History Podcasts

Was King Henry II of England a Muslim? The life and legacy of King Henry II

Illustrated portrait of King Henry II
Copyright: © National Portrait Gallery, London

King Henry II is one of the more polarising figures in history. What makes his life even more interesting is a claim he once made of possibly converting to Islam. He ruled as the King of England from 1154-1189. Though history may not remember him in the most positive of lights, the writer and historian Claudia Gold is on a mission to change that perception and highlight his accomplishments and contributions. In its latest podcast, The Review of Religions spoke to Claudia Gold on the subject of King Henry II.

Gold also serves as the director of Jewish Book Week, and has authored several books including Women who Ruled: History’s 50 Most Remarkable Women, as well as King of the North Wind, a biography of King Henry II, King of England and lord of much of modern-day France. In this discussion, she speaks on a wide array of aspects, including Henry’s role in the Crusades, the Influence of Arabic on his education, and the background to his claim of possibly converting to Islam.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of Claudia Gold’s conversation with Rizwan Safir, Editor of the Archaeology Section for the Review of Religions. Rizwan Safir is Senior Research Consultant specialising in archaeology and museums, with over 10 years’ experience in the Middle East. He has worked for the British Museum, Humboldt University Berlin, Copenhagen University and other such institutions on excavations and heritage conservation projects.

Rizwan: It’s great to have you. I’m really excited about going into depth on such an interesting character. Henry II is maligned in some cases and celebrated in others, and it feels like you are on a campaign to set his record straight.

Claudia: Absolutely, I am indeed!

Rizwan: Brilliant, brilliant! Henry is of course an intriguing and complicated character, and he had a profound impact on English history. How did you develop an interest in him? And why do you think he is not as celebrated as other monarchs?

Claudia: Well that’s a really interesting question, and in my opinion I think Henry was the cleverest and most tolerant and learned of monarchs, and it’s astonishing he’s not as celebrated as Henry VIII and Victoria and Henry V. 

What first drew me to Henry was his portrayal by Peter O’Toole in the magnificent, The Lion in Winter, a film that was made with Eleanor being played by Katherine Hepburn in the 1960s, and Henry appeared to be such a fascinating character and larger than life, and when I decided to write a book about Henry, historical research had always drawn me back to him, and I wanted to know how much of this stupendous character was actually true. I mean if anyone has seen the film – and I urge you all to do so, it’s a real treat – you realise that James Goldman’s depiction of Henry is actually quite spot on.

He was a larger than life figure. He was the sort of person who would walk into a room, assess a situation, cleverer than anyone else in the room, and it fascinated me, discovering more and more about him. As a historian, I’ve always been drawn to those characters in history who are tolerant about religions as well, and other peoples and other beliefs. They seem to be so much larger than many other figures, and Henry was certainly one of those. And as we might discuss later on, he welcomed Jewish and Muslim scholars to his court, and to his kingdom, and was very interested in their ideas. I think that perhaps one of the reasons he’s not as celebrated today as, say, the Tudors are would be the murder of Thomas Becket, his Archbishop of Canterbury. His contemporaries believed that Henry actually ordered his murder, although this is actually a little bit of a grey area, but Henry certainly uttered those famous words that drove four knights to cross the sea from France to England to kill him in his own cathedral church.

If we imagine Henry died six years before he actually did in 1189, it was a time when he was at the height of his power – he was the ‘grand old man of Europe’. He regularly arbitrated in disputes between his fellow European monarchs. People came to Henry if they wanted advice. This was a time when his family was at peace, which was unusual. His sons had rebelled in the great revolt ten years earlier, together with his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was imprisoned for it, but in 1183, his son, the young King, rose up against his father and then he died, and that began a period in Henry’s life which was absolutely blighted, and the last six years of his reign was stained with his trying to, and failing miserably, to dominate a new French King, Philip Augustus – a man he believed could dominate and control. His sons were at war for the last few years of his reign, his beloved mistress had died several years before, which probably  sunk Henry into a little bit of depression, but he did end up dying miserably and alone and deserted, even by his favourite legitimate son John, who turned against his father at the very end.

