Henry II Curtmantel (1154 - 1189 AD)
Henry II came to power in the wake of the civil war between King Stephen and his aunt, the countess Matilda. The formidable countess was the mother of Henry, who was the first of the Plantagenet line to rule in England. Among his other hereditary titles, Henry was Count of Anjou, Count of Maine, Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Duke of Gascony, Count of Nantes and, Lord of Ireland.
Henry was educated in England from the age of nine, and took an active part in court affairs as a young man. He rose to prominence in 1152 when he married Eleanor of Aquitaine just months after her marriage to the King of France had been annulled. Their union was very fruitful: they produced eight children, while Henry also fathered several illegitimate sons who went on to become prominent landholders and churchmen. Henry’s claim to the English throne was not based merely on the support of his mother: he was the great grandson of William the Conqueror and one of his great-great-grandmothers was Margaret of Wessex, a junior member of the old Anglo-Saxon dynasty.
Henry supported his mother in the contest with King Stephen, and when the king was persuaded to accede to his kinsmen’s demands in the Treaty of Wallingford, it was Henry who assumed the mantle of power. On Stephen’s death, Henry was crowned King of England and although nominally a vassal of the King of France, he was more powerful than his superior. Henry consolidated his power in Scotland and meddled in Irish affairs, while in England he undertook the razing of the castles which the barons had raised during Stephen’s reign. In an effort to demilitarize the aristocracy, he commuted their hereditary duty of military service into a tax payment (‘scutage’).
One of the more notorious acts of the king was the sponsored murder of Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his own cathedral in 1170. The churchman was canonized soon after, a warning from the ecclesiastical authorities against interference from the secular powers. During Henry’s reign the weakness of Angevin power was exposed: large territories, troublesome magnates and large numbers of legitimate children led inevitably to power struggles. On his death in 1189, he had only one loyal supporter among all his offspring.