Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Who Are All These Kings?: Henry I

Henry I was King of England in the first years of the 12th century.

He was the youngest son of William the Conqueror, and born at Selby in Yorkshire in 1068, the first of the Normans to be born in England. This, and the fact that he spoke English, made him potentially more popular than the rest of his family.

As the youngest son, he was regarded by his father as being destined for the Church, so was given, unusually, a good education. This accounts for his nickname of "Beauclerc", signifying that his writing was first class. Actually, it simply meant that in a largely illiterate age he could read and write.

When the Conqueror died in 1087, he was succeeded in Normandy by his son Robert and in England by another son, William Rufus. Henry held no significant lands, but managed to buy some property on the Cotentin peninsula.

While the other brothers were at war with each other in 1091, Henry made a bid for power, which for a while united the other brothers against him. William Rufus thereafter kept a close watch on Henry.

In 1100, Rufus died suddenly in the New Forest, supposedly when an arrow aimed at a deer accidentally killed him. The unfortunate bowman was said to have been Sir Walter Tyrrell. However, as Tyrrell was the finest archer in the land, he would have been unlikely to make such a mistake.

Whatever the truth, Henry seized his opportunity, made more timely by the fact that Robert of Normandy was on his way back to England from a Crusade, moreover with a new wife.

Henry had to act quickly, and he certainly did. Within days of his brother's death and safe burial at Winchester Cathedral, he had himself crowned at Westminster Abbey, suggesting that arrangements had already been surreptitiously made.

Henry swiftly made some important political decisions. He recalled Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, from exile, earning his strong support. He also married Matilda, originally named Edith, who was the daughter of Malcolm III of Scotland and his wife St. Margaret, as well as the niece of Edgar the Atheling. The name change was felt necessary as the Norman barons would probably not respect somebody with an Anglo-Saxon name. This masterstroke gave him clear alliances with both the old English nobility and with the Scots.

Robert invaded England with an impressive army in 1101, landing at Portsmouth while Henry, whom he had misled, was waiting for him at Arundel. He might well have captured Winchester, but made no attempt to do so. He also failed to attempt to capture London. Robert simply lacked the opportunism which was a key feature of the rest of his family.

The two met at Alton, and Henry agreed to recognise Robert as legal claimant to the crown, while Robert agreed to accept Henry as King while he lived. Robert was also paid an annual pension.

However, nobody except Robert really believed any of this, and in 1106 Henry invaded Normandy, capturing Robert at Tinchebrai. Robert was imprisoned at Cardiff Castle, and spent the rest of his life there, being buried at Gloucester Cathedral in 1134.

Before long, Henry fell out with Anselm, for the same reasons that Rufus had exiled the Archbishop, over church authority, and Anselm went into exile again. But after the Pope had threatened Henry with excommunication, the two came to an acceptable compromise.

After he had established control of Normandy, Henry had to spend a considerable amount of time there. His wife Matilda often acted as Regent, but increasingly Bishop Roger of Salisbury took over the administration, setting up systems which later evolved into the Civil Service.

Henry showed himself to be an excellent diplomat, who would if possible rather use diplomacy than military action. One of his most far reaching acts was to marry his daughter Adelaide, who thereupon changed her name to Matilda, to the German Emperor Henry V. He also married his son William to Alice, the daughter of Count Fulk V of Anjou and Maine, and named William as his successor.

In 1120, Henry's world collapsed about him with the White Ship disaster. This ship foundered and sank off Barfleur shortly after leaving for England. It is clear that the crew and most of the passengers were drunk and incapable. This most regrettable circumstance resulted in the death of, among many others, Henry's two adult legitimate sons, William and Richard, and posed a succession problem.

His first wife Matilda had died in 1118, and he now arranged a marriage to Adeliza, daughter of Count Geoffrey VII of Louvain. This marriage, however, remained childless, although Adeliza later bore seven children to her second husband William d'Albini, the Earl of Arundel.

