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Check Out Our King Henry II Essay


Henry II was one of the most efficient rulers of all the monarchs in England. He took the throne after the anarchy of Stephen's reign and immediately gained control of his barons. He was the one who refined the Norman government and brought up a self-standing bureaucracy. My coursework discusses Maitland's thought of Henry II's reign being a crucial moment in the English legal history, and I will provide evidences to define to what degree is Maitland correct about his statement. According to the Treaty of Wallingford (succession agreement that was signed by Stephen and Matilda), Henry took over the throne in 1154. Henry became a feudal vassal of the King of France, although he owned many territories and was more powerful compared to the French King.

Summary of Evidence

Henry II brought reforms that weakened traditional federal rules, which strengthened his position. Henry. In his, rein military monetary payments as the main duty of vassals. The sheriffs that were incompetent were all replaced and the royal court authority during the reign was expanded. The trials of jury were initiated to bring to an end of the old Germanic trials that were through battle of ordeal. The reign of Henry II, saw the emergence of royal magistrate courts, which gave room to court officials under the power of the crown to solve local disputes. It was a wish of Henry II to transfer sentencing in such cases to the royal courts, as in most cases church courts demoted clerics to being laymen. In the culture of Norman kings, Henry II was keen in having laws predominating over the church laws.

After Henry II's return from France, he found that there were serious murders that went caught free because their rights were to be tried in church courts. By that time, individuals that had sought the privileges of being tried in church courts were not all clergymen. This was because; any individual who had been trained by the church could decide to be tried in the church court. This even went a step ahead to include clerks who had been taught how to read and write by the church but had never gone ahead to become a clergy had the right to church court trial. It was to the offenders' advantage, since church courts could not enforce punishments that involved violence like mutilation or execution.

The king went on with dogging in his pursuit to take control over the clerics. "By 1170, the pope was considering excommunicating all of Britain. Only Henry's agreement that Becket could return to England without penalty prevented this fate. Thus the separation of England and the Church of Rome was forestalled until Henry VIII." (Barber 2003). On the opposite to his goodness, his words that were intended to mean Beckett that he doesn't understand the traitors in the country that let their master to be shamefully treated a low-born cleric sparked the darkest action in his reign in religious dispute. This was taken to be a speech that perhaps just as riling to the knights and barons in his household at whom the speech had targeted. He was deeply sad at his old friend's way of continuously opposing his constitutions that concerned the clerics. Though the king shouted with anger but not with intent possibly, but this was overheard by the four knights of Henry who decided to take actions on his behalf, by murdering Beckett in his own cathedral. As a result, this tainted the name of Henry later in his reign. For the remaining years of his rule, he used to regret personally for the death of a man, who was a friend in happier times. Three years after his death, he was canonized and revered to as a martyr against secular interferences in governing the church of God; Pope Alexander had declared him a saint. Historians believe that, "The martyrdom of Thomas Becket was a martyrdom which he had repeatedly gone out of his way to cannot but feel sympathy towards Henry" (Harvey 1969). However, it doesn't matter the truth and intention or where the problem lies, this was just yet another sacrificial lamb to the ongoing war between the state and the church. 

Literature Review

Warren and William (1973) explained how Henry II was very great among the all other kings who have ruled England however his death being imputed to those only to whom himself had given life, his ungracious sons. The reference explains about the replacement of sheriffs but does not explain Henry's reforms led to the weakening of traditional feudal.

Hosler and John, (2007), wrote a book that contains information about how King Henry II contributed to social history and his smooth transition from ordeal; it also explains the introduction of torture. However, it has no information on his history and his death.

Barber (2003), and Harvey (1969), and Barber (1996) all the three books helps to explains on how archbishop Becket could return to England after exile and how he was later murdered. The two do not talk about his contribution to the society, but just his negatives. Though Barber (1996) also explains about English Norman barons and Henry II brought reforms that weakened traditional federal rules, which strengthened his position.


The English and Norman barons during the reign of Stephen manipulated the feudal law to underrate the royal authorities. During the reign of Henry, he appointed many reforms which led to the weakening of the traditional feudal rules which strengthened his position. Illegal castle that was built during the previous reign were all taken down. Henry also established his authority through the Cartae Baronum, which was an enquiry to find out the number of the knights' fees in England; in another words how may knights have owed to the crown in return for the ownership of land. He also introduced Scutage, which was a shield tax that was a sum of money paid in lieu of the military service. In addition, the military services replaced the monetary payments as the main duty of the vassals. Furthermore, the Exchequer was improved so that it enforced accurate record keeping and tax collections(Barber 2003).

During this reign, the sheriffs that were incompetent were all replaced and the royal court authority during the reign was expanded. He empowered a social class of government clerks which helped stabilized processes and procedures in which the government could effectively operate even if the king was absent. The new reforms he made during his reign, allowed the common law to replace the customs of feudal and courts of county. The trials of jury were initiated to bring to an end of the old Germanic trials that were through battle of ordeal. His approach to law was systematic as it provided a common ground for the development of royal institutions throughout the entire reign.

The reign of Henry II, saw the emergence of royal magistrate courts which gave room to court officials under the power of the crown to solve local disputes. This led to the reduction of work load to the royal courts proper and delivering justice with greater efficiency than before. During his reign, he concentrated on improving the legal system ensuring that it is fair. This was realized by the introduction of trial by ordeal and trial by combat, which was still common in the 12th century. This allowed the court officials to become serious of matters of prosecution. In spite of these reforms, trial by ordeal continued till the fourth council of the Lateran forbid the participation of the clergy 1215 and trial by the combat was still legal in England until 1819. (Hosler 2007)

The process that was used to strengthen the royal courts, though led to unexpected controversy, the church courts that were instituted by William the Conqueror became a safe haven for criminal of different degrees and abilities, for around one in every fifty of the population of English, qualified as clerics. There were several instances where clergies were involved in murder, robbery among other crimes that only at the end got only the so called spiritual punishments, like the suspension from office, or banishment from the alter. 

The clergy had free hand and in any case were not required to obey the laws of any land that were conflicting with the church governance. Henry in his vision wanted the laws of land to be obeyed by all, including the church. In 1164, the king set out constitutions that amounted to 16, that were targeting the reduction of interferences from Rome. The authority of Henry assured him of majority support; however Thomas Beckett who was the newly appointed Archbishop and Henry best friend and the chancellor since 1155, was named the archbishop of Canterbury, but later drew distance from Henry, and opposed the weakening of church courts. Henry went public and said put forward his desire to eliminate the contentious Archbishop.


In my conclusion, Henry brought several changes that concerned law during his reign, starting with domestic policies, dominating nobles, legal reforms, and strengthened royal control over the church. However as a human being, he had his shortfalls like for example; the murder of Thomas Beckett and the civil war and rebellion. After considering all these strengths and weaknesses in Henry reign, I conclude that I agree with Maitland's thought that, the reign of Henry II was a crucial moment in English legal history.

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