[My 26th Great-grandfather]
The Cabinet Portrait Gallery of British Worthies, Volume I. Anonymous. London: Charles Knight & Co., Ludgate Street, and London: William Clowes And Sons, Stamford Street, 1845. [Public domain]
Among the histories of eminent kings, that of our Henry II. is one of the most remarkable both in its beginning and its end, both in the character of the man and in his fortunes; and, mostly tragic as the annals of human ambition are, there are few such histories that exemplify more impressively the instability and vanity of all earthly greatness.
Nature and fortune joined to make him great. The son of Matilda, daughter of the English king Henry I., he was through that descent, after the death of his grandfather, the undoubted male representative of William [Pg 6] the Conqueror, the founder of the reigning English dynasty, and as such the legitimate heir, at least after his mother, both of the crown of England and of the dukedom of Normandy, the older acquisition of his heroic race. His grandmother, the wife of Henry I., was Matilda, daughter of Queen Margaret of Scotland, herself the daughter of Edward the Outlaw, in the veins of whose descendants now flowed the main stream of the blood of Egbert and Alfred and the old Saxon royal line. His father, whom his mother had married in 1127, two years after the death of her first husband, the Emperor Henry V., by whom she had no issue, was Geoffrey Earl of Anjou, surnamed Plantagenet, from his assuming as his ensign, and wearing on the crest of his helmet, a sprig of broom (in French plante genêt); whose father, Earl Fulk, had immediately before this marriage resigned to him all his French possessions and honours, upon being himself elected to the throne of Jerusalem, in which he was succeeded, on his death in 1143, by Baldwin III., his son by a second marriage. Henry was the eldest son of Geoffrey and the empress, and was born at Le Mans, the capital of his father’s county of Maine, in March 1133, about two years and nine months before the death of his grandfather King Henry.
Yet it is remarkable that each of these several advantages of descent which were thus united in his person was accompanied by some defect or drawback, as if in order that there might remain as much for him to do for himself as had been done for him by the accident of his birth. His Saxon lineage gave him no claim to call himself the heir of the old race of English kings while there existed male descendants of his great-grandmother, Queen Margaret of Scotland, whose son David the First was now seated on the throne of that country, and was undoubtedly the true representative of King Edmund Ironside and the Saxon royal line. Even between him and his legal right by inheritance to the English sceptre of the Conqueror there stood his mother, to whom and not to her son it was that Henry I. had made his barons swear fealty as his successor. Nor did he on the death[Pg 7] of his father obtain more than a qualified right to the earldom of Anjou, Geoffrey having directed in his will that he should resign it to his next brother Geoffrey if he should ever come into the possession of the English crown, and having also made his bishops and barons take an oath that they would not suffer his body to be buried till Henry should have sworn to perform whatever the will might be found to enjoin; which, accordingly, though with much reluctance, he did. Geoffrey died on the 10th of September, 1151, in his forty-first year, being younger than his wife the empress, who had long ceased to be an object of his affections, by seven or eight years.
Ere this, however, his son, styled by the French, Henry Fitz-Empress (that is, son of the empress), had passed through other changes of position and fortune. On the death of his grandfather, in December 1135, the English throne had been usurped by Stephen of Blois, whose mother Adela was a daughter of the Conqueror: she had been married to the Earl of Blois, by whom she had four sons, of whom Stephen was the third. In the course of the contest that ensued between Stephen and Matilda, young Henry was in the latter part of the year 1142 entrusted by his father to Robert, Earl of Glocester, his mother’s illegitimate brother and faithful partisan, and was by him brought over to England. They landed, the boy and his uncle, about the middle of November, at Wareham in Dorsetshire, a town and castle belonging to the earl, but now held by the king’s troops. The garrison, however, agreed to surrender to Glocester, who had brought with him from the continent a force of three or four hundred knights, if they should not be relieved within three weeks; and soon after, upon being informed from Stephen that he had no intention of relieving them, they gave up the place. Matilda had never, since she landed in England three years before, been in such peril as she was in at this moment—not even when, in the summer of the preceding year, she was surprised in London by Stephen’s queen, and only saved herself by springing into her saddle from the table at which she was dining—nor a few weeks after when flying from Winchester,[Pg 8] early on a Sunday morning, she and her escort were overtaken by the enemy at Stourbridge, and, while the Earl of Glocester and all the rest were either taken prisoners or slain, she made her way, attended by a single follower, to Luggershall, and thence, after a rest of a few hours, by getting again upon horseback and continuing her rapid flight, to the castle of Devizes. She was now shut up in the castle of Oxford, which Stephen besieged with his whole army, disregarding in the meantime every other object, and determined to effect its reduction either by force or famine. All hope seemed to be gone; but, after she had endured the greatest privations, on the night of the 20th of December, she left the castle by a postern gate, with four knights, crossed the Thames, which was frozen over, and reached Abingdon on foot, having walked all the way through a deep snow, and having been enabled to escape the notice of the enemy, some accounts say, in part by herself and her attendants having clothed themselves in white linen. At Abingdon she took horse, and rode to Wallingford Castle. Hither a few days after the Earl of Glocester, having started as soon as he heard the news, brought her her son. The sight of the boy, says an old chronicler, made her forget all her toils and dangers, and think all she had suffered nothing. Matilda, with all her haughtiness of temper, was not without other good qualities, besides her share in the intrepidity and tough invincible spirit of her race; if prosperity made her insolent and tyrannical, she bore adversity admirably; and to her son she was from the first to the last the best of mothers, not only in the affection she bore him, but in all other respects. Henry was soon after this carried to Bristol, and "continued there