Centurion Part I

By the end of the First World War in November 1918, the concept of the tank had been fully vindicated as an indispensable weapon of war. The tank was a British invention, and at the war’s end Britain led the field in tank design and tactics, with France coming a very close second with innovative designs like the Renault FT. 17, one of the best-selling tanks of the interwar years.

The British Centurion tank – a magnificent fighting vehicle that finally proved that Britain’s tank designers were capable of getting things right after years of producing tanks that were at best barely adequate and at worst disastrous – traced its lineage back to a change of armoured warfare doctrine that came about in the early 1930s, when the British Army, which had previously concentrated on developing dual-role medium tanks, took the decision to develop two separate types of armoured fighting vehicle, one an infantry tank to operate in support of ground forces and the other a `cruiser’ tank whose role was to break through enemy defences and then exploit the breakthrough by making surprise attacks on command and communications behind the forward battle area.

The British Army’s armoured warfare doctrine was based on these two different types of tank. The first, the so-called `cruiser tank’, was fast and lightly armoured, its purpose being to break through enemy defences or bypass them. The second type, the so-called `infantry tank’, more heavily armoured and with a speed slow enough to enable dismounted infantry to keep up, would then exploit the success of the cruiser tanks, which by now would be roaming around the enemy’s rear areas and causing as much disruption as possible. This doctrine, which was sound enough in principle, was refined in 1919 by a senior officer of the Royal Tank Corps, Colonel J. F. C. Fuller, who produced a plan that envisaged a large-scale armoured offensive designed to achieve multiple armoured penetrations of an enemy’s forward defences and totally disrupt his command and control system in the rear. The plan was virtually ignored by the British War Office but enthusiastically adopted by a reborn German Army, whose tank commanders used it to excellent effect in the Blitzkrieg of 1940.

The revised doctrine was influenced by various considerations, some technical, others political. The main political consideration reflected the need to police the more remote parts of the British Empire in the Middle East and Northwest India, where the disintegration of other pre-war empires had resulted in a rise of nationalism and its accompanying unrest. To achieve this, armoured cars were ideal, often working in cooperation with aircraft, whereas tanks were useless in the terrain where most of the problems arose. In the 1920s the production of armoured cars assumed priority over the development of other armoured vehicles, and it was not until the rise of Nazi Germany and its emphasis on the development of a strong Panzer force that production of new types of tank in Britain was accelerated.

The technical considerations involved the choice of armour, armament and motive power. One bold decision of the 1930s was to provide the new generation of cruiser tanks with a 40mm (2-pounder) main gun in addition to a secondary armament of one or more machine guns; the main gun, with armour-piercing shells, would be more than adequate to cope with the Panzer I and II tanks under development in Germany, armed respectively with machine guns (Panzer I) or a 20mm cannon (Panzer II). The problem here was a lack of foresight; British tanks were still using the 2-pounder gun well into the Second World War, by which time the Germans were deploying the Panzer III and IV armed with a main gun of up to 75mm calibre. One senior British officer, General Percy Hobart, Deputy Director of Staff Duties (Armoured Fighting Vehicles) persistently called for British tanks to be armed with a 57mm 6-pounder gun in 1938, but no formal requirement for such a weapon was issued until after the fall of France in the summer of 1940.

Armour protection for the new generation of British cruiser tanks was also sacrificed to reduce weight, it was decided that vehicles would be powered by modified petrol engines of the type being produced for existing commercial vehicles.

The first cruiser tank, designed by Vickers in 1934, was the Mk I (A9), which entered production in 1937, albeit on a fairly limited scale. Its turret was power-traversed and the vehicle carried a six-man crew. Its main armament was a 40mm 2- pounder gun, supplemented by three machine guns, two of which were mounted in small subsidiary turrets. Production of the Mk I ended with the 125th vehicle, the early model seeing service in France and North Africa. It was followed by the Heavy Cruiser Tank Mk II, which had begun life as the A10 Infantry Tank based on the A9, but with thicker armour and other refinements, including the deletion of the subsidiary turrets.

The next cruiser tank design, the A13 Cruiser Tank Mk III, was the product of Nuffield Mechanizations Ltd and represented an important step forward in British tank development, as it used a suspension system based on that devised in the United States by J. Walter Christie. A prototype made its appearance in 1937 and proved to have an excellent performance, the Christie suspension making a huge difference. (The Christie system was also adopted by the Russian BT series of tanks, culminating in the excellent T-34.)

The Mk III’s armament comprised one 40mm gun and a single machine gun, which made it possible to dispense with two crew members. Its big drawback was its inadequate armour, which led to substantial losses when it encountered German Panzer IIIs in France and the Western Desert, and this deficiency led to the development of the Cruiser Tank Mk IV (A13 Mk II) in which the thickness of the armour was increased to 20 or 30mm (0.79 or 1.18in). This was still not very substantial, and the vehicle was fast but very vulnerable. Nevertheless, it acquitted itself well against Italian AFVs in the Western Desert, where it saw considerable action. The next British cruiser tank in the series was the Cruiser Tank Mk V (A13 Mk III), which had a redesigned turret, better armour and a higher top speed. However, it was still armed with the puny 2-pounder gun, which had weaker armour penetration and could not fire high-explosive rounds. The Mk V was known as the Covenanter.

The next cruiser tank, also designed and built by Nuffield, was the A15 Mark VI Crusader, which played an important part in the desert war, despite being outclassed by its German opponents. The Crusader I entered service in 1941 and it was immediately apparent that its 40mm (2-pounder) main armament was inadequate, so plans were made to replace it with the new 57mm (2.24in) 6-pounder. It was this version, designated Crusader III that became the most important tank in the desert battles, first seeing action at the Second Battle of Alamein in October 1942. As more effective tanks such as the Churchill and the American M4 Sherman became available, the Crusader was gradually relegated to secondary duties and specialist roles. Yet even the Churchill – the most important British-designed tank of the Second World War – was plagued by many shortcomings in its early service, being underpowered and fitted with the same weak 2-pounder gun that had been fitted to the earlier cruiser tanks. The appearance of the Churchill Mk III, armed with a 6-pounder gun, finally resulted in an effective fighting vehicle that was to prove its worth in the last battles of the desert war in Tunisia, the invasion of Normandy and the advance across northwest Europe.

Meanwhile, the War Office persevered in its efforts to develop a British-designed cruiser tank that would be operationally acceptable and reliable. Vauxhall’s offering was the A23, a scaled-down version of the A22 Churchill infantry tank with the same suspension. It would have frontal armour of 75mm (3in) thickness, be powered by a twelve-cylinder Bedford engine and carry a crew of five. Nuffield submitted the A24, heavily based on the Crusader design and powered by a version of the V-12 Liberty engine, a powerplant dating back to the latter days of the First World War and by now thoroughly outdated; its only advantage was that it could be put into production quickly, as it used many of the Crusader’s components. The final entry was submitted by Leyland, whose design was similar to Nuffield’s but with different suspension and tracks. All these designs were intended to mount the Quick-Firing (QF) 6-pounder gun.

The design competition was won by Nuffield’s A24 in January 1941. It was expected to be in service by the end of 1942, but there was a snag. The War Office, at last recognizing the obsolescence of the Liberty engine, now insisted that the tank be reengined with the Rolls-Royce Meteor, a version of the excellent Merlin Mk III. Refitting the A24 with the new engine was beyond the capacity of Nuffield, so the job was assigned to Leyland, working with the Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon (BRC&W) company. The new tank would emerge as the A27M Cromwell. In fact, the name Cromwell had already been allocated to Nuffield’s Liberty-engined A24; originally designated Cromwell I, it was later known as the Cavalier. The A27L Cromwell II was another variant to bear the name. Based on the Cavalier chassis, it was armed with a 95mm howitzer and, renamed Mk IV Centaur, was deployed in time to support the Allied landings in Normandy in June 1944.

The closing stages of the Second World War saw the emergence of the A34 Comet cruiser tank, a final attempt to rectify the deficiencies that had been revealed in the design of earlier cruiser tanks during combat in the Western Desert and Italy. The first attempt at redesign resulted in the Challenger, comprising a 17-pounder anti-tank gun mounted on a Cromwell chassis. The mounting of this larger gun carried its share of penalties, the biggest of which was that there had to be a reduction in armour protection, so ultimately the Challenger was not a success. In the Comet design, the gun was a 77mm version of the 17-pounder, with a lower muzzle velocity; the engine was uprated and the armour welded rather than riveted. The prototype Comet was rolled out in February 1944 and the first examples were delivered in September, in time to take part in the British XXX Corps’ dash to the Rhine at Arnhem. The Comet went on to see action during the crossing of the Rhine at Wesel in March 1945. Production by the end of the war totalled 1,200 units, some of which were supplied to foreign armies.

The real solution to the British Army’s tank design headaches, however, lay in a decision to combine the requirements of the infantry and cruiser tank and merge them into the design of a single vehicle, a so-called `universal’ tank. In 1943 the War Office, conscious of the vulnerability of existing cruiser tank designs to the formidable German 88mm anti-tank gun and a new generation of German tanks – in particular the heavy Tiger and the Panzer V Panther – instructed the Directorate of Tank Design led by Sir Claude Gibb to come up with a proposal for a new heavy cruiser tank under the General Staff designation A41. It would be known as the Centurion.

Angevin Dynasty: A family at war I

On his legitimate children he lavished in their childhood more than a father’s affection, but in their more advanced years he looked askance at them after the manner of a stepfather; and although his sons were so renowned and illustrious he pursued his successors with a hatred which perhaps they deserved, but which none the less impaired his own happiness … Whether by some breach of the marriage tie or as a punishment for some crime of the parent, it befell that there was never true affection felt by the father towards his sons, nor by the sons towards their father, nor harmony between the brothers themselves.


It was nightfall at the palace of Westminster on 17 July 1174. The king was resting in his chambers, suffering from both physical and mental exhaustion. For over a year he had fought against a powerful coalition of enemies on the continent led by the king of France and the count of Flanders, brought together in an ultimate act of treachery by the machinations of his wife Eleanor and eldest son, Henry ‘the young king’, as they sought to overthrow him. Henry had finally been able to return to England ten days earlier, battling fierce gales to make landfall at Southampton. His presence was urgently needed to suppress an uprising amongst his most unruly barons, led by an old adversary, Hugh Bigod; Bigod’s grudge against Henry had been simmering away for nearly two decades. The king first dashed to Canterbury, where he made a public display of humility at the tomb of Thomas Becket, scourged with whips as penance for the role he had played in his former friend’s death. Now, weary from his long journey back to London, Henry had gone to his room, where a servant rubbed his sore feet as he dozed in bed.

Suddenly, the guards at the palace gate were disturbed by the arrival of a rider, with clothes stained with grime from a long journey. He reined in his horse and wearily dismounted, calling out that he was a messenger called Brien. Explaining that he had ridden hard for three days, barely stopping for food and drink, Brien demanded that he be brought before the king, insisting that he carried an urgent message and important news from the north. Uncertain what to do, the guards escorted him to the door of the room where Henry lay in slumber. The way was barred by the king’s chamberlain who, mindful of his master’s state of mind, prevented Brien from entering with the cry ‘Who are you there?’ Brien replied, ‘I am a messenger, sent by Lord Ranulph de Glanville in order to speak with the king, for great needs he has of it.’ ‘Let the business be till the morning.’ hissed the chamberlain, trying to stop the conversation from wakening Henry. However, the messenger would not be deterred. ‘By my faith! I will speak to him forthwith. My lord has in his heart sorrow and vexation, so let me enter, good chamberlain.’ The royal servant was not convinced, fearing his master’s wrath: ‘I should not dare to do it. The king is asleep; you must withdraw.’ However, the noise of the conversation had already disturbed Henry, who hollered angrily from inside the room, ‘Who is that, can you tell me?’ The chamberlain called back, ‘Sire, you shall know directly, it is a messenger from the north, very well you know him, a man of Ranulph de Glanvillle’s, his name is Brien.’ The king emerged from his room and, having been disturbed from his rest, was clearly not in the best of moods; and now he was further alarmed when he learned the identity of the messenger.

Ushered into the royal chamber, Brien was mindful that he was in the presence of the king, and offered a salute. Despite his tiredness, Henry was eager for news; he was well aware of the situation in the north of England where William the Lion, king of Scotland, had invaded shortly after Easter, supported by mercenary cavalry and infantry hired from Flanders. The invading forces had captured two royal fortresses at Brough and Appleby, before moving against Carlisle. The frightened citizens had provided assurances that they would surrender to the Scots if no relief came from Henry, allowing William to attack Prudhoe castle on the banks of the Tyne and ravage parts of Northumberland.

Henry’s principal supporters in the north had gathered together to repulse the invasion. The sheriff of Yorkshire, Robert de Stuteville, supported by Brien’s master Ranulph de Glanville, as well as local lords William de Vesci and Bernard de Balliol, mustered their forces and marched on Prudhoe, arriving on 12 July only to find that William had moved on to assault Alnwick castle. They held a conference at Newcastle to determine what to do next. Henry was unaware of the latest developments, and feared that the sudden arrival of the messenger heralded bad tidings. Growling with anger and pacing around his room, Henry began to bemoan those in whom he had placed his trust to defend the northern border – ‘Badly have they served me, so now may they be punished for it!’ However, the messenger interrupted the king: ‘Sire, hear me a little. Your barons of the north are right good people. The king of Scotland is taken and all his barons!’

The king could not believe this unexpected and wondrous news. ‘Do you speak the truth?’ Brien replied,

Yes sire, truly in the morning you will know it; the archbishop of York, a wise, learned man, will send you two private messengers; but I started first, who know the truth, I have hardly slept during the last four days, neither eaten nor drunk, so I am very hungry; but in your kindness, give me a reward for it!

Henry grasped the tired messenger by the shoulders and fixed him with a steely gaze. ‘If you have told me the truth, you are rich enough. Is the king of Scotland taken? Tell me the truth!’ Indignant that he was being doubted, Brien cried ‘Yes sire, by my faith! On a cross may I be crucified, or hanged by a rope, or burnt on a great pile, if tomorrow, before noon, all be not confirmed.’ ‘Then’, said the king, with a broad grin breaking out across his face, ‘God be thanked for it, and Saint Thomas the Martyr and all the saints of God!’

Brien was shown to suitable accommodation and given much-needed food, drink and rest at the king’s expense. Henry was too delighted to return to sleep, and roused his household knights to share the news that one of his great enemies had fallen into his hands. ‘Barons! Wake up. It has been a good night for you. Such a thing have I heard that will make you glad; the king of Scotland is taken! Just now the news came to me, when I ought to have been in bed!’ The knights were overjoyed, and cried, ‘Now thank the Lord God, now is the war ended, and your kingdom in peace!’ As Brien had promised, messengers from the archbishop of York duly arrived the next morning, carrying with them a more detailed account of what had happened.

After their conference at Newcastle – and despite opposition from some of their own number – the northern earls decided to press on towards Alnwick, and set out early the next morning, Saturday 13 July. They travelled at a remarkable speed, bearing in mind they were burdened by weight of arms, covering twenty-four miles in little over five hours. However, they were soon enveloped in a thick fog, which made them pause and reconsider their decision. As they moved forward slowly, the mist cleared and in front of them appeared the castle of Alnwick. To their great surprise, the king of the Scots and around sixty horsemen were on guard in a meadow outside the castle, ‘as if in complete security and fearing nothing less than an incursion of our men, while the hosts of the barbarians together with part of the cavalry were widely dispersed for purposes of plunder’, according to William of Newburgh. The Scots were momentarily confused, thinking some of their own number had returned. On realising that the banners were those of the enemy, William the Lion drew his forces around him and prepared for battle. However, the fight did not last long; the king’s horse was killed underneath him and he was thrown clear, only to be intercepted and captured. Most of his knights were slain or rounded up. The earls then made their way back to Newcastle the same day with their royal prisoner, and from there he was transferred to Richmond to be kept under close guard until he could be sent south to Henry. Brien was then dispatched to tell the king the good news.

In the bright light of a summer’s morning, Henry beamed with joy when he heard the fate that had befallen his enemy. Yet even as he relaxed in the knowledge of victory, he suddenly remembered his conversation with Brien the previous evening. ‘Last night I heard the news when I was very irritable; to him who brought it to me a reward shall be given.’ After a quick consultation with his exchequer staff working from their offices nearby, Henry ordered a small wooden tally stick to be struck. In the absence of a formal parchment charter prepared by his chancery staff, it noted the personal grant of land worth £10 a year from the grateful king to the messenger who came in the night.


The great war of 1173–4 marked Henry’s nadir as king, husband and father; yet also represented his greatest triumph, combining military genius with an ability to stay calm in the face of multiple outbreaks of revolt, successfully prioritising his actions when it looked as though all his territories would be swept away by an unprecedented alliance of enemies, and one false move could end in disaster. Although it took a few more months of campaigning after the capture of William of Scotland to restore peace to all his lands, Henry emerged from a period of unprecedented crisis more powerful than ever, yet mindful that he needed to find a workable solution to provide for the competing demands of his sons, Henry, Richard, Geoffrey and John. Angevin princes were not known to harbour warm family feelings towards one another, and sibling rivalry played a large part in the war against their father. However, at the heart of the dispute lay a festering resentment that Eleanor felt towards her husband – possibly fuelled by the knowledge that his love was reserved for his mistress Rosamund de Clifford, but principally by the fact that Henry had excluded her from any meaningful authority, aside from a few occasions when she was called upon to act as regent during his absence. For a woman who had virtually shared power with her first husband King Louis VII of France, even accompanying him on crusade to the Holy Land at the head of a contingent of soldiers from Aquitaine, this was an unbearable slight on her honour and dignity. The irony of the great rebellion that ripped Henry’s family apart was that for the first two decades of his reign he had devoted his energy to creating a system of governance that, by 1169, was publicly geared towards a division of territories between his sons. Indeed, in 1159 Henry compromised his relationship with Louis by undertaking a campaign in defence of his wife’s rights in Aquitaine; this was to be a watershed moment, after which an intermittent enmity existed between the kings of England and France that neither could ever quite overcome.

