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Accession of Henry II

Accession of Henry II., surnamed Plantaganet, a.d. 1154 - Reasons of his Popularity - Resumption and Destruction of Castles - Expedition to Toulouse.
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At the time of the death of Stephen, Henry Plantagenet was engaged in a desultory warfare against some of his rebellious vassals in Normandy. Secure in the strength of his party in England, and in the certainty that his succession would not be disputed, he remained to bring the affairs in which he was engaged to a successful termination, and then proceeded to take possession of the vacant throne. The news of his arrival, which took place six weeks after the death of Stephen, was received with general satisfaction by the people, who were induced to hope, from the lineage as well as the character of the new king, that his rule would be just and impartial.

The Saxon race, faithful to their old traditions, dwelt with satisfaction upon the Saxon blood which had been transmitted to Henry by his mother, Matilda. They forgot the haughty character of the empress-queen, and remembered only that she, and, through her, their new sovereign, was descended from Alfred the Great. Writers of the time, who either believed sincerely what they wrote, or were paid to influence the people in favour of their sovereign, affirmed that England now once more possessed a king of English race; that already there were many bishops and abbots of the same race, while of chiefs and nobles not a few had sprung from the intermixture of Norman and Saxon blood. They therefore held that the hatred hitherto existing between the two races would henceforth rapidly disappear. The opinions thus hopefully expressed were not justified by the actual circumstances, nor were they realised for a considerable time afterwards. It was no doubt true that since the time of the Conquest many Saxon women had been forcibly espoused by the Normans, but it would appear that the children of such marriages were far from regarding themselves as the brethren of the Saxon people whom they saw oppressed and degraded by the conquerors. They regarded their English blood as a stain which they were anxious to conceal by more than common harshness towards the nation from which their mothers had sprung.

In the early part of the reign, of William the Conqueror, he had endeavoured to remove discord from the two nations under his rule by promoting matrimonial alliances between them, and to this end he had offered women of his own country to some of the more powerful Saxon lords who remained free. Marriages of this kind, however, were few, and when the increased power of the Normans had reduced the conquered people to a condition of servitude, no Englishman was considered sufficiently noble to be worthy of the hand of a Norman woman. The few men of Saxon race who, by dint of flattery and subservience, succeeded in gaining the favour of the Norman princes, and in retaining possession of wealth and power, bore no proportion to the mass of their countrymen, who were reduced to slavery. Nor can it be supposed that the character of such men would prompt them to exertions in favour of their less fortunate kinsmen.

Henry II., however, was fully aware of the support which the Norman dynasty would receive from the intermixture of the two races. He encouraged the popular feeling with regard to his Saxon birth, and evinced no displeasure when the English monks, in describing his genealogy, avoided all allusion to his descent on the father's side. "Thou art a son," they said, "of the most glorious Empress Matilda, whose mother was Matilda, daughter of Margaret, Queen of Scotland, whose father was Edward, son of King Edmund Ironside, who was great grandson of the noble King Alfred." Predictions also were discovered, or invented, tending to raise still further the hopes of the people in the prosperity which would attend the new reign - hopes not destined to be realised. One of these prophecies, couched in the allegorical form in which such dark sayings were usually put forth, was attributed to King Edward the Confessor on his death-bed. That such stories produced their effect upon the minds of men may serve to show the superstitious tendencies of the age. It is related that one of the old chroniclers, in his attempt to reconcile the two races, reproduced a statement copied from a writer still more ancient, to the effect that William the Conqueror was himself descended from Edmund Ironside. "Edmund," said the chronicle, "had, in addition to his two sons, an only daughter, who was banished the country for her licentious conduct, and whose beauty having attracted the attention of Duke Robert of Normandy, she became his mistress, and gave birth to William, surnamed the Bastard."

It was evident that the people had every desire to separate Henry from that hatred which they still cherished towards the Norman race; and they designated him as the corner-stone which was to unite the two walls of the state. On the other hand, the Norman nobles saw their king in his true character as the descendant of the Conqueror, and they knew that their own position was secure in the possession of wealth, power, and civil privileges.

When Henry landed in England, attended by a splendid escort, the people flocked to meet him, and tendered their congratulations. The cavalcade entered the royal city of Winchester amidst the acclamations of the crowd, the Queen Eleanor riding at the king's side. Having received the homage of the barons, the royal party proceeded to London, and on the 19th of December the coronation took place at Westminster.

