England’s forgotten civil war
In the 1170s, King Henry II found himself in conflict with the archbishop of Canterbury, many of his leading barons and his own wife and three sons. Laura Ashe tells the story of a little-known war that had huge ramifications for the future of a nation
When, in October 1173, Richard de Lucy, the justiciar of England, rode through Northumberland, he must have been appalled by what he saw. William the Lion, the king of Scotland, had invaded the north, and he and his armies had cut a swathe across the country, burning crops and villages, taking plunder. They had attacked churches, stealing everything of value, and laid siege to castles in the region.
De Lucy, the man who governed England while King Henry II was in his territories in France, was swift in seeking revenge. He had come north with Humphrey de Bohun, another of Henry II’s key administrators, and together they attacked Berwick in retaliation, praying that “if it pleased the Lord God, the honourable men of this region might have some vengeance”.
But now there was worse news. The Earl of Leicester had renounced his homage to Henry II and landed on the Suffolk coast with an army of Flemish mercenaries, seeking to gain control of East Anglia and join forces with rebels in the Midlands. It must have seemed as though the whole country was on the brink of chaos, while the king was far away in Normandy, fighting against a French invasion and his own disloyal barons.
The loyalty of every baron in England and Normandy might have been in doubt that autumn, for this was not just a foreign invasion. The man who had declared war on Henry II was his own son and heir, Henry the ‘Young King’, now 18 years old and impatient with the long rule and absolute authority of his father, who was only just in his forties. The prince was aggrieved at his lack of power, particularly in contrast with his younger brothers: Geoffrey was to be made Duke of Brittany by marriage, and his father had made Richard – later known as the Lionheart – Duke of Aquitaine.
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As heir apparent to the kingdom of England and dukedom of Normandy, the Young King Henry exercised no governing powers at all, for his father would not release these titles in his lifetime. “I am no hawk to be mewed up,” complained the prince. “A young gentleman must spread his wings or he will amount to nothing.” And he travelled around northern France with his court and entourage, entertaining lavishly, spending far beyond his means on feasting and tournaments, behaving like a king in a courtly romance. He left debts everywhere he went.
Early in 1173, after a public row with his father in which he had demanded Normandy (or “some other territory” that could provide an income to support his lifestyle), the Young King fled to the court of his father-in-law, King Louis VII of France. Geoffrey and Richard joined him, and they declared open rebellion against their father. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, their formidable mother, attempted to join them, but Henry II’s men captured and imprisoned her: she was kept in close confinement in England until Henry’s death in 1189.
The Young King had some strong arguments on his side. He was acknowledged by all as the next king of England; he had been crowned in 1170, following the fashion used by French kings to secure the succession; and all the aristocracy had sworn fealty to him, saving their duty to the king his father. Contemporaries were aware that Henry II kept his son on a humiliatingly tight rein. One eyewitness chronicler, despite supporting the king, observed simply that “you crowned your son and then thwarted his wishes, allowed him no power: that led to pitiless war”.
Blood white with brains
English politics could be alarmingly febrile, as King Henry discovered to his cost after falling out in spectacular style with Thomas Becket, the formidable archbishop of Canterbury. On 29 December 1170, following years of bad-tempered conflict and failed negotiations between king and archbishop, some of Henry’s own knights had ridden to arrest Becket at Canterbury Cathedral, but instead cut him down as he stood at the high altar. The murder was rapidly hailed as a holy martyrdom: “The blood white with the brains, and the brains no less red with the blood, dyeing the floor of the cathedral with the white of the lily and the red of the rose, the colours of the Virgin and Mother, and of the life and death of the confessor and martyr,” wrote one chronicler. In February 1173, Thomas of Canterbury was officially canonised by the pope, in confirmation of overwhelming popular belief in his sanctity.
Meanwhile, the king of Scotland was consolidating his power in the north, Brittany was a permanent flashpoint of possible rebellion, the borders of Normandy wavered in their loyalty, and the king of France stood ever ready to diminish the territory of his powerful neighbour. King Henry’s international standing was at an all-time low.
So when the Young King raised his banner against his father, he readily found allies. He sent messengers to William the Lion, promising him that if he supported the Young King’s claim to the throne of England, Northumberland would be his to govern as a fief of the crown. Louis of France invaded Normandy, while military aid was also forthcoming from the Count of Flanders. Many English barons declared support for young Henry, while others waited, inactive, to see which way matters would go.
In October 1173, the situation looked desperate for the loyal justiciar Richard de Lucy, the constable Humphrey de Bohun, and their few remaining allies. In order to remedy it, following their attack on Berwick they made a temporary truce with William the Lion and rode south as rapidly as they could, trapping the Earl of Leicester in Suffolk. Leicester had been ravaging the region for loot to pay his mercenaries, and had launched an attack on Dunwich, but the townspeople had seen them off, “acting like valiant knights”.
On 16 October, at Fornham, just north of Bury St Edmunds, Humphrey de Bohun and his force of 300 royalist knights clashed with the earl and his followers, including his French wife – who apparently donned armour and rode into battle herself, boasting that “the English are better at drinking than fighting”. Their Flemish mercenary army was broken, and the earl and countess were captured and later imprisoned and deprived of their lands. The remains of their army were pursued and killed, the people of Bury St Edmunds joining in with enthusiasm to destroy those who had plundered the region.
