Famous Men of the Middle Ages
By John H. Haaren (John Henry)
Public Domain Books
Henry the Second
Henry the Second 1154-1189 and His Sons 1189-1216
In 1154, while Barbarossa was reigning in Germany, Henry II, one of England’s greatest monarchs, came to the throne.
Henry was the son of Geoffrey Plantagenet (Plan-tag’-e-net), Count of Anjou in France, and Matilda, daughter of King Henry I and granddaughter of William the Conqueror. Count Geoffrey used to wear in his hat a sprig of the broom plant, which is called in Latin “planta genista.” From this he adopted the name Plantagenet, and the kings who descended from him and ruled England for more than three hundred years are called the Plantagenets.
Henry II inherited a vast domain in France and managing this in addition England kept him very busy. One who knew him well said, “He never sits down; he is on his feet from morning till night.”
His chief assistant in the management of public affairs was Thomas Becket, whom he made chancellor of the kingdom. Becket was fond of pomp and luxury, and lived in a more magnificent manner than even the king himself.
The clergy had at this time become almost independent of the king. To bring them under his authority Henry made Becket Archbishop of Canterbury, thus putting him at the head of the Church in England. The king expected that Becket would carry out all his wishes.
Becket, however, refused to do that which the king most desired and a quarrel arose between them. At last, to escape the king’s anger, Becket fled to France and remained there for six years.
At the end of this time Henry invited him to come back to England. Not long after, however, the old quarrel began again. One day while Henry was sojourning in France, he cried out in a moment of passion, while surrounded by a group of knights, “Is there no one who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”
Four knights who heard him understood from this angry speech that he desired the death of Becket, and they went to England to murder the Archbishop. When they met Becket they first demanded that he should do as the king wished, but he firmly refused. At dusk that same day they entered Canterbury Cathedral, again seeking for him. “Where is the traitor, Thomas Becket?” one of them cried.
Becket boldly answered, “Here am Ino traitor, but a priest of god.”
As he finished speaking the knights rushed upon him and killed him.
The people of England were horrified by this brutal murder. Becket was called a martyr and his tomb became a place of pious pilgrimage. The Pope canonized him and for years he was the most venerated of English saints.
King Henry was in Normandy when the murder occurred. He declared that he had had nothing whatever to do with it and he punished the murderers.
But from this time Henry had many troubles. His own sons rebelled against him, his barons were unfriendly, and conspiracies were formed. Henry thought that God was punishing him for the murder of Becket and so determined to do penance at the tomb of the saint.
For some distance before he reached Canterbury Cathedral where Becket was buried he walked over the road with bare head and feet. After his arrival he fasted and prayed a day and a night. The next day he put scourges into the hands of the cathedral monks and said, “Scourge me as I kneel at the tomb of the saint.” The monks did as he bade them and he patiently bore the pain.
Henry finally triumphed over his enemies and had some years of peace, which he devoted to the good of England.
In the last year of his life, however, he had trouble again. The king of France and Henry’s son Richard took up arms against him. Henry was defeated and was forced to grant what they wished. When he saw a list of the barons who had joined the French king he found among them the name of his favorite son John, and his heart was broken. He died a few days later.
Henry’s eldest surviving son, Richard, was crowned at Westminster Abbey in 1190. He took the title of Richard I but is better known as “Cœur de Lion” ("the lion-hearted”), a name which was given him on account of his bravery. He had wonderful strength and his brave deeds were talked about all over the land.
With such a man for their king, the English people became devoted to chivalry, and on every field of battle brave men vied with another in brave deeds. Knighthood was often the reward of valor. Then, as now, knighthood was usually conferred upon a man by his king or queen. A part of the ceremony consisted in the sovereign’s touching the kneeling subject’s soldier with the flat of a sword and saying, “Arise, Sir Knight.” This was called “the accolade.”
Richard did not stay long in England after his coronation. In 1191 he went with Philip of France on a Crusade.
The French and English Crusaders together numbered more than one hundred thousand men. They sailed to the Holy Land and joined an army of Christian soldiers encamped before the city of Acre. The besiegers had despaired of taking the city but when reinforced they gained fresh courage.
