Henry I - A Very Unfaithful Husband (and a decent king)
Updated: Dec 26, 2021
Henry was the fourth son of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders, born in about 1068.
As with most of the Conqueror's children, very little is known about Henry's childhood, with historians arguing about where he was brought up; Normandy or England. He was quite close in age to his sister, Adela, but it is unlikely that he would've seen much of his older brothers given the large age gap. He was knighted in 1086. As the youngest son he had no land as his inheritance on the Conqueror's death the following year. Normandy went to Robert, his eldest brother, and England to William, the third son (Richard, the second son died while hunting in the New Forest). Instead of land, he received a lot of money, reported to be about £5,000, and the expectation that he would receive his mother's small estates in England.
Robert had expected to be King of England on the Conqueror's death, and was shocked when he heard that William had been crowned. There had never been much love between the two brothers, and now it had a greater impact on Henry. He had to choose which one to offend and whose court to join. He couldn't side with William in case Robert controlled his money, so eventually he joined Robert's court. As a result, William seized his lands in England.
When Robert attempted to invade England in 1088, he asked Henry to lend him some of his inheritance, but Henry (quite wisely) refused, and instead they came to a deal whereby Robert made him Count of the Cotentin in return for £3,000. This gave Henry influence over several important Norman leaders, and control over Mont Saint-Michel. Henry quickly established his position, and built up a network of followers, including Roger of Mandeville, Richard of Redvers, Richard d'Avranches and Robert Fitzhamon (Robert Fitzhamon's daughter Amabel would go on to marry Henry's eldest son, Robert, the future Earl of Gloucester). Henry, unlike Robert, had inherited the Conqueror's ability to rule, and some of his Norman estates were soon almost separate from Robert's rule, a factor that added to Robert's distrust of him.
In July 1088, Henry travelled to England to try to persuade William Rufus to give back his estates. This failed, and he returned to Normandy in the Autumn. However, while he was away, his uncle, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, had been busy persuading Robert that Henry was going to betray him. This was mainly because Odo viewed Henry as a rival to his influence over Robert. When Henry landed, he was imprisoned by Odo, and his lands seized. In spring, however, he was released, and regained control over much of his lands, but never regained his title of Count of the Cotentin.
Throughout this time, Robert and William continued to make trouble for each other, most notably in 1090 when William persuaded Conan Pilatusto to rebel, supported by the City of Rouen. Robert had allied himself with King Phillip I of France, and William with much of the Norman nobility. Despite this, Henry was one of the first to arrive in Normandy from his own estates to suppress the revolt. He took an active role in the battle that was to follow, continuing to fight after Robert returned to Rouen castle. Eventually, Henry’s forces were victorious, and he took Conan prisoner. Conan offered to pay a huge ransom, but instead Henry took him to the tallest tower at Rouen Castle and threw him off it. The only positive result from this was that Henry gained himself a name in the battle, and people now knew not to mess with him.
In 1191, William invaded Normandy, forcing Robert to come to terms, one of which was that they agreed to be each other’s heirs, excluding Henry from the succession (you can imagine how that went down).
War then broke out between Henry and his brothers. Henry mustered his soldiers but then watched as his support dwindled. He centred his army around Mont Saint-Michel which was then besieged, forcing him to come to terms. Little is known about what Henry did next, but he gathered some followers, and probably spent some of this time in the Vexin. In the next few years, he continued to increase his support in Normandy, giving land to his followers, and was able to present himself as a more able Duke than Robert. From 1094, Henry grew closer to William who gave him money to rebel against Robert. He assisted William in a campaign that year, and began to visit William’s court, crossing the channel much more regularly. This position of power without a formal title continued in the late 1090’s, but his favour with William increased - in 1097-98 he campaigned in the Vexin with him.
Henry’s situation changed dramatically on 2nd August 1100, when William Rufus was killed while hunting in the New Forest. Henry was in a good position to take advantage of the vacant throne, and was crowned three days later, despite arguments presented that Robert should be King. Many conspiracy theories have been presented since, suggesting that Henry had something to do with William’s death. However, I lean towards the opinion that it was simply an accident or a mistake, given Henry and William’s improved relationship, and that if Henry had wanted William dead, it would have made more sense to wait until Robert or William had imprisoned or killed the other (an event that seemed very likely on Robert’s return from Crusade). That way he would only have to eliminate one of his brother, and not have to deal with the other later, as he would have to do with Robert.
So, William was hastily crowned on August 5th 1100, and soon wrote to Archbishop of Canterbury Anselm (you remember him from last week?) asking him to return from France. He also imprisoned the Bishop of Durham in the Tower of London (as you can see, he enjoyed his brother’s impeccable relationship with the Church). His next action as King was to get married.
