A Historical and Diplomatic Introduction to the Charters of King Henry II, 1154-1189

Project Details


I intend to write an introduction to the 3000 surviving letters and charters of King Henry II. The body of materials here assembled runs to two million words culled from nearly 400 archives and tens of thousands of manuscripts now scattered across the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, northern Europe and the USA. It includes some of the most significant written evidences for medieval English, Irish and French history: for example, the constitutions of Clarendon (from which sprang the great dispute between the King and his archbishop, Thomas Becket), or the King's assizes (in many respects the first statutes in law, from which springs most of the common law system of the English-speaking world, and from which in turn, in part in reaction, in part in imitation, sprang the making of Magna Carta). Without such an edition of Henry II's letters and charters, it is no exaggeration to state that our knowledge of the King, his court, his laws, his 'empire', his Church, his wife and family, his personal and political dealings, remains woefully incomplete. Since Henry II's reign is itself regarded as pivotal in the constitutional and political development of Anglo-French history, the gap here is a highly significant one. Nearly 1000 of the documents presented have never before been published. In 1909, almost exactly a century ago, the great French historian, Leopold Delisle produced a massive 500 page 'Introduction' to his edition of 800 of the 3000 charters now collected. Delisle's was, to that date, the most detailed and illuminating study ever published of a body of medieval charters. It demonstrated, for example, that a particular form of words 'Dei gratia' ('By God's grace') introduced into the King's title ( so that 'Henry II King of the English' became 'Henry II, by God's grace, King of the English'), although of apparently no more than antiquarian concern, was in fact the key to establishing the dates of several hundred of Henry's charters, otherwise impossible to assign to any definite date between 1154 and 1189, the outside limits of his reign. Delisle's 'Introduction' was also fundamental in reconstructing the personnel, the movements and the historical and political concerns of Henry II's court. A century later, however, and Delisle's 'Introduction' is badly in need of replacement. It covers only a small portion (800 or so of the 3000 charters) of the evidences now collected, and can be improved upon in numerous ways. It devotes hardly any attention to the geographical spread of Henry II's power, to such themes as law and lawmaking, the physical dispositions of the chancery (the office in which the king's letters and charters were physically written), the King's seal (or rather 'seals' since we now know of at least three seals, where Delisle knew only one). Furthermore, our new evidences have to be set in the context of other editions of Anglo-Norman royal charters, including those of the Anglo-Norman kings and of twelfth-century bishops (the so-called English Episcopal Acta series) which were simply unavailable at the time that Delisle wrote. Without such an introduction, to publish the edition of Henry II's charters will be rather like producing a great machine with no instructions as to start up or maintenance. The edition of Henry II's charters, and the introduction here proposed, represent a major contribution to the history of twelfth-century England, France and Ireland, all of which realms were altered fundamentally by the dyanamic force that was Plantagenet kingship.
Effective start/end date1/01/1030/04/10


  • Arts and Humanities Research Council: £32,740.00