9th Grade: A Medieval Cold War turns Hot


Henry IIThis week we wrapped up the 12th century by looking at Henry II, king of England from 1154-1179.

Henry had many great leadership qualities, as even his enemies attested to.  Tall, handsome, bold, decisive, charismatic — the list could go on.  Feudal society, however, seemed arranged specifically to prevent strong ‘type A’ personalities like Henry’s from exercising their full potential.  Past updates discussed the various ‘spheres’ of influence, local distinctions, and tangled allegiances that prevented any centralization of power in the medieval world.

All of this sort of thing no doubt maddened Henry, just as it would frustrate anyone who liked efficiency, action, and “getting things done,” not to mention power.  Henry did his best, however, and had a great deal of success.  One of his final frontiers remained the creation of universal law throughout England, and here he met the staunch opposition of the Church, in the person of his one time friend Thomas Becket, a man to whom he had personally shown enormous favor, raising him from his “common” birth to the heights of power.  Henry also wanted the power to appoint bishops to vacant sees, and to try monks and clergy who had committed crimes.  Becket didn’t mind the first so much, acquiesced on the last, and ended up dying for his opposition to Henry’s claim to control the clergy.

The medievals inherited one of their dominant theological motifs from St. Augustine’s “City of God.”  In his treatise Augustine outlined the existence of two cities on Earth, the “City of Man,” and the “City of God.”  The City of Man has its manifestation in the use of power to maintain order — the State.  The state has legitimacy in the eyes of God. It performs crucial functions for our well being.  But don’t kid yourself into thinking that the City of Man has any redemptive qualities or possibilities.  It performs purely ‘negative’ functions.  It restrains evil but cannot serve as a conduit for redemption.

The City of God, on the other hand, looks beyond the maintaining of power to redemption.  It focuses on love, forgiveness, and grace.  The City of God, therefore, must not be ‘infected’ by the City of Man.  The two are ultimately incompatible not because the City of Man is inherently bad but because they have different goals.  For many medievals, the political and legal independence of the Church helped maintain the Kingdom of God on Earth.

The feud between Henry and Beckett likely had its personal undertones, but at its heart, Beckett believed he stood for the independence of the Church.  Henry’s claim to appoint bishops and discipline clergy to Beckett looked like the City of Man trying to control the City of God.  If the City of Man got its clutches on the Church, the Kingdom of God would suffer, the light of Christ would dim.

Becket and Henry

Becket’s opposition to Henry seems arcane to us.  But to keep its independence, the Church believed that it needed to maintain both its territorial and legal separation from the state.  For his part, Henry felt that he could not tolerate a de facto “state within a state” while he reigned.  In the end, four of Henry’s knights killed Becket, though perhaps not on Henry’s direct order.  Nevertheless, Henry ‘lost,’ for the people blamed him for Becket’s death, and he had to publicly do penance.  At the end of the post I include one medieval contemporary’s admiring evaluation of Henry II.  He had many strengths, but some of these strengths could turn to weaknesses in the wrong context.

Previously we examined aspects of the medieval “guild” system.  Guilds had three basic functions:

  • To provide a means to train new workers
  • To enforce a uniform standard of quality
  • To protect its members

But beyond these basic functions, guilds, whether consciously or not, reinforced basic values of medieval society, which valued community and stability over competition and change.  I assume they would look at modern day America and shake their heads.  So much turmoil, so much of the “rat-race” mentality, so much cut-throat competition.  Why not all agree to scale back and relax a little?  Why make the middle-class dad have to stay open later to stay ahead of the competition just to keep up with competitors and miss his son’s soccer game?  In the end, it’s not worth it.

Guilds also provided another check and balance, or block of power and influence in the medieval stew.  They further prevented any kind of concentration of power.  Understanding the guild system can help us understand why Henry II actions brought so much controversy.

But, as students noted, the guild system geared itself towards stability and community, not innovation.  In America, for example, we do not shed a tear if Hechingers Hardware loses to Home Depot, so long as we get a better deal (does anyone else remember Hechingers?).  We understand that competition benefits consumers, and we accept the occasional disruption and instability that brings to the economy.  The medievals, on the other hand, made a different choice, thinking more of the immediate local community and less of the amorphous general public.

Many thanks,


Here is the “friendly” source on Henry II

To Walter, by the grace of God archbishop of Palermo, once associate, now lord and dearest friend in Christ, Peter of Blois sends greeting and wished continual success of your desires.

The blessed Lord God of Israel, who visited and made his mercy upon you, raised you up in need from the dust, so that you may sit with kings and princes and may hold the throne of glory. Terrible is the Lord in his judgments, and great in his compassion, very worthy of praise, for “His compassion is over all that he made.” [Psalm 145:9] Therefore of his compassion, which he has magnified in you, you have continual and steadfast memory, nor is that Judaic reproach seen in you: “They are not mindful of His benefits and of his wonders which he has shown to them.” [Psalm 77:11] There is nothing like ingratitude to provoke the indignation of the Most High: the very provocation of evils, deprivation of benefits, extermination of merits. On account of reverence for that one, who delivered you from contemptible poverty, may you exhibit most fully the office of humanity to the Cisalpine poor; truly those who go to, or return from the land in which walked the feet of our Lord, you could strike down in many ways, but you must fulfill their needs with the solace of more humane grace, just as your predecessors in office. You will recognize that the Father is himself Father of orphans and paupers, who exalts the humble, and humiliates the proud: for which on behalf of his poor pilgrims he will uncover you, so that they may find among you aid of customary goodness. And therefore let it frighten you, lest their clamor and complaint ascend to the ears of that one, who is terrible among the kings of the earth, who judges the case of the poor, and accuses on behalf of the meek of the earth.

