British History,Monarchs of Great Britain,King Arthur

Narrative History of England
Part 5: Medieval Britain (cont'd.) by Peter N. Williams, Ph. D.



Henry II (1154-1189)
Henry had become Duke of Normandy in 1150 and Count of Anjou after his father's death in 1151. When he married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, he ruled her duchy as well, thus becoming more powerful than his lord, King Louis of France. Eleanor had been divorced from Louis VII after her spell of adultery with her Uncle Raymond of Antioch, notwithstanding the efforts of the Pope to keep the marriage whole. She was several years older than Henry, but she was determined on the union and made all the initial overtures. The turbulent marriage of the able, headstrong, ambitious Henry to an older woman, equally ambitious and proud, was famous for its political results.

King Louis, fearful of his loss of influence in France, made war on the couple, joined by Henry's younger brother Geoffrey who claimed the inheritance of Anjou. Their feeble opposition, however, was easily overcome and Henry acquired a vast swathe of territory in France from Normandy through Anjou to Aquitaine. The stage was set for the greatest period in Plantagenet history.

In England, Stephen was unable to garner the support he needed from his Barons, fearful that a victory for either side would be followed by a massive confiscation of lands. He had quarreled with his Archbishop of Canterbury in 1147, and the Church had consequently refused to recognize his son Eustace as his heir. After Eustace's premature death in 1154, when Stephen was forced to meet Henry at Wallingford, the great Barons decided to shift any allegiance away from the King of England to the one he was more or less forced to acknowledge as his successor. Henry was duly crowned with general English acclaim. The problems of succession did not go away, however, for the union of Henry and Eleanor produced four sons, all thirsty for power and not averse to any means whatsoever to get it, even if it meant allying with Louis VII and Philip ll of France against their father.

In the meantime, however, Henry ll was making his mark as one of the most powerful rulers in Europe. His boundless energy was the wonder of his chroniclers; his court had to rush like mad to keep up with his constant travels and hunting expeditions. But he was also a scholar and Churchman, founding and endowing many religious houses, though he was castigated for keeping many bishoprics vacant to enjoy their revenues for himself. To posterity, he left a legacy of shrewd decisions in the effective legal, administrative and financial developments of his thirty-five year reign.

Leaving a greater impress upon the institutions of England than any other king, perhaps Henry's greatest accomplishment was to take the English system of law, much of it rooted in Anglo-Saxon custom, a cumbersome, complex and slow accumulation of procedures, and turn it into an efficient legal system closely presided over by the royal court and the king's justices. Making much use of the itinerant justices to bring criminals to trial, Henry replaced feudal law by a body of royal or common law. A major innovation was the replacement of the older system of a sworn oath or an ordeal to establish truth by the jury of 12 sworn men.

Upon his succession, Henry immediately took steps to reduce the power of the barons, who had built up their estates and consolidated their positions during the anarchy under Stephen. He refused to recognize any land grants made by his predecessor and ruled as if Stephen had not even existed. Any attempts at opposition were suppressed so that by 1158, four years into his reign, he ruled supreme in England.

Henry then turned his attention to the Church, shrewdly relying on his close ally Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury to carry out his religious policies. England began to prosper under its able administrators closely watched and guided by their king. Particularly noticeable were the growth of boroughs, the new towns that were to transform the landscape of the nation during the century and that were ultimately to play such a strong part in its political and economic life.

The growth of towns, the new trading centers, was greatly aided by the stimulation of the First Crusade that revived the commerce of Europe by increased contact with the Mediterranean and especially through the growth of Venice. Improvements in agriculture included the introduction of the wheeled plough and the horse collar, both of which were to have enormous influence on farming methods and transportation. For one thing, the horse collar made it possible to efficiently transport the heavy blocks of stone for the building of the great cathedrals. The drift into towns meant a weakening of serfdom and the Lord's hold upon his demesne; serfs left the land to become traders, peddlers and artisans.

Great changes in Europe also had their effects on the English political system. Motivated by hatred and fear of the Moslems, and stimulated by the Crusades, the Italian city-states grew in influence and prosperity. Sicily had been conquered by the Normans by 1090, opening up the Western Mediterranean to trade. This in turn stimulated the growth of the towns, which soon led to demands for more say in their own government and the inevitable clash with the Church, ever anxious to protect its own areas of interest and those of the merchant classes and rapidly forming guilds. The continuing clash between Church and King was another matter altogether.

