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The Angevin Empire

The Angevin Empire

The pinnacle of Anglo-Norman England, the Angevin Empire was a mighty realm whose reach stretched across all of England, much of Wales and Ireland, and covered nearly the entirety of coastal and central France. The proud work of the first Plantagenet monarch, King Henry II of England, it was an achievement acquired through a mixture of highly advantageous marriages, conquests, political intrigue and strength of personality. However, for all its size and power, the Angevin Empire would soon be lost within a generation of Henry II’s passing.

A Marriage of Lions

At nineteen, Henry II, then just the Duke of Normandy, was already a very eligible bachelor. Good looking, intelligent, a proven commander in battle, and hailing from a very distinguished royal lineage, he was also a man very wealthy in the land. Normandy, while not the largest or richest province in the Kingdom of France, was nevertheless a highly respectable county to possess. Furthermore, upon the death of his father Count Geoffrey of Anjou, Henry had just come into an inheritance of that county as well as the county of Maine. With such qualities, the young bachelor could very well have secured any bride in Europe that caught his eye.

This was rather convenient for the Eleanor, the Duchess of Aquitaine and former Queen of France. The most recent of a long string of annulled Capetian marriages, Eleanor had a reputation even then as being a woman of controversy. Beautiful, politically ambitious, driven, and quite outspoken, it had been obvious to many onlookers for years that her marriage to King Louis VII of France was going to reach a premature end sooner or later. So, it was, after fifteen years of marriage and only two daughters to show for it, Louis sought permission from the Pope to annul his marriage in 1152. It was granted on the grounds of consanguinity, Pope Eugene suddenly ruling that as Eleanor was Louis’s third cousin once removed she should never have married him in the first place. The marriage was formally annulled the 21st of March of that year.

 Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England. Photo: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England. Photo: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The annulment of her marriage was, for Eleanor, on the one hand, a great relief. Worldly, fond of extravagance, and fonder still of having her way, she had felt stifled at the more austere, pious court of Ile-de-France. Furthermore, as an Occitan-speaking woman of Southern France, her ways were out of synch with the northern langue d’oïl nobility.

On the other hand, it also left her in a very dangerous position. Eleanor was the sole duchess of the richest province in Western Europe. Aquitaine was the centre of a burgeoning wine trade, with Bordeaux vintages being shipped the world over and highly sought after. The region was immensely fertile in other respects too, producing a great wealth of food with each harvest. It even played a part in the medieval tourist trade. Aquitaine was right on the path pilgrims took to reach the popular religious site of Santiago de Compostela, and as such, they often spent a fair amount of gold to enjoy Aquitaine’s warm, hospitable climate before climbing the Pyrenes further south. No longer under the protection of her former husband, Eleanor was incredibly vulnerable to every nobleman looking to seize control of her ancestral lands. The moment word was out that the Duchess of Aquitaine was no longer married, teams were out tracking her down, hoping to kidnap her and force her into marriage.

However independent she may have been, Eleanor understood the necessity of marriage for her own safety. Henry, the Duke of Normandy, was thus a highly attractive marriage candidate. Young, capable, and in possession of lands that neatly border hers, she was also aware of the young Duke’s efforts in England, at the time embroiled in a civil war between Henry’s mother, the Empress Matilda, and his cousin, King Stephen. The civil war had dragged on for the better part of the decade and remained locked in a seemingly unbreakable stalemate, neither side being able to truly overcome the other. Henry needed her – namely the wealth her lands could bring – as much as she needed him. On this, she thought, the two could do business.

Avoiding as best she could the wife-snatchers sent her way, Eleanor immediately sent a message to Henry asking her to marry him the moment she found safety at Poitou. At the time, Henry had been preparing a military expedition to England. However, he promptly dropped it to respond to her message. In a low-key ceremony in Notre-Dame-la-Grande, the cathedral of Poitou, the two were married on 18th May 1152. It was, for Henry, an undeniable jackpot. However, the marriage was not without its downside.

