The Plantagenet Dynasty. King Henry II
The decline of the Norman Dynasty marked the beginning of the new age in England. Thus period is often called the High Middle Ages.
In 1154, after the death of King Stephen, his nephew, the grandson of Henry I was recognised as King Henry II. He came from France and his family name was Angevin, but he was called Henry Plantagenet, because that was the name of Henry's father, the Duke of Anjou who was married to Henry I's daughter Matilda. The domains of Henry II included large possessions in France — Duchy of Anjou from his father, and Duchy of Normandy on his own right. Henry II was the first King of England who had greater wealth and power on the Continent than in Britain.
Henry II reestablished the system of royal government and restored the order in England, having destroyed castles and prohibited private wars. He instituted trial by jury: twelve knights had to be sworn and to decide the dispute.
Henry made numerous attempts to be King over the whole of the British Isles. He made the Scotch King give him lands south of the Cheviot Hills, established his lordship over Wales and tried to get Ireland. Though in 1171 Henry was recognised as Lord of Ireland, he established his authority only in a small district around Dublin. These events marked the long struggle of the Irish people for independence against English yoke.
The success of Henry's reign was spoiled by the failure with Thomas Becket, his Archbishop. As the head of Church in England, Becket claimed for the Church as strong powers as for the state itself — the Church had her own laws and courts. As a result Becket was murdered in his cathedral and Henry II had to submit to the Pope and the Clergy.
The four sons of Henry II — Henry, Geoffrey, Richard and John rebelled against his father for several times. They were supported by the mother — Queen Eleanor. King Henry took these rebellions as the God's damnation after Thomas Becket's death. His pilgrimage to Canterbury to Becket's grave changed the situation — the sons soon were submitted. Two of them — Henry and Geoffrey died before the father. The other two reigned in England — Richard called the Lionhearted for ten years (1189-1199) and John later called the Lackland for 17 years (1199-1216). None of these reigns was a success.
Richard the Lionhearted, whose name suggested bravery and courage, appeared a poor statesman. He took the Crown after father's death and spent most of his reign in Holy Land crusading against the Moslems or fighting his suzerain in France.
After Richard's death John the Lackland came to the throne to become the most detestable of English kings. John lost all English possessions in France, including Normandy in fruitless battles.
Cultural Focus: The Canterbury Tale
Today Canterbury in Kent remains a religious capital of England where the head of the Church of England — the Archbishop of Canterbury has his headquarters. This place in the Middle Ages was the place of pilgrimage — people came to pray to the grave of Thomas Becket.
The murder of Thomas Becket
Thomas Becket, an Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered by the order of Henry II, who was dissatisfied with Thomas' wish to strengthen the position of the Church. In 1170, King's knights murdered Thomas Becket on the steps of the altar of Canterbury Cathedral. Later King Henry understood his mistake — all his misfortunes he took as the God's damnation after the death of Archbishop. He made a pilgrimage to Canterbury and thousands of pilgrims for three centuries were coming to the tomb. In 1173, Thomas Becket was made a saint.
Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" written in the 14th century describes
the ordinary pilgrims in the book. At that time the pilgrims started at Winchester and took the footpath called the North Downs Way. Though in the 16th century after the Reformation Henry VIII said that Becket was no longer the saint and his tomb was destroyed, the place is not forgotten. Thomas Becket is widely remembered.
In 1982, Canterbury was visited by Pope John Paul II. It was an important historical event, which showed understanding between the Roman Catholic and the Anglican Churches.