For the golden sash and silken girdle, and samite, and other exotic goods, which through the bearer of gifts from your largess I receive not as much as I wish, but as much as I deserve, I give back thanks. Truly from this the ancient integrity of your liberality is clear, which neither intervening time nor distance of places, nor assumption of honor, nor other things destructive to friendship were able to undo.

Since however you have demanded from me with all insistence that I should send to you the shape and habits of the lord king of England in an accurate description – which exceeds my faculties, and for which indeed the vein of Mantuan genius would seem insufficient enough – I nevertheless will communicate to you what I know without envy and detraction. About David it was said [I Kings 16] to the commendation of his beauty, that he was red-haired; however you will know that the lord king has been red-haired so far, except that the coming of old age and gray hair has altered that color somewhat. His height is medium, so that neither does he appear great among the small, nor yet does he seem small among the great. His head is round, just as if the seat of great wisdom, and specially a shrine of lofty counsel. Such is the size of his head, that so it matches with his neck and with the whole body in proportionate moderation. His eyes are round, and white and plain, while he is of calm spirit; but in anger and disorder of heart they shine like fire and flash in fury. His hair is not in fear of the losses of baldness, nevertheless on top there is a tonsure of hairs; his leonine face is rather square. The eminence of his nose is weighed to the beauty of the whole body with natural moderation; curved legs, a horseman’s shins, broad chest, and a boxer’s arms all announce him as a man strong, agile and bold; nevertheless, in a certain joint of his foot the part of the toenail is grown into the flesh of his foot, to the vehement outrage of the whole foot. His hands testify grossly to the same neglect of his men; truly he neglects their care all the time; nor at any time, unless carrying birds, does he use gloves. Daily in mass, in counsels and in other public doings of the realm always from morning until vespers he stands on his feet. And, he never sits, unless riding a horse or eating, although he has shins greatly wounded and bruised with frequent blows of horses’ hooves. In a single day, if necessary, he can run through four or five day-marches and, thus foiling the plots of his enemies, frequently mocks their plots with surprise sudden arrivals; he wears boots without a fold, caps without decoration, light apparel. He is a passionate lover of woods; while not engaged in battles, he occupies himself with birds and dogs. For in fact his flesh would weigh him down enormously with a great burden of fat, if he did not subdue the insolence of his belly with fasts and exercise; and also in getting onto a horse, preserving the lightness of youth, he fatigues almost every day the most powerful for the labor. Truly he does not, like other kings, linger in his palace, but traveling through the provinces he investigates the doings of all, judging powerfully those whom he has made judges of others. No one is more cunning in counsel, more fiery in speech, more secure in the midst of dangers, more cautious in fortune, more constant in adversity. Whom once he has esteemed, with difficulty he unloves them; whom once he has hated, with difficulty he receives into the grace of his familiarity. Always are in his hands bow, sword, spear and arrow, unless he be in council or in books. As often as he is able to rest from cares and anxieties, he occupies himself by reading alone, or in a crowd of clerics he labors to untangle some knot of inquiry. For while your king knows his letters well, our king is more literate by far. Truly I have judged the abilities of both in learned matters. You know that the king of Sicily was my student for a year, and had had from you the basic arts of versification and literature; he obtained more benefit of knowledge through my industry and solicitude. However as soon as I had departed the kingdom, that one turned himself over to abject books in imperial leisure. But yet in the household of the lord king of the English every day is school, in the constant conversation of the most literate and discussion of questions. No one is more honest in speech than our king, more polite in eating, more moderate in drinking; no one is more magnificent in gift-giving, no one more munificent in alms-giving: and therefore his name is like poured oil, and the entire church of saints describes the alms of such a one. Our king is peaceable, victorious in war, glorious in peace: he is zealous for the things to be desired in this world and he procures peace for his people. He considers whatever pertains to the peace of the people, in whatever he speaks, in whatever he does; so that his people may rest, he incessantly takes on troubled and enormous labors. It aims to the peace of his people that he calls councils, that he makes laws, that he makes friendships, that he brings low the proud, that he threatens battles, that he launches terror to the princes. Also that immensity of money aims at the peace of his people, which he gives out, which he receives, which he gathers, which he disperses. In walls, in ramparts, in fortifications, in ditches, in enclosures of wild beasts and fish, and in palaces there is no one more subtle, and no one more magnificent to be found.

His most powerful and most noble father the count [of Anjou] extended his borders greatly; but the king added to his paternal lands with abundance in his strong hands the duchy of Normandy, the duchy of Brittany, the kingdom of England, the kingdom of Scotland, the kingdom of Ireland, the kingdom of Wales; he increased inestimably the titles of his magnificent inheritance. No one is more mild to the afflicted, no one more friendly to the poor, no one more unbearable to the proud; he always strives to oppress the proud with the semblance of divinity, to raise up the oppressed, and to stir up against swelling of pride continual persecutions and deadly troubles. When however he may according to the custom of the kingdom have had roles in making elections of most important and most powerful, he nevertheless always had his hands pure and free from all venality. I merely touch upon, I will not describe these and other endowments of soul as much as body, with which nature has marked him out before others; truly I confess my insufficiency and would believe that Cicero and Virgil themselves would sweat under such a labor. I have briefly tasted this little morsel of his appearance and habits at your request; truly I shall seem either to have undertaken an unbearable work, or to have cut back much about the magnificence of so great a man through jealousy. Nevertheless I, serving your charity, do what I can do, and what I know without envy and without detraction, I communicate with most prompt good will, and also among other great men, who write in praise of my lord, I put my might of devotion in a treasure chest along with the poor widow.