With Eleanor being his ex-wife, and Henry, his feudal vassal as the Duke of Normandy, King Louis VII of France, should have been approached first for his permission before any such union was even discussed. As it happened, neither party had sought such permission, which was a grave breach of political etiquette that was unforgivable in the best of times. However, by this match, the already powerful and ambitious Henry Plantagenet was now left in command of the entirety of the French coast barring Brittany, with lands, wealth and power that equalled and even surpassed that of the King of France. It was, for Louis, a blunder of enormous proportions and forever soured the relationship between him and Henry.

The quiet, unassuming marriage in Poitou would thus be the first chapter in a long history of struggles, warfare and rivalry between the French and English thrones over the Duchy of Aquitaine, a rivalry whose echoes continue even today.

For Duke Henry Plantagenet, however, it was the first step towards his dreams of Plantagenet ascendency and the birth of his Angevin Empire. More immediately, it was his key to a swifter resolution to the troubles continuing north of the English Channel.

An End to the Anarchy

Immediately after his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry returned to England to assist his mother in her attempt to reclaim her father’s throne from King Stephen of Blois. The civil war in England, dubbed by historians today as the Anarchy but referred to at the time as “the Shipwreck*” or (more poetically) “When Christ and His saints were asleep”, was eventually ended by the Treaty of Winchester in 1153, also known as the Treaty of Wallingford or the Treaty of Westminster. By it, King Stephen was recognised as King of the English. However, he would designate Henry, the Duke of Normandy and son of Empress Matilda, as his successor and adopted son. On Henry’s part, he would pay homage to Stephen as King of the English. Also, while Stephen promised that he would listen to and consider Henry’s advice, he would retain full royal power. Stephen’s last remaining son, William, would, in turn, pay homage to Henry, and he would be guaranteed his land and titles.

It was a precarious peace, and an air of uncertainty continued to hang over the Kingdom of England and her Norman holdings. Many would have expected William of Boulogne to challenge Henry’s claim to the throne the moment he was able, and there were rumours suggesting that he’d even conspired to have the young Angevin duke assassinated.

However, the very next year King Stephen was dead after falling ill with a stomach disorder in October, and Henry landed in England that December to be crowned King of England. The month’s delay between his coronation and Stephen’s death suggested he believed himself to be at liberty to take the Crown when he wished and felt no need to rush. Any sense of relief felt by the populace for the first peaceful transference of power from one king to another in a generation was no doubt vindicated when William of Boulogne, Henry’s only true rival to the throne, died childless from illness not long afterwards. Interestingly, Henry II was the first English king to be crowned “King of England”, rather than “King of the English” as had been the case traditionally.

While Henry, now Henry II of England, inherited a troubled realm still devastated by years of civil war, he quickly proved himself to be an energetic, dedicated, intelligent and capable monarch more than suited to the task of restoring order to his beleaguered realm. As he set to work consolidating his rule, it soon became apparent that England would be safe from any further fratricidal conflicts. For now.

*Most probably a reference to the infamous White Ship incident, the result of which caused the succession crisis behind the civil war.

Further Expansion

The realm that King Henry II now possessed was already formidable, one that extended from the Scottish borders to the edges of the Pyrenees mountains and the Iberian Peninsula. At the young age of twenty-one, he was already among the richest, most powerful men in Europe, only matched by the Holy Roman Emperor in the extent of land he commanded. With the addition of England to his land and titles, his power had now surpassed that even of his liege-lord as Duke of Aquitaine, Normandy and Anjou, King Louis VII of France. And the latter was all too aware of this and eager to redress the issue.

