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Henry II, King of England


Reigned 115489; founder of the English common law; b. Le Mans, March 5, 1133; d. Chinon, July 6, 1189. By inheritance and by his marriage to eleanor of aquitaine, Henry was lord of all western France from Normandy to Gascony, and he spent two-thirds of his reign in France. He increased his income by taking money instead of feudal military service. His greatest innovation was to create, out of scattered precedents of his predecessors, the English common law. His system was based on the circuit judge, the legal writ, and the jury. This procedure became so popular that almost all important cases came to his courts, thus increasing his power and income. The judges also sought out royal rights and revenues and checked the growth of other jurisdictions. By the end of the reign the royal courts had developed so rapidly that a formal treatise on the common law could be written.

In trying to increase the jurisdiction of his courts, Henry clashed with his former friend and chancellor, Thomas becket. On the issues of criminous clerks and appeals to Rome, precedents were confused, but neither man was willing to compromise. Becket was driven into exile for six years. On his return to England he promptly excommunicated some of Henry's supporters, and Henry, always a bad-tempered man, demanded vengeance. Four of his knights took him at his word and murdered the archbishop in his own cathedral on Dec. 29, 1170.

Henry took refuge in Ireland, where he completed the conquest begun by his vassals. An arrangement was finally made whereby he did public penance, allowed appeals to Rome, and gave clerics immunity from punishment in secular courts. On some other matters dealing with church property, his rules were allowed to prevail.

His last years were unhappy. philip ii augustus, king of france, in alliance with Henry's own sons, attacked Normandy and Anjou. The old king, discouraged and disheartened, lost some frontier territories, though when he died, his empire was substantially intact. More important, the solid administrative and judicial structure that Henry had built in England continued to function smoothly, preserving the English monarchy during a dangerous quarter century when the king was either an absentee (Richard I), a neurotic (John), or a child (Henry III).

Bibliography: f. pollock and f. w. maitland, History of English Law, 2 v. (2d ed. Cambridge, Eng. 1898). a. l. poole, From Domesday Book to Magna Carta, 10871216 (2nd ed. Oxford 1955) for sources and older bibliography. r. foreville, L'Église et la royauté en Angleterre sous Henri II (Paris 1943). j. boussard, Le Gouvernement d'Henri II Plantagenêt (Paris 1956). h. g. richardson and g. o. sayles, The Governance of Medieval England (Edinburgh 1963).

[j. r. strayer]

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