Post-classical history

Chapter 2
The Plantagenet Kings

Henry II (1154–89)

Henry took over without difficulty; it was the first undisputed succession to the English throne for over a hundred years. As lord of an empire stretching from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees he was potentially the most powerful ruler in Europe, richer even than the emperor and completely overshadowing the king of France, the nominal suzerain of his Continental possessions. Although England provided him with great wealth as well as a royal title, the heart of the empire lay elsewhere, in Anjou, the land of his fathers.

In England his first task was to make good the losses suffered during Stephen’s reign. By 1158 this had been achieved. The most dramatic example came in 1157 when he used diplomatic pressure to force the young king of Scotland, Malcolm IV, to restore Cumberland, Westmorland, and Northumbria to the English Crown. In Wales, however, Henry found in Owain of Gwynedd and Rhys of Deheubarth two well-established princes whom it was impossible to browbeat. In 1157 and 1165, force of arms proved equally unavailing in the face of a combination of Welsh guerrilla tactics and torrential summer rain. After 1165 Henry’s attitude to the Welsh princes was much more accommodating. As early as 1155 he had toyed with the idea of conquering Ireland. Not until 1169–70, however, did the move into Ireland take place, first by some lords from the Welsh march and then (in 1171–2) by Henry himself. As the long delay makes plain, in the king’s eyes there were matters much more urgent than the Irish question.

Out of the 34 years of his reign, Henry II spent 21 on the Continent. Socially and culturally England was a bit of a backwater compared with the French parts of the Angevin dominion. The prosperous communities which lived in the valleys of the Seine, Loire, and Garonne river systems were centres of learning, art, architecture, poetry, and music. Aquitaine and Anjou produced two of the essential commodities of medieval commerce: wine and salt. These could be exchanged for English cloth and this trade must have brought great profit to the prince, who ruled over both producers and consumers. As duke of Normandy, duke of Aquitaine, and count of Anjou, Henry had inherited the claims of his predecessors to lordship over neighbouring territories. These claims led to intervention in Nantes (1156) where he installed his brother, Geoffrey, as count; an expedition against Toulouse in 1159 which resulted in the capture of Cahors and the Quercy; the recovery of the Norman Vexin in 1160; and finally, as a result of repeated invasions after 1166, the occupation of Brittany and the installation of his son Geoffrey as duke.

Yet ironically it is not for his successes that Henry is best remembered, but for his dubious part in the murder of Thomas Becket. In June 1162 Becket was consecrated archbishop of Canterbury. In the eyes of respectable churchmen Becket, who had been chancellor since 1155, did not deserve the highest ecclesiastical post in the land. He set out to prove, to an astonished world, that he was the best of all possible archbishops. Right from the start, he went out of his way to oppose the king who, chiefly out of friendship, had promoted him. Inevitably it was not long before Henry began to react like a man betrayed. In the mid-twelfth century Church–State relations bristled with problems which could be, and normally were, shelved by men of goodwill but which could provide a field-day for men who were determined to quarrel.


Map 2. The Continental dominions of Henry II

Henry chose the question of ‘criminous clerks’ as the issue on which to settle accounts with his archbishop. Like many laymen, Henry resented the way in which clerks who committed felonies could escape capital punishment by claiming trial in an ecclesiastical court. At a council held at Westminster in October 1163 Henry demanded that criminous clerks should be unfrocked by the Church and handed over to the lay courts for punishment. In opposing this, Becket carried his episcopal colleagues with him but when Pope Alexander III asked him to adopt a more conciliatory line, Henry summoned a council to Clarendon (January 1164). He presented the bishops with a clear statement of the king’s customary rights over the Church – the Constitutions of Clarendon – and required from them a promise to observe these customs in good faith. Taken by surprise, Becket argued for two days and then gave in. But no sooner had the rest of the bishops followed his example than Becket repented of his weakness. Thoroughly exasperated, Henry now decided to destroy Becket. He summoned him before the royal court to answer trumped-up charges. The archbishop was found guilty and sentenced to the forfeiture of his estates. In a hopeless position Becket fled across the Channel and appealed to the pope. By taking a stand on principle and then wavering, Becket had reduced the English Church to confusion.


