Henry the Young King and the Clergy

As Ralph of Diceto noted in his Images of History ‘Richard bishop of London died on 5 May [1162]' (p.108). I thought it worth using the occasion to post about Henry the Young King and his relations with the clergy*

Richard de Belmeis II, bishop of London
Richard de Belmeis II, bishop of London (1152-1162), former canon and archdeacon of Middlesex and nephew of the former bishop, Richard de Belmeis I appointed in 1108 by Henry I was the bishop, who baptized the young king. The London see and chapter were occupied by a Belmeis- Foliot dynasty (famous Gilbert Foliot was also related to the Belmeis clan) for a large part of the twelfth century (1108-1127 and 1152-1187).

Henry of Pisa** and William of Pavia
Since 1156- the year of his elder brother, William’s death- Prince Henry had been his father’s sole heir. In 1158, thanks to the successful mission of the then chancellor, Thomas Becket, he had been betrothed to Marguerite, the third daughter of Louis VII of France. When in 1160 Louis’s second wife, Constance of Castile died in childbirth and he was left with but four daughters, the French king panicked, “did not observe the proper time of mourning” and married his third wife, Adela of Blois unseemly shortly afterwards. This unusually resolute move by usually monkish Louis caught Henry II somehow off balance, but with his usual decisiveness he acted immediately. Taking advantage of the presence of the papal legates at his court, he arranged the marriage almost on the spot. Henry of Pisa and William of Pavia were the emissaries of Alexander III (c. 1100/1105 – 1181), who sought Henry II’s support in his conflict with the antipope Victor IV. The legates were eager to be of service and the marriage of five-year-old Henry and two-year-old Marguerite- who “were as yet but little children crying in their cradle” (Howden)-  was celebrated at Newbourg on the 2nd of November [1160]. And although the English king’s plan to see his son and heir on the French throne one day- after all Louis had no male successor- was shattered, Marguerite’s dowry, the Norman Vexin was now secured in the Plantagenets’ hold.

The Young King refuses to meet Thomas Becket. Chartres, Cathédrale Notre-Dame, window 18, panel 18. 

Rotrou, Archbishop of Rouen
In 1162 Rotrou, Archbishop of Rouen (1109-1183/4) had a letter of polite reproach formulated and written by Peter of Blois. The addressee was the king of England himself and the writ concerned the king’s eldest son and heir. ‘Although other kings are of a rude and uncultivated character, yours, which was formed by literature, is prudent in the administration of great affairs, subtle in judgments, and circumspect in counsel. Wherefore all your bishops unanimously agree that Henry, your son and heir may be the successor to your wisdom as well as to your kingdom’. (in Meade, p.251). The Archbishop was growing more and more anxious. Henry was seven years old and already a married man, still he lived with his mother. Something quite unthinkable, not to say shocking, by the twelfth century standards. Either Rotrou’s letter bore fruit or- which I find more probable- Henry II simply followed his family tradition of a good education and consequently had his golden boy placed in the household of his chancellor and friend, Thomas Becket. Rotrou was to play an important role in Henry’s life once again, this time ten years later, in 1172. He was the one who, together with Gilles, bishop of Evreux, and Roger, bishop of Worcester, presided over the Young King’s second coronation in the church of Saint Swithin, at Winchester, ‘on the sixth day before the calends of September, being the Lord’s Day [27 August]’.

Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury
According to William Fitz Stephen Henry II was not the first to choose Becket (c.1118-1170) as his son’s tutor: “…magnates of the kingdom of England and of neighboring kingdoms placed their children in the chancellor’s service, and he grounded them in honest education and doctrine… The king himself, his lord, commended his son, the heir to the kingdom, to his training, and the chancellor kept him with him among the many nobles’ sons of similar age, and their appropriate attendants, masters and servants according to rank.” At the behest of the king Becket took his young ward across the Narrow Sea to England in early May 1162. He was to call the Great Council in the king’s name and prepare the prince for his recognition by the bishops and magnates of the realm. It was there, at London, where young Henry was presented with the petition that his freshly-assigned tutor should be appointed as archbishop and asked to give a formal consent to it. On 3 June he witnessed Becket’s consecration at Canterbury. What he must have witnessed too was his tutor’s almost day-to-day transformation from the worldly chancellor into a monk exercising both his flesh and soul. With ‘a hairshirt of the roughest kind, which reached to his knees and swarmed with vermin’ and with the mortification ‘of his flesh with the sparest diet’ came other changes in the former chancellor: “… the glorious Archbishop Thomas, contrary to the expectation of the king and everyone else, so utterly abandoned the world and so suddenly experienced that conversion, which is God’s handiwork, that all men marveled thereat.” (in the Plantagenet Chronicles, p.109) The one who marveled most must have been king Henry II himself. What his eldest son thought about Becket’s conversion, we will never learn. But this sudden day-to-day change in his worldly tutor must have taken him by surprise. The Archbishop chose to oppose young Henry’s father in all matters, both of lesser and crucial importance. To show his ever-growing displeasure towards his former chancellor and friend, Henry II had his son removed from Becket’s household. The short time spent in Becket’s tutelage (c. May 1162- October 1163) proved to be enough to left the boy with his head full of visions of splendor and grandeur, visions quite different from those nourished by his father, the king. Those who regard and regarded the Young King as a ‘charming, vain, idle spendthrift’ (Warren) should look for the origins of his taste for glamour, luxury and greatness underneath the roof of his tutor, Thomas Becket. As Professor Matthew Strickland points out ‘the experience must have made a profound impression upon the boy’, and not only the splendor of the household itself or the chancellor’s worldly ways, but also Becket’s own aspiring to perform a model knightly prowess and valor. Young Henry, aged four, had seen Becket leaving Poitiers at the head of seven hundred knights in the course of Henry II’s Toulouse Campaign, in 1159. While accompanying the chancellor to Normandy in 1161, he may have witnessed the latter defeat the French knight Enguerrand de Trie in single combat. Finally, being Becket’s ward he had a chance to admire his tutor’s military household and see for himself, the chancellor’s knights ‘in all the army of the king of England… always first, always the most daring, always performed excellently’. Henry’s later displays of largesse and greatness, his prowess on the tournament field, his own splendid household may all be a consequence of his stay in Becket’s tutelage.