Rizwan: I mean it’s incredible, and such a dense life which seems to be in all the things you just mentioned here. But just thinking about his reign and the context of his reign, so if we’re thinking now about 12th Century Europe, the way that 12th Century Europe is typically understood, at least in the context of the church, Islam, Judaism to some extent, is that there’s this continual back-story of conflict, particularly between the Christian world and the Islamic world at this time, and in terms of the religious context, what were Henry’s views on this apparent tension, you see being king of England and ruling larger areas of France? What were his views on this continuous conflict that was arising between the Christian world and the Muslim world during the medieval era?

Claudia: Well it’s fascinating – there seems to be a little bit of paradox here that you get. Many of the knights of Christian Europe went off to fight in the first Crusade, leaving Europe in 1097, and by 1099 they established a Latin kingdom. They’re ruling the kingdom around Jerusalem for the best part of nearly 200 years, which is absolutely incredible… Sorry, 100 years the kingdom falls to Saladin.

Henry, as far as I’m aware, never said anything explicit about the Crusades. He never said anything beyond what was natural for a Christian ruler of the time, and Henry certainly paid lip service to this. He knew that his power stemmed from the Church, although Henry was deeply superstitious; he likely wasn’t religious. He famously doodled and fidgeted in church and continued to see petitioners, and it’s my feeling that he didn’t really care much for the subject of the Crusades, and I do believe that actions speak louder than words, and it’s telling that although Henry promised again and again to go on crusade, he never did.

After Becket’s death, he promised yet again that he would go on crusade, but he persuaded the Pope two years after Becket died that he was far too busy to leave his lands, and the Pope said, “Don’t worry about it, just build some abbeys,” which he did. And Henry became known as builder of abbeys instead, and by paying lip service he did spend money. He sent a considerable amount of  money, from 1171 until his death, for the defence of the holy land, but he never went, and I think that’s incredibly interesting. He was even offered the keys to the kingdom in the 1180s. He was offered the crown of the Kingdom of Jerusalem but he wouldn’t take it and he wouldn’t let his sons take it either.

Rizwan: That’s so interesting – I just want to touch on this a little bit more. So he didn’t undertake or participate in the Crusades that were taking place. How rare was that for a Christian King to outright say, ‘I’m not participating’? I know he didn’t explicitly talk about it.

Claudia: Oh no, Henry was far too wily to make a definite statement on it! It was unusual. His fellow monarch, Louis VII of France, was actually married to Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine – Louis was Eleanor’s first husband. Louis was famously pious, and he went on the second crusade in the 1140s accompanied by Eleanor. Just before Henry died, he was at the mercy of the new French King, Philip Augustus, and his own son – who would become Richard the Lionheart. They made it one of the terms of their peace with Henry, that Henry had to go on a crusade, and he agreed under duress but he died before he actually had to go. Henry’s fellow monarch was the emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, and in many ways, much of Henry’s life reflects that of Barbarossa’s; he went on a crusade but Henry never did.

And it’s fascinating that he constantly managed to wriggle out of it, and I believe that one of the reasons he sent money to the holy land was so that he would become a very powerful figure within the Middle East. This money gave him a great deal of leverage and constantly he promised it to this one and that one, but he never actually gave it. It was actually stolen from him in the last siege in Jerusalem in 1187, and the money was taken without Henry’s knowledge by one of the last kings of Jerusalem. 

Rizwan: That’s intriguing; I’m just thinking about the context of the era he lived in. I know you talked in the beginning of your interest in characters in history who were tolerant of religion, and by his actions – at least not by his words that we are aware of – it definitely feels like he had an interest or an appeal towards these other cultural groups that were existing at that time.

If we talk about the context of Britain at the time of Henry’s reign, do we know how much there was an awareness of Islam or Judaism, or of other religions? I suppose Judaism more so because of a longer historical association with Europe, but how much were people aware of these other religions such as Islam, other than perhaps the overtly negative perceptions that were at the forefront of the Crusades?

