28 February 1155: In Celebration of Henry the Young King's Birthday

On the pages of his Chronicon Geoffrey, prior of Vigeois, described in meticulous detail how young Henry packed as much repentance into his deathbed as he could before he passed away.  Geoffrey left nothing unsaid. The hair shirt, bed of ashes, halter around neck, Bernard, bishop of Agen administering the last rites, and many other men of religion … all was there to ‘draw the readers attention away from the affairs of this world to those of the next’. Of course, Geoffrey, a man of religion himself, must have seen young Henry’s untimely passing as a divine punishment. But there were other voices who disagreed with that of the prior. Thomas de Agnellis, for example, in his sermon claimed that as the Young King’s sad retinue was toiling over the jolly sunbathed hills and dales of Aquitaine, it became the focus for many miracles. The rumors of the late king’s sainthood began to circulate. The monasteries pillaged by him shortly before his death- as it happened some of the most sacred shrines of western France: St Martial, Limoges, St Amadour, Rocamadour- suddenly forgotten, it was the impressive penance performed by Henry at his deathbed that really mattered now. Impressive penance and a leprous man, and a woman suffering from hemorrhages miraculously cured by touching the bier, the lights in the sky above the monastery of St-Savin on an overnight stop, and one more “display of celestial pyrotechnics” four miles before the city of Le Mans, where “ a light was seen in the sky in the shape of a cross, and a beam of light shone down upon the bier”. No wonder that when this latest revelation became common knowledge, the bishop and the great men of Le Mans, acting in, what they probably saw as their common interest and utterly disregarding the dying king’s will- Henry had expressed a wish to be buried at Rouen cathedral- seized the opportunity to acquire the relics. When the citizens of Rouen learned of those ignoble doings they fought tooth-and-nail to get the royal body back. They threatened to raze the city of Le Mans to the ground and, if necessary, carry off the body by force. Only the old king's intervention prevailed bloodshed. Henry II made an order for the corpse to be given up. The poor body was disinterred, but as it turned out, despite the temporary stop at Le Mans, it did not loose its efficiency. On its way north, at Sées, it cured two children, one suffering from dropsy, the other blind from birth and not able to move his arms and legs. The miracles highly similar, if not identical to those performed by Christ himself. On reaching the capital of Normandy, the Young King’s body went through careful examination. The people of Rouen wanted to make sure that the people of Le Mans had not kept its parts as relics. They learned even more: the body, after its forty-day wandering in the sweltering heat of French summer, was incorrupt. One more effectual proof of young Henry’s sanctity.
Martel, Limousin, where Henry the Young King departed this world on 11 June 1183. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I have begun with the description of the events surrounding Henry's untimely passing, but yesterday we celebrated his birthday, which I haven't forgotten about (how could I?) :) Using the occasion I have invited a special guest to the blog. I discussed the events surrounding Henry's arrival in detail in a few of my previous posts. Further details can be found in Professor Matthew Strickland's excellent biography published last year. Today Henry the Young King's posthumous fame continues to spread. Not only thanks to the aforementioned excellent biography, but also thanks to the young and promising Polish historians. Today I am delighted to welcome Ms Katarzyna Ścierańska to the blog. Thomas Agnellus and his sermon which at the time of its creation was meant to build up the cult of the late Young King, but, as we all know, failed in achieving its ultimate goal, is the main subject of her M.A. thesis - De morte et sepultura Henrici regis iunioris. The proclamation of royal sanctity in 12th century monarchy of the Plantagenets

In her thesis the author carries out an in-depth analysis of a sermon recorded c. 1183 and describing the surrounding events of death and burial of Henry the Young King.  
De morte et sepultura Henrici regis iunioris is a testimony to the determined, albeit futile efforts made by the late Young King's followers aiming at proclamation of his sanctity as a manifestation of the opposition to his father, Henry II. The author also deals with the questions of the Young King cult genesis, political motivations of its spreading and the model of sanctity the Young King represented. All based on the medieval sermon as a source.

Thank you for accepting my invitation and welcome to Henry the Young King blog. The first question comes somehow naturally: w
hy the Angevins, why Henry the Young King and why De morte et sepultura as a subject of your M.A. thesis?