Henry's daughter, the Empress Matilda, became a widow in 1125 at the age of 23. Realising that it was unlikely that he would have further legitimate children, he made the barons swear an oath of fealty to her. This they did, although nobody liked the idea of being ruled by a Queen.

Then in 1127, Henry arranged for Matilda to marry Geoffrey of Anjou, which was not a popular move as the Normans had little time for the Angevins.

The Norman aristocracy turned to William Clito as a possible successor as King. William was the son of Robert of Normandy, still languishing in prison, and was becoming increasingly popular. But in 1128 he died as a result of wounds incurred during a siege near St. Omer.

All this was beginning to make it look as if there were no alternative to Matilda's succession. Her husband Geoffrey asked Henry if he could be given some castles along the Normandy coast, but Henry refused, and relations between the two started to deteriorate.

By 1135, Henry and Geoffrey were at war. Henry invaded Geoffrey's lands, but became ill, having partaken of the notorious "surfeit of lampreys", which must have been either off or poisoned. He died at St. Denis-le-Fermont, near Rouen, and was buried at Reading Abbey, which he had himself founded. During the Reformation, his tomb was destroyed.

Nobody at the time pushed Matilda's claims, not even herself, and Henry's nephew Stephen became king.

Henry, having come to the throne in highly dubious circumstances, was nevertheless a very capable king. Although there was plenty of war in his reign, most of it took place abroad, and England itself was a relatively peaceful place. His activities resulted in the basis of the Civil Service and also of the Treasury. He also established a menagerie on his lands at Woodstock, which could reasonably be regarded as England's first zoo.

The supreme irony of his reign is the succession. After the White Ship tragedy, the last years of his reign were spent trying to find a successor, and indeed the following years brought the wasteful civil war, "when Christ and His angels slept". But Henry fathered a record number of illegitimate children. So far as is known, these numbered 29.

Henry's legitimate children, from his marriage to Matilda, were Euphemia, who died when young; Adelaide, later the Empress Matilda; William, drowned in the White Ship at 17; and Richard, drowned with his brother.

There were no children from Henry's second marriage to Adeliza, who married again and died in 1151.

His illegitimate children, so far as can be ascertained, were as follows.

By Sybilla, daughter of Sir Robert Corbet of Alcester in Warwickshire, and later the wife of Herbert FitzHerbert - Robert Fitzroy, Earl of Gloucester, suggested by some as a possible successor; Reginald, Earl of Cornwall; William; Sybilla; Gundrada; and Rohese.

By Ansfida, the widow of Sir Anskill of Abingdon - Richard of Lincoln, drowned in the White Ship; Fulk, a monk at Abingdon Abbey; Julia, who in widowhood became a nun at Fontevrault Abbey.

By Nesta, daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, Prince of Deheubarth, and wife of Gerald de Windsor - Henry FitzHenry, killed during Henry II's invasion of Anglesey.

By Edith, daughter of Forn Sigulfson, the Lord of Greystoke in Cumberland, later the wife of Robert d'Oilli - Robert FitzEdith, Baron of Okehampton.

By Isabella of Meulan, daughter of Robert de Beaumont, Earl of Leicester, and later Countess of Pembroke - Isabella; Matilda, Abess of Montvilliers.

By Edith - Matilda, drowned in the White Ship.

And by unknown mothers - William de Tracy; Gilbert; Matilda, who married Conan III, Duke of Brittany; Constance, whose daughter Ermengarde married William the Lion, King of Scotland; Eustacia; Alice; a daughter whose name is unknown, betrothed to William de Warenne; Joan, who married Fergus of Galloway; another daughter whose name is not known; and Sybilla of Falaise.

And another four whose details are unknown.

Henry I was inclined to portliness in maturity, and had a distinct cruel streak. He once caused his own grand daughters to be blinded while being held as hostages.

But he was the first King since the Conquest to take England and the English seriously, and laid the foundations of a well organised kingdom.