Henry I's palace at Old Sarum
In Russia in the 1860s Leo Tolstoy was writing War and Peace. In this book he wrote of modern historians who: "...assume that they know the goal towards which humanity is being led: to one this goal is the majesty of the Roman or the Spanish or the French empire; for another it is liberty, equality and the kind of civilisation that obtains in the little corner of the globe called Europe" (War and Peace P1401). At the same time as Tolstoy was writing War and Peace the Oxford historian William Stubbs was presenting the goal of English history as the creation of modern England with its laws and constitution. Henry I was a hero to Stubbs because he could be portrayed as making a significant contribution to this goal. As we shall see the assumption which Tolstoy was so suspicious about, that history was building towards a goal, led Stubbs to present a distorted vision of Henry I, which in many ways has endured ever since.
Henry was born somewhere in England, and probably in the last week of 1068, fourth son of William the Conqueror and Matilda. Very little is known about his childhood. There is only one recorded incident, reported by the chronicler Orderic Vitalis, and even this event might be fictitious. Allegedly William the Conqueror was preparing a military expedition and lodging at L'Aigle in Normandy with three of his sons, Robert, William Rufus and Henry. Henry and William Rufus were playing dice in an upper gallery of the house in which they were staying. From here the two young boys decided to pour water down on the head of their elder brother Robert, who was holding court with his companions on the ground floor. Robert did not see the funny side of his soaking. He flew into a rage and was only briefly placated by the Conqueror. The next morning Robert and his companions left for Rouen, capital of Normandy, and plotted revenge. Frustrated at his father's refusal to make him a duke, and furious that William Rufus and Henry had poured water over him, Robert decided to hit back. Calm wasn't restored until Robert and his cronies tried to storm the citadel at Rouen, in a demonstration of their anger.
Old Sarum, former site of Salisbury
Apart form this unfortunate row, the only other details recorded about Henry's youth involve his education. Henry appears to have spent time in the household of Bishop Osmund of Salisbury. Orderic mentions that Henry "was literate". The chronicler William of Malmesbury also mentions Henry's education, and gives his opinion that kings should be philosophers. He did not say that Henry was a philosopher, though this little detail was often ignored. From these few small scraps of information grew the idea that Henry was a scholar. By the late thirteenth century he was being called "Clerc", and by the early fourteenth century this had evolved into "Beauclerc". This image of a scholarly king, busy putting together the foundations of England's constitution was very beguiling for later historians, particularly for William Stubbs. In the opinion of Judith Green, a more recent writer on Henry's reign, the reality was that Henry could possibly read some Latin, but was probably unable to write, and was not intellectual in any way.
Henry came of age at Whitsuntide 1086, his father marking the occasion by knighting his son at Westminster. In only the following year William the Conqueror died in Normandy. This left Henry in a vulnerable position, stuck between his brother Robert who was now Duke of Normandy, and his brother William Rufus, who was now William I, King of England. William Rufus and Robert circled each other suspiciously, each trying to gain an advantage. Henry, distrusted by both sides, did his best to stay out of trouble. For thirteen years he spent an unsettled insecure life travelling between the courts of his brothers. In 1090 Henry helped Robert put down a revolt in Rouen. With the rebels defeated, perhaps in an effort to impress Robert with his enthusiastic loyalty, Henry took the rebel leader, a man called Conan, and threw him off the tower of the castle at Rouen. This ruthless act failed to earn him any favour with Robert, who drove Henry out of Rouen. A period of poverty in the Vexin region of Normandy followed, from which a slow recovery began when the fortress of Domfront was handed over to Henry by its townspeople. Then suddenly in 1095 things got easier for Henry. Pope Urban had given his sermon calling men to crusade in the Holy Land, and Robert, Duke of Normandy heeded the call. This left Henry in the much happier position of helping William I run Normandy. Just as quickly fortune seemed to swing the other way with Robert's triumphant return from his crusade. Robert's reputation was enhanced, and he had a new wife. Now it looked as though Henry would have to return to his former insecurity. Robert would have children with his wife, Normandy would pass to them, and Henry would be left with nothing.
