The Penance of a King: Henry II of England

I watched, “Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty: The Planatgenets” Episode One – The Betrayal. What a great program! I learned so much about the first Plantagenet king, Henry II, that I wanted to share with you the part that moved me the most.


Henry II, like most kings did not have an easy reign. His wife Eleanor of Acquitaine and two of his sons, Henry and Richard, turned against him some time after the murder of Thomas Becket. The thing this programs, by Dan Jones, points out is that Henry II never intended to have Becket murdered. That in a fit of Plantagenet rage he said things in front of a few of his knights that let them to believe that Henry wanted Becket dead. The next day the knights burst into Canterbury Cathedral and murdered Becket, in front of witnesses. The word spread that Henry II had Becket murdered in a house of God and this is the starting point of his troubles.

Here is the pat that moved me the most – I can just picture this in my mind:

In the Spring of 1174, Henry II faced a storm of revolt across his empire which began with the betrayal of his family. His sons Henry and Richard along with their mother, Eleanor of Acquitaine had turned against him.

Scottish king, William I “the Lion” had invaded northern England and Henry feared England would be lost. It’s at this time that he realized the “ghost” of Becket is what haunts his now tempestuous reign – he must do something to correct the wrong and get the English subjects once again on his side.

12th century choir: Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

On 12 July 1174, Henry II headed to Canterbury, England. Just outside the city he stopped and removed his boots. He walked barefoot through the muddy road, dressed as a pilgrim. He walked through broken shards of pottery, mud and whatever you can imagine on the streets of medieval England in 1174. As he walked he left behind bloody footprints.

Henry walked 3 miles to Canterbury Cathedral. When he arrived he walked to the shrine of Becket in the crypt of the cathedral. Once there he knelt down in front of Becket’s tomb and commanded the monks to whip him. They were some of the same monks who watched Becket be murdered just three years earlier. By being whipped, in front of Becket’s tomb, by the monks who witnessed the murder, Henry II was spilling his own blood for penance. He received nearly 300 lashing. The monks who participated, who witnessed the whipping were responsible for spreading the word about what Henry had done. This was Henry’s plan. To seek forgiveness from God and all his subjects, and it seemed to work.

Henry II

The next morning, Henry II found out that the Scottish king had been captured and the northern invasion was over. He took this as a sign that his penance was accepted by God.

After the capture of the Scottish king and the penance of Henry,  the English rebellion had no more fuel and the barons soon followed – Henry had regained control of England. His next step was stop his sons, Henry and Richard and his wife Eleanor in France. He did just that. What would he do with his wife and son?

The betrayal of a wife and queen was considered much worse than that of the sons. Henry sent Eleanor to captivity and forgave his two sons because he needed heirs to his throne.

This is not the end of the story of this troubled family – we’ll talk more about them later. Today we talked about Henry II’s penance and how he came back from a murder that was never intended.


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