Claudia: That’s extremely interesting and surprisingly, amongst these scholarly communities, there was a lot. The world was far more international in the 12th and even the 11th Centuries than modern historians or modern popular conceptions have given it credit for, and scholars were always travelling. There were a lot of cross-communal influences.

So what did we know of in Britain at the time? Peter the Venerable had arranged for the translation of the Qur’an into Latin in the early 1140s. We’ve got Alfar Gani’s Rudiments of Astronomy translated in 1135, Herman of Corinthia’s translation of Abu Mashal’s great Introductions to Astrology was in 1140. Henry I’s physician was fascinating. Henry I was Henry II’s grandfather, and Henry II actually lived with him as a very small child, but he had the most fascinating physician known as Petrus Alfonsi, who was born a Jew and he converted to Christianity, and he’d grown up in Muslim Spain, and it was Petrus Alfonsi who wrote the first credible account of Muhammad in Latin, and this was widely known amongst the scholarly community, and then you have translations of Introduction to Astrology by Al-Kindi; the first compendium of medicine was translated from Arabic into Latin and it was certainly in England by the 1170s; and then you’ve got the astronomical tables of Al-Khwarizmi in the 1140s.

And one of the greatest Arabists and studies of the Arabs, was seen as the apotheosis of knowledge at the time – the great Adelard of Bath. He was one of Henry’s teachers and he had an enormous impact on young Henry’s education, and he even dedicated the culmination of his life’s work to Henry. Henry, I believe, through the teachings of Adelard, admired and revered studies of the Arabs.

Rizwan: That’s just fascinating to think that all of these achievements took place in Henry’s life and many during Henry’s reign, and often these were firsts? So the Latin translation of the Qur’an – the Latin translation of a lot of these works of Muslim scholars – were these some of the first Latin translations that we’re aware of? 

Claudia: Yes, they were indeed. And it’s extraordinary, going back to the cross-influences, Christian Europe was aware of the Arabic studies through three main routes. The first was from the Christian conquest, the slow Christian conquest of the Iberian peninsula from the ninth century, and it would seem that once a city was conquered, relations between the Jews, the Muslims and the Christians really died down; you’d see a lot of intellectual cooperation. And going back to Petrus Alfonsi, he spoke Arabic; his great works, one of which was the Disciplina Clericalis, were a collection of Arabic and Hebrew fables which he translated into Latin. You also have the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem where a lot of cross-communal scholarly expertise was exchanged.

But perhaps the most important centre at this time was Sicily. In the 1130s, Count Roger De Hauteville, who was a Norman mercenary, he and his family conquered Sicily – not just the island, but much of southern Italy and northern Africa too, and here you have an absolutely incredible coexistence between the three major religions. You’re getting much of the so-called lost knowledge of Greece and Rome being translated in the scriptorium here, from the Greek and from the Arabic – the Arabs had access to this knowledge after Rome fell, and you’re finding it translated into Latin. So you have knowledge of the Jews, Muslims, the Greeks and the Romans all making its way through to the cathedral schools and the monasteries of northern Europe. 

Rizwan: That’s incredible to think about, the context in which Henry was living, the context of the Crusades, but despite all of that he was very much familiar with this work and active in its translation and learning from them. We know that Henry spoke several languages also and had an interest in these cultures, as you established. What were his views or did he say much about his views on Islam in general? We know that all of the works of scientists and Arabic scholarship on various secular subjects, but did he say or did he have an understanding of Islam? For example, do we know if he read the Latin Qur’an, or studied it, or gave any opinions on it?

Claudia:: He never gave opinions on it. It’s very likely that he read it though, just considering how much he revered his tutors. He had another tutor – William the Grammarian of Conch, who was also a great Arabist, and I believe that he would have read it, but again, Henry was too wily to pronounce on religion.

Rizwan: There’s a recurring theme coming from Henry. He’s a very shrewd character, isn’t he?

