The house of Plantagenet: The Story of Henry II and Richard I (Coeur de Lion)

Henry II

Master of a hybrid “empire” (England, Normandy, Anjou, Maine and Touraine by inheritance; Poitou, Aquitaine and Gascony by marriage with Eleanor of Aquitaine (1152); Brittany (acquired 1169), and Wales, Ireland, and Scotland (on a loose bond)) without unity save in the person of the ruler. Dynastic marriages: daughter Eleanor to the king of Castile, Joan to the king of Sicily, Matilda to Henry the Lion. King Henry was a man of education, exhaustless energy, experience as an administrator; a realist; violent of temper.




Restoration of England

Restoration of England to the good order of Henry I: dismissal of mercenaries, razing of unlicensed castles, reconquest of Northumberland and Cumberland from the Scots, resumption of crown lands and offices alienated under Stephen. Reconstitution of the exchequer and great council. After 1155 Henry felt free to leave England, and spent less than half his reign in the realm.

Struggle to reduce clerical encroachment on the royal courts

Under Stephen, anarchy and the theories of Roman law had favored the expansion of clerical courts, extending to all who were literate, even accused murderers, benefit of clergy—that is, trial in the ecclesiastical court, where the penalties were far milder than in the king’s court. Thomas Becket (a close friend of Henry’s at the time of his elevation to the chancellorship, 1155) resigned as chancellor when he became archbishop of Canterbury (1162), and clashed at once with Henry over the criminous clerks. The Constitutions of Clarendon (1164), largely a restatement of old customs (including the Conqueror’s), provided (inter alia) for the indictment of clerics in royal courts, their trial in ecclesiastical courts, and their degradation, followed by their sentencing and punishment in royal courts. Becket claimed this amounted to double jeopardy, that “not even God judges twice for the same thing.” Henry argued that too many criminals were escaping justice. The Constitutions also extended royal jurisdiction (at the expense of clerical), and asserted royal rights of control in episcopal elections. Becket yielded, was dispensed from his oath by the pope, violated the Constitutions, and fled to France. Reconciled (1170) with Henry, Becket returned, excommunicated certain bishops friendly to Henry, and was murdered in the cathedral of Canterbury by four knights of Henry’s court, spurred by Henry’s outbreak of fury against Becket, but not by Henry’s orders. Henry escaped excommunication by promising to abide by the papal judgment, and was reconciled with the papacy (1172) after swearing an oath denying all share in the crime. Henry retained the right of presentation and virtual control over episcopal elections.

Judicial reforms

Increasing concentration of judicial business in the small council.  Designation (1178) of five professional judges from the small council as a permanent central court; extension of the transfer of judicial business to royal courts by the increase and specialization of royal writs (the fees a valuable source of revenue); formalization and regularization (c. 1166) of the itinerant justices (justices in eyre), the great source of the common law (a law universal in the realm). One of the judges, Glanvil, wrote the Treatise on the Laws and Customs of the Kingdom of England, the first serious book on the common law, which revealed the formal influence of Roman law but was English in substance. The itinerant judges were charged with cases dealing with crimes like murder, robbery, forgery, and arson, and with financial business as well as judicial. Expansion of the sworn inquest (probably of Roman origin, introduced into England by the Conqueror): statements by neighbors (freeholders) under oath in the shire courts, in the form of a jury (12 members) of presentment in criminal cases (Assize of Clarendon, 1166) later called the accusing, indicting, or grand jury, but guilt in criminal cases determined by ordeal by battle or hot iron or cold water, which were appeals to the supernatural; local juries used to determine rightful possession of land in civil cases.




Reorganization of the exchequer

Nigel, bishop of Ely (nephew of the original organizer, Roger of Salisbury), restored the exchequer to the general form of Henry I. Innovations in the raising of revenue: tallage, levied by local negotiations (i.e., by the itinerant justices) with boroughs and tenants:   hidage (carucage) replaced the Danegeld;  scutage, levied by Henry I on the clergy, now extended to knights’ fees in lieu of military service (due to Henry’s need of nonfeudal levies across the channel); personal property taxes (the first, 1166), Saladin tithe (1188), assessed by neighborhood juries. The Dialogue of the Exchequer was written by one of the officials of the exchequer.

Extension of trade

German merchants were well established in London by 1157; there was a large Italian business in wool; and there was extensive development of domestic trade.

Foreign affairs

The Norman penetration of Wales since the conquest bred a sporadic national resistance; Henry, with three expeditions, reduced Wales to nominal homage to the English crown. Ireland, despite a brilliant native culture, was in political chaos under rival tribal kinglets and was economically exhausted. Pope Adrian IV, hoping that Henry would reform the Church in Ireland, “gave” Ireland (1154) to Henry. Richard of Clare’s (Strongbow) expedition (1169–70) established a harsh rule; Henry landed (1171), temporarily reduced the rigors of the baronial administration, and reformed the Irish Church (Synod of Cashel, 1172). John Lackland (Henry’s son) was appointed lord of Ireland (1177), arrived (1185), and was soon recalled for incompetence. Intrigues and revolts (beginning 1173) of Henry’s sons, supported by their mother, Eleanor, King Louis VII, and later Philip II of France, as well as by disgruntled local barons. The ruling class continued to speak French during this reign, but the establishment of primogeniture as applied to land inheritance ensured that younger sons would mingle with the nonaristocratic sections of society and accelerate the fusion of Norman and native elements. Manor houses began to appear in increasing numbers as domestic peace continued. Numerous Cistercian houses spread new agricultural methods and especially improved wool raising.

Richard I the Lionheart (Coeur de Lion)

Neither legislator, administrator, nor statesman, but the greatest of knights errant, an absentee ruler who spent less than a year of his reign in England, he visited his realm only twice, to raise money for Continental ventures. Taxation was heavy. The government remained in the hands of ministers largely trained by Henry II, but there appeared a tendency toward a common antipathy of barons and people toward the crown. Richard (having taken the Cross, 1188) went on the Third Crusade with Frederick Barbarossa and Philip II, his most dangerous foe. On his return trip Richard was captured by Duke Leopold of Austria and turned over to Emperor Henry VI, who held him for a staggering ransom. John and Philip bid for the prisoner, but Richard finally bought his freedom (1194) with a ransom raised partly through taxation in England. The crusade gave Englishmen their first taste of Eastern adventure, but drew few except the adventurous portion of the baronage. The domestic reflection was a series of anti-Semitic outbreaks. John Lackland (despite his known character) was given charge of several counties; his plot against Richard was put down by Hubert Walter with the support of London. Hubert Walter, archbishop of Canterbury and justiciar (1194–98), ruled England well, maintained the king’s peace, and began a clear reliance on the support of the middle class in town and shire. Charters were granted towns (London received the right to elect its mayor)—and the knights of the shire were called on to assume a share of county business as a balance to the sheriffs. Knights (elected by the local gentry) served as coroners and chose the local juries, a departure looking to the day when local election and amateur justices of the peace would be the basis of government. The first known merchant guild established in 1193.




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