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Stability of domains ruled by the Angevin Kings of England during the period 1154-1199?

Coat of Arms of King Richard, The Lionheart (1189 - 1199)


King Richard I, The Lionheart (1189 - 1199)

Why did the Angevin holdings - which extended from the northern border of England to the Pyrenees at the end of the reign of Henry II - fail to survive as political entity? Clanchy saw the central question to address was that of whether this failure was due to "the folly of King John" or to structural weaknesses in the "Empire." (Clanchy MT, in Gillingham:1984 Preface.) Looking at the factors uniting and dividing the empire during this period, it will be argued that the centralised focus of power in the person of the king provided a degree of coherence to the Angevin dominions. This was , however, undermined by the internal and external struggles over power which made the Angevin period inherently unstable, until the death of Richard I in 1199 precipitated the breakup of the Empire.

Gillingham saw the Angevin Empire as a distinct political entity with a "history which is structurally different not only from that of the preceding Norman Empire but different also from subsequent Plantagenet history." (Gillingham:1984,1) However, the term Angevin Empire" is a modern construct, not used in the contemporary literature and disputed by most historians, although adopted by Gillingham for convenience (Gillingham:1984,3).

The term "Angevin Empire" refers to the lands held by the family of the counts of Anjou. In 1154, Henry Duke of Normandy became King of England (having inherited the duchy of Normandy and having already acquired Acquitaine through marriage.) The political centre of gravity of the Angevin holdings was then in France. There is little evidence for the period before 1199 and most of this is skewed towards England, perhaps leading the historian to believe that England was more significant in Angevin rule than was the case. However, England did provide the kingship title.

King Henry II (1154-1189)

Gilligham argued that "the emergence of the national kingdoms of England and France was inevitable. The very idea of an effective political structure cutting across those predestined frontiers is absurd" (Gillingham:1984,3.) Setting aside the intrinsic problem with this argument (one cannot assume the inevitability of any historical event), Gillingham is arguing that such a geographically, culturally and socially disparate area as that covered by the Angevin dominion could not constitute a stable and coherent political entity.

Henry II's rise to dominance came about only as a result of "three unexpected twists of fortune to transform the position from one of delicate balance of power to one in which Henry enjoyed a clear preponderance" (Gillingham:1984,15.) These were the premature death of Geoffrey, which left Henry free from having to share his lands with his brother; the marriage to Eleanor, with her large land holdings; and Stephen's abandonment of his struggle to keep the throne for his house, after the death of his eldest son.

Henry adopted a "relentlessly expansionist policy" with the aim of providing for his family rather than building an empire (Gillingham:1984,29-31) Gillingham argued that the "Angevin Empire was a family firm and, in consequence, it was, in the opinion of most historians unlikely to survive for long" (Gillingham:1984, 31.) The position of the Angevin kings was complicated further by the fact that the Angevins were legally vassals of kings of France in the European mainland. The custom of partitioning the inheritance amongst the offspring of a ruler was likely to lead to political fragmentation and inter-family battles. (For instance, Richard faced opposition such as John's rebellion in Ireland in 1193-4.)

This argument would suggest that legal and customary patterns of inheritance which did not follow clear lines of primogeniture succession acted against the constitution of a strong centralised royal authority which might have ensured the continuance of the Angevin holdings as an empire. However, Gillingham argued that "although the familial structure of the Angevin Empire might have led to its dismemberment, ... it did not "(Gillingham:1984,33.)

Gillingham saw the empire as held together by the mutual interest of a number of complementary and interdependent economies. He pointed to the benefits of a unified governmental structure offering relative political stability to merchants. (Gillingham:1984,47) He argued that the Angevin lands constituted an integrated sea-borne empire - rather than a collection of lands - with sea routes linking key territories, each of which made an important contribution to the prosperity of the empire.

Another factor which helped to provide stability and coherence to Angevin rule was its developed administrative structures. At the head of this structure was the royal household. The character of the king remained the most important factor in characterising the shape of each reign. The central focus on one individual as a source of political power must constitute an intrinsic weakness if one seeks to maintain intact a large collection of lands. This was a particularly significant destabilising factor when kings were required to play a personal part in wars (necessary when their claims to legitimacy rested on their ability to resort force of arms and particularly crucial at the time of the Crusades, when moral legitimacy required that a ruler be perceived as willing to fight to defend Christianity.)

