Geoffrey: the Prodigal Son of Henry II

By James Turner

Family was of the utmost importance in shaping the identity, political affinity and horizons of twelfth century aristocrats. This was no less true for royals with the Norman and Angevin kings of England finding both their greatest supporters and ardent foes emerging from the ranks of their own family throughout the 12th century. This series looks at the lives and relationships of a category of people who due to the circumstances of their birth sat on the periphery of this vast and interconnected dynastic systems – the royal bastards.

1174 was both a political and personal crisis for Henry II.  He was embroiled in an ongoing rebellion centered around his eldest surviving legitimate sons, each of whom sought a greater piece of the family’s vast and diverse portfolio of lands and titles. Worse still, this potent and highly militarized display of filial ill feeling was supported not only by Henry’s fellow monarchs, the kings of France and Scotland, but also by his own wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. Not all of Henry’s family let him down, however.


In the same year, his eldest illegitimate son, Geoffrey, organized and led royalist forces in a campaign in the north of England which laid waste to the lands of the prominent rebel Roger Mowbray and ultimately led to the capture of King William the Lion of Scotland. Henry is reported to have greeted the news of Geoffrey’s recapture of northern England and the repulsion of the Scots with the declaration, ‘My other sons are the real bastards. He alone has proved himself legitimate and true!’. While it is unlikely that chronicler and court intimate, Gerald of Wales, recorded the king’s actual words verbatim, they surely captured the king’s sentiments and feelings of paternal affection.

13th-century depiction of Henry and his legitimate children: (l to r) William, Young Henry, Richard, Matilda, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joan and John

Gerald’s account attests to a contemporary, and from the evidence I think we can safely infer, accurate perception within the court of the Angevin Hegemony of the close ties of familial affection and political affinity which existed between Henry and Geoffrey. Indeed, even before this rebellion and Geoffrey’s decisive engagement in upholding and protecting his father’s interests, Geoffrey was already a familiar figure within the royal court who received considerable advancement and as far as it can be judged genuine affection from his royal father.

Geoffrey was Henry II’s eldest known acknowledged child, illegitimate or otherwise, a position which as we have seen in Henry I’s relationship with his first child, Robert of Gloucester, often formed the foundation of a close bond and prefaced an acceptance into and acknowledged participation within a shared dynastic enterprise. This favoritism for the eldest illegitimate children born from the monarchs’ misspent youths was a potent combination of personal factors such as novelty of experience and political concerns, namely that such children would be in a position to contribute to the advancement of their fathers’ dynastic and political concerns before their younger half-siblings. From specific contemporary complaints about the scandalously young age at which Geoffrey began his career in the Church, it seems that he was born sometime in the early 1150’s. The royal chaplain turned chronicler, Gerald of Wales, commented that the favoured royal bastard was barely twenty at the time of his nomination to the Bishopric of Lincoln in 1173. Interestingly, despite his prominence and extensive engagement in both royal service and wider royal familial identity, the exact circumstances of Geoffrey’s birth and even the identity of his mother remain opaque.


Geoffrey has sometimes, within the broader historiography and literary tradition, been associated with Henry’s most well-known and celebrated mistress, Fair Rosamund Clifford, possibly as a result of perceptions regarding the high level of affection with which Henry regarded them both. While the exact date of birth for Rosamund is unknown, it seems that she and Geoffrey were close enough in age to make it highly improbable that they were mother and son. Gerald’s account of courtly life again helps us here, when he not only demurs to draw an explicit connection, familial or otherwise, between Rosamund and Geoffrey but also describes her as still being a girl in 1174.

1917 Oil on canvas painting by John William Waterhouse, titled Fair Rosamund

Walter Map in his work, the De Nugis Curialium, identifies Geoffrey’s mother as a prostitute called Ykenai and elaborates that she took advantage of the King’s credulity in order to get him to recognize Geoffrey as his son. Walter was a cleric who acted as an envoy and diplomat on behalf of the King, most notably representing Henry’s interests on embassies to the courts of King Louis VII of France and Pope Alexander III. Walter was therefore well informed on the composition and interpersonal dynamics of both the Angevin court and royal family, being personally acquainted with both the King, an assessment of whose character he devotes a large segment of the De Nugis Curialium’s fifth book to, and Geoffrey who he briefly served under in the diocese of Lincoln.

