Chapter Excerpt

French Kings, 1060–1422

House of Capet

House of Valois


Who were the Plantagenets? The name was not used by any of the characters in this book to describe themselves, with the exception of one: Geoffrey count of Anjou, a handsome, belligerent redheaded young man born in 1113, who wore a sprig of yellow broom blossom in his hat and decorated his shield with lions. It was from the Latin name (Planta genista) of the broom that the name Plantagenet derived, while lions passant guardant became the heraldic symbol of English kingship, carried before vast armies from the chilly Lowlands of Scotland to the dusty plains of the Middle East. There is some irony here: Geoffrey never visited England, took scant direct interest in the affairs of the realm, and died in 1151, three years before his eldest son inherited the English Crown.

Nevertheless, Plantagenet is a powerful name. The kings who descended from Geoffrey ruled England for more than two centuries, beginning with Henry II, who inherited the Crown in 1154, and ending with Richard II, who was relieved of it by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke in 1399. They were the longest reigning English royal dynasty, and during their times were founded some of the most basic elements of what we today know as England. The realm’s borders were established, as were its relationships with its neighbors—principally Scotland, Wales, France, and Ireland, but also the Low Countries, the papacy, and the Iberian states that eventually became Spain. Principles of law and institutions of government that have endured to this day were created in their essential forms—some deliberately, others either by accident or under duress. A rich mythology of national history and legend was concocted, and the cults of two national saints—Edward the Confessor and St. George—were established. The English tongue rose from an uncultured, rather coarse local dialect to become the language of parliamentary debate and poetic composition. Great castles, palaces, cathedrals, and monuments were raised; many of them still stand as testament to the genius of the men who conceived them, built them, and defended them against attack. Heroes were born, died, and became legends; so too were villains whose names still echo through the pages of history. (Some of those villains wore the crown.) Several of the most famous and dramatic battles in European history were fought, at Bouvines and Bannockburn, Sluys and Winchelsea, Crécy and Poitiers. Military tactics were revolutionized between a Norman age, in which warfare was the art of siegecraft, and the dawn of the fifteenth century, during which pitched battles were commonplace and the English, with their brave men-at-arms and deadly mounted archers, were the scourge of Europe. By the end of the Plantagenet years, the English had begun to explore the art of war on the open seas. Naval tactics lagged some way behind tactics in the field, but by the middle of the fourteenth century something resembling an English navy could be deployed to protect the coasts and attack enemy shipping. It is undeniable that during the Plantagenet years many acts of savagery, butchery, cruelty, and stupidity were committed, but by 1399, where this book ends, the chilly island realm that had been conquered by William, the bastard of Normandy, in 1066 had been transformed into one of the most sophisticated and important kingdoms in Christendom. At its heart lay the power and prestige of the royal family.

That is the process described in this book, but this is also a book written to entertain. It is a narrative history, and it tells some of the great stories of England. They include the civil war between Stephen and Matilda; the murder of Thomas Becket by Henry II’s knights; the Great War of 1173–1174; Richard I’s wars against Saladin on the Third Crusade; the Barons’ War against King John and the ratification of the Magna Carta; Henry III’s hapless attempts to deal with the barons of a later age, including his brother-in-law and nemesis Simon de Montfort; Edward I’s campaigns in Wales and Scotland; Edward II’s peculiar romance with Piers Gaveston and his dismal abdication in 1327; Edward III’s provocation of the Hundred Years War, in which he fought alongside his son the Black Prince and captured the king of France, and the subsequent institution of the Order of the Garter to celebrate England’s new martial supremacy; the scourge of the Black Death; Richard II’s heroism against Wat Tyler’s rebels during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, which was followed by Richard’s tyranny and his final fall. These stories are exciting in their own right; they are also part of a historical canon that still, even in the cultural chaos of the twenty-first century, defines England as a nation and as a people. The Plantagenet kings did not just invent England as a political, administrative, and military entity. They also helped invent the idea of England, an idea that has as much importance today as it ever had before.

This is a long book, and it could have been longer still. For ease of reading I have divided the text into seven sections. Part I, “Age of Shipwreck,” illustrates the dismal state to which England had sunk by the end of its period of Norman rule, which began under William the Conqueror and continued during the reigns of two of his sons, William Rufus and Henry I. After the death of the latter, a vicious and paralyzing civil war engulfed England and Normandy. It was fought between rival claimants, the Conqueror’s grandson King Stephen and his granddaughter Empress Matilda, and it took nearly two decades to resolve it in favor of the latter. During that time England was effectively partitioned between two courts and two competing governments, leaving public authority splintered and the countryside a smoldering ruin, infested with mercenaries. Only with the accession of Matilda’s son—her eldest child by Geoffrey Plantagenet, a disheveled, quick-tempered, but brilliant boy known as Henry FitzEmpress—was the realm reunited and restored to good governance. Henry FitzEmpress became Henry II, and through a combination of some good fortune, immense personal energy, and a great deal of military capability and hardheaded purpose, Henry set about establishing himself, and by association the English Crown, as the master of a patchwork of territories reaching from the borders of Scotland to the foothills of the Pyrenees.

The story of Henry II’s rule over his vast dominions and their gradual, if unintended, coherence into a form of empire is the subject of Part II, “Age of Empire.” It charts Henry’s astonishing conquests, his catastrophic dispute with his onetime best friend Thomas Becket, and the king’s struggles with his feckless children and extraordinary wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, which some contemporaries believed were divine punishment for Becket’s death. “Age of Empire” also explores Henry’s revolutionary reforms of English law, justice, and bureaucracy, reforms that gave England legal processes and principles of government that endured for centuries.

Despite the feats and achievements of his astonishing reign, Henry II is one of the lesser-known Plantagenet kings. Not so his third son, Richard I, “the Lionheart,” who inherited the Plantagenet empire in 1189, during the white heat of Europe’s most enthusiastic crusading years. Richard, who spent a surprisingly small amount of time in England given the heroic status he achieved there within decades of his death, devoted his life to defending and expanding the horizons of Plantagenet power. This led him to conquests as far afield as Sicily, Cyprus, and the kingdom of Jerusalem during the Third Crusade, before he returned, via an expensive imprisonment in Germany, to fight for his inheritance against the French king Philip II, “Augustus.” “Age of Empire” ends in 1204, when Richard’s brother King John suffered a humiliating defeat to Philip, lost the duchy of Normandy, and disgraced his family’s military legacy in a reign that was to influence relations between England and France for almost 150 years.

The repercussions of John’s military failure are explored in Part III, “Age of Opposition.” After the loss of Normandy, the kings of England were forced to live permanently in England, a state of affairs that brought John rapidly into conflict with his barons, churchmen, and Celtic neighbors. “Age of Opposition” begins during the dark days of John’s reign, when military successes against Wales, Scotland, and Ireland were clouded by the unusual cruelty of a defective king. John’s use and misuse of the sophisticated system of government bequeathed to him by his father provoked one of the greatest constitutional crises in English history. In 1215 England collapsed into a long civil war, at the heart of which lay a question: How could a realm discipline a tyrannical king? It was a question that a failed peace treaty known as the Magna Carta sought unsuccessfully to answer. The Magna Carta expressed some important principles of English government, and the great charter subsequently became a rallying cry to opponents of the Crown during the reign of John’s son Henry III and the early career of his grandson Edward I. It was to the Magna Carta that all opponents of the Crown turned at moments of crisis for the rest of the thirteenth century. Chief among these opponents was a man called Simon de Montfort. Henry III’s and Edward’s wars with de Montfort eventually brought the “Age of Opposition” to a close.

Part IV begins in 1260, toward the end of the long period of intermittent civil war between Plantagenet kings and their barons. The royal hero of this time was Edward I, a tall and relentless king who was said to be so fierce that he once actually scared a man to death. Under Edward’s belligerent leadership, the English were finally induced to cease fighting one another and turn their attentions on their neighbors Scotland and Wales. Edward I’s brutal attempts to become the master not only of England but also of the whole of Britain are the subject of “Age of Arthur.” The popularity of Arthurian tales and relic hunting increased as a new mythology of English kingship was explored. Edward cast himself as the inheritor of Arthur (originally a legendary Welsh king), who sought to reunite the British Isles and usher in a great new age of royal rule. Despite flurries of outrage from his barons, who began to organize political opposition through the nascent political body known as parliament, Edward very nearly succeeded in his goals, and his influence over England’s relations with Scotland and Wales has never entirely waned.

Edward I was undoubtedly one of the great, if not one of the more personally endearing, Plantagenets. His son Edward II was the worst of them on every score. In Part V, “Age of Violence,” this book examines the desperate tale of a king who failed completely to comprehend any of the basic obligations of kingship and whose reign dissolved into a ghastly farce of failure in foreign policy, complete isolation of the political community, and murderous civil war. Edward’s disastrous relationships with his favorites Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser the Younger wreaked havoc on English politics, as did the brutish behavior of Edward’s cousin Thomas earl of Lancaster, who waged uncompromising war on the king until he was executed in 1322. Through Lancaster’s belligerence and Edward’s inadequacy, kingship was debased, degraded, and finally attacked by the king’s own subjects; the pages of English history between 1307 and 1330 are stained with blood. Part V aims to explain how this came to be so and how the bloodshed was eventually brought to an end.

The greatest of all the Plantagenet kings was Edward III, who inherited the throne as a teenage puppet king under his mother and her lover Roger Mortimer. He soon shook off their influence, and the next three triumphant decades of his reign are described in Part VI, “Age of Glory.” Under the accomplished generalship of Edward, his son the Black Prince, and his cousin Henry Grosmont, England pulverized France and Scotland (as well as other enemies, including Castile) in the opening phases of the Hundred Years War. Victories on land at Halidon Hill (1333), Crécy (1346), Calais (1347), Poitiers (1356), and Nájera (1367) established the English war machine, built around the power of the deadly longbow, as Europe’s fiercest. Success at sea at Sluys (1340) and Winchelsea (1350) also gave the Plantagenets confidence in the uncertain arena of warfare on water. Edward and his sons deliberately encouraged a national mythology that interwove Arthurian legend, a new cult of St. George, and a revival of the code of knightly chivalry in the Order of the Garter. They created a culture that bonded England’s aristocracy together in the common purpose of war. By 1360 Plantagenet kingship had reached its apotheosis. Political harmony at home was matched by dominance abroad. A new period of greatness beckoned.

Then, just as suddenly as it had arrived, English preeminence dissolved. Part VII charts just how rapidly fortune’s wheel, a favorite medieval metaphor for the vicissitudes of life, could turn. After 1360 Edward’s reign began to decay, and by the accession of his grandson Richard II in 1377 a crisis of rule had begun to emerge. Richard inherited many very serious problems. The Black Death, which ravaged Europe’s population in wave after wave of pestilence from the middle of the fourteenth century, had turned England’s economic order upside down. Divisions among the old king’s sons led to a fractured foreign policy, while France, revived under Charles V and Charles VI, began to push the English back once more toward the Channel. But if Richard was dealt a bad hand, he played it diabolically. Plantagenet kingship and the royal court imported trappings of magnificence; the first great medieval English writers—Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and William Langland—set to work. But Richard was a suspicious, greedy, violent, and spiteful king, who alienated some of the greatest men in his kingdom. By 1399 the realm had tired of him, and he was deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke.

That is where this book ends. It would be perfectly possible, in theory, to have carried on. Direct descendants of Edward III continued to rule England until 1485, when Henry Tudor took the throne from Richard III at Bosworth. Indeed, the name Plantagenet first came into royal use during the Wars of the Roses, when in 1460 the Parliament Rolls record “Richard Plantaginet, commonly called Duc of York,” claiming to be king of England. Thereafter Edward IV and Richard III awarded the surname to some of their illegitimate children—a nod to royalty outside the official family tree, whose use denoted a connection to an ancient and legendary royal bloodline.

I have defined England’s Plantagenet years as being between the dates 1154 and 1400 for three reasons.

First, this was the only period of the English Middle Ages in which the Crown passed with general certainty from one generation to the next without any serious succession disputes or wars of dynastic legitimacy. With the exceptions of Arthur of Brittany and Prince Louis of France, who made hopeful but ultimately fruitless claims at the beginning and end of King John’s torrid reign, there were no rival claimants to the English Crown during these years. The same cannot be said either for the Norman period that ended with King Stephen’s reign or for the century following Richard II’s deposition, when the Plantagenet dynasty split into its two cadet branches of Lancaster and York.