New Forest (photo by Debbie Lowless)
But then on 2nd August 1100 history took a sudden lurch. William Rufus, King of England was killed by a stray arrow whilst hunting on the New Forest. There was no evidence of murder or conspiracy, but it was not acceptable that the history of England should turn on a stray arrow. Chroniclers dutifully reported portents for this unexpected accident. "According to William of Malmesbury the Devil appeared to men in woods and byways, and a few weeks before the king's death a spring at Finchamstead had run red with blood" (Henry I by Judith Green P 38). In purposeful history a stray arrow had to be part of a bigger pattern, a divine plan, revealed apparently by springs running red, and in the appearance of the devil on various side roads. Hearing of his brother's death, Henry knew he now had a chance to escape his old life. He acted quickly, and with the help of Maurice Bishop of London, managed to get himself crowned king at Westminster Abbey on 5th August. This was only three days after the death of Rufus. Meanwhile in Normandy, Duke Robert was angry, wanting the throne of England for himself. There was to be a struggle between the brothers for the next five years. But Henry had been decisive, had been in the right place at the right time, and was King of England. Once crowned, a whole panoply of religious symbolism came into play to make it appear as though Henry was destined to be king.
There now occurred an event that became part of the myth of Henry. A set of coronation promises was written down, stamped with the royal seal, and distributed throughout England. This was a statement of principles by which Henry intended to reign. To an extent it was a set of principles to which he would be held responsible, and became famous as the basis for the Magna Carta presented by barons to King John in 1215. Quite how significant Henry's document really was is debatable. Kings had written down pledges before. William Rufus issued written promises in 1088 and 1093. The difference with Henry's document was its wide circulation, and the fact that it was copied into compilations of law. At the time Henry's document would not have been seen as ground breaking. But later it became seen as such. Henry was only doing what his brother had done, simply trying to win support where he could.
The reign that followed was one of robust defence of royal power. Within five years Robert of Normany had been defeated, at the Battle of Tinchebray in 1105, and placed for the rest of his life in comfortable confinement. Henry thus added Normady to his holdings, and began a long war to control it. The king also spent the early part of this period in a struggle for supremacy with the Church. Henry's reluctant adversary in this struggle was Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm shuttled between king and pope, trying to reconcile the demands of each. Sometimes political expediency meant that differences were put aside. In 1100 Anselm supported Henry over his brother Robert. That year he also helped Henry marry Edith, daughter of Malcolm, King of Scotland. This girl - later to take the royal name Matilda - had been sent to live at Wilton nunnery, which would make her ineligible to marry. But Anselm smoothed the way to a royal marriage. Goodwill gained in cooperation like this, combined with long negotiation meant that in 1106 a compromise was reached. The king waived some of his rights to select Church officials, as long as candidates for Church offices continued to pay homage to the king. What was meant to be a temporary compromise lasted hundreds of years. With religious and political tension at a low ebb, England enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity. By 1120 everything seemed orderly in Henry's kingdoms. England had been peaceful for many years. Henry's second realm of Normandy had been much tougher to pacify, but by 1120 Normandy was also well under control. The succession to the joint throne of England and Normandy had been secured for Henry's son William. Things were progressing very nicely.
