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Stephen of England & Henry II of England

Stephen of England & Henry II of England


Henry II (1133 - 1189)

Henry II © King of England from 1154, Henry strengthened royal administration but suffered from quarrels with Thomas Becket and his own family.

Henry was born at Le Mans in north west France on 4 March 1133. His father was Count of Anjou and his mother Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England. Henry had named Matilda as his successor to the English throne but her cousin Stephen had taken over.

In 1150 - 1151, Henry became ruler of Normandy and Anjou, after the death of his father. In 1152, he married Eleanor of Aquitaine, the greatest heiress in western Europe. In 1153, he crossed to England to pursue his claim to the throne, reaching an agreement that he would succeed Stephen on his death, which occurred in 1154.

Henry's now began to restore order. Using his talented chancellor Thomas Becket, Henry began reorganising the judicial system. The Assize of Clarendon (1166) established procedures of criminal justice, establishing courts and prisons for those awaiting trial. In addition, the assizes gave fast and clear verdicts, enriched the treasury and extended royal control.

In 1164, Henry reasserted his ancestral rights over the church. Now archbishop of Canterbury, Becket refused to comply. An attempted reconciliation failed and Becket punished priests who had co-operated with Henry. On hearing this Henry reportedly exclaimed, 'Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?' Four knights took his words literally and murdered Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in December 1170. Almost overnight Becket became a saint. Henry reconciled himself with the church, but royal control over the church changed little.

In 1169, an Anglo-Norman force landed in Ireland to support of one of the claimants to the Irish high kingship. Fearing the creation of a separate Norman power to the west, Henry travelled to Dublin to assert his overlordship of the territory they had won. And so, an English presence in Ireland was established. In the course of his reign, Henry had dominion over territories stretching from the Ireland to the Pyrenees.

Henry now had problems within his own family. His sons - Henry, Geoffrey, Richard and John - mistrusted each other and resented their father's policy of dividing land among them. There were serious family disputes in 1173, 1181 and 1184. The king's attempt to find an inheritance for John led to opposition from Richard and Philip II of France. Henry was forced to give way. News that John had also turned against him hastened Henry's death on 6 July 1189.


Henry II

The new king
Henry Plantagent, Count of Anjou, was barely one and twenty when he became king of England. Already his audacity and ambition had been displayed by the wooing and winning of Eleanor of Aquitaine, an alliance which added to his dominions about a quarter of the whole French realm.

The lady's marriage with her previous husband, the king of France, had been annulled, owing to incom­patibility of temper. With the English in­heritance came that of Normandy, carrying with it Maine and the over-lordship of Brittany, so that in his own right or in that of his wife he was actual lord of more than half of France, besides having disputed claims on Toulouse.

In respect of these counties and duchies the king of France was his suzerain in respect of England he was of course entirely inde­pendent. The populations which owned his sway even on the other side of the channel were exceedingly diverse and undoubtedly it was his ambition to weld all these dominions into a consolidated empire.

Hence more than half the years of his reign were spent on the continent and we have to realise that he was not a king of England with continental possessions so much as a great continental prince who happened also to be king of England. But since he did happen to be king of England it was in this country that he found scope for his genius as a ruler, while France absorbed his talents for war, diplomacy, and intrigue.

Order restored
He found England utterly sickened and surfeited with the anarchy of Stephen's reign and ready to welcome the strong hand which should put down disorder. Young as he was, he displayed at once a combined vigour and shrewdness which won him support on every side. In nine months he had restored order and government.

The mercenaries were cleared out of the country and the unlicensed castles were levelled to the ground. The nobles who dreamed of recalcitrancy, of asserting their right to follow their own devices, were paralysed by the swift energy of his movements.

Men no longer felt that each had to fight for his own hand the majority were ready enough to combine on the side of law and order when the principles of law and order were incarnated in a chief endowed with so vigorous and capable a personality.

Henry took nominally for his chief counsellor Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, a prelate trained in the school of Roger of Salisbury, who had been the right-hand man of Henry I. For chancellor he took the archbishop's brilliant young secretary, Thomas Becket, a man after the king's own heart, to whom Theobald willingly relinquished the onerous work of the king's chief minister.

The administrative system which had been organised by his grandfather and had gone to ruin under the general chaos of Stephen's reign was restored, and for some years to come Henry allowed himself to be absorbed mainly by his continental ambitions.

During these years, however, he took advantage of the youth of the king of Scots, Malcolm IV., the grandson of David, to compel him to surrender the claims on Northumberland and Cumberland which Henry had promised David to acknowledge, and to do homage for his earldom of Huntingdon.

Scutage
Henry's French wars established the important institution of scutage. He could summon the barons and their feudal levies to his banner, but their attendance could only be required for a limited period. Hence the system was extremely inconvenient for him and also for them.

Therefore they welcomed a scheme under which they were allowed to commute personal service with their levies for a proportionate money payment, to which was given the name of "scutage" or shield-money.