3. Two scenes from the life and death of Thomas Becket. (left) Henry II listens to complaints about Becket’s continuing intransigence. (right) The archbishop’s murder

With Becket in exile Henry concentrated on more important matters for the next five years: Brittany was conquered and the English judicial system overhauled. Then in 1169 the question of the coronation of the heir to the throne, Prince Henry, led to the interminable negotiations between king, pope, and archbishop being treated as a matter of urgency. In 1170 Becket returned to England determined to punish those who had taken part in the young king’s coronation. His enemies lost no time in telling Henry of the archbishop’s ostentatious behaviour. ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ Henry’s heated words were taken all too literally by four of his knights. Anxious to win the king’s favour, they rushed off to Canterbury; and there, on 29 December 1170, Becket was murdered in his own cathedral. The deed shocked Christendom and secured Becket’s canonization in record time. In popular memory the archbishop came to symbolize resistance to the oppressive authority of the State, but in reality everyone was better off with him out of the way. Once the storm of protest had died down it became apparent that the king’s hold on his vast empire had in no way been shaken by the Becket controversy. In the early 1170s Henry stood at the height of his power.

By this date Henry II had already decided that after his death his dominions should be partitioned between his three eldest sons. Henry was to have his father’s inheritance, namely Anjou, Normandy, and England; Richard was to have his mother’s inheritance, Aquitaine; Geoffrey was to have the acquisition, Brittany. For the moment there was nothing for John but later, in 1185, he was granted his father’s other major acquisition, Ireland. By then Henry II’s partition plans had already run into difficulties. The trouble was that they aroused expectations which, while he retained all real power in his own hands, he could not satisfy. Thus from 1173 onwards Henry was plagued by rebellious sons. The rebels, moreover, could always count on a warm welcome at the court of the king of France. After 1180 this was a serious matter for in that year the mild-mannered Louis VII was succeeded by his son Philip II Augustus, an unscrupulous politician determined to destroy the Angevin Empire. The deaths of two of his sons, the young King Henry in 1183 and Geoffrey in 1186, ought to have simplified Henry’s problems, but this was offset by the old king’s obvious preference for John, a preference which alarmed Richard. An alliance between Richard and Philip brought Henry to his knees and, defeated, the old king died at Chinon on 6 July 1189.

Only in the last weeks of his life had the task of ruling his immense territories been too much for Henry. He rode ceaselessly from one corner of his empire to another, almost giving an impression of being everywhere at once – an impression that helped to keep men loyal. Although the central government offices, chamber, chancery, and military household travelled around with him, the sheer size of the empire inevitably stimulated the further development of localized administrations which could deal with routine matters of justice and finance in his absence. Thus in England, as elsewhere, government became increasingly complex and bureaucratic. This development, taken together with Henry’s interest in rational reform, has led to him being regarded as the founder of the English common law, and as a great and creative king, but in his own eyes these were matters of secondary importance. To him what really mattered was family politics and he died believing that he had failed. But for over 30 years he had succeeded.

Richard I (1189–99)

Richard’s alliance with Philip Augustus meant that his position as heir to all his father’s rights and dominions was unchallengeable. John remained lord of Ireland; in time, Brittany would belong to Geoffrey’s posthumous son Arthur, now two years old. The rest was at Richard’s disposal.

But Richard had no wish to stay long in England. He had been made duke of Aquitaine in 1172 and since then had spent most of his life on the Continent. Even after he became king of England he was well aware that he ruled much more than England. In consequence he, like his father, had wider interests and greater responsibilities. One aspect of this was the assistance he gave to the kingdom of Jerusalem, a kingdom ruled by a daughter of the junior branch of the house of Anjou now married to one of his Aquitanian vassals. In November 1187, as soon as he heard the news of Saladin’s overwhelming victory at Hattin, Richard took the cross. Delayed by his involvement in the family quarrels at the end of his father’s reign, he was now determined to leave for the East as soon as he had raised enough money and arranged for the secure government of all his dominions during a prolonged absence.