The first act of the new king was to assemble a council, at which a royal decree was issued, promising to the people those rights which they had enjoyed under the reign of Henry I., and the laws which that king had restored. Stephen was declared to have been a usurper, and all the institutions originated by him were at once abolished. Measures were taken to suppress the practice of false coining, which had become very common during the late reign; and the general currency having deteriorated, a new coinage was issued of standard weight and purity.

The Brabancons and other foreign mercenaries who had become established in England during the civil war, had in many cases obtained possession of the castles and domains of the Norman adherents of Matilda, and had been confirmed in their titles by Stephen. The Norman nobles found themselves driven out, and their mansions fortified against them in the same manner that they themselves had seized the dwellings of the Saxons. When, therefore, the Brabancons and the Flemings were expelled by Henry, the whole of the Anglo-Normans experienced great exultation. "We saw them," says a contemporary writer, "re-cross the sea, called back from the camp to the field, and from the sword to the plough; and those who had been lords were compelled to return to their old condition of serfs." (Rud. de Diceto.) The Normans who thus made a jest of the humble origin of the Flemings, forgot that their own fathers had quitted occupations of a similar kind to follow the fortunes of the Conqueror not a hundred years before. The men of the dominant race, who had acquired titles and estates in England, had driven from their minds all recollection of their former condition, and of the means by which their present eminence was obtained, although few of them could bear a favourable comparison in these respects with the later usurpers whom they reviled. The Saxons, however, did not forget the humble origin of their oppressors, and they were accustomed to say of an arrogant earl or bishop of Norman origin, "He torments and goads us in the same manner that his grandfather used to beat the oxen at the plough." (Roger of Hoveden.)

The grants of land which had been made during the reign of Stephen, had impoverished the state to such an extent that the revenues were inadequate to the support of the crown. Various gifts also had been made during the brief reign of Matilda, who found it necessary to reward her followers in the same manner as had been done by Stephen. Soon after the truce between Henry and the late king, a treaty had been signed at Winchester, according to which Stephen agreed to resume possession of the royal domains, which had been given to the nobles or taken by them forcibly; the only exceptions being grants of land to the Church and to Prince William, the surviving son of the king. The provisions of this treaty had, however, not been carried out; and Henry, who had pressing need of money, and, at the same time, was determined to curb the growing power of the barons, called a council, and demanded the right to resume the domains of the crown, The council, on receiving the representations made to them of the king's necessities, gave their consent to the measure, and Henry placed himself at the head of a considerable force, for the purpose of expelling those barons who might refuse obedience to the order of the council. In this manner he passed through the country, reducing the fortresses one by one, and, as fast as they came into his hands, causing them to be levelled with the ground. The castle of Bridgenorth, which was in the possession of Hugh de Mortimer, was stoutly defended by that chieftain; and during the siege, which lasted for some weeks, the king's life was saved by the self-devotion of one of his vassals. Henry was directing the attack in person, and had incautiously ventured under the castle walls, when an archer was observed taking aim at him. Hubert de St. Clair, one of his followers, immediately threw himself before the king, and received the arrow in his own breast. Henry supported him in his arms, and St. Clair in a few moments expired, entreating the king's protection for his only daughter, a child of tender years. The charge was accepted, and in after years was honourably fulfilled.

After considerable labour and many delays, Henry fully accomplished his designs. He destroyed the castles of Henry of Winchester, the brother of Stephen, who was compelled to quit the country. Other powerful chiefs, including the Earls of Albemarle and Nottingham, were also deprived of their estates; and the King of Scotland resigned Ms territories in the north of England in return for the earldom of Huntingdon, which was conferred upon him by Henry. It is related that more than 1,000 castles and strongholds, many of which were in the hands of men who grievously oppressed the people, or of licentious soldiers, who lived by plunder, were destroyed in the course of this expedition. This act alone must have been of incalculable benefit to the country, and justified, to some extent, the expectations which had been formed from the character of the new monarch.

a.d. 1156. - Geoffrey Plantagenet, the brother of Henry, having called upon him to fulfil the oath which he had taken over the dead body of their father, to relinquish the earldom of Anjou, received a refusal. It is stated that Henry had been absolved from his oath by the Pope -, but whether this be so or not, he had no intention of giving up any part of his vast possessions. Geoffrey, naturally indignant -at being deprived of his right, and supported by the court of France, declared war against his brother, and obtained possession of several fortresses.

