HE WOULD BE REMEMBERED long after his death, one of those rare men recognized as great even by those who hated him. He was a king at twenty-one, wed to a woman as legendary as Helen of Troy, ruler of an empire that stretched from the Scots border to the Mediterranean Sea, King of England, Lord of Ireland and Wales, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Anjou, Touraine, and Maine, liege lord of Brittany. But in God's Year, 1171, Henry Fitz Empress, second of that name to rule England since the Conquest, was more concerned with the judgment of the Church than History's verdict.
When the Archbishop of Canterbury was slain in his own cathedral by men who believed they were acting on the king's behalf, their bloodied swords might well have dealt Henry a mortal blow, too. All of Christendom was enraged by Thomas Becket's murder and few were willing to heed Henry's impassioned denials of blame. His continental lands were laid under Interdict and his multitude of enemies were emboldened, like wolves on the trail of wounded prey. The beleaguered king chose to make a strategic retreat, and in October, he sailed for Ireland. There he soon established his lordship over the feuding Irish kings and secured oaths of fealty from the Irish bishops. The winter was so stormy that Ireland truly seemed to be at the western edge of the world, the turbulent Irish Sea insulating Henry from the continuing outcry over the archbishop's death.
But in the spring, the winds abated and contact was established once more with the outside world. Henry learned that papal legates had arrived in Normandy. And he was warned that his restless eldest son was once more chaffing at the bit. In accordance with continental custom, he had been crowned in his father's lifetime. But the young king was dissatisfied with his lot in life, having the trappings of shared kingship but none of the power, and Henry's agents were reporting that Hal was brooding about his plight, listening to the wrong men. Henry Fitz Empress decided it was time to go home.