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5 March 1173: "By the Example of the Undutiful Absalom" Henry the Young King Escapes From His Father....

On 5 March 1133, a son, Henry was born to Empress Matilda, the daughter and heiress of King Henry I of England and Count Geoffrey V of Anjou, called le Bel. He was to become the ruler of the empire stretching from the Scottish border in the north to the Pyrenees in the south, the latter thanks to his highly lucrative marriage with the greatest heiress of the 12th century, the former queen of France, Eleanor, the duchess of Aquitaine in her own right. The couple was to have eight children together, seven of whom survived infancy. 

                                 Absalom leaving David's court. Maciejowski Bible, 13th century

Exactly 40 years later, Henry's eldest son and heir triggered the war that was to go down in history as the Great Revolt of 1173-74. On 5 March 1173, Henry the Young King, under cover of the dark (with all probability before daybreak), slipped past the castle guards and escaped from Chinon Castle, where, on his father’s order, he was held - there is no better 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, although ‘nearly three months passed before war actually broke out.’ (Norgate, p.136).

Henry's escape can be compared to that of Absalom, King David’s son, who left 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 fitting 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 in 1173-74, managed to survive. But it is still ahead. Now let us focus on the events that pushed the Young Henry into taking up such a desperate step.

Some time previously he quarreled with his father over his status of the co-king of England. He had been crowned king in 1170, empty title 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…’ (NewburghHistory)

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 PoitouNormandy and England, all became his allies.

Ralph of Diceto in his Images of History 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.

*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.

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. Fabulous post. Shared on fb! Take care, dear friend. xx :)

  2. Kasia, another fine column, as much about Young Henri as the long view of historians who note him. Ulrik Kristiansen reminds us in a prior blog of the trap of hindsight.
    As these turbulent events take place in the spring of 1173, no one compared Henri II to King David, nor his son to Absalom. In fact, had the uprising succeeded, priests would be quoting biblical passages of the courage of vanquishing young men, the wicked reigns of kings like Manasseh and Amon, Ahab killer of prophets.

    1. I know noone compared Henry to Absalom in 1173-4 and shortly afterwards, only after his untimely death - so with the benefit of hindsight, yes, and I only did because I know that they did it before me (so too with the benefit of hindsight - believe me - there is logic in what I'm trying to say). Jordan Fantosme who wrote his chronicle shortly after the Revolt, so when the Young King still lived did not judge him as the chroniclers writing later did. Probably because one day Henry was to become the sole King of England and thus his lord.

      PS I just had to use the comparison, so I could use the quote in the title, but shush ;-)

  3. There are always comparisons to Biblical events, and as you say Kasia, with the benefit of hindsight, the story of Absalom 'fitted' him.

  4. And yes, it is a great title:)


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