The scutage enabled the king on his side to hire soldiery who were directly in his own pay and were, by consequence, exclusively devoted to his interests. On the other hand, the barons being virtually released from their feudal obligation to maintain forces ready to take the field ceased to do so, with the obvious result that they ceased also to be ready to take the field on their own account.

This commutation had already been practised in respect of land held by the Church but its extension to the lay baronage immensely increased the military power of the Crown. Some twenty years later another step in the same direction was taken by the Assize of Arms, which reconstituted the national fyrd and regulated the arms which all freeholders, burghers, and freemen were required to carry.

Becket's appointment
In 1162 Archbishop Theobald died. The Church, with ample justification, had acquired under Stephen many relaxations of its subordination to the Crown rules established under the Conqueror and under Henry I fell into abeyance.

Henry II was resolved to re-establish the claims of the Crown but was willing to wait for Theobald's death. Now it seemed that his time had come, and he conceived that he had an instrument ready to his hand in his chancellor, Thomas Becket, who had hitherto seen eye to eye with him.

He nominated Thomas to the archbishopric. Becket, as chancellor, acted the role of the great minister of the Crown with dramatic zeal and enthusiasm but he had a different conception of his duties as archbishop. He had become the head of the Church and in that capacity he was no longer the servant of the Crown, but the champion of the Church against all comers, resolute to surrender no tittle of her privileges.

Since the part was thrust upon him he would play it like his previous part with dramatic thoroughness, of which martyrdom would be a welcome climax. In the meanwhile the brilliant and worldly statesman, the king's boon companion, the cleric before whose lance knights had been known to go down, became the ascetic devotee, the father of the poor, the servant of the Lord's servants.

Now the reforms on which Henry was set were twofold. On the one side he claimed the recovery for the Crown of those rights which it had successfully maintained in the time of the Conqueror and Henry I. On the other he demanded the curtailment of ecclesiastical powers which had grown out of that complete separation of ecclesiastical and temporal jurisdictions for which William Iand Lanfranc had been responsible.

A History of Britain

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.


Matilda or Maud?

Maud and Matilda are variations on the same name Matilda is the Latin form of the Saxon name Maud and was usually used in official documents, especially of Norman origin.

Some writers use Empress Maud as their consistent designation for Empress Matilda. These are useful notes to distinguish this Matilda from the many other Matildas around her:

  • Henry I had at least one illegitimate daughter also named Maud or Matilda.
  • Robert, Earl of Gloucester, was married to a Matilda.
  • The rival of Empress Matilda for the crown of England was her cousin Stephen, whose wife, also a cousin of the Empress, was also named Maud or Matilda. Stephen's mother, Adela of Normandy, was a sister of Henry I.
  • The Empress Matilda's mother was Matilda of Scotland.

Stephen

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Stephen, also called Stephen Of Blois, (born c. 1097—died Oct. 25, 1154, Dover, Kent, Eng.), king of England from 1135 to 1154. He gained the throne by usurpation but failed to consolidate his power during the ensuing civil strife.

Stephen was the third son of Stephen, Count of Blois and Chartres, and Adela, daughter of King William I the Conqueror. He was reared by his uncle, King Henry I, and received vast lands in England, Normandy, and the county of Boulogne. With a number of other magnates he was pledged to support Henry’s daughter, Matilda (q.v.), as successor to the throne. Nevertheless, many English nobles were reluctant to accept a woman ruler, and Henry’s Norman subjects resented Matilda’s marriage into an Angevin family. Consequently, after Henry I died in December 1135, the leading lords and bishops welcomed Stephen when he crossed the English Channel to claim the crown. In return for support from the pope, Stephen opened the way to increased papal influence in English political affairs.

Although Stephen was brave and energetic, his affable, mild-mannered nature prevented him from providing firm leadership. The lawlessness of his Flemish mercenaries and the desperate measures he took to build a party loyal to himself only alienated the barons. Hence, in 1138 Matilda’s half brother, the powerful Robert, Earl of Gloucester, took up arms in support of Matilda’s claim. At first Stephen scored several military triumphs, but he lost the support of the church when he arrested Bishop Roger of Salisbury and his relatives.

Seizing her opportunity, Matilda invaded England (September 1139). In an incredible display of chivalry, Stephen had Matilda escorted to Bristol, and she proceeded to bring most of western England under her control. Early in 1141 the Angevins captured Stephen in a battle at Lincoln. His cause might have been lost had not Matilda’s arrogance provoked a rebellion of the citizens of London, where she had gone for her coronation. In November Stephen was exchanged for Gloucester, who had been captured by forces loyal to the king. Stephen gradually gained the upper hand, and in 1148 Matilda withdrew from England.

Although Stephen at this point exercised nominal control over most of the kingdom, he had neither the resources nor the will to suppress lawlessness and to mediate between warring nobles. He hoped only to secure the succession for his son, Eustace, but to do so he had to deal with Matilda’s son, Henry of Anjou, who invaded England in January 1153 to claim his royal inheritance. When Eustace died in August, Stephen lost heart he signed a treaty designating Henry as his successor. At Stephen’s death, Henry ascended the throne as King Henry II.