In July 1190 he and Philip Augustus set out on the Third Crusade. Not until March 1194 did Richard again set foot on English soil. In the meantime he had taken both a fleet and an army to the other end of the Mediterranean. Although unable to recapture Jerusalem, he achieved an astonishing amount against a great opponent, Saladin. On crusade Richard tackled and solved far greater logistical problems than ever confronted other warrior-kings of England, William I, Edward III, or Henry V. The treaty of Jaffa which he negotiated in 1192 enabled the crusader states to survive for another century. Unique among the kings of England, Richard I played an active leading role in the great events of world history.

During his absence on crusade there had been some disturbances in England in 1191 but his contingency plans restored stable government. King Philip, after his own return to France, tried to take advantage of Richard’s continued absence, but without success. If Richard had returned from crusade as he expected in January 1193 he would have found his empire intact.

The damage was done while he was held captive in Germany. He stayed in prison for more than a year (December 1192–February 1194) and – for all anyone knew in 1193 – might have had to stay there much longer.


4. Cauterizing a wound with red-hot instruments, which an assistant is seen heating in the lower part of the drawing. (From a twelfth-century medical treatise given by a doctor, Master Herbert, to Durham cathedral priory.)

Even in these inauspicious circumstances Richard’s agents in England were able to contain his younger brother’s treacherous revolt. The real losses were suffered on the Continent, in particular in Normandy where Philip overran the Vexin and came close to capturing Rouen itself.

Richard was released in February 1194 after payment of 100,000 marks, the first two-thirds of the king’s ransom. After a brief visit to England (March–May 1194) he returned to the Continent and devoted the next five years to the hard grind of recovering the territory lost so rapidly while he was in prison. By the end of 1198 Richard’s skilful diplomacy, fine generalship, and his greater resources meant that he had succeeded in recapturing almost everything that had been lost. Then, in April 1199, Richard died as the result of a wound suffered at the siege of Chalus-Chabrol (near Limoges) where he was engaged in suppressing a rebellion led by the count of Angoulême and the viscount of Limoges. In the Angevin–Capetian struggle this was to be the decisive turning-point.

One of the marks of Richard’s greatness had been his ability to choose ministers, above all, Hubert Walter in England. As justiciar, archbishop of Canterbury, and papal legate Hubert Walter stood for harmonious co-operation between king and Church. In England, as in the other provinces of the Angevin Empire, Richard’s long absences meant the continuing development, under Walter’s supervision, of an effective machinery of central government. From the point of view of Richard’s subjects, this meant increasingly heavy taxation, but there is no evidence to suggest that the financial burdens of war had brought the Angevin Empire to the point of economic collapse.

John (1199–1216)

Richard left no legitimate children, and when he died the different parts of the Angevin Empire chose different successors. The barons of England and Normandy opted for John; Anjou, Maine, and Touraine preferred Arthur of Brittany, now 12 years old; Aquitaine continued to be held – on John’s behalf – by his mother, Eleanor (d. 1204). By May 1200 John had ousted Arthur and had established himself as lord of all the Angevin dominions, though at a heavy price – he abandoned his allies and he ceded the Vexin and Evreux to King Philip (treaty of Le Goulet, January 1200). Later that year his first marriage was annulled and he married Isabella of Angoulême. There were great strategic advantages to be gained from marrying the heiress to Angoulême and had John given her fiancé, Hugh of Lusignan, adequate compensation, all might yet have been well. As it was, this marriage set in motion a train of events which led to Hugh appealing to the court of France and, in 1202, to Philip’s declaration that all John’s Continental dominions – the lands which he held as fiefs of the king of France – were forfeit. By his tactless treatment of the leading barons of Anjou and Poitou John threw away all the advantages he won when he captured Arthur at Mirebeau (July 1202); the well-founded rumour that he was responsible for his nephew’s murder (April 1203) further undermined an already shaky reputation. In an atmosphere of suspicion and fear John found it impossible to organize an effective defence. In December 1203 he threw in the towel and withdrew to England. Philip overran Normandy, Anjou, Maine, Touraine, and all of Poitou except for La Rochelle. These humiliating military reverses earned for John a new nickname. ‘Lackland’ now became ‘Soft-sword’.

