‘By the Example of the Undutiful Absalom’. 5 March 1173

King Henry the king’s son, following wicked advice, turned away from his father; and leaving Argentan* by night, the servants of his father who looked after his needs knowing nothing about it, he went on 23 March via Mortagne, a castle of Theobald count of Perche, to his father-in-law, King Louis of France. That same night his father sleeping at Alencon was woken and told of his son’s flight. (Diceto, Images of History)

On 5 March 1173 (Eyton, Itinerary, p.171)** Henry the Young King, under cover of the dark (with all probability before daybreak), slipped past the castle guards and escaped from Chinon, where, on his father’s order, he was held- there is no other way to put it- under house arrest. Via Alencon (6 March), Argentan (7 March) and Mortagne (8 March) he went to seek help and support at his father-in-law’s court (then at Chartres), the action which marked the beginning of the Great Revolt of 1173-74, although ‘nearly three months passed before war actually broke out.’ (Norgate, p.136).

What we can see above is the image of Absalom, King David’s son, who leaves his father’s court to plot against him. ‘Absalom’ is the name which many chroniclers chose to use when describing Henry the Young King and his rebellion(s) against his father***. As it may seem, the comparison even more suiting when we take into account the Young King’s proverbial charm and good looks: ‘In all Israel there was not a man so highly praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom. From the top of his head to the sole of his foot there was no blemish in him’(2 Samuel 14:25). We all know how David’s undutiful son ended up. Young Henry was more lucky. He, at least, managed to survive. But it is all still ahead. Meanwhile let us focus on the events that pushed the Young Henry into taking up such a desperate step.

Some time before he quarreled with his father over his status of the co-king of England. He had been crowned king in 1170, becoming also co-duke of Normandy and co-count of Anjou and Maine, all empty titles as time was to show. When his father kept refusing to share power and responsibility with his eldest son, the youth kept growing restless and impatient.

‘… When the Prince grew up to the age of manhood, he was impatient to obtain, with the oaths and name, the reality of the oath and name, and at least to reign jointly with his father; though he ought of right to rule alone, for, having been crowned, the reign of his father had, as it were, expired- at least it was so whispered to him by certain persons…’ (Newburgh, History)

The Young Henry asked for a territory in Normandy, or Anjou, or Maine where he could live with his wife, Marguerite and rule independently. He was yet again refused. What became the proverbial last straw, though happened in the opening months of 1173. Henry the Young King had been summoned to Auvergne by his father to take part in the meeting with Humbert, Count of Maurienne at Montferrand-le-Fort on 2 February. The conference had been held to discuss the marriage of Prince John, Henry the Young King youngest brother and Humbert’s daughter, Alais. The Count had asked about John’s share in Henry II’s domains. The King suggested the three castles: Chinon, Mirebeau and Loudun as John’s dower, all situated in Anjou, a county assigned to his eldest son. Despite Henry the Young King’s loud protests and refusal to accept the terms introduced by his father, the settlement had been reached. ‘… and from this time it was that the king, the son, had been seeking pretexts and an opportunity for withdrawing from his father. And he had now so entirely revolted in feeling from obeying his wishes that he could not even converse with him on any subject in a peaceable manner.’ (Howden, the Annals, Vol I, p.367).

To add injury to insult, according to Robert of Torigni the old king had dismissed several of the Young King’s intimates who seemed to be exerting a bad influence on him. In consequence, Hasculf de St Hilary and other young knights were forced to leave the Young King’s court (Norgate). In the aftermath of the events described above, young Henry’s situation had even worsened. He had been held under what we call today house arrest****. No wonder that the young man had used the first opportunity to escape and seek refuge at Louis VII's court, then at Chartres. He had been followed by his two younger brothers, Richard and Geoffrey and backed up by his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Louis VII of France, William I of Scotland, Counts of Flanders, Boulogne and Blois, as well as rebels in Poitou, Normandy and England, all became his allies.

Diceto mentioned that the Young King was following wicked advice. The chronicler placed guilt with Hugh of Saint-Maur and Ralph de Foyes, uncle of Queen Eleanor. According to him while Henry II was away in Ireland (1171-72) the aforesaid nobles, on Queen Eleanor’s advice ‘began to turn away from his father the mind of the Young King, suggesting that it seemed incongruous to be a king and not exercise the rule of the kingdom’.
Roger of Howden thought the guilt lied with ‘the king of France and those of the earls and barons of England and Normandy who disliked his [Henry’s] father’. He mentioned the Young King’s visit to his father-in-law’s court in the autumn of 1172 during which Louis advised his son-in-law to demand a share of his father’s dominions. Not that he spared the Young King himself. On the contrary, his was a harsh judgment: ‘Thus did the king’s son lose both his feelings and his senses; he repulsed the innocent, persecuted his father, usurped authority, seized upon a kingdom; he alone was the guilty one, and yet a whole army conspired against his father, “so does the madness of one mad make many mad”.

