When asked about the sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the two that are most often remembered are Richard the Lionheart and John, the two that lived to be kings after their father’s death. Henry and Eleanor had five sons though. The first William, died in infancy and the third Geoffrey was Duke of Brittany and died in a tournament in 1186. It was his son, Arthur, who was King John’s rival claimant to the throne of England. There was another son though, one who too often is forgotten in the annals of history. Henry was their second son, he was heir to the Plantagenet empire that Henry II and Eleanor had built and he was crowned during his father’s lifetime, a continental custom, so he was a king in his own right. He died, however, in 1183 at the age of 28 and as time went on his story was eclipsed by his younger brothers.
I first came upon Henry the Young King, as he came to be known, when I was researching William Marshal, as Marshal began his career in the royal household as Young Henry’s tutor in arms and effectively the captain of his knights (Marshal will be elucidated later in this post). The post is not going to uncover anything new about the life of Henry, there was an excellent biography written about Henry in 2016 by Matthew Strickland if you would like more information. However, as this is a blog of the odds and ends of history and for better or for worse Henry’s story has fallen a little into the cracks, I thought it was worth telling.
There aren’t really any contemporary images of Henry. His effigy in Rouen Cathedral is not contemporary, and most examples of his great seal are damaged.
He was described by one of his chaplains Gervase of Tilbury as
He was tall in stature, and distinguished in appearance; his face expressed merriment and mature judgment in due measure; fair among the children of men, he was courteous and cheerful. Gracious to all, he was loved by all; amiable to all, he was incapable of making an enemy. He was matchless in warfare, and as he surpassed all others in the grace of his person, so he outstripped them all in valour, cordiality, and the outstanding graciousness of his manner, in his generosity and in his true integrity. In short, in this man, God assembled every kind of goodness and virtue, and the gifts which fortune usually bestows on single individuals of special distinction, she exerted herself to give all together and in richer measure to this man, so as to make him worthy of all commendation.
This description obviously has to be taken with a bucketful of salt as Gervase was definitely biased. Depending on which chroniclers you read Young Henry was either the hard done by heart of chivalry- though chivalry is not a contemporary term – or an ungrateful spendthrift who rose up in rebellion against his father unnecessarily, and incited incendiary war. As with most things in history the truth is probably somewhere in between. This post can not possibly cover his entire life, so I am going to focus on the key moments, in a series of vignettes. This is part one of two and will cover Young Henry up to his rebellion against Henry II. Part two will cover the last ten years of his life, his time on the tournament circuit and his death- which is an interesting story in and of itself.
Young Henry was born in 1155 in London, not long after his father was crowned King of England. It was a time of hope and relative peace after the bitter years of civil war known as the Period of Anarchy. He was baptised by the Bishop of London, and when Henry II had his barons swear fealty to his oldest son William in April 1155, he also had them swear to Young Henry if William died prematurely. Henry II had come to the throne at the end of a brutal dynastic war, so he was shoring up his succession. William died in 1156 and was buried with his great grandfather Henry I in Reading Abby, he was only 3. So Young Henry became the heir to the Plantagenet Empire.
The next key vignette was Young Henry’s marriage. This might feel like I’m jumping a bit far into his lifetime, but in fact we’re only looking at 1158. In 1158 discussions began about betrothing Young Henry, now three, to Margaret the one year old daughter of Louis VII the King of France. Betrothing children this young wasn’t that unusual. It actually had little to do with the children themselves and more to do with agreements over land and alliances. In this case it was stipulated that if Young Henry died, one of his brothers could be substituted. The two children were betrothed in c. 1160. The agreement was only intended to be a betrothal, as far as Louis VII was concerned, but Henry II wanted the land that came as part of Margaret’s dowry as well as being concerned with Louis’ new marriage (in case he produced a son), so he had the two children married in November 1160. Roger of Hoveden described the marriage as Henry, king of England, caused his son Henry to be married to Margaret, the daughter of the king of France, although they were as yet but little children, crying in the cradle. Roger of Hoveden goes on to say that Louis was indignant. There was little he could do about it though and peace was eventually restored by 1161.
