Mounted soldiers in the time of Henry II, from a Vulgate Bible at Winchester
Mounted soldiers in the time of Henry II, from a Vulgate Bible at Winchester

The new king
Henry Plantagent, Count of Anjou, was barely one and twenty when he became king of England. Already his audacity and ambition had been displayed by the wooing and winning of Eleanor of Aquitaine, an alliance which added to his dominions about a quarter of the whole French realm. The lady's marriage with her previous husband, the king of France, had been annulled, owing to incom­patibility of temper. With the English in­heritance came that of Normandy, carrying with it Maine and the over-lordship of Brittany, so that in his own right or in that of his wife he was actual lord of more than half of France, besides having disputed claims on Toulouse. In respect of these counties and duchies the king of France was his suzerain; in respect of England he was of course entirely inde­pendent. The populations which owned his sway even on the other side of the channel were exceedingly diverse; and undoubtedly it was his ambition to weld all these dominions into a consolidated empire.

Hence more than half the years of his reign were spent on the continent; and we have to realise that he was not a king of England with continental possessions so much as a great continental prince who happened also to be king of England. But since he did happen to be king of England it was in this country that he found scope for his genius as a ruler, while France absorbed his talents for war, diplomacy, and intrigue.

Order restored
He found England utterly sickened and surfeited with the anarchy of Stephen's reign and ready to welcome the strong hand which should put down disorder. Young as he was, he displayed at once a combined vigour and shrewdness which won him support on every side. In nine months he had restored order and government. The mercenaries were cleared out of the country and the unlicensed castles were levelled to the ground. The nobles who dreamed of recalcitrancy, of asserting their right to follow their own devices, were paralysed by the swift energy of his movements. Men no longer felt that each had to fight for his own hand; the majority were ready enough to combine on the side of law and order when the principles of law and order were incarnated in a chief endowed with so vigorous and capable a personality.

Henry took nominally for his chief counsellor Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, a prelate trained in the school of Roger of Salisbury, who had been the right-hand man of Henry I. For chancellor he took the archbishop's brilliant young secretary, Thomas Becket, a man after the king's own heart, to whom Theobald willingly relinquished the onerous work of the king's chief minister. The administrative system which had been organised by his grandfather and had gone to ruin under the general chaos of Stephen's reign was restored, and for some years to come Henry allowed himself to be absorbed mainly by his continental ambitions. During these years, however, he took advantage of the youth of the king of Scots, Malcolm IV., the grandson of David, to compel him to surrender the claims on Northumberland and Cumberland which Henry had promised David to acknowledge, and to do homage for his earldom of Huntingdon.

Henry's French wars established the important institution of scutage. He could summon the barons and their feudal levies to his banner, but their attendance could only be required for a limited period. Hence the system was extremely inconvenient for him and also for them. Therefore they welcomed a scheme under which they were allowed to commute personal service with their levies for a proportionate money payment, to which was given the name of "scutage" or shield-money.

The scutage enabled the king on his side to hire soldiery who were directly in his own pay and were, by consequence, exclusively devoted to his interests. On the other hand, the barons being virtually released from their feudal obligation to maintain forces ready to take the field ceased to do so, with the obvious result that they ceased also to be ready to take the field on their own account. This, commutation had already been practised in respect of land held by the Church; but its extension to the lay baronage immensely increased the military power of the Crown. Some twenty years later another step in the same direction was taken by the Assize of Arms, which reconstituted the national fyrd and regulated the arms which all freeholders, burghers, and freemen were required to carry.

Becket's appointment
In 1162 Archbishop Theobald died. The Church, with ample justification, had acquired under Stephen many relaxations of its subordination to the Crown; rules established under the Conqueror and under Henry I fell into abeyance. Henry II was resolved to re-establish the claims of the Crown but was willing to wait for Theobald's death. Now it seemed that his time had come, and he conceived that he had an instrument ready to his hand in his chancellor, Thomas Becket, who had hitherto seen eye to eye with him.

He nominated Thomas to the archbishopric. Becket, as chancellor, acted the role of the great minister of the Crown with dramatic zeal and enthusiasm; but he had a different conception of his duties as archbishop. He had become the head of the Church; and in that capacity he was no longer the servant of the Crown, but the champion of the Church against all comers, resolute to surrender no tittle of her privileges. Since the part was thrust upon him he would play it like his previous part with dramatic thoroughness, of which martyrdom would be a welcome climax. In the meanwhile the brilliant and worldly statesman, the king's boon companion, the cleric before whose lance knights had been known to go down, became the ascetic devotee, the father of the poor, the servant of the Lord's servants.

Now the reforms on which Henry was set were twofold. On the one side he claimed the recovery for the Crown of those rights which it had successfully maintained in the time of the Conqueror and Henry I. On the other he demanded the curtailment of ecclesiastical powers which had grown out of that complete separation of ecclesiastical and temporal jurisdictions for which William Iand Lanfranc had been responsible.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's point of view may not be currently accepted by modern historians, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

Prehistory - Roman Britain - Dark Ages - Medieval Britain - The Tudor Era - The Stuarts - Georgian Britain - The Victorian Age