The Coronation of a “Young King” and the Woes it Brought to Henry and Eleanor

The Coronation of a “Young King” and the Woes it Brought to Henry and Eleanor

On 14 June 1170, young Henry, oldest surviving son of King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, was crowned at Westminster Abbey while his father was still living (and present). A custom not known in England before, or since!

Henry II was inspired by a long-standing tradition of the Kings of France, who chose to have their heirs crowned during their own lifetime to avoid succession disputes. He would eventually discover, however, that this early coronation could create problems of its own.

The French practice that inspired Henry II was clear and unambiguous. The heir, once crowned, was “rex junior,” literally a junior king. He did not exercise power beyond what his father might specifically delegate and he would not be included in the official rolls of numbered monarchs. When Louis VI had his young son Louis (future first husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine) crowned at the age of 11, the young boy was sent immediately back to the schoolroom.

We have few details from young Louis’ coronation beyond the special addition of a “star presider.” Louis was crowned by Pope Innocent II who happened to be in France attending a church council, seeking support during a church schism (there were two popes and Innocent wanted the other one gone!). We have more information about the earlier coronation of Louis VI in 1108. That ceremony involved anointing and swearing of an oath, followed by a Mass of Thanksgiving, and then an investiture with royal regalia that included a crown, a scepter and a rod, and an exchange of the “sword of secular warfare” for the “ecclesiastical sword” for punishing evildoers.

A-king-is-invested-with-his-scepter-and-crownA king is invested with his scepter and crownCourtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection

Anointing of French kings was done with a very special “sacred unction,” which was thought to give divine approval. Tradition said that a small vial of oil used in the baptism of Clovis, who thereby became the first Christian king of France, was miraculously discovered in the tomb of Saint Remi (who had baptized Clovis) just in time to be used for the coronation of Charles the Bald in 843. A small drop of this oil had been used in every French coronation since. It was, in fact, “authenticated,” i.e., given the stamp of approval, by Pope Innocent in 1131 for use in young Louis’ coronation.

It was this long-established custom that Henry II sought to introduce into England. Henry II seems to have first considered crowning his son in April 1161 when young Henry was only 6 years old. The state of the French succession may have brought the matter to his mind. King Louis VII (Eleanor of Aquitaine’s first husband) was on his third wife in 1161, having had two princesses by each of his former wives. One of those princesses, Marguerite, the 3-year-old daughter of Louis’ second wife, Constance of Castile, was newly married to little Henry.

Henry II may have thought that crowning his small son would make him more significant in the anticipated future struggle for the French throne. This dream of an English prince inheriting the French throne came to naught when Louis’ third wife, Adele of Blois, finally gave birth in 1165 to the longed-for male heir, Philip Augustus, “Dieudonne,” the gift of God.

Young Henry’s coronation as “Young King” did not actually happen until 1170, when he was 15. And then there was a major glitch! By ancient tradition (and the say-so of the Pope), the prerogative of crowning the monarch of England belonged to the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1170, the Archbishop of Canterbury was Thomas a Becket, Henry II’s strident opponent, who was in exile in France. Henry was not about to let him return, nor was he about to delay the coronation. And, Henry being Henry, he found a way to get his own way.

After the death of an earlier Archbishop of Canterbury in 1161, the Pope had given Henry an undated letter permitting him to choose any bishop he wished to officiate at a coronation (if one was needed). Becket had since persuaded the pope to write to the English bishops forbidding this, but the pope neglected to withdraw the permission he had given to Henry. So Henry lied. He told the English bishops that he had persuaded the pope to allow the coronation and then he closed the ports of England and Normandy so no word to the contrary could get through.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was ambitious for her son and no fan of Becket, supported Henry. This meant, however, that she could not attend the coronation. She was needed in Normandy, to ensure that any messengers from the Pope were suitably entertained while being “unavoidably detained.”

Marguerite, young Henry’s wife, stayed with Eleanor in Normandy. Both Henry and Eleanor realized that, when it came to Marguerite, they could do no right. If she was not crowned with her husband, her father King Louis would be mortally offended on her behalf. If she WAS crowned with her husband, her oh-so-pious father would be mortally offended that the Pope’s wishes had been flouted.

When the big day arrived, instead of the absent and irate Archbishop of Canterbury, Roger de Pont l’Eveque, Archbishop of York, presided, with the bishops of London and Salisbury in attendance. The crown placed on young Henry’s head on 14 June 1170 had been made by London goldsmith William Cade at the cost of £38 6s.

Henry-II-is-shown-seated-with-a-small-cartouche-of-Henry-Junior-at-the-bottom-right.-Henry-Junior-died-before-his-father-and-never-actually-held-the-throneHenry II is shown seated with a small cartouche of Henry Junior at the bottom right. Henry Junior died before his father and never actually held the throne.Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection

The first omens of trouble ahead were soon seen. At the coronation banquet, Henry the Young King was given the place of honor and his father, Henry II, served him. Henry II noted, lightly, that it was unusual to find a king waiting at table. An arrogant young Henry responded that it was not at all unusual to find the son of a count (Henry II) waiting on the son of a king (young Henry). The courtiers were aghast.

A month after the coronation, a compromise was reached allowing Becket to return to England. Part of the agreement may have been a promise that he could re-crown young Henry. His nonparticipation in that coronation stung not only because Becket was touchy about his prerogatives, but because he was personally fond of young Henry. Things never progressed that far, however.

