Fortunately the young king to whom Stephen's battered crown now fell was energetic and capable, if somewhat self-willed and hasty. He was inferior in caution and self-control to his grandfather Henry I, though he resembled him in his love of strong and systematic governance. From the point of view of his English subjects his main achievement was that he restored in almost every detail the well-organized bureaucracy which his ancestor had created, and with it the law and order that had disappeared during Stephen's unhappy reign. But there was this essential difference between the position of the two Henries, that the elder aspired to be no more than king of England and duke of Normandy, while the younger strove all his life for an imperial position in western Europe. Such an ambition was almost forced upon him by the consequences of his descent and his marriage.
Besides his grandfather's Anglo-Norman inheritance, he had received from his father Geoffrey the counties of Anjou and Touraine, and the predominance in the valley of the Lower Loire. But it was his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, two years before his accession to the English throne, which gave him the right to dream of greatness such as his Norman forbears had never enjoyed. This lady, the divorced wife of Louis VII of France, brought to her second husband the whole of the lands from Poitou to the Pyrenees, the accumulated gains of many warlike ancestors: In wealth and fighting strength the duchy of Aquitaine was a full third of France. Added to Anjou and Normandy it made a realm far more important than England. Hence it came that Henry's ambitions and interests were continental more than English. Unlike his grandfather he dwelt for the greater part of his time beyond seas. It must be remembered, too, that his youth had been spent abroad, and that England only came to him when he was already a grown man. The concerns of his island realm were a matter of high importance to him, but only formed a part of his cares. Essentially he was an Angevin, neither a Norman nor an Englishman, and his primary ambition was to make the house of Anjou supreme in France. Nor did this seem impossible; he owned a far broader and wealthier domain beyond the Channel than did his nominal suzerain King Louis VII, and what was of more importance he far excelled that prince both in vigour and in capacity.
On succeeding to the English crown, however, he came over at once to take possession of the realm, and abode there for over a year, displaying the most restless energy in setting to rights the governance of the realm. He expelled all Stephen's mercenaries, took back into his hands the royal lands and castles which his predecessor had granted away, and destroyed hundreds of the adulterine castles which the barons and knights had built without leave during the years of the anarchy. Hardly a single magnate dared to oppose him, Bridgnorth, now a castle of the Mortimers, was the only place which he had to take by force. His next care was to restore the bureaucracy by which Henry I had been wont to govern. He handed over the exchequer to Nigel, bishop of Ely, the nephew of the old justiciar Roger of Salisbury, and the heir of his traditions. His chancellor was a young clerk, Thomas Becket, who was recommended to him by archbishop Theobald as the most capable official in the realm. A short experience of his work convinced the king that his merits had not been exaggerated. He proved a zealous and capable minister, and such a strong exponent of the claims of the crown that no one could have foreseen the later developments by which he was to become their greatest enemy.
The machine of government was beginning to work in a satisfactory fashion, and the realm was already settling down. into order, when Henry was called abroad by a rebellion raised in Anjou by his brother Geoffrey, the first of the innumerable dynastic troubles abroad which continued throughout his reign to distract his attention from his duties as an English king. He did not return for fifteen months; but when he did reappear it was to complete the work which he had begun in 1155, to extort from the greater barons the last of the royal fortresses which still remained in their hands, and to restore the northern boundaries of the realm. Malcolm IV, the young king of Scotland was compelled to give up the earldoms of Northumberland and Cumberland, which his father Henry had received from Stephen. He received instead only the earldom of Huntingdon, too far from the border to be a dangerous possession, to which he had a hereditary right as descending from Earl Waltheof. He did homage to the King of England, and actually followed him with a great retinue on his next continental expedition. In the same year (1157) Henry made an expedition into North Wales, and forced its prince Owen to become his vassal, not without some fighting, in which the English army received several sharp checks at the commencement of the campaign.
Yet once more Henry's stay on the English side of the Channel was but for a year. In 1158 he again departed to plunge into schemes of continental conquest. This time it was an attempt to annex the great county of Toulouse, and so to carry the borders of Aquitaine to the Mediterranean, which distracted him. Naturally Louis of France was unwilling to see his great vassal striding all across his realm, and did what he could to hinder him. Into the endless skirmishes and negotiations which followed the raising of the question of Toulouse it would be fruitless to enter. Henry did not achieve his purpose, indeed he seems to have failed to, use his strength to its best advantage, and allowed himself to be bought off by a futile marriage treaty by which his eldest son was to marry the French king's daughter (1160). This was to be but the first of many disappointments in this direction; there was apparently some fatal scruple, both in Henry's own mind and in that of his continental subjects, as to pressing their suzerain too hard. But it must also be remembered that a feudal army was an inefficient weapon for long wars, and that the mercenaries, by whom alone it could be replaced, were both expensive and untrustworthy. Henry developed as far as he was able the system of scutage which his grandfather had apparently invented; by this the vassal compounded for his forty days personal service by paying money, with which the king could hire professional soldiers. But even with this help he could never keep a large enough army together.
Meanwhile England, though somewhat heavily taxed, was at least enjoying quiet and strong governance. There is every sign that Henry's early years were a time of returning prosperity. But there was also much friction between the crown and its subjects. The more turbulent part of the baronage, looking back to the boisterous times of Stephen with regret, was reserving itself for a favourable opportunity. The danger of feudal rebellion was not yet past, as was to be shown ten years later. The towns did not find Henry an easy master. He took away from London some of the exceptional privileges which his grandfather had granted, such as the free election of sheriffs of Middlesex, and the right of farming the shire at a fixed rent. He asserted his power to raise tallages, arbitrary taxation from the citizens on occasion. Yet he left the foundations of municipal liberty untouched, and he was fairly liberal in granting charters which contained moderate privileges to smaller towns.
His most difficult task, however, was to come to a settlement with the Church. The lavish grants of Stephen had made an end of the old authority which the Conqueror and Henry I had exercised over the clergy. Their successor was well aware of the fact, and was resolved to put back the clock, so far as it was in his power. It was not, however, on the old problems of free election, of lay investiture, that his quarrel with the clerical body broke out, but on the comparatively new question of the conflicting claims of ecclesiastical and secular courts: The separate tribunals of the church, whose erection William I had favoured, had been developing in power ever since, and had begun to encroach on the sphere of the courts of the state. This was more than ever the case since Stephen had formally granted them jurisdiction over all suits concerning clerics and clerical property. During the first few years of his reign Henry had already been in collision with the ecclesiastical authorities over several such cases; he had chafed at seeing two clerks accused of murder and blackmailing claimed by and aquitted in the church courts; and most of all at the frequency of unlicensed appeals to Rome a flagrant breach of one of the three rules laid down by William the Conqueror. Being comparatively at leisure after the pacification with France, he resolved to turn his whole attention to the arrangement of a new modus vivendi with the church. As a preliminary move he appointed his able chancellor Thomas Becket to the archbishopric of Canterbury, which fell vacant in 1162. This was the greatest mistake of his reign.
Text extracted from the entry for ENGLISH HISTORY in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.