However, in his account of the royal court, Walter candidly professes to harbour a great deal of personal antagonism towards Geoffrey, whose presence and status within court he occasionally makes use of as a shorthand for the corruption and iniquities of Henry II’s reign. Additionally, Walter’s works contain strong satirical elements throughout, beginning De Nugis Curialium with a comparison between the royal court and hell in which he recasts the royal family and members of their affinities as denizens of an abyssal hierarchy. Walter’s exaggerated irreverent style and content, when taken into consideration with his apparent personal dislike of the future Archbishop, suggests that his account of Geoffrey’s maternity is probably a rhetorical device meant to antagonize the royal bastard and parody contemporary perceptions of the louche morals and strictures of the Angevin royal court. Peter, a Deacon of Lincoln was identified within charters as Geoffrey’s brother but his relative obscurity and the patronage he received from Geoffrey and Bishop Hugh of Lincoln rather than by either Henry or Henry’s legitimate successors, suggests that he was Geoffrey’s maternal half-brother rather than a royal bastard.


Geoffrey was likely raised within the royal court, even making an appearance as an infant amidst the pomp and theater of Henry’s coronation ceremony in 1154. Despite an almost life long position within the King’s inner circle and his later service to his father in a number of administrative and military capacities throughout the reign, Henry demurred from procuring a marriage to a wealthy heiress for his son or directly bestowing territory from the royal demesne upon him. Instead Henry sought to promote Geoffrey’s career within the Church. Such a course of action had a number of advantages. High office within the church would amply provide for Geoffrey’s material needs, making him powerful and prosperous. Additionally, from his position within the Church hierarchy, Geoffrey would have the means to support his legitimate family members and their shared dynastic interests through the highly connective and pervasive ecclesiastical sphere. A concern which may have been particularly relevant for Henry II, given his experience of the Becket affair and its lingering after-effects.

Most importantly, perhaps becoming a bishop would not only squash any pretensions Geoffrey might have to the throne but would also remove the need to squabble and compete with his numerous legitimate half-brothers over the distribution and governance of the family’s holdings. However, events with the Church and sea changes within the framework of wider European society conspired to complicate and potentially threaten this strategy.

Church reform and the illegitimate

The flourishing of the pre-existing reform movement in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, grounded in or heavily influenced by the monastic tradition, and coalesced around the papal court, consciously emphasized a renewal of canon law and its repositioning to the center of the governance of Christian life and society. The reformers sought to establish a functioning and ideally standardized system of Church courts. They further aimed to expand the jurisdiction and authority of such courts to include the settlement of disputes pertaining to church institutions and spiritual matters. This pronounced focus on legalism, crystalized an already growing consensus within the church as to the parameters and prerequisites of marriage. Furthermore, it successfully synergized with the reform movement’s drive to increase the quality and availability of pastoral care throughout Christendom.


Far from marking the end of either ecclesiastical or secular debate upon the legal and spiritual limitations of marriage, these reforms, building upon the church’s growing involvement in and jurisdiction over marriage, led to its colonization by the church and its adoption and recognition as one of the sacraments. Demographic changes throughout Western Europe at this time probably abetted the permeation and widespread acceptance of the Church’s increasingly standardized conceptions of marriage throughout lay society.  Slowly, this acceptance extended to the aristocracy which previously had frequently engaged in informal and dissolvable yet politically engaged unions the Church defined as a state of concubinage.

A natural effect of a widely applied definition of marriage and the categorization of the prerequisites and characteristics of a valid union was the codification of illegitimacy.  Now defined as anyone born from an illicit or otherwise invalid union, illegitimacy moved from an extant but ill-defined and plastic social distinction to a legal status. However, the legal and spiritual implications for such individuals continued to be debated within the church and any responsive actions were inconsistently applied. The intended aim of the reform movement was not the relegation of illegitimate children to the periphery but one of the principal results of the church’s reform and its assimilation of the institution of marriage was the exclusion of those children from rights of succession and inheritances as a side effect of the process of establishing a celibate priesthood and monogamous licit marriage. Bishop Ivo of Chartres, a collector and compiler of canon law, who was influenced by both Augustine and a fellow authority on canon law, Burchard of Worms, maintained that a father’s sin could not be transmitted to his children.  Ivo supported the right of bastards and the offspring of priests to enter holy orders, emphasizing the ‘at risk’ status of many illegitimate individuals and the church’s responsibility towards them.

Nevertheless, as a by-product of the church reform movement’s attempts to raise the standard of pastoral care and the strongly ascetic influence of the monastic ideal upon contemporary reformers, the 11th century saw increased calls from prominent figures and factions within the church to adopt practices which distanced and excluded illegitimate individuals. Gregory VII in 1074 forbade the ordination of not only the children of priests but anyone tainted by illegitimacy. The Synod of Melfi (1089), called by Urban II, is associated with the edict that barred the sons of priests from approaching the altar and administering sacraments, with the notable exception of monks and canons regular.  These restrictions suggest that while bastards were considered tainted by their parentage, this flaw was not beyond remission and could be atoned for to a certain extent. However, the spiritual status of bastards was a controversial and divisive issue within the reform movement.