Roger of Pont-l’Eveque, archbishop of York
Roger of Pont l’Eveque (c.1115-1181), Archbishop of York, by some called  "a learned and eloquent man, and in worldly affairs, prudent almost to singularity” by others simply a "devil”, was the man who in 1170, acting at Henry II’s order, crowned Young Henry king of England in Westminster Abbey, in the absence of the exiled Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. The coronation enraged Thomas Becket and renewed the long-lasting dispute over primacy between Canterbury and York. The Archbishop of Canterbury reminded that it was the traditional right of the archbishop of Canterbury, and not the archbishop of York, to perform coronations. In his turn, Archbishop Roger evoked Pope Gregory the Great’s words “Let there be between the bishops of London and York distinction of honour according to seniority of ordination”, and explained that in 1161 he received a letter in which His Holiness, the Pope permitted the King of England to have his son, Henry crowned by any bishop of his choosing. Roger was well acquainted with Thomas: the two had been members of the household of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, before acquiring even more honourable positions. When Becket went to exile in 1164, it was Roger who acted as the senior churchman in England, the situation which, on 14 June 1170, lead him straight to Westminster Abbey and the young prince awaiting to be crowned. The act that he was to pay for dearly. The coronation was considered illegal and Roger and the bishops who assisted him*** at the ceremony excommunicated. Furthermore the coronation enraged Louis VII of France, since his daughter Marguerite, the younger Henry’s wife, for reasons that remain obscure was not crowned with her husband. To placate Louis VII and mend the rift between them, and because the first coronation of his son was considered invalid, Young Henry’s father, outdid himself in organizing the most elaborate and grand ceremony, that took place on 27 August 1172 at Winchester, with Rotrou, archbishop of Rouen officiating. The Princess’s father had expressed the wish that the excommunicated bishops who performed the coronation of his son-in-law in 1170 had been forbidden to participate. Roger was later able to return to his duties, but with the war already lost: Canterbury now had her freshly canonized martyr, Thomas of blessed memory.

Thomas Becket again…
As a result of the cooperation of the pope and the king of France, Henry II and Thomas Becket finally came to terms, with the former willing to grant all that was demanded of him in order to avoid his continental domains being laid under interdict. The reconciliation took place on 22 July 1170 at Freteval. Thomas Becket was promised a safe passage to England and return to Canterbury. Shortly before he crossed the Channel, the archbishop, doubtful of the king’s good intentions, sent ahead the letters excommunicating the prelates who had participated in the illegal coronation of the Young King, namely the archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury. On 8/9 December 1170, a week after his return to England and to Canterbury, Thomas Becket set off for Winchester, by way of London, to pay respects to his one-time ward and new king, Young Henry. Knowing the latter’s love for horses, Thomas ‘brought with him three costly chargers, of wondrous speed, beautiful in form, high-stepping, their delicate flanks rippling as they walked, their housing worked with flowers in various colours, which he intended to give as a gift to his new lord.’ (William fitz Stephen in Meade, p.313-14) Shortly before he set off, Thomas sent Richard of Dover ahead to announce his arrival. When already in Winchester, Richard was met with a cool reception. The fifteen-year-old king’s guardians, officials and courtiers were mostly hostile to the Archbishop and took care to reduce the access to their young lord. Thus the archbishop managed to travel only as far as London when he was halted by a messenger from the Young King. Henry refused to meet his one-time tutor and forbade him to continue the progress. Thomas was to return to Canterbury immediately. In the meantime the three excommunicated bishops hurried to Normandy, straight to king Henry’s Christmas court. On learning what happened Henry burst out with one of his famous uncontrolled rages. ‘Will nobody rid me of this low-born priest?!’ he was to shout. Four days later, on Tuesday, 29 December, Thomas Becket was murdered in his own Cathedral by four Henry’s knights. Upon learning of Thomas’s death the Young King was to remark: 'What a pity! But Thank God it was kept a secret from me and that no liege-man of mine was involved in it!' I suppose that, over the years, he must have grown indifferent to his one-time tutor.

