A Little Lower Than the Angels: Images of Henry the Young King

Before I focus on the depictions of Henry the Young King that have survived to our days, I would like to express my gratitude to Ms Elizabeth Chadwick for inspiring me to write this post. As it happens, a few days ago I came across her blog post, in which she recommended a new Eleanor of Aquitaine book, Inventing Eleanor by Michael R. Evans. Read Ms Chadwick's post here. To my utter delight, in his work Mr Evans mentions my favourite authors of historical fiction, both Ms Elizabeth Chadwick and Ms Sharon Kay Penman! I am so very happy to see their names in a book on Henry's mother, whom both ladies brought vividly to life. Fully deserved. We all can learn history from their brilliant novels.

Now back to our Henry. I have already discussed how he looked like in one of my previous posts. His contemporaries seemed unanimous when describing his physical appearance.

"He was tall in stature, and distinguished in appearance... Fair among children of men” from Otia Imperialia by Gervase of Tilbury, Henry's former chaplain, written in the early 13th century for Henry's nephew, Otto of Brunswick, Holy Roman Emperor (1175-1218).

"Of his beauty, of his largesse, of his goodness, of his prowess, you could say much” and "King Henry the young was acclaimed king who was so handsome and brave and a noble young man”. From The Becket Leaves, written by the anonymous author (one of the candidates is Matthew Paris) in the 13th century(http://www.angelfire.com/pa4/becketleaves/becketleaveseng6.html).

".. the attractive  tinder of villainy, a lovely place of sin…” From De nugis curialium by Walter Map, who also said that the Young King was handsome and eloquent, " a little lower than the Angels".

To make it brief: he must have looked every inch a king. He certainly was more regal than his father, Henry II, well known for a total disregard for contemporary fashion and displays of royal splendour (clothing included). The Young King must have been taller, too, for at least two chroniclers of the time did not omit to mention it, the above-cited Gervase of Tilbury and Gerald of Wales:

"They [Henry and Richard] were both tall in stature, rather above the middle size. And of commanding aspect”. From The Topography of Ireland (On Henry II and his sons), written by Gerald of Wales c.1188.

As one may suspect, only few images of the Young King survived to our era. And little wonder. We should consider ourselves lucky to have any at all. Let's not forget that Henry lived in the 12th century. There are no surviving images of the contemporary rulers from the less cultured parts of medieval Europe other than seals or coins, e.g. from my native Poland. We treat them as the most precious gifts from the dim and distant past.

Henry's Seal

Speaking of seals, we do know how Henry's seal looked like, but it should be taken as it is: just a sad reminder of his high, but unfullfilled ambitions, of his dreams of real power and responsiblity that had been thwarted from him by his father. His seal is much telling proof of his real status. The role of a seal was not to portray a ruler as an individual but 'to convey a sense of his or her authority'. Usually a king's seal was two-sided, depicting him enthroned on one side and on horseback with his sword drawn on the other* (Inventing Eleanor). As Matthew Strickland points out, Henry the Young King's limited authority 'was even proclaimed in the unusual design of his seal; not only is it merely single-sided, but it depicts the younger Henry without a sword, a key symbol of authority' (The Upbringing of Henry the Young King, p.194). 

The Poitiers Window

The stained-glass window in Sainte-Pierre Cathedral, Poitiers, could be called the earliest contemporary portrait of Henry the Young King, but just as with seals and tomb effigies, it cannot be truly taken as a realistic depiction of the figures represented in it. It was comissioned by Henry's parents who are shown as donors. The four figures of children are to represent the royal couple's then-surviving sons, Henry, Richard, Geoffrey and John, which places the creation of the window sometime between the birth of the youngest, John, in 1166 and the Great Revolt of Henry the Young King, in which he was supported by his mother and two brothers, Richard and Geoffrey, in 1173.

The detail of the large stained glass, Sainte-Pierre Cathedral, Poitiers (source: Web Gallery of Art)

The Radegonde Mural

If the historians are in the right there is one more depiction of Henry dating back to his earthly days, and it is the so called Radegonde Mural, discovered by Albert Heron in 1964. Thanks to this remarkable discovery we can admire it today at Chinon, on the wall of the underground chapel of Sainte-Radegonde. We all are familiar with the image of the middle figure commonly identified as Eleanor of Aquitaine, for many of Eleanor books, both biographies and novels, feature it on their covers. 




