The Angevin Empire describes the possessions of the Angevin kings of England who held lands in England and France during the 12th and 13th centuries. Its rulers were Henry II (ruled 1154–1189), Richard I (r. 1189–1199), and John (r. 1199–1216). The Angevin Empire is an early example of a composite state.
A composite monarchy (or composite state) is a historical category, introduced by H. G. Koenigsberger in 1975 and popularised by Sir John H. Elliott, that describes early modern states consisting of several countries under one ruler, sometimes designated as a personal union, who governs his territories as if they were separate kingdoms, in accordance with local traditions and legal structures. The composite state became the most common type of state in the early modern era in Europe. Koenigsberger divides composite states into two classes: those, like the Spanish Empire, that consisted of countries separated by either other states or by the sea, and those, like Poland–Lithuania, that were contiguous.
The Angevins of the House of Plantagenet ruled over an area covering roughly half of France, all of England, and parts of Ireland and Wales, and had further influence over much of the remaining British Isles. The empire was established by Henry II, as King of England, Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou (from which the Angevins derive their name), as well as Duke of Aquitaine by right of his wife, and multiple subsidiary titles. Although their title of highest rank came from the Kingdom of England, the Angevins held court primarily on the continent at Angers in Anjou, and Chinon in Touraine.
The influence and power of the House of Anjou brought them into conflict with the kings of France of the House of Capet, to whom they also owed feudal homage for their French possessions, bringing in a period of rivalry between the dynasties. Despite the extent of Angevin rule, Henry’s son, John, was defeated in the Anglo-French War (1213–1214) by Philip II of France following the Battle of Bouvines. John lost control of most of his continental possessions, apart from Gascony in southern Aquitaine. This defeat set the scene for further conflicts between England and France, leading up to the Hundred Years’ War.
The term Angevin Empire is a neologism* defining the lands of the House of Plantagenet: Henry II and his sons Richard I and John. Another son, Geoffrey, ruled Brittany and established a separate line there. As far as historians know, there was no contemporary term for the region under Angevin control; however, descriptions such as “our kingdom and everything subject to our rule whatever it may be” were used. The term Angevin Empire was coined by Kate Norgate in her 1887 publication, England under the Angevin Kings. In France, the term espace Plantagenet (French for “Plantagenet area”) is sometimes used to describe the fiefdoms the Plantagenets had acquired.
The use of the term Empire has engendered controversy among some historians over whether the term is accurate for the actual state of affairs at the time. The area was a collection of the lands inherited and acquired by Henry, and so it is unclear whether these dominions shared any common identity and so should be labelled with the term Empire.
Some historians argue that the term should be reserved solely for the Holy Roman Empire, the only Western European political structure actually named an empire at that time, although Alfonso VII of León and Castile had taken the title “Emperor of all Spain” in 1135. Other historians argue that Henry II’s empire was neither powerful, centralised, nor large enough to be seriously called an empire. Furthermore, the Plantagenets never claimed any sort of imperial title as implied by the term Angevin Empire.
However, even if the Plantagenets themselves did not claim an imperial title, some chroniclers, often working for Henry II himself, did use the term empire to describe this assemblage of lands. The highest title was “king of England”; the other titles of dukes and counts of different areas held in France were completely and totally independent from the royal title, and not subject to any English royal law. Because of this, some historians prefer the term commonwealth to empire, emphasising that the Angevin Empire was more of an assemblage of seven fully independent, sovereign states loosely bound to each other, only united in the person of the king of England.
* A neologism is a relatively recent or isolated term, word, or phrase that may be in the process of entering common use, but that has not yet been fully accepted into mainstream language.