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Robbing Churches and Pulling Beards: The Rebellious Sons of Henry II

Robbing Churches and Pulling Beards: The Rebellious Sons of Henry II

By Elizabeth J. Anderson

Skepsi: Bad Behaviour in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Volume III, Issue 1 (2010)

12th-century depiction of Henry and Eleanor holding court

12th-century depiction of Henry and Eleanor holding court

Abstract: The unruly sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine: Henry the Young King, Richard I, Geoffrey of Brittany and King John, are fortunately well documented during their father’s lifetime. Many contemporary chronicles detail incidents of behaviours on their part that fall outside the accepted behavioural norms for men of their status. Such behaviours range from the seemingly humorous but politically significant pulling of beards to open and organised rebellion against their father. The article aims to explore some of those incidents in some detail and place them in context to show how they fell outside normal behaviours expected of young, high status males. It will ask how far youth could be used by contemporaries to excuse such poor behaviour and how far such episodes could damage or improve a young man’s masculine status in society. It will also examine the reasons behind the behaviours, the possible purposes each young man may have felt that they served and what each prince had hoped would be the result of their wayward actions. Finally, it will examine the personal and political consequences arising from the misbehaviour of these rebellious princes.

Introduction: Throughout the medieval period, a young nobleman’s behaviour could enhance, diminish or even destroy his attempts to establish an adult, masculine identity. Correctly displaying the expected or ‘good’ behaviour patterns would increase his image as a fully adult male, while displays of behaviour deemed to be ‘bad’ were likely to be seen in terms of immaturity, with the inevitable drop in masculine status. Sometimes, acts of incorrect behaviour could be excused, either because the motivation behind them displayed ‘good’ masculine reasoning, or on account of youth if the individual was under or close to the age of majority. In the latter case, while the behaviour might delay the development of a masculine reputation, it would do so with minimal damage to the young man’s final standing as a royal adult male.

We are fortunate that the activities during their father’s lifetime of the unruly sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry the Young King, Richard (later King Richard I), Geoffrey of Brittany and John (later King John), are well documented. Unsurprisingly, many contemporary chronicles detail incidents of behaviours on their part that fell outside the accepted norms for men of their status. Perhaps the most notable examples of their poor behaviour are those of their two failed rebellions in 1173 and 1183. Only three of the four sons were involved in these rebellions. In the first, John, at just seven years old, was too young to join his brothers and, having been established as his father’s favourite following the first rebellion, in the second he alone among the four brothers remained loyal to their father. However, as we shall see, this does not mean that John was by any means the best-behaved of the princes.

Click here to read this article from Skepsi 

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