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The First Plantagenet King of England

Henry the first had nominated his daughter Matilda as his heir in 1126 but, by the 1130s, he had fallen out with Matilda and her husband Geoffrey Plantagenet, the Count of Anjou. On Henry's death in 1135, therefore, the succession was unclear.

Matilda and Geoffrey were in France, in Anjou. They marched an army into southern Normandy and seized some castles there.

Stephen of Blois was related to William the Conqueror through William's daughter. He was wealthy and influential in Anglo-Norman society and had been a close supporter and confidante of Henry the first.

Although his claim to the throne of England is weak, he was better connected in England than Henry's daughter Matilda. On Henry's death, Stephen traveled to London where crowds proclaimed him king – probably encouraged by Stephen's supporters. Stephen had particular influence in the Church to which he had made generous promises. With the Bishops in his pocket, Stephen was crowned King of England on 22nd December 1135.

Stephen fulfilled his promises to the church and was confirmed as king by the pope in 1136, but he was faced with several revolts, notably in Wales and south West England.

However, Matilda and Geoffrey campaigning in Normandy continued to cause him problems, and he was forced to agree a truce with them promising to pay 2,000 marks a year to them.

The royal treasury was emptied by the cost of these campaigns and Stephen's lavish tastes, and, in 1138, Stephen faced another rebellion in England. This time, Robert Earl of Gloucester – one of Henry the first's illegitimate sons – declared his support for his half-sister Matilda. Although this rebellion was largely defeated, it created the space for Matilda to land in the south-west of England in 1139, and a civil war began.

The conflict ebbed and flowed for two years, but Matilda's strength grew, and Stephen was captured at the Battle of Lincoln in February 1141. Matilda then took control of the Royal Treasury and sought the support of the nobles and the church. But Stephen's forces were not defeated, and he was released in November 1141 after a series of victories. Stephen regained control of the church and had himself crowned again at Christmas 1141.

The civil war continued intermittently for 10 years, with neither side achieving a breakthrough. The country was in chaos and largely controlled by local warlords. The fighting between the two factions reduced, and Matilda left for Normandy in 1148, never returning to England. However, her son Henry Plantagenet took an increasing interest in the family's claim to the English throne.

A truce was brokered by the church in 1153, in which Stephen recognised Henry as his successor. Stephen's own son Eustace had died that year and removed a possible stumbling block. In the Treaty of Winchester, Stephen adopted Henry Plantagenet as his son and successor in return for Henry's homage.

The truce was potentially fragile and might have broken had not Stephen died of illness in October 1154.

Henry Plantagenet was crowned King Henry the second of England in December 1154. He was 21 years old and had married Eleanor of Aquitaine two years previously.

Geoffrey Plantagenet had died in 1151, and Henry's mother Matilda became an important advisor to Henry during his reign, and was his representative in Normandy. She also mediated in the famous dispute between Henry and Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. Matilda died in 1167.

Henry the second proved to be a strong king. He stabilised the realm, reversing gains made by the Scots during Stephen's reign and recapturing most of Wales. He also controlled vast lands in France. Henry was the first true medieval king. He strengthened the administration of the country and improved the legal system. He also improved the management of the English currency, which improved the economy of the country.

With his queen Eleanor, he had five sons and three daughters. One of his sons died in infancy, and three would-be kings of England – although not all successfully.

The main legacy of Henry the Second is that he stabilised the kingdom, improving its economy and its administration and stabilising its borders, although problems remained for him in France. Henry was also the first English king to invade Ireland in 1169, creating problems that continue to this day.

Henry's most famous mark on history was his dispute with Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury. Henry appointed Thomas a Becket to the role in 1162, confident that Becket would be loyal to him. But Becket tried to strengthen the church's rights and privileges. This threw the two men into conflict. Henry was stubborn and strong-willed; Becket was vain and ambitious. Neither backed down. Thomas Becket fled to France in 1164, and Henry harassed his supporters. In return, Becket excommunicated officials who sided with the king.

Beckett returned to England in 1170 when the two men seemed to have reached terms. But Beckett then excommunicated more supporters of Henry. In response, four knights made their way to Canterbury with the intention of arresting Becket. Thomas a Beckett claimed the sanctuary of the church, and the knights murdered him on 29th December 1170. Although it is doubtful that Henry directly ordered the knights to arrest Beckett, he took no action against the killers. However, international pressure grew, and Henry was forced to make a settlement with the Pope. Thomas Beckett was proclaimed a martyr, and Canterbury became a site of pilgrimage until suppressed in the reformation in 1536.

In the last years of his life, Henry the second faced an uprising by his eldest sons and his wife. Henry defeated the rebels in France, and an invasion of England by the Scots failed. A peace treaty was signed in 1174 with the king of France, who had supported the rebellion in the hope of expanding his territories. However, tensions with his sons remained. Henry's eldest surviving son, also called Henry, died of fever in 1183, and Henry Plantagenet named his second son Richard, to succeed him as king of England, promising his third son John lands in France. But Richard wanted the whole empire, and conflict resumed. An agreement was eventually reached, but Henry's fourth son died in 1186, leaving only two legitimate sons and further disrupting Henry's plans for his succession.

The conflict between them flared up again in 1188, with Richard demanding to be recognised as heir to the whole kingdom. Richard launched a surprise attack on Henry's troops in France, and Henry was forced to retreat. By this time, he was very ill, and he agreed to surrender to Richard and his supporters and recognise Richard as his heir.

Henry the second of England died in July 1189. He had stabilised England and made it a strong country, but the conflict with his sons would destabilise the country for a further 27 years.

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In the next lesson, we cover two of the most famous kings of England – King Richard the Lionheart and King John.

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Written by

Ross Maynard