There has been much discussion of the origins of the empire. Was it fundamentally the product of Henry's opportunism, or the result of a good deal of genealogical chance and fortuitous development, or had any of Henry's dynastic predecessors planned the long-term union of the three inheritances? The latter seems distinctly unlikely. First, no one could have predicted that Eleanor of Aquitaine would become heiress to the duchy in 1137, and that, since she and her first husband, Louis VII of France, had only daughters, the duchy would revert to her on the annulment of the marriage in 1152. It is clear that she accepted Henry's overtures only because marriage to him made sense since, by then, he had possession of Anjou, which marched with her beloved Poitou to the north, was duke of Normandy, and was poised to take England. Second, there is no indication that either of Henry's parents envisaged the union of the Anglo-Norman realm and Anjou. Geoffrey, in particular, gave little help to Matilda in her fight for England against Stephen and, although he took over Normandy in 1144, he did so in his son's name, associating Henry in the government of the duchy from 1146. He kept the administrations of Normandy and Anjou separate, and abdicated in Normandy (but not Anjou) in Henry's favour in 1150. These are scarcely the actions of an empire-builder. Moreover, most historians now agree that Geoffrey intended permanent partition: Anjou to go to his younger son, Geoffrey the Younger, and the Anglo-Norman realm to Henry, a disposition reflected in the still contentious report of the death-bed will that he supposedly made in 1151. Third, although Henry was born of the marriage in 1128 between Geoffrey and Matilda, that does not necessarily mean that either of the negotiating parties, Henry II's grandparents, Henry I or Fulk of Anjou, envisaged a territorial union. There were, of course, successional implications, since Matilda, by then, was heiress to the Anglo-Norman realm, and Geoffrey was Fulk's heir, but it is inconceivable that anyone could have considered the union of the two inheritances as inevitable. Who could have predicted in 1128 that Matilda and Geoffrey would produce three sons?
In short, the evidence suggests strongly that it was Henry II himself who created the Angevin empire. His acquisitiveness and ambition led him to exploit the possibilities and, brushing aside his younger brother, to bring together the three different inheritances between 1150 and 1156, when Geoffrey the Younger rebelled but was forced to submit. The implications of this are of importance in considering the reasons for the failure of the Angevin empire to survive. If the empire was essentially the product of unforeseen developments and Henry's opportunism, and if, accordingly, its roots were shallow and artificial, then its decline and collapse in 1204, within fifteen years of its creator's own demise in 1189, is more explicable.
Naturally, there is more to it than that. Those who maintain that the empire's collapse was inevitable stress the fact that neither Henry II, Richard I, nor John sought to centralize. Rather, each lordship remained apart in its institutions, laws, and customs, with a bare minimum of ‘imperial legislation’, no common currency, and no single political centre. Moreover, even England and Normandy, the most intimately linked provinces, were going their separate ways by the end of the 12th cent. In particular, cross-channel landholding patterns were breaking up, with ever more distinct baronages residing either side of the Channel. No attempt was made to create one sovereign, independent entity. On the contrary, changing circumstances forced the Angevin lords to accept ever greater implications in their feudal relationship to the Capetian kings of France, so far as their French fiefs were concerned, culminating in the terms of the treaty of Le Goulet (1200). Only in England were they juridically equal to their French overlords. Again, there was no intention that the different dominions should pass as one inheritance. As early as 1169, at Montmirail, Henry II made plain his wish that each of his sons should receive a part. In addition, the sheer extent of the Angevin lands made effective government difficult, a problem exacerbated by the extraordinary rivalries and tensions within the ruling family itself.
Powerful though these arguments are, the fact remains that until 1202–3 the Angevin empire remained essentially intact. Structural weaknesses and deep historical trends at work there may have been, but do these alone explain the proximate timing of the collapse? Allowance must also be made for the growth of an external force that could make these internal ‘weaknesses’ count for something in the real world, and the comparative abilities of John and Philip II, the Capetian king at the time. Philip was much more of a match than his father Louis VII had been, partly because of his own abilities, but also because he commanded far greater resources, the result of Capetian territorial expansion combined with a much more intensive exploitation of royal rights in the 1190s. Philip also had a far more compact principality to defend than the sprawling land mass of the Angevin empire in France, which took up in expenditure much of the revenue generated. In addition, perhaps crucially, John played into Philip's hands. Between 1200 and 1204 he somehow managed to fritter away the advantages he had enjoyed, in particular by his gross mismanagement of the natural defenders of the Angevin empire in France, the social élite such as the Lusignans, lords of La Marche, the Norman baronage, and William des Roches, the leader of the great lords of Anjou, Maine, and Touraine.
The combination of these factors meant that by the end of 1204 only the Channel Islands and a much reduced Gascony remained in John's hands. Neither he nor his son, Henry III, accepted the losses, but they were unable to retrieve the situation. In 1259 Henry bowed to what now can be seen as almost the inevitable and renounced his claims to Henry II's French inheritance. In return, Louis IX acknowledged him as rightful duke of Gascony. An era had come to an end.
S. D. Lloyd
Gillingham, J. B. , The Angevin Empire (1984);
Holt, J. C. , ‘The End of the Anglo-Norman Realm’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 59 (1975), 3–45;
Le Patourel, J. , Feudal Empires: Norman and Plantagenet, ed. M. Jones (1984).