Henry II: Reign

Henry's vast Continental domains (he ruled about half the area of present-day France) were to occupy him for much of his reign, but his first objective was to restore order and royal authority to an England ravaged by civil war. He did this (by razing unlicensed castles, reclaiming royal castles and alienated crown lands, and appointing capable crown officials) so effectively that the country was free of major disorder until 1173.

Henry's desire to restore royal authority to the level of that in Henry I's reign brought him into conflict with Thomas à Becket, whom he had made (1162) archbishop of Canterbury. The quarrel, which focused largely on the jurisdiction of the church courts, came to a head when Henry issued (1164) the Constitutions of Clarendon, defining the relationship between church and state, and it ended (1170) in Becket's murder, for which Henry was indirectly responsible. The crime aroused such indignation that Henry had to make his peace with the papacy in the Compromise of Avranches (1172). But, though he made some concessions, most clauses of the Constitutions remained in force.

Henry's most significant achievement lay in his development of the structure of royal justice. With the aid of such competent jurists as Ranulf de Glanvill, he clearly established the superiority of the royal courts over private, feudal jurisdictions. His justices toured the country, administering a strengthened criminal law and a revised land law, based on the doctrine of seisin (possession). Procedural advances included the greatly extended use of writs and juries.

While these developments were taking place, Henry was also engaged in consolidating his possessions. He recovered (1157) the northern counties of England from Scotland and undertook (1171–72) an expedition to Ireland, where he temporarily consolidated the conquests already made by Richard de Clare, 2d earl of Pembroke. He was less successful in his attempts (1157 and 1165) to extend his authority in Wales. Henry also expanded his holdings in France, acquiring Vexin, Brittany, and Toulouse.

In 1169 the king distributed among his three oldest sons the titles to his possessions: Henry was to receive Normandy, Maine, and Anjou (he was also crowned king of England in 1170); Richard (later Richard I), Aquitaine; and Geoffrey, Brittany. They did not receive actual authority, however, and, encouraged in their discontent by their mother and supported by Louis VII of France, they rebelled against Henry in 1173–74. The rebellion collapsed, but the king's sons continued to conspire against him. Richard and the youngest son, John, in alliance with Philip II of France, were actually in the course of another rebellion in 1189 when their father died. Since the young Henry had died (1183), Henry II was succeeded by Richard.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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