|Thought to be Henry II. A mural in the chapel of St Radegonde in Chinon dating to the late 12thc
Today, March 5th, marks the anniversary of the birth of Henry II, one of England's greatest and most charismatic kings. I'm not exactly a Henry II fan, but at the same time, I acknowledge his talent, his qualities and his drive. Every person has many facets to their character, and who knew in March 1133 what this red-haired newborn infant was going to become.
In LADY OF THE ENGLISH, I wrote several scenes from Henry's childhood and I thought I'd post a few to my blog today in tribute.
Henry as a toddler with his father Geoffrey le Bel:
Henry as a toddler with his father Geoffrey le Bel:
His expression bright with pride, Geoffrey squatted to be at eye level with his son. He was used to very small children - Aelis’s two were in the nursery and there was not so great an age difference, but even so, this was his heir, the future Count of Anjou, and there was something about Henry that sent a pang of uncharacteristic tenderness through Geoffrey. Matilda had carried him in her womb, but he had set the life spark inside her body and against the odds, some of them stacked by her. He lifted Henry in his arms. Holding an infant was not a suitable role for a grown man of great estate, but in this instance, it showed the world that here was his acknowledged flesh and blood, destined to rule.
Henry laughed, showing his pearly milk teeth, and pointed to the design on his father’s blue tunic. ‘Lion,’ he said loudly. ‘My lion.’
Geoffrey looked quizzically at Matilda. ‘“My lion”’? Who has been teaching him that?’
Matilda flushed. ‘I tell him he is my little lion. He has a wooden one for a toy and a cushion with a big golden one embroidered on it. One day he will be a king. Why should he not acknowledge the symbols of kingship?’
‘Oh, I agree,’ Geoffrey said, ‘We must foster that in him. Next to teach him ‘crown’.
‘He already knows that one.’
‘Crown,’ Henry said in validation of her remark, and pointed at Geoffrey’s cap with its band of gold braid. ‘Lion. Crown. Mama.’
Geoffrey chuckled and shook his head. ‘Indeed, I can see you have been teaching him well, but I must needs train him further. I suppose you have not taught him to say ‘Papa’ in any of this.’
‘I am sure he will learn swiftly enough,’ she replied, concealing a pang of jealousy, because Geoffrey was so at ease holding their son.
‘Papa.’ Henry bounced in Geoffrey’s arms, and stared round with alert, bright eyes.
Geoffrey laughed. ‘You are right again,’ he said to her. ‘Usually I would hold being right against you, but not today.’
As A Five Year Old.
'Mama look - look at me!’
Matilda turned from talking to the saddler, and watched Henry sit upright in the saddle of a small bay pony. He struck a pose and lifted his chin. The September breeze ruffled his red-gold hair and turned his irises the hue of sea-coloured glass. He had begun riding lessons two weeks ago and was enjoying every moment. For now, the tuition consisted of having one of the grooms lead him round the courtyard at a sedate walk. A saddle had been especially made to fit his size so that he would not slop about between pommel and cantle. He would not be allowed to take the reins on his own for a while to come, nor would he have the strength and stature, but he was already confident around horses, and was developing balance, knowledge and maturity.
‘Indeed you look very fine,’ she replied proudly. ‘Every inch a king.’
‘I want to gallop!’
‘And so you shall, but not quite yet. You have to learn a few more things first and grow a little more.’
‘But I’m a big boy now!’
Her lips twitched at the indignation in his voice. ‘Indeed, but you need to grow bigger yet.’
The groom led the pony off at a sedate walk. ‘Faster,’ Henry cried. ‘I want to go faster.’
Matilda sat down on the bed in her chamber at Carrouges. Her crown was making her head ache. It might look a delicate thing, but she been wearing it for most of the day amid formal ceremonies and celebrations; the weight was beginning to tell on her neck and the band was squeezing her temples. Even so, she had no intention of taking it off, because while she wore it, she was a queen and an Empress and she had authority.
Fetching his small stool, Henry wandered over to the sideboard and stood on it so that he could look at the two engraved silver cups standing there. They had been presented to him and his brother by the people of Saumur in exchange for a charter. ‘When can I drink wine out of mine?’ he asked looking round.
‘When you are a man,’ Matilda replied. ‘They are no ordinary drinking cups, but tokens of an agreement between our family and the people of Saumur.’ Her voice held a warning note. If she knew Henry, he’d be having his dogs drinking out of them or worse. ‘And you are not to touch William’s either,’ she added as she watched his hand stray towards his youngest brother’s cup. The reason there were only two, not three, cups was that Geoffrey, her middle son was being raised in the household of her husband’s vassal Goscelin de Rotonard. It did not do to keep all of one’s eggs in a single basket. William would go for fostering too when he was older but for now, at not quite two years old, he was still kept close in the women’s chambers. Henry ignored him because he was only a baby and Henry knew he was the heir and the most important.
Empress Matilda bidding Farwell to Henry, aged 6.
Empress Matilda bidding Farwell to Henry, aged 6.
‘You can’t go there, you’re trapped!’ piped a child’s voice.