There seem to have been three main factors in the quarrel between Archbishop Becket and King Henry: their differing personalities, political implications and the intolerance of the age. As chancellor for eight years from 1154, Becket was a firm friend of the king with whom he had been a boyhood companion. He was energetic, methodical and trustworthy, supporting his king in relations with the Church. There was hardly any indication that the relationship of Church and State would be completely changed upon Becket's appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury upon Theodore's death in 1161, a position in which he now displayed the same enthusiasm and energy as before, but now sworn to uphold ecclesiastical prestige against any royal encroachments. Resigning the chancellorship, he began in earnest to work solely in the interests of the Church, opposing the king even on insignificant, trivial matters, but especially over Henry's proposal that people in holy orders found guilty of criminal offences should be handed over to the secular authorities for punishment.

The king was determined to turn unwritten custom into written, thus making Becket liable for punishment, but Henry's insistence that it was illegal for Churchmen to appeal to Rome gave the quarrel a much wider significance. After Henry had presented his proposals at Clarendon in January 1164, Becket refused to submit and his angry confrontation with the king was only defused with his escape to exile in France to wage a war of words. He found very little support from the English bishops who owed their appointments to royal favor and who were heavily involved on the Crown's behalf in legal and administrative matters. They were not willing to give up their powers by supporting the Archbishop, whose intransigence made him, in their eyes, a fool. After six years in exile, however, a compromise was reached and Becket returned to England.

Showing not a sign of his willingness to honor the compromise, Becket immediately excommunicated the Archbishop of York and the other bishops who had assisted at the coronation of Henry's oldest son. When the news reached Henry in Normandy, his anger was uncontrollable and the four knights who sped to Canterbury to murder Becket in his own cathedral thought that this was an act desired by the King. Instead, the whole of Europe was outraged.

The dead archbishop was immensely more powerful than the live one, and more than Henry's abject penance made the murdered Becket the most influential martyr in the history of the English Church. The triangle of Pope, King and Archbishop was broken. Canon law was introduced fully into England, and an important phase in the struggle between Church and State had been won. Henry was forced to give way all along the line; as a way out, he busied himself in Ireland, sending his son John as "Lord of Ireland" to conduct a campaign that was a complete fiasco.

Taking advantage of their father's weakness, his sons now broke out in open rebellion, aided by the Queen, though their lack of cooperation and trust in each other led to Henry eventually being able to defeat them one at a time. For her part, Eleanor was imprisoned for the remainder of the king's life. During her husband's many absences, she had acted as regent of England. Her particular ally against Henry was Richard, heir to the duchy of Aquitaine. During the last three years of Henry's life, his imprisoned queen once more began to plot against him, and upon his death in 1189, she assumed far greater powers than she had enjoyed as his queen.

Under pressure from resistance in Britanny and Aquitaine, and possible rebellion from his sons, aided by their ambitious, scheming mother, Henry had worked out a scheme for the future division of his kingdoms. Henry was to inherit England, Normandy and Anjou; Richard was to gain Poitou and Britanny was to go to Geoffrey. John was to get nothing, but later was promised Chinon, Loudon and Mirebeau as part of a proposed marriage settlement. This decision was strongly contested by Prince Henry and was a leading factor in the warfare that ensued between the King and his sons. It was in Normandy that Henry fell ill; he died after being forced to accept humiliating terms from Philip of France and his son Richard, who succeeded him as King of England in 1189.

Richard l (1189-1199): The Warrior King
Showing but some of his father's administrative capacity, Richard l, the Lionheart, preferred to demonstrate his talents in battle. His ferocious pursuit of the arts of war squandered his vast wealth and devastated the economy of his dominions. On a Crusade to the Holy Land in 1191-2, he was captured while returning to England and ransomed in prison in Germany. But upon his release, he went back to fighting, this time against Philip ll of France. In a minor skirmish in Aquitaine, he was killed. That almost sums up his reign, but not quite.

Philip had been a co-Crusader with Richard, but his friendship turned to hostility when the Lionheart rejected his betrothed, Philip's sister Alice, in favor of Princess Berengaria of Navarre. Unfortunately, this match, consummated for purely political reasons, did not produce an heir and left the way open for the numerous conspiracies hatched by Richard's brother John, Count of Mortain (who had been miserly treated in the dispositions of their father, Henry II). All in all, the reign of one called by a contemporary as the "most remarkable ruler of his times," was anything but remarkable, unless the exploits of this violent and selfish man deserve mention. One of these involves the conquest of Cyprus after Berengaria's ship had sheltered near Limassol and had been threatened by the island's ruler. Richard, in fact, married his plain, but prudent bride, in that Cypriot port.

