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The Politics of Henry II

Henry II was crowned on December 19th 1154. He held the titles: King of the English, Duke of the Normans and Aquitainians, and Count of the Angevins. 1 He was not a native Englishman, since he was born on the 4th of March 1133 to the Empress Matilda. Henry's kingship represented an eventual triumph for Empress Matilda in her long conflict with King Stephen. 2 Henry spent a large part of his life gaining lands on the continent as well as consolidating those he already held. In 1152 he married Eleanor, the discarded wife of King Louis VII of France, thus furthering his claims to Aquitaine (of which she was the heiress) and other connected lands on the continent.

Click here for more information about King Stephen.

While Henry spent most of his time on the continent, he also did a great deal for England. Henry set about stabilizing England through its economy. He reinstated the office of sheriff as a royal appointment, instead of the hereditary title it had become under King Stephen. Henry revitalized the role of the Exchequer, which was the main debt-collecting agency of the crown. He also took the royal mints back from the families who had been monopolizing them, and put them under the control of royally appointed administrators. Along with these economic changes, Henry also made changes to the law and royal justice. He was the first king to put in place a system of justices who visited communities throughout the land on a regular basis; these events were called "eyres". These justices both presided over the court and made the judgments, so that all people were subjected to the same laws (in theory). 3

Henry was very interested in curtailing the power of the nobles, and reestablishing the supremacy of the crown. 4 He ordered the destruction of the unauthorized castles built in King Stephen's reign. One of these was Scarborough Castle, but Henry countermanded his order of destruction when he realized how strategically valuable it was to have a castle on the Scarborough headland. Instead he expanded the castle and built up the town. 5

King Henry II is infamous for killing the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. Becket was a reformist and strongly espoused the supremacy of the church over the state. Henry's anger at Becket was made worse because Becket had been his loyal chancellor. Only a few years after Becket's death his tomb had become the focus of one of the most important cults in the west of Christendom. Even Henry came to the tomb in 1174 as a pilgrim (to be flogged in front of the tomb). 6

Henry II's biggest problem was his surfeit of sons, who rebelled a number of times, egged on by their mother Eleanor and by the King of France. 7 His three rebellious sons were supported by some of the English and the French nobles. 8 Henry had tried to keep his sons happy by giving them each control of part of his kingdom, but this ultimately just gave them a strong base from which to attack. King Henry II died on July 6th 1189, a broken man. Henry was succeeded by his 32-year-old son Richard I.

Click here for more information about King Henry in relation to Scarborough Castle.

Photo of statue King Henry II

Statue of King Henry II. 9

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