourth eaglet, patiently waiting on the sidelines in the painting.