The Troublesome Time of England’s Dual King Henrys

Last year I wrote about the tempestuous marriage of Henry II, the first Plantagenet king of England, and his headstrong queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Although they spent much of their relationship at loggerheads or estranged, the discordant duo were at least united in one goal: to found a dynasty to rule over their vast Angevin lands that now stretched from the Scottish borders all the way down to the Pyranees. In their four surviving sons they doubtless felt the future of the mighty Plantagenet empire was assured, but the ambitious king would not rest on his laurels. Instead, his obsession with the succession meant that in 1170, England was to bow to not one, but two kings, as Henry crowned his fifteen-year-old son, also called Henry, alongside him. But the throne wasn’t big enough for both of them, and as conflict erupted between father and son, spreading across the whole realm, the stage was set for the first spectacular Plantagenet family implosion.

Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine: this is where the
Plantagenet dynasty starts

Born in 1155, Henry Junior was the eldest surviving son after the death of his brother William. At the age of only five, his parents flouted the Church Laws of the day and married him off to the daughter of the king of France for territorial gain. Henry may have been scandalously young, but the bride, Marguerite, was even younger. Some say that she was brought to the church in her cot, and that both kids screamed all the way through the service. Nevertheless, young Henry reportedly grew to be a well educated and handsome chap, but he was also arrogant, vain and unruly, and this may have been one reason why his father wouldn’t let him loose with any independent authority or income. In fact, when it came to delegating the management of his sprawling empire, Henry II was a bit of a control freak. Even when he did parcel out lands to his eager sons he refused to let go of the reigns and give them full control. But crowning an ambitious young man as joint king and then effectively sidelining him was a potentially explosive situation, and in 1173 the ticking time bomb went off.

The coronation of Henry the Young King

Frustrated to boiling point with his father’s intransigence, the young king took his wife to see his father-in-law, King Louis VII of France, who encouraged him to rebel. Louis had been the first husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and he’d never forgiven Henry Plantagenet for snapping her up, together with her lands, so swiftly after the annulment of their marriage. Soon the rebels were joined by bands of disgruntled French and English barons as well as young Henry’s similarly frustrated brothers, Richard and Geoffrey who, despite having received French lands were still writhing under their father’s thumb. Even mum tagged along, wading in on the side of her favourite son, Richard. Nevertheless, the determined old king battled on through against his revolting sons and treacherous wife, and the rebellion failed. Any normal family might have worked through their issues, found a compromise and buried their differences at this stage. But these were the Plantagenets, so even with a reconciliation on the cards and the queen locked up, trouble was never far away.

The wailing bride: Marguerite of France

After the rebellion, Henry the Young King became a kind of pampered captive. He lived in a ‘fine and beautiful palace’ and was kept close by his father’s side wherever he went so he could keep an eye on him, until the youngster was finally able to take his leave and do something interesting. Thus in 1176, Henry Jr compensated for his lack of clout by throwing himself into the European tournament circuit, honing his skills with sword and lance alongside his guide and best friend, the young heartthrob William Marshal. The pair cut quite a dash on the tourney stage, and Henry carved out a dazzling reputation for himself. But all the glory, prizes and celebrity status he achieved still weren’t the same as wielding the true power for which he’d been groomed from birth.

The frustrated young King Henry

Resentment continued to bubble between father and sons as the old king stubbornly refused to relent on the subject of the empire. In France, following the death of Louis VII, the new French king, Philip II, took up the baton of his father’s enduring grudge and in 1182 he encouraged another rebellion. This time, young Henry turned on his brother, Richard, attacking his duchy of Aquitaine and occupying the city of Limoges. Henry II approached the city walls to try to parley with his sons, but the young king commanded archers to shoot at his own father. In the volley of missiles that followed, an arrow only missed him by a whisker.

Henry II: the king who couldn’t let go

Fighting against your father, and against the king, were heinous sins in the Middle Ages, and young Henry had done both. Soon after the incident at Limoges he fell fatally sick with Dysentery, and he saw his illness as a punishment from God. Nearing death, he sought to atone. He gave away all his belongings, bar one. Then he donned a hair shirt and lay on a bed of ashes with a noose placed around his neck as though he were a common criminal. And so this young king, who never ruled England, died with nothing but the sapphire ring that his father had sent him as a gesture of forgiveness. Despite all the bitter conflict, the old king clearly mourned the passing of his eldest son, as he said: ‘He cost me much, but I wish he lived to cost me more‘.

Henry II’s remaining relatives were little consolation. His wife, Eleanor had betrayed him and remained locked away for the next sixteen years, and another son, Geoffrey, died suddenly whilst plotting against his father anew. Worse still, the next in line to the throne was an angry Richard – as in The Lionheart, while the youngest, and the king’s own favourite, was the devious and disloyal John. Henry’s troubles were far from over.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, the queen who rocked the medieval world
by fighting her husband

Richard and John were to become two of our most famous – or infamous – monarchs, but Henry the Young King faded to a footnote in history. Yet his double reign with his father was a remarkable period in England’s rich story, and it marked the start of the dynastic struggles that would hound the family through the next three centuries and eventually see the whole lot self destruct in true Plantagenet style.