Henry’s power continued to spread steadily over the next few decades. Upon the Armorican peninsula, the Duchy of Brittany was next on Henry’s list for expansion. The death of the Breton Duke Conan III had plunged the duchy into civil war, which allowed Henry II to claim overlordship on the basis that his grandfather, Henry I, had previously held the Bretons’ loyalty. Assisting Conan IV’s claim to the region was his way of securing power and influence, as was the sudden usurpation of the county of Nantes by Henry’s brother, Geoffrey. Upon the latter’s death, Henry II was quick to annexe the county, with little resistance from Conan IV or Louis VII. Having secured the peninsula, Brittany was eventually granted in full to Henry II’s son, Geoffrey II, after he was married to Conan IV’s daughter and successor, Constance, in 1181.

Furthermore, the election of the first and only English Pope, Pope Adrian IV, opened new possibilities for King Henry II within the British Isles. Not long after taking his place in St Peter’s Chair, Pope Adrian IV issued a papal bull authorising an English invasion of Ireland, ostensibly to restore order to the Irish Church and bring it more firmly under Papal control. The invasion was further legitimised by Diarmait Mac Murchada, the former King of Leinster, requesting assistance after being ousted from his kingdom by High King Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair (Rory O’Connor).

After initial landings in 1169, the Norman Invasion of Ireland was soon spearheaded by the efforts of Richard de Clare, later dubbed “Strongbow”, who succeeded in conquering and holding Leinster, Dublin, Waterford and Wexford by 1171. Later that year, King Henry II himself would land a large Anglo-Norman force to assert control over both Strongbow and the Irish, confiscating the former’s lands in Ireland and reissuing them back as fiefs granted by the English Crown. Many local Irish kings and chieftains also submitted, and by 1175 Henry II was recognised as undisputed overlord of his territories. His dominance over Ireland assured Henry took the opportunity in 1177 to declare his youngest son, John, Lord of Ireland, thereby authorising continued Norman conquest of the rest of the island.

"The extent of the Angevin Empire around 1172; solid yellow shows Angevin possessions, checked yellow Angevin hegemony" Photo: Cartedaos (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

“The extent of the Angevin Empire around 1172; solid yellow shows Angevin possessions, checked yellow Angevin hegemony” Photo: Cartedaos (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

One setback marred Henry’s otherwise impressive expansion of his borders. The county of Toulouse was rather questionably claimed by Henry’s wife, Eleanor, through a disputed claim from way back in her grandfather’s day. Not needing much more to prompt him, Henry amassed the largest army he’d ever assemble in the midsummer of 1159 – the entire military force of England, Normandy and Aquitaine, as well as the Malcolm IV the King of Scots, Raymond-Berengar IV the count of Barcelona, and even some Welsh chieftains marched upon the ancient fortress-city. After ravaging the countryside and an ineffective siege, Henry was at last forced to withdraw when Louis VII intervened on behalf of Raymond V, the Count of Toulouse. Unwilling to directly assault his liege-lord, King Henry resigned himself to a few castles and the province of Quercy.

The Plantagenet “Empire”

While the territories held by King Henry were indeed, extensive, it’d be a mistake to describe the Angevin Empire as an “empire” in the modern understanding of the term. Rather than being a unified collection of territories uniformly governed from a single centre of authority, the Angevin Empire functioned more as a loose collection of autonomous regions connected primarily through influence and family ties. Aquitaine was under Henry II’s rule solely because of his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, and he held sway over Brittany solely through the influence of his brother and Duke Conan IV, and then later through his son.

Throughout his reign, Henry II seemed to treat his territories as separate entities and seldom treated them as all being extensions of the broader English kingdom. Rather, he seemed to regard them as separate inheritances to be divided up between his sons, evidenced in no small part by his granting of them upon as they reached maturity. Henry the Younger, the eldest, would inherit England, Normandy, and Anjou. Richard, as is fitting as being the closest to his mother, would be granted, Aquitaine. Geoffrey was made the duke of Brittany, and John, at last, was given Lordship of Ireland. Apart from Normandy and Anjou, Henry’s continental holdings were to be held directly under the King of France.

For all his skill at empire building, it seemed Henry had no desire to have his lands tied together under the English Crown permanently.