As soon as Becket landed on 1 December 1170, he excommunicated the Archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury. Henry II was exasperated beyond measure and the result was Becket’s murder on 29 December 1770.

Compromise became easier when there was no Becket to aggravate Henry II. Agreement was reached about the coronation of young Henry’s wife Marguerite. She was consecrated and crowned at Winchester Cathedral on 21 August 1172. Since the See of Canterbury was still vacant, the Archbishop of Rouen presided.

First, however, the Archbishop crowned young Henry. There was no second consecration for young Henry, however, making this a “crown-wearing” and not a true coronation. There was even a specific nod to the tender conscience of Louis of France. The Archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury, officiators at the early coronation done against the express orders of the Pope, were forbidden to attend Marguerite’s coronation.

Henry II soon had cause to regret the coronation of “the Young King.” Henry Junior took his title literally.

Henry II had intended, someday, in the far far distant future, to relinquish control. His vision seems to have been a great Angevin federation, with Henry the young King ruling England, Normandy and Anjou, with Richard holding Aquitaine and Toulouse, and with Geoffrey holding Brittany.

This was, however, an “eventuality.” For the nonce, Henry II did not intend to give away any share of his power and was not about to change his mind. Henry II considered young Henry’s new official status as his (eventual) heir to be sufficient for any young man. He was given no duchies or lands to govern, and had no source of independent income.

Young Henry was naive, not overly astute, restless, and with an inflated sense of his own importance and maturity. He was easy prey for the gently poisonous words of Louis VII of France, who found it surprisingly simple to turn young Henry’s thoughts to rebellion and treason. He was urged on as well by his mother, who had become estranged from his father. In 1173, Henry the Young King, joined by his 15-year-old brother Richard and his 14-year-old brother Geoffrey, rebelled.

Henry II crushed the attempted revolt and then was reconciled with his sons. Young Henry was given two castles in Normandy as well as a large grant of money, Richard received two residences and half the revenues of Poitou, and Geoffrey half the revenues of Brittany.

There still, however, was very little for Henry the Young King to do. Soon, his only purpose in life became to enthusiastically and successfully participate in as many tournaments as possible. His (very expensive) hobby made him a “celebrity knight” throughout Europe. His only official role in government seems to have been representing his father in November 1179 at the coronation of Philip Augustus as “junior king” of France. Young Henry carried the crown at the ceremony and, in the celebratory tournament held afterward, brought (and paid for) an enormous retinue of some five hundred knights.

In the meantime, adding to Henry the Young King’s dissatisfaction, his younger brothers had been given autonomy in their respective domains. Richard had been vested as Count of Toulouse and Duke of Aquitaine, and Geoffrey, now married to the young countess of Brittany, ruled that land in her right. Dissension broke out once again in the royal family in late 1182.

A-discussion-between-a-young-king-and-an-older-one;-the-conversations-between-Henry-and-his-son-were-seldom-this-friendlyA discussion between a young king and an older one; the conversations between Henry and his son were seldom this friendly.Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection

Henry the Young King, anxious once again to establish his influence somewhere – anywhere – began to meddle in the affairs of Richard’s duchy of Aquitaine. Henry II called his sons to heel. He demanded that his sons swear obedience and fidelity to him, and to agree to his disposition of his territories. He then made an additional demand.

Sons Richard and Geoffrey were required to take oaths of homage to their older brother, Henry the Young King, as their overlord. Richard refused. Aquitaine had been Eleanor’s before it was Richard’s, and owed nothing to England. Henry the Young King took advantage of the distraction caused by the “homage upset,” to interfere in the affairs of Aquitaine even more actively. Henry II weighed the merits of the case and supported Richard as duke of Aquitaine. Henry the Young King’s support quickly died away.

He contracted dysentery and died on 11 June 1183, repenting his double treachery. Henry II was told of his son’s grave illness and his plea for forgiveness, but suspected yet another betrayal and refused to visit his son’s bedside.


Three years later, Henry’s son Geoffrey died, fatally wounded in a tournament. In the end, Henry II’s dream of a federation of territories ruled by his sons also died. When Henry II died, his son Richard, by then in rebellion himself, inherited it all.

The practice of crowning a “Young King” also was at an end. No king of England has ever again crowned a son in their own lifetime. And, in fact, Philip Augustus was the last “Young King” crowned in France. Philip Augustus’ early coronation was originally scheduled for 15 August 1179 but Philip became very ill shortly before that date. His frantic father sailed to England where, accompanied by Henry II, he made a pilgrimage to Becket’s tomb in Canterbury. Philip recovered. Louis, however, on his return to France, had a stroke. Philip’s coronation proceeded on 1 November 1179 but without Louis’ presence.

The-coronation-of-Philip-Augustus,-from-the-Grandes-Chroniques-de-FranceThe coronation of Philip Augustus, from the Grandes Chroniques de France

Louis VII, king of France (and first husband of Eleanor) died at Paris 18 September 1180. Louis’ legacy was a quiet one – a growth of population, agriculture and commerce; the cornerstone laid for Notre Dame Cathedral; the founding of the University of Paris. Perhaps most to his credit was that he managed, with no military skills of his own, to keep his country and his dynasty alive. It would be his son Philip Augustus who would break up Henry II’s continental empire and soundly defeat Henry and Eleanor’s son, John.

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