Claudia: Incredibly shrewd! He probably rarely spoke without judging it and seeing how it would be taken, so as far as I am aware, he didn’t pronounce on the Islamic religion. But we know, we are absolutely sure, that he had a huge admiration for the studies of the Arabs and you could see this reflected in the art and the architecture and the literature that Henry encouraged and fostered during his reign. 

Rizwan: That was going to be my next question. Are there any existent sources or architectural elements, or hints towards Henry’s reign that exist in the UK today, or in Britain today, that speak of this interaction with the Islamic world in general?

Claudia: Yes, there are. The influences of Arabic architecture abounded. We can see this at Durham Cathedral in 1130. I know – Durham in 1130! A chilly northern outpost, but the cathedral has a striking resemblance to two Spanish buildings – the great Mosque of Cordoba and the Aljafería Palace in Saragossa, and Arabic motifs are also found in English country churches, and who have they been carved by? They were carved by people who had visited Sicily or Spain and that was quite widespread. People did travel widely, or they had been copied from the sketches of artists who had. And I think perhaps the most interesting example is Canterbury Cathedral. 

In 1174, in Becket’s church, the east end of the cathedral burnt down, and it was rebuilt in 1200 by William the Englishman in a style that’s widely known as early English, but this was anything but an English church. It was rather a fusion of Arabic and English styles and you can see this particularly in the stone vaulting. If you go to Canterbury, you can still see this, in the enormous striped columns which are made of marble. You could find Greek and Arabic treatises in the abbeys in the cathedral schools in the 1170s. In Bury, northern England, we find an Arabic treatise in chemistry which had been translated into Latin, and all of the most beautiful palaces that Henry built. Unfortunately, we only see it from drawings today because it was destroyed. He built his mistress, Rosamund Clifford, a palace at Everswell, and it abounded in Arabic motifs with pools and fountains and courtyards. He built it in the style of the palaces of Norman Sicily and it was unique in northern Europe.

Copyright: © Creative Commons

Rizwan: How incredible, I think I need to revisit Durham Cathedral just to go to see some of these aspects, because it’s completely unknown or relatively unknown! I think it’s such an interesting aspect of his life. Interesting that you mentioned Canterbury – I think this seems the perfect time to bring up the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Thomas Becket. It’s impossible to speak of Henry, without mentioning his episode with Thomas Becket. Could you introduce who Thomas Becket was, and how he came to define much of Henry’s life?

Claudia: Yes, so Thomas Becket first came to Henry’s attention during the negotiated peace with King Stephen. Henry came to power in 1154 after an incredibly turbulent time in English history. After his grandfather Henry I died, it was a race to the throne between his mother Matilda, the empress Matilda, and her first cousin, Stephen of Blois. Stephen won because he happened to be closer and he was crowned. It’s incredibly difficult to dethrone an anointed king with all of the sorts of spectacles and aspects of godly connotations that that has. And so Matilda and Stephen were at war for almost 20 years. And contemporaries called it a time where Christ and all of his Saints seemed to sleep, but because of Henry’s skill and because of Stephen’s ineptitude, he negotiated a peace with Henry in the late 1140s – early 1150s – and one of the people who was the main arbitrator of this peace was the young Thomas Becket, who was the employee of archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, and Henry was struck by how smart Thomas was. Later, when Henry became king in 1154, one of his first appointments was to make Thomas his Chancellor. He and Thomas worked incredibly well together. Thomas was a soldier for Henry; he fought with him while Henry was fighting to reclaim Eleanor’s Poitiers SIC – Toulouse, which he believed he had a right to. He was a soldier and he was an incredibly efficient administrator. Becket loved the trappings of power, which was something by the way, that Henry never enjoyed. Henry always dressed incredibly simply.

He liked eating; he liked food and drink, although he watched his weight. But he never cared for all of the jewels and all of the pomp that went with power, although Thomas did. Thomas and Henry, many people see them as bosom buddies. They had high jinx together. There’s one example of Thomas hosting a very stiff, formal banquet for people, and Henry rides into the banqueting hall on his horse and says, “come on Becket, let’s go hunting!” They used to stay up all night together playing chess. 

