“Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” — Henry II of EnglandHenry II of England was born on this day in Le Mans, France in 1133. Today is the 880th anniversary of his birth.
Henry, Count of Anjou, Count of Maine, Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Count of Nantes, Lord of Ireland, and eventually King of England (1154–89) was the oldest child of Empress Matilda and Geoffrey the Fair. Matilda was the eldest daughter of England’s Henry I who died unexpectedly in 1135 without naming an heir. She had a strong claim that her baby boy, a direct male descendant should be next in line for the throne, but her cousin Stephen, Count of Blois, (aka Stephen the Usurper), got there first. Matilda, aided by her half-brother Robert of Gloucester, raised an army and a 17 year civil war ensued.
Henry’s early years were spent in the Court of Anjou with his father, but beginning in 1142 the boy traveled to England to join the campaign. The years he spent living in a Spartan manner followed him the rest of his life and Henry eschewed the opulence and soft pleasures of other monarchs.
1151, Henry became ruler of Normandy and Anjou, after the death of his father. In 1152, he married Eleanor of Aquitaine, the greatest heiress in western Europe. In 1153, he crossed to England to pursue his claim to the throne, reaching an agreement that he would succeed Stephen on his death, which occurred in 1154. [BBC.co.uk]
Henry and Becket
The next order of business was to restore peace and order in England. To do that Henry turned to Thomas Becket. Together they rid the country of the robber barons, disloyal knights and criminals who were lapping up the offal of 17 years of war. As a reward for a job well done (and to strengthen his own power over the church) Henry named Becket Archbishop of Canterbury when the old Archbishop died. The church hierarchy was stunned and dismayed, Becket was the King’s man. He wasn’t even a priest. He was ordained on June 2nd, 1162, and consecrated Archbishop on June 3rd. But Becket surprised everyone, especially Henry. He undertook a religious transformation, and where he had been loyal wholly to the King he was now loyal only to God. He began to work to restore the powers of the Archbishop and the Church, especially in matters of Law.
Henry thought the Law of the Land superseded the Law of the Church. Becket disagreed. Henry called and assembly of clergy to Clarendon Palace in January 1164 where he demanded that Becket sign the Constitution of Clarendon which “established procedures of criminal justice, establishing courts and prisons for those awaiting trial. In addition, the assizes gave fast and clear verdicts, enriched the treasury and extended royal control.” [BBC.co.uk] In other words it gave Henry power over the church. After much heated debate Becket pledged an oath to the idea of the Constitution, but he refused to sign. Henry was satisfied. But later when Becket refused to say mass until the oath was overturned. Henry was outraged and had the Archbishop put on trail for treason. Becket fled for exile in France. A battle of wills ensued between two of Europe’s most stubborn men and neither Queen Elinor nor the Pope Alexander III could bring the parties together. Becket used the last most powerful arrow in his quiver. He tried to excommunicate Henry. Henry countered by threatening to arrest any one who supported Becket with treason. Becket’s support dwindled. He agreed to meet Henry in July of 1170. Becket accepted Henry’s legal supremacy in England. He was allowed to return to England. But he wasn’t willing to leave well enough alone.
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