four years," says Lord Lyttelton, "under the care of his uncle, who trained him up in such exercises as were most proper to form his body for war, and in those studies which might embellish and strengthen his mind. The Earl of Glocester himself had no inconsiderable tincture of learning, and was the patron of all who excelled in it; qualities rare at all times in a nobleman of his high rank, but particularly in an age when[Pg 9] knowledge and valour were thought incompatible, and not to be able to read was a mark of nobility. This truly great man broke through that cloud of barbarous ignorance, and, after the example of his father King Henry, enlarged his understanding and humanized his mind by a commerce with the muses, which he assiduously cultivated, even in courts and camps, showing by his conduct how useful it was both to the statesman and general. The same love of science and literature he likewise infused into his nephew, who under his influence began to acquire what he never afterwards lost, an ardour for study and a knowledge of books not to be found in any other prince of those times. Indeed the four years he now passed in England laid the foundation of all that was afterwards most excellent in him; for his earliest impressions were taken from his uncle, who, not only in learning but in all other perfections—in magnanimity, valour, prudence, and all moral virtues,—was the best example that could be proposed to his imitation." Henry’s father, who after a long contest had now acquired complete possession of Normandy, recalled his son from England in the latter part of the year 1146; and in the beginning of November of that year, very soon after he had parted with his nephew, the Earl of Glocester was carried off by a[Pg 10] fever. This was to his sister the empress the loss of her right hand. "Courage and resentment," we quote again Lord Lyttelton’s account, "still combated in her heart with despair; nor was it without the greatest and most painful reluctance that she gave way to the necessity of leaving a country over which she had so long expected to reign. But, in less than four months after the death of her brother, seeing no possibility of supporting her party, and fearing to fall into the hands of her enemy, she was constrained to abandon England and go into Normandy, to live with a husband whom she never had loved, and who did not love her, but was generous or prudent enough to receive her with kindness in this decline of her fortune, when her pride was humbled by her sorrow. Nevertheless, he retained to himself the dominion of that duchy, as he had held it in her absence; that is, without any dependence upon her. Instead of submitting to this, she would perhaps have stayed in England, and buried herself under the ruins of her own greatness, if the anguish of her mind had not been soothed by the hope that Prince Henry, her son, might, when he should attain to an age of maturity, be able to revenge her on Stephen, and recover the crown which she had lost. Her whole care was therefore employed upon his education. She laboured to inspire him with thoughts as high as her own; to give him an ardour for glory, an ambition for empire, and a spirit of conquest. His genius was very suitable for such instructions; but the fire he drew from her was happily tempered with the lessons of prudence and humanity which he had been taught in England by his uncle; and which his father, a prince of great discretion and judgment, continued to fix in his mind."
Henry remained in Normandy till the year 1149. Meanwhile his friends in England had been gradually recovering heart and strength; and it was arranged that the young prince, whom, although as yet only sixteen, they now looked to as their head, should show himself among them. From this time his mother may be[Pg 11] regarded as having withdrawn her pretensions in his favour; no express act of resignation ever took place, but both she and her husband (for Geoffrey also gave up something in abandoning the hope of a crown for his wife) were too much attached to their son, and too sensible, besides, of the present state of circumstances, and of what the exigency demanded, to stand in his way. He landed early in the year at the head of a considerable force, probably at Wareham, marched through the western counties, where he was joined by the Earl of Chester, the Earl of Hereford, and other barons; and made his way to his great-uncle King David of Scotland, who had been for some time in possession of the three northern counties of Northumberland, Cumberland, and Westmoreland, and whom he found at the head of an army in the town of Carlisle. During the festivities of Whitsuntide, which were distinguished on this occasion by extraordinary magnificence, Henry received the honour of knighthood from his uncle; but he had no opportunity of gaining his spurs, a disappointment which vexed him the more that Stephen’s son Eustace, who had been knighted about the same time, had been already put by his father in command of a military force, with which he was ravaging the lands of some of the very barons who were now lying in idleness with their retainers at Carlisle.
It must apparently have been during this visit that Henry met with his first mistress, so famous in song and story, the beautiful Rosamund de Clifford. Of the two sons which she bore to him it is known that the younger, Geoffrey, was older than Henry, his first-born by his queen, and also that he was nearly twenty when he was made Bishop of Lincoln in 1173; he was therefore probably born in 1153; and his elder brother William, surnamed Long-sword, who, having married the daughter and heiress of the Earl of Salisbury, succeeded to the estates and title of his father-in-law, may have been born in 1150. Both of them were educated along with Henry’s legitimate sons: William survived till 1226; and Geoffrey, who resigned his bishopric in[Pg 12] 1182, and was then made Lord Chancellor by his father, to whom he steadily adhered in all fortunes, became in the next reign Archbishop of York, but resigned that see also in 1207, after holding it for about six years, and died in 1212. As for their mother, who was daughter of Walter de Clifford, a baron of Herefordshire, it is hardly necessary to say that there is no foundation for the story of the labyrinth in which she was concealed by her royal lover at Woodstock, and of her being discovered and forced to drink poison by Queen Eleanor, which has made her so renowned in popular romance. It is known that she spent her last years in the nunnery of Godstow, near Oxford, which she was probably induced to select for her retreat from her father having been a benefactor to that house: there she is said to have lived a life of devotion and penitence; but all that is known as to the time of her death is, that it took place before that of her father, and he was still alive in 1165.