Henry crossed the Channel with a considerable force, and having done homage to the French king, persuaded him to resign the cause of Geoffrey. The English army, composed of men of Saxon descent, rejoiced at the opportunity of indulging in their long-desired vengeance against the Normans; and they engaged in the war with so much vigour and success, that the cause of Geoffrey rapidly lost. ground, and he was compelled to sue for terms of peace. A treaty was concluded, by which the younger brother resigned all claim to his lands and the title of the Earl of Anjou, in return for a pension of 1,000 English or 2,000 Angevin pounds. In the following year (1157) he was elected to the government of Nantes.

Having reduced his brother to submission, Henry made a progress through his Continental provinces, attended by a splendid retinue, and was received everywhere with acclamations. Henry surrounded himself with the pomp and magnificence of royalty, in a manner which had never before been witnessed in his dominions, and which was equalled by no other monarch of his time.

a.d. 1157. - Having returned to England, the king marched an army into Flintshire for the purpose of reducing the Welsh, who still fought bravely for independence, to permanent submission. No opposition was made to his advance until he reached the mountainous district about Coleshill Forest. Here the English troops were suddenly attacked by a large force, while passing through a narrow defile, where it was impossible to form in order of defence. The slaughter was very great. Several wealthy Normal; nobles and knights of fame were dragged from their horses, and put to the sword; the Earl of Essex, the royal standard-bearer, threw down the standard, and took to flight. Had the king not displayed those military talents which were hereditary in the family of the Conqueror, he would probably have shared the fate of his nobles, and the whole army would have been lost. Henry, however, drew his sword, and rushing into the midst of his flying troops, forced them to turn upon their assailants. Ultimately he fought his way through the pass, and collected his forces together in the open country. Owen Gwynned, a chief of the mountaineers, attempted to decoy him once more among the mountains, but Henry took his way to the sea-coast, and passed along the shore, building castles wherever an opportunity presented itself, and clearing portions of the country from the dense forests with which it was covered.

After a campaign of a few months, the Welsh gave in their submission to the king, and did homage for their territory. On the departure of the invaders, however, the mountaineers resumed their former attitude of hostility, and made incursions in the surrounding country, at intervals, for many years afterwards. In consequence of his flight at the battle of Coleshill, the Earl of Essex was publicly accused of treason and cowardice by Robert de Montfort. The question was referred to a trial by arms, or a duel between the accuser and accused, in the presence of the king and his court. The Earl of Essex was defeated in the combat; but the king, instead of sentencing him to death, as was customary in such cases, contented himself with seizing the estates of Essex, and condemning him to pass the rest of his life as a monk in Reading Abbey.

Geoffrey Plantagenet did not live long to enjoy the dignity of his new government of Nantes. At the time of his election, Lower Brittany included men of two distinct races, one of which spoke the Celtic or Armorican language, and the other the Roman language, which has been already described as forming, in the twelfth century, the common language of France and Normandy. The latter people formed the majority of the dwellers in the towns, and the city of Nantes, among others, was inhabited by them exclusively. The two races entertained an inveterate hostility towards each other, and, on the election of Geoffrey, the people of Nantes maintained a government altogether distinct from that of the Armorican lords. On the death of Geoffrey (a.d. 1158) the city fell under the authority of Conan, the hereditary Count of Brittany, who also possessed estates in Yorkshire, with the title of Earl of Richmond. Henry then set up a claim to the free city of Nantes, as a portion of the inheritance to which, as the heir of his brother, he was entitled, Henry was actuated by the prospect of getting possession of the whole of Brittany, and affecting to regard Duke Conan as a usurper, confiscated his estate and title of Richmond. Then crossing the Channel with a large army, the king appeared before the walls of Nantes, and compelled the citizens to expel Conan, and to pay allegiance to himself. Henry then garrisoned the town with a body of his troops, and took possession of the rest of the country between the Loire and the Vilaine.

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Pictures for Accession of Henry II

Statue of Henry II
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Great Seal of Henry II
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Silver Penny, Henry II
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Henry II
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Entry of Henry and Eleanor into Winchester
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