England’s Medieval Angevin Empire Explained

Discover the history of one of medieval Europe’s finest empires — the Angevin Empire.

Feb 29, 2024By Chester Ollivier, BA (Hons) History

england angevin empire explained


Stretching from Scotland to France at its peak, the Angevin Empire (also known as the Plantagenet Empire) was the territory of the English kings, known as the Plantagenets. Some key figures emerged during this period, such as Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart, and King John. The defense and expansion of the empire were almost as significant as the loss of it.


Before the Empire

Henry I, from Chronicle of Matthew Paris, c. 1255, Source: The British Library


In order to fully understand the significance of the Angevin Empire, and how it came to be, we first need to take a look at the events that led to its creation and expansion, before its untimely collapse in the early thirteenth century. Although King Henry II of England is credited as the founder of the Empire, it is important to look a bit further back in history to fully understand why.


During Henry I’s reign as King of England, his son and heir, William, died aboard The White Ship in November 1120. This accident, which came to be known as “The White Ship Disaster” shook Henry. William had been his only surviving son, and he needed a son to succeed him as heir.


His nephew, Stephen, also had a claim to the throne, as he was male and a relative of Henry’s. Henry opted to choose his daughter Matilda to succeed him, and she would have been England’s first Queen. However, upon Henry I’s death in 1135, Stephen seized the throne instead, and ushered in a period of English history known as “the Anarchy.”

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However, Matilda bided her time. She was married off to Geoffrey Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou. As a result, Matilda jointly ruled over this territory in France, while Stephen ruled in England.


The Normans and Angevins, family tree, Source: Reading University


Matilda and Geoffrey had several children together, and their eldest son, Henry, eventually sailed over to England to challenge Stephen for the throne, which was rightfully his, as he had a more direct relationship with Henry I than Stephen did.


In 1153, Henry and Stephen signed the Treaty of Winchester, which acknowledged Stephen as King of England until his death, but upon his death, the throne would go to Henry, rather than Stephen’s sons. Ultimately, Stephen died the following year, and Henry was crowned King Henry II of England — the first Plantagenet king of England.


Henry had successfully claimed the throne, and along with it, the territory of England, Scotland, and parts of France, having succeeded his father as Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou.


The Early Angevin Empire

Map of France in 1180, the Plantagenets held all of the territory in red, Source: Wikimedia Commons.


However, Henry had the rightful claim to more than England, Scotland, Normandy, and Anjou. In 1152, two years prior to him becoming King, Henry had married Eleanor of Aquitaine.


Eleanor would go down in history as one of the most fearsomely determined women of the Middle Ages, and her marriage to Henry was certainly not without its controversies. Eleanor’s father was William X, Duke of Aquitaine, and upon his death, she became Duchess of Aquitaine (a region in southwestern France). Eleanor had previously been married to King Louis VII of France, but their marriage was annulled after 15 years. As part of the annulment deal, Eleanor was granted her lands back.


Naturally, when Eleanor married Henry later the same year (on 18 May 1152), her lands now also belonged to Henry. As a result, Henry II was now in charge of the Angevin Empire, which stretched from the Scottish border to the South of France. Of course, with all this territory came a lot of political challenges, as well as a lot of work in dealing with various rebellions, and potential invasions. Henry (and Eleanor) certainly had their work cut out for them.


Angevin vs Capetian

The children of Henry II, artist unknown, Source: British Library


One major source of conflict for the Angevin Empire was that Henry II was descended from the House of Anjou, while the French kings were descended from the House of Capet — the Capetian Kings ruled France from 987 CE to 1328.


Because of this, the House of Anjou owed feudal homage to the House of Capet — a notion which caused problems on both sides. Why should the King of England pay homage due to his ancestry when he ruled another kingdom? Equally, why should the Kingdom of France let English kings rule territory in their country?


If anything, the Angevin/Capetian rivalry is really what the majority of the conflict can be traced back to. Unfortunately, many thousands of innocent civilians and soldiers were killed fighting over various issues over the years.


The Revolt of 1173-74 and its Consequences

Wedding of Eleanor of Aquitaine, from Les Chroniques de Saint Denis, Source: Wikimedia Commons


One early reminder that the Empire was going to be difficult to govern was the Revolt of 1173-74, against Henry II, by Eleanor of Aquitaine (who was estranged from him by this point) and his sons. Part of the reasoning for these rebellions was down to how Henry had divided up the Angevin Empire. He gave his eldest son and heir, Henry “the Young King” England, Normandy, and Anjou, Geoffrey was given Brittany (a recent acquisition for the Angevin Empire in 1169), while Richard was given Aquitaine (his mother’s territory). His youngest son, John, was eventually given Ireland, but not until 1185.