Rizwan: Wow, a very close-knit friendship!

Claudia: Incredibly close friendship, absolutely! Henry as we know, one of his great legacies is that he was the arbiter of the English common law, and Thomas helped him. They were truly together. So when Archbishop Theobald died in the late 1150s, Henry thought, ‘wow, wouldn’t it be great if I can get my friend Thomas Becket to be the Archbishop of Canterbury?’

Rizwan: Oh I see, it was a political move to get him into that position.

Claudia: Absolutely. But Henry, being Henry, had hidden motives. Henry wanted his eldest son, who was also called Henry – he would be called Henry, the young King – but he wanted him crowned during his lifetime, and Henry wanted this to happen because he wanted to avoid a blood-soaked race to the throne after his death. He wanted to ensure the succession. And he believed that Becket would be compliant and would do this for him. Everyone begged Henry not to appoint Becket, even Becket himself said, “Don’t do it, I’m worried about what will happen. I’m worried I won’t serve you, but I’m obliged to serve the church first.” Henry’s mother, the formidable Matilda, said, “Don’t do it, he’s not the right man.” Henry went ahead – unusually for Henry, because he did usually follow his advisors’ advice. But he didn’t, he ignored it on this occasion and he appointed Becket to the post.

Claudia: It was a disaster.

Rizwan: So where did things start to go really wrong in this friendship?

Claudia: Well, they first began to clash over the subject of the law in the early 1160s. Henry believed there could only be one law for his country and it had to be the King’s law, but the church reserved the right to punish any clerics who had behaved badly, which meant that such terrible crimes as murder and rape – people were getting off with very light punishments. Henry believed they should be imprisoned and suffer, and if they were sentenced, they would suffer the usual sentences of the King’s law. But Becket didn’t believe this. And so there was a priest who had committed a particularly hideous rape and Henry wanted him judged by his courts. Becket said, “No, he’s mine. I’m protecting him, his fate belongs to the church,” and that’s when they began to clash and the relationship went steadily downhill. 

And eventually, Becket fled to France because he believed that Henry was trying to murder him. So, he fled to Louis. He fled to Louis VII, who was forever Henry’s rival, and Louis welcomed him with open arms. And the fight continued until unfortunately Becket’s death in the 1170s. But it went on for six weary years.  

Rizwan: Wow. Was that the final straw – him moving to Louis, who was sort of his arch-rival in France? Was that the final straw for Henry, that he thought, ‘Right, I need to end his life now’?

Claudia: Well, Henry had eventually negotiated some sort of peace with Becket, and Becket had come back to England in 1170. But it went horribly wrong when Becket started to excommunicate everybody – all of his enemies! And Henry took this personally, as he probably should have done. And so, when he’s holding his Christmas court in northern France in 1170, he utters his famous phrase: “What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured who would let their lord be-” I can’t remember the exact phrase. And they speed off, these four knights, who we later find out had links to one another in ties of friendship and maybe even family. They sped across the sea to Canterbury and they brutally murdered Thomas Becket.

And the reason we know so much about this is because there were lots and lots of witnesses and they wrote it down. And so we know exactly what happened and there was no wriggling out of it. They identified themselves as the King’s men. They ran into the church – they stormed it – shouting, “King’s men! King’s men!” and they hacked off his head! 

Rizwan: Wow! In church?

Claudia: In church. 

Rizwan: Sounds horrific! I mean I can understand now how this has become such a defining chapter in Henry’s life. That episode in itself is gruesome. But what was the immediate aftermath? How was Henry viewed for essentially murdering the head of the church?

Claudia: Well, Henry did everything right. When he was told about it, he went into seclusion for 40 days, and he tore his clothes, and beat his breast, and he refused to eat. And he always swore that it had never been his intention, that he’d never murder Becket. But that’s not how the world saw it. And his fellow monarchs were outraged and they wrote to the Pope and they said, ‘This is terrible! And this is disgusting, that he would have done this!’ However, the relationship with the Pope was complicated. Alexander III was one of two Popes who was elected in 1159. There was this disputed papal election and Henry II gave his backing to Alexander. So Alexander also owed Henry, which was interesting. But it would take Henry years to recover from Becket’s death. It was an outrage – it shocked everybody. But within a couple of years he had managed to recover, and it’s astonishing what he did. He paid a very public penance for his part in the murder.