Henry, finding that nothing could be done at present in England, returned, in the beginning of the year 1150, to Normandy; and soon after that duchy was resigned to him by his father, the French king Louis VII. (Le Jeune) having come thither in the autumn of this year, according to an agreement among all the parties concerned, and as feudal sovereign formally delivered it up to the young prince, reserving to himself, as the price of his compliance, the border district called the Vexin, which had always been a subject of contention between the dukes of Normandy and the kings of France. Some months afterwards, indeed, Louis, repenting of what he had thus done, made an attempt to wrest the fief again out of the hands of the Angevin prince, with the view of transferring it to Stephen’s son, Eustace; but upon Henry showing a bold front, and a determination to defend his own, he soon desisted, and the quarrel was settled by his abandoning Eustace, and by Henry coming to Paris and renewing his homage there. This then was Henry’s first acquisition. His next was that of the three earldoms of Anjou, Touraine, and Maine, into which he came into possession by the death of his father[Pg 13] about a year after. This was not long in being followed by another, for which he was still more directly or materially indebted to King Louis than he had been for his duchy of Normandy. That well-meaning but somewhat weak monarch had long been dissatisfied with his queen, Eleanor, or, as she is more commonly called in the chronicles of the time, Alienor or Aanor, daughter and heiress of William, Duke of Guienne or Aquitaine and Earl of Poitou, countries extending along the whole of the western coast of France, from the Loire to the Pyrenees, which her marriage, celebrated immediately after her father’s death, in the year 1137, when she was only sixteen, had annexed to the French crown. It seems amazing that any considerations should have blinded Louis to the impolicy of allowing possessions of such extent and importance, constituting more than a third of his kingdom, to pass out of his hands after he had once got hold of them; yet so it was; he had been tormented by feelings of jealousy ever since Eleanor had been with him, in the year 1148, in the Holy Land, where he imagined she had had a variety of intrigues both with Christian and infidel lovers; she on her part had come to look with contempt upon her husband, the character of whose mind seemed in her eyes to make him fitter for being a monk than a king; and the end was that in the beginning of the year 1152 she submitted to a divorce, or rather their marriage was dissolved by mutual consent; for, although at the council of bishops which assembled at Beaujency-sur-Loire to take the matter into consideration, and before which Eleanor made her appearance, Louis asked for a divorce on the plea of his suspicions of her fidelity, the council pronounced no opinion upon that point, but simply declared the marriage to have been null from the beginning, on the common and convenient ground of the consanguinity of the parties, who were fourth cousins, the canons of the Church forbidding marriage, without a previous dispensation from the pope, even between persons related within the seventh degree. The scandalous chronicles of the time affirm that Eleanor had already, before her separation from her husband,[Pg 14] given way to a passion for young Henry Plantagenet, whom indeed she had seen at the French court on two recent occasions; first when he came, as just related, to renew his homage for the duchy of Normandy, and again when he returned soon after to receive investiture of the earldoms he inherited from his father. They at least were not long in finding out one another after she was at liberty to dispose of herself. The nullification of Eleanor’s marriage with Louis immediately produced two consequences; it bastardized two daughters that she had borne to him, and, as we have already intimated, it severed from the French crown the extensive dominions forming her inheritance. It was natural that she should now return to her own country, and accordingly she set out for Poitou as soon as the council had pronounced its sentence. But there were several aspirants to the rich prize which Louis had resigned or cast away, notwithstanding that he is said to have assured himself that she would never get another husband, declaring that her behaviour had made her too infamous for the poorest gentleman in his dominions to be willing to marry her. When she reached Blois, she received proposals from the young Thibaud, Earl of Blois, who had just succeeded to that fief on the death of his father, the elder brother of King Stephen; and, when she declined his suit, it is affirmed that he formed a design of detaining her, and compelling her to marry him by force, which she only escaped by being warned of it and taking her departure in the middle of the night for Tours. Here another danger of the same kind met her. Henry Plantagenet’s younger brother Geoffrey had been left by his father only the castles of Chinon and Loudon in Touraine, and that of Mirabeau in Anjou, with their dependencies, and he could hardly therefore, even with his dubious prospect of succeeding at some future time to the chief possessions of his family, flatter himself that if he should set about wooing the Duchess of Aquitaine in the common fashion he would, in present circumstances, have much chance of success. But either not being aware of or disregarding his brother’s pretensions, and thinking that such an opportunity[Pg 15] of making his fortune was not likely again to present itself, he also, like Thibaud of Blois, resolved to try force, and posted himself at a port on the Loire, called Le Port de Piles, by which he supposed that Eleanor would pass, for the purpose of waylaying her and carrying her off. She received intelligence of his scheme, however, and, changing her route, got safe to her own town of Poitiers. From this she sent to Henry, then in Normandy, to tell him of her arrival, and of the perils through which she had made her way. He instantly set out to join her, taking with him only a few attendants, and travelling so as to attract as little observation as possible; and they were married on Whitsunday (May the 18th), not quite six weeks after Eleanor’s separation from Louis. Henry was not yet twenty years of age, and his bride was full thirty; "but with a good share of beauty," observes Lord Lyttelton, "and more of vivacity, she had still youth enough to gain the heart of a young man, though not to preserve it very long." His lordship nevertheless declines affirming that Henry was really in love,—that his acceptance of Eleanor’s offer of her hand was prompted by any other passion than his ambition. There were certainly some strong considerations to be got over, apart altogether from their difference in age.
Thus was Henry already lord of nearly the half of France. From the situation of his previous possessions, he was of all the vassals of the French crown the one whom a union with Eleanor was fitted the most to aggrandize. As the duchy of Normandy, which he derived from or through his mother, was conterminous on the south with his three paternal earldoms of Anjou, Touraine, and Maine, so his wife’s states of Poitou and Guienne lay immediately to the south of these last, the whole forming an unbroken continuation of territory extending from the English Channel to the Pyrenees. To these acquisitions, maternal, paternal, and matrimonial, he soon added another much more splendid than any or all of them, which he may be said to have mainly won for himself by his own right hand. For a brief space[Pg 16] he was detained on the continent by having to take arms against a formidable confederacy organized by King Louis, who had now at length opened his eyes, and turned them with amazement and consternation upon his youthful vassal, suddenly become his rival and almost his equal, and had got his own brother the Earl of Dreux, Henry’s brother Geoffrey, Eleanor’s other disappointed suitor the Earl of Blois, and King Stephen’s son Eustace, to join him in an invasion of Normandy. But this attack was repulsed in a campaign of less than six weeks’ duration; not only were the invaders driven out of the country to the last man, and an insurrection which they had excited of some of the Anjevin barons effectually crushed, but Henry, pursuing his enemies into France, laid waste a part of that country without Louis daring to turn round and give him battle. This work done, and a peace arranged with the French king, he lost no time in setting about the great enterprise to which all things now seemed to concur in calling him. He landed in England on the 6th of January, 1153, at the head of a force of three thousand foot and a hundred and forty knights. There was some fighting, but no considerable action; and, after the principal impediment in the way of an accommodation had been removed by the death of Stephen’s son Eustace by a fever, the effect in all probability of the agitation and rage into which he was thrown by the pending negotiation in which he was about to be sacrificed, an agreement was made on the 7th of November, by which Stephen adopted Henry for his son and successor, giving the kingdom of England, as it was expressed, after his own death, to him and his heirs for ever. Stephen did not survive this treaty quite a year; he died at Canterbury on the 25th of October, 1154; and Henry became king. He was in Normandy when Stephen’s death occurred; and he was detained at Barfleur for some weeks by adverse weather; but he set sail at last while the storm still raged with little abatement, and after a dangerous passage he landed in the New Forest, not far from Hurst Castle, on the 7th of December. He was crowned, with his queen, at Westminster, on Sunday[Pg 17] the 19th; and the commencement of his reign, according to what was then the custom, is reckoned from that day.