Historians, however, have probed deeper and the recent interpretations of the scene have cast a new light on the identities of the figures depicted in it. As I mentioned above, it has been long believed that the crowned figure in the middle was Henry's mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. In fact, it might be the Young King himself. As Ursula Nielgen points out, all five figures are males. On closer examination she has found the clothing and hairstyle typical of the male fashion of the day. That is why she identifies the figures as Henry II and his four sons, and the second crowned figure as Henry the Young King not his mother. The two figures wearing caps are Richard and Geoffrey (dukes of Poitou and Brittany), and the rider next to Henry the Young King is his youngest brother, John. For the date of the creation of the painting Nielgen suggests the aftermath of the 1173-74 Revolt when the father and sons were reconciled. This would exclude Eleanor, who was her husband's prisoner at the time and far from being reconciled with him. To sum up, if Ursula Niegel is right, the mural is the earliest surviving contemporary representation of Henry the Young King. You can view a few wonderful photos of the Radegonde treasure here.

Henry's Tomb Effigy

Had it survived, Henry's tomb effigy from Rouen Cathedral would have been the second oldest depiction of him after the mural. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in 1736, alongside with those of his brother Richard and his uncle William*, for "some comparatively trivial purpose", namely the then chapter's great desire to "erect more magnificent altar, and to elevate it considerably above the level of the choir. To effect this it was necessary to take up the old pavement, to remove the monuments, and to disturb the soil underneath to the depth of 15 feet. It must be menioned, however, to their credit, that they had great respect to the mortal remains of these illustrious persons, which they replaced in their original positions; and when the new pavement was put down, squares of white marble were inserted over the graves of each, bearing simple and appropriate inscriptions...' (from French Cathedrals). Upon that of Henry one could read:


(Henry would have probably exclaimed: "By the legs of God, I AM Henry, king of the English in my own right. Not just Richard's brother!!! I led an independent life, you know!" ).

Still, we should consider ourselves lucky, for before the tombs were destroyed, Bernard de Montfaucon, a French monk, one of the founders of  modern archeology, had copied them and preserved as engravings. The below drawing comes from Livre du Millénaire de la Normandie (1911, probably after Montfaucon).

Let me note that Richard's tomb was later discovered almost intact (one can only marvel at his proverbial luck which seems to have run out only once, at Chalus). You can read about it here. The author of the letter has won my heart by showing deep concern about the lost tomb of Henry the Young King.

The tomb of Henry the Young King today, Rouen Cathedral (courtesy of Ms Rebecca Bugge)

Chartres and Angers Stained-Glass Windows

The windows at Chartres and Angers were created to narrate the life of Henry's one time tutor, Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. As I have mentioned in one of my previous posts, Becket, upon his return from exile, wanted to pay respects to the young Henry, residing at Winchester at the time, but the latter refused to see him. It is the scene of Henry's refusal that has been depicted in both the Angers and the Chartres windows. The windows must have been created relatively close to each other: historians suggest c.1204 for the Angers window and 1210–20 for Chartres.

The young king Henry refuses to meet Thomas Becket. Angers, Cathédrale Saint-Maurice, window 108, panel 4. (source: Vidimus)

The young king Henry refuses to meet Thomas Becket. Chartres, Cathédrale Notre-Dame, window 18, panel 18. (source: Vidimus)

The Becket Leaves

The Becket Leaves is a French-verse history of  the life of Henry's one time tutor, St Thomas Becket, written between c.1220 and c.1240, probably by Matthew Paris. Only a few pages of the illustrated poem have survived and quite miraculously the Young Henry's first coronation has been among the lucky "survivors". 

We can see Henry being crowned by Roger of Pont-l’EvequeArchbishop of York, on the left and served by his father , Henry II, at the coronation banquet on the right (source: Wikipedia).

Jean Fouqet's Henry

The 15th century manuscript illumination depicting the coronation of Henry's brother-in-law Philippe Auguste [Philip Augustus] on 1 November 1179. Henry, together with his younger brothers, Richard and Geoffrey, represented the House of Anjou on the occasion. Not only did he hold the crown for young Philippe, but also bedazzled all the present with his retinue and most precious gifts for the new king. The image comes from Grandes Chroniques de France, created c.1455, so three centuries after Henry's death. Jean Fouquet, who painted the minature, did not know how Henry looked like, for how could he. Judging by the illumination, however, he must have read the chroniclers' descriptions of Henry, or perhaps, the Young King's good looks were still remebered at the timeHere is my post about Philippe's coronation and the part Henry played in it.

Post scriptum

And this is my intentional omission:

From Historia Anglorum (1250-1259) by Matthew Paris. The portrait of Henry being a part of the illumiantion depicting his father, Henry II, his brothers, Richard I and John, and his nephew Henry III (source: Wikipedia). Don't you think that the Young King looks like a dolt in it? Hence the omission :-) But I have felt obliged to share it with Henry's readers anyway.