Rizwan: So, he admitted it?

Claudia: Well, he admitted that his words… No, he never said ‘I meant for them to,’ but he admitted that his words may have spurred the knights to go and murder the Archbishop. But it was never on his orders.

And Henry did penance very well. He went to Canterbury. He walked barefoot for over three miles I think, where he cut his feet. And then he displayed his bare back to the monks and he received something like 300 lashes. 

Rizwan: My goodness!

Claudia: Who knows how hard or soft they were! And then at the end of the 1170s, Louis VII comes from from France to Canterbury because of his only son, Philip Augustus. Louis believes he’s dying and he wants to pray at the now canonised Thomas Becket’s shrine. Henry, of course, lets him and he welcomes him, and Henry is put to shame because Dover Castle, which is the nearest royal residence to Canterbury, is in terrible shape, and so after that, he spends a humongous amount of money rebuilding Dover Castle in the early 1180s. And after Becket’s death, Henry visits Canterbury all the time. And he seemed to do penance there again and again for the murder of Becket. The murder of Becket put Canterbury on the map. It is amazing how rich it made it, as Henry harnessed the death of Becket and the canonisation of Becket to his Plantagenet regime – you found pilgrims going from all over Christendom to visit the great Thomas Becket.

Rizwan: A great pilgrimage site. And of course, he became a saint – Saint Thomas Becket. I want to touch on what you mentioned about his relationship with the Pope. We have gone through his very difficult relationship with Thomas Becket and how it started so well and ended horribly. But of course, he had a very contentious relationship with the Pope and you have touched on it very briefly, but what was the essence of this friction with the papacy? And what does this tell us about his religious standing?

Claudia: Well, I do not actually think there was much friction with Henry and the Pope. Alexander was incredibly smart, and he and Henry did a dance – and sometimes Alexander would capitulate to Henry’s demands, as Henry wanted to get his hands on the Vexin. Henry’s eldest son was promised to Louis’ eldest daughter, Margaret, and he said to the Pope, “I am not going to support your candidacy unless you let me have the Vexin now,” meaning that ‘I am going to marry our very young children.’ Now, Margaret was six months and his son, Henry, was under five years old, I think. And the Pope grants dispensation. Actually, their relationship could be good and it could be bad. But the Pope always had to acknowledge how much he owed Henry because if he didn’t have Henry’s backing, his claim would be incredibly slim, as his rival was backed by Frederick Barbarossa, one of Europe’s most powerful rulers.

Rizwan: So, just touching on the relationship with Henry and the Pope, perhaps it was my misunderstanding, but I thought that this infamous letter that emerges of Henry claiming that he may convert to Islam was out of friction or a difficulty with himself and the Pope, but it sounds like that was not the case. Could you explain a bit more about how this letter and this perceived threat, you can call it, came about?

Claudia: Yes, of course. Henry wrote this letter to the Pope in 1168, when he’d absolutely had enough of Becket. He believed that this time, he couldn’t get his young son crowned while Beckett was in exile – self-imposed exile – in France. The crowning of the kings of England was the prerogative of the Archbishops of Canterbury. Then, later in 1170, Henry went ahead and let the Archbishop of York, Canterbury’s rival, crown the young King.

In 1168, he believed he had to end this deadlock, and one of the arsenals in Henry’s kingship was threat, bluster. He’d managed to coerce the Pope into doing what he wanted before, when he had arranged the papal dispensation for young Henry to marry the infant Margaret of France, and part of him probably believed that he could get the Pope to concede to his wishes again. Hence, threatening to convert to Islam, where he said he’s willing to take on the errors of Nur-ul-din rather than let Becket hold sway anymore. He needed something to break the deadlock, and I do think it goes back to my earlier point that Henry found much to admire in Islam and the studies of the Arabs that he’d been imbued with through his education and upbringing. 

