Post-classical history

Chapter Twenty-One



Between 1171 and 1186, Henry II of England fights the Irish, his own sons, and the French

BY 1171, Henry II of England had recovered somewhat from his guilt over Becket’s murder; at least, enough to invade Ireland.

He had been given an open door by the Irish king Diarmait Mac Murchada, ruler of the eastern kingdom of Leinster. Leinster, as the thirteenth-century historian Gerald of Wales points out, was “separated only from England by the sea which flowed between,” making it a natural target for the English. But Henry’s path into it was indirect. A few years before, Mac Murchada had rashly visited the wife of the neighboring king of Meath, in her husband’s absence; she had “long entertained a passion” for Mac Murchada, Gerald assures us, “and allowed herself to be ravished, not against her will.” The king of Meath, returning home, was not pleased. He gathered his own men together and then called on the High King of Ireland to help him avenge his honor.1

The High King of Ireland was Rory O’Connor, king of Connacht. For centuries, one Irish king out of the handful that ruled the island had borne the title of High King. But, as contemporary historians point out, the designated High King was always ruler co fresabra: with opposition. The High King’s authority was constantly challenged by his peers, and Rory O’Connor was no exception; he had already been forced, more than once, to fight to defend his title; and now he decided to make a friend of the king of Meath. Together, the two drove Mac Murchada out of Leinster.

Mac Murchada, catching a favorable wind, went across the Irish Sea and appealed to the English throne for help. Henry II was himself in Western Francia, occupied in yet another struggle with Louis VII of France over control of his lands there; but he knew that anything that created chaos in Ireland was bound to be good for the English. He sent back a message giving all of his knights permission to help Mac Murchada recover his throne, and promising them “favour and licence” in exchange.2

The most prominent knight to take up the challenge was Richard de Clare, son of the Earl of Pembroke. Nicknamed “Strongbow” for his skill, de Clare had fought in his early twenties for King Stephen, against Henry’s mother Matilda; and when Henry finally claimed the crown, he had refused to allow Richard to inherit the title of earl. Now, de Clare saw the chance to gain a crown instead. He agreed to fight for Mac Murchada in exchange for the chance to inherit the throne of Leinster; Mac Murchada’s oldest daughter Aoife agreed to marry the Englishman, to seal the deal.

This arrangement worked out better for Richard than for his new father-in-law. By 1171, the English had helped Mac Murchada reoccupy his kingdom, but during the protracted struggle Mac Murchada’s own son was killed, and Mac Murchada himself took ill and died in the first week of May, not long after his sixty-first birthday.

Strongbow and Aoife could now claim to be king and queen of Leinster, but Henry II—finally returning from Western Francia—intervened. He did not want one of his knights establishing an independent monarchy right across the water, and so he assembled an army at the western port city of Gloucester, ready to sail to Ireland. Strongbow, still fighting off the combined forces of the king of Meath and the High King, hurried to Gloucester and assured the king of his loyalty. “He succeeded at last . . . in appeasing the royal displeasure,” says Gerald of Wales, “upon the terms that he should renew his oath of fealty to the king, and surrender to him Dublin . . . with the towns on the sea coast, and all the fortresses.” Richard would rule as king of Leinster, but only by Henry’s permission; and the English king would take direct control of the port cities.3

With this settled, Henry and his army sailed across to Ireland to help Richard drive off the High King’s attacks. They landed at the southern port of Waterford on October 18, 1171, and marched north towards Dublin. Before they could arrive, most of the Irish kings had hurried to meet him and offer their submission. No single Irish kingdom could muster a force large enough to drive the king of England away; their alternative was to unify by submitting fully to the High King, which most were unwilling to do. “Thus did all the princes of Ireland, except for those of Ulster [in the north], severally make their submissions,” says Gerald of Wales, “. . . they all became vassals to the king of England.” By 1175, Henry and Rory O’Connor had drawn up a formal agreement, the Treaty of Windsor, that divided Ireland into two separate spheres: one directly under Henry’s control, the other ruled by the High King as Henry’s vassal.4

Ulster was another story. The kings who ruled there, descendants of the ancient and contentious clan of the Uí Néill, declined to submit to the English in any form; and the north of Ireland remained entirely out of Henry’s hands.


21.1 England, Ireland, and Western Francia

ON THE DOMESTIC FRONT, Henry was now running into trouble.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, nearing fifty, had given her husband eight children, five of them sons. Four of the boys had survived childhood: Henry the Younger, not yet twenty; Richard, two years younger; Geoffrey, born the year after Richard; and John, only five years old when Henry invaded Ireland.

Louis VII of France, Eleanor’s ex-husband, was legitimately worried about Henry’s power; the English monarch was expanding his reach, and his lands in Western Francia bordered Louis’s own. But it is hard to imagine that Louis did not feel some personal pique against the man who had succeeded where he had failed.

The constant squabbles between the English and the French kings had been temporarily smoothed over by Henry’s agreement, in 1169, to divide his lands in Western Francia among his three elder sons: Henry the Younger got Anjou and Maine; Geoffrey got Brittany; Richard, his mother’s favorite, was awarded the Duchy of Aquitaine. (John got nothing, earning him the derisive nickname “John Lackland.”) This broke up the united English front facing Louis, but he was not yet satisfied, particularly since Henry kept his fist closed tight over his sons. He was, says Gerald of Wales, “the kindest of fathers . . . during their childhood and youth, but as they advanced in years looked on them with an evil eye. . . he could never bear to think of them as his successors.” The French lands were theirs in name, but Henry ran their domains for them.5

Louis, who had betrothed the daughter of his second marriage to Henry the Younger as part of a peace deal, was undoubtedly aware of this state of affairs; he played on Henry’s natural resentments. He suggested to young Henry, privately, that he ask for the right to rule part of his father’s domain independently: Normandy or Anjou, perhaps. Or, failing that, England itself.6

