Story of England - S. B. Harding

Henry II. the First Plantagenet King


How the name "Plantagenet" arose; to whom it was first applied.

The territories which Henry II. ruled; how each came to him; dates when he was King; his character.

The changes which he made in the military system; in the law courts.

What "trial by battle" was; what an "ordeal" was; the form of trial which Henry II. substituted for these.

Who Becket was; why he and the King quarreled; how it ended; Henry's penance.

The rebellions in Henry II.'s reign; whence the rebels received aid; how Henry II. died.

The Plantagenet Kings of England begin with Henry II., who became King in the year 1153, and end with Richard II. two hundred and forty-five years later. The father of Henry II. was the first to bear this name, and he received it because of his habit of wearing a sprig of the "broom" plant (planta genesta) in his cap.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

"Planta Genesta"

Henry II. was already a brilliant and powerful ruler when he became King of England. Later he gained lordship over Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. At their fullest extent, his dominions included most of the British Isles, and about half of France. This made him the most powerful monarch in all Europe.

Henry's personal appearance was striking. He had broad shoulders, a thick neck, a large round head, and a ruddy complexion. He had great physical strength, and was accustomed to riding long and hard. In one day he could make a journey for which others took twice or thrice as long. He surprised both friends and enemies with his rapid movements.

No one worked harder than did King Henry, and throughout his reign of thirty-five years his energy never failed.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Seal of Henry II

In addition, he had an orderly mind, which enabled him to make a plan, and follow it out against all obstacles. He was masterful, and forced men to follow his will. Like all his family, Henry II. was subject to terrible fits of anger, and dark stories were told of a witch ancestress from whom came the taint of blood which twisted into evil the strong passions and high courage of his race. One who knew Henry  said:

"He is a lamb when in good humor; but he is a lion, or worse than a lion, when he is seriously angry. But no one is more gentle to the distressed, more affable to the poor, more overbearing to the proud."

Henry II. began at once to restore order and to reform the government. He systematized the collection of taxes, and he replaced the bad money then in circulation with new silver coins.

He improved the military system in two ways. First, those English barons who did not wish to follow him in his wars in France were permitted to remain at home, but were required to pay a tax called "scutage," or shield money. With this money Henry hired foreign soldiers, who would go where he wished and remain with him as long as necessary. Thus the barons themselves placed in the king's hands a means of keeping them in order. In the second place, King Henry proclaimed a law which required every free man to provide himself with weapons and armor according to his means, and to be ready to serve in the army when needed. The highest class of common freemen were to have each a helmet, a coat of mail, a shield, and a lance. These improvements gave the King a stronger army, and made him independent of the barons.

Henry's greatest work was in reforming the system of law courts. He wished to establish one law for all parts of England, and for all classes of people. There were many courts, some held by the lords on their estates, or manors, and some held by the sheriffs in the shires; but there was no connection among them, and the same kind of offense might be punished more severely in one place than in another. To remedy this evil, the King appointed learned judges, whose duty it was to travel about the country and preside over each shire court, at least once a year. All people then had an opportunity to get justice from the King's own officers; and because the King's justice was good, it was preferred by the people.

A greater reform was that which made the methods by which trials were conducted.

The older models of trial depended largely upon superstition, accident, or force. Since the coming of the Normans, the most important form of trial was "trial by battle," or the duel. The accuser threw down his gauntlet, which was taken up by the person accused; then the judge set a time and place for them to fight the combat. This was really an appeal to the judgment of God, for it was supposed that God would interfere to protect the innocent and reveal the guilty.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Trial by Battle

Other forms of trial were the "ordeals." In the "ordeal by fire" the accused person was required to carry a piece of red-hot iron in his bare hand for a distance of nine feet. His hand was then bandaged by the priest, and if at the end of three days the wound was "clean," he was declared innocent. In the "ordeal by hot water" the hand was plunged into a kettle of boiling water, and then bandaged. In the "ordeal by cold water" the person accused was thrown into running water, with his hands and feet tied together. If he floated he was guilty; if he sank he was innocent, and must be hauled out.

In none of these modes of trial was there any attempt to find out the facts of the case, by hearing testimony and weighing evidence. It was one of the great merits of Henry II. that he brought into general use a reasonable form of trial—that which developed into our "trial by jury." This was first applied to cases concerning land; but later (after 1217), when the Church saw the folly and impiety of the ordeal, trial by jury was used in criminal cases as well.

Another reform made by Henry II. grew into the "grand jury," by which today a body of citizens inquires into crimes and makes "indictments" or accusations against the criminals, so that they may be brought to trial. In the olden days, when powerful protectors sometimes shielded guilty persons, and no individual dared come forward to accuse them, such an accusation, in the name of the community, was necessary.

By these judicial reforms, the administration of justice was made surer, speedier, and more certain. Jury trial also trained the people to take part in the administration of the law, and so fitted them for those larger privileges in the making of the law which were to come to them later on.

In the early part of his reign, Henry's chief counselor was Thomas Becket, his Chancellor, or chief secretary. Becket had received the highest education of the time, by study in the newly founded schools of Oxford, by travel in Italy, and by service in the church. He was known as a man of ability in public affairs. Henry showered riches and favors upon his new Chancellor; and Becket adopted a magnificent style of life, and rivaled the King himself in the splendor of his robes and the number of his servants. This did not displease Henry, so long as Thomas in return rendered him good service.