Then just when things couldn't seem to get much better, Henry was to suffer one the worst reverses of fortune ever to afflict England's royal family. Henry and most of his royal household were in Barfleur making preparations to return to England after a successful campaign in Normandy. On 25th of November a man named Thomas put his vessel, the White Ship, at the King's disposal. The White Ship was a fine vessel, with fifty oarsmen. In addition there was the happy coincidence that Thomas's father Stephen had carried William the Conqueror on his boat to England in 1066. Henry thanked Thomas for his offer. As he already had a ship he wouldn't sail with Thomas himself, but he would entrust his sons William and Richard and three hundred other members of his court to the White Ship. Three hundred people climbed aboard for the night crossing. A strong current running towards what is now known as Omaha Beach would have slackened as the tide rose through the evening. The pilot waited until after 10pm to sail. There was a party atmosphere on board. A few people got off the ship, sensing the behaviour of some young men was getting out of hand. Apparently, priests who arrived to bless the ship were driven away. Finally the boat set off for England, but hit a rock just off Barfleur and capsized. Prince William initially escaped in a small boat, but returned to try and save his sister. His boat was then swamped by people struggling in the water who tried to climb into it. Thomas, the ship owner, is said to have survived the sinking, but on hearing of William's death, allowed the sea to carry him away. Hundreds drowned. Henry lost his son and heir, two of his other children, and many close friends. Naturally there was thought to have been a divine element at work. The fact that priests were chased away was carefully noted, and following the disaster Henry founded Reading Abbey. Only ruins now remain, but enough is left to give an idea of the massive effort made to seemingly placate God in the aftermath of the sinking of the White Ship.
The port of Barfleur in Normandy. This image is copyright free
Henry was shattered, but showing his usual resilience he fought on. The White Ship disaster encouraged new rebellions, which Henry met with ruthlessness. Trouble in Wales was quickly put down. Captured rebels in Normandy, such as Geoffrey de Tourville were blinded. Luc de la Barre is supposed to have beaten himself to death in his cell rather than face Henry's justice. Henry's first wife Matilda had died in 1118, so Henry remarried in the hope of producing another male heir. Unfortunately his second marriage to Adeliza, daughter of Count Charles of Flanders did not result in any children. Henry had dozens of illegitimate children, but only one legitimate child left who could take the throne. This was his daughter Matilda, who he now recognised as his heir.
On 25th March 1135 Matilda had a son with her husband Geoffrey Plantagenet. Henry prepared to cross the Channel to see his new grandson in Normandy. Wulfric of Haselbury, a reclusive monk from Somerset then announced that the King would never return. This prophecy was repeated to the king, who old and jittery, worried about it. Then there were concerns about a solar eclipse coinciding with the trip to Normandy. Inspite of these worries Henry sailed to Normandy, where he argued with Matilda and her husband about handing control of Normandy's castles over to the couple. While this dispute was rumbling on Henry went hunting. By 25th November he was at the castle of Lyon. After a day spent hunting in the forest, he had a dinner of lampreys, a type of fish. Apparently he ate the lampreys against his doctor's advice. That night the King became ill, and it soon became clear that Henry was unlikely to recover. He assigned all his kingdoms to his daughter Matilda, but not to her husband Geoffrey, a decision which was to confuse the succession. Then on 1st December 1135 Henry died. His body was taken to England and buried at Reading Abbey.
So passed Henry I. As Wulfric of Haselbury had predicted he never came back from Normandy. Of the myriad of events at this time, Wulfric's prediction was thought worth preserving because it gave the impression of purpose and shape to events. In a similar way, many centuries later nineteenth century historians began to claim that Henry I helped create the foundations of England. Henry I, however, did not consciously do anything to create constitutional foundations for England. Judith Green suggests that three decades of strong stable rule under a ruthless king naturally led to more stable administrative activity. Henry was not "an administrator or a social engineer" (P326). He was simply a strong ruler, who left administrators with a bit of peace to extend their activities. Just because certain things happened does not mean they were planned. Perhaps the key is not to think in terms of an end, to which events are building. There is no end. History always goes on. The 1860s saw Stubbs writing his history in Oxford, and also the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species. For Darwin life had no specific goal. It existed in order to survive. Life organises itself only for this end. Maybe the truth in this view explains why history written in terms of a goal distorts our understanding of what actually happened. Stubbs, a churchman, saw life in terms of purpose. Thinking about life in this way turned a ruthless and tough Norman king who did what he had to do to get by, into some kind of intellectual social engineer planning for a future. And that future goal was England in the nineteenth century. Perhaps this vision of history was more attractive than a scenario which is more like a Monty Python movie, in which, for example, ships full of rowdy young men accidentally sink.