Until December 1203 John, like his father and brother, spent most of his reign in his Continental possessions. After that date he became, by force of circumstances, an English king. Not since Stephen’s reign had the country seen so much of its ruler, but there was little pleasure or profit to be got from a king who constantly suspected that men were plotting against him. The weight of John’s presence was even felt in the north where men were not accustomed to visits from kings of England. The extent of their resentment can be measured by the number of northerners who opposed John in 1215–16. Undoubtedly he faced genuine problems. He was duty-bound to try to recover his lost inheritance, and the conquests of 1203–4 meant that the French king was now a much more formidable opponent. Moreover, an unusually high rate of inflation in the early years of John’s reign had tended to erode the real value of royal revenues. As a result, John levied frequent and unprecedentedly heavy taxes and tightened up the laws governing the forest (a profitable but highly unpopular source of income).


5. A dramatic moment during the battle of Bouvines (1214), as depicted by the St Albans chronicler, Matthew Paris, probably the best-known English artist of the thirteenth century. King Philip of France is unhorsed. If he had stayed on the ground many of John’s troubles might have been solved. Note the variety of weapons carried by the heavily armed knights: sword, lance, and bow

John also quarrelled with the Church. A disputed election to the see of Canterbury in 1205 led to a clash with Innocent III. In 1208 Innocent laid an interdict on England and Wales; all church services were suspended and remained so for six years. In 1209 John himself was excommunicated. Neither John nor lay society in general seem to have been very worried by this state of affairs; indeed since John’s response to the interdict was to confiscate the estates of the Church it even helped to ease his financial problem. But in 1212 a baronial plot and Philip’s plans to cross the Channel served to remind John that an excommunicated king was particularly vulnerable to rebellion and invasion. So he decided to make peace with the Church in order to have a free hand to deal with his more dangerous enemies. By agreeing to hold England as a fief of the Papacy in May 1213 he completely won over Innocent and assured himself of the pope’s support in the coming struggles. It did him little good.



6. Magna Carta. Although as a peace treaty the charter of 1215 (top) was a failure, as a statement of law it was always taken seriously. After John’s death it was amended and reissued in 1216, 1217, and 1225. The reissue of 1217 was accompanied by the publication of a second, smaller charter (bottom) dealing with forest law, and so became known as the large charter, Magna Carta

All now turned on the outcome of John’s attempt to recover his lost lands. In 1214 he led an expedition to Poitou but the defeat of his allies at the battle of Bouvines (July 1214) entailed both the failure of his Continental strategy and the onset of rebellion in England. But rebels had genuine problems too. Leadership was normally provided by a discontented member of the royal family. After the elimination of Arthur, John faced no such rivals. His own sons were too young. The only possible candidate was Louis, son of Philip Augustus, but a Capetian prince was hardly an attractive anti-king. So the rebels devised a new kind of focus for revolt: a programme of reform. In June 1215, after they had captured London, the rebels forced John to accept the terms laid out in a document later to be known as Magna Carta. In essence it was a hostile commentary on some of the more objectionable features of the last 60 years of Angevin rule. As such it was clearly unacceptable to John, who regarded the agreement made at Runnymede merely as a means of buying time. Attempts to implement Magna Carta only led to further quarrels. In the end the rebels had to invite Louis to take the throne. In May 1216 he entered London. When John died, in October 1216, shortly after losing part of his baggage train in quicksands in the Wash, the country was torn in two by a civil war which was going badly for the Angevins.

