Henry II of England

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Henry II Plantagenet (AD 1133-1189), Duke of Anjou, King of England (AD 1154-1189)

Born in 1133 to the Empress Matilda and her second husband, Geoffrey the Fair, Duke of Anjou.

Following the disastrous reign of King Stephen I, Henry's reign, commencing in 1154, was one of efficient consolidation. He was brought up in Anjou and visited England in 1142 to help his mother in her disputed claim to the English throne.

Prior to coming to the throne he already controlled Normandy and Anjou; his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine increased his land holdings considerably, including vast areas such as Touraine, Aquitaine and Gascony. He was thus effectively more powerful than the king of France.

During Stephen's reign, the barony had subverted feudal legislation to undermine the monarch's grip on the realm; Henry saw it as his first task to reverse this shift in power. Castles which had been built without authorisation during Stephen's reign, for example, were torn down, and an early form of taxation replaced military service as the primary duty of vassals. Record-keeping was dramatically improved in order to streamline this taxation. Jury trials were introduced, replacing trial by ordeal or battle.

As a consequence of this improvement in the legal system, the power of church courts waned. The Church, not unnaturally, opposed this and their most vehement spokesman was Thomas a Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury, formerly a close friend of Henry's. Beckett became aware of the danger of his situation and fled England in 1164. After a reconciliation between Henry and Thomas in Normandy in 1170, he returned to England. Thomas a Beckett again confronted Henry, this time over the coronation of Prince Henry. The much quoted words of Henry II echo down the centuries: "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?". A number of his knights took their king literally and assassinated Beckett in Canterbury cathedral on December 29th 1170.

Henry's attempt to divide his lands and titles amongst his sons produced nothing but treason from them. They rebelled against their father several times, often with the help of Louis VII of France. The deaths of Henry the Young King in 1183 and Geoffrey in 1186 gave him little respite; Richard the Lionheart, with the assistance of Philip II of France, attacked and defeated Henry on July 4, 1189, forcing him to accept a humiliating peace. Henry II died on July 6, 1189, in the wake of the battle.

The treasons associated with the succession were the main theme of the play, The Lion in Winter, which was made into a film starring Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn.