Why King Henry II went to war with his wife and three sons in the 1170s

In the 1170s, King Henry II found him­self in con­flict with the arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury, many of his lead­ing barons and his own wife and three sons. Laura Ashe tells the story of a lit­tle-known war that had huge ram­i­fi­ca­tions for the fu­ture of a na­tion

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Laura Ashe spe­cialises in the lit­er­a­ture, his­tory and cul­ture of me­dieval Eng­land at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford. Her books in­clude Richard II: A Brit­tle Glory (Allen Lane, 2016)

When Young Henry re­belled against his fa­ther, he read­ily found al­lies, among them the kings of Scotland and France

When, in Oc­to­ber 1173, Richard de Lucy, the jus­ti­ciar of Eng­land, rode through Northum­ber­land, he must have been ap­palled by what he saw. Wil­liam the Lion, the king of Scotland, had in­vaded the north, and he and his armies had cut a swathe across the coun­try, burn­ing crops and vil­lages, tak­ing plun­der. They had at­tacked churches, steal­ing ev­ery­thing of value, and laid siege to cas­tles in the re­gion.

De Lucy, the man who gov­erned Eng­land while King Henry II was in his ter­ri­to­ries in France, was swift in seek­ing re­venge. He had come north with Humphrey de Bo­hun, an­other of Henry II’s key ad­min­is­tra­tors, and to­gether they at­tacked Ber­wick in re­tal­i­a­tion, pray­ing that “if it pleased the Lord God, the honourable men of this re­gion might have some vengeance”.

But now there was worse news. The Earl of Le­ices­ter had re­nounced his homage to Henry II and landed on the Suf­folk coast with an army of Flem­ish mer­ce­nar­ies, seek­ing to gain con­trol of East Anglia and join forces with rebels in the Mid­lands. It must have seemed as though the whole coun­try was on the brink of chaos, while the king was far away in Nor­mandy, fight­ing against a French in­va­sion and his own dis­loyal barons.

The loy­alty of ev­ery baron in Eng­land and Nor­mandy might have been in doubt that au­tumn, for this was not just a for­eign in­va­sion. The man who had de­clared war on Henry II was his own son and heir, Henry the ‘Young King’, now 18 years old and im­pa­tient with the long rule and ab­so­lute au­thor­ity of his fa­ther, who was only just in his for­ties. The prince was ag­grieved at his lack of power, par­tic­u­larly in con­trast with his younger brothers: Ge­of­frey was to be made Duke of Brit­tany by mar­riage, and his fa­ther had made Richard – later known as the Li­on­heart – Duke of Aquitaine.

As heir ap­par­ent to the king­dom of Eng­land and duke­dom of Nor­mandy, the Young King Henry ex­er­cised no gov­ern­ing pow­ers at all, for his fa­ther would not re­lease th­ese ti­tles in his life­time. “I am no hawk to be mewed up,” com­plained the prince. “A young gen­tle­man must spread his wings or he will amount to noth­ing.” And he trav­elled around north­ern France with his court and en­tourage, en­ter­tain­ing lav­ishly, spend­ing far be­yond his means on feast­ing and tour­na­ments, be­hav­ing like a king in a courtly ro­mance. He left debts ev­ery­where he went.

Early in 1173, af­ter a pub­lic row with his fa­ther in which he had de­manded Nor­mandy (or “some other ter­ri­tory” that could pro­vide an in­come to sup­port his life­style), the Young King fled to the court of his fa­ther-in-law, King Louis VII of France. Ge­of­frey and Richard joined him, and they de­clared open re­bel­lion against their fa­ther. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, their for­mi­da­ble mother, at­tempted to join them, but Henry II’s men cap­tured and im­pris­oned her: she was kept in close con­fine­ment in Eng­land un­til Henry’s death in 1189.

The Young King had some strong ar­gu­ments on his side. He was ac­knowl­edged by all as the next king of Eng­land; he had been crowned in 1170, fol­low­ing the fash­ion used by French kings to se­cure the suc­ces­sion; and all the aris­toc­racy had sworn fealty to him, sav­ing their duty to the king his fa­ther. Con­tem­po­raries were aware that Henry II kept his son on a hu­mil­i­at­ingly tight rein. One eye­wit­ness chron­i­cler, de­spite sup­port­ing the king, ob­served sim­ply that “you crowned your son and then thwarted his wishes, al­lowed him no power: that led to piti­less war”.

Blood white with brains

English pol­i­tics could be alarm­ingly febrile, as King Henry dis­cov­ered to his cost af­ter fall­ing out in spec­tac­u­lar style with Thomas Becket, the for­mi­da­ble arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury. On 29 De­cem­ber 1170, fol­low­ing years of bad-tem­pered con­flict and failed ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween king and arch­bishop, some of Henry’s own knights had rid­den to ar­rest Becket at Can­ter­bury Cathe­dral, but in­stead cut him down as he stood at the high al­tar. The mur­der was rapidly hailed as a holy mar­tyr­dom: “The blood white with the brains, and the brains no less red with the blood, dye­ing the floor of the cathe­dral with the white of the lily and the red of the rose, the colours of the Vir­gin and Mother, and of the life and death of the con­fes­sor and mar­tyr,” wrote one chron­i­cler. In Fe­bru­ary 1173, Thomas of Can­ter­bury was of­fi­cially canon­ised by the pope, in con­fir­ma­tion of over­whelm­ing pop­u­lar be­lief in his sanc­tity.

Mean­while, the king of Scotland was con­sol­i­dat­ing his power in the north, Brit­tany was a per­ma­nent flash­point of pos­si­ble re­bel­lion, the bor­ders of Nor­mandy wa­vered in their loy­alty, and the king of France stood ever ready to di­min­ish the ter­ri­tory of his pow­er­ful neigh­bour. King Henry’s in­ter­na­tional stand­ing was at an all-time low.

So when the Young King raised his ban­ner

against his fa­ther, he read­ily found al­lies. He sent mes­sen­gers to Wil­liam the Lion, promis­ing him that if he sup­ported the Young King’s claim to the throne of Eng­land, Northum­ber­land would be his to gov­ern as a fief of the crown. Louis of France in­vaded Nor­mandy, while mil­i­tary aid was also forth­com­ing from the Count of Flan­ders. Many English barons de­clared sup­port for young Henry, while oth­ers waited, in­ac­tive, to see which way mat­ters would go.

In Oc­to­ber 1173, the sit­u­a­tion looked des­per­ate for the loyal jus­ti­ciar Richard de Lucy, the con­sta­ble Humphrey de Bo­hun, and their few re­main­ing al­lies. In or­der to rem­edy it, fol­low­ing their attack on Ber­wick they made a tem­po­rary truce with Wil­liam the Lion and rode south as rapidly as they could, trap­ping the Earl of Le­ices­ter in Suf­folk. Le­ices­ter had been rav­aging the re­gion for loot to pay his mer­ce­nar­ies, and had launched an attack on Dun­wich, but the towns­peo­ple had seen them off, “act­ing like valiant knights”.

On 16 Oc­to­ber, at Forn­ham, just north of Bury St Ed­munds, Humphrey de Bo­hun and his force of 300 roy­al­ist knights clashed with the earl and his fol­low­ers, in­clud­ing his French wife – who ap­par­ently donned ar­mour and rode into bat­tle her­self, boast­ing that “the English are bet­ter at drink­ing than fight­ing”. Their Flem­ish mer­ce­nary army was bro­ken, and the earl and count­ess were cap­tured and later im­pris­oned and de­prived of their lands. The re­mains of their army were pur­sued and killed, the peo­ple of Bury St Ed­munds join­ing in with en­thu­si­asm to de­stroy those who had plun­dered the re­gion.

Beg­ging for for­give­ness

The truce with the Scots was pro­longed un­til Easter, the end of March 1174, at which point Wil­liam the Lion again at­tacked Northum­ber­land, lay­ing un­suc­cess­ful siege to Wark cas­tle. He then at­tacked Carlisle – again with­out suc­cess – but the cas­tles of Ap­pleby and Brough sur­ren­dered to him. He was be­sieg­ing Prud­hoe, near New­cas­tle, when news of an English army’s ad­vance north made him re­treat to Al­nwick. Here, his army was di­vided into small raid­ing par­ties.

Mean­while, Henry II had put down the re­bel­lion in Nor­mandy, de­feat­ing King Louis’ forces, and re­turned to Eng­land to join his sup­port­ers. He now con­ducted a diplo­matic and sym­bolic coup that con­tem­po­raries be­lieved turned the course of the war: he per­formed penance at Thomas Becket’s shrine. He walked bare­foot in a woollen smock to the tomb, where he knelt and was scourged by monks of the abbey, while he prayed to St Thomas for his for­give­ness, and kept his vigil overnight.

The fol­low­ing day, 13 July 1174, Henry set off for Lon­don, where he re­ceived a rap­tur­ous wel­come from the ci­ti­zens. He was in bed when a mes­sen­ger ar­rived in the mid­dle of the night – a man who had rid­den non-stop from Al­nwick Cas­tle with mo­men­tous news. On the morn­ing of Saturday 13 July, as Henry com­pleted his penance at St Thomas’s tomb, Wil­liam the Lion of Scotland had been cap­tured by a small roy­al­ist scout­ing party near Al­nwick. Lost in early morn­ing fog, they had chanced upon the king with few fol­low­ers. In the en­su­ing melée Wil­liam’s horse was killed, and he was un­able to escape. The Scot­tish king was brought south to sur­ren­der to Henry II. In the words of one eye­wit­ness chron­i­cler: “The war was over” – and the blessed St Thomas had shown his mirac­u­lous favour to Henry II.

This was the age of chivalry: bat­tles were fought, but none of the ma­jor play­ers were killed. They sur­ren­dered, were cap­tured and im­pris­oned in com­fort, even lux­ury; they signed treaties. And so, in many re­spects, when peace was made in the au­tumn, lit­tle changed. Henry did not pun­ish his sons, and in­deed in­creased the Young King’s in­come in an at­tempt to pla­cate his dis­sat­is­fac­tion. Even the Earl of Le­ices­ter had his lands re­turned to him in 1177.

But in this story, we must also see the dark side of chivalry – war as it af­fected or­di­nary peo­ple, those who were in­vis­i­ble to the code of chival­ric con­duct. Northum­ber­land and East

Anglia were rav­aged; towns­peo­ple and vil­lagers were killed; the or­di­nary sol­diers, the mer­ce­nar­ies on foot, and the lo­cal levies were all slain with im­punity. “That is the way to make war,” Count Philip of Flan­ders is said to have ad­vised the king of France. “Let it all be con­sumed in flames… First lay waste the land, then de­stroy your en­e­mies.”

Such bru­tal­ity sheds light on an­other re­veal­ing facet of this war, which is the part played by or­di­nary peo­ple. While many of the barony turned against their lord, the peo­ple of Dun­wich, of Carlisle, of Bury St Ed­munds, of Lon­don, were with­out ex­cep­tion loyal to Henry II. They joined in bat­tle along­side the roy­al­ist knights, and were praised in po­etry for their hero­ism.

It is not dif­fi­cult to see why or­di­nary peo­ple re­mained loyal rather than sup­port­ing those who were at­tack­ing and plun­der­ing the land. The hor­rors of the An­ar­chy, when Stephen and Matilda (Henry II’s own mother) had fought a civil war for the English crown, re­mained well within liv­ing mem­ory. This had been a time of fear and chaos when, for 19 long years (1135–54), the An­glo-Saxon Chron­i­cle tells us that “men said that Christ and his saints slept”. Henry II had brought peace, pros­per­ity and pro­tec­tion from ar­bi­trary vi­o­lence. Now his im­pa­tient sons and some re­bel­lious barons sought power, which meant that they rav­aged, looted and burned the lands they claimed to want to gov­ern. The peo­ple of Eng­land wanted peace, so they sup­ported the old king who had brought them it.

This war re­vealed some­thing new: the peo­ple’s love of Eng­land, and the nat­u­ral bond be­tween the king and his sub­jects

Spoil­ing for a fi­fight

The for­got­ten civil con­flict ex­poses an­other truth about Eng­land in the late 12th cen­tury: it was struc­tured by hered­i­tary king­ship, pre­sid­ing over a mil­i­tarised aris­toc­racy and, as such, was in­her­ently un­sta­ble. Kings were sup­posed to en­force peace, and gov­ern with jus­tice. But aris­to­cratic young men were trained for war, and im­pa­tient for the sta­tus and wealth that could be gained by mil­i­tary suc­cess; their fol­low­ers clam­oured for it. Tour­na­ments and bor­der skir­mishes could sus­tain lesser knights, but in his day Young King Henry was the man at the top, pay­ing for all this chival­rous largesse. In the end, like a lord from a much ear­lier age, the prince was com­pelled to seek war to main­tain his sta­tus.

Chron­i­clers at the time tried hard to de­pict the war as a for­eign in­va­sion, brought about by fool­ish­ness – the im­petu­ous Scot­tish king lis­ten­ing to bad advice, the op­por­tunis­tic Flem­ish mer­ce­nar­ies seiz­ing a chance to plun­der Eng­land. But the truth is, the re­bel­lion was led by the Young King, Henry II’s own son. Of course, he could not be ac­cused of trea­son; he was, af­ter all, Henry II’s heir.

Un­for­tu­nately, the younger Henry didn’t learn from his mis­takes. Be­cause noth­ing sub­stan­tial had changed with the peace set­tle­ment of 1174, Henry was to rebel against his fa­ther again – be­fore dy­ing, still only 28 years old, never hav­ing ruled any land. English kings never again tried crown­ing their heirs. Am­bi­tious adult princes would al­ways re­quire care­ful man­age­ment.

Fi­nally, be­neath the sur­face, this con­flict re­veals the be­gin­nings of some­thing else: the first signs of an emerg­ing kind of na­tional loy­alty which could in­clude or­di­nary peo­ple fight­ing along­side great mag­nates. When the Young King and his al­lies waged war, they ex­pressed no ideal of king­ship or gov­er­nance. They fought for per­sonal gain, for wealth and sta­tus, as count­less war­riors have done both be­fore and since. But when the chron­i­clers wrote about the loyal barons and or­di­nary peo­ple’s de­fence of their coun­try – their love of Henry II and the king’s loy­alty to them – they spoke in ex­actly those terms: of the ‘nat­u­ral’ love of coun­try, of the bond be­tween the king and his peo­ple, of the moral right­eous­ness of their cause, all crowned with St Thomas’s mirac­u­lous aid.

So of all this for­got­ten civil war’s lega­cies, the most telling was surely that it was fought over a prin­ci­ple. It mat­tered that the roy­al­ist side won with the help of or­di­nary peo­ple, as well as with the di­vine aid of St Thomas the Mar­tyr. As far as the chron­i­clers were con­cerned, God and the English had come to­gether in in­sist­ing that the barons should fight not for them­selves, but for Eng­land.

Reign in blood Henry II’s knights hack Thomas Becket to death in a c15th- cen­tury il­lus­tra­tion in the St Al­ban’s Chron­i­cle. Becket’s mur­der was one of a se­ries of calami­ties to rock Henry’s king­dom to its core in Eng­land’s tur­bu­lent 1170s

Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine sit on the throne in an il­lu­mi­na­tion. Soon, Eleanor would rebel against her hus­band, an act that landed her in cap­tiv­ity for 16 years

A c1220 man­u­script shows the coro­na­tion of Henry the Young King and the feast­ing that fol­lowed. King Henry II’s de­ci­sion to have his son crowned was mo­ti­vated by a need to se­cure the suc­ces­sion but it wasn’t enough to stop the younger man re­belling in 1173

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