The man who invented the jury system

Today is the anniversary of Henry II, the man who brought in the jury system in the 12th century Here’s an extract from 1215 and All That: A Very, Very Short History of Magna Carta and King John

Henry II’s great legacy was to revolutionize the English state, making it an efficient tax-raising machine and dispensing justice, but he and his family were also notoriously cruel and violent. So when Magna Carta emerged it was not only aimed at John, but at the whole Plantagenet dynasty who had come to power in 1154. John was just the most incompetent of them, and his son Henry III, whose reign saw the Second Barons’ War, was a simpleton.

This cruelty seemed to run deep: Geoffrey of Anjou’s great-great-grandfather, Fulk the Black, was a cheery sounding fellow with unusual interests in sexual degradations. Although notoriously violating anything that moved, he could be a bit jealous, old Fulk; he had his first wife burned at the stake in her wedding dress in the middle of the market place in Angers on discovering her adultery with a goatherd. He then burned down the town a few years later. When Fulk put down a rebellion by Geoffrey the Hammer, his equally awful son, ‘he made him crawl around the floor in front of his courtiers, saddled and bridled like a horse, begging for mercy, while his father screamed, “you’re broken in, broken in!”’ Later on a trip to the Holy Land, Fulk made his servants flog him through the streets of Jerusalem as he howled for forgiveness. It’s possible all wasn’t entirely well with him, mentally.

The popular story of their family origins was that while out hunting, Fulk’s grandfather had met and married a lady called Melusine, who was very mysterious and very beautiful and who gave him four sons. However he began to grow suspicious when at church she always left before Holy Communion, and eventually the husband ordered his knights to grab her as she exited – but she slipped out of her cloak and flew off with two sons under her arms, leaving the other two. This was Gerald of Wales’s story, at any rate, although he did admittedly hate the royal family.

Another chronicler, Walter Map, said that Melusine was a sort of dragon, who shrieked horribly as she disappeared through the roof of the church. Later, Henry II’s Richard the Lionheart joked that ‘We come from the Devil and we’ll end by going to the Devil’. Map also said the Plantagenets were heirs to the mythological huntsman, King Herlequin, the leader of a group of devils who would haunt the coast of France (this French myth evolved into harlequins, who aren’t devils as such but are still slightly sinister figures). The less interesting truth is that the Plantagenets probably originated with a Breton outlaw called Tertulle the Forester, a sort of bandit in the 9th century who fought the Vikings and came to rule his own mini-kingdom in western France.

But later subjects of the Plantagenets would claim that Satan himself was the ultimate dynastic founder, which suggests that the royal family’s PR team faced something of an uphill struggle at the time.

The 12th and 13th century was a period of tremendous economic and cultural growth in Europe, an explosion in some ways as dramatic as the Renaissance three centuries later; it saw the building of the great Gothic cathedrals, the invention of the first universities, the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great, new and exciting ways of killing people in war, and a rapidly growing economy and population. But in England, in particular, which under the Anglo-Saxons already had an efficient state structure, it saw the emergence of a centralised state and legal system. In charge of it was the rapacious monarchy, growing in size and hungry for money, which had become an overblown state resented by the people funding it; an indication of the Crown’s growth can be seen in its ownership of castles, so that while in 1154, the monarch held 35 per cent of England’s 350 fortresses, by John’s reign it owned nearly half of them.

Geoffrey’s son, who took power in 1154, was described by Gerald of Wales as ‘a man of reddish, freckled complexion, with a large, round head, grey eyes that glowed fiercely then grew bloodshot in anger, a fierce countenance and a harsh, cracked voice’.

From an early age Henry II had shown the sort of spirit that made great medieval kings: as a 14-year-old he’d had taken a group of heavily-armed friends over to England and demanded money from King Stephen. The monarch agreed to his charming nephew’s menaces, and six years later handed over the entire kingdom.

