Even the barons were fed up with it. Constant pillaging and ravaging of the countryside was having its effect. After all it was the lowly peasants and serfs who actually grew the food that everyone ate.
The Empress Matilda (Henry I’s only legitimate child and his choice to succeed after this death) and King Stephen (who had surprised everyone by his swift annexation of the throne on Henry’s death and then annoyed everyone by his lacklustre performance afterwards) had pursed each other across the countryside for nearly 20 years, causing havoc and devastation.
Despite what you might think from reading the Cadfael books, it was not a happy time.
However, after the death of Stephen’s eldest son, he lost heart and recognised Matilda’s son Henry as his heir in the Treaty of Wallingford. From that moment, as Warren says in his biography of Henry II, “What Stephen did mattered less than what Henry proposed to do”.
Henry was crowned in December 1154, some eight weeks after Stephen’s death.
But what was he like, this young man?
Born on 11 March 1133 he was well educated, his education having been arranged mostly by his father Geoffrey of Anjou. His mother, the Empress Matilda, ‘a woman who had nothing of the woman about her’, insufferably arrogant and described by William of Malmesbury as ‘a virago’, was away for much of Henry’s childhood fighting Stephen for her inheritance.
However Mother and son were close (she was said to be the only woman able to influence him), and he was known throughout his lifetime as Henry FitzEmpress.
The young Henry was quite a lad. He had been sent to England first aged nine for a year. He then returned on his own account, aged 14, without his parents permission but with a band of mercenaries he had hired himself, to make an, unsuccessful, attempt to wrest the throne from Stephen.
However Henry’s sights were not just set on England.
“In the Romanesque cathedral in Poitiers a man and a woman stood before the high alter exchanging wedding vows. It was a simple ceremony. The young man, aged 19, was stocky with red hair, and restless pent up energy, knowing he was doing a daring thing. The woman, eleven years his senior, and with long auburn locks, was exceptionally beautiful, very sophisticated and a willing accomplice to this furtive ceremony”
So starts Alison Weir’s excellent biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor was one of the greatest heiresses in Europe and owned much of modern day France in her own right. Her marriage to Henry, once it became known, sent shock waves throughout Europe.
With such a huge empire to govern, it is fortunate that Henry was energetic, clever and forceful. In fact he tired everyone out by his energy, constantly on the move, and frequently forcing everyone to stand for hours because he never sat down.
He was not interested in the outward symbols of power and wealth, being content with the actuality. He dressed simply and it was said that he could have been mistaken for one of his own huntsmen.
Bowlegged from a life spent mostly in the saddle, with a harsh cracked voice, Henry nevertheless had a compelling personality. ‘His countenance’, said William Map ‘was one on which a man might gaze a thousand times yet still feel drawn to gaze again’.
He was also hard working and highly intelligent. When not hunting or travelling, he would retire to his chambers with a book. Fortunate for England, and her legal system, that such a man was destined to be its King.
Backtracking from the Usurper
Henry never accepted the legitimacy of Stephens reign, referring to him as ‘the Usurper’. One of his aims, certainly during the first part of his reign, was to return his country to the times of his grandfather, particularly insofar as legal estates and rights were concerned.
“I am unwilling to allow any change to stand which anyone has made upon my desmesne since the time of Henry my grandfather …”
“…Know that I have granted to my citizens of Winchester all the privileges that they had in the time of Henry my grandfather …”
“… I order you to pay to my Reeves of Lincoln all the rights and customs which you were wont to pay in the time of King Henry my grandfather …
So ran three of many charters made in 1155-8.
During Stephens reign, a lot of estates had changed hands. Some legitimately, some not. Now came a time of reckoning.
But Henry was to have a profound effect on England, not just in the ownership of estates, but in the whole method of governance of the country and in the development of its legal system. He is one of the great Kings of England.