Six years after Melfi, the more famous synod held at Clermont ruled that the sons of concubines were not only to be forbidden from carrying out the sacraments but were barred from entry into Holy Orders of any kind. This persecution and alienation from holding offices within the Church was possibly meant to be viewed as part of a program of normalization and repetition of the reform movement’s position, which was designed to bring about the end of clerical marriage and hereditary positions. The reform movement transmitted conceptions on the parameters of marriage as well as standards of clerical purity and pastoral care which faced significant resistance from the Church, particularly amongst the cathedral Canons. This opposition and the sophisticated theologically rooted defense mobilized on behalf of the practice of clerical marriage may have convinced reformers of the need to pursue a broad and punitive strategy which legally and spiritually compromised not only married clerics but their children.


The effect on this program of Church reform on illegitimate members of the Anglo-Norman royal family, outside of further delineating the already extant distinction between legitimate and illegitimate was clearly limited. Like many aristocratic family networks, the Counts and Dukes of Normandy often sought to establish their illegitimate or otherwise surplus male relatives within the Church in order to gain access to the resources and patronage that those positions could provide. Robert of Gloucester’s own illegitimate son, Richard, was appointed to the Bishopric of Bayeux in 1135, a post previously held by William the Conqueror’s maternal half-brother Odo. It must have seemed to Henry II then that just like the issues of divorce and marriage with the proscribed degree of consanguinity that the strictures of canon law represented only a small impediment to the wealthy and well connected.

Bishop but not priest

At his father’s instance Geoffrey was appointed to the Archdeaconship of Lincoln in 1171. Two years later despite a youthfulness that should technically precluded him from consideration for the position, he was elected to the Bishopric of Lincoln itself, later travelling to Roman and acquiring the necessary Papal dispensation in 1175 without incident. Geoffrey spent much of his ecclesiastical career as an absentee bishop, spending time accompanying his father in the royal court, participating in military service during the 1173-1174 rebellions and completing his education in Tours during which time he enjoyed the income of the bishopric and the numerous lesser ecclesiastical posts Henry had granted to him.

Worse still, despite having received the necessary Papal dispensation, Geoffrey formally remained the bishop elect, refusing to be ordained as a priest which was an essential prerequisite for any formally enthroned bishop. There was significant resistance to Geoffrey’s appointment and clamor over the manner in which he administered his diocese from the cathedral canons of Lincoln. But it is unclear to what extent this opposition was based purely upon his illegitimacy at this time of transition in the application of Church doctrine or was motivated by his attempts to occupy the office and exercise its authority while refusing to be ordained. Decades later another of Henry II’s offspring to aspire to high clerical office, Morgan, had his own attempts to hold a bishopric thwarted by his illegitimate status. Likely born late in his father’s reign, given the date of his appointment to the provostship of Beverley in 1201, Morgan was awarded the position of bishopric of Durham by his half-brother King John in 1213. However, with the acquisition of a Papal dispensation complicated by John’s ongoing clash with the Church and the Papal interdict over England, Pope Innocent III was unwilling to grant the request. Although perhaps generously he was reportedly willing to ratify Morgan’s appointment provided he acquiesce to the fiction that rather than a royal bastard he was a legitimately born son of his stepfather Ralph Bloet.

Its unclear exactly why Geoffrey so ferociously refused to be ordained and while it’s possible he simply felt the ecclesiastical life was not for him, it is tempting in light of Henry II’s tumultuous relationship with his legitimate heirs to think that Geoffrey did not wish to be further removed from a possible claim to the succession by formally accepting membership of the priesthood. In 1181, when forced by the pope to choose between renouncing his claim to the bishopric or becoming ordained, Geoffrey chose the former option although scandalously with the king’s blessing, he retained the incomes of many of his other ecclesiastical appointments.

Royal Chancellor

With his plans for Geoffrey’s future in tatters, Henry II was compelled to find an alternate means of providing status and income for a favored son. Geoffrey was appointed Royal Chancellor by his father and at the same time endowed with considerable resources for his maintenance drawn from both royal domains and vacant ecclesiastical dioceses amounting to a considerable yearly income in the region of five hundred marks, while the position’s current incumbent, Ralph de Warneville, was raised to the Bishopric of Lisieux.  In addition to Chancellorship, Geoffrey inherited from Ralph the positions of treasurer of York and the archdeaconry of Rouen as well as receiving the custodianship and accompanying incomes of the castles of Bauge and Langeais in southern Anjou. Strangely given his closeness to his father and his earlier engagement in royal service, Geoffrey’s role as Chancellor, nominally responsible for the operation of royal governance and its increasingly diversified and invasive administrative apparatus, seems to have been minimal. While he appears to have been in the King’s company and witnessing court documents at various stages throughout 1182 and 1185, his employment of Walter de Coutances to act as the keeper of the seal and discharge many of the formal legal and ceremonial duties of the Chancellor suggests an extended or frequent absence from the royal court.

