14 June 1170. Henry’s First Coronation

On 14 June 1170, Henry II had his son Henry [since then called the Young King] crowned king of England at Westminster, with Roger of Pont-l’Eveque, Archbishop of York performing the act instead of the exiled Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. 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. By crowning his eldest surviving son in his own lifetime Henry II followed the continental tradition, which had worked out for French and German kings. The king wanted to avoid future disputes over the succession. 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 (Alexander III) 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, led 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).

The coronation of the young Henry and grand banquet that followed** 

But back to the young prince awaiting his “big day”. He awaited it in Normandy, under the care of Richard of Ilchester, his father’s official and trustworthy man. When the latter received the king’s message, he took his ward across the Narrow Sea to England. Not much is known of the ceremony itself. This would have to wait till Henry’s younger brother Richard’s coronation in 1189, since his crowning was the first to be described in detail. One can only guess that Henry, like the 11th and early 12th-century monarchs before him, wore the regal robes that were deliberately priestly in character: the tunicle, the dalmatic and the cope. The custom of burying the kings in their coronation robes and vestments (especially those in which they had received unction) dates back to this period. Thirteen years after his coronation, in 1183, the young king would be buried, as both Ralph of Diceto and Matthew Paris noted, in the linen vestments in which he had been anointed. Each monarch had his own personal regalia and the young Henry’s items probably included: crown and sceptre and ceremonial swords. We do not know whether he was invested with spurs. He was only fifteen at the time and did not undergo his knighting ceremony yet (the pivotal moment in a knight’s life). Furthermore the spurs seem a little bit later addition. What we do know is that the Young Henry swore with both hands on the altar, on which lay the Gospels and relics of the saints. His oath made him vow- in the light of the preceding events- to maintain the liberty and the dignity of the Church. To stress the sacrality of the ceremony, as Professor Matthew Strickland points out, the Young Henry could have been anointed with oil of chrism rather than the usual oil of catechumens. Roger of Wendover noted that "... his [Henry the Young King] body, wrapped in the linen garments, which he wore anointed with the chrism at his coronation, was carried to Rouen..."

Unfortunately, the coronation of 1170 proved to be a cardinal blunder on Henry II’s part. Not only was it done against the pope’s wishes- although it seems that the papal message forbidding the ceremony unless it was conducted by the archbishop of Canterbury (at that time Thomas Becket) was never delivered- but also worked in Becket’s advantage, giving him the chance to appear in the role of a poor prelate who had just suffered yet further insult through a tyrant ruler. At that time Thomas Becket had remained in exile on the Continent after he had fallen out with the King, the reason for their clash having been Henry II’s tries to curb the power of the Church. Furthermore the coronation enraged Louis VII of France, the younger Henry’s father-in-law since his daughter Marguerite, the younger Henry’s wife, for the reasons obscure, was not crowned with him. As a result of the cooperation of the pope and the king of France, Henry and Thomas finally came to terms, with Henry 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. The three men hurried to Normandy straight to the king’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. It all happened in the direct aftermath of the ceremony, but for the king, the coronation would prove to be disastrous also in the long term. By making his son a king only in name and retaining administrative power for himself, the king would drive the ambitious youngster, resented his powerlessness, to rebellion. Supported by his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, by his brothers, Richard Duke of Aquitaine and Geoffrey Duke of Brittany, by discontented barons, and by much more powerful allies, namely kings of France and Scotland, counts of Flanders, Boulogne, and Blois, the Young King would bring about the greatest crisis of his father’s reign, the war that would become known as the Great Revolt of 1173-74.

* In 1170, under pressure from the exiled Becket, the Pope withdrew his decision, but failed to inform Henry II about it. The two letters in which he informed the king that by the ancient custom ‘… coronation and anointing of the kings of the English belongs to the Archbishop of Canterbury’ did not arrive in time and Henry II had his son already crowned. The situation even more complex, for the Archbishop of York was specifically forbidden by the pope to perform the crowning ceremony.

 ** About the banquet the famous anecdote began to circulate. Henry II wanted to serve his son in person. He approached the dias carrying what was with all probablity the wild boar's head (the chief decoration of the high table, usual crowning of Christmas feasts and other festive dinners of the nobility) saying that not always a prince could be served by a king. His freshly crowned son replied that it was nothing unusual for the son of a count to serve the king. (I wish I could see the reactions of the present :-)).