Henry’s approach to family is interesting, as he was guilty of abandoning fraternal loyalty for personal gain when he was younger. Once the initial subjugation of England was complete, the main problem facing Henry towards the end of 1155 was the discontent of his disgruntled brother Geoffrey, who continued to spread the story that their father had only granted Anjou to Henry temporarily until the English crown had been placed on his head. Geoffrey tried to exert pressure on the king of France in an attempt to wrest Anjou from Henry’s hands; after all, Louis was still smarting from Henry’s coup in marrying Eleanor, and was alarmed by the prospect of one man holding so many territories under his direct control, particularly as the riches of England could be used to bankroll Henry’s ambitions on the continent. Supporting Geoffrey’s cause would therefore be a natural way to destabilise Louis’s overmighty vassal. Yet to interfere in the Angevin succession would be a declaration of war and spark a conflict that he would probably lose. Therefore, when Henry returned to the continent in early 1156, having brought the English barons to heel far more quickly than anyone might have expected, Louis found it expedient to confirm Henry in all his continental possessions. The two kings met on 5 February 1156 on the border of Normandy, where Henry performed homage for Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine. Henry then sought out his brother a few days later – an awkward meeting that did not go well; Geoffrey withdrew in anger to his Angevin strongholds, spending money on fortifications in preparation for an armed struggle to regain what he felt was rightfully his. However, if Geoffrey expected to receive widespread support amongst the Angevin nobility, he was mistaken. By the summer, Henry had besieged and captured all Geoffrey’s castles and forced his brother to accept an annuity of £1,500, rather than trust him to remain in possession of land. Thus a pattern of behaviour was set that was to be played out in the relationships between Henry’s own sons.

Henry’s activities in the 1150s and 1160s give us the clearest sense of his vision for the way his lands would be governed, and family was a key motivating force behind his actions. ‘Empire’ is not the correct word to use to describe the way he perceived his territories – there was to be no centralised administration or ‘capital’ similar to Rome or Byzantium, let alone a single army, financial system, legal code or sense of common citizenship. Perhaps the best modern equivalent would be the British Commonwealth, a group of territories ruled by the same nominal head of state but with different internal systems of government.

Henry’s first task was to consolidate his position in each territory, as his authority varied from place to place. Having devoted a considerable amount of time creating a system in England that permitted his extended absence, Henry spent much of the early 1160s in Normandy imposing ‘direct rule’. During this period, Henry received regular updates from his trusted team of officials in England, and on occasion the co-justiciars would travel to Rouen to provide advice. It is likely that English silver flowed across the Channel as well, giving Henry additional financial security. It was much easier to enforce ducal custom and undertake reform if he was no longer reliant on maintaining the goodwill of local barons because he needed their cash.

At the same time, Henry tried to create a ring of vassal states around his core lands that recognised him as their overlord – Brittany would therefore be subservient to Normandy, likewise Maine to Anjou, Toulouse to Aquitaine, and within the British Isles, the rulers of Wales and Scotland would recognise the overlordship of England. It is perhaps no surprise that Henry’s early years were spent in ceaseless travel. Gerald of Wales and Walter Map told stories of a king who never stood still, his restless energy leading him to roam far and wide as he traversed a realm that stretched from the foothills of the Pyrenees in the south, to the borders of Scotland in the north – not quite in the same league as the lands that Charlemagne had brought together in the eighth century – but nevertheless an impressive range of territories that would test the administrative and military powers of a seasoned campaigner, let alone a young man in his early twenties with little previous experience of government. Indeed, Gerald was moved to compare Henry’s feats with another young general from antiquity, suggesting that ‘our Alexander of the West [you have] stretched out your arms from the Pyrenean mountains to the farthest and most western borders of the ocean. In these parts you have spread your triumphs as far as nature has spread her lands.’

This was grand rhetoric, but overlooked the fact that all the southernmost territory near the Pyrenees was only in Henry’s hands thanks to his marriage to Eleanor; an Angevin ruling in Gascony or Poitou was only slightly less unpalatable than direct rule from Paris had been when Eleanor was married to Louis. It was therefore prudent that Henry was joined by his wife in the autumn of 1156 to accompany him on a tour of Aquitaine, taking the opportunity to eject the viscount of Thouars, one of his brother Geoffrey’s supporters, from his lands in Poitou. This was a clear statement of intent with regards to the exercise of the ducal powers that he now claimed as his, as well as a reminder that Henry would not tolerate any further family insurrection against his rule.

Yet, by chance, the opportunity arose both to give Geoffrey a slightly more generous settlement, as well as extend the family’s influence in Brittany – an area over which Normandy had a hazy claim of lordship, with the genealogy of the Breton ducal family laced with both Norman and Angevin blood. The two principal seats of power were Rennes and Nantes, the ruler of the latter claiming the title of count; when the citizens deposed the unpopular incumbent, Hoel, in 1156, they appealed to Henry for assistance. Eager to extend Angevin power in the region, as well as secure access to an important seaport at the mouth of the river Loire, Henry agreed – on the condition that his brother Geoffrey was declared count instead. At the same time, one of Henry’s vassals, Earl Conan of Richmond, seized Rennes, further bolstering Angevin influence across the region.

When Henry returned to English politics in 1157, his attention shifted to the security of the northern border with Scotland. The old warhorse and staunch supporter of his mother’s cause, King David, had died in 1153 to be succeeded by his grandson Malcolm IV. Of particular concern to Henry was the previous grant of large swathes of northern England to David – the counties of Cumberland, Westmorland and Northumberland, as well as claims to the earldom of Huntingdon; indeed, Henry had sworn to confirm these grants when David knighted him in 1149, should he ever gain the throne. Now the time had come to resolve the issue, and Malcolm was invited to a meeting with Henry in May, at which the king of England appeared in a display of military might. In no uncertain terms, Henry told his royal counterpart that he would not hand over the northern part of his realm – an early example of Henry’s growing reputation for ‘broken promises’ when political expediency required an alternative truth to be forged. Indeed, this tactic of gunboat diplomacy was one that Henry would deploy on many occasions, and it was effective; the king of the Scots ‘prudently considering that the king of England had the better of the argument by reason of his greater power’ agreed with Henry that the integrity of England should be preserved, and swore homage for Huntingdon alone as a vassal of the king of England.

Next, Henry turned to the west, and in July summoned a council to discuss taking military action against Owain, prince of Gwynedd – one of several Welsh leaders who had refused to acknowledge his authority. The campaign nearly ended in disaster, despite meticulous planning; Henry was caught in an ambush whilst proceeding through marshy yet heavily wooded terrain just outside Flint, and many of his barons were slain. Indeed, the king’s own standard-bearer, Henry of Essex, believed his master had also died, and in distress fled from the fighting – causing panic amongst the soldiers that nearly sparked a full-scale retreat. However, Henry had already escaped. He fought his way back to his men, rallied the troops and proceeded far more cautiously thereafter, sending scouts ahead and ensuring that paths were cleared in advance of the main army. Owain sued for peace, and Henry left garrisons behind – not only to check any Welsh incursions, but also to remind the traditionally powerful and semi-independent earldom of Chester that royal authority was now the supreme power in the area.

With England’s borders largely secured, Henry decided to tackle the loss of the strategically important Norman Vexin, which had been conceded to Louis VII by Henry’s father Geoffrey in return for legitimising the completion of his invasion of the duchy in 1144, and confirmed when Henry’s accession was negotiated in 1151. Whilst still in England, Henry opened negotiations with Louis to find a diplomatic route to recover this lost land – as key to his security in Normandy as the northern counties, recently wrested back from Malcolm, were to the English border. The result was a dynastic union in the form of the betrothal of Henry’s son, Henry the younger – not yet four years old – to Louis’s infant daughter, Margaret. Her dowry, and Henry’s prize, would be the return of the Norman Vexin once the ceremony had been performed at some future date. In the meantime, the lands would be entrusted to the care of the Knights Templar. The union of the two most powerful families in France was a major event in European politics. Louis’s continued failure to produce a son was beginning to a turn into a succession crisis that the Capetian royal house had not faced for several generations, and awakened the possibility that a male child of the proposed marriage might, one day, inherit all.

In contrast, Henry’s marriage to Eleanor had produced an abundance of children including many sons – the first arrival was William in 1153 (who died three years later), then Henry the younger born in 1155, his first daughter Matilda in 1156, Richard in 1157 and Geoffrey in 1158. After a gap of a few years, Eleanor followed in 1161 and finally John, born in 1166. This brood of offspring represented the makings of a powerful dynasty – plenty of sons to ensure the succession plus two daughters who could be used to secure important marriage alliances. Although the Angevins held vast swathes of land and a crown of their own, the Capetians held the royal title that mattered most in the growing rivalry between the two families – king of the Franks, and therefore the direct successor to Charlemagne. Not to be outdone, Henry was keen to underline the financial might of the new Angevin territorial bloc. In a show of one-upmanship, Henry’s chancellor, Becket, was dispatched to France in the summer of 1158 to conduct further negotiations for the betrothal of the young Henry and Margaret with a magnificent display of riches – a job perfectly suited to the peacock personality of the proud clerk turned royal administrator, who was still revelling in his new-found wealth and status.

No expense was spared in an attempt to impress the residents of Paris as Becket entered the capital of the Île de France, where the talks would take place – 250 footmen, a vast array of hunting dogs, eight wagons drawn by horses with monkeys on their backs, packhorses carrying silver and gold plate, all paraded through the streets. This was just the prelude to the chancellor’s own retinue of squires, mounted knights, falconers, and many of the young nobles who were being schooled in the chancellor’s household; indeed, the king’s own son, the young Henry, would start his education at the knee of Thomas Becket. ‘What a magnificent man the king of England must be if his chancellor travels in such state,’ commented the citizens of Paris in response to this glittering show of wealth – exactly Henry’s intention.

The king then crossed from England in August to set his seal on the alliance in person. However, the visit was tinged with sad news; Henry’s brother Geoffrey had died suddenly on 26 July 1158. Whilst this removed any lingering threat to Henry’s legitimacy as count of Anjou, it also meant his hold on the area was weakened – especially as Conan used the opportunity to take possession of Nantes after Geoffrey’s death, bringing all of Brittany under his control. Technically, Conan should have sought permission from Henry, as his overlord, before doing so; Henry had intended to claim Nantes as his own, as Geoffrey’s legal heir. To bolster his authority further, Henry secured the grant of the title ‘seneschal of France’ during the marriage negotiations with Louis in August. This was an honour dating back to Carolingian times and the equivalent of justiciar in England, but it gave Henry a mandate to bring Conan of Brittany to heel by whatever means necessary. With Norman forces ominously mustering on the border, Conan hurried to Avranches on 29 September 1158, ceded Nantes to Henry, and in return was confirmed as duke of Brittany.

Henry’s attention moved from his northernmost possessions to those in the extreme south. Possibly as a result of the time he had spent with his wife in Aquitaine in 1156, Henry decided to exert claims over Toulouse – a county that had, in Carolingian times, been part of the old Roman province of Aquitainia but by a quirk of fate had passed down the ‘wrong’ line of Eleanor’s family tree a few generations previously. Under the ruling St Gilles family, Toulouse was exercising a growing autonomy in the region, yet was of great strategic importance to Henry. Its ancient Roman roads controlled the trade routes on which Poitou was dependent for access to the Mediterranean ports. However, the diplomatic position was complicated. In 1154 Count Raymond V had married Constance, the sister of Louis VII, after he had struck up a close relationship with Louis during the Second Crusade. In early June 1159 Henry approached Louis and reminded him, in what must have been a somewhat awkward conversation for both men, that when Louis had been married to Eleanor he had exercised a claim over Toulouse as de facto duke of Aquitaine, even going to war in 1141 in an unsuccessful attempt to win the county by force. Henry now wished to revive this claim. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Louis refused to make a decision and the meeting broke up without conclusion. Henry therefore decided to flex his military muscles once more, having used bullyboy tactics to great effect against Malcolm and Conan, and assembled a grand coalition of knights and mercenaries. Malcolm of Scotland and barons from Brittany turned up at the muster at Poitiers, a visible acknowledgement that Henry was now their overlord, and Henry was able to secure the support of Count Raymond-Berengar of Barcelona – another powerful lord from the south.

The campaign started brightly. In late June, Henry’s army marched into Quercy and secured Cahors, the principal town in the region. On the road to Toulouse, Henry paused – hoping that Count Raymond would be sufficiently cowed by the overwhelming military presence on his land that he would submit without armed conflict. As king of France, Louis was left with little choice but to intervene in defence of one of his vassals, and held crisis talks with Henry. What transpired is unclear, but Henry seems to have taken away the impression that Louis was tacitly supportive of his campaign. Nothing could have been further from the truth; the king of France was clearly spooked by Henry’s show of force and outright aggression against a fellow vassal, and marched into Toulouse to organise its defence on the premise that he was protecting his sister. Placing himself in Henry’s way was a desperate measure, but an effective one. For a vassal to attack his lord was tantamount to treason; yet Henry could not simply abandon the campaign because he was acting in his wife’s interests. The chief ‘hawk’ amongst his advisors was Becket – possibly because the chancellor had invested heavily in the campaign, not only in advocating the appropriation of Toulouse in the first place, but also in generating sufficient cash to bankroll the expedition. Contemporary writers suggest that Becket was advocating the assault and capture of the city, and with it the king of France in person.

This was dangerous and inflammatory advice, and Henry sensibly chose to ignore it. Instead, throughout the remainder of the summer and early autumn his forces raided the area around Toulouse, capturing castles and destroying crops in the hope that the war of attrition would weaken the count. However, the slash and burn tactics failed and in September Henry’s army withdrew from the region, leaving Quercy in Becket’s hands where he adopted a ruthless policy of suppression. Henry returned to the north only to find that, in his absence, Louis’s brothers had undertaken raids into Normandy; in retaliation, Henry quickly mounted punitive strikes against the French royal demesne. When the dust finally settled with the onset of winter, a truce was agreed – but Henry had suffered real damage in terms of his relationship with Louis.

The Toulouse campaign was the act of an over-confident, over-powerful man and, unsurprisingly, alienated his liege lord – Louis had been shown a glimpse of the future if Henry was allowed to continue unchecked. Doubtless the words of Pepin the Short echoed through the ages to haunt Louis – ‘Who should be king, he who has the title, or he who has the power?’ – creating an alarming parallel between Henry’s relentless rise, and the overthrow of the Merovingian monarchy by the Carolingian mayors of the palace in the mid eighth century. To shore up his position, Louis decided to build alliances that might make Henry stop and think twice before embarking on a repeat military adventure in the south. Thus after Louis’s second wife, Constance, died in 1160, he arranged to marry Adela, sister to Theobald count of Blois and Henry count of Champagne. This was a major shift in the diplomatic landscape – alongside the count of Flanders, a formidable power bloc opposed to the Angevin conglomeration had been formed, with an extended front line along the eastern borders of Normandy, Maine and Touraine as well as a hostile coastline that blocked the quickest routes between England and the continent. Not for the first time, Henry used his family to claw back the political advantage. Days before Louis was due to marry Adela, Henry arranged for his young son Henry and Louis’s daughter Margaret to be wed on 2 November 1160, and seized control of the Norman Vexin in accordance with the alliance first agreed two years previously. More skirmishes broke out, mainly instigated by the house of Blois; but with all-out war looking increasingly likely in spring 1161 and both sides beginning to mobilise their troops along the border, the two kings stepped back from the brink and a peace treaty was arranged at Fréteval.


Thereafter, the 1160s became a power struggle between the two families and their allies, with flashpoints in areas where Louis’s plans for territorial expansion beyond the Île de France clashed with Henry’s exercise of dormant or lost rights – not just in the far south, but also in other border regions such as Auvergne and Berry. Although Henry was infuriated with the ongoing Becket affair in England, this was merely an irritating sideshow; for him, the main concern was a growing unrest amongst the various vassal states. Having spent three years putting English affairs in order and suppressing another Welsh revolt, he returned to the continent in March 1166 and would stay for the next four years. The situation had been changed by the birth of a male heir, Philip, to Louis on 22 August 1165, therefore renewing the hopes of the Capetian monarchy and dramatically reducing the importance of the marriage of Henry the younger and Margaret. Emboldened by the change in his dynastic fortunes, Louis began to encourage internal opposition to Henry within his lands, and took every opportunity to cause mischief – such as offering support to Becket in November 1166. In turn, Henry began to use his large family as diplomatic bargaining chips and took increasingly drastic action to shore up his position. Faced with growing discontent in Brittany, Henry marched into the duchy in force during the summer of 1166, deposed Duke Conan and betrothed his third son Geoffrey – aged seven – to Conan’s infant daughter, Constance; the Breton barons reluctantly paid homage to their new master in the autumn, but were not happy about the turn of events and discontented mutterings against Henry continued.

The more Henry turned the screw, the greater the opposition he produced. In particular, the situation worsened in Aquitaine, for several reasons. First, the various component territories within the duchy had never been fully integrated – Poitou and Gascony remained largely separate entities, with key counties opposed to Angevin rule. The duke’s authority was therefore similar to that of the king of France – nominal overlordship with few actual powers, making it very difficult for Henry to apply similar governmental practice in the south as he had in England and the north. Indeed, during 1167, the counts of Angoulême and La Marche offered to cede from Aquitanian authority altogether and hold allegiance directly from Louis, whilst the count of Auvergne appealed to the court of the French king rather than Henry’s ducal court – ironically mirroring the expansion of royal justice over local courts in England. Henry, however, did not appreciate being on the receiving end of such tactics and invaded in force in April 1167; but diversionary raids by Louis into Normandy dragged him back north, where a truce was eventually concluded in August. Further punitive raids against the mutinous Bretons were brought to a premature halt when news reached Henry that his mother, Matilda, had died on 10 September.

However, another reason for Henry’s problems in the south lay closer to home, as tensions within his family began to mount. Earlier in 1167 Henry contracted a marriage alliance between his daughter Matilda and Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony and Bavaria, one of the most powerful German princes in the Holy Roman Empire; the aim was to unsettle the Capet–Blois alliance, as well as exert pressure on Pope Alexander during the Becket dispute. Matilda remained with her mother Eleanor in England for most of the year until September, when it was time for them to leave for Normandy as part of the onwards journey to her new husband’s court. However, the departure of their eldest daughter effectively marked the end of Henry and Eleanor’s fifteen-year marriage. Eleanor returned to England and, in December, gathered up all her possessions and set sail for Argentan, where Henry held his Christmas court. We do not know how the conversation between them transpired, but by the end of it they had agreed to live apart; Eleanor headed home to Poitiers, escorted by an armed guard. Henry accompanied her on the road south as he sought to break the power of the rebellious Lusignan family, one of the key dynasties of the region who had long considered themselves to be semi-independent of the ruler of Aquitaine.

