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.

47 thoughts on “The Troublesome Time of England’s Dual King Henrys

  1. Very interesting! I have heard these names, of course, but never really knew their story or how they were connected. This is a great lesson for me! And whoa! That is a mighty young age to get married!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Robyn! Only to happy to make some historical connections for you. They did marry their kids of quite young in those days to seal alliances etc, but even for medieval standards, this one was pushing it! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A part of our history I regret knowing more about, so your writings are a mine of information, and so entertaining that it’s easy to absorb. I feel for poor young Henry and can see modern parallels in those who get promoted by their boss but are never really trusted to take over the new more senior responsibilities.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Sarah, I’m so glad you enjoyed reading about poor young Henry, and it’s so rewarding to know you find my posts entertaining and easy to absorb. That’s exactly what I hope to achieve with my blog. 🙂
      That’s a great parallel to draw with the modern world, and so true as well. I guess human nature doesn’t change! Thanks for reading. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I read a very good biography not of Henry, but of Marguerite. But she had a very interesting life. Admirable in many ways. Tonight seems like the perfect night to rewatch “The Lion in Winter.” Not exactly a “real” biography, but endlessly entertaining … and what a great script and cast!

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    • I really must watch that film one day. I’d probably love it. That’s what I love about the Middle Ages – so many great characters! 🙂

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    • It sure does, especially so when people are deprived of the power they think they should have. It does funny things to people, but at least it makes for a good story… 🙂

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  4. If you haven’t seen ‘The Lion in Winter’ (and can set aside the head of the critical historian 😉 )
    It is a superb film, with incredible performances. One of those pieces where they really do manage to convey a ‘feel’ of something real, regardless of inaccuracies and the strategic rewriting of history to fit the movie format.
    I’m just surprised that the Plantagenets have not been the central study our county’s history classes. We barely even touched on them at school, favouring the Tudors and Stuarts… who also make for a good story or two. 😉
    I think the difference is that with the Tudors et al, the stories are all of huge political importance in ways that mean we still feel their effects, while the fascination with the Plantagenets comes as much from the people.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m endlessly exasperated that the Tudors get all the attention when the Plantagenets were so crucial to our history and such larger-than-life characters. After all, Henry II did lay the foundations for our common law, and Edward I started the tradition of the Prince of Wales – and that’s just two things from the legacy they left us. And although it’s true, the Tudors and Stuarts left us with some great stories, I’ll always maintain that, for entertainment value, the Plantagenets would leave them in the dust. I sometimes feel as though I’m on a one-woman mission to reverse the modern trend and put them back on the historical centre stage.

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      • I feel a bit like that trying to expunge the stone age people’s reputation as mindless savages bashing each other with rocks… when you look at their legacy that says they very clearly were not!

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      • Absolutely, Sue, they were the opposite of the common conception of them. I read somewhere that our brains haven’t actually evolved any further than how they were in the stone age, so by that token we’re still a load of mindless savages bashing each other with (slightly more sophisticated) rocks! Well, come to think of it… 🙂

        I’m with you on this, anyway. We must keep going with our campaigns, for the sake of our much misunderstood ancestors. Power to the ancients! 🙂

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      • When you consider the timescales involved, a mere ten thousand years or so is verylittle in evolutionary terms. We may couch our thoughts in more sophisticated forms these days, but I doubt we have changed much fundamentally.

        We just need establishment to recognise and support our perspectives… I actually don’t see how they can argue with them any more, but the old erroneous ideas are still being promulgated. x

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      • You’re right, of course. I keep having to tell myself that ten thousand years in the grand scheme of space, time and evolution is but a blink of the cosmic eye.

        I’m quite surprised, though, that the old (and surely outdated) perceptions are still carrying any weight in establishment circles. That needs to change.

        And, sorry, I meant to say earlier, but pressed the ‘send’ button by accident: I’ll try to get hold of a copy of The Lion in Winter as I have heard a lot of good things about it. It’s true, I don’t do historical fiction much, but there are a couple of dramatisations I do like. This will probably be another. 🙂

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      • I know…to our little lives, a aeon…but cosmically?

        It does beggar belief though how the outmoded opinions cling…

        Just watch the film (they have it on Amazon Prime, I know, as I watched it again recently) …fabulous performances that outweigh any historical glitches 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, if it’s on Amazon Prime that makes things a lot easier. Looking forward to it. 🙂
        Keep up the good work for our clever and cultured ancients. They need your voice. 🙂

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    • That’s right, Amy. they were a hugely entertaining lot. In fact, I don’t tend to read historical fiction, because when it comes to the characters and stories from the Middle Ages, the reality is so good there’s no need to fictionalise it! Hope all’s well with you. All settled in now? 🙂

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    • Thanks so much, that’s just what I hope to do! I’m so glad you’re enjoying my posts so much. It’s a wonderful era to write about. 🙂

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  5. Thank you for this post Alli Outside what i thought was the unique case of William and Mary, I didn’ know that two other ‘Kings’ ruled at once in British History. How come the Young Henry’s rule is not recognised in ‘lists’ of monarchs? Presumably it was not as legitimate as Henry II imagined?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Albert, sorry for the delay in replying: I’m into my final university module now, so I’ve had to go over to very part time blogging while I plan my dissertation this year. Glad you liked reading about the two Henrys though. The young king probably faded from history because although he was an annointed king (this was a common practice on the continent, but not over here), he never got to rule in his own right like his brothers, Richard and John, so he didn’t make any real political or military mark on history – apart from rebelling against his dad! Also, he died young, so again he never really got started. Sad, really, when you think about it. Thanks for reading, Albert, and I hope you’re keeping well. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Good to hear from you Alli. Of course your uni work has to come first. What is the subject of your dissertation? Thank you for your explanation on the lack of recognition of the younger Henry – makes sense. We are doing well here but sad of course to see of the recurrence of Covid back in Europe. It is certainly hard to suppress.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Albert, thanks for your support. Not quite sure at this stage exactly what my dissertation will be on, but believe it or not, the module I’m doing is on Welsh history and it covers Edward I’s Welsh wars! So I’m hoping to do something to do with the castles I did my quest on that were the result of the English invasions. Fingers crossed, anyway. It’s hard work, but hopefully it’ll be worth it. Glad to hear you’re well. All the best. 🙂

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      • I hope so, Albert. I’m shattered already after this year and what it’s done to my family, so I’m taking it one day at a time. It would be a fitting end to the degree to do a dissertation on an aspect of the ‘iron ring’ of castles, though, so wish me luck. 🙂

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