A Lovely Place of Sin: Henry the Young King in the Eyes of His Contemporaries

Truly, he left nothing unprobed, no stone unturned; he befouled the whole world with his treasons, a prodigy of unfaith and prodigal of ill, a limpid spring of wickedness, the attractive  tinder of villainy, a lovely place of sin… the originator of the heresy of traitors… a false son to his father… the peaceful king. 

In these words Walter Map, one of Henry II’s clerks and protégés, writing shortly after Henry the Young King’s death, passed judgment on the late king, his hostile voice being just one among many. When the Young King died on 11 June 1183, aged eight-and-twenty, he was genuinely mourned by his father, his household knights and clerks, and all those who saw him as the herald of better days*. Some even did their best to make him canonized, the notion that the young Henry himself would have found ironic, especially in the light of the events preceding his untimely passing.** Unfortunately, as Professor Matthew Strickland points out: “… his premature death and anomalous position as a king who reigned but did not govern robbed him of any contemporary gesta of his own…”, leaving him defenseless against such poisoned pens as Walter Map’s. The fact that the young king predeceased his father left Henry II’s chroniclers free to interpret and describe the actions taken by him in the closing months of his life as mere treachery and his death as divine vengeance. They surpassed themselves in coming up with more and more ingenious comparisons. Thanks to them the young Henry, who rebelled against his father twice, has ended up as ‘an apostate to nature, but even to solemn covenants’ (William of Newburgh), fallen angel, parricide, another Absalom, limpid spring of wickedness and lovely place of sin (Walter Map). Roger of Howden, another royal clerk admits that Henry II “greatly bewailed his son”, but according to the chronicler he was the only one. All others were “overjoyed’. Howden makes it clear that he finds it difficult to understand the old king’s grief:

Why, glorious father, dost thou bewail him? He was no son of thine, who could commit such violence upon thy fatherly affection. This defame of thee has wrought security for fathers, and has checked the audacity of parricides. For it was his due to perish by a severe retribution, who wished to introduce parricide into the world; because the Judge of all minds, in the same way that He avenges the tribulations of the righteous, so does he sometimes punish the persecutions of the wicked. (The Annals, Vol. II, p.27)

The partisans of Henry II, “the peaceful king” saw his “false” son’s sudden death as divine punishment inflicted where due. It does not mean however that the young Henry had no one to speak up for him. His most ardent admirer seems to have been his chaplain, Gervase of Tilbury, who in his Otia Imperialia not only praises his young lord’s good looks, describing him as “fair among the children of men… tall in stature and distinguished in appearance”, with face that “expressed merriment and mature judgment in due measure”, but also credits him with grace, graciousness, generosity and integrity. According to Gervase, Henry was incapable of making an enemy and thus loved by all. And although the chaplain’s words should not be taken at a face value they seem to ring true, especially in the light of the events accompanying Henry’s untimely passing. What followed after the 11th June of 1183 was the universal outpour of grief, which confirmed that the Young King was the only member of his family popular in his lifetime. It should also be remembered that Gervase wrote Otia Imperialia for the Young King’s nephew, Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor, which may explain why he goes that far: 

… In this man, God assembled every kind of goodness and virtue, and the gifts which fortune usually bestows on single individuals of special distinction, she exerted herself to give all together and in richer measure to this man, so as to make him worthy of all commendation. (Otia Imperialia, p. 486-7 in The Instruction of a Prince).

