The 12th and early 13th century saw England transform in fortunes during the reigns of four Kings.
The death of King Henry I (last son of William the Conqueror) in 1135 saw the country descend into a chaotic civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda – the war raged for 19 years and was described as ‘the Anarchy’ and a time ‘When Christ and his saints slept’ by contemporary writers. By 1135, when King Stephen died (the last Anglo-Norman King), the country was devastated by war and virtually bankrupt.
This dramatically changed when Count Henry of Anjou (the son of the Empress Matilda and Stephen’s heir) arrived in England to be crowned King Henry II (the first ‘Angevin’ King) on December 19. Henry had already inherited the French lands of Anjou and Normandy from his father, and his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine made him the ruler of more of France than the French king, Louis VII. Henry immediately enforced his will on the English barons, reorganised the laws of justice, taxation and administration, making England wealthier and better governed than it had been in decades. When Ireland was invaded in 1169, his lands stretched from central Ireland to the Pyrenees mountains – effectively, an Angevin Empire. A rebellion by Henry’s own family (Eleanor and their oldest sons) in 1173 was firmly put down, and though Eleanor remained imprisoned for the rest of Henry’s life (at Old Sarum, Winchester Castle and Nottingham Castle), the Angevin Princes continued to rebel against their father until his death in 1189.
Henry II was succeeded by his eldest surviving son, Richard (Henry, ‘the young King’ had died in 1183) who immediately began making plans to go on crusade to Jerusalem. Despite a ten year reign, Richard was present in England for no more than six months. During his imprisonment in Germany, his younger brother John attempted to seize the throne (and also lost many of Richard’s territories in France), but failed and was forgiven by Richard.
Richard’s return to England was short, as he soon returned to France to regain his lost lands. His successes were immediately stopped at the castle of Châlus-Chabrol, where he was struck by a crossbolt. He died from gangrene ten days later, to be succeeded by John.
John is remembered as one of the worst Kings in English History, and his violent rule and harsh laws resulted in his barons rebelling against him (after he had lost almost all of the French lands his father and brother had ruled). Following the sealing of the Magna Carta (which was immediately annulled by Pope Innocent III), the barons invited the Prince Louis of France to take over the throne, and Louis led a highly successful invasion in 1216. John’s death on October 18th left the throne in the hands of his nine year old son, Henry, and the young Prince’s prospects looked bleak. But he was supported by the legendary William Marshall, who had supported the Angevin dynasty since Henry II arrived, and by the following year, the battle against the invading French and their supporters turned in favour of the young King.
This is merely a summary of the events that took place in England in just over 80 years – and it is this chaotic, but fascinating period in history that Chanz des Reis brings to life.
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