It was in 1173, the year after his return from Ireland and his submission to the papal legates at Avranches, that King Henry became involved in the first of a series of troubles which were to pursue him for the rest of his life the rebellions of his graceless sons. His wife Eleanor of Aquitaine had borne him many children. Henry, the eldest surviving son, had already been crowned in 1176 as his father's colleague and successor; not only he, but Richard the second, and Geoffrey the third son, were now old enough to chafe against the restraints imposed upon them by an imperious and strong-willed father. The old king very naturally preferred to keep his dominions united under his own immediate government, but he had designated his eldest son as his successor in England and Normandy, while Richard was to have his mother's heritage of Aquitaine, and Geoffrey's wife's dowry, the duchy of Brittany, was due to him, now that he had reached the verge of manhood.
The princes were shamelessly eager to enter on their inheritance, the king was loath to understand that by conferring a titular sovereignty on his sons he had given them a sort of right to expect some share of real power. Their grudge against their father was sedulously fostered by their mother Eleanor, a clever and revengeful woman, who could never forgive her husband for keeping her in the background in political matters and insulting her by his frequent amours. Her old subjects in Aquitaine were secretly encouraged by her to follow her son Richard against his father, whom the barons of the south always regarded as an alien and an intruder. The Bretons were equally willing to rise in the name of Geoffrey and Constance against the guardian who was keeping their prince too long waiting for his inheritance. In England the younger Henry had built himself up a party among the more turbulent section of the baronage, who remembered with regret and longing the carnival of licence which their fathers had enjoyed under King Stephen. Secret agreements had also been made with the kings of France and Scotland, who were eager to take advantage of the troubles which were about to break out.
In 1173 the plot was complete, and Henry's three elder sons all took arms against him, collecting Norman, Breton and Gascon rebels in great numbers, and being backed by a French army. At the same moment the king of Scots invaded Northumberland, and the earls of Norfolk, Chester and Leicester rose in the name of the younger Henry. This was in all essentials a feudal rebellion of the old type. The English barons were simply desirous of getting rid of the strong and effective governance of the king, and the alleged wrongs of his sons were an empty excuse. For precisely the same reason all classes in England, save the more turbulent section of the baronage, remained faithful to the elder king. The bureaucracy, the minor, landholders, the towns, and the clergy refused to join in the rising, and lent their aid for its suppression, because they were unwilling to see anarchy recommence. Hence, though the rebellious princes made head for a time against their father abroad, the insurrection of their partisans in England was suppressed without much difficulty.
The justiciar, Richard de Lucy, routed the army of the Earl of Leicester at Fornham in Suffolk, the castles of the rebel earls were subdued one after another, and William of Scotland was surprised and captured by a force of northern loyalists while he was besieging Alnwick (1173-1174). The war lingered on for a space on the continent; but Henry raised the siege of Rouen, which was being attacked by his eldest son and the king of France, captured most of Richard's castles in Poitou, and then received the, submission of his undutiful children. Showing considerable magnanimity, he promised to grant to each of them half the revenues of the lands in which they were his destined heirs, and a certain number of castles to hold as their own. Their allies fared less well; the rebel earls were subjected to heavy fines, and their strongholds were demolished. The king of Scots was forced to buy his liberty by doing homage to Henry for the whole of his kingdom. Queen Eleanor, whom her husband regarded as responsible for the whole rebellion, was placed in a sort of honorable captivity, or retirement, and denied her royal state.
Henry appeared completely triumphant; but the fourteen years which he had yet to live were for the most part to be times of trouble and frustrated hopes. He was growing old; the indomitable energy of his early career was beginning to slacken; his dreams of extended empire were vanishing. In the last period of his life he was more set on defending what he already enjoyed, and perfecting the details of administration in his realms, than on taking new adventures in hand. Probably the consciousness that his dominions would be broken up among his sons after his death had a disheartening effect upon him. At any rate his later years bear a considerable resemblance to the corresponding period of his grandfather's reign.
The machinery of government which the one had sketched out the other completed. Under Henry II the circuits of the itinerant justices became regular instead of intermittent; the judicial functions of the Curia Regis were delegated to a permanent committee of that body which took form as the court of king's bench (Curia Regis in Banco). The sheriffs were kept very tightly in hand, and under incessant supervision; once in 1170 nearly the whole body of them were dismissed for misuse of their office. The shire levies which had served the king so well against the feudal rebels of 1173 were reorganized, with uniformity of weapons and armour, by the Assize of Arms of 1181. There was also a considerable amount of new legislation with the object of protecting the minor subjects of the crown, and the system of trial by jurors was advanced to the detriment of the absurd old practices of trial by ordeal and trial by wager of battle. The 13th-century jury was a rough and primitive institution, which acted at once as accuser, witness and judgebut it was at any rate preferable to the chances of the red-hot iron, or the club of the duellist.
The best proof that King Henry's orderly if autocratic regime was appreciated at its true value by his English subjects, is that when the second series of rebellions raised by his undutiful sons began In 1182, there was no stir whatever in England, though in Normandy, Brittany and Aquitaine the barons rose in full force to support the young princes, whose success would mean the triumph of particularism and the destruction of the Angevin empire. Among the many troubles which broke down King Henry's strong will and great bodily vigour in those unhappy years, rebellion in England was not one. For this reason he was almost constantly abroad, leaving the administration of the one loyal section of his realm to his great justiciar.
Hence the story of the unnatural war between father and sons has no part in English history. It is but necessary to note that the younger Henry died in 1183, that Geoffrey perished by accident at a tournament in 1186, and that in 1189, when the old king's strength finally gave out, it was Richard who was leading the rebellion, to which John, the youngest and least worthy of the four undutiful sons, was giving secret countenance. It was the discovery of the treachery of this one child whom he had deemed faithful, and loved over well, that broke Henry's heart. "Let things go as they will; I have nothing to care for in the world now", he murmured on his death-bed, and turned his face to the wall to breathe his last.
Text extracted from the entry for ENGLISH HISTORY in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.