Being married this young was actually very unusual, as marriage was somewhat of a rite of passage, but nevertheless Young Henry was a husband by the time he was five. Margaret was raised in Henry II’s court, though not necessarily with Young Henry. The children would still have known each-other growing up.
Young Henry’s childhood is interesting, though there is not a great deal of detail known. It is worth noting that in 1162 he was placed in the household of Thomas Becket, who would later become Archbishop of Canterbury. This was a sign of high favour to Becket, and Young Henry would have grown up in Becket’s household, which was well known for its pomp, ceremony and extravagance with Beckett at its centre. Henry II on the other hand was known to be careless of his appearance and the quality of his food and wine, though he was conscious of the importance of ceremony and symbolism. This early environment, may have had an effect on Young Henry’s behaviour in later life. Becket would later infamously fall out with Henry II and was martyred in 1170.
I’m now going to jump forward to Young Henry’s coronation, also in 1170. It wasn’t an English custom to crown the heir in the father’s lifetime, but Henry II wanted to be very sure to shore up his succession. Young Henry was no longer a child, he was fifteen, and would have had his own household by this point. By now Thomas Becket and Henry II were at odds, this is pre Becket’s martyrdom, so he wouldn’t crown Young Henry as he’d exiled himself from England. This was an issue because the Archbishop of Canterbury crowning the King was an important part of the conferment of sovereignty, and the legitimacy of the coronation. After much back and forth and strife between Henry II and Thomas Becket in the end Roger the Archbishop of York crowned Young Henry in Westminster in July 1170. The Pope forbade the coronation in a letter to the bishops and archbishops of England saying We forbid you all by our apostolic authority , from crowning the new king, if the case shall occur without the consent of the archbishop and the church of Canterbury, nor shall any of you put forth his hand, contrary to the ancient customs and dignity of the church, or in any way forward the coronation aforesaid. The letter was too late as Young Henry had already been crowned. There isn’t a contemporary description of the detail of the coronation, but from descriptions of other coronations such as Richard I’s, it would have been full of ritual and ceremony. Roger of Hovden described it as He himself caused the above-named Henry, his son, to be crowned and consecrated king at Westminster, by Roger, Archbishop of York, who was assisted in this duty by Hugh bishop of Durham, Walter, bishop of Rochester, Gilbert, bishop of London, and Jocelyn, bishop of Salisbury ; no mention whatever being made of the blessed Thomas, archbishop of Canterbury, to whom by right of his see the coronation and consecration belonged. You can see Westminster Abbey in the photo below.
After the coronation a grand banquet was held in the next door Westminster Hall- it had been built by Henry II’s great uncle William Rufus and was one of the largest freestanding halls in Europe. You can see it in the photos below.
There is a story from the coronation banquet, which may or may not be true but is interesting regardless. The story is that Henry II served his son personally at table to honour him (even though it could have been seen as demeaning of his kingship), Young Henry is then said to have commented that it was quite normal for the son of a count to serve the son of a king. This would have been seen as an enormous slight on Henry II’s authority as the King. It’s probable that Young Henry never said this, it is also possible that Henry II never served him directly, as most of the accounts are from later sources seeking to denigrate Henry II. What’s interesting though is that the story survived, and you can see how it is building a narrative of the diminished authority of Henry II and the flippancy of Young Henry. You can see an early 13th century depiction of the scene and the coronation in the image below. It comes from a life of Thomas Becket.
Once Henry had been crowned he was, in theory, invested with the same authority as his father. Henry II went on to have most of his barons swear to Henry Roger of Hoveden described it as The day after this coronation, the king, his father, made William, king of the Scots, and David, his brother, and the earls and barons of the kingdom, pay homage to the new king, and swear ‘fealty to him against all men, saving their fealty to himself.
The History of William Marshal described this decision as once the deed that been done, many a day afterwards that he would have readily undone it.
The problem from here on in, was the theory and the practice of the authority of a king. Henry II may have given Young Henry a crown in his lifetime, but he didn’t give him any actual authority. The Plantagenet Empire stretched across England and a lot of what is now France, and while Henry II had made his son a king, the crown didn’t result in any lands to rule or administer independently. You can see a map of the Plantagenet Empire at its height in c.1188 in the image below.