Second, I have chosen to write about the period 1154–1399 simply because it seems to me that this is one of the most exciting, compelling periods in the Middle Ages, during which some of the greatest episodes in English history took place. And third, I have limited this story to these years for reasons of practicality. Though I look forward to taking the story of the Plantagenets through to the grisly death of the dynasty under Henry Tudor, it was not possible to do so in a single volume light enough to read in bed. A second book will then complete the story.

This book has been a pleasure to write. I hope it is a pleasure to read too. A number of people have helped me write it. Nothing would have been possible without my peerless agent, Georgina Capel. I also want to thank Dr. Helen Castor for her extraordinary generosity, wisdom, and encouragement as we discussed almost every aspect of the book. Ben Wilson and Dr. Sam Willis helped with naval matters. Richard Partington offered useful advice about Edward III. Walter Donohue, Paul Wilson, and Toby Wiseman gave invaluable comments on the manuscript at different stages. Any errors are mine, of course. My editor, Joy de Menil, at Viking has been wonderfully enthusiastic about this book since the moment she first read it and has worked on the text with great care and skill. Likewise, my British editor at Harper Press, Arabella Pike, was patient and piercing with her observations and notes on the text. The staff at the British Library, London Library, National Archives, London Metropolitan Archives, and Guildhall Library have been exceptionally kind, as have the keepers, guides, and staff at the innumerable castles, cathedrals, and battlefields I have visited in the course of researching this journey through three centuries of European history.

Above all, however, I should like to thank Jo, Violet, and Ivy Jones, who have put up with my incessant scribbling and to whom it is only reasonable that this book is dedicated.

Dan Jones


It was as if Christ and his saints were asleep.

—The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The White Ship

The prince was drunk. So too were the crew and passengers of the ship he had borrowed. On the evening of November 25, 1120, nearly two hundred young and beautiful members of England’s and Normandy’s elite families were enjoying themselves aboard a magnificent white longship that bobbed gently to the hum of laughter in a crowded harbor at Barfleur, in Normandy. A seventy-mile voyage lay ahead across the choppy late-autumn waters of the Channel, but with the ship moored at the edge of the busy port town, barrels of wine were rolled aboard, and all were invited to indulge.

The prince was William the Aetheling. He was the only legitimate son of Henry I, king of England and duke of Normandy, and Matilda of Scotland, the literate, capable queen descended from the line of Wessex kings who had ruled England before the Norman Conquest. His first name, William, was in honor of his grandfather William the Conqueror. His sobriquet, Aetheling, was a traditional Anglo-Saxon title for the heir to the throne. William was a privileged, sociable young man, who conformed to the time-honored stereotype of the adored, spoiled eldest son. One Norman chronicler observed him “dressed in silken garments stitched with gold, surrounded by a crowd of household attendants and guards, and gleaming in an almost heavenly glory.” He was pandered to on all sides with “excessive reverence” and was therefore prone to fits of “immoderate arrogance.”

William was surrounded by a large group of other noble youths. They included his half brother and half sister Richard of Lincoln and Matilda countess of Perche, both bastard children from a brood of twenty-four fathered by the remarkably virile King Henry; William’s cousin Stephen of Blois, who was also a grandson of William the Conqueror; Richard, the twenty-six-year-old earl of Chester, and his wife, Maud; Geoffrey Ridel, an English judge; the prince’s tutor, Othver; and numerous other cousins, friends, and royal officials. Together they made up a golden generation of the Anglo-Norman nobility. It was only right that they traveled in style.

The White Ship belonged to Thomas Fitzstephen, whose grandfather Airard had contributed a longship to William the Conqueror’s invasion fleet. Fitzstephen had petitioned the king for the honor of carrying the royal party safely back from Barfleur to the south coast of England. Henry had honored him with the passage of the prince’s party, but with this duty came a warning: “I entrust to you my sons William and Richard, whom I love as my own life.”

William was a precious charge indeed. He was seventeen years old and already a rich and successful young man. He had been married in 1119 to Matilda, daughter of Fulk V, count of Anjou and future king of Jerusalem. It was a union designed to overturn generations of animosity between the Normans and Angevins (as the natives of Anjou, a small but important province on the lower Loire, were known). Following the wedding, William had accompanied his father around Normandy for a year, learning the art of kingship as Henry thrashed out what the chronicler William of Malmesbury described as “a brilliant and carefully concerted peace” with Louis VI, “the Fat,” the sly, porcine king of France. It was intended as an education in the highest arts of kingship, and it had been deemed effective. William had lately been described as rex designatus (king-designate) in official documents, marking his graduation toward the position of co-king alongside his father.

The highest point of William’s young life had come just a few weeks earlier, when he had knelt before the corpulent Louis to pay homage as the new duke of Normandy. This semisacred ceremony acknowledged the fact that Henry had turned over the dukedom to his son. It recognized William as one of Europe’s leading political figures and marked the end of his journey to manhood. A new wife, a new duchy, and the unstoppable ascent to kingship before him: these were good reasons to celebrate, and that was precisely what William was doing. As the thin November afternoon gave way to a clear, chilly night, the White Ship stayed moored in Barfleur, and the wine flowed freely.

The White Ship was a large vessel, capable of carrying several hundred passengers, along with a crew of fifty and a cargo of treasure. The Norman historian Orderic Vitalis called it “excellently fitted out and ready for royal service.” It was long and deep, decorated with ornate carvings at prow and stern and driven by a large central mast and square sail, with oar holes along both sides. The rudder, or “steer-board,” was on the right-hand side of the vessel rather than in the center, so the onus on the captain was to be well aware of local maritime geography; steering was blind to the port side.

A fair wind was blowing up from the south, and it promised a rapid crossing to England. The crew and passengers bade the king’s vessel farewell sometime in the evening. They were expected to follow shortly behind, but the drinking on board the White Ship was entertaining enough to keep them anchored long past dark. When priests arrived to bless the vessel with holy water before her departure, they were waved away with jeers and spirited laughter.

As the party ran on, a certain amount of bragging began. The White Ship contained little luggage and was equipped with fifty oarsmen. The inebriated captain boasted that his ship, with square sail billowing and oars pulling hard, was so fast that even with the disadvantage of having conceded a head start to King Henry’s ship, they could still be in England before the king.

A few on board started to worry that sailing at high speed with a well-lubricated crew was not the safest way to travel to England, and it was with the excuse of a stomach upset that William’s cousin Stephen of Blois excused himself from the party. He left the White Ship to find another vessel to take him home. Dismayed at the wild and headstrong behavior of the royal party and crew, a couple of others joined him. But despite the queasy defectors, the drunken sailors eventually saw their way to preparing the ship for departure. Around midnight on a clear night lit by a new moon, the White Ship weighed anchor and set off for England. “She [flew] swifter than the winged arrow, sweeping the rippling surface of the deep,” wrote William of Malmesbury. But the ship did not fly far.

Whether it was the effects of the celebrations on board, a simple navigational error, or the wrath of the Almighty at seeing his holy water declined, within minutes of leaving shore the White Ship crashed into a sharp rocky outcrop, which is still visible today, at the mouth of the harbor. The collision punched a fatal hole in the wooden prow of the ship. The impact threw splintered timber into the sea. Freezing water began to pour in. The immediate priority of all on board was to save William. As the crew attempted to bail water out of the White Ship, a lifeboat was put over the side. William clambered aboard together with a few companions and oarsmen to return him to the safety of Barfleur. It must have been a terrifying scene: the roar of a drunken crew thrashing to bail out the stricken vessel, combining with the screams of passengers hurled into the water by the violence of the impact. The fine clothes of many of the noble men and women would have grown unmanageably heavy when soaked with seawater, making it impossible to swim for safety or even to tread water. The waves echoed with the cries of the drowning.

As his tiny boat turned for the harbor, William picked out among the panicked voices the screams of his elder half sister Matilda. She was crying for her life, certain to drown in the cold and the blackness. The thought was more than William could bear. He commanded the men on his skiff to turn back and rescue her.

It was a fatal decision. The countess was not drowning alone. As the lifeboat approached her, it was spotted by other passengers who were floundering in the icy waters. There was a mass scramble to clamber to safety aboard; the result was that the skiff too capsized and sank. Matilda was not saved, and neither now was William the Aetheling, duke of Normandy and king-designate of England. As the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon put it, “instead of wearing a crown of gold, his head was broken open by the rocks of the sea.”

Only one man survived the wreck of the White Ship, a butcher from Rouen who had boarded the ship at Barfleur to collect payment for debts and been carried off to sea by the revelers. When the ship went down, he wrapped himself in ram skins for warmth and clung to wrecked timber during the night. He staggered, drenched, back to shore in the morning to tell his story. Later on the few bodies that were ever recovered began to wash up with the tide.

King Henry’s ship, captained by sober men and sailed with care and attention, reached his kingdom unscathed, and the king and his household busied themselves preparing for the Christmas celebrations. When the awful word of the catastrophe in Barfleur reached the court, it was greeted with dumbstruck horror. Henry was kept in ignorance at first. Magnates and officials alike were terrified at the thought of telling the king that three of his children, including his beloved heir, were what William of Malmesbury called “food for the monsters of the deep.” Eventually a small boy was sent to Henry to deliver the news; he threw himself before the king’s feet and wept as he recounted the tragic news. According to Orderic Vitalis, Henry “fell to the ground, overcome with anguish.” It was said that he never smiled again.

The sinking of the White Ship was not just a personal tragedy for Henry I. It was a political catastrophe for the Norman dynasty. In the words of Henry of Huntingdon, William’s “certain hope of reigning in the future was greater than his father’s actual possession of the kingdom.” Through William the Aetheling’s marriage, Normandy had been brought to peace with Anjou. Through his homage to Louis VI, the whole Anglo-Norman realm was at peace with France. All of Henry’s plans and efforts to secure his lands and legacy had rested on the survival of his son. Now it was all in vain.

The death of William the Aetheling and the fortuitous survival of his cousin Stephen of Blois would come to throw the whole of Western European politics into disarray for three decades.

Hunt for an Heir

Henry I was, as one contemporary chronicler put it, “the man against whom no one could prevail except God himself.” The fourth son of William the Conqueror, he enjoyed an exceptionally long, peaceful, and prosperous reign of thirty-five years, in which royal authority in England reached new heights. After his father’s death in 1087, England and Normandy had been split apart. Henry ruthlessly reunited them. After snatching the English Crown following his brother William Rufus’s death in 1100, he defeated another elder brother, Robert Curthose, at the battle of Tinchebrai in 1106 to seize control of Normandy and thereafter kept Robert imprisoned for nearly three decades at Cardiff Castle. Henry encouraged the intermingling of an Anglo-Norman aristocracy, whose culture and landholdings straddled the Channel. Meanwhile, in Queen Matilda he chose a wife who would bring the Norman and Saxon bloodlines together, to heal the wounds of the Conquest.

Henry was a great lawgiver and administrator. He created a sophisticated system of Anglo-Norman government, a vast improvement on anything known under the rule of his father, William the Conqueror, or his brother William Rufus. He granted the English barons a charter of liberties, which celebrated the laws of the last Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, guaranteed baronial rights, and set out some limits to royal power. He sent royal judges into the English shires on large judicial circuits, investigating crimes, abuses, and corruption and strengthening the Crown’s role in local government. He reformed the royal treasury, setting up an exchequer to make accounts twice a year and drawing together the accounting systems of England and Normandy under a single treasurer. And he did much to secure Normandy’s position on the Continent. Taken together, Henry’s government was one of the most sophisticated bureaucratic machines in Europe since the Roman era. “In his time,” said The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “no man dared do wrong against another; he made peace for man and beast.” Yet for all of King Henry I’s great triumphs, he failed in one vital task: he never managed to secure the future.

