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Главная страница » History of Britain (история Британии) » The England of Henry II
The England of Henry II History of Britain (история Британии) 

The development of England into a united nation, with a strong central government headed by the king, had received a setback (движение назад) in the chaotic reign of the previous king, Stephen. But the setback was not so severe as it looked to people like the monks who wrote the chronicles of the time. The system had not been destroyed. During the reign of Henry II, law and government in England were restored and strengthened.

Monarchs are always interesting people - because they are monarchs. Historians have been fascinated by the character of Queen Victoria, but if she had been the daughter of a banker or a fishmonger no one would have noticed her. In the Middle Ages, when monarchs were far more powerful than they were in the 19th century, their personalities and talents were more important. England today might be a different place if Henry II had not reigned from 1154 to 1189.

The England of Henry II
Печать Генриха II

Henry was about medium height, heavily built, with slight bow legs from spending so much time on horseback. He had reddish hair and a big freckled face, with grey eyes that grew bloodshot and glowed when he was in a rage. Like all his family, he had a fierce temper, and would roll on the floor, biting the rushes that covered it. But normally he was a kind, even humble man, and less cruel than most men of his time. His favourite sport was hunting, and vigorous exercise helped prevent him growing fat.

His energy was extraordinary. In a time when travel was difficult he once went from Ireland, via England, to France – about 1300 kilometres including two sea crossings – in a month. He often ate his meals standing up.

His energy was not only physical. He tackled all problems, like changes in law and taxation or a new issue of coins, in the same spirit. He knew four or five languages and he was so widely recognized as a wise judge that two Spanish kings asked him to decide a dispute between them. He might sometimes chatter in church, but he would spend half the night puzzling out a tricky legal case.

Henry's empire was so large that only a man of great ability could have held it together. Yet his many responsibilities prevented him becoming a dictator. He could not afford to use the royal power too severely for fear of a rebellion.

No one thought of Henry's possessions as an empire. The Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope were two figures who commanded some authority in Europe beyond personal loyalties, but otherwise everything depended on the bond between a man and his lord. Henry's rights and powers were different in each of his possessions. His lands in France were held from the king of France, and Henry was therefore the vassal of Louis VII, just as the king of Scots, who held estates in England, was a vassal of Henry along with the English barons. That did not, of course, prevent Henry fighting the French or the English fighting the Scots.

Henry's power was greatest in England, where his rule was most successful. He made the barons pull down the castles they had built during the reign of Stephen, and he regained the land the Crown had lost since the death of Henry I. But his greatest gift to England was his work in law and government.

Words like 'reform' and 'change' meant nothing to a medieval ruler and Henry did not regard himself as the inventor of new laws or the reformer of government. His intention was not to change but to restore, and although that sometimes meant introducing new laws, Henry always thought - or said - they were merely the good laws of earlier times stated anew.

The custom of sending travelling judges around the country had begun in the reign of Henry I, if not earlier. Henry II made it a permanent system, and it has lasted, with many changes, to the present. Nor was the use of juries new. Juries of a kind had been known in Anglo-Saxon England. They had been consulted about local conditions for the Domesday Book, acting more like witnesses than jurymen. But by the end of Henry II's reign, it was becoming common for juries to be consulted in criminal cases - to say if a man were innocent or guilty. Henry disliked the old system of trial by ordeal: it was already going out of fashion in France while he was a young man.

The centre of law and government was the king's court or household. The court was to begin with a court of justice, where disputes between subjects were settled. But it was also a kind of super-cabinet, where all government action was decided, and a council of advisers, attended by the king's chief vassals. Everything revolved around the person of the king or, when he was abroad, around his appointed deputy, always one of the greatest barons, who was called the Justiciar.

This system had some disadvantages, which grew worse as time went by. The chief difficulty was not just that the king was simply too busy, but that he was always on the move, carrying the whole government with him. Gradually, separate departments of the government were formed. At first they were still attached to the royal household, but eventually they became separate institutions with permanent headquarters. A great step forward in this direction was taken when the Exchequer - the department that dealt with government income (which made it, from the king's point of view, the most important) - became established at Westminster. The choice of headquarters for the Exchequer ensured that the capital would be - where it still is - in the city of Westminster.

Henry II brought peace and order swiftly to England, but he was not quite so successful in forcing the Scots and the Welsh to accept English order.

Under King David I, Scotland had made great strides towards becoming, like England, a unified nation with a strong central government. David had been educated in England and when he became king of Scots in 1124 he gave many Scottish estates and bishoprics to Normans, men whom he had come to know in England. With their assistance, he created an efficient state on the Anglo-Norman pattern. But only in the Lowlands: the Celtic chiefs of the Highlands paid little or no attention to the royal government.

David I died in 1153 (the year before Henry II inherited the English crown) and he was succeeded by the fourteen-year-old Malcolm IV, known as Malcolm the Maiden. Malcolm's short reign was troubled, and the Scottish-held parts of Northumbria and Cumbria were lost to the English; but with William the Lion (1165-1224) the Scots again had a strong king. William served in France with Henry II, but later turned against him, encouraged by Henry's rebellious sons and by the French. (The 'auld alliance' between France and Scotland can be dated from William's reign.) He was defeated at Alnwick, captured by the English, and forced to acknowledge Henry as his overlord; some Scottish castles were manned by English troops.

Earl Robert de Mowbray's knights charge forth at the Battle of Alnwick

But what William failed to do by force he later gained with cash. A large payment in gold to Richard I (Henry's son) secured Scottish independence and regained the lost lands in Northumbria.

During the reign of Stephen the Welsh had run wild and captured several English castles. Wales was not easily subdued, partly because of its mountainous country and partly because of the help the Welsh received from Ireland. Henry II fought several quick campaigns in Wales without much success, and finally he decided to leave matters to the Marcher lords. These semi-independent princes were mostly Norman in origin, but they had intermarried with Welsh princely families. One of them, known to history as Strongbow, undertook the conquest of Ireland in 1169-70. His success brought Henry II new territorial responsibilities which he could well have done without.

Henry's last years were harassed. In 1180 Philip Augustus came to the throne of France: he proved a tougher and more cunning opponent than his father. Henry was faced with successive rebellions in France in which his own sons played leading parts. Not only was that a miserable experience for a father (though Henry had not been the best of parents), it made the situation more dangerous: a revolt supported by a royal prince always gathered more support. Worn out and railing against God, Henry lost his eager energy. As he lay sick, he was told that John, his favourite among his surviving sons, had joined the rebels. He turned his face to the wall, muttering, 'I care for nothing in the world now', and died soon afterwards.

Richard Coeur de Lion on his way to Jerusalem

Richard I, who inherited the crown, was more of a French knight than an English monarch. He gained a glorious reputation in Europe as a Crusader in the East, where he defeated the great Saladin and just failed to capture Jerusalem. He deserved his nickname Coeur de Lion (Львиное Сердце), 'lion-hearted'. But during his ten-year reign he was only in England for a few months and then mainly to raise money.

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