After the upheaval of the conquest, and the unpopularity of William Rufus’ reign, what the country really needed was a period of peace and consolidation. This was what Henry I gave during his long reign.
Henry I is a shadowy and little known figure to most people. We have all heard of William the Conquerer, and William Rufus is quite well known for having been shot by an arrow in the New Forest.
A great light has been shone on the subsequent troubled reign of Stephen and the civil war by the wonderful Brother Caefiel books of Ellis Peters.
In between lies the long reign of Henry I. Thirty five years of comparative peace. Henry I was a strong King who preferred to take the peaceful route if he could, reinforced by kingly ferocity when he felt his rights and honour had been impinged.
What was he like?
Amazingly we have a description. William of Melmesbury, a contemporary historian, describes him as being of medium height, stocky (fat in later life, like his father WIlliam I) and having hair that was dark and, until his hairline receded, flopped over his forehead, and whose dark eyes had a kindly expression.
He was the youngest of William and Matilda’s sons and had been better educated than his brothers (he was later nicknamed Beaucleric because he could read and write latin), no doubt being intended for the Church.
However his education helped him greatly in his later career as king, and he is reported by William of Melmesbury as saying that an illiterate king was a crowned ass. He was also the first of the Norman kings to be fluent in the English language.
A swift coronation
Quite by chance, Henry happened to be in the New Forest on 2 August, when William Rufus was unaccountably killed by an arrow (although diligent research by academics hundreds of years later has shown that he almost certainly had nothing to do with it).
As soon as it was clear that Rufus was dead, Henry hastened hot foot to Winchester to secure the treasury and he was crowned a few days later on 5 August at Westminster Abbey.
His elder brother Robert was not pleased about this, but as he was at that time on crusade, there was little he could do about it. Later he challenged Henry but was defeated and spent most of the rest of his life as Henry’s prisoner.
The Charter of Liberties
At his coronation (at which time things looked initially to be a bit tricky) Henry was keen to distance himself from his brother. Rufus had been vastly unpopular with just about everybody.
To appease the Barons, Henry issued the Charter of Liberties (also known as the Coronation Charter), a remarkable document which promised to reform the abuses of Rufus, in particular over taxation, the abuse of vacant sees, and the practices of simony and pluralism. He also promised to restore the laws of his father and Edward the Confessor.
The charter is considered a landmark document in the development of English legal history and foreshadowed the more famous Magna Carta in the reign of King John. (It is also no doubt, one of 1066 and All That‘s famous ‘chartas and gartas of the realm’.)
Needless to say, once well established on the throne, Henry quietly forgot many of the promises in the charter (which for all practical purposes were probably unenforceable anyway, at least against the king). For example Wikipedia tells us of the establishment of the Exchequer, ostensively to end corruption and fraud in the taking and holding of taxes, but which in reality led to greater power of the crown.
A strong king
Henry was a very able king, greatly respected by his contemporaries. The picture which has come to us down the centuries is of a forceful man who loved wealth, but who was also generous to his followers. Although he never forgot a grudge and could be ferocious to his enemies, particularly to anyone who betrayed him.
He also loved hunting. This is evidenced by the fact that many writs and charters are recorded as being drawn up near the various forests, such as Brampton in Northamptonshire and Woodstock in Oxfordshire.
However he seems to have mostly steered clear of the New Forest, no doubt feeling that it was an unlucky place, having claimed the lives of two of his brothers, William Rufus and earlier, his brother Richard in 1081.
And a lover
Henry’s other passion appears to have been sex, as he has more recorded illegitimate children than any other King, over 20, most of whom he subsequently found very useful for diplomatic marriages.
In this he was very different from his predecessors, his father who appears to have been faithful to his wife Matilda, and his brother Rufus, who seems to have been homosexual (from the records of his court and the fact that he never married or appears to have had any mistresses).
Henrys own marriage was a masterpeice of cunning – he married Edith, daughter of King Malcolm III of Scotland (who promptly changed her name to Matilda to fit in with her new station in life). As she was descended from many of the old English kings, Henry’s marriage did a lot to make him acceptable to the English people.
A keen administrator?
Henry’s long reign allowed time for the administrative functions and the common law of the country to develop. There is some dispute among his biographers about the significance of this, his most recent biographer, Judith Green, holding In her book (Henry I: King of England and Duke of Normandy) that Henry did not do this knowingly or in any excess of reforming zeal, but that it was something that just developed due to circumstances.
However there is no doubt that a long and peaceful reign is just what England needed. It was a huge disaster for the country when he died in 1135 at the age of about 68, allegedly of a surfeit of lampreys.
The problem of the sucession
Henry’s only legitimate son, William, had died in 1120 in the sinking of the White Ship on a crossing from Barfleur in Normandy. This had been a devastating loss for Henry, and also one which caused major problems for the succession.
Henry ordered his Barons to swear homage to his daughter, the Empress Matilda, and promise to accept her as Queen. However, when the time came, many of them preferred her cousin Stephen. This resulted in a prolongued civil war , a dreadful time when ‘god and his angels slept’.
It is perhaps hardly surprising that in retrospect, Henry became known as “The Lion of Justice”.