Matilda turned and fixed her gaze on her eldest son. He was sitting in the window seat, playing a board game of fox and geese with his half-brother Hamelin and his focus was deeply engaged as he concentrated on defeating his opponent. She felt a surge of fierce maternal pride as she watched him. He was fully focussed but not in a narrow way. He was observing all the peripherals even while he concentrated on the main task, seeing both dangers and advantages. It was a formidable trait in a child just six years old, and what it would be like when nurtured to manhood gave her cause for optimism. He was tenacious too, because Hamelin was a bright boy, older, and determined not to give ground. She had to swallow as her throat tightened. She might never see him again after this morning because who knew what was going to happen if and when she reached
England. She had put everything possible in place to support
him and her other sons in her absence. The best women to care for them; the best
pages and squires as companions. Excellent
priests and scholars to nurture their education and teach them to walk a true
path with God. She could do no more, and still she was anxious. She was going to miss them so much, especially
Henry. She had even considered staying in Normandy
and seeing it conquered first, but knew she had to make her challenge in England before it was too late, not just for herself, but
for Henry and Henry’s children.
Geoffrey entered the chamber and looked round, hands on hips. He had ridden to Domfront to see her on her way and to take charge of their sons, something Matilda did not want to think about. She could not deny that Geoffrey was a good father, but she had had the greater hand in raising their boys, and it was a wrench to hand them over to her husband.
‘Everything is ready for you,’ he said, stepping aside to let the servants carry out the box containing the last items.
She waited impatiently while her maids draped a thick cloak around her shoulders, and when the clasp had been fastened, she turned towards the light streaming through the open shutters. ‘Henry,’ she said. ‘Henry, come here. It is time for me to go.’
He left his game and crossed the room to her, following the path of the light, and then stood in front of her, looking up solemnly. His eyes were grey, but flashed with green in their depths like Geoffrey’s. ‘Attend to your lessons and do as your father tells you,’ she said. ‘I need you to be big and brave and grown up.’
Henry gave a stout nod. ‘Can I come to
‘As soon as you are old enough. One day you will be king there, and it will be very important for you to know the place and the people.’ She crouched to his level and smoothed his vibrant hair. ‘Look after your brothers. I will write to you often and you father will tell me of your progress.’ She kissed him on both cheeks and stood up, her pride swelling to almost unbearable proportions because Henry was not crying or making a fuss. Even in the small boy, she could see the king he might one day become – but only if she gave him that chance.
Finally as an eight year old with his father, learning of his mother's success
Henry FitzEmpress, almost eight years old, was testing the paces of his new mount. The dam’s Spanish breeding had given the little chestnut fire in his feet. Henry loved the feel of the wind streaming past his face, even though it was cold enough to sting his eyes because it gave him a feeling of speed. On a swift horse, he was invincible.
His father had started taking him hunting, and Henry had also begun his military training, fighting with a shield made to suit his size, and a wooden sword. He loved every minute. Indeed, the only thing he ever found difficult, was staying still. It was always a trial when he was in church and expected not to fidget in the presence of God. By contrast, flying on a horse was easy.
His father was waiting in the stable yard to greet him when he returned from his ride, his groom following several paces behind. Henry showed off by drawing rein in a dramatic slide of hooves, and leaped from the saddle almost before the pony had stopped. He flashed his father a broad smile, exposing gaps at the front where new teeth were growing in.
Geoffrey’s lips twitched. ‘That was fine riding my son.’ He plucked a burr out of Henry’s cloak.
Henry flushed with pleasure. ‘Yes, sire.’ Much as he was enthralled by the swiftness and grace of Denier, what he really wanted to ride was a destrier like his father. His new pony was just another point on the road towards that accomplishment. ‘I could have made him go faster, but Alain wouldn’t let me.’ He scowled over his shoulder at the groom.
‘Alain was wise, you should listen to him,’ Geoffrey said. ‘And to your horse. Always be bold; never be heedless.’
Henry pursed his lips and said nothing.
His father folded his arms. ‘I have been waiting for you because I have received some great news from
England, from your mother. Stephen the usurper has been defeated in
battle and captured by your uncle Robert and others of your mother’s kin and
allies. Your mother is to become Queen.’
Henry stared at his father while his stomach gave the same kind of swoop that it had done while he was galloping Denier. He had not seen his mother in almost a year and a half and memory of her features had blurred at the edges, but she wrote to him often and sent him things from
– a writing tablet with an interlaced design on the ivory cover, and a fine pen
knife. Things she had sewn, which held
her scent. Bells for his harness. Numerous books. And always the promise that one day he would
be a King because England was his.
‘Can we go there?’ He was suddenly consumed with eager impatience. Had a ship been present in the courtyard, he would have boarded it there and then.
‘No, no, no,’ his father laughed. ‘Rein back your horse a little. It is early days yet. Your mother will send for you when it is time.’
‘But when will that be?’
‘Soon,’ his father said. ‘But not quite yet.’ He ruffled Henry’s hair. ‘One battle does not a victory make, even when the enemy has been captured. Once your mother has been crowned, she will send for you.’
Henry frowned and wondered how close ‘soon’ actually was. When adults said such things, it was usually by way of platitude and it was always a long time. He did not see why he could not go immediately because he knew he could help and it was his destiny.
His father said, ‘My first task now your mother has succeeded is to go into
secure that. Many barons will want to pay
homage to the winning side.’ He looked at Henry. ‘And no, you cannot come there
either for the time being. Your task is
to stay safe and learn and become a man.’
Henry grimaced, but knew better than to protest. As far as he was concerned, he was a man, and years were only numbers.