After William the Aetheling’s tragic death, Henry I tried hard to father another legitimate son on whom he could settle his lands and titles. Queen Matilda had died in 1118, so in 1121 he married a nubile teenager, Adeliza of Louvain. Surprisingly for a man who had sired twenty-two bastard children, he was unable to impregnate his new wife. That left Henry with one, rather desperate option. Given that he could not groom as king any of his bastard sons (such as the extremely capable eldest, Robert earl of Gloucester), he decided that he would appoint as his heir his only other legitimate child, the empress Matilda.

When her younger brother died on the White Ship, Matilda was eighteen years old. She had been living in Germany for a decade, having been sent at the age of eight to marry Henry V, king of the Germans and Holy Roman Emperor, whose power reached from Germany to Tuscany. She had grown up in utmost splendor in the cities and palaces of central Europe, where she tasted the very heights of political power. Matilda served as regent when her husband was absent, stretched constantly between his large domains. She had twice worn her imperial crown at great ceremonial occasions in Rome, and as one of the most important women in Europe she kept the company of the most famous and influential figures of her age.

In 1125, however, the emperor died unexpectedly. Matilda had borne no children, so her political role in Germany was cut short. Henry I brought her straight back to England and told her of his new plan for the kingdom. She arrived with her title of empress and her favorite precious relic, the preserved hand of St. James, a souvenir from the imperial chapel. At the Christmas court of 1126 Matilda sat beside her father as his loyal barons came to swear an oath of allegiance to her as heir to the kingdom and duchy. This was an extraordinary measure, and both Henry and his barons realized it. The precedents for female rule in the twelfth century were very weak. Kingship was the role of a soldier, a judge, and a lawgiver. All these roles in the Middle Ages were inescapably male. A king asked a lot when he extracted from his people a promise that they would consent to be ruled by his daughter. Unfortunately, Henry had little other choice.

It was clear that Matilda would need a new husband to bolster her claim to succession. As he had with William the Aetheling, Henry now sought an alliance with the counts of Anjou. He contacted Fulk V and negotiated a marriage alliance between Matilda and Fulk’s eldest son, Geoffrey. On June 17, 1128, the couple was married in the Norman-Angevin border town of Le Mans. The empress Matilda was twenty-six years old; her groom was fifteen. John of Marmoutier recorded that the marriage was celebrated “for three weeks without a break, and when it was over no one left without a gift.”

On his wedding day Geoffrey of Anjou was a tall, bumptious teenager with ginger hair, a seemingly inexhaustible energy, and a flair for showmanship. His fair-skinned good looks earned him the sobriquet Le Bel. Tradition also has it that he liked to wear a sprig of bright yellow broom blossom (Planta genista in Latin) in his hair, which earned him another nickname, Geoffrey Plantagenet. John of Marmoutier later described him as “admirable and likable . . . he excelled at arguing . . . [and was] unusually skilled at warfare.” A week before his marriage, he had been knighted by Henry I in Rouen. He was dressed in linen and purple, wearing double-mail armor with gold spurs, a shield covered in gold motifs of lions, and a sword reputedly forged by the mythical Norse blacksmith Wayland the Smith. As soon as the marriage was completed, Geoffrey became count of Anjou in his own right, as Fulk V resigned the title and left for the East, to become king of Jerusalem.

Despite all this, Matilda was underwhelmed. Geoffrey was eleven years her junior, and Normans saw Angevins as barbarians who murdered priests, desecrated churches, and had appalling table manners. A legend held that they were descended from Satan’s daughter Melusine, who had married an Angevin count of old. She had revealed herself as a devil when forced to witness the Mass, flown out of a church window, and disappeared forever, but her fiendish blood still bubbled in the veins of her descendants. If this was legend from the distant ages, there was evidence closer to hand that the Angevin bloodline was dangerous. Geoffrey’s great-grandfather Fulk III, “the Black,” was notorious for his violence. He was said to have had his first wife burned at the stake in her wedding dress on discovery of her adultery with a goatherd, and his reputation as a perverted rapist and plunderer stretched from the shores of the Atlantic to the Holy Land.

Notwithstanding this checkered ancestry, Geoffrey Plantagenet had seemed to Henry I a necessary husband for his imperial daughter. The couple did not get along, but that was hardly the point. They argued and separated for the first years of their marriage, then settled down under Henry I’s guidance and did their political duty. On March 5, 1133, at Le Mans, Matilda gave birth to their first son. The couple named him Henry, after the king whose Crown it was intended that he should inherit. The infant was baptized on Easter Saturday in Le Mans Cathedral and placed under the protection of St. Julian. But it would take more than a saint’s protection to provide for the child’s future. Within two years, everything that Henry I hoped for in his grandson would be cast into chaos and doubt.

The Shipwreck

In the last week of November 1135, Henry I and his entourage arrived at Lyons-la-Forêt in upper Normandy. The castle and the forest surrounding it had been a regular haunt of the Norman dukes for two centuries, and Henry arrived late on a Monday evening with the intention of enjoying himself the next day as his ancestors had, in the thrill of the hunt. Even at the age of sixty-eight the king remained vigorous and strong.

During the night he fell ill, and his condition worsened fast. By the end of the week it was apparent that the illness was extremely grave. According to a letter from the archbishop of Rouen, Henry “confessed his sins . . . beat his breast and set aside his animosities.” On Sunday, December 1, after three days of absolution, prayer, and almsgiving, the archbishop anointed Henry with holy oil, whereupon the king expired.

Although many chroniclers noted the piety with which Henry I died, one of them, Henry of Huntingdon, recorded some gruesome details of the king’s immediate afterlife. The royal corpse was “brought to Rouen, and there his entrails, brain and eyes were buried together.” Then “the body was cut all over with knives and copiously sprinkled with salt and wrapped in oxhides to stop the strong pervasive stench, which was already causing the deaths of those who watched over it. It even killed the man who had been hired for a great fee to cut off the head with an ax and extract the stinking brain, although he had wrapped his face in linen cloths.”

If this was the physical reality of Henry I’s death, the political fallout was far worse. For even as Henry’s embalmed corpse was transported to England for burial at Reading Abbey, a constitutional crisis that was to last for nearly two decades was brewing. This period is usually known as the Anarchy, but those who lived through it preferred to call it the Shipwreck. Henry’s failure to provide for an adult male successor left the Anglo-Norman realm contested. Three times since his daughter Matilda’s return from Germany—in 1126, 1131, and 1133—Henry I had caused his barons to swear that they would be loyal to her. But from the moment the old king died, his subjects began to abandon their promises.

In December 1135 Matilda’s cousin Stephen of Blois was in Boulogne, the seat of his wife’s family. As soon as he learned of his uncle’s death, he crossed directly to England and went straight to London, where he had himself proclaimed king. Then, on December 22, he went to Winchester, where he seized the royal treasury and had himself anointed by the archbishop of Canterbury. He moved quickly to secure the support of the Anglo-Norman magnates on both sides of the Channel. With little hesitation or delay, they threw themselves behind him. The empress Matilda, Geoffrey Plantagenet, and their young family were suddenly disinherited.

The speed with which the barons and bishops of England and Normandy abandoned Matilda’s claim speaks volumes about the nature of kingship in the twelfth century. Female rule had precedents—three decades earlier, Mathilde of Tuscany countess of Canossa had ruled in her own right in northern Italy—but they were scarce and unconvincing. Rumors flew around that Henry on his deathbed had absolved his barons from their oaths of allegiance to his daughter. They found willing ears. The prospect of being ruled by a woman was not an appealing one.

There was at that time a strong elective element to kingship. Without it, Henry I would never have been king. He had grabbed England and Normandy in 1100 and 1106 respectively, despite having an elder brother, Robert Curthose, with a superior claim in blood. Now history repeated itself. Stephen had no real claim under primogeniture to be king. For one thing, he had an elder brother, Theobald of Blois, whose blood claim was stronger than his. Yet as the son of William the Conqueror’s daughter Adela, he was a credible candidate. He had been raised at Henry I’s court with the king’s sons and held an exalted position among the rest of the Anglo-Norman barons. He had narrowly avoided death alongside William the Aetheling by abandoning the White Ship, claiming an attack of diarrhea before it left harbor, and since then he had been one of Henry’s favorites. He was a wealthy, powerful, charming, and courteous man in his early forties, and his wife Matilda’s county of Boulogne was important to the English wool trade. His brother Henry of Blois bishop of Winchester was a powerful voice in the English Church and commanded the support of many of his fellow bishops. But perhaps most important of all, Stephen pounced fast to claim the throne in a power vacuum. “There was no one else at hand who could take the king’s place and put an end to the great dangers threatening the kingdom,” wrote the anonymous author of the Gesta Stephani (The Acts of Stephen).

All this contrasted sharply with Matilda. The empress was pregnant with her third child in December 1135 (after Henry’s birth in 1133 a second son, Geoffrey, had been born in 1134; her third son, William, would be born in July 1136) and unable to move as swiftly as her cousin Stephen. Geoffrey, as an Angevin, was the object of much suspicion in Normandy and England, and Matilda’s reputation was apparently not much better. According to Henry of Huntingdon, the empress “was lifted up to an insufferable arrogance . . . and she alienated the hearts of almost everyone.” Although both her two sons—the two-year-old Henry and one-year-old Geoffrey—could claim more impressive royal blood than Stephen, there was little chance that a toddler would be acclaimed as a twelfth-century king simply by virtue of birthright. Matilda and Geoffrey had been engaged in a violent dispute with Henry I in the years before he died, as they attempted to claim the Norman border castles that the old king had promised as his daughter’s dowry. The most they could do now was move to claim the disputed fortresses and bide their time while Stephen cemented his unlikely rule.

Stephen did not find the practice of kingship as easy as its acquisition. He relied on a small group of friends for advice and assistance and failed to impose himself on barons who resisted his authority. He lacked Henry’s calculated ruthlessness and political intelligence and managed to alienate men who ought to have been his biggest supporters. Within three years Stephen’s rule on both sides of the Channel had been severely rocked. From 1136 Geoffrey Plantagenet began to wage a war of conquest from Normandy’s southern borders, which Stephen was ill placed to resist. All the king’s attention was focused on England, where he lost the support, in quick succession, of Matilda’s half brother Robert of Gloucester, the most powerful baron in the country; of his own brother Henry, the bishop of Winchester, whom he passed over for promotion to the see of Canterbury; and of Roger, the bishop of Salisbury, an experienced royal administrator whose followers and son were arrested in clear breach of Stephen’s promise at his coronation not to molest the Church or its bishops.

Stephen’s reign was, from the beginning, divisive. He was generous but not evenhanded in dispersing Henry I’s carefully accumulated treasure. He lavished favors on friends like the twins Waleran and Robert de Beaumont at the expense of powerful established barons like Ranulf earl of Chester. The destabilizing effects of his arbitrary rule were exacerbated by Stephen’s ill-advised attacks on the professional government Henry I had constructed. He dismissed a number of prominent career administrators and attempted to run England through highborn military men, appointed by virtue of their rank.

If all this was highly disruptive, it was encouraging to Matilda. In 1138 Matilda’s influential half brother Robert earl of Gloucester officially defected from Stephen’s side. The following year, as Geoffrey Plantagenet continued his assaults on Normandy, Matilda appealed her case to Rome at the Second Lateran Council and invaded England; she allied herself with Gloucester and set up headquarters and a nascent alternative government in Bristol. A civil war had begun.

Matilda attracted a small but significant coalition of disaffected barons, including Brian FitzCount and Miles of Gloucester. Both were marcher lords, whose territorial bases lay in the wild borderlands between England and Wales. Miles had been a powerful official in the West Country during Matilda’s father’s reign. The effect of their defection was to split England in two. Miles launched attacks on royalist strongholds across England that Stephen was unable to crush, allowing Matilda’s faction to grow in strength and confidence. Yet the empress was nowhere near powerful enough to defeat her cousin outright. The result was a prolonged period of war: each cousin claimed to be the rightful ruler of England, but neither could impress his authority over the whole realm.

In 1141 Matilda won her first significant victory. In late 1140 King Stephen had offended Ranulf earl of Chester by granting lands and castles that the latter coveted to his enemies. It had been enough to push him into armed opposition. Ranulf seized Lincoln Castle from a royal garrison, and in February 1141 Stephen was besieging the castle to attempt its recapture. Seizing his chance, Robert earl of Gloucester marched troops to Lincoln and attacked the royal army. In the pitched battle that followed, Stephen’s troops were routed and the king was captured.