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

Ralph of Diceto. Images of History. In The Plantagenet Chronicles, ed. Dr.Elizabeth Hallam Greenwich Edition, 2002.

“Account of the Coronation of the Young King Henry (June 1170) by William fitz Stephen” in English Historical Documents Ed. by D. Douglas and G. W. Greenaway. Google Books.

Coronation. From the 8th to the 21st Century by Roy Strong. Harper Perennial, 2005.

“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.

Bishop and Chapter in Twelfth-Century England by Everett U. Crosby. Google Books.
The Angevin Empire by John Gillingham. Edward Arnold, 1984.

Historical Dictionary of the British Monarchy by Kenneth J. Panton. Google Books.


  1. Great post as usual Kasia. I thought that the Young King's put down of his father when being served by him would have infuriated Henry II, even if, as has been said, it was meant as a clever, off-the-cuff quip! I, like you, would loved to have heard his retort!

    1. Thank you Ken! On such occasions I do regret that nobody invented the time-travelling machine so far ;-)

  2. Superb post Kasia - really enjoyed it and well researched.
    Can I just add that it seems that the papal message did get through but was ignored. Eleanor managed to stop the Bishop of Worcester from crossing The Channel to deliver it, but Mary of Boulogne slipped through the barricade. She was the daughter of King Stephen and had been happily living as a nun until her older brother William died and left her the heir to his lands. Matthew of Flanders with the sanction of Henry II dragged her out of the convent and forced her into marriage, which she endured for 10 years (bearing 2 daughters). Becket had tried to prevent the marriage and failed. Now, the marriage annulled, Mary was heading back into the convent, but she was more than happy to bear the letter of the papal ban to England, using the code name 'Idonea' which means 'the suitable one.' However, the letter was ignored and the coronation went ahead. Reference - Thomas Becket by John Guy, page 286 of the UK hard cover edition.

  3. Elizabeth, I'm honoured! Thank you! Such a compliment!!!

    And I'm most grateful for the information concerning the papal letter. Actually, I knew that Henry had the ports guarded, but I did not know whether the message reached him or not, so big "Thank you!".

    I'm interested in the Flemish branch of the family (especially Vermandois connections), know Matthew- Mary's story, but never heard of the part Mary played in delivering the papal ban. Fascinating! Once again thank you!

  4. Until I started reading your blog, this was the only thing I knew about Henry - his coronation. I wonder what would have happened if he'd lived ?

  5. Indeed, Anerje! I too keep wondering what if he'd only lived... Such field for imagination :-)

  6. In a nutshell, you have given us this dramatic 7-mth sequence of events, with dire & far-reaching consequences, a watershed moment in history, while reminding us again of Church power, hierarchy, & hypocrisy. Well done! Wouldn't you kill to have been there for that little interplay between father & son........I'll bet their relationship was built on such power plays!! And time machine? I wish that almost daily. Well maybe in the great beyond, we will find ourselves in the time-space realm where time can be bent. Wow!

    Thanks Kasia

  7. I would kill Joan, I would....
    Thank you for your comment ;-)

  8. Beckett's dipomatic skills were worse than Per Steinbrück's, it seems. ;-) He should have been glad to do the coronation without excommunicating others, really.

    I totally want a time travel machine. There are a few people I want to ask some questions. :-)

    1. Hi Gabriele! Thank you for paying a visit to us :-)
      As for Becket and his diplomatic skills, I think everything changed after Becket's conversion. He bacame a kind of fanatic. Before he seemed to have been a very gifted diplomatic- remember for instance the highly lucrative marriage of Prince Henry (our Henry) and Marguerite in 1158 Thomas, the then Chancellor, negotiated between Henry II and Louis VII.
      IMHO, he was a kind of man, who, no matter what role he assumed, needed to be the best, the first, etc. And he was really good at it ;-) This I cannot deny.

  9. Sorry, I meant "very gifted diplomat" not "very gifted diplomatic" of course :-)

    P.S. Who was Per Steinbruck, BTW?

  10. Is - he's the candidate for chancellor of the Socialist Party. We got an election year so you really can't escape the dang politics much as I hate the whole incompetent lot. ;-)

  11. Thanks Gabriele! I got stuck with the Angevins for good, don't know what is going on in today's politics :-)

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