John possessed qualities which have endeared him to some modern historians. He took a close interest in the details of governmental and legal business, but in his own day this counted for little. It is a mistake to see him as a busier king than his predecessors. The survival of chancery records from 1199 onwards permits historians to look, for the first time, into the daily routine of the king’s government at work. As a result they have sometimes given the impression that John was unusually competent. In fact he was a very poor king, incompetent where it really mattered, in the management of his more powerful subjects.

Henry III (1216–72)

The minority council which governed in the name of John’s nine-year-old son, Henry, was soon vouchsafed that success in war, both on land (the battle of Lincoln, May 1217) and at sea (battle of Dover, August 1217), which had been denied his father. Under the impact of these defeats, support for Louis dwindled rapidly. In September 1217 he accepted the treaty of Lambeth and withdrew.

It was not until 1232 that Henry began to rule in his own right. Minorities tended to be periods of unstable government; but, on the whole, the men, above all Hubert de Burgh, who kept Henry in political tutelage until he was in his mid-twenties, did remarkably well. Most of the struggles for power took place in the council chamber; appeals to arms were rare and very brief. As part of a series of conciliatory moves, Magna Carta was amended and reissued. But while the lords of the council concentrated on their own rivalries and on events in England and Wales, they were understandably less concerned about the king’s overseas inheritance. None of them had estates in Poitou and Gascony. In 1224, during one such domestic quarrel, their old Capetian enemy, now King Louis VIII, walked into Poitou, captured La Rochelle, and threatened Gascony. An expedition in 1225 consolidated the position in Gascony but made no serious attempt to recover Poitou. Subsequent expeditions, in 1230 and 1242, were on a more ambitious scale but ended ingloriously. After 1224, only Gascony remained of the lands which Henry III’s ancestors had once held in France. The effect of this was to reverse the territorial balance of the twelfth century. Once England had been one of the provinces in the Angevin orbit; now it became the indisputable centre of the Plantagenet dominions. Eventually, by the treaty of Paris (1259), Henry gave up his claims to Normandy, Anjou, and Poitou, and did homage to Louis IX for Gascony.

Realistically speaking, the treaty of Paris was Henry III’s greatest political success but he accepted the generous terms offered by Louis IX only with great reluctance and in the hope of extricating himself from his other difficulties. Chief among these was the fact that a sworn confederation of the most powerful magnates in the country was threatening to take up arms against him. Henry had faced opposition on and off since 1233. Time and again, the bone of contention had been his choice of friends and advisers; these were the men who obtained the lion’s share of the patronage at the king’s disposal. The problem was aggravated by the fact that many of his favourites were not English – this at a time when English politics were becoming increasingly insular. Henry was a good family man, happily married (since 1236) to Eleanor of Provence, and ready to provide generously for his wife’s relatives. Then, when life in France became difficult for his half-brothers, the Lusignans – his mother’s children by her second marriage – he welcomed them to England and from 1247 onwards they constantly soured the atmosphere.

Equally controversial was the king’s scheme for providing for Edmund, his own second son. In 1252 the pope offered the kingdom of Sicily to Henry and in 1254 he accepted on Edmund’s behalf. Unfortunately, Sicily was actually held by Manfred, an illegitimate son of the Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick II. Not only did Henry agree that he would finance the island’s conquest, he also promised to meet the pope’s existing debts – and the pope had already spent a fortune, some 135,000 marks, in fighting Manfred. It was an absurd commitment and in 1258 it ended with the barons taking the government out of the king’s hands and initiating a far-reaching programme of reform: the Provisions of Oxford (October 1258) and the Provisions of Westminster (October 1259). But taking power out of the hands of an adult king, and handing it to an elected aristocratic council, was a revolutionary step. For the next five years England teetered on the brink of civil war. When, in the spring of 1264, war finally came, the issues at stake had been narrowed down to one question. Was, or was not, the king free to choose foreigners to be his counsellors? Ironically, the man who had been most adamant in insisting that in the last resort it was the barons, acting in the name of ‘the community of the realm’, who should decide, was himself born a foreigner, Simon de Montfort. By this time, Simon had long been a powerful member of ‘the community’: earl of Leicester since 1231, husband of the king’s sister since 1238. In 1264 Earl Simon won the battle of Lewes, but next year was himself defeated, killed, and dismembered at the battle of Evesham. In the last years of Henry III’s reign the full restoration of royal authority was combined with the recognition, in the statute of Marlborough (1267), that the ‘customs of the realm’ including both Charters of Liberties and even some of the Provisions of Westminster, should be upheld. Feeling uncomfortable in this atmosphere of moderation, the victor of Evesham, Edward, the heir to the throne, went off on crusade, leaving his father free to concentrate on rebuilding Westminster Abbey.