King Richard spent all of six months in England. To raise the funds for his adventures overseas, however, he appointed able administrators who carried out his plans to sell just about everything he owned: offices, lordships, earldoms, sheriffdoms, castles, towns, and lands. Even his Chancellor William Longchamps, Bishop of Ely, had to pay an enormous sum for his chancellorship. William also taxed the people heavily in the service of his master, making himself extremely unpopular and being removed by a rebellion of the Barons in 1191.

The most able of Richard's ministers, and certainly the most important, was Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury, Justiciar and Chancellor. He helped keep the country more or less stable during the absence of the adventurer king despite being grievously threatened by the townspeople's protests against taxes and the nobles' protests against Richard's plans to establish a standing army. The system that had been developed by Henry ll enabled the country to function quite well, despite the occasional troubles caused by Richard's scheming and ambitious brother John. Though Richard outlawed or excommunicated John's supporters when he returned from overseas, he forgave his brother and promised him the succession.

One favorable legacy that Richard left behind was his patronage of the troubadours, the composers of lyric poetry that were bringing a civilized tone to savage times and whose influence charted the future course that literature in Europe was to take. A sad note is that Richard's preparations for the Third Crusade against the Moslems provoked popular hostility in England towards its Jewish inhabitants (who had been formerly encouraged to come from Normandy). A massacre of the Jewish inhabitants of York took place in March, 1190, and Richard's successor, John placed heavy fines which led to many Jews fleeing back to the continent, a process that continued into the reign of Edward l, when they were expelled from England.

Richard was fortunate to have loyal, experienced men to represent him in England, Normandy, Anjou, Poitou and Gascony, as well as in the duchy of Aquitaine. The successes enjoyed in the Third Crusade against the forces of Saladin, a most formidable foe, were mainly due to the English king's abilities as politician and military leader. But his dominions were constantly threatened by enemies, who included Philip II of France, Raymond of Toulouse and his brother John.

It is a pity that Richard got himself captured in Germany, for he had made ample arrangements for the government of his domains. His ransom was massive; it included his recognition of Henry VI of Germany, son of Frederick Barbarossa, as feudal overlord of England. Nonetheless, thanks to such as Longchamps in England, he was able to raise sufficient funds to recover all that Philip had gained in Normandy and to keep his lands intact. He died in the siege of a minor castle in a foolish attempt at inspecting his troops. John lost very little time in losing everything that his brother had fought so hard to protect.

Disaster under King John (1199-1216)
There are quite a number of ironies connected with the reign of John, for during his reign all the vast Plantagenet possessions in France except Gascony were lost. From now on, the House of Anjou was separated from its links with its homeland, and the Crown of England eventually could concern itself solely with running its own affairs free from Continental intrigue. But that was later. In the meantime, John's mishandling of his responsibilities at home led to increased baronial resistance and to the great concessions of the Magna Carta, hailed as one of the greatest developments in human rights in history and the precursor of the United States Bill of Rights. It was also in John's reign that the first income tax was levied in England; to try to recover his lost lands in France, John introduced his tax of one thirteenth on income from rents and moveable property, to be collected by the sheriffs.

To be fair to the unfortunate John, his English kingdom had been drained of its wealth for Richard's wars in France and the Crusade as well as the exorbitant ransom. His own resources were insufficient to overcome the problems he thus inherited. He also lacked the military abilities of his brother. It has been said that John could win a battle in a sudden display of energy, but then fritter away any advantage gained in a spell of indolence. It is more than one historian who wrote of John as having the mental abilities of a great king, but the inclinations of a petty tyrant.

John alienated his vassals in Aquitaine by divorcing his first wife, Isabella of Gloucester (who had failed to give him a son and heir), and taking as his second wife the teenage daughter of the Count of Angouleme, a political move that brought him no gain. The young woman was already betrothed to Hugh de Lusignan of Poitou, and John was summoned to appear before Philip ll his nominal overlord in France. After all his lands in France were forfeited for his refusal to appear, John seized the initiative, marching to Poitier, and seizing young Arthur (and releasing Eleanor of Aquitaine, held captive). He then threw everything away by releasing the most dangerous of his prisoners, who continued the revolt against him and worse, he had Arthur of Britanny killed.

When Arthur was murdered, it was the end for John's hopes in France. The act alienated just about everybody, and Philip now pressed home his advantage. The King of England's ineptitude and lack of support, despite winning some victories in some provinces, eventually caused him to flee across the Channel, never to return. It was the greatest reverse suffered by the English Crown since the Battle of Hastings in 1066. When John reached England, the only French lands left to him, apart from Gascony, was the Channel Islands (these nine island have remained under the British Crown ever since and were the only part of the United Kingdom occupied by Nazi forces in World War II).

