Post-classical history

Chapter Eleven

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The First Plantagenet

In England, between 1147 and 1154, anarchy comes to an end

IN ENGLAND, civil war continued.

Eight years in, Stephen of Blois still held the crown. But Matilda, daughter of Henry I, camped in the English countryside and continued to press her claims. The king’s armies controlled the southeast of England and the capital city of London; Matilda’s soldiers dominated the southwest. Between them was a wasteland: “You could well go a whole day’s journey and never find anyone occupying a village or land tilled,” the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle explains.1

In 1147, Matilda’s fourteen-year-old son Henry excused himself from his studies in Western Francia (his tutor was the well-regarded philosopher William of Conches, author of a masterwork intended to reconcile Greek natural philosophy with Christian orthodoxy) and headed to England. He had collected a small band of soldiers, probably by promising them a share of loot. As soon as he landed in England, rumors began to fly: Henry, it was said, had come with an entire army, or perhaps two, possibly with the king of France behind him, and was ready to devastate the opposition.

None of this was true. Henry’s little group of adventurers lost several initial skirmishes against detachments of Stephen’s soldiers and soon realized that there was no loot to be had. They deserted him, leaving the fourteen-year-old stranded in enemy territory. Henry sent a desperate message to his mother, but her treasury was exhausted. Finally, Stephen himself provided the money to get the child home.2

Humiliated, Henry went back to his studies. But in a short time, he was catapulted out of the schoolroom and back into war. Four years after the embarrassment in England, his father Geoffrey Plantagenet died of a fever, and the eighteen-year-old Henry became both Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy.

Within the year, he had doubled his territories.

Henry’s overlord, the Capetian king Louis VII, was just recently returned from the Second Crusade. On the way back from Jerusalem, he had stopped off in Italy to consult with the pope over the advisability of annulling his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine. But the pope had not only refused to discuss annulment (he “forbade any future mention” of it, writes John of Salisbury, “on pain of anathema”) but had shut the estranged couple into a bedroom furnished with a single bed (“which he had decked with priceless hangings of his own”) to encourage them along.3

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11.1 Anjou, Normandy, and England

This strategy backfired. Eleanor became pregnant, but her second child, like her first, was a girl. Until this point, Louis had resisted Eleanor’s unhappiness; now, the queen’s failure to produce a male heir meant that Louis resigned himself to ending the marriage. With the help of the ubiquitous Bernard of Clairvaux (who had never approved of Eleanor), he again applied to Rome for annulment. The pope yielded to the inevitable, and the marriage ended; the decree was dated March 11, 1152.

Eleanor, now aged twenty-eight, left her two girls in the care of their father and went at once to the French town of Poitiers. There, she was joined by young Henry; and on May 18, only two months after her marriage to the king ended, Eleanor and Henry were married.

More than one contemporary chronicler chalked the sudden marriage up to infatuation. Henry and Eleanor had met earlier in the year, when Geoffrey and his son visited the French court to pay their respects to the king; Henry’s mother Matilda was ten years older than his father Geoffrey—still only thirty-nine at the time of his death—so the age difference seemed perfectly normal to the young count. And since the marriage would eventually yield eight children in fourteen years (as opposed to the two Eleanor had produced in her fifteen years with Louis), sex was obviously part of the equation. But by marriage, Henry gained the vast rich territory of Aquitaine to add to his already extensive lands, and Eleanor gained the protection of the most powerful nobleman in Western Francia.

And the wedding also weakened Louis, who lost half of his domain to his rival.

Louis, motivated by equal parts fury and prudence (“He was greatly incensed against Duke Henry,” remarks Roger of Wendover, undoubtedly understating Louis’s emotions), mounted an immediate war against the newlywed Count of Anjou. But Henry was no longer the unprepared fourteen-year-old of 1147. His men drove off Louis’s attacks, and Henry’s return forays into royal land forced Louis to suggest a truce: he would recognize Henry’s claim to Aquitaine, as long as Henry would swear an oath of loyal submission to the French throne.4

Henry agreed. His power in Western Francia was secure—his lands were more than seven times larger than Louis’s royal estates—and he had his eyes on England. His mother Matilda, worn out by a decade of struggle, had retreated back to Normandy; he intended to pick up the fight.

In January of 1153, Henry once again landed on English shores, this time at the head of three thousand men. Almost at once, he took the castle of Malmesbury away from Stephen’s forces, and used it as a base to campaign forward across the countryside. By the first week of August, Henry’s troops had reached the Thames.5

Just days later, Stephen’s son and heir Eustace died of a sudden onset of seizures, and Stephen lost the heart to continue with the fight. He proposed a truce. He would continue to rule as king of England until his death; Henry would swear loyalty to Stephen as his lord. In exchange, Henry would become heir to the crown after Stephen’s death.

Stephen was by now over sixty, Henry barely twenty. The young man agreed to the terms, and the two men signed the Treaty of Wallingford in January of 1154, a mere year after Henry’s arrival in England.

For ten months, Stephen governed England as undisputed king: “At this time,” writes William of Newburgh, “he . . . began to rule as if for the first time.” But in October, presiding over a church council in Kent, he grew violently ill with “colic” and “infected piles”—probably amoebic dysentery, a constant scourge in a world with too much standing water and not enough soap. He took to his bed and died a few days later.6

Henry, in Normandy at the time of Stephen’s death, was delayed by bad weather and logistics; but he finally arrived on English shores on December 7, to the cheers of the battered populace. “They had experienced the misery of the previous reign, under which so many evils had sprouted,” William of Newburgh says, “and they hoped for better things from the new ruler.” He and Eleanor were crowned king and queen of England on December 19, at Westminster Abbey. Within a week, Henry had begun to sweep the muck out of England’s war-soiled halls.7

It was a happy coincidence between a country’s need and a monarch’s personality. Henry was by nature unable to sit still. His invasion of England at the age of fourteen was merely the first symptom of an energy that overflowed, his entire life, onto everyone around him. “If the king has promised to spend the day anywhere,” wrote his secretary Peter of Blois,

you may be sure that he will start off early in the morning. . . . You may see men running about as if they were mad, urging on the pack-horses, driving chariots into one another, and everything in a state of confusion. . . . He never sits down except when on horseback or at meals. On a single day, if necessary, he travels a journey of four or five days. . . . He does not loiter in his palace like other kings, but hurrying through the provinces he investigates what is being done everywhere.8

He was, always, active. He heard Mass every day, but found it so impossible to sit still that he whispered orders to his officials all during the service and, when silence was unavoidable, drew pictures. His favorite priests were those who were fastest at chanting the Mass, so that he could get on to the next thing. When his intentions were blocked, he flew into immediate and prodigious rages, once ripping off his clothes and hurling them around the room in a fury at some dereliction of duty by his constable. He was constantly traveling and often away from his wife’s bedroom; but despite this, Eleanor had given him a son before the coronation and was again pregnant, in what must have been a most satisfying thumb in the eye to Louis VII.9

On Christmas Day, six days after the ceremony, Henry ordered the foreign mercenaries who had flocked into England during the Anarchy expelled; he also ordered all castles built without royal permission—over a thousand by this point—to be demolished. Both decrees cut to the heart of his biggest problem: the noblemen of England, the barons who had built the castles and employed the mercenaries, had grown, during the Anarchy, as powerful as the throne.

A few of them resisted this royal attempt to take back the reins. Henry immediately laid siege to the rebellious castles and confiscated them. The quick response discouraged others from following suit. The barons resigned themselves to the rule of the Plantagenet king; the Anarchy was finally over; and England (at least for a time) was at peace.10

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