It is possible, however, that Geoffrey was engaged in royal service elsewhere representing his father’s tangled interests abroad. During this period, near the height of Henry II’s temporal power and influence, he received overtures from magnates within both Italy and the crusader states, to which he had dynastic claim, suggesting the possibility that the King or one of his sons could claim thrones within the respective regions. It’s possible then that Geoffrey was engaged in some way in negotiating these potential suits on behalf of his father and familial dynastic interests.

Indeed, the contemporary Angevin court functionary and diplomat, Peter of Blois, records that Geoffrey’s own candidacy had been discussed and that as a result of his well- known admirable qualities, or possibly more likely his strong affinity with a powerful monarch who continuously flirted with the notion of crusade, the patriarch of Jerusalem, Heraclius, experimented with the notion of offering him the throne of the holy city.  Peter of Blois was an intimate of the Angevin court and held the position of chief letter writer to the Archbishop of Canterbury before his dogged work as a royal advocate and propagandist on behalf of Henry II saw him rewarded with a series of diplomatic appointments. Peter and Geoffrey were almost certainly personally acquainted as a result of their shared membership and service to the royal court. What is more, Peter dedicating his work on the life of the Anglo-Saxon St Wilfred to the royal bastard, suggested the two were connected through ties of sponsorship or patronage. Peter then is an exceptionally well-informed source regarding the dynastic and hegemonic ambitions of Henry II and his family, although it is possible he exaggerated the extent or seriousness of these discussions in order to inflate perceptions of the Chancellor’s importance and the Plantagenet family’s international kudos, as a result of his personal connection with Geoffrey and general adherence to Henry II.

Whatever the precise nature of his activities and manner in which he interacted with his great office of state, Geoffrey remained one of the most trusted members of his father’s circle, serving as one of his foremost military lieutenants. Geoffrey, unsurprisingly given their personal affinity and conflation of political and dynastic interests, once again remained loyal to his father when his remaining legitimate half-brothers rose up against Henry in 1189. Likewise, Geoffrey was the only one of Henry’s progeny to be present at the king’s death later that year where the king, likely in an attempt to provide for his son and protect him from his half-brothers, announced his wish that he be made Archbishop of York.

After a period of intensive negotiations, Richard the new king sponsored his elder half-brother and the former chancellor, Geoffrey to the Archbishopric of York.  This acceptance of his father’s last wishes was a smart move on Richard’s part, helping to reassure his father’s powerful clique of supporters that he was willing to work with them and reward their service to his predecessor. Additionally, the appointment provided the potentially troublesome Geoffrey with a prestigious and lucrative position which just so happened to remove him from the heart of the royal administration and bring the resources of the Archbishopric further under the umbrella of royal influence. Despite concerns raised about his illegitimacy, temperament and past liabilities, Richard was successfully able to secure a Papal dispensation for his half-brother.

This fraternal concordant was not to last though, as the two brothers quickly came into conflict over Richard’s alleged encroachments upon the Archbishoprics incomes and Geoffrey’s intransigence in accepting the primacy of Canterbury. The Archbishop’s belligerence and hostility to the imposition of outside authority led him into persistent quarrels with Richard, Chancellor Longchamp and finally King John who had him arrested and exiled. In 1212 Geoffrey died while still in exile in Normandy, now permanently lost to the royal house that had sprang from it.

Geoffrey was far from alone in clashing with Longchamp and Richard’s other representatives during the king’s long absence and in fact garnered a large amount of contemporary support and sympathy for his stand against King John. It seems clear, however, that beyond the simple clash of personalities and competing interests that Geoffrey’s difficulties during the reigns of his legitimate half-brothers were the expressions of the scars and dynastic trauma left by their potentially patricidal conflict with their father. Geoffrey’s devotion to Henry II and the favored status which saw him rise so high in his father’s reign, ill prepared him for the transition to his brothers’ rule.

This is the eight in a series of articles known as A Bastard’s Lot: The Illegitimate Royal Children of 12th Century England, by James Turner. 

James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.

Top Image: Henry II – British Library, MS Royal 14 C VII f.9


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