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Contents > Author > Charles Dickens > A Child's History of England 12 Part 2 1812- 1870
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Charles Dickens
A Child's History of England 12 Part 2
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WHEN the King heard how Thomas a Becket had lost his life in
Canterbury Cathedral, through the ferocity of the four Knights, he
was filled with dismay. Some have supposed that when the King
spoke those hasty words, 'Have I no one here who will deliver me
from this man?' he wished, and meant a Becket to be slain. But few
things are more unlikely; for, besides that the King was not
naturally cruel (though very passionate), he was wise, and must
have known full well what any stupid man in his dominions must have
known, namely, that such a murder would rouse the Pope and the
whole Church against him.

He sent respectful messengers to the Pope, to represent his
innocence (except in having uttered the hasty words); and he swore
solemnly and publicly to his innocence, and contrived in time to
make his peace. As to the four guilty Knights, who fled into
Yorkshire, and never again dared to show themselves at Court, the
Pope excommunicated them; and they lived miserably for some time,
shunned by all their countrymen. At last, they went humbly to
Jerusalem as a penance, and there died and were buried.

It happened, fortunately for the pacifying of the Pope, that an
opportunity arose very soon after the murder of a Becket, for the
King to declare his power in Ireland - which was an acceptable
undertaking to the Pope, as the Irish, who had been converted to
Christianity by one Patricius (otherwise Saint Patrick) long ago,
before any Pope existed, considered that the Pope had nothing at
all to do with them, or they with the Pope, and accordingly refused
to pay him Peter's Pence, or that tax of a penny a house which I
have elsewhere mentioned. The King's opportunity arose in this

The Irish were, at that time, as barbarous a people as you can well
imagine. They were continually quarrelling and fighting, cutting
one another's throats, slicing one another's noses, burning one
another's houses, carrying away one another's wives, and committing
all sorts of violence. The country was divided into five kingdoms
governed by a separate King, of whom one claimed to be the chief of
the rest. Now, one of these Kings, named DERMOND MAC MURROUGH
(a wild kind of name, spelt in more than one wild kind of way), had
carried off the wife of a friend of his, and concealed her on an island
in a bog. The friend resenting this (though it was quite the custom
of the country), complained to the chief King, and, with the chief
King's help, drove Dermond Mac Murrough out of his dominions.
Dermond came over to England for revenge; and offered to hold his
realm as a vassal of King Henry, if King Henry would help him to
regain it. The King consented to these terms; but only assisted
him, then, with what were called Letters Patent, authorising any
English subjects who were so disposed, to enter into his service,
and aid his cause.

There was, at Bristol, a certain EARL RICHARD DE CLARE, called
STRONGBOW; of no very good character; needy and desperate,
and ready for anything that offered him a chance of improving his
fortunes. There were, in South Wales, two other broken knights of
the same good-for-nothing sort, called ROBERT FITZ-STEPHEN, and
MAURICE FITZ-GERALD. These three, each with a small band of
followers, took up Dermond's cause; and it was agreed that if it
proved successful, Strongbow should marry Dermond's daughter EVA,
and be declared his heir.

The trained English followers of these knights were so superior in
all the discipline of battle to the Irish, that they beat them
against immense superiority of numbers. In one fight, early in the
war, they cut off three hundred heads, and laid them before Mac
Murrough; who turned them every one up with his hands, rejoicing,
and, coming to one which was the head of a man whom he had
much disliked, grasped it by the hair and ears, and tore off the nose
and lips with his teeth. You may judge from this, what kind of a
gentleman an Irish King in those times was. The captives, all
through this war, were horribly treated; the victorious party
making nothing of breaking their limbs, and casting them into the
sea from the tops of high rocks. It was in the midst of the
miseries and cruelties attendant on the taking of Waterford, where
the dead lay piled in the streets, and the filthy gutters ran with
blood, that Strongbow married Eva. An odious marriage-company
those mounds of corpse's must have made, I think, and one quite
worthy of the young lady's father.

He died, after Waterford and Dublin had been taken, and various
successes achieved; and Strongbow became King of Leinster. Now
came King Henry's opportunity. To restrain the growing power of
Strongbow, he himself repaired to Dublin, as Strongbow's Royal
Master, and deprived him of his kingdom, but confirmed him in the
enjoyment of great possessions. The King, then, holding state in
Dublin, received the homage of nearly all the Irish Kings and
Chiefs, and so came home again with a great addition to his
reputation as Lord of Ireland, and with a new claim on the favour
of the Pope. And now, their reconciliation was completed - more
easily and mildly by the Pope, than the King might have expected, I

At this period of his reign, when his troubles seemed so few and
his prospects so bright, those domestic miseries began which
gradually made the King the most unhappy of men, reduced his
great spirit, wore away his health, and broke his heart.