Further, each realm continued to operate largely under its own customs and laws. People dwelling in the city of Poitou would have been governed as they’d always done in the manner typical of Aquitaine before Henry and Eleanor’s marriage, while the population of England continued to run their lives in the manner and customs of Anglo-Norman England. Henry himself rarely remained in any one location for very long, and consistently travelled about his holdings in a great baggage train that formed his court. In the regions where he was absent, he left seneschals and justiciars to keep things ticking over.

However, for all his disinterest in forming a true empire, Henry proved during his reign to be markedly prone to interference in the affairs of his various dominions. In the early stages, this was acceptable as the interference was that of a king to his vassals and officials. Later, however, when his sons had supposedly been made co-kings and dukes in their own right, this soon became intolerable. The resentment of their father’s constant overreach in what was supposed to be their own jurisdiction proved fertile fields for Louis VII’s influence, and Henry soon found himself suffering exactly what everyone hoped to avoid when he became king in the first place.

Another civil war.

The Pride Divided

Henry the Younger, co-King of England and eldest son of King Henry, the Elder, marched against his father in 1173, with the backing of all brothers save John (who was still a child), King Louis VII, King Malcolm IV of Scotland, and the Flemish baronies. The cause was, among other things, mainly related to Henry the Younger’s frustration at his relative lack of power within the kingdom. Despite being crowned co-king by the Archbishop of York at Henry II’s behest, and theoretically granted purview over England, Normandy and Anjou, the younger monarch still found himself being sidelined by his father. While he had authority on paper, Henry II ensured it never saw actual practice.

Geoffrey of Brittany had similar complaints. Upon Conan IV’s death, Geoffrey found himself deprived of his title within Brittany despite his betrothal to Constance, Conan’s successor. The lack of marriage left his apparent claim to the Duchy of Brittany in doubt, and so he soon found himself gravitating further and further towards Paris and the camp of Louis VII. Richard most probably joined the revolt himself under the influence of his mother, to whom he had always been close. Much like her two sons, Eleanor was also frustrated at Henry II’s refusal to let Eleanor return to and administer her own duchy of Aquitaine, which was precisely one of the reasons she divorced her first husband, Louis VII in the first place. She was also outraged when Henry II offered Gascony, one of Aquitaine’s provinces, as a dowry to the King of Castile for the marriage of their daughter without her consent.

It would be the first of several revolts, which tore away at Henry II’s health. After the settlement of the first Great Revolt of 1173, Henry the Younger and Prince Richard lead a second assault against their father just a decade later, still dissatisfied at his lack of land and power in his father’s kingdom. The revolt was cut short when Henry the Younger died of a fever shortly afterwards, leaving an uneasy peace between Prince Richard and his father. Not least of all was Richard’s immense resentment at having Aquitaine, a duchy he’d come to love greatly, confiscated and handed to his youngest brother, Prince John now Henry II’s favourite.

Louis VII died eventually in 1180 and was succeeded by his son, King Philip II “Augustus”. Philip, it would later prove, was a highly charismatic and effective manipulator, and soon managed to turn Richard against his father in one last civil war. After clashing openly with Henry II over the issue of Brittany (Duke Geoffrey of Brittany having died in 1186) and the Vexin region, as well as Henry’s continued attempts at conquering Toulouse. During a peace settlement in 1188 Philip offered peace should Henry recognise Richard as his heir and marry him to his sister, Alice. Henry refused, wishing instead to leave his Crown to Prince John, to which Richard publicly switched sides to Philip and swore homage to him.

At this point, the stresses of the war were negatively impacting the ageing king’s health. A bleeding ulcer developed and soon turned fatal, and King Henry finally found himself incapable of offering proper resistance to the forces of both King Philip and his oldest remaining son. At Chinon, barely able to stand, Henry II offered a full surrender to the victorious Franco-Aquitaine forces, shortly after which he received news that Prince John, his favourite and most rewarded child, had joined Richard in rebellion.