I have been a keen enthusiast of history since I was a child. My fascination started with Poland in the Middle Ages and has been constantly developing. I can’t recall a certain moment or reason why and when the Plantagenets appeared in my life. Studying history at university gave me a chance to rethink my overlooks and interests, to discover new areas. That’s why my passion for English medieval history turned up quite unexpectedly and naturally, as a new topic to investigate. However, I can’t deny that, as a lover of historical fiction, the books I had read didn’t have any impact on my scientific interests. The books of Sharon Kay Penman and Elizabeth Chadwick are first to be mentioned.
More than in political history, I have always been interested in the matters of ideology, religion, social classes or identity – the history of culture. During my Master’s degree studies at the University of Warsaw, I participated in a seminary in which we discussed the topics of royal ideology, cult of relics and saints in medieval Western Europe, mostly France and England. It was my promoter who brought up the topic of the sermon De morte et sepultura… and encouraged me to write my thesis about this unpopular, but fascinating source.

                      Henry the Young King's tomb. Rouen Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Katarzyna Ścierańska

What was the hardest part of writing you thesis? Research itself, perchance? Did you encounter any problems, and if yes what kind of problems, while working on it?

I was lucky to resolve the most challenging, practical issue – the scarcity of literature available in Polish libraries. Not surprisingly, medieval England is not the most popular research topic among Polish historians. The access to literature in foreign languages is rather limited, even in the biggest libraries. I was only able to finish my thesis because of the Erasmus exchange I did in Belgium. The perfectly stocked libraries of KU Leuven granted me the access to almost every book I needed. Working with the source itself wasn’t that much of a problem. Its uniqueness was, though. It is (almost*) the only known evidence of the attempts to canonize Henry the Young King, but also the only sermon of Thomas Agnellus that has been published so far. I didn’t have much material and sources to compare, many of my conclusions were careful and full of presumptions. However, these kind of problems are inevitable part of every historian’s work, who wants to understand history, make sense of it, but approaches the past with different values, overviews, perspectives, knowing his limits and the impossibility to reach the ‘pure objectivity’, especially when faced with the lack of sources.    

Since the cult of relics and saints theme inevitably emerged, why, in your opinion, the voices opting for the canonization of the Young King appeared? Were they spontaneous or rather calculated and purely political? Who would have gained and what, had they succeeded?

In most of the cases, the medieval examples of saints are figures sanctified by acclamation of worshippers, their enthusiastic reactions and customs, as the expression of, so-called, popular piety. Before the official procedure of papal canonisation was formalized and widely recognised, there had been numerous local cults emerging and eventually declining or developing and spreading to other lands. In order to build up, a cult needed the support of the Church or secular powers. I assumed it was just the case of Henry the Young King. A violent death of a young, popular king and knight, fighting with his father, an unloved and possesive ruler, kindled interest of the worshippers, whose belief in miracles  and love of sensation led to the 'canonisation' of young Henry. This occasion was immediately seized by political groups, probably related to former followers of Thomas Becket and Eleanor of Aquitaine. The promotion of the cult and its validation would have granted them a powerful saint patron, the personification of the values they represented and a symbol of the opposition to the 'tyranny' of Henry II. The most powerful symbol possible – a saint whose authenticity had been testified by „miraculous signs”, who was, moreover, not only a secular ruler, but a steward of God and His human representation on Earth. Which earthly lord could have competed with such a figure? The case of Henry the Young King is both ordinary and unusual. Ordinary, because situations when a dead king (especially if his death was violent or sudden) was canonised by the choice of worshippers, occured quite often. Many kings in Anglo-Saxon England died in the odour of sanctity, to mention but the most famous Edward the Confessor or Edmund the Martyr. The case of young Henry is peculiar because of the way the preacher describes the 'holy man'. Even though he seems to be a figure lacking individual features, a model and ideal, the text of the sermon is full of hints letting us recognise the identity of 'beatus vir'. The postulated arguments for sanctity introduced by Agnellus were not just elements of a 'fabulous' story about an anonymous saint from the ancient past, unknown to the auditory, but an actual person, whose life and deeds were known and witnessed. There was no need to prove his sanctity with 'objective' accuracy - it was apparent, especially if testified by so many miracles and signs.  

Could you tell us more about the conclusions you drew? What do you mean by careful and full of presumptions?