The Welsh Chronicle the Brut y tywysogion encapsulated the problem perfectly when it said In that interval, when king Henry the eldest was beyond the sea, his son Henry the younger, the new king, came to him to enquire what he ought to do; for since he was a king he had many knights, and he had no means of rewarding those knights with presents and gifts, unless he received a loan from his father; and this was in the time of Lent. And his father said to him that he would give him twenty pounds a day, of the money of that country, for expenditure and that he should not have more. And he said that he had never heard of a king being a man on pay, or under wages and that neither would he be. After the son has taken advice, he went to the city of Tours, to obtain money on loan from the burgesses of the city; and when the king heard that, he sent messengers to the burgesses to forbid them under the pain of losing all their property, to lend anything to his son. And without delay he sent trust men to watch his son lest he go anywhere without notice.
So essentially Young Henry was a king without a kingdom. This was the core of the reasons that led to my next vignette; Young Henry’s rebellion against his father.
In 1173 Young Henry rose up against his father Henry II. He escaped from his father’s watch at Chinon and rode for Chartres when he knew his father in law Louis VII was in residence. You can see Chartres Cathedral in the photo below.
His flight had been somewhat precipitous though, as it took his allies, including his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine, his brothers Richard and Geoffrey, Louis VII, and various French and English barons by surprise. It was none the less a formidable coalition facing Henry II. There was one very unusual factor about this rebellion, Eleanor of Aquitaine. While sons rebelling against their fathers was not unheard of in this period and there had been other rebellions by Henry II’s barons already, a rebellion partly instigated by a queen was almost unheard of. But then Eleanor of Aquitaine was definitely a woman who stood outside the norm for her time. She’s one of my favourite historical figures but I won’t go into detail about her here. I have written about her before and you can see that post here. You can see Eleanor’s effigy from Fontevraud Abbey in the photo below.
Henry II’s other sons rebelled for similar reasons to Young Henry, he wouldn’t share authority. They were given then trappings of power rather than any actual ability to exercise it, and in many ways were supplicants to their father the same way Young Henry was.
So at the age of 18 Young Henry was a king and undertaking a rebellion against his father. As a rebellion it began promisingly enough with Roger of Hoveden hyperbolically stating:
The whole of the kingdom of France, and the king, the son of the king of England, Richard his brother, earl of Poitou, and Geoffrey, earl of Bretagne, and nearly all the earls and barons of England, Normandy, Aquitaine, Anjou, and Brittany, arose against the king of England the father, and laid waste his lands on every side with fire, sword, and rapine : they also laid siege to his castles, and took them by storm, and there was no one to relieve them.
Hoveden continued on to compare the rebellion to a prophecy of Merlin’s
The cubs shall awake and shall roar aloud, and, leaving the woods, shall seek their prey within the walls of the cities ; among those who shall be in their way they shall make great carnage, and shall tear out the tongues of bulls. The necks of them as they roar aloud they shall load with chains, and shall thus renew the times of their forefathers
Henry II was beset on all sides and Young Henry was in the middle of it all.
The beginning of Young Henry’s rebellion, marked another milestone, his knighthood. Ordinarily Young Henry would have been knighted before his coronation, and although there is no record of it occurring, normally we would assume that he would have been knighted as a key part of his transition to manhood. In this case though, we have a relatively contemporary source which tells a different story. The History of William Marshal is a near contemporary biography of William Marshal, (who I mentioned at the beginning of this post). Marshal was one of the key figures throughout this period. He was born the fourth son of a not hierarchically important baron, and rose to become Regent of England by his death in 1219. He served five kings, but he began his career in Young Henry’s household. You can see Marshal’s effigy in the photos below.
