Angevin (1154 – 1214)

The Angevin Empire was a European civilization which stretched across Britain and France.

Who were the Angevin?

The Angevin Empire was a European civilization which stretched across Britain and France. It was the largest empire in Europe at the time, after former superpowers, like the Carolingian Empire, had collapsed several centuries earlier. 

This empire is probably what most people imagine when they think of the medieval period: it was an age of honor and chivalry, with lords and knights, and huge, majestic castles. It is sometimes referred to, by modern historians, as the High Middle Ages.

This was also a period of political tension, especially between the Angevin leaders and the kings of France. These tensions continued long after the Angevin empire collapsed in the 13th century. The Anglo-French wars, as they are sometimes known, continued well into the modern era.

The origins of the Angevin Empire

The origins of the Angevin Empire can be traced to the moment when William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, invaded England in 1066. Before that, the country was ruled by Anglo-Saxons, but now it was under the control of French-speaking nobles.

William’s reign marked the start of the High Middle Ages. He introduced thousands of knights, who were well-trained and well-armed, and helped to maintain order. He also built hundreds of intimidating castles, which helped him to maintain control. 

William was the king of England, but he was never more than a duke in his native France. The French crown was held by Philip I of the Capetian Dynasty – the line of kings who had replaced the Carolingians a hundred years earlier. William and Philip agreed to a truce in 1077 CE.

Henry of Anjou

William the Conqueror’s united lands of England and Normandy were not the Angevin Empire. That only came later, in 1154, when William’s great-grandson – Henry of Anjou – inherited the English throne.

Just like William, Henry was also a French duke. The French king at the time was Louis VII, the grandson of Philip I. There was a lot of tension between the two men – Louis did not like that one of his dukes was also a king elsewhere.

To strain the relationship even further, Henry was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine, who just so happened to be Louis’ former wife. He annulled their marriage when she became disruptive at court, and she wasted no time in marrying his rival instead.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

When studying civilizations like the Angevin Empire, historians have traditionally focused on kings like Henry and Louis. But in recent years, there has been a movement to acknowledge the influence of queens as well.

Eleanor of Aquitaine was a powerful personality in her own right. Before she married Henry, or Louis before him, she controlled the region of Aquitaine – the largest duchy in France. Part of the reason Louis married her was to gain control of the land.

But Eleanor was clever and headstrong, and often clashed with Louis over policy. In the end, he decided to get rid of her, and asked the Pope to annul the marriage. Elanor quickly married Henry of Anjou instead. Within two years, she went from being the queen of France, to the queen of England.

Expansion and administration

Henry of Anjou, with Eleanor beside him, wanted to add to his lands in England and France. During the first two decades of his time in power, he took control of Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

In the 11th century, William the Conqueror had failed to subdue these stubborn nations, but Henry achieved what his ancestor had not. This expanded territory became known as the Angevin Empire, named in reference to Henry’s native Anjou.

Henry and Eleanor were skilful administrators, who brought stability to the empire as a whole. This was helped by the formation of a council of barons – an inner circle of powerful nobles who helped the monarchs to run all the parts of the empire, from Ireland, to Britain, to France.

12th Century Renaissance

The Angevin Empire oversaw a period of scientific and medical advancement, which is sometimes referred to as the 12th Century Renaissance. 

This was mainly due to the Crusades – a series of pilgrimages which saw English soldiers travel to the East, and try to free Jerusalem from Muslim control. When they returned to England, they brought an influx of books from places like Constantinople, including translations of ancient texts which had been lost in Europe for centuries.

This was not a deliberate strategy by the Angevin monarchs, but it made a major difference to scientific understanding in the country. It opened their eyes to long-forgotten ideas, and to new ideas too; books also came back from Islamic thinkers, like the ones working at the Grand Library in Baghdad.

The death of Thomas Becket

In the first few centuries of the medieval period, European kings, like Charlemagne, worked closely with the Catholic Church. But during the reign of the Angevins, tensions started to show.

In 1164, Henry passed a series of reforms called the Constitutions of Clarendon. These reforms were meant to limit the power of English bishops, and increase the power of the crown instead – but the archbishop, Thomas Becket, refused to comply.

Thomas Becket was sent into exile for six years. When he finally returned, he was attacked by four knights, and murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. This event sent shockwaves through Christian Europe; Becket was venerated as a martyr, and became a symbol of defiance in the face of oppressive regimes.

The decline of the Angevin Empire

In 1173, two of Henry’s sons launched a revolt against him, with the support of their mother, Eleanor. The three of them wanted to gain more power, but the revolt failed, and Eleanor found herself imprisoned. 

The sons had to wait another sixteen years, until Henry died of a bleeding ulcer, bringing his period of rule to an end. His sons took over, and Eleanor was released from imprisonment. But Henry’s sons were uninspiring rulers who struggled to maintain the empire.

With Henry out of the picture, the French king laid claim to the Angevin territories of Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine. Henry’s descendants kept control of Britain, but with no lands in France, the Angevin period was over.

The legacy of the Angevin Empire

Though the Angevin Empire technically ended in 1214, when it lost control of its French territories, the descendants of King Henry continued to rule Britain for hundreds of years. In fact, their reign continues today: Charles III is a direct descendant of Henry.

In the modern era, the British built the largest empire in human history, encompassing India, Egypt, Australia and beyond. This empire was led by rulers from the exact same dynasty as the Angevins. In other words, they never really went away.  

The Angevin Empire also had an enduring impact on modern perceptions of the medieval era. This era of knights and castles has been romanticized in countless books and films, and continues to excite the imaginations of people today.

You will forget 90% of this article in 7 days.

Download Kinnu to have fun learning, broaden your horizons, and remember what you read. Forever.

You might also like

Mongol (1206 – 1368);

The Mongols started life as a nomadic people in Central Asia, before rising to power in the 13th century, and creating the largest land empire in human history.

Khmer (802 – 1431);

The Khmer Empire was a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom located in Southeast Asia.

Carolingian (725 – 888);

During the 8th and 9th centuries, the Carolingians ruled a large, Christian empire in western Europe.

Umayyad Caliphate (661 – 750);

The Umayyad Caliphate was a Muslim empire that first appeared on the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century – the same time that the Byzantines were thriving in Turkey, the Ghanaians were rising in West Africa, and the Tang Dynasty took shape in China.

Tang (618 – 907);

The Tang Dynasty ruled over China from the capital city of Chang’an.

Ghana (300 – 1200);

The Ghana Empire was a powerful kingdom, flourishing in West Africa between approximately 300 and 1200 CE.