The fourth son of William the Conqueror, Henry, was born in 1069, Selby, England. In 1066, William had overthrown King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings. As the youngest son, the prince’s older brothers, Robert Curthose and William Rufus were destined to rule. Upon their father’s death in 1087, Robert became the duke of Normandy and William, the king of England. As a result, Henry was left landless and with only 5,000 pounds of silver.
Although Robert and William II were supposed to be allies, they instead treated each other with hostility. From 1089 – 1096, Robert attempted to seize the English throne. In response, William attempted to subjugate Normandy. The quarrel only resolved when Robert mortgaged his duchy to William for funds. The duke hoped to join the First Crusade and desperately needed money.
In 1100, events unfolded in the prince’s favor. While hunting in New Forest on August 2, William II died after an arrow struck him in the back. Since Robert was crusading, he couldn’t assert his claim to the throne. Realizing this, Henry cleverly moved to seize the English crown. Three days after William’s death, Henry ascended to the throne as Henry I of England.
Henry I’s ascension wasn’t met with universal approval. Many English barons believed that Robert had a better claim to the throne. Recognizing the baron’s discontent, the king issued the Charter of Liberties as a gesture of goodwill. The charter promised to end William II’s more unpopular policies, including unfair taxation. Furthermore, the king also began reforming the legal system.
Henry I secured his throne by marrying Malcolm III of Scotland’s daughter, Matilda. Besides being a Scottish princess, she also descended from the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons had ruled England before they had been overthrown by William the Conqueror. Through his marriage, the king laid the groundwork for peace with Scotland.
Despite Henry I’s success, he still had to contend with his brother. In 1101, Robert invaded England. During his invasion, multiple barons defected to Robert’s side. However, the king had built up enough support, and his throne remained secured. The brothers eventually made an agreement. In exchange for allowing Henry to keep England, Robert gained his French lands and a substantial annuity.
Unlike Henry I, Robert wasn’t a skilled ruler. The duke managed to alienate his subjects, and some fled to England. Sensing an opportunity, the king began planning an invasion. Before launching it, he made alliances with Normandy’s surrounding neighbors. In 1105, Henry finally invaded an isolated Normandy. On September 28, 1106, the king defeated his brother at the Battle of Tinchebrai and gained control of the dukedom.
After neutralizing his brother’s threat, Henry I faced another: St. Anselm. The clergyman had initially been exiled by William II but received a pardon from the king. When Robert invaded in 1101, Anselm had been instrumental in negotiating the brother’s settlement. However, by 1106, the saint and king’s relationship began to sour. Acting on behalf of Pope Paschal II, Anselm attempted to initiate his reforms.
One of Paschal II’s reforms included ending the sale of church positions. Since Henry I profited from such sales, the king opposed the reform. Eventually, Henry’s opposition brought him into direct conflict with the pope. In response to his defiance, Pascal threatened the king with excommunication. In the end, Henry agreed to allow the church to appoint clergymen, but he would receive homage from them. Anselm once more returned to exile.
Henry I fathered many children throughout his life. However, only two were legitimate: Matilda and William Aetheling. As Henry groomed William to be his successor, the king began to face a problem in Normandy. Robert’s son, William Clito, challenged his uncle for control of the duchy. With the support of Louis VI of France, Clito felt he would get his way. Despite this, Henry’s forces defeated both men in 1119.
Following his cousin’s defeat, William Aetheling became the new duke of Normandy. Henry I further provided for his son by having him marry into the house of Anjou. However, tragedy soon befell William. In November 1120, the English heir drowned after his ship sank. Upon William’s death, Henry’s succession plan was ruined.
William’s death shook the king to his core. After his death, a heartbroken Henry I never fully recovered. The king now had only one remaining legitimate child: Matilda. After her husband, Holy Roman Emperor Henry V died in 1125, Henry recalled his daughter to England.
When Matilda returned, the king made her his heir. Henry I also made his barons swear their loyalty to her. Seeking to secure an alliance, Henry had Matilda marry the heir to Anjou, Geoffrey Plantagenet, in 1128. In 1133, the couple had a son who would become the future Henry II.
By 1135, Henry I’s health began failing. On December 1, the old king died in Lyons-la-Foret, France, after allegedly consuming lampreys. Upon learning of his uncle’s death, Stephen of Blois quickly made his way to England. Ignoring Matilda’s right to the throne, Stephen had himself crowned instead. Preferring a king to a queen, many barons abandoned their oaths to Matilda. In response, an angry Matilda launched an invasion in 1139. Thus, a bitter civil war for the crown of England had begun.
Henry I proved himself to be a competent and skillful king. His reign brought peace to England and stability to Normandy. The king also reformed his justice system and began modernizing the monarchy. However, the death of his son caused Henry to fear for the monarchy’s succession. After his death, the king’s fears were realized as England descended into a civil war over the throne.
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Hollister, C. W. (2020, January 1). Henry I. Retrieved February 26, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-I-king-of-England