The legends of King Arthur, his leading warrior the mighty Lancelot and the tragic love triangle they formed with Queen Guinevere, retain their allure, though more than eight centuries have passed since they were first popularised. These tales remain touchstones of the Middle Ages, evoking romanticised images of a distant era, replete with knightly daring and courtly gallantry. Yet, for all our fascination with Arthurian myths, one probable inspiration for these stories has been all but forgotten.
In the late 12th century – just as medieval Europe was falling under the spell of early Arthurian ‘Romance’ literature – a real king was feted as the ultimate paragon of chivalry. He too was served by a faithful retainer, one renowned as the greatest knight of his generation. And, like Arthur and Lancelot, their story ended in tragedy amid accusations of adultery and betrayal.
Though history seldom remembers him now, Henry the Young King seemed assured of a glittering future when he was crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey on 14 June 1170. Just 15 years old, Henry was already tall and incredibly handsome – the golden child of his generation. As the eldest surviving son of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, he stood to inherit medieval Europe’s most powerful realm, the Angevin empire, with lands stretching from the borders of Scotland in the north to the foothills of the Pyrenees in the south.
But though Young Henry had undergone the sacred and transformative ritual of coronation – becoming a king in name – he was denied real power for the remainder of his career. Crowned during the lifetime of his virile and overbearing father (in the vain hope of securing a peaceful succession), the Young King was expected to wait patiently in the wings, serving as an associate monarch.
As it was, Henry II (or the ‘Old King’, as he came to be known) lived for another 19 years, stubbornly refusing to apportion any region of the Angevin realm to his primary heir and, not surprisingly, Young Henry soon became vexed by this state of affairs.
The situation would have unsettled any ruling dynasty, but because Young Henry happened to belong to the most dysfunctional royal family in English history, it proved to be utterly ruinous. Thwarted by an imperious father on the one hand, yet encouraged to assert his rights by a scheming mother on the other, the Young King also had to contest with a viper’s brood of power-hungry siblings, including Richard the Lionheart and the future King John. In many respects Young Henry’s career proved to be a tragic waste. He led two failed rebellions against his father and ultimately suffered a squalid and agonising death in 1183, having contracted dysentery.
Historians have traditionally offered a withering assessment of his career, typically portraying him as a feckless dandy – the young, extravagant playboy who, once denied the chance to rule in his own right, frittered away his time in pursuit of vacuous chivalric glory. Dismissed as “shallow, vain, careless, empty-headed, incompetent, improvident and irresponsible”, the Young King remains a misunderstood and often overlooked figure.
Timeline: The life of Henry the Young King
1155: Born to King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. As eldest surviving son he is heir-apparent to the Angevin empire. His younger brother is Richard the Lionheart.
1160: Though barely five, Henry is married to the French king’s two-year-old daughter, Marguerite; both were rumoured to have bawled throughout the ceremony.
1170: Crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey during his father’s lifetime, but expected to serve as an associate monarch.
1173–74: Leads first rebellion against Henry II, in alliance with Louis VII of France and Philip of Flanders, but is thwarted by his father.
1176: Starts to frequent the northern French tournament circuit alongside William Marshal, quickly earning a reputation for lavish largesse.
1179: Attends Philip II of France’s coronation and the grand tournament at Lagny-sur-Marne.
1183: Second rebellion against Henry II’s regime leads to war in Aquitaine. Henry the Young King contracts dysentery and dies in agony at Martel, west central France.
A closer and more impartial study of Henry’s life reveals that this view is overly simplistic, at times even misrepresentative, and deeply shaded by hindsight. In fact, the best contemporary evidence indicates that the Young King was an able and politically engaged member of the Angevin dynasty, renowned in his own lifetime as a champion of the warrior class. This status brought Henry real political influence and marked him out as a model for contemporary authors of chivalric literature and Arthurian myth.
The course of Young Henry’s career and his connection to the cult of chivalry were heavily influenced by his close association with William Marshal – a man later described by the archbishop of Canterbury as “the greatest knight in all the world”. Born the younger son of a minor Anglo-Norman noble, William trained as a warrior and rose through the ranks, serving at the right hand of five English monarchs in the course of his long and eventful career.