Edward I (1272–1307)

In 1272 Edward I was in Sicily, on his way back from crusade, when he heard the news that his father had died and that he had been proclaimed king. He returned home at a leisurely pace. In Paris, choosing his words carefully, he did homage to Philip III for his lands in France: ‘I do you homage for all the lands which I ought to hold of you.’ He then turned south to Gascony where he stayed in 1273–4. He visited Gascony again in 1286–9. He was the last king of England to hold court at Bordeaux and when he left, in July 1289, it marked the end of an era. Yet the history of English rule in Gascony is by no means a straightforward story of decline. In 1279, for example, the French at last handed over the Agenais, as they were bound to do under the terms of the treaty of Paris. The Agenais was an important wine-growing area and its cession further strengthened the rapidly developing commercial links between Bordeaux and London. The Bordeaux wine customs, farmed for only £300 a year in the 1240s, were worth over £6,000 sixty years later. In return the Gascons imported English cloth, leather, and corn. A mutual interest in an expanding trade riveted the two communities together.

In October 1274, soon after his return to England, Edward launched an inquiry into the activities of both royal and baronial officials. Like similar earlier investigations it uncovered an enormous number of grievances, and in trying to remedy some of these, the king’s advisers, headed by his chancellor, Robert Burnell, were led on to issue new laws on a wide range of subjects. But even in the most prolific period of legislation (1275–90) there was no attempt to codify English law in the manner of a Justinian and the statutes were quite as much concerned with the rights of the king as with the liberties of the subject.

From 1276 to 1284 Edward’s main preoccupation was with Wales. Initially his plan was to cut Llywelyn ap Gruffydd down to size and then hand the Welsh prince’s lands to his brothers Dafydd and Gruffydd. But after the victorious campaign of 1277 he imposed a peace treaty which the Welsh found humiliating and failed to give Dafydd the rewards he had expected. In 1282 the Welsh rebelled. In the war of 1282–3 Llywelyn was killed and Dafydd captured. He was then put on trial and executed as a traitor, the first man since 1076 to forfeit his life for rebellion. Unlike the campaign of 1277, the war of 1282–3 had been intended as a war of conquest; given Edward’s enormous preponderance of resources, it was not too difficult a task.

Whereas the conquest of Wales can be seen as the culmination of centuries of warfare, relations between the kingdoms of England and Scotland were exceptionally good for most of the thirteenth century. But in 1286 Alexander III was killed by a fall from his horse and his only granddaughter, Margaret, the ‘Maid of Norway’, was recognized as heir to the throne. Edward I proposed that she should marry his own son and heir, Edward. The Scottish magnates agreed to this proposal (treaty of Birgham, July 1290) but at the same time insisted that Scotland should retain its own laws and customs.

Sadly, the six-year-old Margaret died in Orkney (September 1290). Edward seized the opportunity to assert his overlordship and his right to adjudicate between the contenders for the throne. After complicated legal arguments he decided in favour of John Balliol; on St Andrew’s Day 1292 the new king was enthroned at Scone. Up to this point Edward was justified in claiming that his actions had helped to maintain peace and order in Scotland; but from now on his domineering treatment of the Scots was to provoke a long and disastrous war.

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