Although he married twice, Henry only had two legitimate children, William and Matilda. (He had at least another twenty outside marriage.) When his son William drowned in 1120, Henry decided to ask his barons to accept his daughter as the country's next ruler. The barons were not happy about this but after much discussion they accepted Henry's request.
When Henry I died in 1135, some of the barons did not keep their promise to support Matilda. The Normans had never had a woman leader. Norman law stated that all property and rights should be handed over to men. To the Normans this meant that her husband Geoffrey of Anjou would become their next ruler.
The people of Anjou (Angevins) were considered to be barbarians by the Normans. Most Normans were unwilling to accept an Angevin ruler and instead decided to help Stephen, the son of one of William the Conqueror's daughters, to become king.
For the next eighteen years there was civil war between the supporters of Matilda and Stephen. As neither side was strong enough to achieve an outright victory, the result was a long conflict that created a great deal of hardship for the people of England.
Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou had three sons. At the age of fourteen Henry, the eldest son, arrived in England from Anjou with his own army to help his mother in her fight against Stephen. Henry also fought in France, and with his father managed to capture Normandy from Stephen. Later, when Geoffrey died. Henry inherited Normandy, Maine and Anjou. His marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152 also brought another large area of France under his control.
It was now clear to the barons that Stephen would never be able to achieve total victory over Matilda. They put pressure on Stephen to bring an end to the civil war and in 1153 negotiations began between the two sides. It was eventually agreed by the Treaty of Westminster that Stephen would remain king until he died. In return, Stephen had to accept Matilda's son Henry as his heir.
Henry did not have to wait long to become king as Stephen died the following year. Henry was now the undisputed ruler of the empire that had been created by his great grandfather, William the Conqueror.
When Stephen died in 1154, Henry became king of England. Henry spent the early part of his reign establishing control over England's powerful barons. His first step was to destroy all the castles that had been built during Stephen's reign. Henry II also announced that in future castles could only be built with his permission.
From an early age Henry had been trained as the next king of England. Queen Matilda had employed the best scholars in Europe to educate her son. Henry was a willing student and never lost his love of learning. When he became king Henry arranged for the world's best scholars to visit his court so that he could discuss important issues with them. One of his close friends said that Henry had a tremendous memory and rarely forgot anything he was told.
Henry spent many hours studying Roman history. He was particularly interested in the way Emperor Augustus had successfully managed to gain control over the Roman Empire. Henry realised that, like Augustus, his first task must be to tackle those that had the power to remove him.
This meant that Henry had to control England's powerful barons. His first step was to destroy all the castles that had been built during Stephen's reign. Henry also announced that, in future, castles could only be built with his permission. The new king also deported all the barons' foreign mercenaries.
Henry then took action to unite the people of England. He allowed several of Stephen's officials to keep their government posts. Another strategy used by Henry was to arrange marriages between rival families.
Once Henry had complete control over England, he turned his attention to the rest of the British Isles. In 1157 Henry forced the king of Scotland, Malcolm IV, to surrender Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmorland to England. Henry also invaded Wales and Ireland, but their successful use of guerrilla tactics made complete control over these countries impossible.
When Henry became king he appointed Thomas Becket as his chancellor. Becket's job was an important one as it involved the distribution of royal charters, writs and letters. The king and Becket soon became close friends. Becket carried out many tasks for Henry II including leading the English army into battle.
When Theobald died in 1162, Henry chose Becket as his next Archbishop of Canterbury. The decision angered many leading churchmen. They pointed out that Becket had never been a priest, had a reputation as a cruel military commander and was very materialistic (Becket loved expensive food, wine and clothes). They also feared that as Becket was a close friend of Henry II, he would not be an independent leader of the church.
A great deal of Henry's reign was spent at war with rivals who wanted to take over the territory he controlled in Europe. Not only did Henry manage to successfully protect this territory, but was able to add to his empire making him the most powerful monarch in Western Europe.
When Henry was in England he spent most of the time travelling. Henry believed that it was important that people saw their ruler as much as possible. He argued that this encouraged the people to remain loyal to their king.
Henry was full of energy. When he was not working on government business he loved hunting. Even when he arrived back home it was said he rarely sat down.
Henry, unlike most kings, cared little for appearances. He preferred hardwearing hunting clothes to royal robes. Henry also disliked the pomp and ceremony that went with being king.
Henry believed people had to earn respect. He was often rude to members of the nobility. He was quick to lose his temper and often upset important people by shouting at them. Yet, when dealing with the poor or a defeated enemy. Henry had a reputation for being polite and kind. He also had a great sense of humour and even enjoyed a joke at his own expense.
An extremely intelligent man with tremendous energy, Henry made several important legal reforms and is considered to be the founder of English common law. Henry's attempts to reform the courts controlled by the church led to conflict with Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
In 1163, after a long spell in France, Henry arrived back in England. Henry was told that, while he had been away, there had been a dramatic increase in serious crime. The king's officials claimed that over a hundred murderers had escaped their proper punishment because they had claimed their right to be tried in church courts.
Those that had sought the privilege of a trial in a Church court were not exclusively clergymen. Any man who had been trained by the church could choose to be tried by a church court. Even clerks who had been taught to read and write by the Church but had not gone on to become priests had a right to a Church court trial. This was to an offender's advantage, as church courts could not impose punishments that involved violence such as execution or mutilation. There were several examples of clergy found guilty of murder or robbery who only received "spiritual" punishments, such as suspension from office or banishment from the altar.
The king decided that clergymen found guilty of serious crimes should be handed over to his courts. At first, the Archbishop agreed with Henry on this issue but after talking to other church leaders Thomas Becket changed his mind. Henry was furious when Becket began to assert that the church should retain control of punishing its own clergy. The king believed that Becket had betrayed him and was determined to obtain revenge.
In 1164, Becket was involved in a dispute over land. Henry ordered Becket to appear before his courts. When Becket refused, the king confiscated his property. Henry also claimed that Becket had stolen £300 from government funds when he had been Chancellor. Becket denied the charge but, so that the matter could be settled quickly, he offered to repay the money. Henry refused to accept Becket's offer and insisted that the Archbishop should stand trial. When Henry mentioned other charges, including treason, Becket decided to run away to France.
Becket eventually agreed to return to England. However, as soon as he arrived on English soil, he excommunicated (expelled from the Christian Church) the Archbishop of York and other leading churchmen who had supported Henry while he was away. Henry, who was in Normandy at the time, was furious when he heard the news and supposedly shouted out: "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" Four of Henry's knights, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, Reginald Fitz Urse, and Richard Ie Bret, who heard Henry's angry outburst decided to travel to England to see Becket.
When the knights arrived at Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December 1170, they demanded that Becket pardon the men he had excommunicated. When Becket refused, they hacked him to death with their swords.
The Christian world was shocked by Becket's murder. The pope canonised Becket and he became a symbol of Christian resistance to the power of the monarchy. His shrine at Canterbury became the most important place in the country for pilgrims to visit.
Although Henry admitted that his comments had led to the death of Becket, he argued that he had neither commanded nor wished the man's death. In 1172 Pope Alexander III accepted these arguments and absolved Henry from Becket's murder. In return. Henry had to provide 200 men for a crusade to the Holy Land and had to agree to being whipped by eighty monks. Most importantly of all. Henry agreed to drop his plans to have criminal clerics tried in his courts.
Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine had five sons (William, Henry, Richard I, Geoffrey and John) and three daughters (Matilda, Eleanor and Joan). During the last years of his reign Henry's wife and sons constantly plotted against him. Henry died in 1189.