Of course, in the circumstances, Henry did not now think of resigning Anjou to his brother Geoffrey, whose late confederacy with the French king and attack upon Normandy, an act amounting to rebellion in him, could not but be considered as depriving him of any claim he might have under his father’s will and Henry’s forced engagement to fulfil its provisions. To obviate all objections, however, Henry obtained from the pope a dispensation releasing him from that compulsory oath. A few years after this he recovered the ceded district of the Vexin for Normandy by the arrangement of marriage between his eldest son and a daughter of King Louis; and he subsequently acquired what amounted to the actual possession of Bretagne by the negotiation of another marriage between his third son, Geoffrey, and the Lady Constantia, or Constance, daughter and heiress of Conan, prince of that country. The extent of territory subject to the English king even in France was now greater than that which acknowledged the sway of Louis. If a line had been drawn from north to south only a few miles to the west of Paris, or nearly about the meridian of Boulogne, all to west of it would have been found to belong to Henry, from the English sea to the Spanish mountains; while the dominion of Louis on the other side of Gaul scarcely extended farther south than to the Loire, all the region beyond that river being in possession of the Earls of Toulouse. Henry, besides, almost as soon as he came to the throne, had recovered the three northern counties of England from the Scottish king, and even compelled him to do homage for the whole of Scotland to the south of the Forth; he soon after reduced Wales; and finally, in 1172, he effected the conquest of Ireland. The details of the valour and policy by which all this was done, of the patience, the foresight, the vigilance, the incessant exertion, the utter disregard of toil and danger, by which so many additions to his original inheritance were won and preserved, and by which all his states, old and new, were governed,[Pg 18] and the authority of law and order maintained in them, must be sought for in the records of history. Those were the days in which a king of England, to hold his place, really required to be, in all senses, about the ablest man in his dominions; if he was not of such heroic mould, he was almost sure to be thrown down, in that convulsive and stormy condition of things which had not yet subsided since the breaking up of the Roman empire had thrown Europe into a state of social chaos. Nothing, in fact, was fixed and stable; nowhere was the ground firm beneath men’s feet; hardly any political arrangement or part of the mechanism of government was brought to such working order as to go on in any degree of itself or as a matter of course; all rights and claims were disputed and in conflict with one another; the boundaries of states, public and private inheritances, the provinces of the civil and ecclesiastical powers, the positions and privileges of the different classes of the community, all remained as yet in many respects unsettled and the subject of fierce contention both by argument and occasionally by force. Of all this confusion the king had to be, as far as possible, the ruler or moderator; and to hold his own besides, often in harness and the battle-field, and when nothing would stand him in much stead if he had not a strong arm and a stout heart. Let us now see how Henry was furnished in body and mind, in capacity and moral disposition, for this post in the front and at the head of the community, according to the testimony of those who knew him best and were the best qualified to understand and describe him.
He has been drawn at full length, and with much elaboration, by the famous letter-writer of the twelfth century, Peter of Blois (so styled from the place of his birth), who appears to have come over to England about 1169 or 1170, and was afterwards for many years in habits of daily and intimate intercourse with the king as his private secretary. The account occurs in a letter from Peter to his friend Walter, Archbishop of Palermo, who had requested from him a complete and exact picture of the great English king, both in his outer and[Pg 19] inner man, a theme which his correspondent declares would, in his opinion, overtask the powers of the Mantuan (that is, Virgil) himself, or, as he afterwards still more strongly puts it, would be too much for either Maro or Tully. So far, however, he adds, as the subject is within his capacity, he will speak without envy or detraction. The letter has no date, but appears to have been written about the year 1180. He begins by remarking that, as it is related to the commendation of David that he was ruddy, so it might still be seen that King Henry had in earlier life been in a moderate degree of that complexion, although his colour was now somewhat gone, and his hair also touched with grey, from his advanced years. His head was compact and[Pg 20] round-shaped—"spherical" is the rhetorical secretary’s term—of fitting form and dimensions, according to the craniological philosophy of that day, "to be the seat of great wisdom, and the special sanctuary of deep counsel." Yet its size was perfectly proportioned to that of the sustaining neck and the general frame. The eyes also were round, and of soft expression—"dove-like and simple, or single" (in the Scriptural sense), are the terms employed—while he was unexcited; but under the emotion of anger or any other disturbing passion they flashed fire, and, as it were, lightened. His hair as yet showed no signs of becoming bald, but he prevented it from growing long by clipping. The general form of the face was quadrangular, like that of a lion. His nose was handsome and of suitable size, his chest broad, his arms muscular, his legs of the proper shape for a good rider, his instep arched and high. Some deformity, however, had been produced in one of his feet by the nail of a toe having grown into the flesh; and his hands also, upon which he never wore a glove, except when he carried a falcon, gave token of his neglect of them by a certain clumsiness or grossness of appearance. He discarded all ornament alike in boots and bonnet, and all his clothes were disencumbered of everything superfluous. [Pg 21] A characteristic of his mother’s race that he inherited was a strong tendency to corpulency; but he appears to have succeeded in keeping it down much more than his great-grandfather, the Conqueror, both by frequent fastings and by a life of movement and activity almost without example. His habit was scarcely ever to sit down, except while he was upon horseback or at his meals. Whether at mass or at council, or in whatever business he had to transact, he kept upon his feet from morning to night. When engaged in war, he would, if necessary, get over as much ground in one day as would take an ordinary commander four or five; and in this way he often got the better of his enemies by coming upon them when they did not look for him. Both in mounting his horse and in riding he had still preserved to this, the latter part of his life, all the alacrity of youth. During peace his favourite recreation was hunting or hawking; and bows, swords, arrows, and hunting tackle were almost constantly in his hands, except when he was reading and when he was at council, or occupied with affairs of state. But both business and books had their full share of his time. "For he does not," says his secretary, "lie still, like other kings, in his palace, but, journeying rapidly from province to province, inquires into the conduct of all his officers, especially judging those whom he has constituted the judges of others. No man is more sagacious in counsel, gifted with a greater flow and rush of elocution, more firm in dangers, less confident in prosperity, in adversity more constant…. As often as he can obtain a breathing time from the cares and anxieties of state, he spends it either in reading by himself, or in labouring to untie the knot of some difficult question in converse with a circle of learned clerks." Such literary assemblages and discussions, it is added, were held in the palace every day. In the rest of the letter Henry is warmly praised, though in general terms, for his moderation both in eating and drinking, his liberality and charity, his magnificence in the construction, on the one hand, of warlike defences and strongholds, on the other of palaces, lakes for fish,[Pg 22] and enclosures for wild animals, his kindness to the afflicted and affability to the poor, although he bore himself with a more lordly mien, it is subjoined, to the high and proud—always, with a certain resemblance to the divinity, endeavouring to depress the haughty and to raise up the depressed. A remarkable sentence follows, to the effect that, although in conformity with the custom of his kingdom, Henry exercised the most potent and effectual influence in elections (in electionibus faciendis potissimas et potentissimas habeat partes), yet he ever kept his hands pure and free from all venality. The elections here referred to are of course elections to bishoprics and other dignities or benefices in the church; for there were as yet no elections to civil offices in England. The steadiness of the king both in his likings and dislikings is also noted: if he had once loved anyone, we are assured, he scarcely ever withdrew his regard; but he was as rarely known to admit to his familiarity or favour anyone to whom he had once conceived an aversion.