Rizwan: That’s incredible, how rare is this? This kind of threat or suggestion for a Christian monarch – you could even say it both ways even for a Muslim monarch – but at least in this context of medieval Christian Europe, to suggest that they may convert to Islam?

Claudia: Oh, I think it’s unprecedented! You did see conversions and marriages, inter-marriages, on the borderlands between Spain and between Christianity and Islam, but never ever a monarch. And Henry, who was ever the practitioner of realpolitik, would have realised that even if it was attractive to him personally, it would have been a very dangerous course to take. 

Rizwan: Yes, especially after the whole Becket episode.

Claudia: Well this was before Beckett, but still, yes. His divine right to rule in England sprung from Christianity. What would have happened practically – even for Henry the brilliant administrator and lawmaker – I think it was even beyond his powers to see the mass conversion of his lands to a different religion. 

Rizwan: So, I take from your answer that the likelihood of him actually converting was very low. 

Claudia: I believe so. Rizwan: RS: Very interesting though. Just thinking about the legacy of Henry, and as we talked about, he’s not as celebrated as some of the other monarchs that we’re very familiar with in England. Can you talk about post-Henry’s life, or if we stop at that point, what happened and how did he eventually die? Was it of natural causes or was it something else? And the years after Henry or the centuries after Henry, how has he endured in historic legacies?

Claudia: So, Henry died in 1189. He’d been completely brought to his knees by Philip Augustus and by his son, Richard the Lionheart. The final straw for Henry was, as he’d gone back to his castle at Chinon essentially to die, he asked to see the list of those who had betrayed him and at the top of the list was his youngest legitimate son, John, and this apparently broke Henry’s heart. This is the future ‘bad King John’. The only child who remained with Henry was his illegitimate son, Goeffrey. Geoffrey was born before Henry’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, probably when Henry was about 17 years old, and Geoffrey was probably the son Henry loved the most. He always stayed with his father; he was always loyal to his father. So, he died heartbroken and alone. And his wife Eleanor – he’d imprisoned her 15 years earlier in 1173 for her part in the Great Revolt. Soon after, Henry’s empire was huge. It was vast, and I think it’s important to stress this. 

King Henry 2
King Henry II
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© National Portrait Gallery, London  

Rizwan: Can you define, just so we can understand, how big his empire was?

Claudia: Yes, it goes from the very north of England – and the Kings of Scotland actually pay homage to Henry; they owe their allegiance to Henry – into Wales, into parts of Ireland, all the way through. His father inherited a large county of Anjou; through his mother he inherited the Duchy of Normandy.

Rizwan: In France?

Claudia: In France – and through marriage he inherited the lands – the vast lands – of his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, which stretched all the way down to the south of France to the Pyrenees. And then you’ve got Henry’s influence, as I’ve said before, fellow monarchs sought his advice, and then you’ve got his uncles, and then his cousins sitting in the kingdom of Jerusalem on the throne. His daughter, Joanna, he marries into the kingdom of Sicily; his other daughter, Eleanor, marries into the kingdom of Castile; and his daughter, young Matilda, he marries into the German royal family, Saxony. So, you’ve got Henry’s influence all over Europe. Additionally, he’s incredibly rich. Henry’s parsimonious – I know it sounds very boring, but Henry was a genius administrator, which brings a lot of money to the crown. He’s the great arbiter of the English common law. He was incredibly rich and he was incredibly powerful, but very soon after his death this all begins to crumble. 

Rizwan: So at the point of his death, he ruled over one of the largest territories of any European monarch for many centuries.

Claudia: Yes. Since Charlemagne, the great Charlemagne –

Rizwan: It’s the great Charlemagne, who ruled over most of Europe. That’s why I feel like it’s really interesting; I’m interested to find out how that quickly evaporated or at least his legacy evaporated so quickly.