This should have been Matilda’s moment. She assumed the novel title of “lady of the English” and attempted to arrange a coronation in London. Stephen’s brother Henry bishop of Winchester was by now a papal legate, and he threw his weight behind the empress. Many of England’s major barons, unwilling to save a regime of which they had long stood in doubt, abandoned the king and took to their estates. Yet the empress could not press home her advantage. She was opposed by spirited military defenses organized under Stephen’s wife, swiftly managed to fall out with the bishop of Winchester, and offended most of the magnates whom she encountered with her arrogance and haughtiness. As summer approached, the citizens of London rose against her when she refused to give the heavily taxed city any relief from the financial contributions she demanded to support her rule, and on June 24, 1141, they chased her out of the city. With her campaign now in disarray, Matilda tried to besiege Henry bishop of Winchester in his diocesan seat. In a disastrous battle, Robert earl of Gloucester was captured. In order to free her half brother, Matilda had no option but to arrange a prisoner swap. She released King Stephen. Her brief victory, which had lasted just under eight months, was undone.

By the fall of 1142 Matilda had been chased by Stephen’s forces all the way to Oxford, and by late November she was besieged in her castle, with hope draining away. Far away across the Channel her husband was pushing on with a highly successful conquest of Normandy. Robert earl of Gloucester failed to persuade him to divert from the task to come rescue his beleaguered wife. The best Geoffrey would do was send three hundred knights and their nine-year-old son Henry.

As Christmas approached, Matilda was growing desperate. Rather than wait for her husband’s knights, she placed her faith in her own resourcefulness. One snowy night she wrapped herself in a white cloak, slipped silently toward a postern door in the castle, crept out past the guards, and headed away toward the snowy fields. Her white camouflage, a ghostly cloak against the dark skyline, allowed her to trudge the eight miles or so to Abingdon without being captured. She walked the frozen landscape ready at any moment for the crunch of hooves in the snow to announce a search party sent to capture her. But it did not come. At Abingdon, she met with friends, who helped her on to the safety of the West Country. She was saved, and with her, the fight for the kingdom of England lived on.

This famous moment in the war was both providential for Matilda and disastrous for the realm of England. Now reinforced by fresh troops and encouraged by the near-miraculous escape of his half sister, Robert of Gloucester led the fight against Stephen’s rule. But once again the war lapsed into violent stalemate. Stephen held the Crown, but he remained a weak king who could not command the loyalty of his Anglo-Norman barons. Matilda was more powerful than ever, but after the debacle of 1141 she was discredited in too many eyes to have any hope of conquest in her own name. The only decisive action was taking place in Normandy, where Geoffrey Plantagenet was rapidly occupying a duchy that Stephen had visited only once during his whole reign. By 1144 Geoffrey had captured Rouen and been recognized as duke of Normandy, forcing those barons whose property bestrode the Channel into the impossible position of having to acknowledge two lords for the same estates.

Both England and, to a lesser degree, Normandy remained crippled by conflict. From 1142 England was firmly split between two courts—one under Stephen, nominally at Westminster and Winchester, and the other with Matilda, who ruled from Devizes in the southwest. The rule of law dissolved. With it went public order. The country, wrote the chronicler William of Newburgh, was “mutilated.” With no adequate king in the north, King David I of Scotland ruled Westmorland, Cumberland, and Northumberland. England, which under Henry I had been wealthy, well governed, and stoutly defended at its borders, had now become a patchwork of competing fiefdoms of authority and power. “It was as if,” wrote the author of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “Christ and his saints were asleep.”

Stephen and Matilda both saw themselves as the lawful successor of Henry I and set up official governments accordingly: they had their own mints, courts, systems of patronage, and diplomatic machinery. But there could not be two governments. Neither could be secure or guarantee that its writ would run; hence no subject could be fully confident in the rule of law. As in any state without a single, central source of undisputed authority, violent spoliation among the magnates exploded. Flemish mercenaries garrisoned castles and newly fortified houses the length and breadth of the country. Forced labor was exacted to help arm the countryside. General violence escalated as individual landholders turned to private defense of their property. The air ran dark with the smoke from burning crops, and people suffered intolerable misery at the hands of marauding foreign soldiers.

The chronicles from the time are full of records of the bleak days that accompanied the war. The author of the Gesta Stephani recorded one example: “[The king] set himself to lay waste that fair and delightful district, so full of good things, round Salisbury; they took and plundered everything they came upon, set fire to houses and churches, and, what was a more cruel and brutal sight, fired the crops that had been reaped and stacked all over the fields, consumed and brought to nothing everything edible they found. They raged with this bestial cruelty especially round Marlborough, they showed it very terribly round Devizes, and they had in mind to do the same to their adversaries all over England.”

Eventually, in 1148, Matilda left England. It may seem strange that she left a fight in which she had invested so much of her life, but after the decade she’d spent leading the Plantagenet cause, her work was done. Her children—Henry and his two younger brothers, Geoffrey and William—were growing up across the Channel. Matilda aimed to live out the remaining years of her life in comfortable retirement at the priory of Notre-Dame-du-Pré, a cell of the abbey of Bec at Quevilly, where across the Seine she could visit Rouen, the Norman capital that Orderic Vitalis described as a “fair city set among murmuring streams and smiling meadows . . . strongly encircled by walls and ramparts and battlements.” The city owed her much, for her grim efforts to distract King Stephen on the English front had allowed Geoffrey Plantagenet to capture it. Now she intended to enjoy the view.

But England was not forgotten. Her eldest son was approaching his sixteenth birthday. It was time for him to take up the struggle, time for Henry FitzEmpress to try his hand at conquest.


Henry FitzEmpress landed on the shores of Devon on April 13, 1149. It was his third visit to the fractured realm that he would have heard his mother tell him was his by birthright. He had seen the country in its bleakest hour in 1142, before Matilda’s great escape from the snowy wastes of Oxford, and had subsequently stayed under the tutelage of his uncle Robert earl of Gloucester as England settled into its vicious stalemate. Henry spent fifteen months studying in Bristol, meeting the famous astronomer, mathematician, and Scholastic philosopher Adelard of Bath, who dedicated to the young man a treatise on the astrolabe. Then, from 1144, for reasons as much of safety as of political pragmatism, Henry had returned to his father, to help him secure his position as duke of Normandy. Now, on the verge of manhood and burning with ambition, he was returning to England to claim his birthright.

Henry was a strange-looking young man who could switch in seconds from bluff good humor to fierce anger. From his father, he had inherited his auburn complexion and tireless energy; from his maternal grandfather, a powerful domineering streak and a nose for an opportunity. Gerald of Wales left a vivid description of Henry later in life: “[He] was a man of reddish, freckled complexion, with a large, round head, gray eyes that glowed fiercely and grew bloodshot in anger, a fiery countenance and a harsh, cracked voice. His neck was thrust forward slightly from his shoulders, his chest was broad and square, his arms strong and powerful. His body was stocky, with a pronounced tendency toward fatness, due to nature rather than self-indulgence—which he tempered with exercise. For in eating and drinking he was moderate and sparing.”

From the earliest age Henry was conspicuously brave, albeit rather reckless. When he made his second visit to England, in 1147, it had been not to study but to fight. Although he was only thirteen, he had managed to hire a small band of mercenaries to accompany him across the Channel, where he attempted to assist his mother’s war effort. The arrival of this wild teenager had briefly terrified England: rumors spread that he had come with thousands of troops and boundless treasure. The truth had been closer to farce: Henry the teenager had barely been able to afford to pay his hired soldiers, who deserted him within weeks of their arrival. (“Weakened by sloth and idleness, overcome by poverty and want, they abandoned the noble youth,” wrote William of Newburgh.) Stephen’s reaction to Henry’s teenage invasion was more amused than intimidated: he paid off Henry’s mercenaries and sent him packing back to Normandy.

That the thirteen-year-old Henry had had the gall to attempt a solo invasion of England, however poorly executed, is testament to the time he had spent at his father’s side on campaign in Normandy. Geoffrey Plantagenet had involved his son in government since at least 1144. Henry had seen how a long-term military campaign played out amid the complex, fractured politics of the French mainland. He knew that he was being groomed as duke of Normandy, and it may also have been suggested to him that he would be count of Anjou too. Henry spent hours on horseback following his father around Anjou and Normandy, learning to gallop at what would become legendary speed. (In later years his legs were bowed from the shape of the ever-present saddle.)

Twelfth-century France was divided into loose and shifting territories that owed little or no allegiance to any central authority, ruled across large swaths by noblemen who were little more than warlords. As he watched his tenacious and cunning father grind his way through the conquest of Normandy, Henry would have learned that political survival was a game of forestalling shifts of power, managing volatile relations between one’s friends and enemies, and appealing to the right allies at the right time in order to further one’s territorial objectives. In such a bewildering business, only the most devious and adept players survived.

In this game of feudal lordship, Henry knew that he had one huge advantage: he was the son of an empress, with a claim to the English throne. France contained many powerful dukes and counts, but there were only two kings: the king of England and the king of France. To be a major force on the Continent and to stand up to the new French king, Louis VII, who had succeeded to the throne in 1137, Henry knew that he must be more than just another powerful count or duke. He was “Henry, son of the daughter of King Henry [I] and right heir of England and Normandy.”

When he arrived in England in 1149, Henry’s first task was to establish himself as a credible successor to his mother’s cause. It was not his natural home. He understood the English language, but he did not speak it. It was all very well having royal blood; now he needed to secure the recognition of his peers. Here the long days in the saddle paid off, as Henry rode north to be invested with knighthood by his uncle King David of Scotland. He was girded in Carlisle on Whitsunday 1149. Now, sporting the belt of knighthood, he decided to show England that he had the martial valor to match. On his way back south he attempted an attack on York. This was unsuccessful, and Henry had to flee to the Channel, harried all the way by royal attacks. The sixteen-year-old knight made his way to the southwest, relieved a siege of Devizes by Stephen’s son Eustace, and skipped back to Normandy. If it was not an entirely fruitful mission, he had at least won over important allies and made his mark.

In 1150 Geoffrey formally invested Henry as duke of Normandy, a role he had already been affecting for some months. In August of the following year Henry gave homage for Normandy to King Louis VII of France, a ceremonial declaration of his ducal right and dignity. Then, in September, Geoffrey Plantagenet suddenly died. He was thirty-nine years old. According to John of Marmoutier, Geoffrey was returning from a royal council when he was taken “severely ill with a fever at Château-du-Loir. [He] collapsed on a couch. Then, looking into the future of his land and his people with the spirit of prophecy, he forbade Henry his heir to introduce the customs of Normandy or England into his own county [i.e., Anjou], nor the reverse.” Then: “the death of so great a prince having been foretold by a comet, his body returned from earth to heaven.”

It was an abrupt end to a highly eventful life. The eighteen-year-old duke of Normandy still had far to go if he wanted to realize the ambitions of his parents. The fight would be hard, but the rewards it promised were almost beyond imagination.

A Scandalous Wife

On May 18, 1152, at the cathedral in Poitiers, Henry duke of Normandy married Eleanor duchess of Aquitaine. Planned in haste and with the utmost secrecy, the ceremony was executed as quickly as possible. Like his father, Henry was marrying an older woman. Eleanor was twenty-eight years old, and he was a restless young soldier who had only just turned nineteen. His bride was almost impossibly glamorous, famous across Christendom for her unconventional beauty, her outspokenness, and her headstrong political views. Only two months earlier she had been queen of France, the wife of Louis VII. Their marriage had been annulled on the ground of consanguinity after Eleanor had provided the king with two princesses but no sons.

Henry’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the greatest coups of his life. For an ambitious young player in European politics, there could have been no more valuable bride. Eleanor brought wealth, power, and vast lands. Her duchy of Aquitaine was a vital part of the territorial reach of the French Crown, stretching down from the borders of Anjou to the Pyrenees. She was an experienced ruler and a wily political player. And the fact that she had recently been discarded by the French king only raised her value for a duke of Normandy intent on establishing his status as a preeminent French nobleman.