The bride was Edith of Scotland, a girl with perhaps a better claim to the English throne than Henry's own. She was a descendant of the great Anglo-Saxon Kings, through her mother, Margaret of Wessex, a daughter of Edward the Exile, the son of Edmund Ironside and grandson of Aethelred the Unready. Her father was Malcolm III of Scotland, who had a prominent role in William Rufus’ reign. Edith had grown up in a number of convents, and had perhaps taken the veil, at the bidding of her Aunt Christina. However, Edith was ambitious and did not want to be a nun. An appeal to Anselm allowed her to marry Henry. On her marriage, Edith changed her name to Matilda, to suit the society of which she was to be Queen, however I am going to continue to refer to her as Edith. (but more on her next week!)
Now is probably the time to introduce Henry’s numerous children.
Henry had two surviving legitimate children with Edith:
Matilda, born 1102, died 1167, who married Heinrich V, Holy Roman Emperor, and Count Geoffrey of Anjou
William Aetheling, born 1103, died in the White Ship, 1120, married to Matilda of Anjou
And before his marriage to Matilda and during it, he had around twenty illegitimate children all of whom he acknowledged, was very open about and gained advantageous marriages for.
His sons were:
Robert, Earl of Gloucester, a very prominent noble, who married Amabel Fitzhamon
Richard of Lincoln
Reginald de Dunstanville, Earl of Cornwall
William de Tracy
Matilda FitzRoy, Countess of Perche
Matilda FitzRoy, Duchess of Brittany
Constance, Viscountess of Beaumont-sur-Sarthe
Sybilla of Normandy, Queen of Scotland (wife of Alexander I)
Gundrada de Dunstanville
Sybil of Falaise
In 1101, Henry's rule was going quite well - he was established and comfortable as King - but then the Bishop of Durham escaped the Tower and fled to Normandy. This shouldn’t have been a huge problem for Henry, but Durham then started to help Robert in planning his invasion. Henry confiscated Durham’s lands, and Anselm removed him as a bishop (Henry had discovered it was a good thing having the Archbishop of Canterbury on your side ). Henry mobilised his army at Pevensey on the South Coast, although his army wasn’t quite to size with many nobles failing to turn up, after offering only a shaky allegiance - they were preparing for Robert as King. Robert landed at Portsmouth on July 20th, and then gave Henry some time to catch up to him by stopping to seize the Royal Treasury at Winchester. The two sides met at Alton, and began negotiating. Eventually the Treaty of Alton was sealed; Henry was released from his previous Oath of Homage to Robert, he also had to renounce claims to Western Normandy and they would be each other’s heir. Robert would be paid £2,000 annually for the rest of his life, they would come together to protect Normandy and the barons who sided with Robert would not be punished,
Henry then started to punish the barons who had turned against him and supporting Robert, banishing William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey and then in 1102, Robert of Bellême and his brothers, seizing his castles of Arundel, Tickhill and Shrewsbury.
In 1103, Henry built up his allies in Normandy, marrying his illegitimate daughters Juliane and Matilda (the first of the three Matilda FitzRoys on the list) to the Count of Perche and Eustace of Breteuil respectively. As Henry’s position strengthened, Robert’s grew weaker, until in 1104, Henry crossed the channel to confront Robert about siding with his enemies (who he had sent to exile in Normandy) and also made new alliances with eager Norman barons while he was there. By now, most of the nobles could see that Henry was going to come out on top if there was a war again.
Henry now wanted Normandy as it descended into chaos under Robert’s rule.
Henry invaded in 1105, under the pretence of restoring peace after his friend, Robert FitzHamon had been captured (while apparently trying to provoke confrontation with Robert). Henry had much support in France (and was also helped that King Philip I didn’t join in on Robert’s side!) Henry took the towns of Bayeux, Caen and Falaise, but then faltered, and made peace. He had another go the next year.
In 1106, Henry invaded again, and on 28th September, a decisive battle took place between Robert, allied with Robert of Bellême, and Henry. Henry won the Battle of Tinchebray, taking his brother Robert, Duke of Normandy prisoner. He would be Henry’s prisoner until his death twenty-eight years later (he lived to a phenomenal age reaching his early eighties!) Robert's son, William Clito, three-years old when his father was imprisoned would later make several attempts too reclaim the Duchy.
Henry was now both King of England and Duke of Normandy, a position that hadn’t been held since his father’s death almost twenty years earlier.