Gerald of Wales, Henry II’s protégé and court official, despite bearing grudge towards the father***, about the son writes in the similar vein as Gervase of Tilbury: “ In peace and in private life, he was courteous, affable gentle, and amiable, kindly indulgent to those by whom he chanced to be injured, and far more disposed to forgive than to punish the offenders.” His evaluation of the young man’s virtues is almost identical to the work of his younger contemporary: “ Nothing human, however, can be entirely perfect…” he says, “…and so envious nature, loth that so many good qualities should be united in one person without alloy, added one more signal blemish… “ That blemish, according to Gerald, was the young Henry’s ingratitude and the trouble he caused to his father, the vices he became notorious for. Farther Gerald mentions the young man’s proverbial largesse: “ His disposition was so good that he could never refuse to give anything that was fitting, thinking that no one ought to leave his presence sorrowful, or disappointed of his hopes”. It is Gerald whom we owe more detailed and personal information concerning the Young King: “ In short, he [Henry] considered that he had lost a day when he had not secured the attachment of many by various acts of liberality, and bound them to him, body and soul, by multiplied favors conferred”. Gerald himself ponders over the very phenomenon, noting that “ wonderful as was his career, one thing appears almost miraculous, namely, that almost all the world attached themselves to a man who was totally without resources, either in money or territory”. He agrees that the Young King was too “bent on martial sports”, but, at the same time praises his prowess, calling him another Hector, son of Priam, the only difference being that Hector fought “on behalf of his father and his country” whereas Henry was “led by evil counsels to fight against both”. The latter means that Gerald does not blame his young lord for the rebellion against Henry II and tries to explain the young man’s motives. Those responsible for the outbreak of war should be seek elsewhere.**** He sees Henry’s passing not as divine vengeance, but as “the envious course of fate” which “suddenly, prematurely, and unexpectedly, carried him off in the flower of his youth, and in the spring-time of the year”.

In the spring-time of the very same year, 1183, Bertran de Born, lord of Autafort and famous troubadour, well acquainted with all three Angevin princes, sat down to pour out his grief into the new sirventes, in which he cares not “a penny or the pop of an acorn for the world or those who are in it” because “of the grievous death of the good, worthy king, which will afflict us all!”. One does not have to be a prophet to foresee the consequences Bertran has in mind. This most unexpected twist of fate, the death of the Young King, who had become his father’s heir upon his elder brother William’s death in 1156, would open the way to succession for his younger brothers, Richard [the Lionheart] and John [Lackland] and change the course of English and French histories for ever. But this all is still ahead. For the time being the distraught Bertran forgives his late lord all the sins of which he accused him in his former songs- indecisiveness, inconstancy, infatuation with the tournament, even being the King of Fools (for “he acts like a fool, living this way entirely on an allowance, by count and by measure”)- and commands him to God “may He place him in the seat of Saint John”, thus in a privileged place in Paradise. He, Bertran wants to renounce joy as many others who knew the Young King:

… all those, who saw you, Bretons and Irishmen, Englishmen and Normans, Aquitainians and Gascons, should be sad… And Poitou suffers, and Maine, and Tours. As far as Compiegne let France weep without ceasing, and Flanders from Ghent as far as Wissant. Even the Germans weep!... When the Lorraines and the Brabancons go tourneying, they will mourn because they don’t see you! (p.222)

Both Bertran and Gerald praise their late lord’s martial skills. Bertran claims him to be the best king ever to bear a shield, whereas Gerald compares his young lord to the “thunderbolt winged by lightening” and gives very vivid description of Henry when in arms and war: “… no sooner was the helmet on his head than he assumed a lofty air, and became impetuous, bold and fiercer than any wild beast”, his “only desire, and the summit of his wishes” being the occasion to prove his valor and fully display his martial genius.

To find a more balanced view one should turn to Jordan Fantosme, the spiritual chancellor of the diocese of Winchester and eyewitness to the main events of the Great Revolt of 1173-74. In his Chronicle of the War between the English and the Scots, written without the benefit of hindsight of the Young King’s premature death, he does not condemn the Young Henry for his rebellion, only tries to understand the son’s motives and explain them to the father: “After this coronation and after this investiture you filched from your son something of his honor/ You took away from him his will, he could not get the mastery of it”. Jordan points out that “…A king of land without honor does not know well what to do: the young sovereign did not know it, the gentle and good”. One more balanced opinion can be found in the chronicle of Robert of Torigni, abbot of Mont-Saint Michel, who had met Henry the Young King and his family on a number of occasions and acted as one of the sponsors at the baptism of his sister Eleanor at Domfront in 1161. Upon hearing of young Henry’s death at Martel, he wrote that the sudden passing of “our dearest Lord” was “the occasion to us of deepest grief”. Not because he was Henry II’s son and heir, but because the late prince was “of the most handsome countenance, of the most pleasing manners, and the most free handed in his liberality of all the individuals with whom we have been acquainted”.

