Death in Youth: Henry the Young King

Henry the Young King was born on the 28th of February 1155. He was not meant to be a king: at the time of his birth, he was just a ‘spare’ son. However, his elder brother, the three-year-old William, passed away in August 1153, 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 betrothed to the three-year-old Margaret of France, daughter of Louis VII of France and Constance of Castile (her 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. Henry and Margaret were married on the 27th of August 1172 at Winchester Cathedral, and then Henry was crowned King of England again, this time alongside with Margaret, by Rotrou, Archbishop of Rouen. Margaret’s only pregnancy ended when she gave birth prematurely to the 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 not to confuse him with his royal parent. 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 at the end of his life, 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.

Tomb and effigy of Henry the Young King in     Rouen Cathedral

Sometime between the end of March and the beginning of May 1183, Eleanor of Aquitaine was captured by her husband on the way to her sons. Nevertheless, Henry the Young King still fought against the old English monarch, for now he had the kings of France and Scotland, the counts of Flanders, Boulogne, and Blois as his allies, and numerous aristocrats from the Angevin lands also supported him. The wheel of fate turned around again: 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