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Later years and downfall

Few Kings have ever had to face a bleaker situation with his own family against him and invasions on all sides, but Henry held off despair for long enough to defeat all the rebellions and reclaim his lordship over the Empire.

His life, however, could never be the same again. Eleanor was imprisoned, and all the King’s sons but his youngest John could never be fully trusted.

Embittered and resentful, the final years of his reign had him in a strong position but a state of acute misery and mistrust.

By the end of his life his eldest son, Richard, was once again in open rebellion. In hot French weather in 1189 the tired and ailing King met his son and acknowledged him, with some bitterness, as his heir.

Sick and perhaps tired of life, he died shortly after, to be succeeded by the man who would one day be known as the Lionheart, but who had showed little courage in his treatment of his own father.

Henry was not a perfect man. His temper, odd ways and distance as divinely ordained monarch ultimately turned his family against him, but few historians can contend that he was a fine King.

By the end of his reign, his more famous heir was able to leave a stable and prosperous Kingdom and lead the forces of England east to face Saladin and win renown across the world.


Henry II and Thomas Becket

Henry II, King of England (1133 – 89) succeeded King Stephen in 1154. Henry was not Stephen’s son, but took the throne because Stephen had recognised Henry as his heir in the Treaty of Winchester (1153). The new King was the lawful son of Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. On Geoffrey’s death young Henry inherited Normandy, Maine (not the State in New England please), Touraine, Brittany and Anjou, in France. This last section of France made Henry the first Angevin King of England.
Henry married the richest woman in Europe, Eleanor de Aquitaine in 1152 when he was 19. Eleanor had been abandoned by a French King, Louis VI, for reasons that are too complicated to go into. The marriage brought Henry even greater estates than he had before, and his kingdom now stretched from the north of England south to the Pyrenees.

These territories were enhanced by the homage of King Malcolm III of Scotland in 1157, and his recognition by the barons of Ireland as their overlord in 1171. All in all, young Henry had a very great deal going for him. He was tall, bad tempered, athletic, good-looking and a typical Plantagenet.

First, Henry had to deal vigorously with the mess, meyhem and ruin left by the disastrous previous reign and civil wars. He ruthlessly eliminated those barons who had illegally built castles during Stephen’s reign. He confirmed the Laws of Scutage in 1157 Scutage represented English military obligations, including a kind of medieval obligatory ‘call-up’. His subjects were reminded that they must by Law equip themselves for military service. He went on to initiate a number of legal reforms in the Assizes of Clarendon and Northampton. It was during Henry’s reign that land-laws were developed in order to meet the needs of a more complex society.

Henry and Eleanor had sons, each one of which provided endless complications for the King and Queen as father and mother. They were Henry, who died in his youth Richard (known as The Lionheart) who became Richard I John (known as Lackland) who became John I (of Robin Hood fame), and Geoffrey, by far the cleverest of the three, who never became anything important. Each of these roused rebellions against his father in the period between 1171 and 74. Henry imprisoned all three at one time or another, as well as locking up his rich wife for years, on the grounds that she was backing his sons against him, especially Richard. The latter was a great soldier and fine strategist who married Berengaria of Spain, though as he was an active homosexual there were no fruits of the marriage.

Henry’s biggest mistake was the appointment of his friend and crony Thomas Becket, a cunning Norman, to the See of Canterbury. The King thought (in vain) that through Becket he would be able to rule the Church, but Becket did not share this good idea. As Head of the Catholic Church in England he caused Henry endless trouble. He excommunicated Beaumont and other important barons, and Henry, who had liked him very much, realised that Becket would have to go. In his cups with his faithful lords, he suggested it might be a good idea for Becket to die. He lived to regret this, as four of the barons decided (without informing the King of their intention) to ride from London to Canterbury, where they entered the great church while Becket and a monk were celebrating High Mass. They slaughtered both Becket and the monk, thus creating a martyr. Shortly afterwards the Pope, for ever ready in case he could do Britain some damage, made Becket a saint, which, if he had known it in life, would have made Thomas Becket laugh out loud.

After the canonisation of Thomas, Henry II had himself soundly scourged by willing monks in repentance for having suggested Becket’s death, and quietly told the murderers to exile themselves in France quickly, on pain of death. The King died, exhausted by his work, his rebellious sons and his clever scheming wife, in 1189, aged only fifty-six. After his death Pope Alexander III forgave Henry for the murder of Thomas Becket, an act which would have him, also, laugh out loud.

There are two excellently written, acted and directed movies which deal with the adult life of Henry II. They are Becket (1964) with Peter O’Toole as Henry and Richard Burton as Becket, and The Lion in Winter (1968) with O’Toole as an ageing Henry, Katharine Hepburn magnificent as Eleanor, and Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton in small parts.