To sum up let me quote Kate Norgate, who, although writing in the 19th century, somehow expresses the ambivalent feelings that the Young King apparently evoked in his contemporaries:
“One of the most puzzling figure in the history of the time is that of the younger Henry of Anjou, the “young king”, as he is usually called” (in the England under the Angevin Kings, Vol. II, p. 220). Kate Norgate’s is one of the modern voices taking up the subject, but what today’s biographers have to say about Henry the Young King is another chapter of the story.

*As Roger of Wendover puts it in Flowers of History: “… his life was suddenly cut off like a thread, and with him were cut off the hopes of many…”  (Vol. II, p. 52)

** Shortly before he contracted bloody flux [dysentery], the Young King, had pillaged the most sacred shrines in western France [St Martial in Limoges, St Amadour in Rocamadour and Grandmont.in Limousin] in order to pay off his mercenaries.

*** Henry II denied St David’s to Gerald, the position that was the latter’s lifetime ambition bordering on obsession. The disappointment turned Gerald into the king’s bitter enemy. He gave vent to his malevolence in the texts full of harsh criticism and venom.

**** Gerald blames Louis VII of France, young Henry’s father-in-law, and Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany, Henry’s younger brother for talking the “amiable Prince” into the rebellion against his father. According to Gerald, Geoffrey had “the powers of language to throw two kingdoms into confusion” (the Duke himself would have probably taken it as a compliment, not as insult, as intended). Finally he finds one more person to blame, the elder king himself, who constantly held his sons back and did not treat them as father should treat his children, thus pushing them into rebellions, first in 1173, then in 1183.


Roger of Wendover’s Flowers of History Vol. II translated into English by J. A. Giles. Internet Archive of Northeastern University Libraries.

The Annals of Roger de Hoveden  trans. by Henry T. Riley. Internet Archive of Northeastern University Libraries.

Chronicle of the War Between the English and the Scots in 1173 and 1174 by Jordan Fantosme translated into English by Francisque Michel Internet Archive of American Libraries.

The Poems of the Troubadour Bertran de Born Ed. by William D.Paden, Tilde Sankovitch and Patricia H. Stäblein. University of California Press, 1986.

Otia Imperialia by Gervase of Tilbury. Fragments in “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

Chronicle of Robert of Torigni. Fragments in “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

De nugis curialium by Walter Map. Fragments in “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.

William Marshal. Court Career and Chivalry in the Angevin Empire 1147-1219 by David Crouch. London and New York: Longman, 1990.

The World of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Literature and Society in Southern France between the Eleventh and Thirteenth Centuries ed. by Marcus Bull and Catherine Leglu. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2005.
“Gerald of Wales: On Henry II and his Sons, from the Topography of Ireland, chapters 49-50” from The 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
Gerald of Wales and the Angevin Kings by Helen Steele. Online resources: http://www.guernicus.com/academics/pdf/gerald.pdf
England under the Angevin Kings, Vol. II by Kate Norgate. Internet Archive of University of Toronto Libraries.


  1. I always like to read comments from Geerald of Wales. Scathing comments to start this article though from Walter Map.

  2. I love Gerald's flowery and juicy style, Arenje:-) Wlater Map's, although hostile when it comes to Henry, is highly poetic and enjoyable. That I cannot deny him. Thank you for dropping by:-)

  3. My goodness, those are harsh words by Walter Map. Poor Henry. :( Great to see the more balanced account of him by Jordan Fantosme (I love that name! :) though.

  4. Indeed, Kathryn! Rather harsh:-) but I can't help admiring Walter. There's a true poet lurking behind the lines, and because I too tried my hand at poetry once, his vivid imagination and imagery of his work is so close to my heart. In this I try not to think that it's all about Henry, just focus on the sheer beauty of Walter's poetic language.


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