David Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery. The Penguin History of Britain 1066-1284 (London: Penguin, 2004)
Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: The Kings who made England (William Collins, 2013)
Robin Shepherd, Westminster a Biography: From the Earliest Times to the Present (London: Bloomsbury, 2012)
With the accession of Henry II, England became part of what is known as the Angevin Empire, as Henry had inherited Anjou, Maine, and Touraine from his father Geoffrey. From his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine he had gained southwest France. One chronicler described his dominions as stretching ‘from the last bounds of Scotland to the mountains of the Pyrenees’. Given his multiple preoccupations, Henry could have neglected England, but the opposite turned out to be the case. His great achievements were to restore royal authority in England, to refashion the common law, and to conquer Ireland. His great failure was his inability to make church law subject to the secular law. With the murder of Thomas Becket, he knew that he would be unable to attack the privileges of the Church.
His first task in England was to restore the authority of the crown by depriving leading magnates of their lands, and earldoms. Unlicensed castles were torn down, and a new penny was introduced, erasing the memory of the baronial coinages. Over his reign he spent over £21,000 on building his own castles, of which the most prominent was the great keep at Dover. The chancery, which had been the centre of government under Henry I, was expanded, initially under Thomas Becket. The pipe rolls show how the exchequer became once more an active department, so that from an economic point of view, England was the most valuable of Henry’s domains. It was ‘the paymaster for the rest of the empire.
From the start of his reign, Henry was determined to recover the rights of the church that had been lost under Stephen. He reasserted control over appointments, and took the revenues from vacant bishops and abbeys. Under Archbishop Theobald, conflict was avoided, but in 1162 Henry made possibly the greatest mistake of his reign when he appointed Becket archbishop. To his dismay, Becket immediately resigned the chancellorship and plunged into a series of disputes with the king. For him the clergy were a separate and distinct body, subject only to the laws of the church and set above the secular authority. The most important issue between the king and Becket was that of ‘criminous clerks’. Henry demanded that clergy accused of serious crimes, having been convicted in the ecclesiastical courts and stripped of their clerical status, should then be handed over to royal officials for secular punishment, in the form of death or mutilation. Becket declared that this was to punish a man twice for the same offence. In January 1164 Henry summoned a council to meet at his palace at Clarendon in Wiltshire. The council issued the Constitutions of Clarendon, which asserted that criminous clerks were also to be punished in the secular courts. By this time the bad relations between the king and Becket made compromise impossible and at the end of the year Becket fled to France.
The crisis was reached in July 1170 when Henry’s eldest son, Henry (‘the Young King’) was crowned at Westminster abbey by the archbishop of York, in flagrant violation of Becket’s rights as archbishop. As a conciliatory gesture to Becket, he allowed him to return to England. However, from his exile Becket suspended the bishops involved in the coronation and excommunicated his great enemy, Gilbert Foliot, bishop of London. On 1 December he landed in England. When news of his action reached Henry in Normandy, he flew into a rage. Following his intemperate words four knights of his household reached Canterbury on 29 December. When Becket resisted arrest, they hacked him to death.
The shock waves resounded throughout Christendom. In 1172 Henry was forced to abolish the Constitutions of Clarendon and he promised that in future he would not impede appeals to Rome. In 1176 he freed criminous clerks from secular punishment. But the kind still retained the right to appoint bishops. In 1173 he allegedly wrote to the electors of Winchester:
‘I order you to hold a free election, but forbid you to elect anyone save Richard, my clerk.’In reality, there was a good deal of give-and-take in church-state relations.
In the reign of Henry II Ireland became significant in English history. The English opportunity to conquer Ireland came because of a feud between Dermot MacMurrough, deposed king of Leinster and Rory O’Connor, king of Connacht, his rival for the ‘High Kingship’. MacMurrough invited the English over to help him recover his kingdom. These ‘English’ were men of mixed Norman and Welsh blood, who came from the borderlands of England and south Wales. In May 1169 three ships landed in Ireland. In August 1170 Richard fitz Gilbert, lord of Chepstow, landed with 200 knights and 1,000 other troops. In September the combined English and MacMurrough forces took Dublin. Having achieved their military objective, they stayed in Ireland.
This development alarmed Henry, who feared that disaffected barons might use Ireland as a power-base. Instead, he wanted Ireland to be under his control, a territory that he could give to his youngest son, John. In pressing his claims to the country, he had the English pope, Adrian IV, on his side. In 1155-6 Adrian had issued a bull that could at least be interpreted as granting Ireland to Henry II. In October 1171 Henry crossed from Milford Haven to Waterford and gained the submission of fifteen Irish kings as well as native archbishops and bishops.
But events in Normandy meant that Henry could not stay in Ireland to consolidate his conquest. He was forced to grant land to the Anglo-Norman lords. In 1177 he designated John as king of Ireland. In 1185 the nineteen-year-old John arrived in Ireland where he was given the title ‘lord of Ireland’. However, his entourage offended the Irish by pulling their beards. His followers received grants and English-style structures of government developed in Dublin. By the end of the century Ireland was divided into three areas: those under direct royal control, the great fiefs of the Anglo-Norman lords, and the surviving native kingdoms.
The common law
Within England, Henry’s greatest achievement was the foundation of the common law, building on the developments in his grandfather’s reign. Many of the new procedures were laid down in the Assize of Clarendon in 1166.
- From the late 1170s the role of the chief officials of the exchequer was expanded. Sitting at Westminster Hall, now the basis of the English legal system, they did not merely exact and audit the revenue, but they also heard civil pleas on a regular basis. A core group of fewer than twenty judges, all carefully chosen by the king, served either on the exchequer or as justices on eyres. The judicial eyres became more frequent; the entire kingdom was divided into circuits in which separate panels of judges operated simultaneously. There were thus two courts operating: the chief court based on the Palace of Westminster, and the court that accompanied the king on his travels.
- The ‘pleas of the crown’, which since Anglo-Saxon times had included all major offences against persons and property, were now for the first time described as ‘criminal’ as distinct from ‘civil’.
- The hearing of civil pleas took place on an entirely novel scale, through new legal procedures called assizes that heard disputes over land. In the petty assizes the litigants came from the country gentry and the free peasantry and the amounts of land involved were often small.
- The crown’s control over the administration of the law was strengthened. Sheriffs were to enter all private courts. Landlords retained their right to try local cases, but under the overall jurisdiction of the king.
- The jury, composed of twelve knights and freemen from each hundred, can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon times. But from 1166 the jury system had to operate throughout the land.
- There is a curious mismatch between the rationality of most of Henry’s reforms and the method of determining guilt or innocence. Those accused of serious crimes were to be tired by the ordeals of fire or water, which seem to have replaced other customary methods. It was only after a decree of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 that the ordeal was replaced by jury trial.
In the thirteenth century contemporaries spoke increasingly of ‘the common law’, by which they meant the laws of the entire kingdom. Henry II had built on his Norman and Anglo-Saxon predecessors to create a body of law applicable to the whole country.