Thomas à Becket (1118 – 1170) was a Londoner, born into a comfortably-off Norman family he was educated in Paris and Bologna, where he acquired notoriety as a bit of a scoundrel and ladykiller. Being a second son, there was little else he could do but enter the church, which he did as a deacon. As a young man he served at the court of Henry II, and though he was fifteen years older, became the King’s closest friend and confidant.

Henry made him Chancellor of England in 1155. He was eminently good at his job, much loved by the people of London, and renowned for his good works. He had become Archdeacon of Canterbury in 1154, and easily managed to combine being a prince of the Church with the more worldly position as Chancellor. One should note that a chancellor of England in the twelfth century was equivalent in power and prestige to the Prime Minister of today.

As Chancellor, Becket travelled a good deal, and was both statesman and diplomat. Everything seemed smooth and happy when Henry suddenly made Becket Archibishop of Canterbury, thus elevating him to the highest post in the English Catholic Church, acting directly for the Pope. As archbishop, Becket did not feel bound by any laws of England or the King, but became a determined defender of the rights of the Church in the face of the King. It is important to relate that history notes Henry’s wife Eleanor of Aquitaine could not stand Becket, and nor could Henry’s mother. They considered him a middle-class upstart, and disliked his open friendship with the King.

Before long Becket clashed with Henry in the councils at Westminster, Clarendon and Northampton, especially over Henry’s claim to try in the lay courts clergymen who had already been convicted in an ecclesiastical court. This was important because churchmen very often misbehaved rashly (above all in sexual matters) in medieval times, and Henry did not consider any punishment meted out by an ecclesiastical court harsh enough. When a priest accused of rape was executed by a local baron (de Beaumont), Becket promptly excommunicated him, which made the King very angry indeed as de Beaumont was a crony.

Henry the King and Becket the Archbishop had a number of terrific public rows, leading to the latter’s escaping to exile in France, where he was well received by the French monarch. Henry begged him to return, and he did so, apparently reconciled, in 1170. Re-installed at Canterbury as archbishop, Becket immediately suspended the judgments made at Clarendon and Northampton, judgments especially planned and recommended by Henry. He also fired a number of bishops appointed in his absence by the King.

Henry’s Plantagenet blood got the better of him, and in a moment of rage aided by the bottle, he said something in a low voice which was misinterpreted (or so they later claimed) by four of his soldier barons. Legend tells us that he asked, “Who will rid me of this troublesome (in some accounts ‘irksome’) priest?” The knights rode off the seventy miles to Canterbury and cut Becket down by his own high altar in Canterbury Cathedral. He was made a saint in 1173, and his grave at Canterbury became a popular shrine, much visited as part of a pilgrimage. It was such a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury that inspired Geoffrey Chaucer to write one of the great classical poems of the English language, The Canterbury Tales.


Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I: a queen in a king’s world

Power was inherently and inescapably male in the Middle Ages. The images displayed on the Great Seal of England encapsulated expectations of a medieval monarch: on one side the king sat in state to administer justice to his people, a sceptre in his hand on the other he rode a towering warhorse with his sword unsheathed, ready to defend his kingdom. But a woman couldn’t sit as a judge or lead an army into battle. A woman, therefore, could not rule. That, at least, was the unspoken assumption.

However, England in the early 12th century had few hard-and-fast principles of government that could dictate the course of political events. After all, the kingdom had just experienced the greatest upheaval imaginable, the conquest of 1066, which left a new Norman aristocracy surveying an unfamiliar political landscape full of possibility and uncertainty, and one with lands on both sides of the Channel.

One unresolved question was how England’s Norman crown was to be passed on. William the Conqueror himself had been bastard-born, and he was succeeded as king by his second son, William Rufus, followed by his youngest, Henry I, even though their eldest brother Robert Curthose was still alive. It seemed as though England’s Norman monarchs would be chosen through some combination of designation and realpolitik from among the members of a particular dynastic bloodline, which might become a bloodbath if competition got out of hand.

Matilda’s life: a timeline

1102: Birth of Matilda

Matilda is born to Edith, daughter of King Malcolm III of Scotland, two years after her father, Henry I, took the throne of England following the death of his brother, William Rufus.

1110: Journey to empress

Matilda makes the long journey to the duchy of Lower Lorraine to meet her future husband, the Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich V (pictured right), whom she marries in January 1114

1127: Matilda returns to England

Following the death of Heinrich in 1125, Matilda returns to England whereupon her father commands his Anglo-Norman nobles to swear an oath that they will support his daughter as his successor if he dies without a male heir.

1141: Stephen beaten

Stephen is defeated at the battle of Lincoln and is captured by Robert, Earl of Gloucester. Matilda is declared ‘Lady of England and Normandy’, but, following preparations for her coronation, Londoners drive her out of Westminster. Matilda escapes a siege at Winchester by forces loyal to Stephen, but her brother, Robert, is captured. The captive King Stephen is then exchanged for Robert, Earl of Gloucester, and civil war continues.

1144: Normandy is conquered

Geoffrey of Anjou conquers Normandy in Matilda’s name. By the end of the year, Stephen no longer holds a single Norman stronghold.

