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Romans in Britain
Anglo-Saxons & Vikings
     Henry II
     Archbishop and martyr
     Richard I
     Magna Carta
     Henry III
     Provisions of Oxford

Lancaster and York
Henry VII and Henry VIII
Children of Henry VIII
Charles I and Charles II
Civil War, Commonwealth
Restoration, Revolution

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Henry II: 1154-1189

When Henry comes to the throne of England in 1154, as a 21-year-old, he is the ruler or the feudal overlord of an uninterrupted swathe of territory stretching from the river Tweed to the Pyrenees.

At the end of the reign, thirty-five years later, Henry's lands in France are still intact but are under considerable pressure. In England, by contrast, the kingdom is transformed. The structure of government is greatly strengthened. And the neighbouring regions of Wales, Scotland and Ireland have all accepted, in varying degrees, the overlordship of the English king.


On Henry's accession England is in a lawless state after the years of civil war. His first task, in reasserting royal authority, is to bring under control the many castles which unruly barons have built for themselves without royal licence. The solution is often simple. The castles are demolished and their occupants executed or disciplined in some less drastic fashion.

In the process of restoring order, Henry improves upon the standards of administration of his Norman predecessors. Around the country the itinerant judges, introduced by his grandfather Henry i, are now on almost permanent circuit and are given stronger powers to maintain the law.


In the centre, at court, the royal administration is strengthened by several significant innovations - among them the development of the exchequer. This is a regular meeting of the nation's finance committee, held round a table with a chequered pattern of squares. The squares are used as an abacus for instant calculations of revenue.

Often chaired by the king himself, and attended by the great officers of state, this committee is a more professional and centralized method of government than the relatively impromptu arrangements of feudal societies. The chancellor of the exchequer is the official entrusted with the seal used on treasury business.


From the start of his reign the 21-year-old king has a close colleague in running the affairs of the kingdom - Thomas Becket, in the office of lord chancellor. Becket (older by fifteen years) becomes Henry's mentor and trusted friend. But their relationship causes the king to make a drastic error.

The power struggle between church and state is, throughout Europe, one of the great issues of the day. In 1162, when the archbishop of Canterbury dies, Henry conceives what must have seemed a neat solution to this problem. Becket, in his eight years as lord chancellor, has consistently taken a firm line with the church. Henry now arranges for his appointment as the new archbishop.


Archbishop and martyr: 1162-1170

Becket accepts with reluctance the office of archbishop of Canterbury, no doubt foreseeing an inevitable clash. If the king anticipates a compliant archbishop, he is soon disabused. At a council in Westminster in 1163 Becket vigorously defends ecclesiastical privileges, rejecting Henry's demand that priests convicted of crimes should be liable to punishment by the lay authorities like any other citizen.

The quarrel escalates, until Becket flees in 1164 to safety in a monastery near Paris. From there he uses his power as archbishop to excommunicate several of his enemies in Henry's entourage.


In June 1170 Henry aggravates the situation by arranging for the archbishop of York to crown his eldest surviving son (also called Henry) in Westminster abbey; the 'Young King' is to rule jointly with his father. Apart from any other inherent irregularity, this unprecedented act (intended to secure the succession) is an affront to the archbishop of Canterbury, whose privilege it is to conduct coronations at Westminster.

Becket, in France, has papal support in suspending the archbishop of York and other bishops who have participated in the ceremony. This drastic action is followed by an apparent reconciliation, which prompts Becket to return to Canterbury in early December.


On his return he refuses to reinstate the suspended bishops. News of this prompts the king's careless and fatal question: is there no one among his followers to avenge him of this 'upstart clerk'?

Four knights (Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, Reginald Fitzurse and Richard le Breton) provide a literal answer. On 29 December 1170 they murder the archbishop in his cathedral. This outrage makes Becket's tomb in Canterbury cathedral one of Europe's main centres of pilgrimage. The martyr is canonized as early as 1173. In 1174 the king does public penance at Becket's shrine.


Politically the murder of Becket loses Henry the wider argument about ecclesiastical control. In the mood following the assassination he has to concede, at any rate in the short term, all the points on which Becket was opposing him.

But in other contexts Henry has notable successes. Within months of the murder, in the autumn of 1171, he travels through Wales and on into Ireland. In each he makes settlements greatly to the English advantage. In 1174 (after vigorously suppressing rebellions both in England and France) Henry also wins the submission of the king of Scotland.


Richard I: 1189-1199

By the time of Henry II's death, in 1189, the 'Young King' has also died (in 1183). Henry's heir is his third son, who succeeds him as Richard I. A skilful and courageous warrior, seen by his contemporaries as the ideal of a chivalrous knight (hence his nickname Coeur de Lion or 'Lionheart'), Richard is disinclined to tackle the everyday problems of his turbulent kingdom. His one ambition is to be a crusader.

He succeeds in this aim, departing for the Holy Land in 1190 as one of the leaders of the third crusade after the fall of the kingdom of Jerusalem.


Richard severely depletes the royal coffers in England in providing for his expedition to the east. He then imposes a further colossal burden on his kingdom when a ransom of 100,000 is demanded for his release from captivity on the way home (see Richard's journey home). Most of the sum is raised by special taxes. Yet in his reign of ten years this expensive monarch spends only six months in England.

The barons are restless, even without the annoyance of new taxes. Their grievances are the main problem confronting Richard's successor, his brother John.


John: 1199-1216

John's reign begins with trouble abroad and at home. Disputes in France (where the French king is his feudal overlord for all his territories) lead to war in which Normandy is lost to the French in 1204 and Anjou in 1205.