In 1108, tensions rose across the continent, as Flanders, Anjou and France became a bigger threat, to the point where King Louis VI of France mobilised an army, although no fighting took place and the two sides agreed on peace. The other major event of 1108 involved Henry’s (legitimate) daughter Matilda. She was betrothed to Heinrich V, who was co-ruling the Holy Roman Empire with his father, but would go on to be a full Emperor. Matilda was just six, and would leave her home and everything she knew when she was eight. This was a very prestigious marriage, and one of only two that would occur between an English Princess and a Holy Roman Emperor (the other being King John’s daughter Isabella who would marry Emperor Fredrick II in the 1200s).
And that year, when Henry wasn’t on the continent, or arranging his marriage alliances, he was in Wales. As with his predecessors, Henry wanted to increase his influence in Wales, and helped establish some Flemings in Pembrokeshire, a move that did not endear him to the native princes or the locals.
In 1110, Henry made an attempt to capture William Clito, who was quickly moved beyond Henry’s reach to the County of Flanders. The tensions in France flared up again in 1111 when rebellions broke out across the country. One of Henry’s methods of isolating Louis politically was to use his vast brood of children in a range of diplomatic marriages. He betrothed William Aetheling, his young heir, to Margaret of Anjou, daughter of Fulk of Anjou, and his illegitimate daughter Matilda (the second Matilda on the list) to the Duke of Brittany. Henry also had a more personal role in this uprising; he joined in to support his nephew Theobald, Count of Champagne, who was one of the rebels. As mentioned, he had probably been close to Theobald’s mother, his sister Adela, so it is unsurprising that he helped out her son.
In 1112, Robert of Bellême changed sides again, joining the French, and when he arrived in Henry’s court as a French Ambassador, he was quickly arrested and imprisoned, which didn’t help the tense Anglo-French relations.
These tensions flared again in 1113, but eventually Louis backed down, giving Henry disputed castles and strongholds and accepting his overlordship of Maine, Brittany and Bellême. Henry returned to England the next year, where the Welsh were again giving trouble to their Norman occupiers. Owain ap Cadwgan blinded some of his hostages, and the Prince of Gwynedd started to threaten the Earl of Chester. And so Henry led another military campaign. This time, three armies would go into North, Mid and South Wales under King Alexander I of Scotland, Hebry himself and Gilbert FitzRichard. The Welsh Princes sued for peace, and Henry used the opportunity to strengthen the Norman settlements around the Marches.
In 1115, the succession to Normandy became an issue, when King Louis VI of France didn’t accept William Aetheling as heir to the Duchy, and instead declared that it was William Clito. As you can imagine, this did not please Henry. War broke out that year, as Henry and Louis started to raid each other’s borders, but it wasn’t until 1116 that Henry was forced onto the defensive when he faced French, Angevin and Flemish forces. Matters were not helped when a number of Henry’s own barons also rose up against him. This situation was still occurring in 1118, so when his wife Edith died, Henry couldn’t return to England for her funeral. Henry responded with a number of campaigns, and a stronger alliance with his nephew Theobald. However, his position was continually pressed.
In 1119, Henry’s daughter Juliana and Eustace de Breteuil threatened to revolt, so hostages were exchanged, however relationships deteriorated, and both sides mutilated their captives. Henry led a campaign against them (during which Juliana is reported to have tried to kill Henry using a crossbow), and took away most of their lands on his victory. In May, Fulk switched sides, agreeing for the marriage between William Aetheling and his daughter Matilda to take place. Henry now only had to defeat the French King and deal with the remaining rebel barons. The war against Louis VI ended after Henry won the Battle of Brémule. French resistance dwindled, and Louis appealed to the Pope but with no success. In July 1120, they came to terms, with Louis accepting William Aetheling’s claim to the Duchy of Normandy.
However, this did not last long. Only until the 25th November, when Henry’s world was turned upside down. Henry had left Barfleur for England in the early evening of the 25th November, leaving William Aetheling and a large number of high-ranking nobles to sail on the White Ship later in the evening. The passengers included many of his illegitimate children. It sank. The White Ship hit a rock outside Barfleur harbour and sank, killing everyone aboard, save one, a butcher from Rouen. About three-hundred people died, including the only legitimate, male heir to the throne of England.
It took days before the court was brave enough to tell Henry who reportedly collapsed with grief. Among the dead was Richard, Earl of Chester, which immediately meant that there was a rebellion in Wales. Henry soon crushed the rebellion, and then decided to get remarried. The new bride was Adeliza of Louvain. She was about eighteen, and he, thirty-five years older, but that didn’t stop them from being a close couple. However, they never had any children, deepening the succession crisis (although Adeliza did go on to have seven children with her second husband).