1148: Matilda leaves England

Matilda leaves England to return to Normandy.

1150: Henry gets Normandy

The government of the duchy of Normandy is handed from Geoffrey of Anjou to his son, Henry.

1153: Treaty signed

The Treaty of Winchester is signed. Stephen is to remain king until his death, upon which Henry succeeds as lawful heir to the throne of England.

1154: Henry II becomes king

Stephen dies and Henry is crowned King Henry II – 19 years after the death of his grandfather, King Henry I.

1167: Matilda’s death

Matilda dies in September and is buried in Bec Abbey, Normandy. The inscription on her grave reads: ‘Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest in her offspring, here lies the daughter, wife and mother of Henry’.

But the ad hoc, shallow-rooted precedents of the last 50 years precipitated crisis when Henry I died in 1135. His own accession to the throne had been achieved by means of a coup: Henry was with his brother William Rufus when the king was killed by a stray arrow in the New Forest in 1100, and he wasted no time in riding headlong for Winchester and Westminster to secure the royal treasury and his own coronation.

Henry, however, was the archetypal poacher-turned-gamekeeper. He had seized the throne by force, but his own bloodline, he was determined, would inherit by royal right. All his hopes were, therefore, pinned on his only legitimate son, William – but, to Henry’s horror and prostrating grief, the young man drowned in the wreck of the White Ship in 1120.

Henry’s son was gone, but he still had a daughter, Matilda. She, Henry insisted, would be his heir. Nor, under pressure from this frighteningly authoritative king, did his nobles demur – the only argument that erupted when they were summoned to swear that they would support Matilda as Henry’s successor concerned the question of who should have the honour of taking the oath first. No one spoke out to declare that a woman could not rule in her own right. After all, if there was no precedent to say that she could, there was equally none to say that she couldn’t.

All that stood in the way of Matilda’s path to the throne, it transpired, was another coup exactly like the one that had made her father king. When Henry died in 1135, his nephew Stephen raced from Boulogne to Winchester where he was crowned before Matilda (who was immobilised by pregnancy in her second husband’s county of Anjou) knew what was happening.

Two distinct forms of royal legitimacy now stood in opposition to one another: the sacred anointing of a man with royal blood in his veins who could offer leadership of a familiar and decisive kind and the designated succession of a woman who was the only legitimate child of the previous king.

The result was civil war. Despite her sex, Matilda’s claim was not dismissed out of hand by the nobles she sought to rule. In fact, she proved able to command enough support that by the summer of 1141 her army, led by her illegitimate half-brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester, had defeated and captured Stephen at the battle of Lincoln, while Matilda advanced to Westminster, just outside London’s city gates, to prepare for her own coronation.

Still no one tried to make the theoretical argument that a woman was incapable of ruling. But in practice it was here, on the very brink of power, that the ways in which Matilda did not ‘fit’ the crown she claimed began to be articulated for the first time. “All chroniclers agree that in her hour of victory she displayed an intolerable pride and wilfulness”, one historian of the period remarks, and support for that suggestion is not hard to find.

“She at once put on an extremely arrogant demeanour instead of the modest gait and bearing proper to the gentle sex”, the anonymous author of the Gesta Stephani (the ‘Deeds of Stephen’) complained, while Henry of Huntingdon declared censoriously that “she was lifted up into an insufferable arrogance … and alienated the hearts of almost everyone.”

This has become the defining account of the difficulties Matilda faced at the crucial moment when the kingdom lay within her hands. However, closer scrutiny suggests that the situation was more complex than simply that (as another historian suggests) “an aspect of her character which had not so far been apparent … let her down.”

Matilda was trying to become Queen of England, not in the conventional sense of a king’s wife, but in the unprecedented form of a female king. Kings were – and were required to be – supremely commanding and authoritative.

But when Matilda tried to command her subjects with her new royal authority, she found herself condemned as unfemininely wilful and unnaturally domineering. “… she did not rise respectfully, as she should have, when [the chief men of the whole kingdom] bowed before her,” the Gesta Stephani went on, “or agree to what they asked, but repeatedly sent them away with contumely, rebuffing them by an arrogant answer and refusing to hearken to their words and by this time she no longer relied on their advice, as she should have, and had promised them, but arranged everything as she herself thought fit and according to her own arbitrary will.”

The arrogance of a woman

What this boils down to, when issues of style and substance are disentangled, is that Matilda did not do exactly what her advisers told her. It is hard to imagine quite what her father would have said to the suggestion that his counsellors should have the last word in his government – or indeed what he would have had to do to be accused of ‘insufferable arrogance’.

The expectation of unquestioning obedience, and the punishment of those who did not comply with his commands, had been indissoluble elements of Henry’s kingship. How, then, could Matilda achieve an authority to match her father’s if she could employ only the ‘modest gait and bearing proper to the gentle sex’ to command her kingdom?

It wasn’t, in other words, that her fledgling regime was crippled by the sudden revelation of previously undetected personal flaws. Instead, she was taking her first steps in the new persona of a female monarch, and found herself stumbling over the implicit contradictions between being a woman and being a king.