Begging for forgiveness
The truce with the Scots was prolonged until Easter, the end of March 1174, at which point William the Lion again attacked Northumberland, laying unsuccessful siege to Wark castle. He then attacked Carlisle – again without success – but the castles of Appleby and Brough surrendered to him. He was besieging Prudhoe, near Newcastle, when news of an English army’s advance north made him retreat to Alnwick. Here, his army was divided into small raiding parties.
Meanwhile, Henry II had put down the rebellion in Normandy, defeating King Louis’ forces, and returned to England to join his supporters. He now conducted a diplomatic and symbolic coup that contemporaries believed turned the course of the war: he performed penance at Thomas Becket’s shrine. He walked barefoot in a woollen smock to the tomb, where he knelt and was scourged by monks of the abbey, while he prayed to St Thomas for his forgiveness, and kept his vigil overnight.
The following day, 13 July 1174, Henry set off for London, where he received a rapturous welcome from the citizens. He was in bed when a messenger arrived in the middle of the night – a man who had ridden non-stop from Alnwick Castle with momentous news. On the morning of Saturday 13 July, as Henry completed his penance at St Thomas’s tomb, William the Lion of Scotland had been captured by a small royalist scouting party near Alnwick. Lost in early morning fog, they had chanced upon the king with few followers. In the ensuing melée William’s horse was killed, and he was unable to escape. The Scottish king was brought south to surrender to Henry II. In the words of one eyewitness chronicler: “The war was over” – and the blessed St Thomas had shown his miraculous favour to Henry II.
This was the age of chivalry: battles were fought, but none of the major players were killed. They surrendered, were captured and imprisoned in comfort, even luxury; they signed treaties. And so, in many respects, when peace was made in the autumn, little changed. Henry did not punish his sons, and indeed increased the Young King’s income in an attempt to placate his dissatisfaction. Even the Earl of Leicester had his lands returned to him in 1177.
But in this story, we must also see the dark side of chivalry – war as it affected ordinary people, those who were invisible to the code of chivalric conduct. Northumberland and East Anglia were ravaged; townspeople and villagers were killed; the ordinary soldiers, the mercenaries on foot, and the local levies were all slain with impunity. “That is the way to make war,” Count Philip of Flanders is said to have advised the king of France. “Let it all be consumed in flames… First lay waste the land, then destroy your enemies.”
Such brutality sheds light on another revealing facet of this war, which is the part played by ordinary people. While many of the barony turned against their lord, the people of Dunwich, of Carlisle, of Bury St Edmunds, of London, were without exception loyal to Henry II. They joined in battle alongside the royalist knights, and were praised in poetry for their heroism.
It is not difficult to see why ordinary people remained loyal rather than supporting those who were attacking and plundering the land. The horrors of the Anarchy, when Stephen and Matilda (Henry II’s own mother) had fought a civil war for the English crown, remained well within living memory. This had been a time of fear and chaos when, for 19 long years (1135–54), the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that “men said that Christ and his saints slept”. Henry II had brought peace, prosperity and protection from arbitrary violence. Now his impatient sons and some rebellious barons sought power, which meant that they ravaged, looted and burned the lands they claimed to want to govern. The people of England wanted peace, so they supported the old king who had brought them it.
Spoiling for a fight
The forgotten civil conflict exposes another truth about England in the late 12th century: it was structured by hereditary kingship, presiding over a militarised aristocracy and, as such, was inherently unstable. Kings were supposed to enforce peace, and govern with justice. But aristocratic young men were trained for war, and impatient for the status and wealth that could be gained by military success; their followers clamoured for it. Tournaments and border skirmishes could sustain lesser knights, but in his day Young King Henry was the man at the top, paying for all this chivalrous largesse. In the end, like a lord from a much earlier age, the prince was compelled to seek war to maintain his status.
Chroniclers at the time tried hard to depict the war as a foreign invasion, brought about by foolishness – the impetuous Scottish king listening to bad advice, the opportunistic Flemish mercenaries seizing a chance to plunder England. But the truth is, the rebellion was led by the Young King, Henry II’s own son. Of course, he could not be accused of treason; he was, after all, Henry II’s heir.
Unfortunately, the younger Henry didn’t learn from his mistakes. Because nothing substantial had changed with the peace settlement of 1174, Henry was to rebel against his father again – before dying, still only 28 years old, never having ruled any land. English kings never again tried crowning their heirs. Ambitious adult princes would always require careful management.
Finally, beneath the surface, this conflict reveals the beginnings of something else: the first signs of an emerging kind of national loyalty which could include ordinary people fighting alongside great magnates. When the Young King and his allies waged war, they expressed no ideal of kingship or governance. They fought for personal gain, for wealth and status, as countless warriors have done both before and since. But when the chroniclers wrote about the loyal barons and ordinary people’s defence of their country – their love of Henry II and the king’s loyalty to them – they spoke in exactly those terms: of the ‘natural’ love of country, of the bond between the king and his people, of the moral righteousness of their cause, all crowned with St Thomas’s miraculous aid.
So of all this forgotten civil war’s legacies, the most telling was surely that it was fought over a principle. It mattered that the royalist side won with the help of ordinary people, as well as with the divine aid of St Thomas the Martyr. As far as the chroniclers were concerned, God and the English had come together in insisting that the barons should fight not for themselves, but for England.
Laura Ashe specialises in the literature, history and culture of medieval England at the University of Oxford. Her books include Richard II: A Brittle Glory (Allen Lane, 2016)
Listen again: Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and legacy of Thomas Becket on Radio 4's In Our Time: bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09hp2rm
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