Henry of Plantagenet, aka King Henry II, ruled England and a great swath of France from 1154 to 1189. Though he lived in medieval times, a lot is known about Henry and his long reign over this large empire. There were always problems, unrest and disagreements within the kingdom, especially in the French territories, which required that for much of his life, Henry lived on the road, traveling back and forth across the Channel, ships, horses, a weighty entourage of knights and the necessities of court in tow. But Henry was driven by the successes of his forebears, his grandfather King Henry I and great grandfather, William the Conqueror, these figures playing much in his mind as influential images. He saw himself as a great ruler. He was determined to be a great King.
I took an interest in Henry when we were in the Loire Valley over Christmas roaming around his old lands of Anjou and the capital city, Angers. On a sunny windy day we walked all the way around the ramparts of his castle, looking over the city and the river Marne. Walking up and down steps to the various lookout towers, around one corner of the rampart was something you rarely see high up on a defensive wall – a rambling medieval garden and a small vineyard and bee-keeping shed.
We also ran into Henry because his tomb is at the Abbeye de Fontevraud along with his wife.
Eleanor of Aquitaine was Henry’s wife. She is, of course, part of what makes the character of Henry II interesting – that he married the most powerful, richest woman of the high middles ages is testimony to the mans appeal. Because when Henry met Eleanor, she was married to another man, who just happened to be the King of France, Louis VII. Eleanor was famous for her intellect, beauty, her rich lands of Aquitaine, and her determined character. In her warm southern lands, she surrounded herself with troubadours who flocked to her feet singing the love of the chivalric code. But it was Henry that she wanted. Henry, with his red hair, rugged looks and most importantly, his power and his passion. Yes, instantly enamored, Eleanor, true to her strong-willed character, eventually convinced the Pope to annul her marriage to Louis and married Henry. She went from being the Queen of France to the Queen of England!
They were both fascinating people. The more I read, the more I wanted to know.
Henry claimed the English throne, restored order after the chaos and civil war under the reign of his cousin, King Stephen. He reformed the judicial system, regularly riding out into his lands to insure the strong support of his nobles, brought back stability to England, so once again people could travel the county roads without fear of outlaws and could feel safe in their village houses. He is credited with establishing a powerful central administration and bringing to England the practice of common law.
And all this with the help of his once upon a time best friend, Thomas Becket. Thomas Becket, the man of elegant intellect and wit, who would become the kings most trusted confident and adviser. It is said that Henry always wanted Becket by his side. Becket driven by commitment to ideals of truth, justice, honor. Henry driven by his determination to establish a State more powerful than any before. History tells us stories of their riding out together into the fields, both fired by a love of the land, a love of hunting. But Becket would eventually be betrayed by his king Henry and murdered on the alter when he was Archbishop of Canterbury by the Kings knights. The Pope would name him a Saint, Saint Thomas. Pilgrims would flock to his tomb. The destination of Chaucer’s pilgrims in the “Canterbury Tales” is to Becket’s shrine. And King Henry would forever mourn the loss of Becket, whom he called his only true friend.