Listen: Catherine Hanley tells the story of Empress Matilda, whose battle for the English throne became known as ‘the anarchy’, on the HistoryExtra podcast:

Matilda never got her coronation. The Londoners – whose overwhelming economic interest in the trade route through Stephen’s lands on the continent predisposed them to support her imprisoned rival – drove her from Westminster, before the crown could be placed on her head. And her ‘intolerable pride and wilfulness’ disappeared as rapidly as they had come.

So far was she, in fact, from being intractably arrogant that what turned out to be 19 long years of civil war were finally ended by Matilda’s acutely pragmatic realisation that she could achieve victory for her cause only by retiring from the fray, leaving the country in 1148. She gave up her claim to her son, who took the throne after Stephen’s death in 1154 as King Henry II, reuniting the legitimacy of his mother’s claim with his own ability to embody the functions of kingship in uncomplicatedly male form.

Matilda’s story left a complex and ambiguous precedent in English politics. Women could pass on the throne to their male heirs, that much was clear, and no principle had been explicitly established to exclude them from the succession.

But there was no neutral political ground on which a woman could stand to exercise power that contemporaries (and historians since) assumed was ‘naturally’ male. This is a conclusion that remains as thought provoking now, amid the supposedly ‘new politics’ of 2010, as it was 900 years ago.

Helen Castor is a historian of Medieval England, and Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Her book, She Wolves – The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth, is published by Faber and Faber Limited


Stephen of England & Henry II of England - History

Stephen's succession to the throne (1135)

illiam Rufus, the King of England since 1087 died in 1100 and because he died without having any children his younger brother Henry claimed the English throne and became the next King of England as Henry I. In Normandy, William and Henry had another brother called Robert. Robert was older than Henry and the Normans in England wanted Robert to become the King of England instead of Henry. Henry had been born in England at Selby in Yorkshire and the English people regarded him as an Englishman. The English nobles preferred to see an Englishman on the throne rather than another Norman like William Rufus. Robert was returning from the Crusades when William died and was unable to prevent Henry becoming King of England.

Henry married Matilda Edith, the great-grandchild of Edmund Ironside who had been King of England for a few months in 1016. The marriage strengthened the English peoples' support for Henry but it was unpopular with the Norman barons living in England.

The Charter of Henry I, King of England

When King Henry was coronated he promised to abolish the unpopular laws that had been brought in by William Rufus. The charter made it fairer for the rightful heirs of nobles to claim the property of their deceased fathers without having to pay large sums as they did before. Fines for illegal acts would be paid based on the severity of the act, and the laws of the land would be properly upheld.

In 1101 Robert crossed the English Channel from Normandy with an army intent on taking the English throne from Henry. In July Robert landed at Portsmouth and marched north to Alton on the way to London. He was met by a strong English army and decided the best course of action would be to sign a peace treaty. Henry and Robert both signed The Treaty of Alton and Robert gave up his claim to the English throne in return for 3,000 marks a year from Henry. The agreement also ensured that Robert's supporters in England would not be punished. In 1106 Henry crossed to Normandy attacking and capturing Robert. Robert was transported back to England and then to Wales where he was imprisoned in Cardiff Castle until his death. Henry added the lands of Normandy to his domain.

The Tragedy of the White Ship (1120)

Henry and Matilda Edith had a son called William Adelin. William was heir to the English throne until the tragedy of the sinking of the White Ship. It should have been a straight forward sea crossing from Normandy to England and the weather was good, but the young prince and his young friends had delayed the sailing with their merrymaking in Normandy. The crew of the White Ship were supplied with beer and were in no state to handle the ship safely. Shortly after leaving harbour the ship hit rocks and began to sink. Prince William was initially saved and placed in a small boat but on his orders he tried to rescue his sister and the boat was overwhelmed by others desperate to be saved. The small boat tipped over and the prince was drowned.

Matilda nominated as heir

King Henry's only son was now dead but he did have a daughter named Matilda. Henry chose Matilda as heir to the English throne, but choosing a woman rather than a man to rule the country was not popular and the choice was opposed by the Norman barons. Henry managed to get the agreement of the barons but this agreement would only last while Henry was alive.

Henry dies and the agreement is broken

King Henry I died on December 1st of 1135 and the agreement with his barons to make Matilda Queen of England was ignored. The barons choose Stephen, Henry's nephew and grandson of William the Conqueror. Stephen was a Norman like the barons and unlike Matilda who the barons considered English because her mother was an English woman. Matilda was also married to a Frenchman, Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, and enemy of Normandy. If Matilda became Queen it was possible that Geoffrey would become King of England after her death. Stephen became King of England on December 22nd of 1135 and was crowned at Westminster Abbey on the 26th. Matilda and Geoffrey left England for their own safety but they planned how to overthrow Stephen and claim the English their own safety. The resulting conflict between Stephen and Matilda would become a civil war.