Eleanor’s life story was already extraordinary. She was born in 1124, the eldest daughter of William X duke of Aquitaine and count of Poitou, a patron of the arts and an enthusiastic warrior, who alternated between quarreling with the papacy and making pious submissions to ecclesiastical authority. Her grandfather was William IX, “the Troubadour Duke,” who was the greatest wit, poet, and songwriter of his age. He composed verse in the southern French language of Occitan, telling the stories of seduction, heroism, and courtly love that were part of the fabric of southern French life. The house of Aquitaine was formed in his image. William IX died in 1126, shortly after his granddaughter Eleanor’s birth. Eleven years later Eleanor’s father also died suddenly, while on pilgrimage to Compostela. His death left a thirteen-year-old Eleanor sole heir to one of the greatest inheritances in Europe.

Aquitaine was a large, sprawling, loosely governed territory that comprised more than a quarter of the territory of medieval France. It included the lordship of Gascony, the cities of Bordeaux and Bayonne, the counties of Saintonge, Angoulême, Périgord, Limousin, Auvergne, and La Manche. The dukes of Aquitaine looked north via the county of Poitou and south to the Spanish peninsula, where they had links with Navarre and Barcelona. It was a warm, fertile country, which traded in wine and salt via the Gascon ports on the Atlantic coast and had an important tourist industry, thanks to the fact that it controlled the pilgrimage roads to Compostela, as they converged on the few passes cutting through the Pyrenees. The duchy would provide a potentially huge source of wealth, power, and cultural influence to whoever could control it. Control came hard, however. Government sat very light in Aquitaine. Power and authority were subject to a patchwork of troublesome and rebellious lords whose fealty to the duke was seldom more than nominal. It was obvious to everyone that this was no place for a thirteen-year-old girl to rule. King Louis VI of France moved swiftly, and three months after her father’s death, on July 25, 1137, Eleanor was married to his eldest son, the seventeen-year-old Prince Louis, at the cathedral in Bordeaux. This union with the heir to the French Crown brought Aquitaine under the protection of Paris. Then, just seven days after Eleanor’s first marriage, her new father-in-law was dead. Eleanor became queen of France.

The feisty southern child queen quickly proved out of place in the frosty Parisian court. There was a marked difference between the cultures of the Île de France and Aquitaine. Even the languages were different: the langue d’oïl of the north contrasted sharply with the langue d’oc spoken by Eleanor and her large group of attendants. Eleanor was a worldly southerner who both captivated and terrified her new husband. While Louis VII conducted himself with austere piety, Eleanor embraced the splendor of queenship. She and her entourage dressed and behaved extravagantly and enjoyed a rich palace life that shocked her husband’s closest attendants. Louis VII wore a habit and followed a frugal diet. According to William of Newburgh, Eleanor complained in later years that she had married “a monk, not a king.”

From the start the marriage was profoundly dysfunctional, both personally and politically. Eleanor was capable, as the famous French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, of “taking a determined political stance.” She pushed Louis into several unwise ventures, including a vicious war with the count of Champagne, provoked when her younger sister Petronilla had a rash fling with the count of Vermandois. Very swiftly Eleanor built a reputation for causing scandal and chaos. When she accompanied Louis on the Second Crusade in 1147, rumors flew up concerning almost every aspect of her participation. She was blamed (wrongly) for disastrous ambushes on the crusading forces and accused (falsely) of conniving—or sleeping with—her uncle Prince Raymond of Toulouse, the ruler of Antioch. Later chroniclers even spread the rumor that she had had an affair with Saladin and attempted to elope with him on a boat, an odd fantasy given that he was only ten at the time. On the way home from Jerusalem, Louis and Eleanor stopped at Tusculum to meet Pope Eugene III. He gave them marriage counseling and offered them a reconciliatory bed, draped with his own precious curtains.

It did not work. Although Eleanor bore Louis two children—Marie countess of Champagne was born in 1145 and Alix countess of Blois in 1150—it was clear by the early 1150s that the marriage was untenable. Perhaps they could have continued had Eleanor produced a male heir. But she did not. By the time of the Christmas court of 1151–1152, held deep in Eleanor’s territory at Limoges, it was an open secret that the royal marriage would soon follow the path of many others before them. On March 21, 1152, an assembly of French bishops declared that Louis and Eleanor were related within the prohibited bounds of consanguinity, and their marriage was declared void. Eleanor would retain her duchy of Aquitaine, and Louis, like every other Capet since Philip I, would have his marriage annulled. It is hard to believe that Eleanor felt anything but relief.

This relief, however, would have been alloyed by the knowledge that she was as vulnerable at the age of twenty-eight as she had been on the day of her father’s death. The unwed duchess of Aquitaine was back on the marriage market, with no shortage of bidders. In March 1152 she made a perilous journey through the Loire Valley from Beaugency to Poitiers, the principal seat of her duchy. Knowing that the countryside around her was fraught with danger, she moved with all possible haste. Already word was spreading that Eleanor was no longer the queen of France. Kidnappers were said to be pursuing her from two directions. According to a chronicler from Tours, both Theobald V count of Blois and Geoffrey Plantagenet the Younger (Henry’s sixteen-year-old brother) were bent on waylaying Eleanor, hoping to abduct and force her into marriage.

But a decade and a half spent at court in Paris had taught Eleanor a thing or two about political survival. She realized that marriage was inevitable and necessary but was determined that it should be on her terms. So as she rode hard for Poitiers, giving the slip to her would-be abductors, she was thinking of the one man who would best secure her future. Henry Plantagenet duke of Normandy and count of Anjou and its neighboring counties of Maine and Touraine was in Lisieux, near the coast of Normandy, preparing an invasion of England, where he aimed to claim the Crown in his mother’s name. Eleanor had met Henry the previous year, when he and his father had visited Paris for peace talks. It is possible that the unhappy queen and the ambitious would-be king had considered each other as potential future mates. Whether a formal agreement was made is unknown.

On arrival in Poitou, Eleanor sent a message to Henry, asking him with all urgency to come and marry her. Henry wasted no time, canceling all his plans for invading King Stephen’s troubled realm. “The duke indeed allured by the nobility of that woman and by desire for the great honours belonging to her, impatient at all delay, took with him a few companions, hastened quickly over the long routes and in little time obtained that marriage which he had long desired,” wrote William of Newburgh. So it was that Henry Plantagenet married Eleanor duchess of Aquitaine in a low-key ceremony at the cathedral of Notre-Dame-la-Grande in Poitiers on May 18, 1152. Their marriage ceremony was swift and discreet, but its aftershocks were no less massive.

The big loser was Louis VII. While he could not have expected Eleanor to take any other course of action, he would have expected her future spouse—as vassal—and Eleanor—as ex-wife—to seek his permission. They did not, and it rankled ever after. As Henry of Huntingdon put it, Henry’s marriage to Eleanor was “the cause and origin of great hatred and discord between the French king and the duke.” Eleanor’s marriage to Henry transformed the map of France at a stroke. Henry’s control of Normandy, Anjou, Maine, and Touraine was now fused with the giant duchy of Aquitaine. One man now theoretically controlled virtually the entire western seaboard of the kingdom of France and almost half the landed territory. In seeking an annulment of his marriage to Eleanor, Louis had made an understandable decision for the future of the French Crown. In letting her fall into Henry Plantagenet’s hands, he had committed an inexcusable blunder.

To add to the French king’s woes, within months of her speedy marriage Eleanor was pregnant with a son, and Henry had revived his plans to conquer England. This not only made a mockery of Louis’s inability to produce an heir with her but also threatened to sunder his daughters from any claim to the duchy of Aquitaine. A Plantagenet heir, who one day might conceivably rule Normandy, Anjou, and Aquitaine together, was on his way. Within two years that likely patrimony would grow to include the Crown of England.

Henry the Conqueror

Malmesbury, in Wiltshire, was a wretched little town, as sorely treated as any in England during the agonies of the civil war. Its walls and motte castle had been besieged at least three times during the civil war, and its people brutalized and plundered for many years. On a freezing January day in 1153 Henry Plantagenet stood outside its walls in a belligerent mood, preparing to destroy what little was left of the town. He had been blown ashore after a rough and dangerous winter crossing of the Channel. It was Epiphany, the eight-day festival when Christians celebrate the visit of the three kings to the infant Jesus. But Henry came not to pay homage but to overthrow the king, with an invading force of 140 knights and 3,000 infantry, armed to the teeth.

The author of the Gesta Stephani described the scene: “When a crowd of common people flew to the wall surrounding the town as though to defend it, [Henry] ordered the infantry, men of the greatest cruelty, whom he had brought with him, some to assail the defenders with arrows and missiles, others to devote all their efforts to demolishing the wall.” The din would have been tremendous: the whiz of crossbow bolts, the screams of the fleeing townsfolk, and the crash of great rocks pitched up at the castle walls by the siege machines. Torrential rain and winds lashed besiegers and defenders alike; soaking mud clung to them all. Ladders were placed against the wall, and Henry’s fierce mercenaries scaled them with ease. The townsfolk ran in terror to the church, seeking sanctuary with the resident community of monks. The mercenaries, having vaulted the walls, pursued them. If the chronicler is to be believed, the church was plundered, the monks and priests were butchered, and the altar was desecrated.

King Stephen had been expecting the invasion, but he had not foreseen an attack on Malmesbury. His royal forces were besieging the rebel town of Wallingford, and he had expected Henry to join him there in battle. Henry refused to be drawn. Stephen was obliged to go meet the invader. “It was a huge army with many barons, their banners glittering with gold, beautiful and terrible indeed,” wrote Henry of Huntingdon. “But God, in whom alone is safety, was not with them.” The weather was foul, and the men who marched with Stephen had little faith in their leader. “The floodgates of heaven opened and such bitter cold gusts of wind and pouring rain were driven into their faces that God himself seemed to be fighting for the duke. The king’s army could barely hold their weapons or their dripping wet lances.”

Drenched and demoralized, Stephen’s army refused to fight. The civil war had dragged on long enough, and the conditions in which they were expected to relieve a siege were nothing short of treacherous. There was little promise of reward or advance in the battle, and Stephen now had a mutiny on his hands. “The king . . . retreated without effecting his purpose,” wrote William of Newburgh. The first victory of the invasion had been won. Writing in retrospect, William of Newburgh noted that after Malmesbury “the nobles of [England] . . . gradually revolted to [Henry]; insomuch as that, by the augmentation of his power and the brilliancy of his successes, the fame of the duke . . . obscured the kingly title of his opponent.” But it was not quite that simple. As he took stock of his position, Henry discovered a realm in a state of total war-weariness. It was his response to these conditions, as much as his military successes, that enabled him to make advances beyond those achieved by his mother.

One of the first things Henry realized was that the mercenaries he had brought with him inspired fear rather than trust. England was already teeming with hired foreign soldiers, and they were deeply resented by the people. “Being unable to endure their bestial and brutal presumption any longer, [the barons] suggested to the duke that he should allow [his mercenaries] to go home, lest on account of their shameful forwardness some calamity should befall him or his men by the vengeance of God,” recorded the Gesta Stephani. Showing a flexibility of mind that was to serve him well in the future, Henry listened. He sent five hundred of his mercenaries back across the Channel to Normandy. As they sailed, a mighty storm blew up and drowned them all.

Instead of inflicting more war on an exhausted kingdom, Henry made peaceful overtures toward barons and bishops alike. Channels of negotiation with Stephen were opened, under the guidance of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury and Bishop Henry of Winchester. And slowly the magnates came over to the young duke.

The most important baron to join Henry’s cause was Robert earl of Leicester. He and his twin, Waleran, were among the elite of the Anglo-Norman nobility who had been loyal to Stephen for many years. That Leicester was a powerful landowner in the Midlands gave Henry a vital territorial advantage in the heart of England. But the earl also brought important personal qualities and experience to Henry’s following and proved to be one of Henry’s most trusted and reliable servants for the remainder of his life. He was in fact an excellent archetype for the sort of noble that Henry both attracted and needed. Leicester was in his late forties, literate, and well schooled. He had been brought up with William the Aetheling, and as children he and Waleran had been the young darlings of the European courts, debating for show with cardinals while they were still precocious youngsters. The twins had been loyal to Henry I and Stephen, but Stephen’s inability to guarantee their lands in Normandy had chipped away at their political will.

