UK Constitution and Government/Plantagenets


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Houses of Lancaster and York


The Plantagenets (1154-1399)

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Henry II

With the death of King Stephen, Henry Plantagenet took the throne as King Henry II. He already had control over the duchy of Normandy; he had also inherited Anjou from his father Geoffrey. Furthermore, he acquired many territories from his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Henry thus had a vast territory when he came to the throne; as King of England, he took over Ireland.

Henry II made other remarkable achievements in England. He established courts throughout England and introduced trial by jury. Furthermore, he reduced the power of ecclesiastical courts. The Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord High Chancellor, Thomas à Becket, opposed the King's attempt to take power from the Church. At a confrontation between the two in 1170, Henry II famously said, "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?" Four of his knights took him literally, and in December murdered Becket.

Henry, however, did not have good relations with his sons. In 1170, his eldest son Henry was crowned, and is known as Henry the Young King. In 1173, the Young King and his brothers revolted against Henry II, planning to dethrone him and leave the Young King as the sole ruler in England. In 1174, the revolt failed, and all of the brothers surrendered. Later, in 1189, Henry II's third son, Richard, attacked and defeated him. Henry II died days after his defeat, and Richard, nicknamed "the Lionheart," became King.

Richard I

Richard the Lionheart is often portrayed as a hero, but he did not do much for England. In fact, he spent almost all of his time outside the nation, and did not even find it necessary to learn English. He is most famous for his fighting in the Crusades, a holy war seeking to assert Christian dominance over Jerusalem.


Richard's successor was his brother, John Allin. Henry II had granted John the lands of Ireland, so when John came to the throne, the titles Lord of Ireland and King of England were united. However, though Ireland became a dominion of the Crown, several lands on the Continent, including most of Normandy, were lost during John's reign.

King John was very unpopular with the nation's magnates, the barons, whom he taxed. A particularly resented tax was the scutage, a penalty paid by barons who failed to supply the King with military resources. In 1215, after John had been defeated in France, several barons rebelled. Later in that year, John compromised and signed the Magna Carta, or Great Charter. It guaranteed political liberties and provided for a church free from domination by the monarchy. These liberties and privileges, however, were not extended to the common man; rather, they were granted to the barons. Nonetheless, the document is immensely significant in English constitutional history as it is a major indication of a limitation on the power of the Crown.

King John, however, broke the provisions of the Charter later, claiming that he agreed to it under duress. In the next year, when he was retreating from a French invasion, John lost England's most valuable treasures - the Crown Jewels - in a marsh known as The Wash. His mental and physical health deteriorated, and he later died from dysentery.

Henry III

John was succeeded by his son, Henry, who was only nine years old. Henry III, despite a reign that lasted over half a century, is not a particularly memorable or noteworthy monarch. Nonetheless, a very significant political development occurred during Henry III's reign. In 1258, one of Henry's opponents, Simon de Montfort, called a Parliament, the forerunner of the modern institution. It, however, bears little resemblance to the modern body, as it had little power.

Simon de Montfort, who was married to Henry III's sister, defeated and imprisoned his brother-in-law in 1264. He was originally supported by Henry's son Edward, but the latter later returned to his father's side. Edward defeated de Montfort in 1265 at the Battle of Evesham and restored Henry III. In 1270, the ageing Henry gave up most of power to his son; two years later, he died, and Edward succeeded to the throne.

Edward I

Edward I was the monarch who brought the entire British Isles under English domination. In order to raise money in the war against the rebellious Wales, Edward instituted a tax on Jewish moneylenders. The tax, however, was too high for the moneylenders, who eventually became too poor to pay. Edward accused them of disloyalty and abolished the right of Jews to lend money. He also ordered that all Jews wear a yellow star on their clothing; that idea was later adopted by Adolf Hitler in Germany. Edward also executed hundreds of Jews, and in 1290 banished all of them from England.

In 1291, the Scottish nobility agreed to submit to Edward. When Queen Margaret I died, the nobles allowed Edward to choose between the rival claimants to the throne. Edward installed the weak John Balliol as monarch, and easily dominated Scotland. The Scots, however, rebelled. Edward I executed the chief dissenter, William Wallace, further antagonising Scotland.

Edward II

When Edward I died in 1307, his son Edward became King. Edward II abandoned his father's ambitions to conquer Scotland. Furthermore, he recalled several men his father had banished. The barons, however, rebelled against Edward. In 1312, Edward agreed to hand over power to a committee of barons known as "ordainers." These ordainers removed the power of representatives of commoners to advise the monarch on new laws, and concentrated all power in the nobility. Meanwhile, Robert the Bruce was slowly reconquering Scotland. In 1314, Robert's forces defeated England's in battle, and Robert gained control over most of Scotland.

In 1321, the ordainers banished a baron allied with the King, Hugh le Despencer, along with his son. In 1322, Edward reacted by recalling them and attacking the barons. He executed the leader of the ordainers, the Earl of Lancaster, and permitted the Despencers to rule England. The Despencers declared that all statutes created by the ordainers were invalid, and that thereafter, no law would be valid unless it had received the assent of the Commons, representatives of the commoners of England. However, the Despencers became corrupt, causing them to be very unpopular, even with Edward's own wife, Isabella. In 1325, Isabella went to France, and in 1326, she returned, allied with Roger Mortimer, one of the barons Edward had defeated. The two killed the Despencers and forced Edward to resign his crown to his son, also named Edward. Edward II was imprisoned and later killed.

Edward III

Since Edward III was a child, Isabella and Roger Mortimer ruled England in his stead. When Edward III became eighteen, however, he had Mortimer executed and banished his mother from court. In 1328, when Charles IV, Isabella's father and King of France, died, Edward claimed France, suggesting that the kingdom should pass to him through his mother. His claim was opposed by Philip VI, who claimed that the throne could only pass in the male line. Edward declared war on Philip, setting off the Hundred Years' War. The British claim to the French throne was not abandoned until the nineteenth century.

Richard II

Richard II succeeded his grandfather, Edward III, in 1377. Richard II was only about ten years old when coming to the throne. Even as an adult, Richard II was a rather weak king. In 1399, he was deposed by his cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke, and probably murdered the next year.

Last modified on 21 March 2013, at 16:01