* It was to convey two of a king's major roles- as provider of justice and authority and as a war-leader.

** Richard's tomb was near the altar on the left. The tombs of Henry and William were also near the altar, but on the other side. The remains of William (d.1164), the younger brother of Henry II, were not found.


“On the Instruction of a Prince: the Upbringing of Henry, the Young King” by Matthew Strickland in Henry II: New Interpretations. Ed. Christopher Harper-Bill and Nicholas Vincent. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007

Gerald of Wales: On Henry II and his Sons, from the Topography of Ireland, chapters 49-50” fromThe Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis. Translated by Thomas Forester; revised by Thomas Wright. Etext file created for a class by Scott Mcletchie. Reproduced in Paul Hassal, ed.the Internet Medieval Source Book. Fordham University

Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval and Post-Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Micheal R. Evans, Google Books

The Demon's Brood: A History of the Plantagenet Dynasty by Desmond Seward, Google Books

The Plantagenet Empire 1154-1224 by Martin Aurell, translated from the French by David Crouch, Google Books

French Cathedrals. From Drawings by R. Garland with an Historical and Descriptive Account by B.Winkles, Google Books

Account of a Tour in Normandy by Dawson Turner, Google Books

Observations on the Monumental Effigy of Richard I of England by Albert Way, Google Books

"Proper Behaviour for Knights and Kings: The Hagiography of Matthew Paris, Monk of St Albans" by Cynthia Hahn in The Haskins Society Journal ed. by Robert B. Patterson, Google Books



  1. Fantastic post. Shared! Take care, friend. xx

  2. What a fascinating post Kasia. I've been clicking on all the images to enlarge them and study them. The Ragegonde Mural does indeed seem to show a male figure. I wouldn't have thought Eleanor would have been happy with her being depicted like that - far too masculine. And it would make sense for it to be Henry II and his sons. It's terribly frustrating that there are so few recognisable images from early medieval times, and that portraiture had not yet developed. Plus the loss of tomb effigies as well.

  3. Just looking at the size of the so-called Eleanor figure - it's clearly someone of tall stature and big in build. The crown has been used to identify it as Eleanor, when it must surely be young Henry's crown. It has to be the Young King - and holding on protectively to little brother John. Wonderful find!

    1. I am happy Anerje that you enjoyed the post. It was great fun to do the research. I especially liked the letter by Mr Albert Way.
      As for Henry Radegonde image, in the light of development of painting, it's hard to say, whether it's a male or female. It's more about the clothing itself and how it was worn in Henry's days, in this case about the cloaks clasps and how they were pinned.

      As for Henry being protective, I am disillusioned :-( He must have felt rather ambivalent about his little brother John. If the image indeed represents the family after the Great Revolt of 1173-74.

  4. Great informative post Kasia.
    I've been saying for a while that the Radegonde figure is a man - that they're all men because I have yet to find any medieval image of a woman pinning her cloak high on the right shoulder. Presumably the middle figure is the Young King, although it's still not 100% identifiable. A historian friend with particular interest in costume suggested the head gear on the two 'crowned' figures weren't crowns at all but jewelled fur hats! Still high status and setting apart though. Those beret-type hats on the two rear figures are often shown on young men about town in the 12thc. Have you read the full Ursula Nielgen article? I'd like to get hold of her work, having had a discussion with another art historian who is very welded to the idea that it's Eleanor despite contradictory evidence.
    Did you read what Evans said about the Poitiers window? That it's a 19thc restoration? I hadn't realised that.

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth! I am honoured.

      How very interesting. I like the jewell fur hats theory :-) But what would it mean, I wonder...
      I haven't had access to Ursula Nielgen work itself, just read about it in Inventing Eleanor. Thank you againg, for recommending this great book. Speaking of which, thanks to it I have learnt that the Poitiers window is a restoration. Still I wanted to give it at least a mention. I think I will point out it's not the original window.

  5. Amazing post! Just loaded with interesting things. I love the Radegonde Mural. Wonder if it was hidden underneath another work all those years?!? Re Henry's seal, how sad. How defeated he must have felt. Jean Fouquet's depiction is such a beautiful, radiant illumination, isn't it?

    I get so confused with the burials, re-burials, etc. How did Henry & Richard make it to Fontevrault? Are they basically memorials, at least in Henry's case, or are Richard's remains actually there?

    I must also mention that I love your new format, the repeated image....all that blue & gold. And I checked Elizabeth Chadwick's post on "Inventing Eleanor", a book I must have. So thanks for mentioning it Kasia.

    Excellent post!

  6. I would love to learn more on the history of Radegonde Mural, Joan. I will dig deeper and try to find an article or a book with more info about it.


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