Peter of Blois was an ecclesiastic; he held, among other preferments both in England and abroad, the archdeaconries both of London and Bath; and he was, like the generality of his profession, firmly attached to the great cause of the independence of the church, and the supremacy of the spiritual over the temporal power. It might, and probably would, have been different a few years before; but at the time when this letter was written he had no quarrel with the English king even on such questions; on the contrary, he lauds him warmly for his piety, and his zealous maintenance of the rights of the clergy, and especially for the reverence in which he held the memory of the blessed and glorious martyr—the murdered and since canonized Becket, or St. Thomas—whom, says the archdeacon, in all straits he looks up to as his chief patron. In the position he occupied at court, also, he would of course be disposed to take a favourable view of the character of his royal master. The picture he has drawn, indeed, may be admitted to be somewhat sparingly shaded; some features may be softened down, and others may be altogether concealed. But, so far at[Pg 23] least as his evidence is positive, it may be safely received; and, in fact, it is confirmed in all the main particulars by other contemporary testimony, or by what Henry’s history and conduct throughout his life show him to have been. It is true that other writers of his own age,—Giraldus Cambrensis, for instance, and Radulphus Niger—have delineated him in much darker colours; but their animosity is at least as evident and as strong as Peter of Blois’s partiality; and they, and others who join them in the same strain, had individually as much reason to dislike Henry, as the archdeacon had to feel grateful and attached to him. His chief habitual defect appears to have been a tendency to violent explosions of rage. It is several times alluded to in the letters of Peter of Blois, from whose notices we learn that there were times when his majesty was not to be spoken to without considerable risk or great caution; but some of the exhibitions of his fury, as reported by other authorities, almost go beyond credibility. "When his wrath is fairly kindled," says Peter in one place, "he is a lion, or something yet more truculent." Giraldus Cambrensis tells us, that in the paroxysms of his passion, to quote his description as translated by Lingard, "his eyes were spotted with blood, his countenance seemed of flame, his tongue poured a torrent of abuse and imprecation, and his hands were employed to inflict vengeance on whatever came within his reach." On one occasion, we are told, the learned modern historian proceeds, referring to a letter of Thomas of Becket’s, "When Humet, a favourite minister, had ventured to offer a plea in justification of the king of Scots, Henry, in a burst of passion, called Humet a traitor, threw down his cap, ungirt his sword, tore off his clothes, pulled the silk coverlet from his couch, and, unable to do more mischief, sate down, and gnawed the straw on the floor." Another time, it is added, on the same authority, "when a page presented a letter, the king attempted to tear out his eyes, nor did the boy escape without severe scars." These were doubtless demonstrations, supposing them not exaggerated in the recital, that had better have been[Pg 24] avoided; but Henry had often that to contend with which was enough to make the wisest mad; such outbreaks do not appear to have been frequent; and, if the storm was sufficiently terrific while it lasted, it never lasted long. Nor were the rash and furious words usually followed by any corresponding ferocity of action. If Henry was passionate, he was certainly neither vindictive nor cruel. He may have put little restraint upon his passions in other respects as well as in giving way to excesses of rage, and he had probably his share in the general licentiousness of his time; but he nowhere revolts us by showing either want of heart or any thing of coarseness or baseness of nature. It is probable, from all that history and tradition tell us of him, that there was always as much of sentiment as of sensuality in his licentiousness. His affection for his children, so long as they would suffer him to love them, seems to have been only too tender and indulgent; and even after their repeated ingratitude he was always to the last ready to forgive them and to take them again to his heart. Ambitious he was, indisputably, and fond of power; and as such, he was necessarily unscrupulous, and in pursuing his great and aspiring schemes, would at times break his way in a somewhat reckless and startling fashion through restraints that checked more timid spirits. Having also frequently to act by policy as well as by force, and to contend with the one as much as with the other—for it was an age of overreaching and trickery—he may have sometimes gone farther in the way of artifice and deception than would now be thought correct. But a fair consideration of his conduct as recorded does not at all bear out the charge made against him by some hostile declaimers—principally or exclusively ecclesiastics—during his contest with the church, that he was a shameless and systematic liar, that he never pledged his word except with the intention of breaking it at the first opportunity. This is the mere extravagance of party malice or passion. When Cardinal Viviani, after conversing with Henry, declared that he had never known his equal in lying, we can only conclude that the churchman found[Pg 25] himself no match in diplomatic subtlety and stratagem for the king.