It is tempting to portray the split as acrimonious, with the cause of marital disharmony commonly attributed to Eleanor’s discovery that Henry was having an affair with Rosamund de Clifford, the daughter of one of his Worcestershire barons, Walter de Clifford. According to many accounts, Henry had become infatuated with ‘the fair Rosamund’ who was one of the most beautiful women of the age and built for her a labyrinth or ‘bower’ in the grounds of Woodstock, a favourite royal residence, where she could hide so that he could visit her in secret. It has even been suggested that Eleanor was forced to give birth to John at Beaumont palace, Oxfordshire, on Christmas Eve 1166 because Rosamund had taken up residence at Woodstock. As with all legends, once fact is untangled from the fiction, the reality is somewhat different. Henry did indeed have a relationship with Rosamund, but it is almost certain that he met her after Eleanor had left, at least no earlier than 1170 and possibly as late as 1173. It seems he did build a house for her near Woodstock named Everswell, constructed around a natural spring that fed a series of pools, and surrounded by elaborate courtyards. However, she was only one of many concubines in the years following Eleanor’s departure; Henry lived openly with her after the 1173–4 rebellion, not before.

The indiscretions of the king were fairly well known – tales of ‘nocturnal activities’ at the itinerant court were rife, whores were present and actively ‘managed’, and several liaisons with noble-born women were suspected, such as with the daughter of Breton magnate Eudo de Porhoet, who refused to serve Henry against Louis in 1168–9 because his daughter was ‘with child’. Henry’s first ‘natural’ son, Geoffrey, was born around the time of his marriage in 1152; Eleanor seems to have to have been sanguine about the situation to the point where Geoffrey was formally recognised and was appointed chancellor in 1181 and, under his half-brother King Richard, rose to become archbishop of York. Consequently, he attracted particular opprobrium from various clerical chroniclers on account of that fact that his mother, named Ykennai, was ‘a common harlot who stooped to all uncleanness’. Indeed, after Eleanor had moved back to Poitiers, she was informed of the birth of another royal bastard, William Longespee (the future earl of Salisbury) around 1170, whose mother was Ida de Tosny. Eleanor could hardly boast a squeaky-clean past herself, given the rumours that continued to circulate about her inappropriately close relationship with her uncle Raymond of Antioch, as well as stories that she had slept with Henry’s own father, Geoffrey – who pointedly advised his son to steer clear of her.

Instead, Eleanor’s decision to return home was fuelled by a much more powerful grievance that had been simmering away since the early days of their marriage, when it became clear that Henry’s preferred system of government did not require a powerful regent to act in his place. Prior to her wedding to Henry, and certainly in the early days before the disastrous crusade, Eleanor had enjoyed an exalted position at the French court, virtually acting as co-ruler with Louis. After her humiliation in the Holy Land and subsequent divorce, Eleanor doubtless thought her handsome young husband might be willing to restore her to a position of power. There is some evidence in the pipe rolls that demonstrate she was given English lands in Devon in her own right, thus securing an independent income; and Henry trusted her to authorise documents and royal expenditure with the use of her own seal during some of his absences on the continent during the 1150s. For example, the pipe roll for 1159 (covering the period when Henry was on the Toulouse campaign) shows that Eleanor used her seal to authorise the transfer of various funds for her children’s expenses, and seized the opportunity to purchase robes for herself worth £80 – a vast fortune in today’s money, at a conservative estimate around £60,000. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this extravagant spending, the main responsibility for royal government in England fell to the king’s trusted team – the justiciars, chancellor and exchequer officials – leaving Eleanor side-lined and virtually anonymous in the political chronicles, other than appearing as a footnote when she gave birth to yet another royal child.

Eleanor’s return home to Poitiers therefore allowed her an autonomy that she had not enjoyed since she was a girl growing up in her father’s Aquitainian court; the deployment of his wife as ruler of Aquitaine seems to have been part of Henry’s wider strategy to articulate clearly how his lands would be divided after his death. Initially, Henry left behind a military commander, Earl Patrick of Salisbury, to ‘assist’ with the government of the duchy; despite Henry’s attack on the Lusignan strongholds in early 1168, discontent with Angevin rule was still rife. Indeed, Eleanor’s return to Aquitaine nearly ended in disaster on 27 March 1168, when Geoffrey and Guy de Lusignan made a daring attempt to capture the duchess while she was out riding with a small party of courtiers. Luckily, a military escort that included Patrick and his nephew, a young knight called William Marshal, accompanied Eleanor as she travelled. Before the ambush could be fully sprung, Patrick scrambled Eleanor and her attendants to safety in a nearby castle; however, on trying to mount his horse to confront the assailants, he was run through with a lance and killed instantly. William Marshal fought furiously, but was eventually captured. On hearing of his valiant defence in her name, Eleanor paid a ransom for William’s release and supplied him with horses, arms, money and fine clothes. The reputation of one of the most notable knights throughout the middle ages was thus born.

Eleanor’s sojourn in Aquitaine is often linked to another legend – the creation of a ‘court of love’ at Poitiers, where in the warmer climes, and inspired by memories of her family’s colourful and romantic past, Eleanor encouraged an atmosphere that was markedly different to that of the itinerant household of her husband, or indeed the formalities of Louis’s court in Paris. In a passage written about her after the 1173–4 rebellion, it was claimed that, ‘Once tender and delicate, you enjoyed a royal freedom, you abounded with riches, young girls surrounded you playing the tambourine and the harp, singing pleasant songs. Indeed you enjoyed the sound of the organ, and you leaped to the beating of drums.’ Equally, Eleanor is said to have cultivated an atmosphere at court in which troubadours, poets and writers extolled the virtues of amorous behaviour, and encouraged the emergence of a romanticised code of chivalry that her knights would follow.

Sadly, the stories seem to have been an exaggeration. We know she was visited by Bernard de Ventadorn, a leading troubadour and ‘master singer’; and Arnaut Guilhem de Marsan accompanied her when she escorted her daughter, also named Eleanor, to the border of Spain for her marriage to Alfonso VIII of Castile. However, beyond the duty to provide young knights with instruction, a function that all courts performed, there is no evidence that Eleanor’s court was any more amorous than others, and certainly less so than that of her famous troubadour grandfather, William IX. Instead, Eleanor focused on the business of government, issuing writs, letters and charters under her own seal and travelling around the duchy – doubtless with growing dismay when she saw the impact of her husband’s brutal rule on ‘her’ lands.

Eleanor was able to exert a far greater influence over the upbringing of her children, especially her favourite, Richard, who accompanied her to Aquitaine when she left Henry. From the age of nine, these were formative years in Richard’s development and he soon grew to love the lands of the south. Eleanor used his time at her court to groom him for power as her preferred successor. In contrast, the young Henry and Geoffrey only visited briefly, whilst her other two children, Joan and John, remained in Fontevraud, where they were attached to the monastery for their education. Eleanor’s close relationship with her children was very different to that of their father as they grew older.

Angevin Dynasty: A family at war II

The root of family discord came, ironically, out of a peace conference held between Henry and Louis at Montmirail in February 1169, an attempt to end two years of increasing warfare along the extended border. As part of the entente, Henry clarified his plans for the division of his lands after his death. His eldest son would succeed him in England (with Scotland and Wales still viewed as client states), Normandy and Anjou; Geoffrey would continue as duke of Brittany, but would be required to pay homage to the young Henry, formally recognising that Brittany was a vassal state of Normandy; Richard was confirmed as Eleanor’s successor in Aquitaine and, as such, would hold the duchy directly from the king of France – recognising its independence from Henry’s other lands and strongly suggesting that Eleanor’s views had at least been taken into consideration. To confirm the arrangement, Louis’s daughter Alice was betrothed to Richard and entrusted to Henry’s safe keeping until such time as the marriage could be conducted. The French king agreed he would support Henry against his rebellious barons across the various territories in France, should the need arise. Aside from the sour taste left by Becket’s attention-seeking performance, the conference could have been a great success.

By clarifying plans for the succession, Henry merely created a rod for his own back. There were several unanswered questions, not least concerning the lack of provision for John – although probably apocryphal, the story that Henry nicknamed him ‘lack-land’ when he was born carried an unfortunate ring of truth about the situation in 1169. When Henry fell seriously ill in 1170 and feared death, he made his will, confirming the arrangements made at Montmirail but granting John the county of Mortain in Normandy and entrusting him to the custody of the young Henry, until John was of age to take possession. Matters were made worse when Louis resumed his support for Becket and, increasingly distrustful of Henry, continued to stir up trouble where possible in his lands once more. This included a new tactic, whereby Louis reached out to Henry’s sons on the grounds that they would one day be vassals of the French crown. It was against this background, and the increasing diplomatic tension caused by the escalation of the dispute with Becket and the pope, that Henry decided to follow Carolingian tradition and crown the young Henry during his own lifetime. Once again, Eleanor was involved in the decision to proceed and subsequent planning of the ceremony. Indeed, she travelled north to Normandy and was entrusted with a special mission: to prevent Becket or any of his representatives from crossing to England in an attempt to disrupt or even prevent the ceremony from taking place.

Aside from the queen and the archbishop of Canterbury, there was another notable absentee – young Henry’s wife, Margaret, was not invited and thus could not be jointly crowned with her husband, despite the fact that £26 – tens of thousands in today’s money – had been spent on robes for her and her household as part of the coronation preparations. This was almost certainly a deliberate snub and well-aimed insult towards her father Louis, which had the desired effect of enraging the Capetian king. Yet, despite the diplomatic storm clouds and wrangling over the guest list, the occasion was still solemn and magnificent. The pipe rolls provide evidence of great expenditure on the ceremony, which was conducted at Westminster Abbey. The king authorised the purchase of rich clothes for the courtiers and linen vestments for the new king, with all arrangements placed in the hands of his trusted household administrator Edward Blount. The young Henry’s regalia consisted of a crown, sceptre and ceremonial swords; at the age of fifteen, he had not yet been knighted so would not have had spurs. Nevertheless, he cut a striking figure – ‘tall but well proportioned, broad-shouldered with a long and elegant neck, pale and freckled skin, bright and wide blue eyes, and a thick mop of the reddish gold hair’.

In the presence of the archbishop of York, gripping the altar with both hands, the young Henry swore on the Gospels and holy relics that he would uphold the liberty and dignity of the church. He was then anointed with oil of chrism and proclaimed king, with many chroniclers thereafter naming him Henry III. A lavish banquet, with newly gilded plates, was then held in the palace, and the old king honoured his son by serving food to him in person, rather than by a servant. Perhaps it was meant as a jocular exchange, fuelled by a healthy intake of wine, but when Henry commented that it was not always a prince could be served by a king, his son replied that it was nothing unusual for the son of a count to serve the king – a grave insult to his father’s dignity and an early sign of the discontent to come. Henry certainly refused to grant the young king any lands in his new kingdom, or involve him in the machinery of government at all.

Henry’s mood on his return to the continent was thunderous, if accounts of an argument with Roger, bishop of Worcester, are anything to go by. The bishop was a known supporter of Becket, and Eleanor, with the assistance of the seneschal of Normandy, had prevented him from sailing to England for the coronation. However, he was also ‘family’ – the son of Henry’s half-uncle, Earl Robert of Gloucester, and his absence was noted by the king who confronted him angrily when they met a few weeks later outside Falaise in Normandy:

‘What a traitor you have proved to be’, he said, ‘I sent you a personal invitation to my son’s coronation, and told you when it would be; but you did not come. You can have no regard for me, or my son’s honour. I’ll see that you lose the revenues of your see for this. You are not your father’s son. To think that we were both taught by him the essentials of good behaviour.’

‘That is fine, coming from you’, replied Bishop Roger:

What do you care that my father, Earl Robert, fought for you sixteen years against King Stephen, and even suffered imprisonment on your behalf. Little good has it done my elder brother. The earldom of Gloucester was worth a thousand knights until you cut it down to two hundred and forty. And as for my younger brother – you have reduced him to such penury that he has had to take service with the Knights Hospitaller. That’s how you treat your kinsmen and friends. That is what people receive for serving you. Take my revenues if you will; although I should have thought you might have been satisfied with those of the archbishop and the vacant bishoprics and abbeys – surely that’s enough on your conscience.

One of Henry’s household then took it upon himself to criticise the bishop, but the king turned on him instead, crying:

Do you think, you rascal, that if I say what I choose to my bishop and kinsman, either you or any other man may dishonour him with your tongue or threaten him? I can hardly keep my hands from your eyes; neither you nor the others may say one word against the bishop.

The two men finally discussed the reasons why the bishop had been unable to attend; Henry, in great anger, asked if Eleanor and his seneschal were to blame for Roger’s non-appearance, and the bishop’s reaction provides an insight into the state of relations between Henry and Eleanor: ‘Not the queen, lest perchance out of fear and respect for you she suppress the truth and your anger burn more hotly against me; or if she should confess it to be true, then you might rage madly and rudely against that noble lady.’

Despite the bishop’s fears, Eleanor continued to take an active role in family affairs – indeed, she rose to prominence during Henry’s sickness in early August 1170 that left him confined to his bed for nearly two months, sufficiently fearful of death that he made his will. During that time, she oversaw the departure of her daughter Eleanor in September; the marriage had been brokered as part of another diplomatic initiative by Henry to isolate the count of Toulouse from Louis by building a ring of strategic allies to hem him in. The young Eleanor’s dowry was to be Gascony; although she was probably consulted over the decision, Eleanor senior was not happy that her patrimonial lands were being dismembered around her – even though the bitter pill had been sugar-coated with the caveat that Gascony would only leave Aquitainian control after Eleanor’s death. Nevertheless, there was little sign of disharmony at the end of the year, when Eleanor and Henry were joined by their sons at the Christmas court held at Bure le Roi – the fateful occasion when news of Becket’s foolhardy excommunication of all bishops who had participated in the young Henry’s coronation reached the king, triggering his incandescent outburst that started the chain of events that would lead to Becket’s murder on 29 December.

Henry’s reaction to the news of Becket’s death was almost certainly genuine; but he was not the only member of his family who was deeply shocked and affected. His son, the young king, had been brought up and educated as a boy in Becket’s court when he was still chancellor. The young Henry would have received lessons in knightly conduct, at which he clearly excelled given later accounts of his martial prowess at tournaments – and he grew into a dashing, handsome youth loved by all, for which some credit can be laid at Becket’s door. Equally, he was instructed in the latest theological and political ideas, including the works of John of Salisbury with whom Becket was close. Notwithstanding the fact that the young king refused to see Becket on his return to England in 1170, he was deeply affected by the sudden and brutal death of such an influential character, and blamed his father. Indeed, such was the young king’s affection towards his old master that he was the first royal visitor to Becket’s tomb at Canterbury in 1172, flinging himself prostrate to the ground, ‘overcome with feelings of guilt and remorse’.

His father, meanwhile, was equally remorseful but took a different course of action. With the situation on the continent looking perilous, and his enemies baying for his blood, Henry decided to kill two birds with one stone and launch an expedition to conquer Ireland – an attempt to curry favour with the pope, given Alexander’s concerns over the state of Irish Christianity, as well as a potential opportunity to gain land for his son John, though he was not yet five years old at the time. The political situation in Ireland was complicated, with the high king nominally ruling over regional or tribal under-kings; however, there was no central administration or common set of laws, with eight different forms of permissible marriage that prompted popes to describe the Irish as ‘ignorant and barbarous people’. Henry had indirectly meddled in Irish politics in 1167 when he issued letters patent permitting Dermot, king of Leinster, to recruit ‘free lances’ in his struggle with the king of Connacht. Various members of the leading Anglo-Welsh marcher families, used to border conflict, crossed to Ireland – particularly younger sons or those who had been disinherited after the anarchy. One man in particular, Richard de Clare, known as Strongbow, flourished – mainly because he married Dermot’s daughter and, after Dermot’s death in 1171, claimed the title king of Leinster for himself – although he immediately became embroiled in a bitter struggle with Rory O’Connor, the king of Connacht and nominal high king. Strongbow only saved his position by winning a stunning military victory when it looked like the Normans would be ejected from Ireland. It was at this moment – on 18 October 1171 – that Henry landed with a show of force sufficient to ensure that most of the native kings (with the exception of Rory O’Connor and those in the north) and Strongbow submitted to him. Pope Alexander was delighted at the news. Strongbow was confirmed as king in Leinster, but Henry left behind his own royal garrisons and administration, based in Dublin, and established other Norman ‘kings’ such as Hugh de Lacy in Meath.

Henry’s return from Ireland allowed him to settle his dispute with the pope on more favourable terms than could have been expected in 1171, and he then returned to the management of his continental lands. In Normandy, he conducted enquiries into the lands that his grandfather, Henry I, had held, and ensured that they were returned to his hands, ‘and by this means he doubled his income’. Once more, he met up with Eleanor and discussed Richard’s inheritance, agreeing that – as with the young Henry – it was appropriate that he should be invested as duke. Accordingly, two grand ceremonies were planned to mark this transfer of power in June 1172. The first took place at Poitiers, where Richard was presented with a lance and banner, traditional symbols of authority; then at Limoges, in a more solemn affair, he was invested with the sacred ring of Saint Valerie, as the bishop placed a golden circlet on his head and handed him a rod and a sword – a reference to the post-Roman times when Aquitaine was first a province, and then a kingdom in its own right.

Yet every move Henry made to confirm his commitment to sharing his lands around the family caused more problems. Henry was unwilling to relinquish the title duke of Aquitaine, so it was not quite the transfer of power that Richard might have expected; he was known as count of Poitou, although Eleanor permitted him to take control of many of the administrative aspects of government. This caused deep resentment between the young Henry and Richard, as the older sibling grew bitterly jealous of the autonomy of his younger brother – he had still not been provided with any lands, and it looked like he was slipping further and further down the queue; his brother Geoffrey had an equal cause for complaint, given that Conan of Brittany had died in 1171 and he was still unmarried to Conan’s daughter Constance.