Pencil Drawing showing Angevin Knights Fighting

The personalised nature of the crown was a central factor of medieval rule before the development of the more advanced political and administrative systems that we expect to find in later, possibly more stable, social systems. The personalities of the Angevin rulers thus carry more significance in determining the stability of Angevin rule than might be the case in later eras. The evidence from contemporary chroniclers gives a picture of "Henry as a strong and beneficent ruler, of Richard as a glamourous hero and of John as a villainous failure; but these sharp contrasts reflect the attitudes of the more influential of the chroniclers rather than real differences of personality...All three as a matter of fact were heartily disliked by many people in their own day - for they were hard and domineering men." (Warren, 1966:18)

Gillingham (apparently reacting to a reputation Warren described as "glorified by an enthusiastic hero worshipper" Warren, 1966:19) argued that Richard's reign showed kingship at its full power (Gillingham:1994, 95-104.) He believed that the Angevin Empire would have lasted longer if Richard had survived or had not been succeeded by the incompetent John. He presented Richard's development of his own legendary status as an example of his political skills as a great commander. This perspective contradicts the more traditional view of Richard as having sacrificed the interests of his kingdom in pursuit of foreign glory - treating England largely as a source of wealth and power to support his foreign adventures and spending only six months in England during a ten-year reign. Gillingham argued - in answer to this point - that England was only a small part of the Angevin king's territorial responsibilities. Normandy was the central concern for the Angevin kings, as it offered control over the empire's sea routes to England and land routes to other Angevin lands. Henry II himself spent 176 months in Normandy, 154 in England and 84 in other French lands. (Gillingham: 1994, 56.) Despite granting this point, I find the argument for Richard's success as an English King extremely weak.

However, the person of the king was supported by an administrative and political edifice that provided more stability to the political system. The king was surrounded by a court which included men with largely political, military and administrative roles - chancellor, treasurer, constable. The system included barons, who remained lords of their own great estates while serving in the king's household, hence carrying the royal influence into their localities. Patronage helped served to weld the court into an instrument of the royal will. It could also serve as an income-generator for the king. The kings were able to sell offices for huge sums and use their failure to collect the sums as source of political control to ensure that office-holders did not oppose them.

The main household offices of the central administration covered the chamber and the chancery (although offices were fluid). The chamber controlled the financial system. Although few chamber records - as opposed to exchequer records - survive, Gillingham argued that the chamber was more important than the exchequer. (Gillingham:1984,50.) In the chancery, there was a rapid bureaucratic development, particularly at the time of the major political crisis of the Angevin era - the loss of Anjou in 1199-1206. The records resulting from this development show how the political and military crises of John's reign served to undermine the very administrative structure that was being constructed. (Gillingham:1984,51.)

Strong local administrative systems also began to develop, a consequence of the need to deal with basic political and administrative problems in the absence of members of the royal family. (Gillingham:1984,5.) The level of efficiency was demonstrated when the English provincial government was able to largely withstand Richard's three and a half year absence (at a time when his power was threatened both by his brothers John and Geoffrey and by the Count of Toulouse.) By the end of the period leading up to John's reign, "the English administration had learned to run itself. It had been obliged to. " (Warren: 1966, 149)

Medieval Brestplate

Despite the strength of local institutions, however, it would be mistaken to believe that cultural distinctions between localities led to the breakup of the empire, according to Gillingham, who argued that there existed a body of customs that was similar throughout the whole empire (Gillingham:1984,59.) Centralised provincial governments were not autonomous, there was complex system of administrative links between the provinces, even the most highly developed bureaucracies of England and Normandy. The Angevin Empire was not necessarily geographically over extended. Its lands were integrated into an economic and political system which used the sea as a linking factor.

A more significant factor in the eventual breakup of the Angevin holdings was the relationships between the Angevin lords and the French crown. The Angevins remained French vassals. (In 1151, Henry paid homage to Louis VII in Paris, the home territory of the French king.) Henry II, however, resisted the demands of the French King in a way that John later failed to do. "Legally speaking the king of France always had the upper hand and it was bound to be the case that one day, an able and aggressive King of France would find himself opposed by an inadequate opponent." (Gillingham:1984,88.)

At the same time, however, the Angevin kings - who could resort to threat or force of arms to challenge the rule of their own feudal overlord - had to face challenges, from within their dominions, from barons who also had access to military force. The more militarily powerful a king appeared to his subjects, the less likely they would challenge his rule. After John came to power, his military weakness in the rest of Angevin lands may have provided the opportunity for the more powerful English barons to challenge his rule at home.


In conclusion, the nature of the crown in the Angevin period reflected the particular forms of kingship of Norman feudalism. The personalised family business style of rule was not so inherently unstable as to prevent the formation and maintenance of a geographically dispersed integrated "empire." However, conflicts within the feudal leadership ranks meant that no ruler could be secure for long. An exceptional mixture of personal, military, political and administrative qualities was required of each king. The vulnerability of this system to the birth of one unsuitable offspring or to one unfortunate result in battle meant that more stable mechanisms for securing stable government had to be developed if the dynasty was to continue. By the time of John's reign a political and administrative structure began to develop which would help ensure a more coherent and stable political system within the boundaries of a much reduced geographical area..


Turner, R V, 1994, King John, New York, Longman.

Barber, M, 1993, The Two Cities: Medieval Europe 1050-1320 London & New York, Routledge

Warren, W L, 1966, King John, Middlesex, Penguin.

Gillingham, J, 1984,The Angevin Empire London, Edward Arnold.

Gillingham, J, 1994, Richard Coeur de Lion, London, Hambledon.