Cœur de Lion now performed deeds of valor which gave him fame throughout Europe. He was the terror of the Saracens. In every attack on Acre he led the Christians and when the city was captured he planted his banner in triumph on its walls.
So great was the terror inspired everywhere in the Holy Land by the name of Richard that Moslem mothers are said to have made their children quiet by threatening to send for the English king.
Every night when the Crusaders encamped, the heralds blew their trumpets, and cried three times, “Save the Holy Sepulchre!” And the Crusaders knelt and said, “Amen!”
The great leader of the Saracens was Saladin. He was a model of heroism and the two leaders, one the champion of the Christians and the other the champion of the Mohammedans, vied with each other in knightly deeds.
Just before one battle Richard rode down the Saracen line and boldly called for any one to step forth and fight him alone. No one responded to the challenge, for the most valiant of the Saracens did not dare to meet the lion-hearted king.
After the capture of Acre Richard took Ascalon (As’-ca-lon). Then he made a truce with Saladin, by which the Christians acquired the right for three years to visit the Holy City without paying for the privilege.
Richard now set out on his voyage home. He was wrecked, however, on the Adriatic Sea near Trieste. To get to England he was obliged to go through the lands of Leopold, duke of Austria, one of his bitterest enemies. So he disguised himself as a poor pilgrim returning from the Holy Land.
But he was recognized by a costly ring that he wore and was taken prisoner at Vienna by Duke Leopold. His people in England anxiously awaited his return, and when after a long time he did not appear they were sadly distressed. There is a legend that a faithful squire named Blondel went in search of him, as a wandering minstrel traveled for months over central Europe, vainly seeking for news of his master.
At last one day, while singing one of Richard’s favorite songs near the walls of the castle where the king was confined, he heard the song repeated from a window. He recognized the voice of Richard. From the window Richard told him to let the English people and the people of Europe know where he was confined, and the minstrel immediately went upon his mission.
Soon Europe was astounded to learn that brave Richard of England, the great champion of Christendom, was imprisoned. The story of Blondel is probably not true, but what is true is that England offered to ransom Richard; that the Pope interceded for him; and that finally it was agreed that he should be given up on the payment of a very large sum of money. The English people quickly paid the ransom and Richard was freed.
The king of France had little love for Richard, and Richard’s own brother John had less. Both were sorry that Cœur de Lion was at liberty.
John had taken charge of the kingdom during his brother’s absence, and hoped that Richard might pass the rest of his days in the prison castle of Leopold.
As soon as Richard was released, the French king sent word to John, “The devil is loose again.” And a very disappointed man was John when all England rang with rejoicing at Richard’s return.
Upon the death of Richard, in 1199, Arthur, the son of his elder brother Geoffrey, was the rightful heir to the throne. John, however, seized the throne himself and cast Arthur into prison. There is a legend that he ordered Arthur’s eyes to be put out with red hot irons. The jailor, however, was touched by the boy’s prayer for mercy and spared him. But Arthur was not to escape his uncle long. It is said that one night the king took him out upon the Seine in a little boat, murdered him and cast his body into the river.
Besides being a king of England, John was duke of Normandy, and Philip, king of France, now summoned him to France to answer for the crime of murdering Arthur. John would not answer the summons and this gave the king of France an excuse for taking possession of Normandy. He did so, and thus this great province was lost forever to England. Nothing in France was left to John except Aquitaine (A-qui-taine’), which had come to him through his mother.
John’s government was unjust and tyrannical, and the bishops and barons determined to preserve their rights and the rights of the people. They met on a plain called Runnymeade, and there forced John to sign the famous “Magna Carta” ("Great Charter”).
Magna Carta is the most valuable charter ever granted by any sovereign to his people. In it King John names all the rights which belong to the citizens under a just government, and he promises that no one of these rights shall ever be taken away from any subjects of the English king. For violating this promise one English king lost his life and another lost the American colonies.
Magna Carta was signed in 1215. A year after he signed it the king died. His son, Henry III, succeeded him.