Kings and Queens – Henry II

Kings and Queens – Henry II

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Continuing our series looking at the legacy monarchs have left to London. This time Henry II

King Henry II by Unknown artist c1620

King Henry II
by Unknown artist c1620 courtesy National Portrait Gallery

In the last part we looked at the reign of King Stephen who seized the throne before Matilda could claim the throne herself. Despite years of war Matilda was unable to gain the throne herself, despite winning military victories assisted by her son Henry. However – by the Treaty  of Winchester she secured the throne for her son Henry, rather than Stephen’s son William. When Stephen died suddenly in October 1154 Henry became King Henry II

The Norman kings had to balance being in charge of possessions in England and Normandy. Henry II by virtue of his marriage to Europe’s most powerful woman Eleanor of Aquitaine added an area that included most of modern day France to his possessions. Thus an English King ruled  an area from the south of Scotland to the Pyrenees. Howver such a large empire meant that Henry had not much time to spend in London – only 13 years of his 34 year rein were spent in England.  Obviously, in view of the anarchic state of the country during Stephen’s reign, the main focus for Henry was to re-establish central control of the crown, so the opening years of his rule involved demolishing castles built by the barons, and ensuring that only he was able to authorise the building of any more. Henry established changes to the legal system that helped form the basis of Common Law.

Despite the size of his empire Henry II was keen to use military force to expand his territories and armies were sent to Scotland and Wales to expand English influence. In 1171 Henry ordered the invasion of Ireland, initially in support of Irish landowners but by 1177 Henry was able to rule Ireland himself through a system of personally appointed barons, backed up by an aggressive programme of castle building. Its arguable that the long struggle for Irish independence is one of Henry II’s longest legacies.

Henry died in 1189 at Chinon Castle in France, during a time of war between himself and three of his sons, Henry , Richard and John. Shortly after his death William of Newburgh said of him “In his own time he was hated by almost everyone”. He is buried in Fontrevraud Abbey in France but you can see a replica of his tomb in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Plaster cast of Henry II tomb

Plaster cast of Henry II tomb courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum

So else is there in London to commemorate Henry II. As a King who ordered castles to be built as a way of dominating their surrounding area, you would think some of the Tower of London dates from  his reign. Improved defences to the White Tower were built during Henry II’s reign but these were subsequently demolished. It is worth making a day trip out of London to Dover Castle where a beautiful reconstruction of Henry II’s chambers have been created by English Heritage. However there are a two must see London buildings dating from Henry II’s reign – both associated with chivalric orders. The Knights Hospitallers of the Order of St John founded their London headquarters in 1180. They were a military, religious and medical order whose purpose was to defend and run the hospital in Jerusalem which catered for sick pilgrims. It was a hugely expensive operation, and to raise money the order had to open headquarters in countries across Europe. The crypt of the priory church is all that survives from the original building, but its a space that provides one of the great surprises in London – being preserved under much more recent buildings. You can visit on most days when the Museum of the order of St John is open, and enjoy the change in architectural style from round to pointed arches, a change in style which occurred during the construction of the building.

Crypt of priory church of the Order of St John

Crypt of priory church of the Order of St John courtesy of Museum of the Order of St John

The other military religious order in London at that time were the Knights Templars and their church was founded during Henry II reign. Although it has been much altered and heavily restored after war damage, the Temple Church is still a breath taking piece of architecture with beautiful stained glass and fantastic stone carvings. Its alleged Henry II wished to be buried in the church, and some accounts say he was present at its consecration ceremony in 1185.

The restored ceiling of the round part of Temple Church

The restored ceiling of the round part of Temple Church

carved corbel from Temple Church

carved corbel from Temple Church

Tomb of Sir William Marshall Temple Church

Tomb of Sir William Marshall Temple Church

In a previous post we heard how William II set up a tax to pay for the repairs of the wooden London Bridge. This fund helped pay for the replacement in 1176 of the wooden London Bridge by a new stone bridge commissioned by Henry II and designed by Peter de Colechurch. This stone bridge allows more traffic to cross the river generating more tolls and allowing traders to set up in Southwark, helping London’s growth. You can see some of the stones from the bridge in the Churchyard of St Magnus the Martyr that were unearthed in 1921. If your visiting the churchyard take some time to look from the entrance gates through the arch underneath the tower. This used to be the pathway people took to get onto Old London Bridge, so though the bridge itself is gone you can see the route people would have walked to get onto it.


There are a number of pictures of Henry II in the National Portrait Gallery collection, though none on display at present and none are contemporary. You can see a manuscript of a  poem by the French poet Wace, dedicated to Henry II and Eleanor in the British Library collection. Unfortunately for poor Wace, Henry II seems to have changed his mind and given a commission to write a poem to someone else so Wace’s poem, about the bravery of the Norman dynasty, was never finished.

Poem dedicated to Henry II Royal 4 C xi, Wace, Roman de Rou England, late 12th century British Library

Poem dedicated to Henry II Royal 4 C xi, Wace, Roman de Rou
England, late 12th century British Library

As we have seen Henry II was not a popular man, so not surprisingly there are few streets or pubs named after him. Far more widely commemorated is Henry’s Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas a Beckett. Thomas Beckett was born in 1118 in Cheapside (a plaque commemorates the spot), son of a wealthy merchant. He was educated at Merton Priory, and then became an envoy of the then Archbishop of Canterbury

thomas a becket plaque

Success here led to Beckett being appointed Lord Chancellor at the age of 35 and was successful in maximising revenue for Henry II and he soon became a trusted servant of the King. However in 1162 Beckett is appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, and begins a defence of the powers of the church that brings him into conflict with Henry. This comes to a head in 1170 when Henry appears to favour the Bishop of Salisbury, and in retaliation Becket excommunicates some of Henry’s supporters in London. In a rage Henry is alleged to have said “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” – this was taken as an order to kill Becket. Four knights set off to Canterbury and murdered him in Canterbury Cathedral. Becket had been an ally of Pope Alexander III and in 1173 the pope declared his loyal servant a saint. In 1174 with Henry,  facing crisis with the revolt of his three sons showed remorse by praying at the tomb of St Thomas a Becket. In the following centuries the cult of St Thomas a Becket grew, with pilgrims visiting his shrine in Canterbury, famously depicted in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The most famous of the buildings commemorating St Thomas a Becket is the pub on Old Kent Road bearing his name. Interestingly Chaucer mentions an inn at this location in the Canterbury Tales, so drinkers in the pub are at an historic location, and in addition the pub was where Henry Cooper boxed, Mohammed Ali visited and David Bowie rehearsed upstairs! St Thomas a Becket is also commemorated in a school in Abbey Wood , a church in Wandsworth ,  St Thomas’ hospital and a chapel in St Magnus the Martyr church.

Henry II’s reign starts with the chaos of civil war and ends with civil war with his son Richard. When Henry II dies in 1189 however it is Richard who is crowned king – becoming one of England’s most famous Richard the Lionheart. And we will talk about his London Legacy next time.








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