Like Henry, Marshal was said to have been a fine figure of a man, but he was built first and foremost for war. Possessed with extraordinary physical endurance and vitality, and imbued with the raw strength to deliver shattering sword blows that resounded like a blacksmith’s hammer, he also became a peerless horseman, able to manoeuvre his mount with deft agility. These gifts, when married to an insatiable appetite for advancement, fuelled William’s meteoric rise. Later in life he would become Earl of Pembroke and regent of the realm. But in 1170 Marshal was still in his early 20s and a household knight serving in Eleanor of Aquitaine’s retinue.
Timeline: The life of William Marshall
1147: Born as the younger son of a minor Anglo-Norman noble, John Marshal, and grows up in England’s West Country.
1170: William is appointed as Henry the Young King’s tutor-in-arms.
1179: He is permitted to raise his own banner and attends the great tournament at Lagny-sur-Marne.
1182: Accused of betraying Henry and bedding his wife, William is forced into exile.
1183: Returns to Young Henry’s side shortly before his death. William later sets out for the Holy Land to redeem Henry’s crusading vow.
1186: Comes back to Europe, enters King Henry II’s household and starts to accrue lands and wealth.
1189: Marriage to the heiress Isabel of Clare (arranged by Richard the Lionheart) brings William the lordship of Striguil (Chepstow). The couple have no less than 10 children.
1190–94: Serves as co-justiciar of England during King Richard I’s absence on crusade and period in captivity.
1215: William helps to negotiate the terms of Magna Carta and he appears as the first named nobleman in the document.
1216: After King John’s death, William supports the child Henry III’s claim to the crown and is appointed as ‘guardian of the realm’, thus becoming regent of England.
1217: Despite being 70 years old, William fights in the frontline at the battle of Lincoln and defeats the combined forces of the baronial rebels and the French.
1219: William resigns as regent, dies in peace shortly thereafter and is buried in London’s Temple Church.
After Henry the Young King’s coronation, Marshal was appointed as the boy’s tutor-in-arms – a promotion that was probably engineered by Queen Eleanor so that she could maintain a degree of contact with, and influence over, her eldest son. William soon became Young Henry’s leading retainer and close confidant. The pair developed a warm friendship and together they set out in the 1170s to make their mark on the world.
By this time, western Europe was in the grip of a craze for knightly tournaments. These contests were light years away from the mannered jousts of the later Middle Ages, being riotous, chaotic affairs, tantamount to large-scale war games played out by teams of mounted knights across great swathes of territory, often more than 30 miles wide.
They were not without their risks. There is no evidence that warriors used blunted weaponry – relying instead upon their armour to protect them from severe injury – and the gravest danger came from being unhorsed and trampled under-hoof in the midst of a heated melee. Henry’s younger brother Geoffrey died from wounds sustained in this manner and one of William Marshal’s sons would suffer a similar fate. But the great value of these events was that they offered noblemen the perfect opportunity to demonstrate their knightly qualities to their peers, enabling them to earn renown within a society obsessed with chivalric culture. Tournaments came to feature heavily in Arthurian Romances, with Lancelot depicted as the leading champion.
The most persistent accusation levelled by historians against the Young King and his knight William Marshal is that they wastefully immersed themselves in the world of the chivalric tournament. However, while it is true that they became leading devotees of the tourney circuit, this was hardly the all-consuming focus of their careers – their participation being chiefly confined to an intense, four-year period, between 1176 and 1180. Nor is it the case that these years were squandered. In fact, the successes they enjoyed on the tournament field transformed the prospects of both men.
Serving as the captain of Young Henry’s tournament team, William Marshal shot to fame using a combination of martial skill, steely resolve and canny tactics to score a tide of victories. William was rightly revered for his prowess, but there were also important practical and financial gains to be made. Most tournaments revolved around attempts to capture opposing knights, either by battering them into submission or by seizing control of their horses (one of William’s favourite tricks). Prisoners would then have to pay a ransom and perhaps also forfeit their equipment in return for release. Marshal bested some 500 warriors in these years and thus accrued a significant personal fortune. By 1180 he was in position to support a small retinue of knights of his own and had achieved such celebrity that he was on familiar terms with counts, dukes and kings.
Henry the Young King also stood to gain from his close involvement in the tournament circuit. As the patron of a leading team Henry participated in events but was generally shielded from the worst of the fracas by his retainers. For a man of his exalted social standing, there was less emphasis on individual prowess and more upon the chivalric quality of largesse – and in this regard, Henry was unmatched. At a time when leading nobles were judged on the size and splendour of their retinues, the Young King assembled one of the most impressive military households in all of Europe.
