King Henry II of England – Medieval history

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Henry II on his tomb

Henry II of England

Queen Matilda of England

When William the Conqueror died in 1087 AD, he left the throne of England to his sons William II and then Henry, and Henry left it to his daughter Matilda, the widow of Henry V of Germany.

A round piece of brownish ivroy with a woman sitting and a man lying down with his head in her lap. Another man stands in the background - the attendant who brings Delilah the scissors

Delilah treacherously cuts off Samson’s hair while he sleeps. Carved into a backgammon piece made of walrus ivory. England, 1130s AD. This was when Matilda was fighting to rule England, so maybe it was a sexist commentary?

The two Theophanos and Agnes had just ruled Germany and the Roman Empire, and Matilda of Canossa was ruling Italy, after all.

The rebellion of Stephen of Blois

But when Henry died in 1135, his nephew Stephen of Blois fought Matilda for power. Like Anna Comnena in Byzantium about the same time, Matilda fought Stephen for years, but she couldn’t defeat him.

Eleanor of Aquitaine (Cloisters Museum, New York City)

Eleanor of Aquitaine (Cloisters Museum, New York City)

This dress of imported silk belonged to Matilda.

This dress of imported silk belonged to Matilda.

Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine

When Stephen died, in 1154, Matilda’s son Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine took over England (and Normandy, and Aquitaine which belonged to Eleanor, so altogether it was about half of modern France as well). With the help of his mother Matilda, Henry was a strong king. While Matilda ran Normandy, Henry organized England, as well as fighting against the French, and later against Eleanor, who led a rebellion against Henry to try to get control of Aquitaine for herself.

The murder of Thomas a Becket in stained glass

The murder of Thomas a Becket

In Henry’s arguments with the Church about whether the Church or the king was to be more powerful, Matilda tried to keep the peace. But after Matilda died in 1167, when she was 65 years old, the fighting got worse. In 1170, Henry’s men murdered St. Thomas a Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, in his own church.

Stone carving of a young white man with a crown

Prince Henry

Henry and Eleanor had four sons: Henry, Richard, Geoffrey and John. Henry, the oldest, died (of dysentery) before his father, and so when Henry died Richard became king of England. One of his first acts was to encourage violence against Jewish citizens in England. Richard went on the Third Crusade, which was not very successful.

Richard the Lionhearted

Richard the Lionhearted

While he was away, Richard left his youngest brother John in charge of England (because Geoffrey had also died, possibly in a tournament). John had to collect a lot of tax money from the English people to pay for the Crusade. And then when Richard the Lionhearted was captured by the Holy Roman Emperor in Germany, John and Eleanor had to raise a huge amount of ransom money with more taxes, largely from taxing monasteries. So John became very unpopular, at least with the land-owners and church officials who were paying the taxes.

Prince John on a coin

Prince John on a coin

In the Robin Hood stories, King John is the bad king who oppresses the poor and chases Robin Hood, and King Richard is the good king who comes back from his travels and pardons Robin Hood. Robin Hood probably never really existed, and the taxes really fell not on the poor but on richer people who had money. But the kings were real.

When Richard died in 1199 AD at 42 of a gangrenous wound, he didn’t have any kids, so his brother John became king after him.

Learn by doing: hold a tournament
More about King John and the Magna Carta

Bibliography and further reading about Richard the Lionhearted:


More about the Third Crusade
More about Eleanor of Aquitaine
King John and the Magna Carta
Medieval Europe home

By |2018-05-22T23:15:30+00:00August 2nd, 2017|History, Medieval|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. King Henry II of England – Medieval history. Study Guides, August 2, 2017. Web. November 13, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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