Death in Youth: Henry the Young King

Henry the Young King was born on the 28th of February 1155.  At the time of his birth, he was the second son, so he was not expected to become king.  However, his elder brother, William, passed away in 1156 at the age of three, making Henry the eldest son and heir of Henry II.

At his coronation banquet, the Young King is served by his father, King Henry II.

Little Henry was specially groomed for kingship.  He was the apple of his father’s eyes; later, his younger brother, Richard, would become his mother’s favorite.  At the age of five, in November 1160, Henry was married to the three-year-old Margaret of France, daughter of Louis VII of France and Constance of Castile. Margaret’s dowry was the much-disputed territory of Vexin.

In June 1170, the fifteen-year-old prince was crowned king during Henry II’s lifetime.  The practice of crowning the heir during his father’s lifetime was started by Hugh Capet (in December 987, he arranged the coronation of his son, Robert), and continued by the Capetians until the time of Louis VII, which positively contributed to the dynasty’s stability and, most importantly, allowed to avoid even a momentary interregnum and chaos.  So, Henry became titular King of England after the coronation, as well as Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou and Maine.

Margaret was not crowned along with her husband due to the exile of Archbishop Thomas Becket.  Her coronation was on the 27th of August 1172 at Winchester Cathedral. Since Henry had already been crowned, this ceremony served as his “crown wearing,” a ceremony intended to emphasize his kingship. The ceremonies were conducted by Rotrou, Archbishop of Rouen.  Margaret’s only pregnancy ended when she gave birth prematurely to a boy named William on the 19th of June 1177, but the infant died three days later. The couple did not have any other children.

From the moment of his coronation, Henry was called Henry the Young King to avoid confusion with his father.  He seemed not to have been interested in the day-to-day state affairs, unlike Henry II.  However, what frustrated the young man was that he had no real power, as his father failed to delegate him power in England.  Yet, Henry was a political force to reckon with, for he was extremely popular with the people.  Henry the Young King yearned to become more independent, and his frustrations morphed into an open rebellion – the Revolt of 1173–74.

At his coronation banquet, the Young King is served by his father, Henry II

A formal reason for the rebellion was Henry II’s decision to bequeath three castles, which were located within the lands of the Young king, to his youngest son, John.   In response nobles, who could gain something from the family quarrel, goaded Henry into turning against his father.  His mother, Eleanor, and many others, who were disappointed by Henry II’s possible involvement in the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170, joined the cause.  As a result, soon many of Anglo-Norman, Norman, Angevin, Poitevin, and Breton lords betrayed Henri II and joined the uprising.  Later, after Henry the Young King temporarily withdrew to the court of his father-in-law, Louis, and then he and his brothers, Richard and Geoffrey, forged an alliance with France against Henry II.

Sometime between the end of March and the beginning of May 1173, Eleanor of Aquitaine was captured by her husband on the way to her sons.  The revolt ended in September 1174 with Henry II victorious.

By 1182, Henry the Young King again rose up against his father. This time, his brother Richard was fighting on the side of Henry II. In the opening days of June 1183, Henry contracted bloody flux, and soon it became obvious that he was not going to survive.

On his deathbed, Henry the Young King reportedly asked to be reconciled to his father, but Henry II, fearing a ruse, denied his request.  At the age of twenty-eight, Henry breathed his last at Martel, near Limoges, on the 11th of June 1183.  He died clasping a ring his father had sent him as a sign of his forgiveness.  According to contemporary accounts, Henry II said later:

“He [Henry the Young King] cost me much, but I wish he had lived to cost me more.”

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2019 Olivia Longueville