The year ended with Eleanor and Henry together at his Christmas court in Mirebeau, Anjou; however, like the weather, the atmosphere was frosty – mainly because of yet another attempt to isolate the count of Toulouse through a brokered marriage with a nearby neighbour. This time, Henry suggested to Count Humbert of Maurienne – ruler of lands which bordered Provence – that his daughter should marry John. When Henry met Humbert at Montferrat in late January 1173, the count of Toulouse and the king of Aragon-Barcelona joined the conference and made it known that they were eager to settle their differences. Although the marriage did not take place in the end – the death of Humbert’s daughter being one major stumbling block – it had the desired effect; at the betrothal in February, the count of Toulouse recognised Henry as his overlord and performed homage as a vassal of Aquitaine.

This should have been a moment of triumph for Henry, but in reality it was a massive blunder on several levels. First, the count of Toulouse paid homage for the county to Henry and Richard but not Eleanor, an incredibly insensitive insult to her dignity as hereditary duchess, undermining the autonomy that she had been allowed since 1168. Even more damaging was the assignment of the Angevin castles of Chinon, Loudun and Mirebeau to John – a traditional endowment for a second son, and identical to the grant that Henry’s own brother Geoffrey had received until his untimely rebellion at the start of the reign. The grant, along with 5,000 marks cash, was made without any consultation with the young Henry, who viewed them as part of ‘his’ inheritance and further rubbed his nose in the fact that he had been given neither lands nor cash. A bitter quarrel erupted between father and son, in which all the young king’s grievances came out. The king refused to extend his allowance or grant him land; young Henry retorted that, at eighteen years of age, he was already two years older than when his father had been invested as duke of Normandy, he was tired of Henry choosing his household staff and courtiers, and the lack of suitable funding meant that he was unable to maintain a proper court for himself and his wife. As with many family arguments, once started it was hard to stop – young Henry demanded that he be given at least one of his father’s lands to govern, and followed it up with the real bombshell – this was something that his father-in-law, Louis, supported, as did the barons of Normandy and England. Stunned, Henry turned to the count of Toulouse, who confirmed that he had heard rumours that a plot to depose the king was indeed planned.

Even as his anger cooled, Henry gathered his household knights around him and headed back into Aquitaine as he sought to secure the key castles in case the stories were true, before setting off to Normandy with young Henry, a virtual prisoner. They reached Chinon castle on 8 March 1173, and settled down for the night after a long day’s ride. However, young Henry managed to evade the courtiers – or perhaps used his famous charm to persuade them to let him escape – and rode hell for leather to Paris, where he was received warmly at Louis’s court. Henry was furious, and sent envoys to his son, but Louis refused to let them speak with young Henry, rejecting out of hand the demand that he should accompany them back to his father. ‘Who is it that sends such a message to me?’ asked Louis, when he received the formal request from the lead envoy. ‘The king of England’ was the reply. ‘What nonsense,’ Louis scoffed:

Behold! The king of England is here present, and he sends no message to me through you. But even if you still call king his father who was formerly king of England, know that he, as king, is dead. And though he may still act as king, this shall speedily be remedied, for he resigned his kingdom to his son, as all the world bears witness.

Soon after, Geoffrey and Richard left Eleanor’s court in Aquitaine and joined young Henry in Paris, where they also swore allegiance to Louis. The family dispute had just turned into a full-blown war.


The struggle between Henry and his family was not unique in the history of the post-Roman West; the fragmentation of the Carolingian empire into the splintered Frankish lands was driven by centuries of fraternal conflict as territories broke into ever-smaller blocs. What made the Angevin conflict so noteworthy was that Henry’s entire family turned against him, and that so many other powers were dragged into the conflict as a result of interconnected geopolitical alliances, brokered primarily by Louis – the medieval equivalent of the way the balance of power was held in Europe on the eve of the 1914–18 Great War. After Henry’s envoys had been summarily dispatched from Paris, Louis summoned a grand council of his leading magnates. Having declared formally that Henry had been stripped of his possessions in France, Louis ensured they pledged to support young Henry in his endeavours and recognised the transfer of power from father to son; equally, as the duke of Normandy and count of Anjou, young Henry swore not to make peace with his father without the permission of his new overlord. Having taken such a drastic step, the only logical way forward was to empower young Henry with the necessary administrative tools; so Louis arranged for a seal to be cut for the young king so that he could issue orders, make land grants and draw up charters within the lands in which Louis had recognised his authority.

However, it was all very well making plans, sat in the luxury and relative safety in Paris; to take actual control required military intervention. Thus young Henry and Louis started to assemble an army. This depended upon the involvement of neighbouring states, partly by drawing on familial ties but also through the promise of the grant of estates across Henry’s lands that had previously been denied them – this drew the support of the counts of Flanders and Boulogne. Louis also turned to his brothers-in-law, who had been baying for Henry’s blood ever since Becket’s murder. An ‘eastern front’, from the northernmost tip of Normandy to the Blois–Aquitaine border further south, was therefore primed for military conflict. However, a ‘northern front’ was cultivated as well, as young Henry reversed his father’s renegotiation of the Anglo-Scottish border in 1157 and promised William, king of Scots, the whole of Northumbria as far south as the Tyne.

Yet even with such a broad range of foes ranged against Henry, for the attempted coup to succeed it required the cooperation and support of the leading magnates in the territories over which the young Henry sought to gain control. The chroniclers state that, ‘Nearly all the earls and barons of England, Normandy, Aquitaine, Anjou and Brittany arose against the king of England the father.’ It was certainly the case that, in some parts of Henry’s commonwealth, his brutal acts of suppression or dismantling of old autonomous rights in favour of centralised power had created the right environment for revolt; the young king found support particularly on the Norman–Breton borders, through Maine and in large parts of Aquitaine. In England, some leading nobles took arms against the old king, especially the Midlands earls of Leicester, Derby and Chester; and Hugh Bigod, earl of Norfolk, with his long-standing grudge against the king. Yet this was not a wholesale uprising against a tyrannical ruler, and this is testimony to the effectiveness of Henry’s administrative system and its reliance on process and protocol rather than personality. Although many of the rebels still sought greater influence and control of lands they still considered to be ‘theirs’, the way Henry stamped his authority across England at the start of the reign had snuffed out most sources of grievance that might have been allowed to fester from the time of Stephen – with the exception of Bigod. Nevertheless, the increasing burden of royal authority had created a general feeling of discontent, and many decided to adopt a ‘wait and see’ strategy rather than rally round the king: ‘There were only a few barons at that time in England who were not wavering in their allegiance to the king and ready to defect,’ according to William of Newburgh.

Shorn of his family, Henry turned to his trusted advisors amongst his itinerant court, and key officials in England, to decide what to do – given that war could break out on any front, and the king could not be everywhere at once. So, whilst he took some precautionary steps, such as placing all the royal castles in England on a war footing, he also waited to see what would happen – challenging his enemies to make the first move. The blow fell on Normandy, the heart of Henry’s possessions and key to any successful invasion of England. The initial assaults came in May, first at Pacy and then an attack on the castle of Gournay led by the young king at the head of his first army; but these were little more than probing raids. The main assault was unleashed the following month. Philip of Flanders crossed the northern border at Aumale, which fell very easily – raising suspicions that the count of Aumale was part of the conspiracy; Louis invaded further south and besieged Verneuil, with the earl of Leicester and Henry’s longstanding Norman opponent William de Tancarville in support. Meanwhile, Breton rebels crossed the border and marched on Avranches, aided by Hugh, earl of Chester, and key Norman castellan Ralph de Fougères. Now that Henry could see what was planned, he coolly assessed the situation and made a flying visit to England on the royal ship Esnecca, filling it with coin from the royal treasury at Westminster so that he could hire more mercenaries from Brabant. The Norman defences held; indeed, the fortunes of war swung his way. Philip of Flanders moved on from Aumale to capture Driencourt, but his brother Matthew, count of Boulogne, was hit in the knee by a crossbow bolt and was seriously wounded. Infection set in and, despite medical attention, he died a few days later. Distraught, Philip abandoned the campaign and left for his own lands in mourning.

On hearing the news, Henry decided it was time to mobilise his army, and in early August he marched towards Verneuil to confront Louis directly in battle – all deference to his overlord shown in the Toulouse campaign was cast aside. Louis decided to despatch an armed party of envoys to see if the rumours of Henry’s advance were serious; the unfortunate group encountered Henry on the road, in full military gear, leading a vanguard towards the French camp issuing orders and displaying supreme confidence that he would prevail. When the envoys nervously ‘informed him that the king of France wished to receive an assurance concerning the battle, with a fierce countenance and in a terrible voice he replied, “Go, tell your king that I am here in person.”’ The message was duly relayed to Louis, along with an account of the ‘ferocity and stubborn reaction of the monarch who was even then rapidly drawing nigh’. Indeed, Henry’s forces mounted the crest of the hill overlooking the town on 9 August, to find parts of it burning as Louis and his magnates broke their siege and beat a hasty retreat; the rearguard of the French army were butchered in the evening twilight.

Having then marched east to secure Damville, Henry next headed for Rouen to regroup, while sending some of his mercenaries west to challenge the Bretons; they, too, retreated under the onslaught, suffering heavy casualties as they hastened to the town of Dol. On hearing the news that the rebels were besieged, Henry covered the distance from Rouen in only two days, appearing suddenly out of nowhere when least expected – his enemies thought he was still fighting in the eastern marches of Normandy. Trapped inside the citadel, the rebels begged for mercy, which Henry granted on 20 August – their lives were spared, but two of the ringleaders of the war, Hugh of Chester and Ralph de Fougères, were imprisoned. With the rebel campaign faltering, the earl of Leicester attempted a diversionary expedition to England at the end of September, taking a force of Flemings to Suffolk where they landed under the protection of Hugh Bigod and assembled at Framlingham. The opposition to the rebels in England had been led by the justiciar, Richard de Lucy; his focus had been on capturing the chief rebel stronghold, Leicester. However, he had been drawn north by the invasion of William the Lion at the head of a Scottish army that raided through Northumbria into Yorkshire. Having driven them back, de Lucy was forced to march south again to confront the new challenge in East Anglia. In the marshes at Fornham, not far from Bury St Edmunds, de Lucy’s army routed the rebels, even though the royalists were outnumbered; many insurgents died in the fighting, some drowned in the bogs as they tried to flee, and the locals literally waded in to the fight in support of the royal cause. As at Dol, another of the rebel leaders, the earl of Leicester, was captured.

Having secured Normandy and, via his deputy, repulsed the initial threat in England, Henry shored up the Angevin defences along the border with Blois by moving into Touraine and ensuring all key castles were handed over into his control. With the main campaigning season in the north over for the year, Henry headed south to Poitiers from Chinon to tackle the rebellious barons of Aquitaine, who were led by his son Richard, as well as confront his wife given his suspicions that she was behind the actions of his sons. Poitevin chroniclers certainly rejoiced at the uprising against Henry – ‘Exult, Aquitaine! Rejoice, Poitou, that the sceptre of the king of the North be removed from you!’ However, in a surprise attack, Henry took Saintes, where Richard had been based, forcing him to hole up in Geoffrey de Rancon’s ‘impregnable’ château de Taillebourg. Fearing her husband’s wrath, Eleanor fled to Fay-la-Vineuse, her uncle’s lordship, seeking his protection; but he had already abandoned his lands and gone to Paris. Eleanor decided to follow him, and made careful plans to slip through Henry’s military cordons. ‘Having changed from her woman’s clothes’ to adopt the dress of a man, her luck eventually ran out on the road to Chartres; she was captured, brought before Henry, and then locked up in Chinon castle at the king’s pleasure with no hope of release or rescue. Her supporters suffered far worse fates: those that were ‘taken from their lands [were] condemned to a foul death, others deprived of sight, others are forced to wander and flee to scattered places’.

There was little more Henry could do in the south, so he returned to his northern lands. Apart from a surprise attack by Louis against Séez in January 1174, which was repulsed by the citizens, there was no further action throughout the spring. The uneasy stalemate continued; whilst Henry remained in Normandy, the allies were unwilling to attack. Diversionary tactics were required to dislodge him, hence the second invasion by William the Lion, with the support of northern rebels led by Roger de Mowbray, shortly after Easter 1174. Part of the Scottish forces marched south under the command of William’s brother, David, who reinforced the garrison at Leicester and led successful raids against Huntingdon, Northampton and Nottingham. As already seen, the northern earls led the royal resistance to William’s incursions that culminated in his capture outside Alnwick. At the same time Henry’s natural son Geoffrey Plantagenet besieged de Mowbray at Axholme; having managed to escape the encircling army, de Mowbray was captured by local peasants on his way to Leicester. To boost the flagging rebel efforts, Philip of Flanders let it be known that he was planning to invade by mid July with the young king, sending over an advance party of Flemings who landed in East Anglia on 15 May and joined up with Hugh Bigod; they captured Norwich. It was under these circumstances that Henry decided that he should return to England, eventually persuaded by the panicked message he received from one of his trusted deputies in England, Richard de Ilchester. However, he ensured that his Norman castles were secure before sailing from Barfleur on 7 July. His uneasiness was justified; this was exactly the opportunity that the confederates had been waiting for. Philip of Flanders re-joined Louis and together they launched a desperate attack on Normandy, safe in the knowledge that Henry was not present. By 22 July, they were encamped outside the formidable defences of the ducal capital, Rouen.

Henry’s business in England had to be concluded swiftly so that he could return to face the crisis in Normandy, which was why the news of William the Lion’s capture was so welcome. Freed from the threat in the north and reassured that yet another rebel leader was his prisoner, the king marched to the relief of Huntingdon. The town quickly surrendered when Henry appeared in person outside its gates, so he moved on to Northampton, which also abandoned its resistance. At this point the rebellion in England collapsed, and Henry was able to summon and secure the submission of all remaining nobles.

With the country back under royal control, Henry sailed to Barfleur on 8 August and immediately set out for Rouen. Louis’s army was not making much headway, and had not even been able to invest the citadel fully; the western gate was still open and supplies were still entering via the river Seine. A truce had been agreed on 10 August so that both sides could celebrate the feast of St Lawrence; it was, after all, very early in the siege and there were plenty of provisions available for the citizens and besiegers to enjoy the occasion. However, at the insistence of the count of Flanders, Louis was persuaded to use the truce as the cover for a surprise assault. Fortunately two clerks, stationed high up in a church tower within the citadel, noticed activity in the French camp and rang the bell to alert the commander of the defences, just in time to prevent an attempt to scale the walls. It was to be Louis’s last chance of capturing the ducal capital; Henry arrived the next morning with a sizeable force of mercenaries, and entered the city. In his mind, there was only one option – to attack. A party of Welsh scouts were sent to survey the enemy’s encampment, and from hiding positions in the woods around Rouen launched a raid on the French supply train, causing great damage. Henry then ordered a ditch between the city walls and the French camp to be filled in so that his entire force of knights could sweep out and attack. For the second time in the campaign, Louis refused to give battle and beat a hasty retreat. The great rebellion was at an end.


One aspect of particular note was the absence of young Henry and his brothers from the majority of the fighting, which made peace negotiations somewhat easier to conclude. However, the agreement that was reached on 30 September at Montlouis was between father and sons, and conveniently ignored the role that Louis had played in fomenting family discord in order to eject his over-mighty vassal from his continental lands. This act of diplomatic amnesia was accompanied by generous terms for the defeated rebels, winding the clock back to the status quo fifteen days before young Henry fled to Paris. Henry’s magnanimous attitude towards the confederates was criticised in many quarters for its leniency; furthermore, he stuck to the terms of the settlement – in contrast to his somewhat patchy reputation when it came to oath-breaking. The reason for his clemency was that the war had been a wake-up call, forcing him to confront the fact that his sons had indeed grown up and needed more freedom – never an easy moment for a parent, even more so when he has been running the family firm for twenty years. Henry and the young king therefore were publicly reconciled, and although the latter was forced to recognise the grants that his father had made to John – namely the county of Mortain, various sources of revenue from England, Normandy and Anjou, plus the Angevin castles – he was also given two castles in Normandy and an allowance. Geoffrey was granted half the revenues of Brittany, whilst Richard – who, on 23 September, had come from the south ‘with tears to prostrate himself at his father’s feet and crave his pardon’ – was confirmed as count of Poitou, allocated half the revenues of the county and allowed to hold territories in his own right.

Of more relevance, Henry handed Richard the task of subduing the rebellious nobles in Aquitaine – an irony given that Richard had played a leading part in stirring up trouble in Saintonge and Poitou in the first place. It was a clear sign that power had passed from Eleanor to Richard; yet without his mother’s influence, he struggled to make any headway for two years, returning to England in spring 1176 where a family conference was arranged at Winchester to discuss the situation – one of the first signs that Henry was adopting a more conciliar approach to the ‘federal’ government of his realms. Richard was given funds to hire mercenaries and promised the services of his older brother, Henry. This support, though, turned out to be of little use – having left England in April, the young king spent his time in Paris and only arrived in Aquitaine in midsummer, when he took part briefly in the siege of Châteauneuf before wandering off again. However, Richard proved his mettle, and routed the rebel forces led by the count of Angoulême near Bouteville before capturing the castle at Aixe belonging to the viscount of Limoges. He swept through Angoulême, besieging the city with the rebel leaders inside. After six days, the resistance crumbled and everyone surrendered. Richard sent leading Aquitainian nobles Count William of Angoulême, Viscount Aimer of Limoges, and the viscounts of Ventador and Chabanais to England. They were presented to Henry at Winchester on 21 September 1176: ‘Prostrating themselves at the feet of the king the father, they sued for mercy.’