So the History records Marshal knighting Young Henry in 1173 as he is about to take up arms against his father at the head of a large force. “But there is this, my dear lord,” they said: “you have still not been knighted, and that is not to everyone’s liking, we feel. We would all be a more effective force if you had a sword girded on; that would make the whole of your company, more valorous and more respected, and would increase the joy in their hearts.” The young King replied: “I will willingly do that, and I can tell you that the best knight who ever was or will be, or has done more or who is to do more, will gird on my sword, if God please.” At this the sword was brought before the King, and, once he had it in his hand, he went straight up to the Marshal, brave man that he was, and said to him: “From God and from yourself, My lord, I wish to receive this honour.” The Marshal had no wish to refuse him; he gladly girded on his sword and kissed him, whereupon he became a knight, and he asked that God keep him most valerous, honoured and exalted, as indeed he did.”
Now the History is very biased towards Marshal, but it is unlikely that it would put this story front and centre, if it was completely untrue. Therefore it is most likely that Marshal knighted Young Henry, an important step on Young Henry road to manhood and military leader.
Young Henry’s rebellion started promisingly, and the fighting continued, with neither side really gaining the upper hand. Henry II sued for peace at the end of 1173 offering his sons lands. Roger of Hoveden records that he offered Young Henry: a moiety of the revenues of his demesnes in England, and four fitting castles in the same territory ; or, if his son should prefer to remain in Normandy, the king, the father, offered a moiety of the revenues of Normandy, and all the revenues of the lands that were his father’s, the earl of Anjou, and three convenient castles in Normandy, and one fitting castle in Anjou, one fitting castle in Maine, and one fitting castle in Touraine
It could be argued if Henry II had made this offer before the rebellion Young Henry may have rebelled. It was not enough however, Henry II’s offer was spurned and the fighting continued. It looked like the rebels might have been successful, but Henry II was a formidable military commander and with some luck and, according to the church, intercession from Thomas Becket who was a saint by this point, Henry II prevailed by late 1174.
The History was written in the early 1200s under the reign of Henry III, Henry II’s grandson, so it does not dress up the rebellion as desirable. The spin it put on it however, is that Young Henry was badly advised saying “Dear lord, you should not show your anger to your son or those in his company, but to those who advised him to act as he did. The ones to suffer for it should be those who advised him to turn traitor, and they should be considered more base for what they did.” This is the picture that is often painted of Young Henry, easily led. It seems that Henry II took this advice as he forgave his sons and most of the rebels eventually. The exception was his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, who remained his prisoner (in reasonably salubrious circumstances) for 16 years until his death in 1189.
To return to Young Henry though. After his rebellion failed in 1174, he stayed with his father in England for more than a year. The History records when he got sick of this saying So, the young King Henry, who did not find it the slightest bit amusing to be so long confined in England, acted upon the advice and counsel of his companion and approached his father, a man who loved him very dearly. He said “if it did not incur your displeasure, it would be most welcome and pleased to me to go over the Channel for my sport, for it could be a source of much harm to me to stay idle for so long, and I am extremely vexed by it. I am no bird to be mewed up; a young man who does not travel around could never aspire to any worthwhile thing, and he should be regarded as of no account.”
So Young Henry, with his father’s permission, travelled with his knights, including William Marshal, to the continent where he commenced his time on the tournament circuit. This brings me to my next vignette; the young king’s career on the tournament field. And that is where I will begin part two of this post, which will deal with the last ten years of Henry’s life, his time on the tournament field and his death at the age of only 28. I’ll leave part one with an image from Matthew Paris’ Historia Anglorum from the mid 13th century that depicts Henry the Young King in a little archway between Henry II and Richard I. You can see the close up of Henry in the first image, then the whole page in the second. See you soon for part 2.
This is the link to explore the whole book http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=royal_ms_14_c_vii_f008v
Anonymous. History of William Marshal. (ed.) AJ. Holden. (trans.) S. Gregory & (notes.) David Crouch, Volumes I, II & III. London: Anglo-Norman Text Society. 2002.
Aurell, Martin. The Plantagenet Empire 1154-1224. (trans.) David Crouch. Harlow: Pearson Education. 2007.
Strickland, Matthew. Henry The Young King 1155-1183. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2016
The photos that aren’t medieval manuscripts are all mine.