Leicester embodied the complex position of any number of the Anglo-Norman magnates: torn between their Norman estates guaranteed by the Plantagenet duke of Normandy and the English lands theoretically protected by Stephen. The task for Henry was to convince more men like Leicester that he could protect their property in England as well as in Normandy, rather than subject it to further ruin and war. That, after all, was the underlying purpose of kingship. Henry spent the spring of 1153 on a vigorous publicity drive. After visiting Bristol and Gloucester, both bastions of support for his mother, he made his way through the turbulent Midlands, where an uneasy peace was kept by a patchwork of individual treaties between magnates. This land was the ultimate emblem of the failures of Stephen’s reign. Public authority was nonexistent.

At the heart of Henry’s new pitch was good lordship, not good generalship. Instead of ravaging lands, he held court around the country and invited the great noblemen to come to him in peace. Rather than burn crops, he issued charters guaranteeing the land and legal rights of the magnates—not only in England but in Normandy too. He indicated his commitment to judicial process by asserting that his grants of English lands were subject to legal ratification. Moving around England in a circuit that came to look more and more like a triumphant tour, he presented himself at every turn as a credible alternative king.

Yet battle could not entirely be avoided. In July 1153 Henry met Stephen at Wallingford, a town nestled inside a long bend in the Thames, southeast of Oxford and dangerously close to Westminster and London. Stephen had the castle—loyal to Henry—under siege. The area was sown with a series of smaller royal castles and ditchworks, built in a semipermanent ring of defense. Henry approached with an army to relieve the siege, but also with a sense that an end to the war was near.

King Stephen had been waiting. In early August he marched a splendid army out to meet the duke. Once again, as at Malmesbury, there was a general refusal to fight. In the words of the Gesta Stephani, “The leading men on both sides . . . shrank from a conflict which was not merely between fellow countrymen, but meant the desolation of the whole kingdom.” Men were not tired of Stephen’s rule per se; they were tired of war. “The barons, those betrayers of England . . . were unwilling to fight a battle, as they did not want either side to win,” wrote Henry of Huntingdon. But these “betrayers of England” were men who had suffered nearly two decades of civil war and who realized that victory for either side in battle was likely to result in mass land confiscations and continued bitter divisions in the realm. The time for a cease-fire had arrived. Henry and Stephen agreed to talk. “The king and the duke had a conference alone together, across a small stream, about making a lasting peace,” wrote Huntingdon. “The peace treaty was begun here, but not completed until another occasion.” The terms of peace were growing obvious to both sides: Stephen would have to recognize Henry Plantagenet as his legal heir to the Crown and begin a process by which the deep wounds of their families’ war could be healed. Only one major obstacle remained.

•   •   •

King Stephen’s eldest son, Eustace IV count of Boulogne, had grown up knowing nothing but division and war. He had been told that he was a king in waiting and had been encouraged to fight for the sake of securing his Crown. Eustace had made it his business to see that the Norman chronicler Robert of Torigni’s assessment that “almost all of the Normans thought that Duke Henry would rapidly lose all of his possessions” came true as rapidly as possible. To that end he had allied with Louis VII, whose sister Constance he had married, and Henry’s own brother Geoffrey Plantagenet the Younger. Together they had contrived to wage war against the duke of Normandy wherever and whenever they could. Eustace stood to lose the most in any rapprochement between Stephen and Henry. His position was unusually weak.

An argument between Stephen and Pope Eugene III meant that in 1153 Eustace had not yet been anointed as co-king, in the manner that was now customary. This paved the way for an eventual peace in which Stephen could disinherit his sons (Eustace had a younger brother, William) and name Henry as his heir. After Wallingford that seemed more and more likely. According to the author of the Gesta Stephani, Eustace was “greatly vexed and angry because the war, in his opinion, had reached no proper conclusion.” To give vent to some of this anger and frustration, he stormed eastward to Bury St. Edmunds, where he indulged in a bout of fairly pointless burning and pillaging. Alas, for the unfortunate Eustace, God—or perhaps St. Edmund—was on hand to punish the iniquitous. Shortly after his self-indulgent orgy of violence and rapine, Eustace fell ill. He died in early August 1153, just twenty-three years old. The cause was thought to be either rotten food or sheer grief, though some have suspected poison.

Eustace’s death was heartbreaking to Stephen, who had lost his precious wife, Matilda, the previous year. Yet it was also providential, in that it opened the path for negotiations that would allow Duke Henry to take his place. The agreement took the form of a sort of legal fostering that would hand the Crown to the Plantagenet line and end the war for good. Stephen’s second son, William, evidently more tractable than his elder brother, accepted a large landed settlement in recompense for abandoning any claim to the throne.

Discussions between the two parties took place throughout August, September, and October, overseen by Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury and King Stephen’s brother Henry bishop of Winchester. In November 1153, at a conference in Winchester, a formal truce was agreed upon. Stephen formally adopted Henry as his son and heir. “What inestimable joy! What blessed day!” cheered Henry of Huntingdon. “The king himself received the young prince at Winchester with a magnificent procession of bishops and nobles through the cheering crowds.” England could harbor its greatest hope of peace and prosperity under a single, unified, and universal royal authority since 1135.

The peace was sealed in a highly symbolic venue and ceremony. Winchester was the place where English kingship was sanctified: the old minster was the resting place of St. Swithun, the Anglo-Saxon bishop credited with numerous miracles, including the ability to restore broken eggs to wholeness, and of Saxon kings such as Eadwig, who, like Stephen, had ruled in war-torn times. The great men of the land gathered in the chill of the cathedral, to be addressed by King Stephen and Duke Henry.

What a pair they made. The sixty-one-year-old Stephen performed his role with dignity. “A mild man, and gentle, and good,” was how the Gesta Stephani described him. Next to the impish, scruffy, twenty-year-old redhead, he seemed a relic of a departing generation. But he stood with grace and spoke to the congregation, uttering words that would have had his eldest son spinning in his grave.

“Know that I, King Stephen, appoint Henry duke of Normandy after me as my successor in the kingdom of England and my heir by hereditary right,” Stephen said. “Thus I give and confirm to him and his heirs the Kingdom of England.”

Henry made a similar statement. Then, in the presence of all his future nobles, he did homage to Stephen and received the homage of Stephen’s younger son, William. It was an open and wholly visible representation of the new order of things. A new narrative of royal lineage had been publicly constructed. The legal chaos of a usurpation or deposition was avoided. Through sound military leadership and brilliant diplomacy, Henry had muscled his way into the line of succession.

The celebrations were lavish. Stephen swept into England’s ancient capital with his newly adopted son. “[T]he illustrious young man was gloriously received in the city of Winchester, led by the king, with a glittering procession of bishops and famous men,” wrote William of Newburgh. “Then the king took the duke to London, and there he was received with joy by an innumerable assembly of common people, with splendid processions.” The truce of Winchester was formally sealed and distributed at Westminster. “Peace dawned on the ruined realm,” wrote Henry of Huntingdon, “putting an end to its troubled night.”

During the limbo that prevailed between Henry’s acceptance as heir and Stephen’s death, the old king agreed to act on the next king’s advice. Together they began the long process of cleaning up the broken kingdom. There were three key tasks: suppressing violence and spoliation, ejecting the gangs of hired foreign mercenaries that had flooded the country, and leveling the castles that had sprung up since Stephen’s accession. There were still extremist factions that disapproved of the peace process. At a meeting in Canterbury in March 1154, Henry was informed of a plot against his life by dissident Flemings. It was alleged that Stephen’s son William knew about it. Judging that the situation in England was now stable enough to make his continued presence unnecessary and dangerous enough to justify his departure, Henry decided to return to Normandy. As Stephen went on progress to the north of England and busied his administrators with the task of circulating a new coinage, Henry left England that March, taking a discreet route to the Channel via Rochester and London.

In late October 1154 Henry was campaigning with Louis VII against rebellious vassals in the borderland region between Normandy and France known as the Vexin when news reached him that Stephen was dead. According to the chronicler Gervase of Canterbury, Stephen had been meeting with the count of Flanders on October 25, 1154, when he was taken ill. “The king was suddenly seized with a violent pain in his gut, accompanied by a flow of blood (as had happened to him before),” wrote Gervase. “After he had taken to his bed in [Dover Priory] he died.” Stephen was buried in the Cluniac monastery in Faversham, Kent, alongside his wife, Queen Matilda, and his intemperate son Eustace.

Stephen died disconsolate. He was a man obsessed with royal dignity and ceremony, and his failure to freely anoint one of his sons as heir would have been compounded by the humiliation of losing the loyalty and support of his sworn nobles. But if his reign was a dismal failure, the peace that followed was a resounding success, negotiated well and upheld by the admirable will of the major magnates. Henry and Stephen had successfully created a vehicle to ensure the first peaceful transfer of royal power for nearly seventy years. When Henry came to England to claim his Crown in December 1154, it was at his leisure, knowing that he was wanted and implicitly accepted by the political community as king. His wife, Eleanor, arrived at his side; she had given birth to a son, William, in August 1153 and was now pregnant again, soon due to deliver. The succession, at last, seemed secure. Henry promised stability and a single, universal authority such as had been sorely missing for the last, miserable nineteen years. What was more, he had proven himself. There was sycophancy, no doubt, in Henry bishop of Huntingdon’s invocation on the coming of the king, but there was real hope too: “England, long numbed by mortal chill, now you grow warm, revived by the heat of a new sun. You raise the country’s bowed head, and with tears of sorrow wiped away, you weep for joy. . . . With tears you utter these words to your foster child: ‘You are spirit, I am flesh: now as you enter, I am restored to life.’”


A king who fights to defend his right

Has a better claim on his inheritance.

Struggle and largesse allow

A king to gain glory and territory.

—Bertran de Born

Births and Rebirth

Henry II was crowned at Westminster Abbey on December 19, 1154, with a heavily pregnant Queen Eleanor sitting beside him. Judging by her near-constant state of pregnancy and childbirth, which contrasted sharply with her time as queen of France, Eleanor had thrown herself enthusiastically into establishing a royal dynasty with Henry. The elderly archbishop Theobald of Canterbury performed the sacred ceremony, and the great bishops and magnates of England looked on. Henry was the first ruler to be crowned king of England, rather than the old form, king of the English. And the coronation brought with it a spirit of great popular optimism. “Throughout England, the people shouted, ‘Long live the King,’” wrote William of Newburgh. “[They] hoped for better things from the new monarch, especially when they saw he possessed remarkable prudence, constancy and zeal for justice, and at the very outset already manifested the likeness of a great prince.”

Henry’s coronation charter addressed all the great men of the realm, assuring them that he would grant them all the “concessions, gifts, liberties and freedoms” that Henry I had allowed and that he would likewise abolish evil customs. He made no specific promises, and unlike his predecessor Stephen, he did not hark back to the “good laws and good customs” enjoyed by English subjects in the days of Edward the Confessor. But the charter mentioned specifically Henry’s desire to work toward “the common restoration of my whole realm.”

England found its new twenty-one-year-old king well educated, legally minded, and competent in a number of languages, although he spoke only Latin and the French dialects. He struck his contemporaries as almost impossibly purposeful, hunting and hawking and sweeping at a headlong pace through the forests and parks of his vast lands. Gerald of Wales described him as “addicted to the chase beyond measure; at crack of dawn he was often on horseback, traversing wastelands, penetrating forests and climbing the mountain-tops, and so he passed restless days. At evening on his return home he was rarely seen to sit down, either before or after supper. . . . [H]e would wear the whole court out by continual standing. . . .” And then: “He was a man of easy access, and condescending, pliant and witty, second to none in politeness . . . strenuous in warfare . . . very prudent in civil life. . . . He was fierce toward those who remained untamed, but merciful toward the vanquished, harsh to his servants, expansive toward strangers, prodigal in public, thrifty in private. . . . He was most diligent in guarding and maintaining peace, liberal beyond comparison in almsgiving and the peculiar defender of the Holy Land; a lover of humility, an oppressor of the nobility and a contemner of the proud.”

