Monday, May 4, 2009

And Now for Your Monday Monarch Moment

Henry II (1154-1189)

Henry II's awesomeness is too awesome to be contained in one mere blog entry, but I'll try to give you an overview. Henry ruled what historians now call the Angevin Empire, which looked like this:

That southern chunk of France he got by marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine (whose awesomeness is far, far too awesome to be a mere part of one mere blog entry, so she's getting her own later); that northern chunk he inherited from his father, Geoffrey of Anjou (except, technically, for Normandy, which Geoffrey had wrested from Stephen), and England he got because he was Matilda's boy. Only a ruler of great ability could have managed to assert authority over such a vast territory (keep in mind: medieval transportation technology), and Henry was that.

Another fact to keep in mind is that France at that time was only very loosely under the rule of the King of France. Henry was Louis VII's major rival and was more powerful than Louis.

Henry was intelligent, energetic, and had a horrible temper--which would get him into trouble. The most famous event of Henry's reign is the murder of Thomas Becket (AKA St. Thomas à Becket). Henry and Thomas were actually BFFs when Thomas was merely a worldly churchman who served as the King's chancellor. But then Henry had Thomas appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, and Thomas decided he could no longer be the King's man, he had to be God's man.

The two became enemies, tussling over the rights of the Church vs. the rights of the King. In December 1170, Henry cried out in despair over Thomas's behavior--the popular version of his cry is "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" (which is a lot catchier the quote from a more reliable source, "What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and promoted in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!") Four of his knights, who as Elizabeth Longford surmises, were "probably not very intelligent" took this as a call to action. They found Thomas in Canterbury Cathedral and brutally murdered him.

This didn't sit well with anybody.

It certainly horrified the King, who did the whole penitence thing--sackcloth, ashes, three days of starvation. But even that wasn't enough. He also did a pretty impressive round of public penitance:

When he came near Canterbury, he dismounted from his horse, and laying aside all the emblems of royalty, with naked feet, and in the form of a penitent and supplicating pilgrim, arrived at the cathedral . . . where, prostrate on the floor, and with his hands stretched to heaven, he continued long in prayer . . . Meanwhile the bishop of London was commanded by the king to declare, in a sermon addressed to the people, that he had neither commanded, nor wished, nor by any device contrived the death of the martyr, which had been perpetrated in consequence of his murderers having misinterpreted the words which the king had hastily pronounced: wherefore he requested absolution from the bishops prsent, and baring his back, received from three to five lashes from every one of the numerous body of ecclesiastics who were assembled.
Roger of Wendover, Flowers of History, via The Oxford Book of Royal Anecdotes

I love medieval people. When they did stuff, they meant it.

And a bonus Henry moment! This one cracks me up, but I didn't know if anybody else would enjoy it enough to make it the main moment.

Henry had a temper, but he also had a sense of humor (and you could never predict which one would show up at any given time), as shown in this story about a time when Henry was angry at Bishop Hugh:
As [Hugh] approached the royal hunting-lodge . . . the king, who was extremely angry with him, rode off into the forest with his barons, and finding a pleasant spot sat himself on the ground, with the members of the court dispersed in a circle around him. The bishop followed them, but Henry bade everyone to ignore his presence. No one rose to greet the bishop or said a word to him, but Bishop Hugh, undaunted, eased an earl out of his place beside the king and sat himself down too. There was a long, brooding silence, broken finally by Henry who, unable to do nothing, called for needle and thread and began to stitch up a leather bandage on an injured finger. Again there was a heavy silence until Bishop Hugh, contemplating the king at his stitching, casually remarked, 'How like your cousins of Falaise you look.' At this the king's anger fled from him, and he burst into laughter which sent him rolling on the ground. Many were amazed at the bishop's temerity, others puzzled at the point of the remark, until the king, recovering his composure, explained the gibe to them: William the Conqueror was a bastard, and his mother was reputedly the daughter of one of the leather-workers for which the Norman town of Falaise was famous.
I like to imagine that Hugh added, "Thank you! I'll be here all week!" Cuz that's good stuff.

1 comment:

Will Shannon said...

I couldn't agree more. Henry II was one of the ablest people to ever rule England. Hey, it seems he invented the court system and the Common Law one afternoon when he was bored.

Henry and Eleanor were truly one of the great "power couples" of European history.

I'd say, if you were to rank monarchs, Henry II is far and away the most important medieval English king. He'd certainly be top five, if not top three.