However, there were some exceptions to the king’s amnesty. The simmering tension that had been growing between Henry and Eleanor since their separation in 1167 was now out in the open, and she remained in captivity. Once Henry had made up his mind in July 1174 to deal directly with the situation in England, he summoned his wife and she accompanied him on his voyage from Barfleur on 7 July. Whilst Henry knelt in penance at Canterbury, she was transferred to Salisbury castle, still securely held in royalist hands. For the next fifteen years she remained Henry’s prisoner, although it was more a form of house arrest as she moved from residence to residence in England, furnished with every luxury befitting a queen apart from her freedom. During this time Henry openly lived with Rosamund, attracting criticism for his brazen approach to his marital status, until her sudden death in 1176. Henry was genuinely upset, and helped pay for a tomb to be erected in the choir of the monastery church at Godstow.

Having spent so long shaping English government into a form he understood and that suited his needs, Henry was not about to soften his stance once he had regained his authority. As well as ensuring his wife would not politically embarrass him again, Henry could find no immediate forgiveness for some of his barons. The earls of Chester and Leicester languished in Henry’s prisons until January 1177, as did Ralph de Fougères; although they were then restored to their previous titles, key castles were withheld to ensure their power was weakened. The wily king also had other ways to impose a measure of vengeance, and he turned the screw in England via the administrative and judicial machinery he had assembled. In 1176, Henry issued the assize of Northampton, setting in train the general eyre of royal justices who were now empowered to impose even harsher penalties for criminal offences. Finally, the king also used the royal prerogative to brutal effect, issuing instructions to his feared chief forester, Alan de Neville, to conduct an enquiry into transgressions in the royal forest that took nearly two years to complete.

The man who suffered the most at Henry’s hands was William the Lion of Scotland, who was forced to sign a humiliating treaty at Falaise in December 1174. In return for his freedom, he swore to be ‘the liegeman of the lord king Henry’, thus accepting the overlordship of England across Scotland. A public act of submission at York was accompanied by the surrender of five key castles in Scotland to Henry – Roxburgh, Jedburgh, Berwick, Edinburgh and Stirling; to add insult to injury, the king of the Scots would pay for the English garrisons. Henry next turned his attention to Wales and Ireland. In the case of the former, Henry had generally adopted a more cautious approach that had been rewarded with loyalty and support during the war. The two native kings were elevated above all other native rulers and owed allegiance to Henry, as did the marcher English barons who held lands in Wales. Ireland, however, was far more complicated given the competing demands of the local kings and Henry’s lack of interest in a military solution. In 1175 the treaty of Windsor recognised Rory O’Connor as the high king, but asserted the principle that he was Henry’s vassal. In practice, the agreement proved unworkable as Norman knights continued to cross the Irish Sea to settle as free lances, often supporting Rory’s rivals. Henry was forced to intervene in Munster in 1177; the situation remained too unstable for him to carry out his desire to assign Ireland to John, which had to wait a further eight years until the young prince was of age to lead an army himself.

By the end of 1176, Henry was perhaps in the most powerful position of his entire reign, and the restoration of his reputation after the Becket affair was complete. He formally settled his long-standing dispute with the papacy through negotiations with the legate Cardinal Hugh Pierleone, in 1176. Although Henry confirmed the abandonment of some of the more contentious parts of the constitutions of Clarendon, the tone was markedly different from the compromise of Avranches in 1172 – this time, the arrangements were presented as his concessions to the church, and came hedged with qualifications. In particular, Henry ensured that clerics accused of offences under the forest law were to be tried by the royal officials, rather than a church court; in other words, this area of his prerogative remained intact, drawing sharp criticism from clerical chroniclers.

Angevin Dynasty: A family at war III

Henry’s court in November reflected his heightened status on the European stage, as it was visited by envoys from the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Comnenus, from the Holy Roman Emperor, and from the count of Flanders. Such was Henry’s renown that the king of Sicily, William II, sought an alliance by marrying Henry’s daughter Joan in February 1177. Perhaps even more importantly, Henry’s new model of ‘a family firm’, with regular conferences, continued to pay dividends in Aquitaine, where Richard’s permanent presence, rather than rule by an absentee lord such as Henry, finally allowed the pursuit of full ducal authority. However, suppressing rebellion was one thing; bringing traditionally autonomous counties such as Angoulême under control was another. Early signs of Richard’s military skill, tenacity and tactical awareness can be seen in the way he dismantled the strongholds that supported the count of Angoulême by the end of May 1179, including the château de Taillebourg where he had sheltered from his father’s wrath in 1173. The contrast this time could not be greater; after reducing the great castle to rubble, having played a leading role during hand-to-hand combat to wrest control of the gatehouse to gain entry, Richard journeyed to England where he was ‘received by his father with the greatest honour’ and confirmed as ruler of Aquitaine. Thus was born Richard’s reputation as a fearless leader, a warrior with the heart of a lion who was happy to throw himself into the fray alongside his men. As well as a lifelong fascination with the arts of siegecraft and castle-building, he was always looking for opportunities to test his ingenuity against ever more challenging fortresses.

Henry had not forgotten the role played by Louis in stirring up trouble amongst his family, and decided that the time was right to go back onto the offensive, focusing on the contentious areas of Berry and Auvergne – important to Louis as the principal communication route to the southern portion of his realm, yet vital to secure the borders of Aquitaine. In 1177, Henry demanded the handover of Margaret’s dowry – the Norman Vexin – plus lands in Berry for Alice’s dowry as part of her marriage to Richard, and backed up his demands by mustering an army. The sabre-rattling worked. Against the background of increasing tension in the Holy Land, and calls for another crusade to provide assistance to the beleaguered Western strongholds which were under assault from Saladin, Louis and Henry signed a non-aggression pact at Ivry in September 1177 on the basis that they would prepare for a joint military expedition to the Holy Land. Furthermore, the spirit of the agreement was of mutual cooperation – ‘We are now and intend henceforth to be friends, and that each of us will to the best of his ability defend the other in life and limb and in worldly honour against all men,’ removing all claims from each other’s lands. Yet Henry was able to manipulate the situation to his advantage, ensuring the status of Berry, Auvergne and Châteauroux was decided by arbitration at Gracay in November. Not only was the verdict in Henry’s favour, but he also persuaded the lord of La Marche to sell him his lands, which hemmed in the troublesome Aquitainian lords in Poitou, Angoulême and Limoges and acted as a ‘marcher’ state with Berry and Auvergne.

Although this was a major threat to French influence in the south, Louis was no longer in a position to act. He was old and worn out from his struggles with Henry; his focus was to ensure that his only son, Philip, would follow him as king. Louis planned to have Philip crowned as his successor when he turned fourteen on 15 August 1179, but Philip fell so seriously ill that it was feared he would die. Postponing the coronation, Louis travelled to England on 22 August, directed to the shrine of St Thomas at Canterbury in a dream. Henry received his fellow king with courtesy, escorting him to the cathedral where Louis prayed for two days. Philip duly recovered and was crowned on 1 November at Reims, with the Angevins represented by young Henry, Richard and Geoffrey; Louis, however, missed the ceremony – he had suffered a stroke on the return journey from Canterbury and was left paralysed, unable to speak: ‘a spectator in the last years of his reign’. He finally died on 18 September 1180 leaving his son at the mercy of court politics. Thereafter followed a power struggle for influence over the new king, with Louis’s widow Adela and her brothers, the counts of Blois, Chartres, Champagne and Sancerre, ranged against the count of Flanders, who had previously arranged for Philip to marry his niece, Isabella of Hainault, in April 1180. Philip sided with his bride’s family, and Adela fled from court; in a twist of fate, the Blois faction appealed to Henry to intervene and facilitate a reconciliation.

When Philip subsequently turned against the count of Flanders in a dispute over control of the Vermandois, Henry was again called in to resolve the conflict as the ‘elder statesman’ of Europe. Prior to his departure to the conference, on 22 February 1182 he dictated his last testament as a precaution, sending a copy to the royal treasury at Westminster and another to Canterbury cathedral for safety. Once in France, he presided over the reconciliation process, surrounded by his former enemies; also present with the king of France and count of Flanders was Henry, the young king, and William, king of Scotland. Chroniclers were moved to write that, ‘We have read of four kings falling together in the same battle, but seldom have we heard of four kings coming peacefully together to confer, and in peace departing.’ Unfortunately, it was to be the last peace Henry was to know.


Despite all his efforts, Henry’s land-share model for federal government fell apart during the next seven years. It is easy to blame the ageing king for failing to relinquish his grasp on power, but this argument does not hold water. In 1181 he had passed Brittany over to Geoffrey to govern in person, and permitted Richard a free hand to tackle the Aquitainian lords. However, Richard’s hand was too heavy, and soon loud complaints could be heard emanating from the deep south as his tactic of imposing long-dormant ducal rights on traditionally independent lords was criticised amid accusations that he ‘oppressed his subjects with burdensome and unwanted exactions and by an impetuous despotism’.

The problem was that the legend of Eleanor’s court of love epitomised the romantic ideal of the emerging code of chivalry, but there was a darker side that required knights to prove their mettle in battle, especially ‘free lances’ that were not attached to the household of a particular lord and could therefore ill-afford to take part in the many tournaments that were held around the counties of France and across the Holy Roman Empire. Troubadours such as Bertran de Born earned their living composing songs of knightly heroic deeds, but during times of peace he sang to a different tune. In a deliberate attempt to cause discontent, Bertran would write political songs inciting violence or mocking the various lords in the hope of stirring up local conflict between them – a medieval version of preachers of hate: ‘I would that the great men should always be quarrelling among themselves.’ Richard brought peace, and it was not to the liking of Bertran and his comrades. Yet trouble was always just around the corner. After the death of Vulgrin, count of Angoulême, in 1181, Richard attempted to impose northern principles of feudal jurisdiction, and claimed that Vulgrin’s infant daughter should be the heiress (and therefore the duke of Aquitaine’s ward), when according to southern custom the county should have passed to one of Vulgrin’s two brothers. Despite the exhortations of Bertran, who had spotted a chance to make mischief and stir up trouble amongst the local barons, the ensuing uprising was somewhat half-hearted; nevertheless, the noise of further unrest coming from Aquitaine forced Henry to intervene. He called the leading lords to a conference at Grandmont in the spring of 1182, shortly after his diplomatic mission to France, and, when the results were inconclusive, helped Richard crush the rebellion via a campaign in the Limousin.

This intervention by Henry in Aquitainian politics was an exception rather than the norm and, although he was concerned by some of Richard’s methods, Henry was happy to let him continue as ruler. The real cause of the old king’s problems was his oldest son, who – unlike Richard and Geoffrey – showed no interest or aptitude for government, yet resented the fact that he held no territory of his own, failing to recognise that hard work, diplomacy and administrative skills were required to wield power. Young Henry had left England in 1176 and headed straight for the glamour of the tournament circuit across France, where he built up a reputation as a dashing, handsome and generous knight who was immensely popular and charming. Young Henry had been assigned to the care of William Marshal, who mentored him in the code of chivalry: ‘When in arms and engaged in war, no sooner was the helmet on his head than he assumed a lofty air, and became impetuous, bold, and fiercer than any wild beast.’ However, it is likely that the siren calls of the troubadours encouraged him to spend money profligately on lavish feasts and in supporting his retinue of young knights, leaving him impoverished, dependent on his father for funds, yet resentful that he could not enjoy the revenues of the lands that he saw as rightfully his. Young Henry struck up a close friendship with the count of Flanders in the late 1170s, and became equally attached to his brother-in-law Philip of France in the early 1180s.

In 1182, Henry had summoned his oldest son to join the campaign in the Limousin at the siege of Perigord, reinforcing the concept that the family pulled together during a time of trouble; but – as always – young Henry dallied along the way and arrived late. Towards the end of the summer, the young king demanded ‘that he be given Normandy or some other territory, where he and his wife might dwell, and from which he might be able to support knights in his service’. The request was rejected out of hand as impertinent, and young Henry stormed off in disgust to the court of his brother-in-law, Philip. This was exactly the same pattern of behaviour that had led to the war in 1173, and Henry was sufficiently alarmed to relent partially. A string of messengers sent to Paris carried offers of money – 100 livres Angevin (around £25 sterling) per day for young Henry, and 10 livres Angevin for his wife. This overly generous offer seemed to do the trick, with the message sent back that young Henry ‘would not depart from his [father’s] will and counsel, nor demand more from him’. These proved to be hollow words, and the real reason for his strange behaviour during the summer became apparent when the family assembled for Henry’s Christmas court at Caen in Normandy. The peace was disturbed when William Marshal burst into the ducal residence, demanding to be heard. Shaking with anger, he formally requested that he be permitted to challenge the young king in trial by combat as a way of proving his innocence in relation to certain scandalous allegations brought against him – namely, that he had conducted an inappropriate affair with young Henry’s wife, Margaret. This was a serious charge, and almost certainly untrue; although Marshal’s request was denied and he was banished from court in disgrace, the incident deeply unsettled Henry and raised suspicions about what was really going on within the young king’s household.

The family had been discussing matters of great importance. Marshal’s interruption and subsequent banishment had clearly added to the tension of the debate. Instead of heading their separate ways, the sons accompanied Henry to his next destination at Le Mans in January 1183. It was here that a huge argument erupted between young Henry and Richard, ‘for whom [Henry] had a consuming hatred’. At the heart of the matter was the young king’s confession that, ‘He had pledged himself to the barons of Aquitaine against his brother Richard, being induced to do so because brother had fortified the castle of Clairvaux, which was part of the patrimony promised to himself, against his wishes.’ As to who had put such thoughts in his head, it is interesting that Bertran de Born – the notorious troublemaking troubadour – had written,

… between Poitiers and l’Île Bouchard and Mirebeau and Loudun and Chinon, someone has dared to build a fair castle at Clairvaux, in the midst of the plain. I should not wish the Young King to know about it or see it, for he would not find it to his liking; but I fear, so white is the stone, that he cannot fail to see it from Matheflon.

Equally, young Henry might have been encouraged by King Philip, a fast learner about the benefits of sowing discord amongst one’s enemies – truly his father Louis’s son.

Richard was furious; technically, Clairvaux had been under the control of Anjou, but was situated at the very northern tip of Poitou and therefore claimed by his jurisdiction. Furthermore, the confession that young Henry had been actively undermining Richard was tantamount to admitting that he was planning a coup; no wonder young Henry had dragged his feet when summoned to join in the family assault on the Aquitanian barons, with whom he was probably in cahoots or at least sounding out the opportunity for an alliance. Given young Henry’s characteristics, he represented a much more palatable proposition to the locals than his iron-willed brother. Henry senior tried to defuse the situation and persuaded Richard to hand Clairvaux over to young Henry, whilst summoning the discontented Aquitainian barons – mainly the Taillefer and Lusignan families – to meet him and his sons at Mirebeau; Geoffrey was entrusted to deliver the message in person.

As the court moved on to Angers, Henry tried once again to resolve matters. However, in trying to provide some clarity over his plans for the division of territories, the king made a terrible blunder. His insistence that they all swore obedience to him and perpetual peace to one another, as well as acknowledge that his decision to divide the territories, along the lines agreed in 1169, was acceptable; his insistence that Richard and Geoffrey swear oaths of allegiance to young Henry as the future head of the family commonwealth provoked a furious response. Richard angrily refused to comply, on the grounds that they were brothers of equal birth status. As his father grew more exasperated, Richard grudgingly relented – only for the young Henry to refuse unless the oaths were sworn on the Gospels. This enraged Richard still further, and he argued that he held Aquitaine from his mother, not his father, directly from the king of France, so there were no grounds on which he should perform homage to his brother. Having made his feelings clear, Richard stormed out of the conference ‘leaving nothing behind him but altercations and threats’ and ‘returned in haste to his own territory and fortified his castles and towns’.

Henry was ‘incandescent from the heat of anger’ but, after he had calmed down, the young king approached him and offered to follow his brother to Aquitaine and broker a peace between Richard and the barons. Despite a natural wariness of his eldest son’s intentions, the old king was pleased that he was taking the situation seriously and wanted to salvage the succession plans. On these grounds, Henry gave permission for him to travel south. However, this proved to be another catastrophic mistake; the young king immediately sent his wife to Paris for safe keeping, as his intention all along had been to follow up on his conversations with the Aquitainian barons and go to war against Richard. As soon as he crossed the border from Anjou, the young king ‘secretly accepted security from the counts and barons that they would faithfully serve him as their lord and would not depart from his service’, and prepared to evict Richard from Aquitaine so that he could claim it for his own.

Henry found out about his son’s betrayal in February 1183; he had followed the young king into Limoges with a small escort, ostensibly to lend support should it be required. Instead he was stunned to find young Henry inside the city conversing happily with the rebel leaders – and even more shocked when the residents opened fire on him with arrows, one of which ripped through his cloak. Negotiations between the two sides lasted several days, even though Henry did not have enough men to besiege the city, despite the city’s defences still being in a state of disrepair after Richard’s previous assault. Yet Henry was even more dumbfounded when a large contingent of Breton mercenaries arrived on the scene, led by Geoffrey – not to help him, but to lend support to the young king’s attempted coup.

This was a bitter blow, but completely in character; Geoffrey was said to be ‘overflowing with words, smooth as oil, possessed by his syrupy and persuasive eloquence, able to corrupt two kingdoms with his tongue, of tireless endeavour and a hypocrite in everything’. It’s likely that Geoffrey had arranged the finer details for the coup when he left court at Le Mans to summon the barons to Mirebeau. Worse still, King Philip – who had grown particularly close to his brother-in-law – saw an opportunity to cause trouble and, declaring an interest in southern affairs as the overlord of both Henry and Richard, moved into the region with armed forces. Other local powers waded into the fray, including the count of Toulouse and the duke of Burgundy. By the spring, Aquitaine was seriously destabilised by the crisis and slid towards anarchy as the various factions struggled for supremacy. For Henry, the similarity with 1173 must have been striking, but things were a little different this time. For a start, not all his sons were ranged against him and Richard was a formidable ally, able to call upon mercenaries of his own to confront the rebels. With restless energy typical of his family, Richard moved across Poitou, routing the Breton forces that had invaded, butchering or mutilating them without mercy. Limoges was besieged, and rebel castles attacked.