In England the king's authority is compromised for some years by a quarrel with the pope, Innocent III. In a local instance of the wider investiture controversy, John insists on his own right to select the archbishop of Canterbury and rejects Stephen Langton, the pope's choice. As a result John is excommunicated for four years, from 1209 to 1213. His consolation is the fat fees from bishoprics and abbeys, due to the pope, which he diverts instead into the English exchequer.


In 1213 John resolves his dispute with the pope and accepts Stephen Langton, in return for papal support on other issues. By now the discontent of his feudal vassals is reaching dangerous levels. An apparent plot to murder the king is uncovered in 1212. In May 1215 rebellious barons launch a civil war and the city of London joins the rebels. In June, with Stephen Langton acting as a moderator between the two sides, the king meets his opponents in 'the meadow called Runnymede' beside the Thames near Windsor.

John fixes the royal seal to the document which the barons place before him. It is Magna Carta (Latin for the Great Charter).


Magna Carta: 1215-1225

The document containing the barons' demands of the king is an attempt to codify the rights and obligations of feudal society, and in doing so to define the limits of royal power. Much of it has little relevance to other social structures. But some provisions, probably of relatively little interest to the king or his barons, are such basic statements of the rule of law that they have given Magna Carta its status as a founding document of civil liberty.

Chief among them are two clauses, originally numbered 39 and 40, which state that no free man may be imprisoned or punished without prior judgement by the law of the land; and that justice will not be denied, delayed or sold.


Having accepted the document under duress, John immediately sends a request to the pope (now his ally) to have it annulled. Innocent III obliges in August of this same year, 1215. The result is a renewal of the civil war.

The king's death in 1216, followed by the succession of his 9-year-old son as Henry III, brings a pause during which more moderate council prevails. When Henry comes of age, in 1225, archbishop Stephen Langton persuades him to reissue Magna Carta in a slightly modified form. This becomes the version enshrined in English law. Langton's diplomacy brings to an end one chapter in the struggle between king and barons. But through most of Henry's reign the issue remains a central theme of English politics.


Henry III: 1216-1272

Henry III is on the throne for more than half of the most brilliant and prosperous century of the English Middle Ages. The 13th century sees a steady rise in population, a growth of prosperity in the towns, an increase in professional training, particularly in law, and the early development of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

In the early part of the century students find their own lodgings and seek out individual teachers in these two university towns. But the first residential colleges are soon established: Merton sets the pattern in Oxford in 1264, followed by Peterhouse in Cambridge twenty years later.


The increasing sophistication of English society influences the pattern of government. One effect is to intensify the struggle against any arbitrary use of royal authority. Powerful barons discover a taste for high affairs of state, particularly in the early years of Henry's reign.

The accession of the king as a 9-year-old child brings a council of regency - for the first time since the Norman conquest. The feudal magnates who form the young king's council enjoy the experience of direct power. It is a habit, once acquired, which is not lightly given up. In the latter part of the reign, in meetings with the king (occasions already sometimes described as 'parliament'), the barons' demands are often strident.


Parliament: 12th - 14th century

The idea of parliament, a place for speaking (from the French parler) begins to evolve from the 12th century in the monarchies of western Europe. It develops from the curia regis, or 'council of the king', the feudal court in which the monarch makes legal judgements and discusses important issues of state with the most powerful bishops and nobles of his kingdom.

A parliament is summoned whenever the king requires it. At a period when a monarch is almost permanently on the move to maintain his authority, a parliament will be held wherever the royal court may happen to be.


Parliaments are called in England in the mid-13th century largely because of the king's weakness in relation to his barons. There is some evidence that as early as about 1238 the barons begin to demand that officials elected by them, and removable only by them, shall be charged with safeguarding the liberties guaranteed in Magna Carta.

In a series of parliaments from 1246 Henry negotiates with the barons from a position of increasing weakness. He desperately needs their help to balance his finances. It is finally promised in return for a programme of reform accepted by Henry at a parliament in Oxford in 1258.


Provisions of Oxford and the Barons' War: 1258-65

The so-called Provisions of Oxford, accepted by Henry III at a parliament in 1258, represent a severe curtailment of the royal power. The king is to rule according to the advice of a privy council of fifteen. All officers of state must swear to obey king and council jointly. As a gesture of good faith, the king is to deliver tenty-one royal castles into the hands of constables who can only be dismissed from their charge with the consent of the council.

As with his father and Magna Carta, Henry rapidly backtracks from his commitment. He applies to the pope to have the provisions annulled, and receives in 1261 a papal bull absolving him from his oath to the barons.


This provokes an uprising led by Simon de Montfort, the king's brother-in-law. It is temporarily calmed by an agreement on all sides to accept the arbitration of the king of France, Louis IX. Louis comes down firmly in support of his fellow monarch, declaring the Provisions of Oxford invalid.

Contrary to his undertaking, Simon de Montfort refuses to accept this judgement. He leads the barons in war against the king. In a brilliant engagement at Lewes in 1264, against a larger royal army, he captures both Henry and his heir, the future Edward I.


Simon assumes the government of the kingdom, but rapidly alienates his support among the barons by his autocratic actions. In an attempt to canvass wider support he summons a parliament in London, in 1265, with representatives from the counties and the towns. Its hint of a democratic future has made this parliament famous in English history, but it achieves little for Montfort.

His enemies contrive the escape of prince Edward, now aged twenty-six and a formidable soldier. Edward defeats and kills Simon de Montfort at Evesham in August 1265.


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