John aux Bellesmains, Bishop of Poitiers****
John, born in 1127, was a member of Archbishop Theobald [of Canterbury]’s household, a close friend of John of Salisbury and a correspondent of both Salisbury and Ralph of Diceto. In the years 1154-1162 he was a treasurer of York; from 1162 to 1182 bishop of Poitiers, and later, successively, arcbishop of Narbonne (1182-83), and Lyons (1183-93). He retired to Clairvaux, where he died in 1204. In 1176 John, the then bishop of Poitiers, was taken by surprise and forced to complete a very ungrateful mission. The news reached him that the Young King was planning to sentence his vice-chancellor, Adam to death. The wretch had been caught while trying to send a letter to Henry’s father- ‘as he owed everything to the lord king [Henry II] who had found him a place with his son’- in which he informed of all what he had witnessed at his lord’s court. The writ discovered, the action enraged Young Henry, who, in the aftermath of the Great Revolt (1173-74), had his household filled with his father’s men and felt constrained, and he tried Adam for his life. It was only thanks to the intervention of bishop John that Adam was saved, although that did not mean he avoided punishment. And it turned out to be a humiliating one: the chancellor was whipped naked through the streets of Argentan and later imprisoned. Henry II himself intervened on his behalf and had him placed in Hyde abbey at Winchester. Bishop John saved Adam’s neck protesting that the vice-chancellor was a clerk and, thus, should not be subject to lay jurisdiction.

Gerald, Bishop of Cahors and Bernard, Bishop of Agen
Both bishops were present at Henry’s deathbed. On 7 June 1183, when it was already clear that the Young King was not going to survive, he prostrated himself naked on the floor, and before the crucifix confessed his sins to Gerald, Bishop of Cahors. On 11 June, surrounded by churchmen, with Bernard, Bishop of Agen administering the last rites, he confessed again, first privately, then in public. As death drew near he had a hair shirt put on him and asked to be dragged out of bed by a noose wound round his neck. ‘By this cord,’ he said, ‘do I deliver myself, an unworthy, culpable, and guilty sinner, unto you, the ministers of God, beseeching that our Lord Jesus Christ, who remitted his sins to the thief when confessing upon the cross, will, through your prayers, and through his ineffable mercy, have compassion upon my most wretched soul!’

* I am not going to discuss Henry’s chaplains. I will write about them in the second part of Who’s Who, since I think they belong more to Henry’s household and should be mentioned together with other young king’s officials.

**  In 1162 Cardinal Henry of Pisa baptized Young Henry’s sister, Eleanor.

*** Four English bishops assisted at the ceremony. These were Hugh of Durham, Gilbert of London, Jocelyn of Salisbury and Walter of Rochester. The Norman bishops present were Henry of Bayeux and Giles of Evreux.

****  In 1172 John, then the bishop of Poitiers played an important role in the ceremony in which the young Richard [the Lionheart] , Henry’s brother became duke of Aquitaine. Thanks to Geoffrey of Vigeois we know that, together with bishop Bertram of Bordeaux, John offered Richard a lance with a banner. In 1178, together with other high officials of the Church, John stood at the head of the anti-heresy mission sent to Toulouse by Henry II and Louis VII.


Roger of Wendover’s Flowers of History Vol. II translated by J. A. Giles, Google Books.

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

William Fitz Stephen on Thomas Becket in The Plantagenet Chronicles ed. by Dr Elizabeth Hallam. Greenwich Edition, 2002.

“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, 2007.

William Marshal. Court Career and Chivalry in the Angevin Empire 1147-1219 by David Crouch. Harlow, 1990.

Death of Kings: Royal Death in Medieval England by Michael Evans. London, 2007.

Bishop and Chapter in Twelfth-Century England by Everett U. Crosby. Google Books.

Franks, Burgundians, and Aquitanians and the Royal Coronation Ceremony in France by Elizabeth A. R. Brown, Google books.

“Anglo-Norman Names Recorded in the Durham Liber Vitae” by John S. Moore in The Durham Liber Vitae and its Context ed.by D. Rollason, A.J. Piper, M.Harvey and L. Rollason, Google Books.

Eleanor of Aquitaine by Marion Meade. Pheonix Press Paperback, 2002

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. The Boydell Press, 2005.

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


  1. Interesting to think that some of the Young King's faults might be laid at the door of Beckett. And yes, Henry must have been amazed at the transformation of his former tutor.

  2. Well, I'm not sure whether they can be called faults. Some of them, such as Henry's extravagance, yes! Certainly. But I would rather say- I know you're going to find me partial- the young king and the old king held different views on kingship in general. In this matter the son followed the tradition fostered in his mother's homeland, Aquitaine, with his forefathers' love for luxury and splendour. Henry's stay in Becket's tutelage only added to something that had already run in his veins :-)

  3. That's so interesting, I'd never heard Young Henry's reaction to Becket's death before!

  4. A little bit indifferent, I know! But Thomas Becket must have been a difficult man to like, at least after his conversion.


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