Suspecting his position had become hopeless, young Henry slipped out of Limoges to join his allies in Angoulême, before moving further south in May without any clear strategy. Indeed, he was so short of cash to pay his troops that he resorted to raiding monastic houses and shrines including Rocamadour, one of the most famous in Europe. Around 25 May, he contracted dysentery and slowly made his way back towards Limoges. By 7 June he had reached Martel, but it was clear to his followers that he was dying. Young Henry made his confession and received the last rites, and asked that his father meet him one final time: ‘He was smitten with remorse and sent to his father that he would condescend to visit his dying son.’ However his duplicity earlier in the year meant that Henry was highly suspicious; the king’s advisors were wary of a trick, and he did not go. Instead, Henry did send a ring ‘as a token of mercy and forgiveness and a pledge of his paternal affection’. However, it was too late: ‘On receiving the ring the son kissed it and immediately expired,’ on 11 June. The news of his death was broken to Henry as he sheltered from the hot sun in a humble peasant’s cottage, whilst still besieging Limoges. The king was stricken with grief: ‘He cost me much, but I wish he had lived to cost me more.’ Nevertheless, business came first. Limoges surrendered on 24 June, Geoffrey fled back to Brittany and Philip – no longer able to claim he was supporting his brother-in-law – withdrew, as did the count of Toulouse and duke of Burgundy. Richard and Henry mopped up the opposition; Bertran de Born’s castle at Hautefort was among the castles that were seized, probably to the great satisfaction of all who had been on the receiving end of his pithy songs.

The young king’s funeral took place at Rouen on 3 July 1183, after which Henry met with his remaining sons at Angers to reconsider his plans for governing the family lands. There is evidence that he was softening his tone towards his captive wife at this time as well, allowing Eleanor to undertake a tour of her dower lands in England, which she gratefully seized. It was a shrewd move to bring her back into the family circle, as it was not long before his sons were quarrelling again; the more Henry tried to clarify his intentions, the more upset he caused. In September, he unveiled a new model for the division of lands – Richard was to hand Aquitaine to John, and take up the role that young Henry had performed as heir to England, Normandy and Anjou. Unsurprisingly, given his upbringing in the south and the amount of hard graft he had put into the subjugation of Aquitaine, Richard refused – especially as there were grave concerns about John’s youthful lack of experience, which was probably the last thing that was required after the turbulence of the last two years. Once more, Richard departed a family conference in anger and headed south.

One can almost hear Henry gnashing his teeth in frustration at the unwillingness of Richard to cooperate; he had misunderstood the passion that his son felt for the land he’d come to think of as home. Despite all the heartache that military intervention had caused, Henry’s initial reaction was to challenge John to raise an army and take Aquitaine by force, but Henry’s youngest son had no source of revenue and it would appear to have been a half-hearted gesture made in anger. By August 1184 the king was back in England, but no sooner had he left the continent than Geoffrey was stirring up trouble once more, persuading John to raise an army to invade Poitou – although in reality the campaign amounted to little more than border raids in which they ‘burned towns and carried off booty’, provoking Richard to retaliate and strike back against Brittany. Henry did what any exasperated parent would do and summoned all his children to England for a dressing-down; they stayed with him until the end of 1184, and in December the king ‘made peace between his sons’.

It is very easy to focus on a decade of family squabbles, in the way that the Becket affair tends to dominate the manner in which Henry’s earlier reign has been depicted. The old king’s failure adequately to resolve his succession should not mask the fact that he was still held in high regard internationally, evidenced by the willingness of former enemies to turn to him for mediation. Perhaps the most powerful indication of Henry II’s standing at this time as Europe’s elder statesman came in 1185, when the patriarch of Jerusalem visited the royal court at Reading on 29 January and, with theatrical gravitas, approached the king and placed the banner of the kingdom of Jerusalem, complete with the keys to the city, the keys to the tower of David and the keys to the Holy Sepulchre at his feet. He then formally offered the throne to Henry.

For some, this would have been the greatest honour imaginable, and certainly represented a remarkable turnaround in the relationship between Henry and the church from the dark days of 1170. However, this was a poisoned chalice; as Henry was to remark to Gerald of Wales, ‘If the patriarch or anyone else comes to us, it is because they are seeking their own advantage.’ The situation in the Holy Land was grim. The remarkable rise of Saladin as the leader of the Fatimid government in Egypt, and his subsequent conquest of Syria and much of the surrounding territory, now posed a direct threat to the remaining Crusader states, in particular the kingdom of Jerusalem. Its leader was the ailing Baldwin IV, Henry’s cousin – they shared the same grandfather, Fulk V of Anjou, who had settled the county of Anjou on his son Geoffrey so he could marry the kingdom’s heiress, Melisende, on 2 June 1129. Baldwin was aware of the military threat to his borders and was looking for a warrior to succeed him; the offer to Henry was a way of continuing the family connection.

However, with the succession of his own lands clearly unsettled, Henry was reluctant to follow the example of his grandfather and abdicate – although in hindsight this might have been the perfect opportunity for him to exit centre stage with his reputation largely undamaged. Instead, the king summoned a council in March to discuss the issue in a suitable setting in Clerkenwell, inside the church of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem. All leading vassals were invited, including William of Scotland and his brother David – making the point that they were considered tenants-in-chief of the king. The advice that Henry was given in relation to Jerusalem sounds very familiar to a modern audience:

It seemed better to all of them, and much for the safety of the king’s soul, that he should govern his kingdom with due care and protect it from the intrusion of foreigners and from external enemies, than that he should in his own person seek the preservation of Easterners.

To Henry’s mind, the uncertainty around the succession and the violent squabbles of his children made it impossible for him to leave. Nor was it possible to extend the offer to one of his children, despite the desperate enthusiasm of his youngest son John who – on bended knee – begged permission to go; Henry had other plans, and dispatched him to Ireland to claim the lordship that had been given him in 1177. However, the campaign was a disaster. John was accompanied by a coterie of young knights who offended the local chiefs, sidelined the Anglo-Norman planter families, spent all the campaign funds on revelry, and united everyone against him. Meanwhile, Henry agreed to confer with Philip of France about aid for Jerusalem, perhaps a tacit recognition of French primacy in the Holy Land: Fulk V had sought permission from his overlord, Louis VI, before accepting the offer of marriage to Melisende and abdicating Anjou. The two kings agreed to offer money to help support an army, but this was not what the patriarch wanted: ‘Almost all the world will offer us money, but it is a prince we need; we would prefer a leader even without money, to money without a leader.’ Instead, Jerusalem passed to Baldwin’s stepfather, Guy de Lusignan – thus strengthening the renown and influence of Richard’s troublesome vassals in the south of France and reinforcing the view that they were independent lords in their own right.

With Henry making it clear that he was staying to put his own house in order, family divisions surfaced once more with John’s departure to Ireland. Henry had instructed Geoffrey to return to Normandy and hold it in custody, possibly a sign that he intended a new configuration whereby he would formally unite Brittany and Normandy under one ruler, in combination with England and Anjou, leaving Aquitaine as an independent entity. Details of events in the spring of 1185 are somewhat unclear, but it seems Richard had once more mobilised his troops, forcing Henry to return to Normandy in April 1185. To all appearances, Henry was losing control of his lands and his sons, and he took drastic action to wrest control of Aquitaine back from Richard. Henry had brought his estranged wife over to the continent with him and ordered Richard that ‘he should without delay render up to Queen Eleanor the whole of Aquitaine with its appurtenances, since it was her inheritance, and that if he declined to comply, he should know for certain that his mother the queen would take the field with a large army to lay waste his land’. With the ultimatum issued, a family conference was arranged in May and Richard, ‘laying aside the weapons of wickedness, returned with all meekness to his father; and the whole of Aquitaine with its castles and fortifications he rendered up to his mother’. A form of peace then descended on the family, but as 1186 dawned it is hard to describe their relationship as anything other than dysfunctional, with any appearance of harmony to the outside world no more than superficial.


There were many factors behind the decline and fall of the Angevin dynasty in the early thirteenth century. However, we can trace the origins of the long war with Capetian France to 1186, when Philip increasingly sought ways to intervene – many would say interfere – in Angevin affairs. Henry should not have been surprised; from the very outset, Philip had shown an independent spirit in the way he tackled the influence of his mother’s family, and then wrested control away from his regent the count of Flanders, during the early part of his reign. Philip now signalled his intention to undermine the powers of Henry, as part of a longer plan to turn the nominal authority of the king of France over its traditionally independent vassals into a more practical version of reality. In March 1186, Henry and Philip held a conference at Gisors to resolve the outstanding issue of Richard’s marriage to Alice, given that they had been betrothed for a well over a decade; Philip agreed that the dower lands of the young king’s widow Margaret – the much-prized Norman Vexin – should transfer to Alice, thus providing an incentive for the marriage finally to take place. Henry and Eleanor returned to England, entrusting Richard with yet another campaign in the south, against the count of Toulouse.

The agreement at Gisors spelled trouble for Geoffrey; it seemed clear that Henry had reverted to his original plan of handing England, Normandy and Anjou to Richard. Running out of options within his own family, Geoffrey reverted to the tried and tested tactics and joined his close friend Philip in Paris to stir up trouble once more. He seems to have spent most of the summer at the French court, and it is likely that he was plotting with Philip, allegedly boasting in August, with typical bravado whilst they were preparing for a tournament, that he would lay waste to Normandy. However, tragedy struck; on 19 August, whilst involved in a mêlée during the staged combats, Geoffrey fell from his horse and was trampled to death. Philip was overcome with grief and, at his friend’s funeral, his household knights had forcibly to prevent him from flinging himself into the grave as well.

Geoffrey’s death marked a hardening of Philip’s attitude towards Henry. In September he demanded custody of Geoffrey’s two young daughters, and that Brittany be placed into his hands; a third child, Arthur, would be born posthumously in March 1187. He also sought to prevent any further military action against the count of Toulouse, making a veiled threat that he considered Henry’s actions tantamount to an invasion against a fellow vassal of the king of France, thus placing Normandy at risk of attack or even judicial confiscation. Henry backed down and a truce was agreed in October, but Richard was not recalled from the south until the two sides met again in February 1187, when a third cause of complaint was raised – Richard’s failure to marry Alice. Fuelled by rumours that Henry had seduced his son’s intended bride, and thus besmirched the dignity of Philip’s sister, Philip demanded the return of the Norman Vexin. This was now a Cold War turned hot. The disputed territory became the flashpoint for conflict between the sides for the next two decades; mercenaries were brought into the region, raising the tension as cross-border skirmishes became more common. Both sides arrested foreign-born nationals living in each other’s territories. Philip marched his army into Berry, where Angevin and Capetian rights and lands were intermingled, an act of military provocation that prompted Henry to mobilise his troops in response. The two sides faced each other in the fields outside Châteauroux, in full battle gear, on 23 June; the fate of two kingdoms hung in the balance. Pitched battles in the medieval period were very rare, especially between kings, given contemporary beliefs that trial by battle conferred divine judgment on the outcome; it is why Hastings holds such an important place in English history.

Châteauroux did not result in a decisive armed showdown. This was partly due to the presence of the papal legate Octavian, who was agitating for a truce because the pope wanted to secure the support of both parties for a crusade. The news coming out of the Holy Land had become increasingly grave, and unbeknown to the parties negotiating in the warm fields of France, time had already run out. On 4 July Guy de Lusignan was crushed by the forces of Saladin on the hot, dusty plains of Hattin; the crusader army was annihilated, Guy was captured and Jerusalem fell into Muslim hands, sending shockwaves around Europe. This was still in the future; Henry and Philip had other matters to occupy them during the shuttle diplomacy between the two armies facing each other at Châteauroux. Neither wished to climb down or lose face; the risk of battle remained real, and the atmosphere tense, as envoys passed between the camps. Many of the potential combatants were well known to one another, having competed on the tournament circuit or through shared family ties, and were therefore somewhat reluctant to engage in a fight to the death. In the end, diplomacy won the day and Henry conceded Philip’s right to two of the disputed lordships, and both sides agreed a two-year truce. However, one outcome from the stand-off at Châteauroux was of monumental importance – Philip had fatally undermined Richard’s relationship with Henry.

Philip’s agent of subversion was none other than the count of Flanders, a cruel irony given Henry’s attempts to patch up his relationship with the king of France during the early years of Philip’s reign. It was during the various negotiations in the meadows surrounding Châteauroux that the count drew Richard to one side to relay a personal message from Philip:

Many of us believe that you are acting extremely foolishly and ill-advisedly in bearing arms against your lord the king of France. Think of the future: why should he be well disposed towards you, or confirm you in your expectations? Do not despise his youth: he may be young in years, but he has a mature mind, is far-seeing and determined in what he does, ever mindful of wrongs and not forgetting services rendered. Believe those with experience; I too once ranged myself against him, but after wasting much treasure I have come to repent of it. How splendid and useful it would be if you had the grace and favour of your lord.

Think of the future – four words that struck at the heart of the issue and made Richard realise that he was the next generation, a young warrior compared to his visibly ageing father. His head was turned, and he agreed to meet Philip in person; when the negotiations were complete, Richard accompanied Philip to Paris where,

Philip so honoured him that every day they ate at the same table, shared the same dish and at night the bed did not separate them. Between the two of them there grew up so great an affection that King Henry was much alarmed and, afraid of what the future might hold in store, he decided to postpone his return to England until he knew what lay behind this sudden friendship.

As a gesture of political defiance, nothing could be clearer; once again, the king of France had driven a wedge between Henry and his eldest son, and he continued to exert a malign influence over Richard, planting the first seeds of doubt that Henry planned to disinherit him, or marry Alice to John.

In the days that followed the stand-off at Châteauroux, and as news of the fall of Jerusalem reverberated around Europe, attention briefly turned away from dynastic rivalry towards cooperative military and financial action in the Holy Land. Richard took the cross in November 1187, and superficially appeared to return to the family fold; the Saladin tithe was levied throughout England to pay for the upkeep of a crusading army. However, it was not long before Richard returned to his ceaseless battle for control in the south of Aquitaine, where yet another revolt had broken out in early 1188. It was also clear that Richard’s relationship with Henry had changed forever and he now acted alone, paying little heed to his father. Henry’s determination not to show his hand over the succession did not help; with only two sons left, and a general favouritism towards John, in whom he saw more of his own characteristics, it was now his policy to keep them guessing, further fuelling the sense of mistrust that Richard bore him.

It was in this atmosphere that entirely baseless rumours began to swirl around that Henry had deliberately stirred up new Lusignan opposition to Richard’s rule, which broke out around this time. Normally, Richard would have seen through this nonsense but it seemed that the slightest hint of interference had ‘alienated his mind from his father’. Philip turned the screw still further. Having defeated the Lusignans, Richard then continued his war against the count of Toulouse, yet it was to Henry that Philip addressed his displeasure over Richard’s actions. Henry responded despairingly that he had totally lost control of Richard and therefore, by extension, Aquitaine as well. Yet Philip could not – or would not – allow his own authority to be undermined by Richard’s unauthorised private war against a fellow vassal of the king of France, so in June 1188 he marched once more into Berry, seizing further Aquitainian lands in the disputed province.

This time, the sense of impending crisis refused to go away, despite Philip’s withdrawal from Berry after Henry raided his lands to the north. Negotiations failed to produce peace, with both sides raising the stakes; in a show of anger Philip even chopped down the ancient oak at Gisors where the king of France and duke of Normandy traditionally met for peace conferences. A further meeting in October similarly failed to provide a solution, with Richard angering his father by agreeing to have his dispute with the count of Toulouse heard in Philip’s court. This also marked the moment when Richard switched sides and

… became reconciled to the king of France because he had heard that his father wished to defraud him of the succession to the kingdom, in that he intended, as rumour had it, to confer the crown of the kingdom upon his younger son John. Disturbed by this, and small wonder, Richard tried to soften the mind of the French king, that in him he might find some solace if his own father should fail him.

The unfolding tragedy was thrown into sharp relief on 18 November at the next conference, arranged by Richard, at Bonmoulins; it did not augur well that Richard arrived in the company of Philip. The meeting was a tense affair. Although it started amicably enough, sharp exchanges became outright threats, leading knights on both sides to reach for their swords in case matters escalated still further. Philip once again demanded that Henry should arrange for Richard and Alice to be married, and declare Richard to be his heir; Henry angrily rejected the request, refusing to be blackmailed into having his family’s succession plans dictated to him by an outsider. At this, Richard turned to his father and asked to be confirmed as his heir, but Henry remained silent. Incredulous, Richard glared at him for a moment and then said, ‘I can only take as true what previously seemed incredible’ – indicating that he believed that he was about to be disinherited by his father. Slowly, he unclasped his sword belt and knelt before Philip and did homage for Normandy, Anjou, Maine, Aquitaine, Berry and lands in Toulouse – effectively usurping his father’s authority. The conference broke up in shock; Richard and Henry walked away from each other in opposite directions without a further word.

Despite an agreement to meet up again in January 1189, this was effectively a declaration of war, and a far more serious betrayal than in 1173 – this time Henry was old and clearly past his prime; Richard and Philip were the future, making it much harder for the old king to rally support. Nervously, he readied the defences of Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine; but when he held his Christmas court at Saumur, many of the usual attendees decided to stay away. Henry fell ill and cancelled the proposed meeting in January, but Philip refused to believe his excuse was genuine and began to wage war along the borders; the Bretons rose in rebellion, sensing an opportunity to exploit the situation to their own advantage and throw off the yoke of Norman dominance. In desperation, Henry sent envoy after envoy to Richard, entreating him to come back to his father, but by now Richard no longer believed anything that Henry said to him. Finally, another meeting was arranged on 28 May at La Ferté-Bernard in Maine. Richard and Philip laid down three conditions for peace – to the familiar demands for the marriage with Alice, and recognition of Richard as heir, was added a requirement that John should accompany his brother on crusade. Once again, Henry refused, perhaps believing that the presence of papal legate John of Agnani would help his negotiating position, given the threat of interdict hanging over Philip if he failed to reach agreement. However, Philip was not to be cowed and simply observed that the legate’s moneybags were full of English silver. The conference broke up once more, and Henry made his way slowly back to Le Mans.

