Henry II (1154-1189)

Rev. 13 October 2003

Destruction of unlicensed castles

Henry II began his reign by endeavoring to revive in all its fullness the royal authority exercised by his grandfather and great-grandfather. He set about immediately to reverse the process of political disintegration that England had experienced under Stephen. He ordered the destruction of the unlicensed castles that barons had erected during the height of the feudal anarchy, and he was stingy in granting new licenses for castle building.

Military reforms

Henry II's military reforms (Cartae Baronum of 1166 and the Assize of Arms of 1181) included the intention to guarantee loyalty to him as the monarch. Through the Cartae Baronum he identified all the knightly subvassals of England who had not yet rendered their formal allegiance to the king. Once identified, Henry II might secure their oaths of loyalty. The Assize of Arms established a graded hierarchy of military obligations that included not only knights but all freemen. All the freemen, as well as the knights, were to swear fidelity to Henry II and bear their arms in his service according to his, the monarch's, command.

Revival of Henry I's policies

Several administrative and judicial aspects of Henry II's reign constitute a revival or elaboration of Henry I's policies. Obviously the Exchequer functioned regularly and efficiently during this monarch's reign since there is an unbroken series of annual pipe rolls from 1156 as well as a treatise -- The Dialogue of the Exchequer -- which explains in detail the duties and procedures of Exchequer officials.

Henry II revived Henry I's policy of sending out itinerant justices to hear royal pleas in the shires. The system had disintegrated under Stephen, but Henry II eventually rebuilt it into a series of kingdom-wide judicial circuits. Their jurisdiction was limited at first to certain kinds of royal pleas, but with the passing of time they acquired the power to hear every kind of case. Their general eyres, or assizes, succeeded as never before in extending royal justice across the kingdom.

Notwithstanding the activities of the itinerant justices, much of the king's power in the shires depended on the loyalty and effectiveness of the monarch's major local agents, the sheriffs. In 1170 Henry II ordered a thoroughgoing inquest of his sheriff's activities. After the inquest he removed many and replaced them with more dependable nominees. The new sheriffs owe, of course, their recent positions to this king.


Under Henry II one can observe, as in the case of his grandfather and great-grandfather, significant innovations. Henry II established in 1178 a small body of royal justices to sit permanently at Westminster and endowed them with the power to hear all but the most important of the royal pleas that might be brought before it. This court consisting sometimes of five men, sometimes of more, often included the treasurer and the chief justiciar (as the English regent now came to be called). It was distinguished by having its own separate seal and, in later years, a special name -- the Court of Common Pleas.

In his Assize of Clarendon of 1166 and augmented by his Assize of Northampton of 1176, Henry ordered that inquest juries of twelve men from each hundred and four men from each town be required to meet periodically. These inquest juries were to report the names of notorious local criminals to the king's sheriff or itinerant justice. The accused criminals were then forced to submit to the ordeal and were "suitably" punished if they failed to pass it. Henry frequently exiled even those who "survived" an ordeal.

Henry II also expanded royal jurisdiction to deal with disagreements concerning landholding. He introduced a series of "possessory assizes." These particular forms of legal procedure allowed quick decisions, circumventing the need to adjudicate more complex, and thus time-consuming, questions. Furthermore, such efficiency mitigated the usual resort to violence. His possessory assizes were instituted in order to settle, pragmatically, the problem of whether a plaintiff (the party who initiated the case in court) had been forcibly dispossessed or disinherited within a relatively recent period of time.

A plaintiff who claimed to have been recently and violently dispossessed of his land could purchase a royal writ called Novel Disseisin. This writ ordered a local sheriff to summon a jury and to inquire of the jury whether or not the plaintiff had been in fact driven from his land. If the jury believed the plaintiff was right, the sheriff, with the full weight of royal authority, was to restore the disputed land to him.

Mort d'Ancestor, another possessory assize, required the sheriff to ask the jury whether the plaintiff's father had held the land in question when it last passed to an heir. If so, and if the plaintiff was the eldest son, he was to be given the land.

At the end of his reign, Henry did introduce a specific legal action, Grand Assize, to deal with the complex question of who had the best title to the land. A local jury consisting of men familiar with the circumstances were to address the issues.