CHAPTER XII. THE KING'S FIRST WORK
Henry of Anjou, for whom the way was opened to the throne of his grandfather so soon after the treaty with Stephen, was then in his twenty-second year. He was just in the youthful vigour of a life of more than usual physical strength, longer in years than the average man's of the twelfth century, and brilliant in position and promise in the eyes of his time. But his life was in truth filled with annoying and hampering conflict and bitter disappointment. Physically there was nothing fine or elegant about him, rather the contrary. In bodily and mental characteristics there was so much in common between the Angevin house and the Norman that the new blood had made no great changes, and in physique and in spirit Henry II continued his mother's line quite as much as his father's. Certainly, as a modern writer has remarked, he could never have been called by his father's name of "the Handsome." He was of middle height, strongly built, with square shoulders, broad chest, and arms that reminded men of a pugilist. His head was round and well shaped, and he had reddish hair and gray eyes which seemed to flash with fire when he was angry. His complexion also was ruddy and his face is described as fiery or lion-like. His hands were coarse, and he never wore gloves except when necessary in hawking. His legs were hardly straight. They were made for the saddle and his feet for the stirrups. He was heedless of his person and his clothes, and always cared more for action and deeds than for appearances.
In the gifts of statesmanship and the abilities which make a great ruler Henry seemed to his own time above the average of kings, and certainly this is true in comparison with the king who was his rival during so much of his reign, Louis VII of France. Posterity has also agreed to call him one of the greatest, some have been inclined to say the greatest, of English sovereigns. The first heavy task that fell to him, the establishment of peace and strong government in England, he fully achieved; and this work was thankfully celebrated by his contemporaries. All his acts give us the impression of mental and physical power, and no recasting of balances is ever likely to destroy the impression of great abilities occupied with great tasks, but we need perhaps to be reminded that to his age his position made him great, and that even upon us its effect is magnifying. Except in the pacification of England he won no signal success, and the schemes to which he gave his best days ended in failure or barely escaped it. It is indeed impossible to say that in his long reign he had before him any definite or clear policy, except to be a strong king and to assert vigorously every right to which he believed he could lay claim. The opportunity which his continental dominions offered him he seems never to have understood, or at least not as it would have been understood by a modern sovereign or by a Philip Augustus. It is altogether probable that the successful welding together of the various states which he held by one title or another into a consolidated monarchy would have been impossible; but that the history of his reign gives no clear evidence that he saw the vision of such a result, or studied the means to accomplish it, forces us to classify Henry, in one important respect at least, with the great kings of the past and not with those of the coming age. In truth he was a feudal king. Notwithstanding the severe blows which he dealt feudalism in its relation to the government of the state, it was still feudalism as a system of life, as a source of ideals and a guide to conduct, which ruled him to the end. He had been brought up entirely in a feudal atmosphere, and he never freed himself from it. He was determined to be a strong king, to be obeyed, and to allow no infringement of his own rights, - indeed, to push them to the farthest limit possible, - but there seems never to have been any conflict in his mind between his duties as suzerain or vassal and any newer conception of his position and its opportunities.
It was in England that Henry won his chief and his only permanent success. And it was indeed not a small success. To hold under a strong government and to compel into good order, almost unbroken, a generation which had been trained in the anarchy and license of Stephen's reign was a great achievement. But Henry did more than this. In the machinery of centralization, he early began a steady and systematic development which threatened the defences of feudalism, and tended rapidly toward an absolute monarchy. In this was his greatest service to England. The absolutism which his work threatened later kings came but little nearer achieving, and the danger soon passed away, but the centralization which he gave the state grew into a permanent and beneficent organization. In this work Henry claimed no more than the glory of following in his grandfather's footsteps, and the modern student of the age is more and more inclined to believe that he was right in this, and that his true fame as an institution maker should be rather that of a restorer than of a founder. He put again into operation what had been already begun; he combined and systematized and broadened, and he created the conditions which encouraged growth and made it fruitful: but he struck out no new way either for himself or for England.