Henry’s course of prosperity and success encountered no check, scarcely anything to disturb for a moment its even and onward flow, till after he had been between seven and eight years King of England. The portion of his reign from the middle of the year 1162 till the end of 1170 was mostly spent in a contest with one of his own subjects. The famous Thomas-à-Becket is said to have been born in London in 1117, and his legendary history, which may have some foundation in fact, makes him to have been the son of a citizen of English race, Gilbert Beck, Beckie, or Becket, by the daughter of a Saracen chief, who, when he had been taken prisoner in the east, whither he had followed his Norman lord to the holy wars, had fallen in love with him, contrived to release him from his captivity, and afterwards followed him to England, and found him out by inquiring wherever she went for London and Gilbert, the only two English words she knew. Thomas-à-Becket, like his father, attached himself to the Norman conquerors of his native land; his accomplishments and his obsequiousness had before the end of the reign of Stephen raised him to high favour with Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who induced him to take deacon’s orders, and made him archdeacon of his metropolitan church; he was presented to Henry soon after his accession, and he was almost immediately appointed to the high office of chancellor of the kingdom, to which were speedily added the custody of the castle of Berkhampstead, the government of the Tower of London, and other preferments. He was now the most powerful subject in England, the man whom the king most delighted to honour, the familiar friend of his sovereign, and his constant and intimate associate in his private life, in his amusements and pleasures, as well as in the government of the realm. One of Becket’s biographers tells us that after they had finished their serious affairs they would often play together like two boys of the same age. This continued till Henry crowned his long unvarying favour by making[Pg 26] Becket Archbishop of Canterbury, in May, 1162. From that moment his former friend, who had been indebted to him for so much, for all that he had and all that he was, became his rival and his enemy. Becket, indeed, was now in every respect a changed man. The gay, careless, luxurious layman (for as such he had been hitherto considered, notwithstanding his deacon’s orders), the man of gallantry in every sense of the term (for he had also borne arms with distinguished reputation), was transformed at once into a cold, rigid, ascetic priest, hard and unimpressible as a man of stone. All that he had hitherto appeared, all that had seemed his nature and very self, was thrown off as if it had been a masque or disguise. It is unnecessary, however, to assume that Becket was insincere or dishonest either in the part he had made a show of sustaining till now, or in this sudden metamorphosis. It is rather proof of his inherent honesty, as well as of his force of character, that he would not seem to be what he was not, that he would not become a churchman in name without becoming one in reality. But, with this spirit, his new position brought him immediately into collision with Henry. A contest for supremacy between the church and the state was not a new thing in England. Ever since the Conquest the subjugation of the spiritual to the temporal power had been a prominent and steadily pursued part of the policy of the crown. The Conqueror had placed the Archbishop of Canterbury upon an eminence of rank and political position, such as was scarcely occupied by any other subject in Christendom; but in doing this he had strenuously aimed at the same time at making the church part and parcel of the state; so that the primate, with all the splendour of his station, and the other bishops, should in fact form rather a baronage or nobility, the supporters and servants of the crown, than a separate power. This system, however, was entirely opposed to the pretensions and aims of the court of Rome, and to the notions generally entertained by all orders of ecclesiastics in that age. The papal power, professing to consider all legitimate royalty and other civil authority[Pg 27] to be derived from itself, and even to be resumable at its will and pleasure, and maintaining the state to be everywhere thus the creation of the church, always resolutely refused to acquiesce, except occasionally in the way of compromise, in any arrangements which seemed to proceed upon an opposite idea or principle. Hence in the time of Rufus and Henry I. the contest between these kings and Archbishop Anselm about investitures, or the right of nominating to offices in the church, which the archbishop and the clergy held to be in the pope, but which the crown insisted upon retaining in its own hands. The first Henry had made good his claims in regard to this matter, and the other subjects of difference between the two interests had not since occasioned any serious disagreement. It is probable, however, that during the weak irregular government of Stephen the spiritual power had made some encroachments, if not in regard to investitures, in another direction. It was a still more important question upon which Henry now found himself opposed by Becket. This king was as little likely as anyone of his predecessors to tolerate such of the pretensions of the clergy as would have either allied them as a body with a foreign power, or withdrawn them as individuals from subjection to the ordinary laws of the realm. It can hardly be doubted that so long as Becket held the office of chancellor (which he threw up as soon as he obtained the primacy) he had gone vigorously along with his royal master in discountenancing, and, where necessary, resisting, all such pretensions. Now, however, when Henry insisted that clerks, or ecclesiastical persons, when charged criminally, should be tried in the king’s courts, and punished, if found guilty, in the same way with other subjects, the archbishop declared this to be a violation of the rights of the church, and set himself to oppose what he denounced as a sacrilegious innovation with all the powers of his office. Whether the system which Henry wished to enforce was in conformity with the ancient customs of the kingdom, as he maintained that it was, may indeed be disputed. It was manifestly, at any[Pg 28] rate, the only system compatible with the good government of the kingdom. The highest punishments that the ecclesiastical courts could inflict were flagellation, fine, imprisonment, and degradation; and the crime of murder itself, when committed by a clergyman, was usually expiated by a whipping when the case was left in their hands. On the other hand the archbishop probably also conceived himself to be bound in duty to make the stand he did for the claims set up by the church. There is no difficulty in understanding how the two parties should see the question differently from their opposite points of view; and they both gave by the whole course of their conduct all possible evidence of their sincerity. After other proceedings, Henry assembled a great council at Clarendon, in Wiltshire, at Christmas, 1163, and there demanded the assent of Becket and the other prelates to sixteen constitutions or articles, embodying what he maintained to be the ancient law or custom of the realm upon the matters in dispute. Becket, who had before refused to promise obedience to a much less comprehensive enactment, was now prevailed upon by the entreaties of his brethren to sign these constitutions; but he would not affix his seal to them. Even his signature, which had been wrung from him by importunity, was no sooner given than it was bitterly repented of, and he made no scruple openly to accuse himself of the most criminal weakness in doing what he had done. The contest was now renewed with greater animosity on both sides than ever, and before the end of the year Becket had clandestinely withdrawn himself from England, and taken refuge in France, under the protection of King Louis. He remained abroad, firmly refusing to make any concession; but at last, in July, 1170, he and Henry held a conference in a meadow near Freitville, or Freteval, on the borders of Touraine, when the form of a reconciliation was gone through, and the archbishop soon after set out on his return to England. He reached Canterbury on the 3rd of December, and with the exception of making a visit to London, remained there in quiet for the next three[Pg 29] weeks. Meanwhile, however, accounts had been brought to Henry in Normandy, that before he had embarked at Wissant, he had sent forward letters of excommunication or suspension against the archbishop of York, the bishop of London, and others of the prelates who had stood by the king in the late controversy. Several of these prelates instantly came themselves over to Rouen, and informed the king of this extraordinary proceeding. Furious with indignation Henry hastily exclaimed, "Of the dastards who eat my bread is there no one who will deliver me from this ungrateful, turbulent, incorrigible priest?" Four knights who heard the words, soon after suddenly and secretly started for England. On that same day, Saturday the 25th, the archbishop was present in his cathedral, at the performance of the solemnities of Christmas, and preached to a crowded auditory from the words "I am come unto you to die in the midst of you." After his sermon he excommunicated some individuals who, he said, had for the last seven years been busy in wronging and insulting himself and the church. On the Tuesday following, being the 28th, the four knights arrived from Normandy. On the afternoon of the next day, accompanied by twelve others, they made their way into the archbishop’s house; he was prevailed upon by his friends to proceed to the Church; thither, however, the conspirators followed him; they demanded that he should absolve the excommunicated bishops, but, unbending to the last, he bid defiance to their menaces; upon which he was struck down by repeated blows at the foot of the altar. Henry was still keeping his Christmas festival at Bure, in Normandy, when tidings of the event were brought to him. There can be no reasonable doubt that he was profoundly affected with horror at the crime that had been committed almost in his name, as well as alarmed for the consequences. He shut himself up in his closet for three days, admitting no one and refusing all nourishment. It was not till after a negociation of two years that he obtained from the Court of Rome, a full absolution, on his appearing in the cathedral of Avranches, and there publicly[Pg 30] taking his solemn oath on the Gospels, that he was innocent of the murder of the archbishop both in word and deed. Meanwhile, he had acquired new power and glory by the conquest of Ireland; circumstances were also changed in other respects; new objects had in part withdrawn him from the controversy with the church which had occupied him almost to the exclusion of everything else, for the preceding six or seven years; and now that Becket was removed the pretensions of the clergy, although they may have remained the same in words, had actually become something very different and much less formidable. Henry therefore now also engaged, that if any customs hostile to the liberties of the ecclesiastical order had been introduced into his kingdom since his accession, they should be abolished. And four years after, in a great council held at Northampton, the constitutions of Clarendon were so far repealed as that, among other concessions of less moment, clergymen were exempted from being personally arraigned before a secular judge for any crime, unless it were against the forest laws, or regarded a lay fee for which they owed service to a lay lord. But, although we learn this from a letter written by the king to the pope, Alexander III., which is preserved by the contemporary Latin annalist Ralph de Diceto (himself a churchman), it may be doubted if the satisfaction thus given to the clergy proved, after all, much more than a form of words.