He had four sons. HENRY, now aged eighteen - his secret crowning
of whom had given such offence to Thomas a Becket. RICHARD, aged
sixteen; GEOFFREY, fifteen; and JOHN, his favourite, a young boy
whom the courtiers named LACKLAND, because he had no inheritance,
but to whom the King meant to give the Lordship of Ireland. All
these misguided boys, in their turn, were unnatural sons to him,
and unnatural brothers to each other. Prince Henry, stimulated by
the French King, and by his bad mother, Queen Eleanor, began the
undutiful history,

First, he demanded that his young wife, MARGARET, the French King's
daughter, should be crowned as well as he. His father, the King,
consented, and it was done. It was no sooner done, than he
demanded to have a part of his father's dominions, during his
father's life. This being refused, he made off from his father in
the night, with his bad heart full of bitterness, and took refuge
at the French King's Court. Within a day or two, his brothers
Richard and Geoffrey followed. Their mother tried to join them --
escaping in man's clothes -- but she was seized by King Henry's men,
and immured in prison, where she lay, deservedly, for sixteen
years. Every day, however, some grasping English noblemen, to
whom the King's protection of his people from their avarice and
oppression had given offence, deserted him and joined the Princes.
Every day he heard some fresh intelligence of the Princes levying
armies against him; of Prince Henry's wearing a crown before his
own ambassadors at the French Court, and being called the Junior
King of England; of all the Princes swearing never to make peace
with him, their father, without the consent and approval of the
Barons of France. But, with his fortitude and energy unshaken,
King Henry met the shock of these disasters with a resolved and
cheerful face. He called upon all Royal fathers who had sons, to
help him, for his cause was theirs; he hired, out of his riches,
twenty thousand men to fight the false French King, who stirred his
own blood against him; and he carried on the war with such vigour,
that Louis soon proposed a conference to treat for peace.

The conference was held beneath an old wide-spreading green
elm-tree, upon a plain in France. It led to nothing. The war
recommenced. Prince Richard began his fighting career, by leading
an army against his father; but his father beat him and his army
back; and thousands of his men would have rued the day in which
they fought in such a wicked cause, had not the King received news
of an invasion of England by the Scots, and promptly come home
through a great storm to repress it. And whether he really began
to fear that he suffered these troubles because a Becket had been
murdered; or whether he wished to rise in the favour of the Pope,
who had now declared a Becket to be a saint, or in the favour of
his own people, of whom many believed that even a Becket's
senseless tomb could work miracles, I don't know: but the King no
sooner landed in England than he went straight to Canterbury; and
when he came within sight of the distant Cathedral, he dismounted
from his horse, took off his shoes, and walked with bare and
bleeding feet to a Becket's grave. There, he lay down on the
ground, lamenting, in the presence of many people; and by-and-by
he went into the Chapter House, and, removing his clothes from his
back and shoulders, submitted himself to be beaten with knotted
cords (not beaten very hard, I dare say though) by eighty Priests,
one after another. It chanced that on the very day when the King
made this curious exhibition of himself, a complete victory was
obtained over the Scots; which very much delighted the Priests, who
said that it was won because of his great example of repentance.
For the Priests in general had found out, since a Becket's death,
that they admired him of all things - though they had hated him
very cordially when he was alive.

The Earl of Flanders, who was at the head of the base conspiracy
of the King's undutiful sons and their foreign friends, took the
opportunity of the King being thus employed at home, to lay siege
to Rouen, the capital of Normandy. But the King, who was
extraordinarily quick and active in all his movements, was at
Rouen, too, before it was supposed possible that he could have left
England; and there he so defeated the said Earl of Flanders, that
the conspirators proposed peace, and his bad sons Henry and
Geoffrey submitted. Richard resisted for six weeks; but, being
beaten out of castle after castle, he at last submitted too, and
his father forgave him.

To forgive these unworthy princes was only to afford them
breathing-time for new faithlessness. They were so false,
disloyal, and dishonourable, that they were no more to be trusted
than common thieves. In the very next year, Prince Henry rebelled
again, and was again forgiven. In eight years more, Prince Richard
rebelled against his elder brother; and Prince Geoffrey infamously
said that the brothers could never agree well together, unless they
were united against their father. In the very next year after
their reconciliation by the King, Prince Henry again rebelled
against his father; and again submitted, swearing to be true; and
was again forgiven; and again rebelled with Geoffrey.

But the end of this perfidious Prince was come. He fell sick at a
French town; and his conscience terribly reproaching him with his
baseness, he sent messengers to the King his father, imploring him
to come and see him, and to forgive him for the last time on his
bed of death. The generous King, who had a royal and forgiving
mind towards his children always, would have gone; but this Prince
had been so unnatural, that the noblemen about the King suspected
treachery, and represented to him that he could not safely trust
his life with such a traitor, though his own eldest son. Therefore
the King sent him a ring from off his finger as a token of
forgiveness; and when the Prince had kissed it, with much grief and
many tears, and had confessed to those around him how bad, and
wicked, and undutiful a son he had been; he said to the attendant
Priests: 'O, tie a rope about my body, and draw me out of bed, and
lay me down upon a bed of ashes, that I may die with prayers to God
in a repentant manner!' And so he died, at twenty-seven years old.