Henry’s sons constantly argued over their territories, each of them demanding more. It should have been made easier when Young Henry and Geoffrey both died in 1183 and 1186 respectively, but Henry II’s clear favouritism of John over Richard did not help matters. Henry wanted to grant John more territory, despite Richard now being his eldest surviving son and heir.


In response, Richard made an alliance with King Philip II of France, with regard to the ongoing crusades. This alliance strengthened Richard’s position when Henry wanted to concede his territory (Aquitaine) to John.


The Angevin Empire Under Richard I

Richard I and Philip II at Acre, from Grandes Chroniques de France, c. 1375-80, Source: Gallica Digital Library


Henry II died in 1189, and Richard succeeded him as King Richard I of England. Throughout his ten-year reign, Richard was only present in England for 6 months — largely because he was away on the Third Crusade and traveling throughout Europe.


It was largely down to Eleanor of Aquitaine and her diplomatic skills that the Angevin Empire survived while Richard was away on the Third Crusade. However, things would take a turn when Philip II left the crusade early, returning to France, after falling out with Richard.


Upon his return, Philip encouraged John to rebel against his brother, which he did, paying homage to the French king in 1193. Richard returned in 1194, and was captured by Duke Leopold V of Austria — it was Eleanor who once again came to the rescue, paying the ransom fee to have Richard released.


But Richard was not done yet. During the Battle of Fréteval, Richard managed to push back Philip, who gave up most of his recent conquests of Angevin territory in 1196. Fighting resumed at the Battle of Gisors, which Richard also won.


Richard died in 1199 at the Siege of Châlus, where he was struck by a crossbow bolt. The wound became gangrenous, and he eventually died, at the height of his powers and glory, on 6 April 1199. The Angevin Empire would begin its decline almost immediately.


The Collapse of the Angevin Empire Under King John

Arthur paying homage to Philip II, artist unknown, Chroniques de Saint-Denis, c. 1333-49, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Because Richard had died heirless, the throne passed to John. The main opposition John faced was from his 12-year-old nephew, Arthur of Brittany (Arthur was Geoffrey’s son).


Philip II naturally supported young Arthur against John, and received homage from the king’s nephew in the Spring of 1199, for the counties of Maine, Anjou, and Touraine. Philip was now in a strong position to negotiate with John, and in 1200 the Treaty of Le Goulet was signed which settled the claims the Angevin kings had on the French lands (except Aquitaine), in order to end the constant dispute over Normandy.


However, in 1202, Philip attacked Normandy, while Arthur attacked Poitou. Arthur was ambushed in the Battle of Mirebeau, and taken prisoner by John. By early 1203, Arthur had mysteriously disappeared — likely murdered on John’s instructions.


John made the fatal mistake of leaving Normandy in late 1203, and Philip took advantage: Rouen, Bayeux, Caen, and Falaise all surrendered on 24 June 1204, desperate for aid from John, who did not come. By mid-summer, Philip had successfully conquered Normandy. Poitiers fell in August 1204, while a year later, Chinon and Loches were also taken. However, the worst was still to come.


The Battle of Bouvines and the First Barons’ War

The Battle of Bouvines, from Grand Chroniques de France, c. 1375-80, Source: Gallica Digital Library


On 27 August 1214, at the Battle of Bouvines, the Angevin Empire finally collapsed. At one point, Philip II had been unhorsed and the English looked close to winning. However, the French fought back valiantly and won the key victory.


King John was down and out. The Magna Carta was signed a year later, whereby John agreed to hand over the majority of his powers to the barons. John naturally disagreed with this document, appealing its unfair nature to Pope Innocent III, who, remarkably, agreed with John, declaring the document null and void.


This sparked a civil war in England, including the barons turning to France for support. A French invasion landed at Dover in May 1216, and reached London, with Prince Louis declaring himself King Louis I of England, before being excommunicated by the Pope. John died suddenly in August 1216, and the Angevin Empire with him.


Final Thoughts

Henry III, funerary relief, Westminster Abbey, Source: The Catholic Herald


In the space of 17 years (1199-1216), the Angevin Empire had gone from being one of the most well-run and organized medieval empires, stretching from Scotland to France, to being no more. Henry III (John’s son and successor) briefly but unsuccessfully attempted to resurrect the Angevin Empire in the mid-thirteenth century, to no avail.


This period reflected the power of the early Plantagenet Dynasty, and the empire survived as long as it did thanks to characters like Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Establishing the Angevin Empire as a Western European medieval powerhouse in the twelfth century undoubtedly helped to contribute to the longevity of the Plantagenet Dynasty, which would go on to rule England until Richard II’s deposition in 1399.

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By Chester OllivierBA (Hons) HistoryChester is a contributing history writer, with a First Class Honours degree BA (Hons) in History from Northumbria University. He is from the North East of England, and an avid Middlesbrough FC supporter.