Henry II was, like his predecessor namesake, one of the strongest of the Norman kings of England. At one stage he even quelled a nascent revolt among the barons who had seized land in England simply by landing there and going around the country to renew their vows of fealty, and when he left then Ireland, like England, was a Norman possession. However, today he is not chiefly remembered as a strong king. Today, he is remembered for two things. The death of Thomas Beckett, murdered by knights attempting to secure his favour. And for his children, and the somewhat fractious relationship he had with them.
Henry and Eleanor had eight children – William (who died in infancy), Henry “The Younger King”, Richard “The Lionheart”, Geoffrey, Matilda, Eleanor (who became Queen of Castile), Joan (who became Queen of Sicily), and John “Lackland”. As his nickname suggests, Henry was crowned as junior King to his father, a French tradition that they took from the Roman Empire. Richard, in the meantime, took his mother’s inheritance of Aquitane, as was traditional for the second son. Geoffrey became Duke of Brittany, after his father forced the existing duke to abdicate and married his daughter to Geoffrey.
John, by far the younger of the four brothers, suffered from severe parental neglect in his early years. His mother abandoned him to a wetnurse shortly after his birth, and returned to Aquitaine to plot against her husband. Their marriage was a tempestuous one, and while they appear to have remained devoted to each other in some ways, still they fought constantly. Henry’s interference in Aquitaine was an especially sore point. While she schemed, John was packed off to the medieval equivalent of boarding school, trained for a possible career in the church. His father, in the meantime, first nicknamed him “Lackland” and then decided to use him to secure an alliance with Count Umberto of Savoy. In order to do this, he betrothed John to Umberto’s daughter Alicia, and provided him with three castles and their lands as his contribution to the marriage. However he took those castles from the lands that would be inherited by Henry the Younger, and that was where the trouble started.
One might think that the loss of three castles from an inheritance that spanned from Normandy in the east to Ireland in the West would not be such a big deal, but two factors combined to magnify the loss. The first was simple – these were French castles. The Normans still saw themselves as French nobles who held lands abroad, not as English or Irish nobles, and so their lands in Normandy and around it were considered to be the most important and prestigious. (Indeed, Richard the Lionheart hardly ever visited England.) Secondly, however, was the character of Henry the Younger himself. He was, while a pleasant man, nowhere near as strong a character as his father or brothers. He was vain and easily led, and in this case he was led by nobles who saw the chaos of a succession and the ascendancy of a weak king as a great chance to obtain power. And so, in 1173, he rebelled.
Henry the Younger was the son-in-law of Louis VII, his mother’s former husband, and it was to the French court that he retreated. His brothers Richard and Geoffrey, also resentful of their father’s interference in their lands, joined him. His mother also sought to join them, but she was intercepted by Henry who imprisoned her. Still, however, the rebels did not lack for allies. The murder of Thomas Beckett had alienated Henry II from most of the Christian world, and several others saw opportunity in this revolt. The counts of Boulogne, Flanders and Blois were all promised lands by Henry the Younger for their assistance, as was William, King of the Scots. The plan was simple – attack Normandy on three fronts, and attack England from the south. Henry II would be unable to respond to all four attacks.
The plan, however, hinged on the assumption that they would succeed in Henry II’s absence. In fact, all four attacks failed. Matthew, the Count of Boulogne (and the husband of one of King Stephen’s daughters), was killed in the fighting in the south. Geoffrey’s Bretons were routed in the west. Louis was driven back in the east, and the Scots were repulsed on the English border. Only the lords in England who had declared for Henry the Younger continued to fight. The Earl of Leicester attempted to link up with the Earl of Norfolk, but was defeated by forces returning from the North at the Battle of Fornham, and was captured along with his wife Petronilla de Grandmesnil (who was noted to be wearing male armour when she was captured, having previously derided the fighting abilities of her husband’s English troops).
Another invasion from Scotland coincided with the King returning to England. His first act was to do penance for the death of Thomas Beckett, and the following day, in what was seen as a sign of divine forgiveness, King William of Scotland was surprised in a camp away from the main body of his army and was captured in the Battle of Alnwick. This effectively ended the revolt. As he had in Ireland, Henry II traveled around England personally accepting the surrenders of the rebels, and when he had finished the realm was secure once more. King William was imprisoned in Normandy and his leaderless army drifted home. Henry also returned to Normandy, where his wayward sons once again swore fealty to him. The two Henries swore to take no vengeance on each other’s followers, and the three castles were given to John, although Henry the Younger was compensated for their loss. Meanwhile, King William was forced to submit to a humiliating treaty with Henry II, including among other things giving Henry the right to choose his bride. Scotland was also heavily taxed to pay for the costs of the revolt.
The immediate effect of the revolt was upon the status of John. As the only son not to rebel (although he was only seven years old at the time) he was immediately catapulted from forgotten son to favourite son, and he remained his father’s favourite for the rest of his life. This sudden transition from neglect to being spoiled rotten perhaps accounts for John’s somewhat erratic personality later in life. This also fuelled the resentments of his brothers – this was not the last time that Henry’s sons would revolt. Henry the Younger began to resent his lack of actual power, and in 1182 he once again revolted, though his revolt was cut short when he died of a fever the next year. This led Henry to decide to rearrange his lands between his other sons, giving England and Normandy to Richard and Aquitaine to John – a move that nearly led Richard to revolt, as he was fond of Aquitaine and saw it as his personal possession, not his fathers to dispose of. Only Eleanor’s intervention staved off a war. Geoffrey’s death and Richard’s conflicts with his father led to one final revolt before Henry’s death in 1189. Even this did not bring an end to the revolts, as John would rebel against Richard a few years later. In the end, then, it took the death of all but John to quell the battles between the Plantagenet brood.