Henry II refused, curtly (and not unreasonably). And so Henry the Younger ran away from home. “He seethed and growled against his father,” writes William of Newburgh, “and secretly took refuge with his father-in-law the king of France, intending to cause his father annoyance.” When Henry II sent a message to Louis VII, demanding that his son return home, Louis VII retorted, “The king of England is here, and gives no instruction to me.”7

This was a clear statement of war on Louis’s part and treason on young Henry’s, and the English barons immediately began to take sides. A good number of them defected to the rebellious son’s side; Henry, an authoritarian and controlling king, had made enemies. “Those men who joined the party of the son,” writes the contemporary historian Ralph of Diceto, “[did so] not because they regarded his as the juster cause, but because the father . . . was trampling upon the necks of the proud and haughty, [and] was dismantling or appropriating the castles of the country.”8

They were shortly joined by Henry’s younger brothers, Geoffrey and Richard.

Eleanor herself, who was at Poitiers with her sons when the revolt began, seems to have encouraged her sons to rebel against their father. She and Henry had been on increasingly poor terms since Becket’s murder; and Henry had at least one mistress, the famously beautiful Rosamund Clifford. (William of Newburgh excuses this, pointing out that Henry was faithful until Eleanor hit menopause.) Once Geoffrey and Richard were safely with Henry the Younger, Eleanor herself prepared to flee from Poitiers to the court of Louis VII; reversing her path twenty years earlier from Paris to meet her bridegroom. Before she could get to Louis’s lands, though, Henry II’s men caught up with her, and Henry ordered her to be kept under guard in Chinon Castle. She would remain under house arrest for the next fifteen years, separated from contact with her sons.9

Widespread though the rebellion was, Henry II put it down briskly. The last major engagement was Louis VII’s siege of Rouen, in Normandy, in August 1174. Henry, arriving with reinforcements, sent out a special force of Welsh mercenaries to cut off the French supply route through the woods, and the Welsh troops (“nimble and familiar with woodland,” William of Newburgh observes) descended on supply trains, destroyed them, and then disappeared back into the forest. “The news was spread abroad that the woods were thronged with Welshmen,” William tells us, and before long the French army lost heart. Louis VII, seeing the futility of fighting on, deserted his troops and retired to his capital, where he sent messages offering to come to terms. Geoffrey and Henry the Younger had already agreed to surrender to their father; only Richard was still holding out, laying siege to his father’s castles in Poitou, his mother’s native land. With Louis and his brothers deserting the cause, Richard was left with only a handful of men.10

Henry advanced into Poitou, forcing his son to retreat. By the end of September, Richard could no longer hold out. He went to his father’s camp as a suppliant, threw himself on his face, and burst into tears.

In victory, Henry was relatively gracious. He restored most of the Western Francia territories to his sons (but continued to control them). The English nobles who had joined the revolt were, by and large, released and pardoned. Henry the Younger was forced to take a strict oath of homage to his father, and the status quo was—more or less—restored.

But the hostility between the king and his sons was not repaired; nor was the king of France reconciled.

IN 1180, LOUIS VII OF FRANCE died in Paris, aged sixty. The crown went to his fifteen-year-old son, Philip II Augustus; Louis’s third wife, Adele of Champagne, had finally borne the French king his only male heir.

The young king’s lands were circled around by noble estates, ruled by powerful French dukes: Flanders, Burgundy, Toulouse. Louis VII had ruled as monarch only in the territory immediately around Paris; in the farther reaches of Western Francia, the French noble families, landholders and rulers of great estates, paid homage and did as they pleased.11

Even at fifteen (or, perhaps, because he was fifteen), Philip wanted more power.

He had barely begun his reign when the Duke of Burgundy tried to take advantage of the young king’s inexperience by demanding that some of the king’s vassals switch allegiance to him instead. Philip II immediately marched into Burgundy, attacked the fortress of Chatillon, and captured the duke’s oldest son; he did not release his prisoner until the Duke of Burgundy had backed down. When the Count of Flanders tried to claim territory that belonged, by right of inheritance, to Philip’s new wife Isabelle, Philip went to war with him and fought for the next four years over the debated land.12

All of this fighting was expensive, and Philip—showing for the first time the ruthlessness towards civilians that would mar his reputation forever—chose a new strategy to raise money. In 1182, he ordered all Jews expelled from France; the king confiscated their lands, seized their synagogues, and wiped out all debt owed to them—as long as the debtors paid one-fifth of the outstanding loan into the royal purse.13

The Jews were a natural target. European Christians had long shared the ancient Christian suspicion of Jews as complicit in the crucifixion of Christ, and during the First Crusade this had hardened into open hatred. “We wish to attack the enemies of God in the East, after traveling great distances,” wrote the eleventh-century French chronicler Guibert of Nogent. “However, before our eyes are the Jews, and no people is more hostile to God than they are. Such an arrangement is absurd.”14

Philip was still only in direct control of a small part of Western Francia, so most of the banished Jews did not go far. But the decree uncovered another aspect of the young king’s personality. He was harshly inflexible in matters of religion, and his reign was marked by increasingly strict laws against swearing, blasphemy, gambling, and other church-condemned pastimes.

A year after the expulsion decree, Henry the Younger was struck by dysentery and died, aged twenty-seven. His widow Margaret—Philip II’s older half sister—had given him only one child, and the baby had died three days after birth.

Seeing another chance to replenish his treasury, Philip II demanded that Henry II of England return Margaret’s dowry to the French throne. This, naturally, led to an argument; and by 1186 the quarrel was sliding towards open war.


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