King Henry I

King Henry I of England was the youngest son of William the Conqueror. He was also the only Norman king who could read and write. This education came from his upbringing in the church, unlike his siblings. Henry I had a long and successful reign in England, and due to his ambitious nature, he expanded his kingdom into Normandy.

Henry I of England

Henry I was not originally intended to be King of England. William the Conqueror’s eldest son, Robert Curthose, fought against his father at the siege of Mantes, but was still first in line to the throne. But on William the Conqueror’s death bed, Robert was only granted the Duchy of Normandy, while William’s second son, William II (Rufus), was granted England. Henry I, William’s youngest son only received money.

Robert Curthose brother to Henry I

William II, had a quick and unpopular reign, and died rather suspiciously in a hunting accident in 1100. Henry was present at the time! However, William II had already nominated their older brother Robert (inset) as his heir, so Henry I had to act quickly to secure the treasury, and was crowned on 5 August 1100 at Westminster Abbey, before Robert returned from the Crusades.

Henry I knew this would result in a rebellion from Robert, so he publicly distanced himself from the unpopular policies of William II, and also favoured himself with the church. Henry then married Matilda, daughter of Malcolm III of Scotland, which helped his alliance with the Scots and the Anglo-Saxons (as Matilda was niece to Edgar the Atheling). A strategic move to support his new position.

Henry Duke of Normandy

In 1101, Robert had returned from the Crusades, and immediately invaded England. However, Henry I was able to negotiate with Robert, offering him a good pension. Relative peace ensued for five years, but rebel barons and Robert himself were causing civil unrest in Normandy, and continually disputing with Henry. So Henry I decided to invade Normandy, to put to rest his rebellious brother and his barons. The Battle of Tinchebray proceeded in 1106, in Tinchebray, Normandy. Henry I and his knights had a decisive victory. He imprisoned Robert in Devizes castle, and then relocated him to Cardiff castle, where Robert eventually died.

Henry I was now Duke of Normandy as well as King of England. His control of Normandy was challenged by Loius VI of France, who recognised Robert Curthose’s son, William Clito, as legitimate heir. A major rebellion followed in Normandy, from 1116 – 1119. Henry I was again victorious, this time at the Battle of Bremule, and a peace settlement was agreed with Loius VI in 1120.

Henry I Beauclerc and the Investiture Controversy

Henry I was known as Henry Beauclerc, which means ‘good writer’. He was well educated in Latin and Liberal Arts, and primarily educated by the church. His father, William I, had a good relationship with the English church, reforming it with support from Lanfranc, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Lanfranc would become a close advisor of Williams. But, William II (Rufus) had pretty much destroyed this special relationship. Henry, much like his father, also wanted to church reform, but ended up becoming involved in the Investiture Controversy. This was a significant conflict between the church and the state. With all the back and forth disputes between Rome and Westminster, the Archbishop at the time, Anselm, decided to go into exile and live out his days in the peace and quiet of an abbey.

The investiture decided who would appoint and invest in the clergy, which had always been the role of the king. The pope declared this unlawful, which would mean Henry would have little say in which clergy could be appointed. The concern for the king would be the potential for the appointed clergyman to have an awful lot of power. Henry therefore ignored this, and the pope threatened him with excommunication. So, as a compromise, Henry renounced investiture but kept authority over church lands. This meant that Henry would continue to keep the church revenues, and have the say on who lived in church properties.

Henry I Descendants

Henry I’s eldest son and legitimate heir to the throne, William Aetheling, tragically died during a crossing from France to England on the White Ship, a new fast ship in Henry’s fleet. The ship crashed into a rock soon after they set off, and capsized. William, who was safely in a life-boat, decided to return to the sinking ship to save his half-sister, Matilda. However, the life-boat soon became consumed with too many people trying to save themselves, and sank too, taking William with it. Further more, Henry’s illegitimate son, Richard, also drowned. It is said that the Henry I never smiled again.

Henry had no choice now, but to name Matilda as his heir. This decision would lead to civil war after his death.

Henry I Facts

  • Henry I was born in September 1068, Selby, Yorkshire
  • His father was William the Conqueror
  • His mother was Matilda of Flanders
  • He was crowned on 5 August 1100 at Westminster Abbey, aged 31
  • He married Matilda, daughter of Malcolm III of Scotland and then later Adeliza, daughter of Geoffrey VII, Count of Louvain
  • He had 4 legitimate children, most notably:
    • William Aetheling, Matilda
  • He died on 1 December 1135 at St Denis-en-Lyons, Rouen aged 67, and was buried at Reading Abbey
  • He was the only Norman King of England who was literate, and was known as Beauclerc (good writer)

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