The King and his castle: how Henry II rebuilt his reputation

Henry II spent vast sums making Dover Castle the mightiest fortress in the land. Yet, as John Gillingham argues, he did so not to protect his realm but to save face following the murder of Thomas Becket

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Published: August 3, 2009 at 7:21 am

On the evening of the fifth day of Christmas 1170, as the monks of Canterbury chanted vespers, four knights in armour pushed their way into the cathedral church where the archbishop was waiting for them. They killed him with sword strikes at his head while his brains and blood oozed out over the paving stones, they looted his palace. The four killers had ridden from King Henry II’s court. No one doubted that behind the most notorious murder in medieval history lay the king’s anger.

Thomas Becket, the archbishop who for years had very publicly stood for the privilege of the church against the secular power of the state, had been publicly killed by agents of that state. Henry, like the rest of Europe, was shocked. He shut himself away and would see no one. For three days, the most powerful ruler in the west – king of England, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, count of Anjou – did not leave his room. None of his subjects quite believed his protestations of innocence – though such was his power and ruthlessness that few of them dared to accuse him openly. Outside his dominions, there were no such inhibitions.

Within a few weeks miracles of healing were said to have occurred where Becket fell. In 1172 Henry acknowledged a degree of guilt and was formally reconciled with the church, but his reputation remained in shreds. In February 1173 the pope declared Becket a saint and a martyr for the liberty of the church. And a few months later, Henry’s situation got dramatically worse: his three most powerful neighbours, King Louis VII of France, King William of Scotland and Count Philip of Flanders, launched invasions of his lands from south and north, while simultaneously his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his elder sons rose in rebellion. Few kings have ever faced so great a political and military crisis. Yet he overcame it, and ironically he and many others came to believe that he owed his survival to the help of St Thomas Becket.

During the last ten years of his reign Henry oversaw the rebuilding of Dover Castle on such a scale as to turn it into the greatest fortress in western Europe, a massive symbol of the kind of power – secular and military – to which Thomas had fallen victim. Yet Dover Castle too owed its construction to St Thomas.

For ten consecutive years, beginning in the financial year 1179–80, Henry spent more money on Dover than on any other castle in England. From 1179 until his death his outlay on the fortress totalled £5,991. This was almost two-thirds of total recorded expenditure on all English castles (£9,263) during those years – the greatest concentration of money on a single English castle in history.

Ever since the record of this prodigious expenditure was published in the 1950s by R Allen Brown, then Britain’s leading castle historian, scholars have tried to explain just what was so special about Dover. Allen Brown’s own explanation was in terms of military strategy. He never tired of quoting the description of the castle as “the key to England” – by the mid-13th-century chronicler Matthew Paris. Its strategic location, commanding the shortest crossing to the continent, led to the natural assumption that so massive a castle was designed as a frontier fortress ready to hold any invader at bay – just as it was when Napoleon and Adolf Hitler dominated the continent.

Dover had long been the site of an important fortification and the financial records of Henry II’s reign show that he had occasionally spent money here – about £500 in total in the first 25 years of his reign (1154–79), including £236 over the two years 1172–74 when Count Philip of Flanders was threatening to invade. But in 1179 and throughout the 1180s there was no invasion scare. Count Philip, when he wasn’t thinking about crusading, looked to Henry for help against the young king of France, Philip Augustus. In the 1190s King Philip was to make territorial gains in north-eastern France at the expense of Flanders. But England was in no danger from the king of France for as long as England’s king also ruled Normandy – as he did until 1204 when the outcome of King John’s political ineptitude was the loss of that great duchy. It was only after 1204 that Dover found itself in the front line of Anglo-French rivalry. This cannot explain what happened in the 1180s.

Symbol of authority

If Dover was not a response to military threat, then some other explanation was needed. The castle no doubt functioned as a powerful symbol of authority, and few symbols could be better placed than one visible to all shipping using the straits. But why did Henry feel this particularly in 1179? In recent years English castle specialists have argued that Dover Castle was Henry’s riposte to the burgeoning cult of Saint Thomas. At this time the monks of Canterbury Cathedral were rebuilding the east end of their church, including the magnificent Trinity Chapel and Corona as a glorious new shrine to Saint Thomas. Dover Castle, it has been argued, was a visible assertion of Henry’s power in the face of a developing anti-monarchical cult.

But the problem with seeing the castle as Henry’s answer to an anti-monarchical cult is that by 1179 this is not how Henry saw Becket. Faced by rebellion and invasion in 1174, on 12 July 1174 he had done public penance at Thomas’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral: “taking off his cloak, he thrust his head and shoulders into one of the openings of Saint Thomas’s tomb”. Then he was flogged, five lashes from each of the prelates present and three from each of the 80 monks. “When he had been disciplined, he withdrew his head from the tomb and sat down on the dirty ground with no carpet or cushion under him, and he sang psalms and prayers all night, without getting up for any bodily need.”