The conventions of medieval warfare required Philip and Richard to withdraw to the frontier, but instead they seized La Ferté-Bernard and pressed on towards Le Mans, capturing castles as they went. On 12 June, they reached the outskirts of the city and, after a furious assault, broke into the lower town. In a desperate attempt to prevent the enemy forces from capturing the main citadel, the defenders set fire to the suburbs. However, the plan backfired as the wind changed direction, blowing the flames into the heart of the city. Before long Le Mans was a blazing inferno. Henry was able to make a hasty retreat with an armed escort, reaching a small hill a few miles to the north where he sat silently on his horse whilst he watched his birthplace burn; perhaps he was reflecting that the fate of Le Mans was an apt analogy for his relationship with Richard. It was too much for him, and he started cursing God for the fate that had befallen him. However, he did not wait long; although Philip halted the march, Richard continued to pursue his father towards Normandy. Riding hard, he caught up with Henry’s rearguard, under the command of William Marshal. Realising the danger, Marshal turned his horse and rode straight at Richard who shouted, ‘By God’s legs, do not kill me, Marshal. That would be wrong. I am unarmed.’ ‘No,’ replied Marshal, ‘let the devil kill you for I won’t,’ and ran Richard’s horse through with a lance, unseating him and making a clear point that he had spared Richard’s life. With the pursuit in chaos, the king’s party rode hard until they were within ten miles of Alençon, and the prospect of relative safety behind the stone walls of one of Normandy’s great fortresses where they could regroup.

Instead, and despite the exhortations of his closest advisors, Henry changed direction and made his way back south towards Anjou. He was a broken man, and no longer had the stomach for yet another cycle of rebellion, suppression and reconciliation. Whilst Philip and Richard overran Maine and Touraine, Henry finally reached his castle at Chinon, where, exhausted by the dangerous journey through enemy lines and fatigued by the heat, he succumbed once more to illness. On 2 July, French envoys reached Chinon and demanded a meeting so that terms could be discussed. Two days later, after Tours had also fallen, Henry agreed and they met at Ballon. However, he was crippled with pain, barely able to mount his horse; even Philip was moved to proffer his enemy a cloak so he could sit on the ground rather than discuss matters whilst mounted. Proud to the last, Henry refused and listened, propped up in his saddle by attendants, whilst Philip dictated the humiliating terms for peace. Henry was to place himself at Philip’s mercy, perform homage for all his continental possessions, recognise Richard as heir, arrange for Alice and Richard’s marriage once Richard had returned from the Holy Land, hand over various key castles as a sign of goodwill, and – the ultimate insult – pay Philip 20,000 marks indemnity for the trouble that had been caused. Henry agreed to everything, but Philip was not finished yet; he /had to give the kiss of peace to his son. As he leant forward to do so, Henry growled in a low voice into Richard’s ear: ‘God grant I die not before I have worthily revenged myself on you.’ Too exhausted to ride back to Chinon, Henry was borne away in a litter as thunder started to roll overhead, breaking the oppressive summer heat. Two days later, shattered by the news that his favourite son John had joined the rebellion against him, Henry was dead.

Battle of Kabul 1842

The Battle of Kabul was less a battle and more a siege of the British cantonment outside the city. The British diplomatic mission, led by Sir William Macnaghten, superseded the military commander of the Kabul garrison, General Elphinstone, and dissuaded him from taking position within the Bala Hissar, the fortress in Kabul. Hostile Afghan tribesmen paid by Akbar Mohammed, son of the deposed king, Dost Mohammed, gradually surrounded the British encampment. There, they began bombarding the British position. A British foray against the Afghans failed, and later, Macnaghten was killed when negotiating terms.

Akbar Mohammed offered safe passage for the British garrison, and General Elphinstone naively accepted. En route to Jallalabad, the 16,000 soldiers and civilians were savagely attacked on numerous occasions. After eight days and a 96 km (60 miles) march, fewer than 300 soldiers remained. They made their last stand at Gandamak, only 55km (34 miles) from safety in Jallalabad.

Tension in Kabul

In the early nineteenth century, British expansion into India and what is today Pakistan ultimately involved Great Britain in local affairs well beyond the frontiers of its newly acquired south Asian empire. Russian and Persian encroachments into Afghanistan created potential crises on the Northwest Frontier. Internecine conflict among Afghan tribes and attacks from the Punjab further destabilized this region. In 1838, Britain entered into an official agreement with Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), ruler of the Punjab, and Shah Shuja (1785-1842), former ruler of Afghanistan. The Tripartite Treaty, of 29 July 1838, pledged restoration of Shah Shuja to the Afghan throne in return for a British diplomatic and military presence in Afghanistan at the expense of the Persians and Russians. In 1839, Sir John Keane (1781-1844) led the Army of the Indus, composed of British and Indian troops, through the Bolan Pass from Sind. Through the late spring and summer of 1839, Kandahar, Ghazni and Kabul fell. Dost Mohammed (1793-1863), the ruler of Afghanistan and a Russian client, was captured and taken to India. Shah Shuja returned to the throne after an absence of 30 years. A modest Anglo-Indian force remained to keep Shah Shuja secure, and protect Sir William Macnaghten (1793-1841) and Sir Alexander Burnes (1805-1841), envoys of Her Majesty’s government.

The events surrounding the fate of the Kabul garrison have become legendary – and considering the recent history of wars in Afghanistan, not unexpected. The success of the Tripartite Treaty gave a false sense of confidence to the government of Lord Auckland (1784-1849). The British army that arrived in Kabul with Shah Shuja was supposed to be temporary. The population of the city and the local tribesmen did not, however, find the presence of foreigners a comfort. The British, for that matter, ensured the security of their communications to India with a garrison in Jellalabad and the payment of tribute to the various tribal leaders who controlled the region through the Khyber Pass. The impressive military show during the invasion, the regular monetary gifts to local tribes and a sizeable garrison in Kabul provided the right amount of influence in Afghanistan. Yet, Akbar Mohammed (d. 1842), son of the deposed king Dost Mohammed, was determined to undermine British influence and restore his father to the throne. The British response (or lack of it) provided Akbar Mohammed with the opportunity to strike.

The British garrison at Kabul numbered 4500 British and Indian troops under General G. K. Elphinstone (1782-1842). The intent to keep a military presence in the city was abundantly clear to the population as the soldiers’ wives and families gradually migrated to the capital during the two years of occupation. Originally the garrison was established within the walls of the Bala Hissar, the fortress housing Shah Shuja’s palace. The shah, however, wanted to retain his own garrison and requested to Macnaghten that Elphinstone relocate his forces.

The British general acquiesced, as this was a diplomatic matter. The military encampment chosen was located north of the city, some 3km (2 miles) from the fortress, but the choice of location was quite poor. It was lodged between the Kabul River and the Behamroo Heights, which overlooked the camp. A series of stockade fortifications, which ringed Kabul, were within rifle shot of the cantonments.

General Elphinstone’s military career included service in the Peninsular War, at Waterloo and as aide to George IV Contemporary accounts before and after the events at Kabul refer to him as a professional and competent officer. It is clear, however, that the general’s command was complicated by several factors at the time of the crisis. He lacked energy, which some have attributed to his age, but he was only 59 at the time of his command. Several recollections refer to his indecision and passivity. Further, his orders were to maintain the formal presence in the capital, and protect Burnes and Macnaghten, the British envoys. This complicated matters, and Elphinstone tended to defer to the diplomats – a strategy that became fatal once the time for diplomacy had passed.

Akbar Mohammed benefited from the growing tensions among the Kabul population and local tribes towards the British presence. The cost of supplying the garrison fell upon the Afghan people, and this led to significant animosity. Furthermore, Sir Alexander Burnes had established a reputation as a scoundrel with women, and this merely incensed an already agitated population. All of this enabled Akbar Mohammed to increase his influence in the city and insinuate spies and agitators.

Route of the retreat. A garrison in Jellalabad secured the road from Kabul to Peshawar in British India. The distance, and nature of the terrain, made the route rather precarious, even in times of peace.

The situation escalates: November 1841 – January 1842

Elphinstone, Burnes and Macnaghten were well informed of the increasing tension in the city but refused to recognize the level of danger. The envoys believed the reports to be exaggerated, and Burnes, who lived in Kabul, believed he had a better understanding of the people than his informants and friends. On 1 November 1841, crowds gathered near Burnes’ residence, with the intention of causing trouble. News reached Macnaghten and Elphinstone, who immediately argued about the course of action. The general wanted to dispatch troops to disperse the mobs before they had a chance to build their courage. Macnaghten disagreed, and believed military action would only increase tensions. Elphinstone deferred, to the shock of his subordinates, and Burnes’ fate was sealed. The Kabul mob attacked Burnes’ home, and after a brief and violent struggle killed all inside.

The murder of Burnes did not lead to harsh reprisals; in fact, there was no response. Shah Shuja had hastily dispatched troops into the city, but they ignominiously retreated in the face of the violent mobs. Elphinstone failed to take any further military action, including dispatching troops onto the heights that dominated his encampment, or to occupy the forts within range of his tents. Unknown to Elphinstone, the British Government, wishing to pare down the cost of empire, had sought to reduce expenditure by ending tribute to the Afghan tribes: Macnaghten ceased paying the tribal leaders earlier that year. This offered Akbar Mohammed the opportunity to supplant British interests.

Afghan tribesmen began to occupy the heights, forts and villages around the encampment during the three weeks following Burnes’ murder. It was not until 23 November that Elphinstone finally acted. He was stirred by the deployment of two cannon on the heights, which proceeded to fire on the British camp. The general dispatched a flying column of infantry and cavalry, supported by one gun, to retake the heights and clear the village north of the camp. With relative ease, the Afghan cannon were put out of action, but upon passing beyond to the village, the column confronted Afghan cavalry.

The British gun overheated and the infantry formed in tight squares suffered heavy casualties from Afghan musketry. Growing pressure on the column caused the men to break ranks, and while order was restored, the position on the heights became precarious. Several charges served to further unnerve the British and Indian troops, who ultimately fled in panic back to the encampment. The failure to reinforce this column, although the combat was in clear sight of the cantonments, reflected a severe weakness in command – which encouraged the Afghans and demoralized the garrison.

Elphinstone and his subordinates discussed moving the garrison back into the Bala Hissar. This would have been the proper military decision, but again Macnaghten intervened. Shah Shuja was not inclined and found the situation quite troubling. The return of Akbar Mohammed meant the possibility of his overthrow, and the appearance of maintaining power on the bayonets of the British would not have reinforced his position among the population. Macnaghten dissuaded Elphinstone, and again the general deferred. The forces arrayed against them exceeded 30,000 men. By the end of November, Akbar Mohammed had arrived at Kabul with a further 6000 men. For the next month, he strengthened his hold over the tribal leaders, kept Shah Shuja trapped in the Bala Hissar and tightened his stranglehold over the British encampment.

Macnaghten, meanwhile, continued to hope for a diplomatic solution. He actively negotiated with the tribal leaders and Akbar Mohammed. At the end of December, the khan agreed to a personal meeting to decide the deadlock. Upon Macnaghten’s arrival, the British envoy was seized, along with his retinue, and murdered. General Elphinstone’s paralysis of command did not disappear with the death of Macnaghten. Instead, he became even more determined to negotiate a withdrawal of his garrison to India.

As negotiations carried on through New Year 1842, Akbar Mohammed acquired a greater appreciation of the weakness of the British position. Macnaghten had given the impression of strength, but Elphinstone’s disposition made it clear that the general would accept almost any reasonable proposal. In return for permitting safe passage for the garrison and their families to India, Elphinstone agreed to support the release of Dost Mohammed from British captivity.

The March of Death

On 6 January 1842, more than 16,000 soldiers and civilians from the Anglo-Indian garrison at Kabul marched off in the snows towards Jellalabad, the Khyber Pass and India. Jellalabad meant safety, but it was 150km (93 miles) to the east. Akbar Mohammed had no intention of keeping his word, and as the column moved off, it became clear that all bets were off.

The Anglo-Indian army winding its way methodically through the snows became the constant target of Afghan tribesmen. The advance guard led by the 44th Foot included Skinner’s Horse and the 4th Irregular Horse. The main body, with it the civilians, consisted of the 5th and 37th Bengal Infantry and Anderson’s Horse. The role of rearguard was left to the 54th Bengal Infantry and the 5th Bengal Cavalry. Impressive as these forces may sound, morale was terribly low, and the presence of families added to the soldiers’ concerns. Two days after leaving Kabul, the column moved through the Khoord-Kabul Pass, a narrow defile running 6.5km (4 miles) in length. There Afghan tribesmen took an enormous toll, firing from the safety of the heights. More than 3000 soldiers and civilians had been killed by the time Elphinstone cleared the pass.

Akbar Mohammed met Elphinstone afterwards, claiming that the attack was out of his control. He promised to try his best to prevent further murder, and offered to take women and children to safety. For the next several days, however, the survivors were subjected to attacks, and the weather too contributed to the disaster. On 13 January, the column approached Gandamak, some 55km (34 miles) west of Jellalabad, only to find its passage blocked. No more than 2500 of the 16,000 remained. Of that number, fewer than 300 were troops standing with their colours.

Elphinstone met with Akbar Mohammed once more, but found himself a prisoner. The survivors then took matters into their own hands, and tried to reach Jellalabad at night in two groups. They did not get very far. The larger group, many men of the 44th Foot and assorted Indian troops, made a stand on a hill near Gandamak. Refusing to surrender, they died where they stood. The smaller group made little progress and was soon overwhelmed. Only one survivor, Dr Brydon, managed to make it to Jellalabad, severely wounded but able to recount the tale of the doomed Kabul garrison. Elphinstone also survived but died in captivity some months after the debacle.


The battle leader, or dux bellorum, of the British in their struggle against the Anglo-Saxons. He was the leader who succeeded Vortigern (and may have been responsible for ousting him from power) and immediately preceded Arthur. It is odd that he is mentioned by the sixth-century historian Gildas, then in the eighth century by Nennius, but by no other historian until the Middle Ages. He nevertheless existed. Gildas describes him as a modest man, which is a surprising quality in a battle leader.

He appears to have been a Celtic nobleman and it has been suggested that the “Ambros” place-names may represent the stations of the units that he raised and led, styled Ambrosiaci. This is an attractive idea, but it is unclear how Amberley, deep in West Sussex and very close to the south Saxon heartland, could possibly have functioned as such a base for Celtic troops.

The Latinized form, Ambrosius, of the Celtic name Ambros or Emrys may have been given by a chronicler, or adopted by Emrys himself as a badge of formal respectability, something that many other British noblemen did. It does not prove, as some have proposed, that he was a member of a Roman family who stayed on after the Roman troops left. He represents a class of post-Roman native British aristocrats who clung to an older order of things and disapproved of Vortigern’s reckless politicking with the untrustworthy Germanic colonists.

It is likely that Ambrosius was a focus for dissent among the Britons over the way Vortigern was leading the confederation to disaster.

Gildas describes how Ambrosius’ leadership marked the beginning of a more successful phase for the British:

When the cruel plunderers [the Saxons attacking the British in about 460] had gone back to their settlements, God gave strength to the survivors [the British]. Wretched people flocked to them from all directions, as eagerly as bees when a storm threatens, begging burdening heaven with unnumbered prayers that they should not be destroyed. Their leader was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a gentleman who, perhaps alone of the Romanized Britons, had survived the shock of this great storm [the Saxon invasion of Britain]; certainly his parents, who may have worn the purple, were slain in it. Under him our people regained their strength and challenged the victors to battle.

After this the British started to win battles, and they were eventually rewarded with the overwhelming victory at Badon.

Another view of Ambrosius comes from Nennius’ Miscellany. There Ambrosius is “the great king among all the kings of the British nation.” This may mean only that his reputation grew steadily after his death, that he was promoted by history, rather as Arthur would be a little later. It may alternatively be a genuine reflection of Ambrosius’ status as dux bellorum.

Interestingly Cynan of Powys was later to be called Aurelianus, which may have been another title of the dux bellorum.

Although it is not known where Ambrosius came from or where he lived, Amesbury in Wiltshire is possible. Amesbury was spelt “Ambresbyrig” in a charter dated 880 and may derive its name directly from Ambrosius himself. If he held Salisbury Plain as his estate, or at any rate this part of it, he would have controlled the critical north-eastern corner of Dumnonia. The frontier of Dumnonia was marked by an earthwork called the Wansdyke, and it lies 7 miles (12km) north-east of Amesbury. Where Ambrosius’ stronghold was is not known, but it may have been the Iron Age hillfort known as Vespasian’s Camp, just 1 mile (1.6km) to the east of Stonehenge. This spacious fort would have made an excellent rallying-point for the forces Ambrosius gathered; it would also make sense of the otherwise inexplicable association that Geoffrey of Monmouth made between Ambrosius and Stonehenge.

From about 460 Ambrosius is said to have organized an island-wide resistance of the British to the Anglo-Saxon invasion. His campaign prospered. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is silent about this period, suggesting that the British were in the ascendancy; there is no boasting of a Saxon victory until 473. Gildas enthused about Ambrosius: “though brave on foot, he was braver still on horseback.” This implies a preference for cavalry action, which his successor, Arthur, would share. “The Britons fled to him like swarms of bees who fear a coming storm. They fought the war with Ambrosius as their leader.”

Fanciful legends were later embroidered round this heroic figure. It was said that in Ambrosius’ reign Merlin the magician brought the stones of Stonehenge over from Ireland and set them up in Wiltshire. This does not square with the geology or archeology of Stonehenge. The sarsen stones came from the chalk downs near Avebury; the bluestones came from Pembrokeshire. Both arrived on Salisbury Plain in the middle of the third millennium BC—and that was long, long before the time of Ambrosius Aurelianus.


At Badon, a great battle took place in which the British won a major victory over the Saxons. It was Arthur’s first recorded battle in the year 516. Its outcome was so decisive that it held back the Saxons for several decades, and it was largely due to Arthur’s exploits during this battle that he owes his reputation as a great warrior.

Several locations for Badon have been proposed, but there are early references to the city of Bath in which the name is spelt Badon—for example, in The Wonders of Britain, Nennius refers to “the hot lake where the baths of Badon are”—and so the likeliest battle site by far is Little Solsbury Hill, about 2 miles (3km) north-east of Bath. This was on the eastern frontier of Dumnonia, at the point where the old Roman road, Fosse Way, came down the eastern valley-side from Banner Down toward a crossing-place on the Avon River at Bath. In the sixth century this was a key location, right on the frontier between Celt and Saxon, and would have been a natural access point to the Celtic kingdom for an advancing Saxon army. Little Solsbury Hill, which had a small fort on its summit, was an obvious vantage point from which the British warriors could have watched the invaders approaching from the east or north-east and then descended to attack as they passed below. The Saxons would have been caught between the steep valley side and the river.