The first, quite obvious but essential statement is the purpose of Sermo de morte et sepultura – the postulate of sanctity of young Henry. It is not only an exemplum about a life of an anonymous, saintly man, worthy of following, but also a story of a particular political figure, contemporary with the recipients of the sermon. What is not sure, though, is the possible conceiver of the sermon. Was it one person? Or Thomas Agnellus himself? I would not say so. Even though the figure of Eleanor of Aquitaine appears in the text, there was a whole group of people possibly interested in the sanctification of Henry the Young King – the former followers of Thomas Becket, martyred and in 1183 already canonized archbishop of Canterbury. Therefore, the purpose of Sermo de morte et sepultura would have been clear – to announce another saint who stood against the tyranny of ‘the bad king’ Henry II. This time, it was not only a friend of the king, but his own son… Of course, this is just my hypothesis. The possible audience of Agnellus’ work was, as I carefully presumed, a group of clergymen, probably highly educated. The numerous mentions and references to the Bible that can be found in the text ofSermo signify that the audience were able to pick them up and draw a positive, readable and moraly explicit conclusion. That was the main objective of medieval homiletics. It can’t be determined whether the sermon was destined for a cultured, conscious group or just masses of uneducated worshippers. Since the Books of Psalms was the base and principium of medieval education, every single clergyman knew its content, on the other hand, the sermon could also have an educational value for illiterate crowds. The main reference to the Scripture and key motif of the sermon is the comparison of Henry (called beatus vir -  lat. ‘holy man’) with the main hero of the Psalm 1, a righteous man who ‘walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, as Henry stood against the politics of the elder king and won the redemption of sins thanks to his repentance and forgiveness given by his two fathers - God and Henry II. Sermo de morte… is also an example of ars moriendi theme – ‘ the art of dying’. Young king is being prepared for ideal death – proceeded by careful arrangements – confession, the preparation of last will, lying on ashes etc. All this was crucial part of ‘good dying’, guarantying the entrance to heaven and mercy at the Final Judgement.
Especially interesting to me was the Christological perspective and references to the ideology of kingship used by Thomas Agnellus. In the stories of worshippers visiting Henry’s tomb in anticipation of cure, the preacher almost literally imports the fragments of the miraculous healings performed by Jesus. This brings to mind the idea of thaumaturgic touch, ascribed to French and English kings, who claimed to cure scrofula by touching. All these numerous political, religious and ideological references fall into place like puzzle, creating a minature of medieval world in one, small text. It was a pure pleasure to discover that this short and, at first sight, undistinguished piece of work turned out to be a true gem, a lens reflecting so many elements of medieval culture. 

Rouen Cathedral. On 22 July 1183 it saw its first royal burial. According to his dying wish  Henry the Young King was interred near the high altar. Photo courtesy of Katarzyna Ścierańska

When do you think the Young King posed more serious political threat to his father - dead or alive?

The answer to this question can only be a speculation, but I think that Henry the Young King was more dangerous for his father's reign while alive. His cult, even if existed for a while at a local scale, was intentionally eliminated or just died away naturally. Apparently, the support for the expansion of the cult was too small or wasn't advantageous enough for its proponents. Although the cult itself undoubtedly emerged, the attempts to canonise Henry could be a marginal occurrence, not a serious threat for the reign of Henry II and Sermo de morte et sepultura... was a single manifesto of the preacher encouraged by the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine or voices of discontent in his community. As we know, Henry II dealt with the social and political criticism and outrage after Becket's death very well and spinned it for his own benefit by public penance. Becket turned from a victim of king's abusive power to a patron of the kingdom. Henry II was a clever and shrewd ruler, it was not likely that the proposed sanctity of Henry the Young, for us highly disputable, could have been a serious threat to his reign.

Thank you for this fascinating insight into your work. It was a great pleasure to celebrate Henry the Young King's birthday in your company :) Good luck with all your future projects. Hopefully, some of them will involve our favourite Angevins.

* Another mention about the alleged sanctity of Henry comes from Historia rerum Anglicarum by William of Newburgh, informing us about "certain persons" who, led by vanity and falsity, were spreading the stories about miraculous healings occuring around the tomb of the dead king. 

Written by Katarzyna Ogrodnik-Fujcik


  1. Fantastic and interesting post. Thank you, ladies

  2. Happy very belated birthday, dear Henry.

    This blog layout is really odd, half of the time I can't access the complete articles or comment on them, and then it suddenly works.

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