Another famous description, by the court writer Walter Map, remarked upon many of the same characteristics. Henry was “blessed with sound limbs and a handsome countenance . . . well read . . . easy of approach . . . ever on his travels, moving in intolerable stages like a courier.” He showed “very little mercy to his household which accompanied him. . . . [H]e had great experience of dogs and birds and was a very keen follower of hounds.” Even when one allows for the flattery and platitudes native to courtiers’ pen portraits, it was clear that the men who knew him found Henry a striking, energetic ruler.

From his earliest years Henry lived a peripatetic life. Although he invested heavily in magnificent castles and palaces, he rarely stayed anywhere for long. His traveling court was frequently described by visitors as disgusting: smelly and ratty, with the wine served so vinegarish that it had to be filtered through the teeth. Such were the living conditions of a man in perpetual motion. The chronicler Ralph de Diceto described an astonished Louis VII’s opinion on Henry’s ability to pop up anywhere and everywhere about his territories, without warning. It was as if he were flying rather than riding on horseback, said the French king. He was, said the twelfth-century biographer Herbert of Bosham, like a “human chariot, dragging all after him.”

The king could hardly drag his young family about with him, though, and after the splendor of the coronation, the Plantagenets found they needed somewhere to live. Their first son, William, was little more than a year old at the time of his parents’ coronation; a second son, Henry, was born on February 28, 1155. Both the boys and Eleanor required households while they were in the country. The enormous Anglo-Saxon palace of Westminster had deteriorated badly during the civil war and was now uninhabitable. So in 1155 the family moved to the royal palace of Bermondsey on the opposite bank of the Thames, to the south of the city of London.

From the palace, Eleanor was able to visit London as she pleased. She would have found the English capital a busy, ripe city: frantic with commerce and entertainment, jesters and jugglers, crime, filth, despair, and humanity. The Canterbury cleric and biographer William Fitzstephen wrote a famously wide-eyed description of the twelfth-century city:

[London] is fortunate in the wholesomeness of its climate, the devotion of its Christians, the strength of its fortifications, its well-situated location, the respectability of its citizens, and the propriety of their wives. Furthermore it takes great pleasure in its sports and is prolific in producing men of superior quality. . . . On the east side stands the royal fortress [i.e. the Tower of London], of tremendous size and strength, whose walls and floors rise up from the deepest foundations—the mortar being mixed with animal’s blood. On the west side are two heavily fortified castles. Running continuously around the north side is the city wall, high and wide, punctuated at intervals with turrets, and with seven double-gated entranceways. . . .

Two miles from the city and linked to it by a populous suburb, there rises above the bank of that river the king’s palace [of Westminster], a structure without equal, with inner and outer fortifications. . . . To the north there are tilled fields, pastures, and pleasant, level meadows with streams flowing through them, where watermill wheels turned by the current make a pleasing sound. Not far off spreads out a vast forest, its copses dense with foliage concealing wild animals—stags, does, boars, and wild bulls. . . .

Every morning you can find [people] carrying on their various trades, those selling specific types of goods, and those who hire themselves out as labourers, each in their particular locations engaged in their tasks. Nor should I forget to mention that there is in London, on the river bank amidst the ships, the wine for sale, and the storerooms for wine, a public cookshop. On a daily basis there, depending on the season, can be found fried or boiled foods and dishes, fish large and small, meat—lower quality for the poor, finer cuts for the wealthy—game and fowl (large and small). . . . Those with a fancy for delicacies can obtain for themselves the meat of goose, guinea-hen or woodcock—finding what they’re after is no great chore, since all the delicacies are set out in front of them. . . . Middlemen from every nation under heaven are pleased to bring to the city ships full of merchandise.

This was a busy, lively, international city, and it must have kindled in Eleanor memories of Paris, the grandest city in northern Europe, with its own rivers, palaces, and rolling meadows, the site of her first experience of queenship. Something in London must have agreed with the queen, for during her first spell in England, Eleanor managed what she most manifestly had not when she was queen of France and gave birth to a rapid succession of healthy children. In September 1155, as soon as she had recovered from young Henry’s birth, Eleanor was pregnant again: a girl, Matilda, was delivered in June 1156, named for the empress who had struggled so long to secure the Plantagenets’ new realm.

Matilda’s birth would have relieved some of the sadness Eleanor felt in June 1156, when William, her first son, died. The little boy was three years old. He was buried with dignity at the feet of his great-grandfather Henry I in Reading Abbey. It would have been a time of grief for the family. But child mortality was a fact even of royal life in the Middle Ages, and the best insurance against it was a large brood of children. Without pause or delay, two more boys were born: Richard, who was born at Oxford in September 1157, and Geoffrey, who came almost exactly a year later.

Henry, Matilda, Richard, and Geoffrey: by the end of 1158 Henry and Eleanor had four healthy children below the age of four. Three more children would survive to adulthood: Eleanor (born 1162), Joan (born 1165), and John (born 1167). A gap of four years, during which Henry was away from his wife, managing the farther reaches of his realm, separated the two bursts of procreation. During her husband’s absence Eleanor played a prominent role in royal rule and ceremony, presented to councils of magnates with her young children and assuming the role of regent while Henry was away. When she traveled overseas with him—as they did in 1156, on a tour of Aquitaine, and again for a Christmas court in Normandy in 1158—she often took her children with her. For the most part, however, she remained in England, usually residing at palaces in Salisbury and Winchester.

When he was at home, Henry traveled frequently about his kingdom, addressing issues of government and diplomacy while finding time to indulge his great passion for the hunt. As he traveled, Henry grew familiar with the best locations both for government and for the chase. Very swiftly after his arrival, work began to transform the hunting lodges of Clarendon and Woodstock into full-blown palaces to match the sumptuous comfort of any in Europe. But all the palaces in the world could not answer the pressing question of the 1150s: How could the new king heal a country so deeply damaged by civil war? England had supplied Henry with what the chronicler Richard of Poitiers described as “the honor and reverence of his royal name.” But this rich land, with its ports and towns, its hard-drinking, hardworking populace, and its ancient history, needed to be rescued from the doldrums. Henry would have to reimpose on his new realm the royal authority enjoyed by his grandfather Henry I. It amounted, effectively, to a mission of reconquest.

The realm was a shambles. Under Stephen royal revenue had fallen by two-thirds. Royal lands, castles, and offices had been granted away, often in perpetuity. The county farm, a staple royal income collected by the sheriffs, was running dismally low. Earldoms with semiregal powers proliferated, and in places the country was not only ungoverned but seemingly ungovernable. Relations between Church and Crown were at a stalemate following a long-running feud between Stephen and Archbishop Theobald over their respective jurisdictions. Fortresses built as the Normans had conquered South Wales had fallen into the hands of barons and native rulers. The far north of England was effectively ruled by the king of the Scots.

Henry’s first task was to stamp out the few embers of rebellion. His coronation charter had deliberately avoided confirming any liberties or possessions that had been granted by Stephen, either to churchmen or to lay magnates. Anything granted since Henry I’s reign was therefore held to be illegitimate, unless reconfirmed by the new king. He ordered the return to the Crown of all castles, towns, and lands that had been granted away under Stephen, followed by an abolition of the earldoms that Stephen had granted to his supporters. In many cases, confiscated lands were granted back to their holders, but Henry was sending a clear message: lordship now began with him, and everyone owed his position and possessions to the Plantagenet Crown.

At the same time, directly after Christmas 1154, Henry set in motion a rapid decommissioning program to enforce the destruction of illegal castles and the expulsion of foreign mercenaries. Castles packed with hired soldiers were the primary expressions of military power in the twelfth century, and the more that existed across the realm—particularly without royal sanction—the more violent and unstable society tended to be. As a result, hundreds of castles fell in a juddering demolition project during the course of 1155. The sound of falling timber was accompanied by a rush from the shores of Flemish soldiers, so despised by the chroniclers and ordinary people alike.

Henry had to take serious direct action against only a few of the magnates. William of Aumerle, who had cemented his position in Yorkshire so as to make it virtually untouched by royal influence, was deprived of his lands and of Scarborough Castle, the towering stone stronghold that sat on a headland, dominating sea approaches and the windswept northeast of the realm. Roger of Hereford, a Welsh marcher lord of the sort disinclined to obey royal authority, was persuaded to surrender castles at Gloucester and Hereford by the sensible mediation of his cousin Gilbert Foliot bishop of Hereford.

Henry of Blois bishop of Winchester—Stephen’s brother—chose to flee the country rather than submit to his brother’s successor. In doing so, he forfeited to Henry six castles. The only magnate who required serious military measures to be taken against him was Hugh Mortimer, lord of Wigmore Castle, who in the late spring clung to three castles in the Midlands and forced Henry to march an army against him. Even he was allowed to keep his lands after making a formal submission to Henry.

This was a lightning cleanup operation, undertaken in the spirit of reconciliation, not revenge, which owed a great deal to Henry’s earlier successful diplomacy in establishing and prosecuting the terms of the peace of Winchester. That there was so little resistance to him and no threat of a serious rival for the throne demonstrated the broad appeal of Henry’s strong, unified lordship. He was wielding the sword and the scales of justice like a king. This speed of reconciliation was a necessity, not a luxury, for England was only one part of the extensive Plantagenet domains.

In 1156 Henry was forced to leave England, to deal with a rebellion in Anjou led by his younger brother Geoffrey, who believed that under the terms of their father’s will, Henry’s accession as king of England ought to have triggered the handover of Anjou, Maine, and Touraine to Geoffrey. And indeed it was quite possible that this had been the elder Geoffrey Plantagenet’s intention. There was no precedent for a single man to rule England, Normandy, and Anjou as one.

Henry had no intention of handing over the heartlands of his patrimony to his vexatious younger brother. Geoffrey had shown himself untrustworthy and disloyal when, in 1151, he had joined forces with Louis VII and Eustace to attack Henry’s positions in Normandy. Giving Geoffrey lands that sat directly between Henry’s duchy of Normandy and Eleanor’s duchy of Aquitaine would be asking for trouble. It would also damage Henry’s ambition to rule his extraordinary patchwork of territories under his own, direct sovereignty.

But Geoffrey had to be appeased. On February 2, 1156, a family conference was held in Rouen under the eye of the empress Matilda, who had been living in retirement in the Norman capital for nearly a decade and had not even crossed to England for Henry’s coronation. Despite this, she was a regular confidante and counselor to her eldest son, teaching him, according to the chronicler Walter Map, to “spin out the affairs of everyone . . . never confer anything on anyone at the recommendation of any person, unless he had seen and learned about it.” Under his mother’s guidance, Henry met Geoffrey along with their youngest brother, William, and their aunt Sibylla countess of Flanders, to negotiate a deal. To isolate his brother diplomatically, Henry had performed homage to Louis VII for Normandy, Anjou, and Aquitaine in late January, and had sent an embassy to the newly elected pope, Adrian IV (the only Englishman ever to hold the title), to request release from the oath he had sworn to uphold his father’s will. He was determined to hold on to Anjou, whatever the cost.

The peacekeeping efforts came, predictably, to nothing. Soon after the conference broke up, Geoffrey formally rebelled. The quarrel was resolved only later in the year, when the people of Nantes and lower Brittany elected Geoffrey their new count. It was a stroke of luck that found him a rich new territory to call his own and doused his disappointment at being, as he saw it, disinherited by his newly elevated elder brother.

A delighted Henry vouched for Geoffrey’s election to this strategically useful new position. He paid off his brother’s claim to a Plantagenet inheritance with the gift of a single border castle, Loudon, and a cash pension. This was an acceptable price to pay for quashing a distracting rift. Geoffrey’s new position in Nantes extended the Plantagenet family enterprise farther downstream along the Loire and closer to the Breton seaboard—virtually the only piece of French coastline they did not already control.

This appeased Geoffrey until he rather conveniently died in 1158. But it also showed that for all his brilliance in pacifying his new kingdom, Henry would have to work with the unceasing effort of an Alexander or a Charlemagne if he wished to keep his vast Continental possessions from breaking apart.