For a politician then, as now, to say sorry occasionally can be a shrewd move, and no politician ever said sorry more theatrically than Henry II. Few have been able to exploit their penance more cleverly. The next morning, at the very hour that he heard mass before leaving the cathedral, King William of Scotland was captured at Alnwick. That same day an invasion fleet was scattered. Henry won the war. It seemed to the world and to Henry himself that, thanks to Thomas, he had God on his side once again. Whereas he had initially discouraged pilgrimages to Thomas’s tomb, from 1174 on he led the devotion. A Book of Miracles was presented by the monks to the king – at the latter’s request. It became his custom, every time he returned to England, to visit St Thomas. Before 1174 he is only once recorded at Canterbury. After his penance, he made at least ten more visits. Whatever the Becket cult’s potential for celebrating opposition to public power, after 1174 Henry himself evidently did not see it as directed against him.

On Palm Sunday (17 April) 1177 King Henry was at Reading when he heard of Count Philip’s intention of visiting Becket’s tomb. King and count met at Canterbury on 21 April. The next day (Good Friday) he escorted Philip back to Dover and stayed there while the count made a night crossing. Next day Henry went to Wye, a manor near Ashford, where he celebrated Easter “with his earls and barons”. This is the one and only time Henry is known to have visited Wye. To have to celebrate one of the great court feasts in a village instead of one of the major centres of royal power such as Windsor, Winchester or Le Mans was awkward and embarrassing.

Henry’s show home

Henry II, like his predecessors, almost never visited Kent. There was no royal forest in Kent, and he had no houses there. When he crossed the Channel he went to Normandy and to western France, not to Flanders or north-eastern France. In the first 23 years of his reign Henry II sailed from Dover just once, but he embarked and disembarked at Southampton and Portsmouth 18 times. Count Philip’s pilgrimage had dragged him out of his usual itinerary, and accommodation fit for a king was evidently hard to find.

Two years later, in August 1179, something similar occurred. The only son of King Louis VII of France fell dangerously ill and his distraught father took the astonishing decision to go to Canterbury. As contemporaries observed, no king of France had ever set foot in England before. It was the first state visit in English history. Louis’s decision caught Henry on the hop. He rode through the night in order to be able to greet Louis on Dover beach. Next day he escorted him to Canterbury, where Louis prayed at Becket’s tomb and gave offerings, including the great ruby which Henry VIII was to grab for himself when he destroyed the shrine. Henry then escorted Louis back to Dover, where the two kings spent another night.

The chronology of expenditure shows that it was in the financial year beginning in September 1179, just one month after Louis VII’s pilgrimage, that Henry first spent more on Dover than on any other English castle. It is hard not to think that it was this extraordinary visit, and the prospect of more to come – and in the 1180s great secular and ecclesiastical princes continued to descend on Canterbury – that triggered the king’s decision to build something truly spectacular at Dover. This is supported by a recent interpretation of Henry’s great tower – in particular the forebuilding, with its three flights of steps leading up to the upper floor – which have suggested it was designed as a setting for ceremonial entrances and exits.

When Henry visited Paris he stayed in the royal palace. But what palatial residence could Henry offer important guests coming from abroad? No doubt it would have been possible to improve the king’s castle at Canterbury. But Canterbury would always be the city of the archbishop and monks of Christ Church. Dover was obviously the place for a great building which could not only accommodate foreign princes and their entourages – Louis came with dukes, counts and many barons in his train – but which as a symbol of royal power visible from afar would overwhelm visitors even before they set foot on English soil. Evidently, Dover Castle as it was in 1177 and 1179, did not meet the bill.

By 1179 Henry was at the height of his power. He had become the arbiter of Europe. His sons and daughters were all provided for. His wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was safely locked up. Henry, with Thomas Becket’s help, dominated his world. This is what the new Dover Castle represented and it became a place Henry was happy to visit. In 1184 he sailed from Wissant (located between Calais and Boulogne) to Dover – the first time since 1156 that he had used the port of Dover. In the last years of his reign he used it twice more, in 1185 and 1187, sailing from Dover to Wissant, and then travelling overland to Normandy. Why was he now taking so circuitous a route? Because he was conducting VIPs out of England, and had something truly impressive to show them.

Despite the strength of its site, the old fortress at Dover was not impregnable. It surrendered to Duke William in 1066, and to King Stephen in 1138. But when Louis VII’s grandson, Prince Louis of France, came to England at the invitation of the barons in revolt against King John in May 1216, Dover did not surrender, as Canterbury, London and Winchester did. Matthew Paris’s description of Dover as the key to England was made in his account of the great siege of 1216. So crucial did Louis judge Dover Castle to be that between 10 July and 14 October he kept the bulk of his army there. While Dover held up Louis’s forces for three months, his cause – which in May and June had been sweeping all before it – lost momentum. Failure before Dover laid the foundations for Louis’s defeat. The castle built to welcome princely pilgrims to Becket’s shrine – built at a time of peace when Henry was the richest ruler of western Europe and had nothing to fear – turned out to be the saving of his son’s and grandson’s throne. It was yet another example of the murdered archbishop saving Plantagenet hide.


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