Henry came to the throne in a kingdom that was in anarchy after King Stephen's reign. He got the Barons into line with remarkable speed. The bulk of his lands were however in France, having acquired Normandy and Anjou through inheritance and much of south-west France through marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine. It was because of these land holding that the English Kings claimed the throne of France until the 15th Century.
Henry II received a lot of bad press due to the murder of Thomas Beckett, but it was all a misunderstanding. Honest.
Henry's family was beyond dysfunctional. Eleanor spent most of her married life in prison and his sons were regularly at odds with him. Richard even attacked Henry with the aid of Louis VII of France. Still, Henry managed to outlive two of his sons. Henry's legacy was squandered though when Richard lost his money crusading and getting captured, while John Lackland justified his father's lack of faith in him by losing his French posessions as well as the respect of the Barons.
On the other hand, his antecedents were impressive. His mother was a king's daughter, Augusta (also Maude and Matilda), daughter of Henry I of England (son of the Conqueror) and Matilda of Scotland (herself daughter of the Scots king Malcolm III), and widow of the Holy Roman Emperor before her remarriage. His father was Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, son of Count Fulk (who had also been King of Jersusalem) and of Erembourg (or Ermentrude), Countess of Maine. The (slight) blot on the escutcheon was, of course, the legend that, back in history, the counts of Anjou were descended, in some way, from the demi-demon Melusine.
A Contemporary Eye
Gerald of Wales described King Henry as follows, in his 1188 book The Conquest of Ireland:
- ... hair that was almost red in colour, grey eyes and a large round head. His eyes were bright, and in ager fierce, and flecked with red. He had a fiery complexion, his voice was husky, his neck bent forward a little from his shoulders, and he had a broad chest and powerful arms. His body was fleshy, and he had a very large belly, naturally so, and not due to the effects of gluttony
Gerald also noted that he used immense amounts of exercise both to mitigate his plumpness and to bring his body firmly under his mind's control.