The shock and heartbreak were too much for the first Plantagenet monarch, and he died of a fever on 6th July 1189, succeeded at last by King Richard I.

The Later Angevin Empire

Richard I would rule as King of England and Duke of Aquitaine for ten years after his father’s demise, during which he spent only around six months within England itself and was completely absent for five years. Most of that was spent abroad on the Third Crusade trying to recapture Jerusalem from Salah-al-Din, or else a captive of Leopold V, the Duke of Austria. England and Normandy were left under the regency of Prince John, whereas Eleanor of Aquitaine – having been placed under house arrest by her husband for her part in the Revolt of 1173 – was put in charge, at last, of her home duchy of Aquitaine.

Richard I of England. Photo: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Richard I of England. Photo: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Prince John would revolt again while Richard was away on crusade, after that his elder brother quickly returned and promptly trounced him. Despite this treachery, Richard publicly forgave the actions of his brother, reportedly announcing that John “was just a boy”.

While a talented warrior and a man of great deeds, he was a poor monarch. England was primarily used as a source of revenue for his expensive adventures in the Holy Land, and later to pay for his extortionate ransom issued by Duke Leopold. He spoke hardly any English and had more love for his native Aquitaine. He was said to have once remarked that he would happily sell London were he to find a buyer.

Eventually, while besieging the castle of Châlus-Chabrol on 25th March 1199, Richard met his end. Practically undefended, Richard was inspecting the work of his sappers outside the castle walls when he was suddenly struck in the shoulder by a crossbow bolt. The doctor did a poor job removing the bolt, and Richard’s arm soon became septic. It was an ignoble end for the greatest warrior-king of his age, but he died of his wounds on the 6th of April that year. Despite Richard’s request that the crossbowman responsible for his death be granted leniency and 100 shillings, he was flayed alive and hung outside the castle shortly after the King’s death.

Leaving no heirs, King John ascended the throne and would prove to be a very unpopular monarch. Conceited, greedy, prone to tantrums and utterly offensive to his barons and vassals, King Philip Augustus of France found it laughably easy to finally fulfil his father’s dream of taming the Plantagenet lion.

The loose, informal connections between the various parts of the Angevin Empire meant it started to collapse the moment Henry II, and the domineering Richard I, were no longer able to uphold it. Immediately upon his succession, John faced revolts from Brittany, Anjou and Maine, and Aquitaine was almost seized by King Alfonzo of Castile upon the death of Eleanor of Aquitaine. However Philip was not going to let the opportunity to reduce his wayward vassal’s power slip him by, and he initiated the Anglo-French War of 1213 with devastating effect. Despite facing off many allies, Philip was successful in conquering much of the Angevin Empire under John, largely by encouraging local barons to revolt against the Plantagenet court in favour of the Capetians. By the next year, Henry II’s once massive empire had been reduced to England, Ireland, Gascony, and silvers of Poitou. King John would have lost England as well to Philip’s son, Prince Louis, during the Baron Wars were it not for his sudden death in 1216 and the ascension of Henry III.

The Angevin Empire, at last, was no more, and Philip assumed his place as the preeminent Lord of France. However, its legacy and its troubles remained. Although much of Aquitaine was lost, questions over the English king’s rights to that duchy would continue to flare for centuries afterwards, eventually culminating in the Hundred Years’ War started by Edward III, King John’s great-great-grandson. Short of ending France’s troubles with the Kings of England, King Philip had merely written his own chapter in a long history of disputes, rivalry and open warfare between the two monarchies that would last until the abolition of the French monarchy in 1792.

However, arguably, the loss of Normandy and the rest of the Plantagenet’s French holdings was a boon, culturally, for England. No longer were its monarchs torn between a Norman-French and Anglo-Norman identity, resulting in monarchs such as Richard I who were, at best, apathetic towards their English subjects. From that point on, the scions of House Plantagenet would be Kings of England first and foremost.

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