Before this, however, Henry had become involved in new troubles, and had encountered the first gust of the storm that was to wrap the afternoon of his reign and his life in darkness and ruin. In the year 1170, in the midst of his contest with Becket, he had had his eldest son Henry consecrated and crowned as conjoint king with himself. The ceremony was performed in Westminster Abbey by the Archbishop of York; and a theory that has satisfied some modern historians is, that Henry’s object in this proceeding was simply to spite Becket and to diminish the authority he derived from his station, by showing that a King of England could be crowned without[Pg 31] the assistance of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is certain, indeed, that Becket resented what had been done as an invasion of the privileges of his see, and this was the principal ground on which he had applied for, and obtained from the pope, the letters of excommunication against the Archbishop of York and the other prelates who had assisted him at the coronation, his display and threatened employment of which had probably been the occasion of his murder. But all the circumstances seem to show that Henry was principally actuated by affection for his son, and a desire to place him in a position of honour and of splendour, although his age, only fourteen, of course precluded him from being as yet entrusted with any share in the government. The young prince, however, or, as he was now called, the young king, or sometimes Henry III., made no creditable return, whether it was fondness or policy that had chiefly moved his father thus to advance him. He appears to have been rather weak than ill-disposed; his new title probably made him giddy; and, easily led in any direction, he was much more likely, in his position, to be led wrong than right. All cordiality between Henry and Queen Eleanor had long been at an end; his infidelities and her jealous temper had completely divided and alienated them; and Eleanor’s natural resource was to endeavour to gain over her sons to make common cause with her against their father. About the end of the year 1172, the young king Henry, who was married to the daughter of the French king, Louis VII., and had just been crowned a second time along with his wife, startled his father by a sudden demand, that he should immediately resign to him either the dukedom of Normandy or the sovereignty of England. At this time the boy was not yet sixteen, and his father was himself still under forty. The preposterous proposal is believed to have been prompted by Queen Eleanor and King Louis; from the day on which it was made, and of course instantly rejected, the young king, we are told, spoke not one word more of peace to his father; a few months after, while he was with his father at Chinon, on their way[Pg 32] back to Normandy from Limoges, he arose during the night and secretly withdrew himself to the court of his father-in-law; his flight was speedily followed by that of his two younger brothers Richard and Geoffrey, upon the former of whom their father had conferred the earldom of Poictiers, upon the latter the dukedom of Bretagne, and, who had been left with their mother in Guienne; and lastly their mother set out to join her sons, but, being caught as she travelled in man’s attire, was by her husband’s orders put into immediate confinement, nor was she afterwards released, except once for a short space, while Henry lived.