L’Espace Plantagenet

The 1150s were a glorious decade for Henry. From a position of insignificance and insecurity in 1151, he had extended his power far and wide. The progress was relentless and impressive. In 1155 Pope Adrian IV gave Henry a blessing to expand his lordship in Ireland when he granted the papal bull Laudabiliter, exhorting Henry to reform the Irish Church. Henry did not act on Laudabiliter straightaway, but a principle had been established. In 1157 Henry took the homage of Malcolm IV of Scotland at Peveril Castle, regaining the northern border counties that had been usurped during the civil war and exchanging them for the earldom of Huntingdon, which was a traditional Scottish honor. That same year, Henry drove an army into Wales, aiming to reestablish the dominant position that had been established by his Norman ancestors. He was almost killed during an ambush in Ewloe Wood, near Flint, during one of the major military exercises of the campaign, and found the warlike Welsh as fierce an enemy as every one of his predecessors had. In the end the two great Welsh princes Owain of Gwynedd and Rhys ap Gruffydd of Deheubarth were persuaded to submit in the face of a massive show of military strength. This freed Henry in 1158 to use the threat of armed force to claim the county of Nantes in the name of his late brother, thus expanding his direct power into the duchy of Brittany. In the same year, he betrothed his eldest son, Henry, to Louis VII’s daughter Margaret. The Vexin, a tiny but strategically vital portion of the borderlands between the Île de France and Normandy, was given as a dowry to be delivered on the celebration of the marriage.

Piece by piece, front by front, Henry was proving to all the princes and kings with whom he rubbed shoulders that the Plantagenets were a power to reckon with. As the 1150s drew to a close, Henry was the master of more territory than any of his ancestors could ever have dreamed of. But even that was not enough.

In the summer of 1159, a season when the sun beat mercilessly down on the southern valleys of France, a gigantic army rumbled toward the city of Toulouse. Inside the walls thirty-five thousand souls quaked with fear as they listened to the tread of foot soldiers, the thud and creak of warhorses and wagons, the blare of trumpets and drums, and the monstrous drag of siege engines. As the army marched, it left destruction in its wake. Cahors, Auvillars, and Villemur were ransacked and torched. Crops were burned, and property was plundered. The whole region of Toulouse contemplated a new scourge of the West. “Henry the second . . . terrifies not only the Provençals as far as the Rhône and the Alps,” wrote the author and diplomat John of Salisbury. “[He] also strikes at the princes of Spain and Gaul through the fortresses he has destroyed and the peoples he has subdued.”

The army with which Henry II crossed southern France in June 1159 was the largest he would ever raise. The cost for mercenaries in England alone exceeded nine thousand pounds, more than the previous year’s entire royal income. The poet Stephen of Rouen wrote that Henry came with “iron, missiles and machines,” while the Norman chronicler Robert of Torigni called it “the military force of the whole of Normandy, England, Aquitaine and the other provinces which were subject to him.” There was no doubt of his purpose: Henry came in conquest. His aim was to take Toulouse from its ruler, Count Raymond V, and add it to the duchy of Aquitaine. “The king was claiming the inheritance of his wife Queen Eleanor,” wrote Torigni. But Henry was doing more than that. He was engaged in a wide-reaching campaign to assert his rights as overlord to a vast expanse of territory that stretched from the foothills of Scotland to the Pyrenees.

The army included many great nobles. His recently reconciled neighbor Malcolm IV of Scotland sailed south with a flotilla and joined Henry’s army at Poitiers. Southern lords, including Raymond-Berengar IV count of Barcelona and Raymond Trencavel lord of Béziers and Carcassonne, joined in too, gleeful at the prospect of harassing a neighbor. And somewhere in the middle rode the churchman who had organized the campaign, Thomas Becket, chancellor of England and archdeacon of Canterbury, wearing helmet and hauberk, his armor gleaming in the sun. Becket had command of what is said to have been a personal troop of seven hundred knights. This figure is almost certainly an exaggeration; even so, we can be sure that he mustered a strong military force, particularly for a cleric.

The siege of Toulouse lasted from June to September 1159 and represented the height of Henry’s ambitions in Europe during the early years of his reign. He had expended considerable time and effort reforming and securing the vast territories he had accumulated between 1149 and 1154. But he had no intention of making do with his lot. Toulouse marked the logical conclusion of a policy he developed following the pacification of England. He used armies, quite often massive armies, to encroach on territory on the fringes of his already extensive borders. He seemed to want to become not merely a king and a duke but an emperor.

In reality, his policy was more pragmatic than this suggests. Henry aimed to pursue all his rights, in all his capacities, at all times. There were occasions when he used military means and others when he used diplomacy. He drove hard to have his lordship recognized wherever he could do so, tidying up all the fraying parts of his huge network of territories by waging wars against the fringes. Toulouse was just another border region in which his authority was challenged. He was leading a war not so much of conquest as of recognition.

Toulouse, however, was a famously tough nut to crack. Eleanor of Aquitaine held a rather tenuous claim to the county via her paternal grandmother, Philippa, who had been passed over for inheritance in the 1090s. In 1141 Louis VII had attempted to invade in much the same manner as Henry did in 1159 but had been repulsed. That did not discourage Henry. He had a claim, the wherewithal to raise a large army, and momentum gained from his success against the Welsh and the Bretons.

No doubt, as John of Salisbury reported, the princes of Spain and Gaul remarked upon the size of the army Henry had assembled. But they would also have been skeptical of Henry’s chances of success. Toulouse was a large city, well protected, positioned on a sharp bend in the Garonne, and divided into three fortified sections. The ancient Roman city was adjacent to a walled bourg that had sprung up rather later around the vast, beautiful Basilica of St.-Sernin. A wall ran around both these two areas, and between them and to the south lay the Château Narbonnais, a separate castle in which the city’s ruler resided. It could not be parched into submission, because the river provided a constant supply of water and did not dry up during the summer.

For all the efforts of Henry’s invading force, and all the misery they inflicted on the countryside and castles of the region, the skeptics were vindicated. As had happened to Louis in 1141, a king once again had thrown his might at the city defenses and found himself thwarted.

How did so huge a force fail to overrun a relatively tiny prize? Perhaps the liberal lordship of the counts of Toulouse was preferred to the clunking mastery suggested by Henry’s invading force. Perhaps the city’s natural defenses really did make it untakable. In any case, the decisive blow that finished Henry’s campaign was struck in the early autumn of 1159, when he was caught unawares by the arrival in Toulouse of Louis VII.

Of all the lords in France it was Louis whom Henry had troubled the most during his expansions in the 1150s. The duke of Normandy’s elevation to the rank of king made him a dangerous vassal for the Capetian Crown, one with military resources and a pedigree that far outstripped any other French nobleman’s. This was most obviously a problem where the boundaries of the duchy of Normandy met French royal lands, in the area known as the Vexin. It was true that in 1156, in a ceremony of great pageantry and political symbolism, Henry had done homage to the French king, swearing to Louis that “I, King Henry, will safeguard the life, limbs and landed honor of the King of France as my lord, if he will secure for me as his fidelis my life and limbs and lands which he has settled on me, for I am his man.” But Louis’s feudal status would be worth nothing if he sat by and allowed Henry to conquer Toulouse, an area that he had nearly failed to bring within his own direct control. Moreover, Count Raymond was the French king’s brother-in-law. To let him down would proclaim a very hollow lordship.

Louis arrived in Toulouse knowing that his mere presence at Count Raymond’s shoulder would force Henry to consider very carefully whether he could afford to continue his campaign. Attacking Raymond alone was one thing; to take on Louis and Raymond together was an act of explicit aggression that would cause Henry untold problems farther north in Normandy and Anjou, areas he had been at pains to keep in good order. Furthermore, to take on Louis in an armed contest and lose would undermine the symbolic value of the whole Toulouse expedition.

Henry took counsel with his barons and his key advisers, including Becket. In the absence of a specific insult to his royal honor, the barons counseled that it was unacceptable to attack the French king. Becket protested, calling for an immediate assault on the city. He was outvoted and ignored. Henry gave up the fight. Claiming that he wished to spare the Capetian king and the city, he withdrew from Toulouse around the feast of Michaelmas.

The chronicler Roger of Howden called Toulouse Henry’s “unfinished business.” It was not quite a disaster, but it was undeniably a failure. The most profitable event of the campaign was tangential to the siege itself: William count of Boulogne, King Stephen’s younger son, who had joined Henry on campaign, died on his way back to England in October 1159. His extensive English estates reverted to the Crown. Otherwise, all that could be said for an expensive summer spent hurling rocks at the walls of a city was that Henry had tested to the limit his capacity for wielding military power.

There was another cost to the failure of the Toulouse campaign. It brought into question for the first time the relationship between Henry and his closest counselor, the chancellor Thomas Becket.

Unholy War

In the summer of 1158, a year before he led Henry’s troops to the walls of Toulouse, Thomas Becket rode at the head of an even grander procession into the city of Paris. Coming in peace, as the chancellor of England and servant of the English king, he radiated solemn magnificence and glory. Becket had been sent on an embassy to negotiate the betrothal of Henry’s three-year-old son and namesake to Louis’s baby daughter Margaret, creating a dynastic union between the two royal houses and securing the Vexin for the Plantagenets. It was appropriate that he should impress the French king with the wealth and dignity of his master.

Becket put on an extraordinary show. In private he was a rigorously pious man who scourged himself regularly, wore a hair shirt, ate frugally, and never took a mistress. But Henry’s chancellor knew how to entertain a crowd. He swept into Paris with exotic gifts and lavish pageantry—dogs, monkeys, and a seemingly endless train of servants, all testifying to the English king’s largesse and splendor. A vivid record was kept by William Fitzstephen, who accompanied Becket and saw it all firsthand:

In his company he had some two hundred horsemen, knights, clerks, stewards and men in waiting, men at arms and squires of noble family, all in ordered ranks. All these and all their followers wore bright new festal garments. He also took twenty-four suits . . . and many silk cloaks to leave behind him as presents, and all kinds of parti-coloured clothes and foreign furs, hangings and carpets for a bishop’s guest-room.

Hounds and hawks were in the train . . . and eight five-horse chariots drawn by shire horses. On every horse was a sturdy groom in a new tunic, and on every chariot a warden. Two carts carried nothing but beer . . . for the French, who are not familiar with the brew, a healthy drink, clear, dark as wine, and finer in flavor. Others bore food and drink, others dorsals [dossals], carpets, bags of night attire and luggage in general. He had twelve sumpter horses and eight chests of table places, gold and silver. . . . One horse carried the plate, the altar furnishings and the books of his chapel. . . . Every horse had a groom in a smart turn-out; every chariot had a fierce great mastiff on a leash standing in the cart or walking behind it, and every sumpter beast had a long-tailed monkey on its back. . . .

Then there were about 250 men marching six or ten abreast, singing as they went in the English fashion. At intervals came braces of staghounds and greyhounds with their attendants, . . . then the men at arms, with the shields and chargers of the knights, then the other men at arms and boys and men carrying hawks. . . . Last of all came the chancellor and some of his friends. . . .

Arrived in Paris . . . he loaded every baron, knight, . . . master, scholar and burgess with gifts of plate, clothing, horses and money.

It was a show fit for a king.

In 1158 Thomas Becket was fast becoming one of Henry II’s closest friends and most trusted advisers. The king had found him working as a clerk in the service of Theobald archbishop of Canterbury. Theobald had admired the young man’s ambitious capacity for hard work and had promoted him through his service until in 1154 Becket had become archdeacon of Canterbury. It was in this post that he became known to Henry, who was encouraged to think of Becket as a highly competent candidate for the post of English chancellor. In 1155, on Theobald’s recommendation, Henry had placed Becket at the top of the English administration. Becket rose to the task. He excelled in royal service.

Twelfth-century government was still a scrappy, personal business. The courtier Walter Map has left us a dramatic but highly plausible image of Henry’s court in full pelt: “Whenever [the king] goes out he is seized by the crowd and pulled and pushed hither and thither; he is assaulted by shouts and roughly handled; yet he listens to all with patience and seemingly without anger; until hustled beyond bearing[,] he silently retreats to some place of quiet.” At the heart of such a throng, the king required a large and sophisticated system of household servants, clerks, diplomats, and administrators. It was this sort of loose organization over which Becket presided. Like the great royal servants of centuries to come—Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Wolsey, or Elizabeth I’s principal secretary William Cecil—Becket spared a charismatic monarch the strain of day-to-day government and turned his grand visions into reality.

Excerpted from The Plantagenets
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