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Henry The Second

Henry II (1154-89) was king of England. He emerged from the chaos of the "Anarchy", the civil war between his mother Matilda and her cousin Stephen who usurped the crown against the wishes of his uncle Henry I. He married Eleanor of Aquitaine who bore him 4 sons. Only Richard The Lionheart and Bad King John, survived. He grew up in exile in Aquitaine so he spoke virtually no English.

Famous today for three things:

1. Founded the concept of The Common Law, a legal system where the law is usually determined by court decisions, and the foundation for the legal systems of the UK, the United States and Commonwealth countries such as Canada.

2. After a dispute over who should be the High King of Ireland, he took advantage of a Papal Edict of 1158 ― issued by the only English Pope, Adrian IV (born Nicholas Breakspeare (No, really)) ― that gave overlordship of Ireland to the King of England to establish an English zone of control (The Pale) around Dublin, which had repercussions for centuries to come.

3. The most (in)famous thing was that he got into a savage argument with the original Turbulent Priest, his one time friend Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, over whether the Church was subordinate to secular authority. His expression of frustration was construed to be a Royal Command: a Rhetorical Request Blunder. Four knights made haste to Canterbury and brutally murdered Becket. The murder of an archbishop at the altar of his own cathedral on orders from the King was considered the worst crime in Christendom for a long time, and clouded Henry's reputation in history. It was something Henry appeared to truly show regret and remorse for and he was publicly whipped as penance by the canons of Canterbury Cathedral. (Becket, on the other hand, got made into a saint and had a great film made about him in which he was played by Richard Burton).

England's most powerful time during the Middle Ages was during his reign. The lands under his control are known as the Angevin Empire. Not only did he rule pretty much all of Great Britain and Ireland, he also was in control of over half of France. For a while, it looked like England would become the dominant power in Western Europe, but his successors weren't as good at ruling as he was and things started to fall apart. This would eventually lead to the Hundred Years War. Modern scholars often say that Henry II was the first monarch responsible for a unified Britain.

When his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine had had enough of his infidelity, she manipulated her surviving sons into rebellion against him (known as the Great Revolt), which was successful. Henry died believing his reign had been a failure. Today, he is remembered as England's greatest Medieval king.

Tropes

  • Antagonistic Offspring: Young Henry, Richard, and John all rebelled against him. He encouraged this, to an extent, by dividing his possessions between them; resentment over who got what boiled over and all three sons ended up rebelling against the father. Richard in particular was said to have hated him fiercly.
  • Badass Bookworm: He forced Stephen of Blois to terms at Wallingford after proving to be a charismatic battle leader, and he managed to subdue the entirety of the British Isles and almost all of western France. He was also a great scholar with a keen eye for law (The Common Law started with him). He was such a scholarly man that courtiers grumbled that attending his court felt like attending school.
  • Big Screwed-Up Family
  • Fatal Flaw: His legendary temper. Had he been a bit more circumspect about how he behaved and what he said, Becket might never have died. The fallout from that was enormous. England was placed under interdict (i.e. only baptism and the last rites could be performed), Henry was made to promise he would go on crusade (he never had the chance), and his reputation was permanently stained. The legal reforms he had planned regarding the Church were shelved, and only revisited during the much more unscrupulous reign of Henry VIII.
  • Fiery Redhead
  • The Emperor / The High King: The land under his control stretched from Scotland to southern France.
  • The Good King: He has this reputation among modern scholars. And to be honest, he deserved it more than any of his sons.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: For much of his later life, despite all the good he had done for England, he was known as the king who ordered the death of a priest in his own cathedral.
  • Hot Consort: By all accounts, Eleanor was a very beautiful woman.
  • Mama's Boy: Henry was famously devoted to his mother.
  • Mother Makes You King
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: He probably never would have imagined the far-reaching consequences of the Common Law. The idea that the Law was a power unto itself sowed the seeds for the fall of the Angevin empire during the reign of John. It also gave the barons the confidence to stand up against royal tyranny.
  • Overshadowed by Awesome: He's just not as famous or infamous as his sons. Not among historians, though; Richard's reputation is mixed, and few have anything good to say about John. Henry, though, is regarded as one of England's finest monarchs.
  • Parental Favoritism: He preferred John while Eleanor liked Richard. Unfortunately for Henry, John had Chronic Backstabbing Disorder.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Definitely. It's easy to forget, given St. Thomas Becket's veneration, but Henry's objections to the Church were quite justified; under the law at the time, priests could get away with murder and kings could do nothing about it if the Church turned a blind eye. His legal reforms in general were quite reasonable, replacing things like trials by combat with jury trials. He was a very active monarch — being Angevin, rather than English or Norman, he knew that he would have to be a constant presence in the minds of his subjects, rather than an abstraction.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: The Red to Becket's Blue.
  • Rhetorical Request Blunder: Boy, did he regret it...

Works related to him

Henry Campbell BannermanAdministrivia/Useful Notes Pages in MainHenry The Third

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