The war that followed between Henry and his sons, aided by King Louis, did not last long. Attacked as he was on every side at once—in Brittany, in Normandy, in Anjou, in Guienne, in England; from France, from Toulouse, from Scotland—the vigour of the old king, as he was called, carried everything before it; and a peace and reconciliation were arranged after a few months. It was during this contest that Henry performed his famous penance at the tomb of Becket. The desire to see, in the quarrel between Becket and Henry, a struggle between the old Anglo-Saxon population and their Norman conquerors has probably been carried much too far by the eminent living French historian Augustin Thierry: the controversy was in the main and essentially, there can be no doubt, a trial of strength between the church and the state, between the temporal and the spiritual powers, between the crown and the pope, between the laity and the clergy; nor do we believe that the accident of Becket being of Anglo-Saxon lineage went for anything in the case. There is no good evidence that the circumstance ever was appealed to or taken notice of either on the one side or the other. It may be conceded, however, that both parties would naturally wish to secure whatever support could be derived from the sympathy of the great body of the people, and that in this way the native English, who had been already for some time rising again from the state of prostration to which they were struck down by the[Pg 33] Conquest, would both be led to take the greater interest in the dispute, and may have been benefited by it. Their devotional and superstitious feelings also were, no doubt, strongly excited by many of the proceedings to which the clergy resorted; and we may well conceive that they would be transported to a state of the highest enthusiasm, first, by horror at the barbarous and sacrilegious murder of Becket, and afterwards, by the miracles with which the kingdom resounded as having been performed at his tomb. But these were feelings which there is every reason to believe were shared in an equal degree by the generality of their Norman masters. The king himself was probably by no means exempt from them. With all the licence that he allowed himself in some respects, he was neither without the piety nor above the superstition of his age; and the circumstances in which he now stood, with troubles gathering around him, and the consciousness pressing upon him that he had, by his hasty and passionate words, materially contributed to Becket’s death, were very likely to awaken his devotion and penitence. It seems impossible to regard him as merely acting a part, assuming the outward appearance of a reverence and contrition which he did not feel, in this penitential pilgrimage, when the whole proceeding and his demeanour throughout are fairly considered. He set sail from Barfleur early on the morning of the 8th of July, 1174. It blew fresh at the time, and, the gale increasing after the ship had got under way, some apprehension began to be felt, upon which Henry, coming forward so as to be seen by all, exclaimed, with eyes uplifted to heaven, "If what I have in my mind be for the peace of my clergy and my people, if God have determined to restore such peace by my arrival, then may he in his mercy bring me safe into port; but, if he have resolved still further to scourge my kingdom in his wrath, may it never be given me again to set my foot on land." He landed at Southampton on the morning of the 10th, and instantly getting on horseback, set out for Canterbury, pursuing his journey all night, and taking no other sustenance than a little bread and water. He[Pg 34] came within sight of the metropolitan church at the dawn of the next day, Friday the 11th, and then dismounting, and throwing off both his silk apparel and his boots, he walked in the garb of a pilgrim, and barefoot, over the flinty road for the three remaining miles of the way. When he entered the city, his footsteps were observed to leave their marks in blood upon the pavement. Proceeding forthwith to the cathedral, he entered it along with the thronging inhabitants of the city, collected by the ringing of the bells, and, prostrating himself with his face to the ground, wept and sobbed aloud, while the Bishop of London announced from the pulpit that Henry King of England was here come to invoke God and the holy martyr for the salvation of his soul; to protest that he never either ordered or desired the death of the martyr; and to submit his naked flesh to be scourged for the hasty and imprudent words uttered by him, by which the murderers might pretend that they had been excited to the act. After this the king descended to the crypt where the archbishop’s body was interred, and there, stripping off his clothes and kneeling down on the tombstone, he submitted his bare back to be scourged with a knotted cord by all the bishops and monks that were present, each giving him three, four, or five strokes, while he pronounced the words, "As the Redeemer was scourged for the sins of men, so be thou for thy own sin." He spent all the rest of the day and the following night in the crypt in prayer and fasting; and the next morning, after hearing mass, he left Canterbury without tasting anything save a draught of the holy water kept at the martyr’s tomb. He rode to London; but when he had finished his journey he was taken ill, and he was confined for some days by fever. On the fifth night of his illness a messenger arrived at the palace and insisted upon instant admission to the king. He brought the news of the capture of the king of Scotland at Alnwick, by Ranulf de Glanville. And it turned out that this great event had taken place on the very Saturday on the morning of which Henry had risen an absolved and reconciled man from the shrine of the martyr.[Pg 35]
For some years from this time Henry was left at peace, although in 1179 his two eldest sons, Henry and Richard, took arms against each other, and Poitou and Guienne were for a time disturbed and devastated by their dissension. But in 1183 war again broke out between the sons and the father. Sometimes he was opposed to one, sometimes to two of them; sometimes to Henry, Richard, and Geoffrey, all at once. Both the two elder were soon cut off; Henry, by fever, on the 11th of June, at Chateau Martel, near Limoges; Geoffrey, early in 1185, by being thrown from his horse and trampled to death, in a tournament at the court of the new French king Philip II. (Augustus), whose aid he had sought against his father. Richard, however, continued in rebellion, or rather, repeatedly defeated and forgiven, still again and again took up arms, whenever a favourable moment seemed to present itself. He had a story that he was fond of relating, about a countess of Anjou, one of his ancestry, who never went to church, and at last, on being taken there one day by force, flew out of the window, on the elevation of the host, and was never more seen; and he used to ask if it was to be wondered at that, sprung from such a stock, the household to which he belonged should be divided against itself. "What comes from the devil," said he, "to the devil must return." Mutual hatred, he professed to believe, was the doom of his family—the fatal inheritance which none of them would ever renounce. At last, at a conference held at La Ferté Bernard, in Maine, on the 18th of November, 1188, Richard, on his father’s refusal to comply with his demands, turned round in indignation to the French king, who stood by, and, having ungirt his sword and fallen upon his knees, offered his homage to Philip, in Henry’s presence, for all the territories that the latter held in France. Philip accepted his allegiance, and the war was renewed as soon as the term of the truce expired. By this time Henry’s spirits, as well as his health, seem to have been broken; his operations in the field were languid and ineffective, and he was soon reduced to the necessity of suing for peace. The matter[Pg 36] in regard to which Richard and Philip had pretended to feel most keenly was Henry’s detention of Alice, the sister of the French king, who many years before had been affianced to Richard, and his refusal to allow their marriage to take place. He professed to wish to marry her to his youngest son John; but it was suspected that he loved the young and beautiful princess himself, and that her heart, too, was his. Now, however, he offered to resign everything, Alice included; he proposed that she should, in the meantime, be placed in such custody as might be thought fittest, and delivered either to Richard or Philip, on their return from their projected expedition to the Holy Land. The French princess, we may mention, after all was not married to Richard. Though he had demanded her so clamorously before, when he became king he refused to have her; and she eventually became the wife of William Earl of Aumale and Ponthieu, by whom she had a daughter, who married Ferdinand III. King of Castile, and was the mother of Eleanor, the queen of our Edward I. Henry and Philip met to arrange a peace on the 28th of June, 1189, on a plain between Tours and Azay-sur-Cher. Henry agreed to everything that was demanded of him. He became very ill before the conference closed, and was carried from the place in a litter to his quarters, where a few days after the articles of the treaty were sent to him for his ratification. They were read to him one by one as he lay on his bed; and when he had heard the one which secured from punishment all who had been engaged on the side of Richard in the late war, either openly or secretly, and allowed them, although they had hitherto been his own subjects, liberty to continue the vassals of his son, he asked how many and who were the persons whose faith and allegiance he would thus have to lose. The first that was named to him was his youngest son John, his favourite son, of whose affection and fidelity he had never had a doubt, for whose sake, in great part, it had been that he had resisted the demands of Richard, and brought himself to the state in which he was. When he heard it pronounced he raised himself[Pg 37] convulsively half up in the bed, and, with a wild look, asked if it was true that this son, whom he had so loved and trusted, for whom he had done and suffered so much, had actually deserted him. … Geoffrey, his son by Rosamund Clifford, was with him
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