All went well until the King wished to carry his reforms into the church also. He wished especially to place the members of the clergy under the control of the state courts, so that a churchman who committed a crime might be tried by the same law and suffer the same penalties as other persons. As it was, a churchman was tried in a Church court, and often escaped with very light punishment. Henry saw the evils of this system, and sought to secure a reform by appointing his friend Becket to the highest position in the English church. Thomas protested, saying:

"I warn you that, if such a thing should be, our friendship would soon turn to bitter hate."

But, in spite of this warning, Henry carried out his plan, and made Becket Archbishop of Canterbury.

Becket seemed to change his nature at once. He resigned his office of Chancellor, saying that he must now give all his time to the Church. He continued to wear splendid robes, but under them he wore horsehair garments, and his great banquets to the nobles now became feasts for the poor.

The King was determined to make his law supreme over all persons in the kingdom, while the archbishop was equally determined to keep the independence of the Church. Thus a quarrel arose. Becket soon fled to France, and there for seven years he kept appealing to the Pope and to the King of France for help against King Henry. At last a reconciliation was agreed to, and Becket returned to England. But he soon showed that he had forgotten and forgiven nothing. He punished with the power of the Church all those who had sided against him; even the Archbishop of York, the second great churchman of England, was "excommunicated"—that is, cut off from the fellowship of the Church—because he had, in Becket's absence, performed some acts which, as Becket claimed, only the Archbishop of Canterbury could perform.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury

When news of these events reached Henry, in Normandy, he was beside himself with rage.

"What a pack of cowards have I kept about me," he cried, "that not one of them will avenge me against this upstart priest."

Four knights who heard the King took him at his word. They slipped across to England, where they found Becket in his cathedral church at Canterbury.

"Where is the traitor? Where is the archbishop?" they cried.

"Here am I," replied Thomas, "no traitor, but a priest of God."

Angry words followed. The knights demanded that he withdraw his excommunication, and Becket refused, with bitter revelings. Thereupon, they struck him to the ground, and slew him as he lay.

King Henry owed no thanks to his brutal knights for their foul murder. Their deed shocked the whole of Christendom, and did great injury to the King's cause. The people looked upon Becket as a martyr, and for centuries pilgrims streamed to Canterbury to visit Becket's tomb.

For a time Henry was glad to leave his kingdom. He crossed over to Ireland, to receive the submission of its warlike chiefs, and to avoid the Pope's legates. When the first burst of indignation was over, Henry made his peace with the Church. He swore that he was innocent of any part in Becket's murder, and promised to recall his reforms concerning the Church. Later he paid a visit to Canterbury, to do penance for his sin. After walking barefoot, from the city walls to the cathedral, he knelt at the tomb of Saint Thomas, and prayed all night for forgiveness, while the monks of the place passed by and smote with rods his bared back.

Henry's need to be reconciled with the Church was pressing. A great rebellion had broken out at this time among his barons, both in England and in France, because of the overthrow of their feudal privileges. The Kings of France and Scotland, as well as Henry's eldest son, joined in the attack; and even his Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, tried to escape in man's clothing to join the rebels.

In spite of this formidable array, the energy of the king, the loyalty of his officials, and the favor of the people enabled him to triumph. On the very day that Henry left Canterbury, after performing his penance at the tomb of Saint Thomas, the king of the Scots was surprised and captured in the north of England. The rebellion ended almost at once. During the remaining fifteen years of his reign Henry was master of his realm, and was able to carry through, without further hindrance, his far-reaching reforms.

These fifteen years were the time of Henry's greatest power, yet they brought him only bitterness of spirit, for his wife and sons were turned against him. For ten years his eldest son, Henry, seized every opportunity to attack his father. Then, when this prince died, his next son, Richard, acted in like manner. Warfare with his sons, and constant watching for conspiracies, changed the King's own character, and he became gloomy and harsh.

At last, in 1189, Richard formed a widespread conspiracy, and with the aid of the King of France suddenly seized some of his father's French territories. Henry II. was now old and ill; he was surrounded by enemies, and was taken by surprise. He was forced to accept a humiliating treaty, and to agree that Richard's allies might transfer their allegiance from himself to Richard. A list was given to him of those who were in the secret league with Richard, and at its head he saw the name of his youngest and favorite son, John.

"He cursed the day on which he was born," says a chronicler, "and pronounced upon his sons the curse of God and of himself, which he would never withdraw."

Sick at heart he took to his bed, and a few days later died, muttering at the last these words:

"Shame, shame, on a conquered King."

Though Henry II. died in despair, his life was not unsuccessful. He was indeed selfish, and harsh, and often he was violent in his deeds. Yet his reign was a great benefit to England, and he deserves to rank among the greatest of her kings. He kept down the rebellious nobles, restored order in the government, and introduced reforms into the administration of justice; and the benefits of his rule have continued to the present day.


  1. Show on a map the possessions of Henry II.
  2. What are the advantages of jury by trial over the older forms of trial?
  3. What does a grand jury do?
  4. Find out what you can about the life and character of Becket. Where was he buried? How did the people show respect for his memory?
  5. Make a list of the things which show that Henry II. was a great King.