Claudia: Yes, so in his final months, he and his sons, Richard and Philip Augustus, were making conquests through his territories in France. But soon after he dies, when Richard becomes King – Richard was unlike his father – Richard’s primary concern was to go on Crusades. So Richard’s first act is to free his mother, Eleanor, who actually proves herself to be a very able administrator, and Eleanor is an absolutely extraordinary woman in her own right.

The last 15 years of her life were her most active, where she rules first for her son Richard, and then for John. But Richard goes off on Crusade. It’s not particularly successful, he comes back and he is captured by his nemesis, the Emperor. So, Richard is imprisoned by the Emperor for two years. He comes back to England. His mother Eleanor has been forced to raise an incredibly expensive tax to free him, which bankrupts the country, and then Richard dies in 1199, just as he’s negotiated a five-year peace with Philip Augustus. John, his brother, comes to the throne because Richard has no legitimate children and John is an incredibly unpopular king. He murders his nephew, Arthur of Brittany, who has a rival claim to the throne, which blackens his name forever and he’s gone down in English history as the worst king. And I think that assessment is probably right, he was a terrible administrator and he was a particularly repulsive person.

Rizwan: A fitting title.

Claudia: Yes, I think so. And by the time of the Battle of Bovines in 1214, England had lost pretty much all of her possessions in France, and when you come to the reign of John’s son, Henry III, you find the first English King who really only rules England, and you find everything becoming much more insular. I feel that Henry was a true European whereas his descendants really weren’t.

Rizwan: It’s very interesting and very relevant in the current context of what we’re living through, in England or the UK at least. I can see how – this is so unfortunate – but how after Henry II, things really spiralled downhill so quickly. And just thinking more in the current context, I know you’re on a very passionate campaign to reclaim Henry II as one of the greatest monarchs. Just as we’re wrapping up, could you let us know how perceptions are changing at least in current historical debate, as well as in your own circles and your writings, and how you’re helping to push this campaign and how close are you?

Claudia: Gosh, well I hope I’ve made some headway, there have been –

Rizwan: You’re convincing us, we’re definitely on your back as part of this campaign now.

Claudia: Thank you, that’s very kind. Well, I think that there’s been a resurgence and an interest in Plantagenet history; there are some great authors out there, like Dan Jones, who is writing great popular books on the Plantagenets. New biographies are coming out about Eleanor of Aquitaine all the time. There’s a new biography coming out about John soon, and I think that they seem to be making a little bit more headway in popular culture because they were such a fantastically, fascinating family. You have everything, you have conquest, education, incest, religion… It’s all incredibly exciting, and I think they’re far more interesting and exciting than their descendants, the Tudors, and I think it’s slowly, slowly getting there. We’re all fighting the good fight.

Rizwan: Well that’s great, and I think this episode has helped to push that campaign, because it’s been an education for me, and I’m definitely going to look more into Henry II now and appreciate his legacy. It feels very much like he was the cosmopolitan European figure who took the best of what was available at the time, whether that was outside his own comfort zone, or even Christianity, or even his continent, and through that created an incredible society that fostered intellectualism and debate, which is also part of what we’re trying to do at The Review of Religions, and bring about scholarship from different parts of the world, and bring it into that sphere of debate.

Claudia – thank you so much. I think that one hour has absolutely flown by, and we could talk for hours and hours more, I’m sure, on Henry II. As a final point, would you like to wrap up or steer us in any direction for anyone who may be inspired and would like to continue reading or studying the life of Henry II?

Claudia: Well there are some great histories out there, like Nick Vincent is one to look out for – he’s brilliant. There are also some wonderful historical novels if you’re interested in this period. The great Ariana Franklin wrote her Mistress of the Art of Death novels, which are fantastic, and Sharon Penman’s writings on the Plantagenets are inspirational. 

Rizwan: And I think we can’t, of course, forget your own book, King of the North Wind, which is a biography of Henry II. And I have started reading it and I would encourage everyone to start reading it, because it is truly, truly fascinating. So, I think you’re being very humble, but we must of course recommend your own book also. 

Claudia: Thank you so much!

Rizwan: No problem. Thank you again Claudia, it was a pleasure speaking to you.