William of Newburgh put it briefly: ‘…and being thus encouraged and instigated against his father by the virulent exhortations of the French, he was not terrified from violating the great law of nature by the example of the undutiful Absalom’. And like Absalom he was defeated.

Henry’s escape from Chinon triggered a rebellion, but as it turned out too soon. The conspirators, lacking centralized commandership, were ill prepared and not ready to conduct a full-scale invasion. As time was to prove, Henry II emerged victorious against the formidable coalition with his wife imprisoned, his sons humiliated and his enemies all brought down to their knees.

Written by Katarzyna Ogrodnik-Fujcik

* Here Diceto is wrong, both about the sites and the dates.

** 5 March was Henry II’s birthday.
As for Henry’s escape, the chronology of the events is in great confusion, Gesta Henrici and Ralph of Diceto both give different dates. Eyton follows J. Brompton and Bendictus Abbas.

*** Richard Barber entitled the whole chapter of his biography of Henry II Absalom. It is devoted, as you are right to guess to… Henry the Young King.

**** Eyton in his Court, Household and Itinerary of King Henry II discusses at length what happened in the closing days of February 1173. After Raymond V of Tolouse did homage to all three: Henry II, Henry the Young King and Richard at a court held at Limoges on 25 February, he ‘coincidently revealed to King Henry that the Queen  and Princes were forming a plot against him.’ (Eyton, p.171) Henry with a small escort took the young Henry with him to Normandy (under pretence of a hunting-party, according to Geoffrey of Vigeois).


Court, Household and Itinerary of King Henry II by Robert William Eyton, 1878. Internet Archive. http://archive.org/details/courthouseholdit00eyto

Images of History by Ralph of Diceto in The Plantagenet Chronicles ed. by Dr Elizabeth Hallam. Greenwich Edition, 2002.

The Annals of Roger of Howden. Vol I. Trans. by Henry T. Riley. Internet Archive of Northeastern University Libraries

The History of William of Newburgh. Internet Medieval Source Book, Fordham University.

Henry II by W. L. Warren. Google Books.

The Angevin Empire by John Gillingham. Edward Arnold, 1984.

Henry Plantagenet by Richard Barber. The Boydell Press, 2001.

England Under the Angevin Kings by Kate Norgate. Google Books.


  1. Hi Kasia.....just testing to see if I can get this posted.....Joan

  2. Hi again,

    Good to go! Well I enjoyed your informative & interesting post....so much said in such a small space. I wonder.... if Henry II could have lived his life over, would he have done things differently? Probably not! All that frustration & rage in the sons had to erupt eventually! Thank you for this wonderful blog & sharing your story of the young King with us.....I love visiting here. And the manuscript image is outstanding!


  3. Joan, I'm happy to read you have found the post interesting. I wish we could know the details of Henry's escape from Chinon. Richard Barber in his biography of Henry II claims he got the castle guards drunk and then slipped past them. Unfortunately Mr Barber does not give the exact source of the info. I love the version of events described in Sharon Kay Penman's Devil Brood. The scene of escape itself, and what happened before and afterward is brilliantly written.

    Thank you for paying a visit to us :-)

    I too love the manuscript image. Actually, some time ago, it inspired me to write this post:-) I came across it and knew I had to write about Henry's escape from Chinon.

  4. I've always wondered why Henry II had the young Henry crowned and then not shared power with him. Why bother to make him King?

  5. Hi Anerje! Thank you for paying a visit to us :-) When crowning his heir in his lifetime Henry II wanted to avoid quarrels over the succession which might have occurred after his death. In this he followed the example of the continental monarchs, both French and German. The tradition of crowning the heir in his father's lifetime had been long firmly established there. I think it was one of Henry's greatest mistake. The chroniclers were looking for someone to blame elsewhere, but it was the elder king's constant refusals to share power and responsibility with his eldest son that was in greater part responsible for outbreak of the Great Revolt.

  6. Thanks for the explanation Kasia.

  7. It didn't work too well for the German emperors (and the nobility), either. We have our share of disgruntled and rebellious sons. ;-)

  8. I'm grateful to you Anerje for yet one more visit to our Lesser Land and for reading the text :-)

  9. Hi Gabrielle :-) My knowledge concerning German history is rather limited, I admit, but what did those rulers expect? That their sons could not think on their own? That they lacked ambition and would dutifully agree to stay in their fathers' shadows? It seems only natural to me that they wanted to share power once they were crowned and anointed kings themselves.
    Henry II remains one of my favourite medieval rulers, but however shrewd and skilled politician he might have been, in case of young Henry he blundered.


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