As a result, contemporaries compared Henry to Alexander the Great and Arthur, the great heroes of old, and hailed him as a ‘father of chivalry’ – a cult figure, worthy of reverence. Such ostentation came at a crippling cost but this display of status was not simply an exercise in idle frivolity, as most historians have assumed.
Tourneys were games of prowess, but they were played by many of the most powerful men in Europe – barons and magnates driven by a deepening fixation with knightly ideals. This lent Young Henry’s renown a potent edge because it inevitably brought with it a measure of influence beyond the confines of the tournament field. As a teenager, Henry had sought power through rebellion. In the late 1170s he made his name and affirmed his regal status in a different arena. These achievements could not be ignored by the Old King. Historians have often suggested that Henry II viewed his son’s lavish tournament career as merely wasteful and trivial. But by 1179 his attitude was unquestionably more positive.
On 1 November that year, the frail teenager Philip II was crowned and anointed as the next king of France in the royal city of Rheims. All of western Europe’s leading dynasties and noble houses attended this grand ceremony and to top it all a massive tournament was organised to celebrate Philip’s investiture. That autumn the close correlation between practical power and chivalric spectacle was laid bare.
With the creation of a new French king, the chess board of politics was about to be reordered and naturally all the key players were angling for influence and advantage. Leading figures such as Philip, Count of Flanders and Duke Hugh of Burgundy – both tournament enthusiasts – were present, eager to establish themselves as the young French monarch’s preferred mentor.
Henry II looked to his eldest son to represent the Angevin house, and so Young Henry went to Rheims alongside his illustrious champion, William Marshal.
Young Henry duly played a starring role in the coronation, carrying Philip’s crown in affirmation of his close connection to the new French monarch. After a round of feasting, Henry and William moved on to a large area of open terrain east of Paris, at Lagny-sur-Marne for the greatest tournament of the 12th century. There, as leading knights among some 3,000 participants, Young Henry and William revelled in a glorious festival of pageantry, awash with the colour of hundreds of unfurled banners. That day, according to one chronicler, “the entire field of combat was swarming with [warriors]”, so that “not an inch of ground could be seen”. It was a spectacle the likes of which had “never [been] seen before or since” – and Young Henry and William Marshal were its stars.
The contest at Lagny marked the apogee of William Marshal’s tournament career and the Young King’s dedication to the cult of chivalry. Having resuscitated his reputation, Young Henry sought to make a more direct re-entry into the world of power politics by snatching the duchy of Aquitaine from his brother Richard the Lionheart. But then, a shocking rumour reached his ears. One of his warriors was bedding Queen Marguerite, his wife. The man accused of this heinous crime was none other than William Marshal.
It is impossible to know whether there was any substance to this allegation. It appears to have been levelled by a disaffected faction in the Young King’s entourage and possibly prompted by jealously of Marshal’s glittering career. It is perhaps no coincidence that it was precisely in this period that the famed author of Arthurian literature, Chrétien de Troyes, composed his first story about Lancelot and his passionate affair with Queen Guinevere.
In all probability Young Henry did not believe William to be guilty or else he would have enacted a more severe punishment than mere exile. As it was, the shame surrounding Marshal was sufficient to require his banishment from court in late 1182. When the Young King began his second rebellion against his father in 1183 he did so without his leading knight and advisor by his side and the subsequent civil war did not go in his favour. Facing the combined might of the Old King and the Lionheart, Young Henry eventually relented and recalled William to his side.
Tragically, William Marshal only arrived in time to witness his lord’s descent into ill health, for the Young King contracted dysentery and died in agony at Martel, near Limoges in France, on 11 June 1183. On his deathbed Henry reportedly turned to “his most intimate friend” and bid William to carry his regal cloak to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in payment of his “debts to God”. It was a charge that William duly fulfilled.
Young King Henry received scourging press from most late 12th-century chroniclers. For these historians, writing during the reigns of the Old King and his successors, Henry was easy game – a wayward princeling who died young and left no great court historians to sing his praises. In their accounts he became little more than a mutinous traitor who “befouled the whole world with his treasons”.
Only a few of Young Henry’s closest contemporaries offered a more immediate impression of his achievements and character. The most heartfelt memorial was offered by the Young King’s own chaplain, who wrote that “it was a blow to all chivalry when he passed away in the very glow of youth” and concluded that “when Henry died heaven was hungry, so all the world went begging”.
Dr Thomas Asbridge is reader in medieval history at Queen Mary, University of London. In 2014, he presented the BBC Two documentary The Greatest Knight: William the Marshal.