Philip had not been the only one to be upset by John's repudiation of Isabella. The English barons were also indignant. They had begun to lose confidence in their feudal lord. After Richard's death, they had little faith in a victory over the King of France and became weary of fighting John's wars, deserting him in droves. When John began to direct his attention to matters in England, he was unable to gain their confidence. William the Lion of Scotland seized the opportunity to reassert his country's claim to Northumberland and Cumberland, though his age and lack of allies prevented him from achieving his aims. John's greatest problems, apart from the mistrust of his barons, lay not with Scotland, but with the Church of Rome, now under a strong and determined Pope, Innocent III.

Innocent, Pope from 1198 to 1216 was the first to style himself "Vicar of Christ." He proved to be a formidable adversary to the English King. Their major dispute came over the appointment of the new Archbishop of Canterbury at the death of Hubert Walter in 1205. John refused to accept Stephen Langton, an Englishman active in the papal court at Rome. He was punished by the Interdict of 1208, and for the next five years, English priests were forbidden from administering the sacraments, even from burying the dead. Most of the bishops left the country.

York had been without an archbishop since 1207 when John's half brother Geoffrey had fled to the continent after a quarrel over church taxes. In 1209, Innocent excommunicated John, who was eventually forced to submit by accepting Langton as his primary Church leader. Not only that, but he had to place England under the direct overlordship of the papacy, and it was this humiliation that completely destroyed his political credibility. In the meantime, however, John had successfully dealt with the problem of Ireland.

The King had already been in Ireland, sent by his father to try to complete Henry's plans to bring the feuding Irish chiefs and independent Norman lords to order. He had failed miserably, and the behavior of his undisciplined troops quickly led to his ignominious withdrawal from that troubled land. The campaign of 1210 was more successful. Many Anglo-Norman lords had consolidated major landholdings and were in defiance of royal authority. John's efforts to bring them to heel proved to be one of the few successes of his seventeen-year reign. He allied himself with the Irish chiefs, and with their help was able to dispossess the powerful Walter and Hugh de Lacy. He placed the royal Justiciar in charge of Ireland and had castles built at Carrickfergus and Dublin to strengthen English control over the country.

It was time for the king of England to turn back to France. In 1212, John's plans to re-conquer his former French possessions led to the revolt of his barons. His request for money and arms was the flash point. When the northern barons refused to help, John took an army to punish the rebels. Only Langton's intervention effected a reconciliation. The expedition to Poitou then proceeded, but ended in total failure with the defeat by Philip at Bouvines. His continued disregard of feudal law and customs, allied to the disgrace of the defeat in France and loss of lands, were now seized on by the majority of English barons who presented their grievances at Runnymede, on June 15, 1215.

The Magna Carta, the "Great Charter" was something of a compromise, a treaty of peace between John and his rebellious barons, whose chief grievance was that of punishment without trial. Archbishop Langton drew up the grievances into a form of statements that constitute a complex document of 63 clauses. Though John's signature meant that baronial grievances were to be remedied, in later years, the charter became almost a manifesto of royal powers. In fact, for the next 450 years, even though John reluctantly signed the charter, all subsequent rulers of England fundamentally disagreed with its principles. They preferred to see themselves as the source of all laws and thus above the law.

For posterity, however, the two most important clauses were 39, which states that no one should be imprisoned without trial and 40, which states that no one could buy or deny justice. Also of particular interest is the provision that taxes henceforth could not be levied except with the agreement of leading churchmen and barons at a meeting to which 40 days notice was to be given. In addition, restrictions were placed on the powers of the king's local officials to prevent them from abusing their financial, administrative and judicial powers. Weights and measures were regulated, the safety of merchants ensured and the privileges of the citizens of London were confirmed. The most lasting effect of the somewhat vague conditions of the Magna Carta was the upholding of individual rights against arbitrary government.

Baronial rebellion in England was not crushed by the provisions signed at Runnymede. John spent the rest of his reign marching back and forth trying to stamp out opposition that was led by Prince Louis of France, son of Philip ll, but achieving little. One persistent legend is that he lost all his baggage train, including the Crown jewels in the marshy area known as the Wash in the county of Norfolk. The angry and frustrated king died in October 1216. His burial at Worcester, however, showed that the centre of Plantagenet rule was now firmly established in England, and not France (both Henry II and Richard I had been buried in Anjou).

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Part 5: Medieval Britain, continued




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