In the annals there is a strange description of Arthur carrying a cross on his shoulders. This may be explained by the misreading of the word for “shoulder.” The Old Welsh for “shoulder,” scuid, is very similar to the Old Welsh word for “shield,” scuit. Scribes regularly read whole phrases from the documents they were copying and muttered them to themselves as they wrote. It was easy to make mistakes, especially when words both looked and sounded similar to other words. So the original description may have read, “Arthur carried the cross of our lord Jesus Christ on his shield.” The image of the cross could easily have been painted onto the shield, or designed into the shield’s metalwork, or embroidered into a fabric covering for the shield. It may be significant that high-ranking officers in the late Roman army frequently carried portraits of emperors on their shields. It would be quite logical for a Christian British commander-in-chief educated in the late Roman tradition to carry an emblem of Christ: after all, he recognized no earthly overlord.

The hammering of the Saxons in the Battle of Badon brought about a major change. For a couple of decades the western frontier of the Saxon world was fixed.


A very imposing Iron Age fort on the summit plateau of a free-standing hill. The ancient fortifications are mostly tree-covered now, but the four earth ramparts are still impressive. Although often described as an Iron Age fort, Cadbury began earlier, in the Bronze Age. In the Iron Age it became a major focus for the Durotriges tribe. During the Roman occupation, the Britons were forcibly removed after a revolt in AD 61, and the site returned to agriculture.

The site was reoccupied in the fifth–sixth centuries, when the advance of Saxon settlers prompted local Britons to use it as a refuge again. Ambrosius Aurelianus lived at the right time to organize the refortification of Cadbury in around 470. Buildings were added, including a substantial Dark Age hall. The strategic position of Cadbury near the eastern frontier of Dumnonia and its huge area make it a likely muster-point for warriors assembling to do battle with the Saxons in the period 500–70.

The history of this magnificent hillfort is long and complicated, but it was a center of Celtic resistance to invaders at least three times: in the rebellion against Rome in 61, in the Badon campaign against the Saxons in 500–20, and in the Dyrham campaign in the years around 570.

In 1532, John Leland visited the site, observing:

At South Cadbyri standith Camallate, sumtyme a famose toun or castelle, apon a very torre or hill, wunderfully enstrengthenid of nature… The people can tell nothing ther but they have heard say that Arture much resorted to Camalat.

Anglo-French [non]-Intervention in the Spanish Civil War I

If Britain and France refrained from challenging Italy and Germany in Spain, this was not because they were blind to the threat to their strategic interests;  it was because they feared that a general war in Western Europe, whether they won or lost, could only redound to the benefit of Russia.

In a policy summary drafted by Gladwyn Jebb, private secretary to Alexander Cadogan, permanent undersecretary of the Foreign Office since January 1938, and based partly on the papers of William Strang, head of the Central Departmentall three men supporters of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain Jebb observed that the objection to collective security was that it would “provoke war in which defeat would be disastrous and victory hardly less so.”

At a session, on 15 March 1938, of the Comité Permanent de la Défense Nationale, Edouard Daladier, the French minister of defense, stated that “one would have to be blind not to see that intervention in Spain would start a general war.” As to what he envisioned by a general war was expressed by him apocalyptically three months later, when, as the reader will recall, he told Count von Welczech, the German ambassador: “[The] catastrophic frightfulness of a modern war would surpass all that humanity had ever seen, and would mean the utter destruction of European civilization. Into the battle zones, devastated and denuded of men, Cossack and Mongol hordes would then pour, bringing to Europe a new ‘Culture.’ ”          

Hence, the nonintervention policy of Britain and France during the Civil War was determined not only by their hostility to the social revolution and by later Communist domination, of which they were fully informed through their diplomatic and secret agents, but by the fear that a general war would bring in its wake the enthronement of Communism in the whole of Europe. Consequently, no effort at dissimulation or persuasion, no attempt by successive Spanish governments to curb or roll back the revolution could have affected Anglo-French policy.

We have seen that the policy of appeasement of Germany was pursued with greater vigor from the time Neville Chamberlain succeeded Stanley Baldwin in the premiership in May 1937 and that the new prime minister perceived the Soviet Union as the major long-term threat to British interests and the Western world. For this reason, a political settlement with Germany was the cornerstone of Chamberlain’s policy, and it was visionary to believe that Britain would come to the aid of Republican Spain at the risk of a war in Western Europe. 

That some members of the PCE in the spring of 1938 had begun to question the assumption that Britain and France would eventually be drawn into the conflict, but such doubts, inadmissible in Communist circles, had to be squelched if morale were to be sustained, particularly at the battlefronts. “I never for a moment believed that the Spanish government would get real help from Britain and France,” Ralph Bates, the British author and assistant commissar of the Fifteenth International Brigade, wrote in 1940 after he had severed his connections with the Communists. He was “tremendously censured,” he said, by the English representative of the Communist party in Madrid for dealing with the problem, even implicitly, in the brigade organ Volunteer for Liberty of which he was editor and was ”charged with exposing the boys to the possibility of this thought coming up in their minds.” “In so far as we damped down the revolution in Spain,” he added, “in the interests of collective security, then we miscalculated. I feel compelled to face that fact. Not all our soft-pedalling won [Britain and France] to our side. Might we have got more out of the CNT and FAI if we had not soft-pedalled so much?”          

The extent to which Chamberlain and his supporters were prepared to pursue the appeasement of Germany is evident from a conversation that Lord Halifax held with Adolf Hitler on 19 November 1937. At that time, Halifax was Lord Privy Seal and later, as foreign secretary, formed part of Chamberlain’s “Inner Cabinet” with Sir Samuel Hoare and Sir John Simon. According to a German foreign ministry memorandum, Halifax recognized that Hitler “had not only performed great services in Germany” but also had been able “by preventing the entry of Communism into his own country, to bar its passage further West.” Halifax stated that on the English side “it was not necessarily thought that the status quo must be maintained under all circumstances.” He then spoke of “possible alterations in the European order which might be destined to come about with the passage of time. Amongst these questions were Danzig, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. England was interested to see that any alterations should come through the course of peaceful evolution and that methods should be avoided which might cause far-reaching disturbances [i.e., war in Western Europe].” Since Austria was the gateway to Czechoslovakia, and Danzig the key to Poland, these remarks must have encouraged Hitler to believe that his territorial ambitions in Eastern Europe would encounter scant opposition.    

“Halifax’s remarks,” writes the British historian A. J. P. Taylor, “if they had any practical sense, were an invitation to Hitler to promote German nationalist agitation in Danzig, Czechoslovakia, and Austria; an assurance also that this agitation would not be opposed from without.” 10 Hitler also received similar assurances from the French government. “[I] was amazed to note,” Franz von Papen, the German ambassador in Austria, told Hitler on 10 November 1937 after a visit to Paris, “that, like [foreign minister] Bonnet, Premier [Camille Chautemps] considered a reorientation of French policy in Central Europe as entirely open to discussion. . . .[He], too, had no objection to a marked extension of German influence in Austria obtained through evolutionary means.” And, on 4 December, in a letter to state secretary von Weizsäcker, the head of the political department in the German foreign ministry, von Papen stated: “I found it very interesting to note that neither Bonnet nor Chautemps raised any objections to an evolutionary extension of German influence . . . in Czechoslovakia, on the basis of a reorganization into a nation of nationalities.”        

In pursuit of his appeasement policy, Chamberlain removed Sir Robert Vansittart, the permanent undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, the most forceful exponent of anti-German opinion in the Foreign Office, and assigned him to the newly created post of “Chief Diplomatic Adviser,” where, according to the earl of Birkenhead, “he found himself trapped in a gilded cage” and where he “ceased to exert any effective influence on foreign affairs.” Commenting in a letter to his sister on all the months Stanley Baldwin had “wasted in futile attempts” to push Vansittart out of the Foreign Office, Chamberlain remarked: “[It] is amusing to record that I have done it in three days. . . . I am afraid his instincts were all against my policy. . . . I suspect that in Rome and Berlin the rejoicings will be loud and deep.”            

The way was now open for a more vigorous pursuit of appeasement by circumventing the Foreign Office, which, according to Sir Horace Wilson, Chamberlain’s intimate colleague and chief diplomatic adviser, represented an obstruction to the prime minister’s policy of coming to terms with the dictators. “The old-established machine of the Foreign Office,” wrote Lord Templewood (Sir Samuel Hoare), in his published memoir of the period, “did not seem to [Chamberlain] to move quickly enough for the crisis that threatened Europe.” More expressive of Hoare’s true attitude toward the Foreign Office was the candid letter he sent to Neville Chamberlain on 17 March 1937, shortly before Stanley Baldwin’s resignation from the premiership. After suggesting that Chamberlain should not copy “Baldwin’s slipshod, happy-go-lucky quietism” he continued: “Do not let anything irrevocable or badly compromising happen in foreign politics until you are in control. I say this because I am convinced that the FO [Foreign Office] is so much biased against Germany (and Italy and Japan) that unconsciously and almost continuously they are making impossible any sort of reconciliation. I believe myself that when once you are Prime Minister it will be possible greatly to change the European atmosphere.”         

On 3 March 1938, the British ambassador to Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson, who bypassed the regular Foreign Office channels and plied the prime minister directly with letters and visits, told Hitler that the aim of British policy was “to establish the basis for a genuine and cordial friendship with Germany.” Lord Halifax, Henderson added, had already admitted that changes in Europe could be considered “quite possible,” provided they were the product of “higher reason” rather than “the free play of forces.” This policy was certainly not one that Henderson “had worked out for himself,” as William N. Medlicott affirms in his preface to volume 18 of Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919-1939, second series, in a “revisionist” interpretation of appeasement. As British historians Keith Middlemas and Ian Colvin have pointed out, Henderson was a disciple of Chamberlain’s and one of the principal exponents of his policy. Medlicott’s assertion is all the more remarkable in that he quotes Henderson’s own testimony from the latter’s memoir Failure of a Mission, in which the former ambassador states: “Both Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Baldwin, whom I had seen earlier, agreed that I should do my utmost to work with Hitler and the Nazi Party as the existing government of Germany. . . . Mr. Chamberlain outlined to me his views on general policy towards Germany, and I think I may honestly say that to the last and bitter end I followed the general line which he set me, all the more easily and faithfully since it corresponded so closely with my private conception of the service I could best render in Germany to my own country.”  

In this connection, it is worth quoting from a memorandum by Henderson to the Foreign Office, dated 10 May 1937, in which he stated: “[Eastern Europe] is neither definitely settled for all time nor is it a vital British interest, and the German is certainly more civilized than the Slav, and in the end, if properly handled, also less potentially dangerous to British interestsone might even go so far as to assert that it is not even just to endeavour to prevent Germany from completing her unity or from being prepared for war against the Slav, provided her preparations are such as to reassure the British Empire that they are not simultaneously designed against it.”    

On 10 March 1938, two days before Hitler’s annexation of Austria, German foreign minister von Ribbentrop reported to Hitler during a visit to London that Lord Halifax had told him that “Chamberlain and he, Lord Halifax, were determined to reach an understanding with Germany” and that in advocating this policy “Chamberlain had assumed a great responsibility in the eyes of the British people and a great risk as well.” Ribbentrop then stated: “Germany wished to be and had to be strong. . . .Germany must be armed for defense against Soviet Russian attacks. . . . The Führer did not wish to request aid at the outset from the great Western Powers, if some day the steamroller of world revolution should be set in motion against Germany.” At this point Lord Halifax interjected that “England was well aware of Germany’s strength and that she had no objection to it whatever.” Then Ribbentrop continued: “Germany wished to obtain the right of self-determination for the 10 million Germans living on her eastern border, i.e., in Austria and Czechoslovakia. . . . In this connection . . . the Führer had been pleased when Lord Halifax had shown understanding for that, too, at Berchtesgaden and when he had declared that the status quo in Eastern Europe could not be maintained unconditionally forever.” The next day, Ribbentrop reported that Chamberlain had “very emphatically requested” that he inform the Führer of “his most sincere wish for an understanding with Germany.”

Hitler’s annexation of Austria had no effect in London it had, in fact, been regarded as inevitable and Chamberlain pursued his appeasement of Germany with unruffled self-assurance. Nevertheless, it was essential that Hitler achieve his next territorial objective by peaceful means lest Great Britain be drawn into a European conflict through France’s treaty obligations. On 22 May, during the mounting crisis over Czechoslovakia, Lord Halifax instructed Nevile Henderson to inform Ribbentrop of this dangerous contingency: “If a resort is had to forcible measures, it is quite impossible for me or for him to foretell the results that may follow, and I would beg him not to count on this country’s being able to stand aside if from any precipitate action there should start a European conflagration. Only those will benefit from such a catastrophe who wish to see the destruction of European civilization.” At the beginning of September, there was mutual understanding. Theodor Kordt, the German chargé d’affaires in London, reported to ambassador Dirksen on a conversation with Chamberlain and Sir Horace Wilson: “The conversation took place in an exceedingly friendly atmosphere. [Wilson] was visibly moved (as far as an Englishman can betray such feelings at all) when at the end he shook my hand and said: ‘If we two, Great Britain and Germany, come to agreement regarding the settlement of the Czech problem, we shall simply brush aside the resistance that France or Czechoslovakia herself may offer to the decision.” At the end of the month there followed the Munich settlement, the result of British pressure on Czechoslovakia to cede the Sudeten territory.

By now, it must have been obvious to Stalin that the policy of collective security that he had indefatigably pursued since the USSR joined the League of Nations in 1934 in the hope of warding off the German threat might fail and that the slender hope that Britain and France would risk a conflict over Spain was fading. He therefore renewed his interest in the possibility of negotiating a nonaggression pact with Hitler in order to divert German military might against the West. We have already seen that quite early in the Civil War, his trade representative David Kandelaki had initiated negotiations for an agreement with Germany but that these tentative efforts had been rebuffed by Hitler. In fact, it was not until after the overthrow of Juan Negrín on 6 March 1939, that Stalin finally gave up all hope of involving Britain and France in a war with Germany over the Spanish conflict and revived his plans for a compact with Hitler.   

At this stage it is important to anticipate the course of events in Spain and even to probe the diplomatic intrigues among the European powers beyond the close of the Spanish Civil War, in order fully to appreciate the perilous game being played and the real concerns of British policymakers during the war itself.            

In his report to the eighteenth congress of the Soviet Communist party on 10 March 1939, Stalin inveighed against Britain and France for encouraging Germany to embroil herself in a war with the Soviet Union, in which “they would appear on the scene with fresh strength . . . to dictate conditions to the enfeebled belligerents” precisely the role of arbiter that Stalin had reserved for the Soviet Union should the Spanish Civil War develop into a Western European conflict and for the first time he threw out the first open hint of his desire for a rapprochement with Germany. “Marshal Stalin in March 1939,” testified the former Reich foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, during his trial at Nuremberg, “delivered a speech in which he made certain hints of his desire to have better relations with Germany. I had submitted this speech to Adolf Hitler and asked him whether we should not try to find out whether this suggestion had something real behind it. Hitler was at first reluctant, but later on he became more receptive to this idea. Negotiations for a commercial treaty were under way, and during these negotiations, with the Führer’s permission, I took soundings in Moscow as to the possibility of a definite bridge between National Socialism and Bolshevism and whether the interests of the two countries could not at least be made to harmonize.”

The extremely cautious manner in which both sides broached the question of a political settlement from the time of Stalin’s speech, as revealed by documents found in the archives of the German foreign office, stemmed no doubt from the fact that each side feared that the other might use any concrete proposal for a political agreement to strengthen its own bargaining position vis-à-vis Britain and France. In fact, up to 30 May 1939, less than three months before the signing of the German-Soviet nonaggression pact (in August) and the Secret Protocol that touched off the German attack on Poland and World War II, these documents indicate that matters had not gone beyond vague soundings. On that date state secretary Weizsäcker wired the German embassy in Moscow: “Contrary to the policy previously planned we have now decided to undertake definite negotiations with the Soviet Union.”

Although Stalin did not open formal negotiations with Hitler until the middle of 1939, he was not backward during the Spanish Civil Warapart from the overtures made by Kandelakiin letting Hitler know that it would be to Germany’s advantage to have him as a partner rather than an enemy. This is borne out by the testimony of Alexander Orlov: “The fourth line of Soviet intelligence,” he wrote, “is so-called Misinformation. . . . Misinformation is not just lying for the sake of lying; it is expected to serve as a subtle means of inducing another government to do what the Kremlin wants it to do. . . . During the Spanish Civil War . . . the Misinformation desk was ordered to introduce into the channels of the German military intelligence service information that the Soviet planes fighting in Spain were not of the latest design and that Russia had in her arsenal thousands of newer planes, of the second and third generation, possessing much greater speed and a higher ceiling. This was not true. Russia had given Spain the best and the newest she had (though in insufficient quantities). This misleading information greatly impressed the German High Command. . . . Evidently, Stalin wanted to impress on Hitler that the Soviet Union was much stronger and better armed than he thought and that it would be wiser for Germany to have Russia as a partner rather than an opponent.”

Four months before the signing of the German-Soviet nonaggression pact in August, Walter Krivitsky claimed that Stalin’s foreign policy in the Western world was predicated upon a profound contempt for the “weakling” democratic nations and that his international policy had been a series of maneuvers whose sole purpose was to place him in a favorable position for a deal with Hitler. This is by no means certain, for Stalin could not rely entirely on a problematical agreement with Hitler on which to base his foreign policy. For this reason, he was careful to keep open his other option of collective security in the hope that the Western powers would eventually confront Hitler, whether in Spain or Czechoslovakia, and deflect German aggression away from Russia’s borders. It was because Stalin held open both these options that even after the loss of Catalonia in February 1939 he still hoped, as we shall see later, that Britain and France might reverse their policy of neutrality and instructed the Spanish politburo to continue the struggle in the fading expectation that the latent antagonisms in the West would finally burst into flame.