Three years afterwards, Prince Geoffrey, being unhorsed at a
tournament, had his brains trampled out by a crowd of horses
passing over him. So, there only remained Prince Richard, and
Prince John -- who had grown to be a young man now, and had
solemnly sworn to be faithful to his father. Richard soon rebelled again,
encouraged by his friend the French King, PHILIP THE SECOND (son of
Louis, who was dead); and soon submitted and was again forgiven,
swearing on the New Testament never to rebel again; and in another
year or so, rebelled again; and, in the presence of his father,
knelt down on his knee before the King of France; and did the
French King homage: and declared that with his aid he would
possess himself, by force, of all his father's French dominions.

And yet this Richard called himself a soldier of Our Saviour! And
yet this Richard wore the Cross, which the Kings of France and
England had both taken, in the previous year, at a brotherly
meeting underneath the old wide-spreading elm-tree on the plain,
when they had sworn (like him) to devote themselves to a new
Crusade, for the love and honour of the Truth!

Sick at heart, wearied out by the falsehood of his sons, and almost
ready to lie down and die, the unhappy King who had so long stood
firm, began to fail. But the Pope, to his honour, supported him;
and obliged the French King and Richard, though successful in
fight, to treat for peace. Richard wanted to be Crowned King of
England, and pretended that he wanted to be married (which he
really did not) to the French King's sister, his promised wife,
whom King Henry detained in England. King Henry wanted, on the
other hand, that the French King's sister should be married to his
favourite son, John: the only one of his sons (he said) who had
never rebelled against him. At last King Henry, deserted by his
nobles one by one, distressed, exhausted, broken-hearted,
consented to establish peace.

One final heavy sorrow was reserved for him, even yet. When they
brought him the proposed treaty of peace, in writing, as he lay
very ill in bed, they brought him also the list of the deserters
from their allegiance, whom he was required to pardon. The first
name upon this list was John, his favourite son, in whom he had
trusted to the last.

'O John! child of my heart!' exclaimed the King, in a great agony
of mind. 'O John, whom I have loved the best! O John, for whom I
have contended through these many troubles! Have you betrayed
me too!' And then he lay down with a heavy groan, and said, 'Now
let the world go as it will. I care for nothing more!'

After a time, he told his attendants to take him to the French town
of Chinon - a town he had been fond of, during many years. But he
was fond of no place now; it was too true that he could care for
nothing more upon this earth. He wildly cursed the hour when he
was born, and cursed the children whom he left behind him; and

As, one hundred years before, the servile followers of the Court
had abandoned the Conqueror in the hour of his death, so they now
abandoned his descendant. The very body was stripped, in the
plunder of the Royal chamber; and it was not easy to find the
means of carrying it for burial to the abbey church of Fontevraud.

Richard was said in after years, by way of flattery, to have the
heart of a Lion. It would have been far better, I think, to have
had the heart of a Man. His heart, whatever it was, had cause to
beat remorsefully within his breast, when he came - as he did -
into the solemn abbey, and looked on his dead father's uncovered
face. His heart, whatever it was, had been a black and perjured
heart, in all its dealings with the deceased King, and more
deficient in a single touch of tenderness than any wild beast's in
the forest.

There is a pretty story told of this Reign, called the story of
FAIR ROSAMOND. It relates how the King doted on Fair Rosamond,
who was the loveliest girl in all the world; and how he had a beautiful
Bower built for her in a Park at Woodstock; and how it was erected
in a labyrinth, and could only be found by a clue of silk. How the
bad Queen Eleanor, becoming jealous of Fair Rosamond, found out the
secret of the clue, and one day, appeared before her, with a dagger
and a cup of poison, and left her to the choice between those
deaths. How Fair Rosamond, after shedding many piteous tears and
offering many useless prayers to the cruel Queen, took the poison,
and fell dead in the midst of the beautiful bower, while the
unconscious birds sang gaily all around her.

Now, there WAS a fair Rosamond, and she was (I dare say) the
loveliest girl in all the world, and the King was certainly very
fond of her, and the bad Queen Eleanor was certainly made jealous.
But I am afraid -- I say afraid, because I like the story so much --
that there was no bower, no labyrinth, no silken clue, no dagger,
no poison. I am afraid fair Rosamond retired to a nunnery near
Oxford, and died there, peaceably; her sister-nuns hanging a silken
drapery over her tomb, and often dressing it with flowers, in
remembrance of the youth and beauty that had enchanted the King
when he too was young, and when his life lay fair before him.

It was dark and ended now; faded and gone. Henry Plantagenet
lay quiet in the abbey church of Fontevraud, in the fifty-seventh
year of his age -- never to be completed -- after governing England
well, for nearly thirty-five years.


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