By the time young Henry became King of England and Duke of Normandy he was already ruler of his native Anjou; now he controlled the entire west coast of France, aged 21. He also went on to invade Ireland, a decision that down the years has caused one or two problems. The first Angevin was hugely intelligent, and as well as being able to read and write (he was one of only a few kings in medieval times known to read in bed) Henry could speak at least passable English, Latin, two types of French, and Welsh. He had a good memory and knowledge of history, and could converse with people of education, although his tastes weren’t that highbrow. His favourite court jester was one Roland the Farter, who was given a manor in Suffolk on condition that every Christmas he ‘gave a jump, a whistle and a fart before Henry and his courtiers’.

The king could also be stubborn, and once he decided he didn’t like someone, he never changed his opinion of them. Full of nervous energy and fidgety, he was unable to pay attention at Mass, but Henry’s main problem was his temper, and as a result he spent his entire reign fighting. Once, believing that a servant had betrayed him, he ‘aflame into his usual rage, flung his cap from his head, pulled off his belt, threw off his cloak and clothes, grabbed the silken coverlet off the couch, and sitting as it might be on some dung heap started chewing pieces of straw as if he were sitting in a ditch’. His furious temper would aggravate the central conflict of the era, with the Church, St Thomas Becket’s murder being one of the few medieval events that has stuck in the public consciousness; but it also fuelled the far more hateful conflict with his own sons, four of the most monstrous individuals of the period.

On one occasion the king accused his butler, Robert Belet, of insolence because he had not given him a sparrow hawk as a present; Belet was forced to pay a fine of £100, which according to records he was still paying off 18 years later. Another of his men, Henry of Essex, dropped the king’s banner during an invasion of Wales in 1157, and was forced to undergo trial by ordeal. His opponent beat him and his lands were confiscated, with Henry left for dead; however he recovered and lived for another 13 miserable years as a monk.

William of Newburgh said Henry ‘was hateful to nearly everyone’, and he certainly had a cruel streak. During his conflict with the Church hundreds of Thomas Becket’s supporters were stripped of possessions, exiled or imprisoned in chains; clerics could even have their eyes pulled out or genitals hacked off, while a young man who took the king a message from the pope had his eyes gouged out and was forced to drink boiling water. But, to be fair, Henry was one of the less cruel members of his family.

As well as his land in England, Normandy and Anjou, Henry had acquired another huge chunk of territory two years before he become king when he married the slightly risqué Eleanor of Aquitaine, a divorcee previously wed to King Louis VII of France, and 12 years older than him. Eleanor was so scandalous that an English monk wrote upon her arrival (in a way that rather sounds like Frankie Howerd in Up Pompeii!): ‘Hush! Let nothing more be said of it, though I know it well!’ Soon after she and Louis were married, Eleanor made him have a war to please her sister, a conflict in which 1,000 people were burned alive in a church, and she then allegedly began an affair with her own uncle (a caveat here needs to be inserted that rumours of sexual depravity are attached to pretty much any powerful women in the medieval period). Henry’s father Geoffrey had also supposedly ‘personally verified Eleanor’s appetite for passion before recommending her to his son’ , which says something about how messed up the family was.

By this point Louis seemed to hate her so much that he was happy to lose one-third of his kingdom when they split up, in possibly the worst divorce settlement in history for a man before the arrival of the modern matrimonial lawyer.

Eleanor’s marriage to Louis partly failed because they were unable to bear sons, but she went on to produce five by her new, younger husband, four of them surviving to adulthood, as well as three daughters. Henry also had as many as 12 children by his various mistresses, an attraction that must have had less to do with his bloodshot eyes and enormous beer belly, and probably more to do with his massive empire stretching from the borders of Scotland to the northern tip of Spain. Notorious for his sexual appetite, Henry’s court had so many prostitutes attached to it that there was a ‘marshal of the whores’ to deal with them, whose name was (seriously) Baldrick FitzGilbert.

Incidentally we can’t say that Henry’s great achievements have been forgotten; when in 2002 the BBC made their 100 Greatest Britons List, the inventor of the jury system had the great honour of being placed four places below Bono.

 

 

 

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