The alliance with Anjou also began to break down when Matilda, William Aetheling’s widow returned to Normandy, and when Fulk married another of his daughters, Sybilla to William Clito, granting them Maine. Revolts sprung up across the border with Anjou, and Amaury de Montfort, a powerful noble, joined Fulk, in 1123. Henry sent his son, Robert of Gloucester, and Ranulf le Meschin to suppress it in late 1123, and went himself in 1124. In the Battle of Bourgthéroulde in May, Henry captured some of the rebels, although Amaury escaped, and the king spent the rest of the year mopping up the rebellion, blinding its leaders and appealing to the Pope. The appeal was to annul the marriage between William Clito and Sybilla of Anjou, which the Pope did- once he had a large amount of Norman and English gold in his pocket.
And now we get onto the part of Henry’s reign that is better known, the succession crisis. By 1125, it was quite clear that Henry and Adeliza weren’t going to have any children, so other candidates for succession were looked at. The most obvious should have been William Clito, given that he had the best claim, however, he was never considered given that he had been at war with Henry numerous times. Other promising individuals included Stephen of Blois, his sister Adela’s third son. Perhaps in recognition of this, Henry made sure that Stephen got a good marriage to Matilda of Bolougne, a wealthy heiress to estates on both sides of the channel, and a descendant of the great Anglo-Saxon monarchs through her mother Mary of Scotland, who had been Edith’s sister. Another candidate was Henry’s illegitimate son, Robert, Earl of Glouceseter, who was by now an established young man, and who had proved his skills as both a commander and a diplomat. However, when Emperor Heinrich V died in 1125, a new option became available. One that would be highly controversial, and was a completely new concept. Henry’s idea was that his newly widowed daughter, Matilda, would succeed him.
In 1126, Henry recalled Matilda to England, and at Christmas he made his nobles swear to accept and recognise her as Henry’s heir if he died without a legitimate heir. This decision was scorned by some, including the French King, and was only supported by a few. She then continued to live at Henry’s court in England.
In 1127, matters were complicated when the childless Count of Flanders was murdered, and the Flemish succession was unclear, until, backed by the French King, William Clito was made Count of Flanders, threatening Henry’s borders. In retaliation, Henry sought to replenish an old alliance, one with Count Fulk of Anjou. He decided that it was time for Matilda to remarry, and betrothed the twenty-five-year-old Empress to Fulk’s thirteen-year-old heir, Geoffrey. Matilda was not impressed.
Henry began another war with France the next year, and the marriage of Matilda and Geoffrey (now fourteen) took place on 17th June in Le Mans. Just over a month later, on 28 July, William Clito who had been injured by a foot soldier in a siege died. This has to be one of the most ironic events in Medieval History, although I very much doubt that Matilda was amused. She now had to obey and submit to a boy eleven years younger. Needless to say, the couple despised each other.
In 1129, Geoffrey officially became the Count of Anjou, when his father, Fulk, left France for Jerusalem where he was to be King. Matilda left Geoffrey soon after the marriage to return to Normandy when her relationship with Geoffrey had decayed beyond what they viewed as salvaging, Henry mainly viewed this as Geoffrey’s fault but still sent Matilda back to him and the couple were reconciled in 1131.
With the succession sorted and secured by Matilda giving birth to two sons in 1133 and 1134, (she had another son after 1135 as well), life for Henry quietened down in the final years of his reign. His opponents were imprisoned (Robert) or dead (William Clito). These final years were some of the most peaceful seen in England since the Conquest. He had not suffered as many rebellions as his father and brother and died on December 1st 1135, confident in the knowledge that his daughter Matilda would be Queen after him. Unlike two of his brothers and his nephew, he didn’t die while hunting in the New Forest (respectively Richard of Normandy, William I and Richard (illegitimate son of Robert Curthose)), but instead died after eating too many lampreys, against his physician’s advice.
Henry had shown himself to be a ruthless ruler (a word that comes up a lot when describing the Normans with the exception of King Stephen who definitely was not ruthless). He had been brutal but effective, in pattern with William I and William II. While he didn’t have as much trouble in England and its neighbours (Wales and Scotland), he still had his fair share of trouble on the continent. In many ways, Henry I is overshadowed by the vicious civil war that would follow in the Anarchy, and his reign would only be remembered by his decision to make Matilda his heir. Yet he did have a legacy, and not just that of a brutal and bloody civil war; he developed the royal justice system, he developed government institutions and local governments, putting groundwork in place that would be used in the centuries to come.