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Henry II

(1133—1189) king of England, duke of Normandy and of Aquitaine, and count of Anjou

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king of England (1154–89). The first of the Plantagenet kings of England was one of the most successful of this country's monarchs. His achievements are the more remarkable since his responsibilities encompassed not just England, but also two‐thirds of France, for Henry was also duke of Normandy, count of Anjou, and, by right of his wife Eleanor, duke of Aquitaine. England was but part of the vast Angevin empire. In England, Henry inherited in 1154 a realm severely affected by the political disintegration in Stephen's reign. He proceeded to restore, and then further develop, the governmental structure inherited from his grandfather Henry I. But to restore the crown's overall position, including the recovery of lands, offices, and castles lost in Stephen's reign, Henry needed the co‐operation of the greater magnates. Equally, from this same group of men Henry demanded the restoration of the crown's rights—a seemingly impossible task. While bending the magnates to his will, he also succeeded in placating them and finding a place for them in his regime. Hence the remarkable general political stability of England during Henry's reign. Only in 1173–4 did serious unrest occur, in connection with the so‐called Great Rebellion in England and France, and even then only a handful of English nobles were involved.

This political settlement helped provide the stable context for a notable extension of the crown's activities, especially through the introduction of the famous assizes. A far greater positive role was being taken by the crown than hitherto, whereby the king's law was becoming truly national in scope. Some measures concerned trade and commerce, such as the assizes of wine, ale, bread, and measures, whilst the Assize of Arms dealt with the defence of the realm. But the most significant assizes were those which transformed both civil and criminal law. The grand jury, established by the Assize of Clarendon, would be fundamental in the prosecution of crime until the establishment of the director of public prosecutions in 1879.

Stocky, of medium height, Henry was robust in his prime, fat in his later years. In the 1180s, it seems, he was aged beyond his actual years, worn out by constant travelling and exertion. When not on the move around his dominions, he seldom sat still for long, except to eat or play chess. Even at mass, he scribbled memoranda or whispered business to courtiers. He was a man of violent passions, easily moved to anger. He was capable of hatred, most notoriously revealed in his struggle with Thomas Becket. But much of the threatening side of his nature was deliberately cultivated to get his own way. There was another side to his character that enjoyed simple, good‐hearted fun.

One problem he never satisfactorily resolved—the partition of the Angevin empire between his sons. The issue blighted the last twenty years of his life, and poisoned relations within the family. He died vanquished, defeated by his son Richard and Philip II of France over that very issue.

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