Henry, the son of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders, was born in England, possibly at Selby, in about 1068. His mother gave birth to nine children. Seven of these survived: Robert Curthose, William Rufus, Richard (killed in a hunting accident in about 1074), Cecily, Agatha and Adela. (1)
Henry was reared in England, where his father was king, and remained there, apart from occasional trips to Normandy. William of Malmesbury and Ordericus Vitalis "testify independently that Henry was literate and, indeed, well educated in the liberal arts" and probably better educated than any previous English king except Alfred the Great. (2) He was better educated than his brothers and felt at ease in the company of learned men and was given the nickname Beauclerk (the learned). (3)
In 1083 his mother died leaving him lands worth something in excess of £300 a year. However, the records show that this was stolen from him by his older brothers. (4)
Henry was only a teenager when his father became ill. While fighting in Normandy he fell from his horse and suffered internal injuries. Ordericus Vitalis said that as he was "very corpulent" he "fell sick from the excessive heat and his great fatigues". (5)
William was taken to the priory of St. Gervase. Close to death, he directed that Robert Curthose should succeed him in Normandy and William Rufus should become king of England. The decision was an acknowledgement that unlike Robert, Rufus had always remained loyal to his father. From his father's will he received no land, but was given instead £5,000 in silver. It was said that at once he "hurried to the Treasury to supervise the weighing out of the money." (6)
William Rufus was not a popular ruler. It was recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: "He (William Rufus) was very harsh and severe over his land and his men, and with all his neighbours; and very formidable; and through the counsels of evil men, that to him were always agreeable, and through his own avarice, he was ever tiring this nation with an army, and with unjust contributions. For in his days all right fell to the ground, and every wrong rose up before God and before the world. God's church he humbled; and all the bishoprics and abbacies, whose elders fell in his days, he either sold in fee, or held in his own hands, and let for a certain sum; because he would be the heir of every man, both of the clergy and laity." (7)
The division of the Conqueror's lands created political difficulties as most Norman lords held estates on both sides of the Channel. Odo of Bayeux commented: "How can we give proper service to two mutually hostile and distant lords? If we serve Duke Robert well we shall offend his brother William, and he will deprive us of our revenues and honours in England. On the other hand if we obey King William, Duke Robert will deprive us of our patrimonies in Normandy." (8)
In 1088 some Normans, including Odo of Bayeux, Robert of Mortain, Richard Fitz Gilbert, William Fitz Osbern and Geoffrey of Coutances, led a rebellion against the rule of William Rufus in order to place his brother, Robert Curthose on the throne. However most Normans in England remained loyal and Rufus and his army successfully attacked the rebel strongholds at Tonbridge, Pevensey and Rochester. The leaders of the revolt were exiled to Normandy. (9)
Robert's defeat left him in a difficult financial position. He therefore decided to sell most of western Normandy to Henry for the sum of £3,000. Along with these territories, which included at least the Cotentin and Avranchin with the abbey of Mont-St Michel, Henry acquired the title "Count of the Cotentin". His rule there earned him a number of powerful friends among the barons of western Normandy. (10)
In February 1091, William Rufus led an army into north-eastern Normandy against his brother Robert Curthose. Robert accepted defeat and negotiated a peace on terms highly favourable to Rufus. In essence, their treaty provided for the division of Normandy between them, to the total exclusion and disinheritance of Henry. Rufus and Curthose then marched westward against their brother, forcing Henry to withdraw to the mountain-top abbey of Mont-St Michel. Curthose and Rufus besieged their younger brother until April 1091, with water running short, Henry agreed to relinquish the abbey and departed Normandy. (11)
Robert accompanied William Rufus to England in autumn 1091. He returned to Normandy in December but had difficulty controlling his territory. He renounced the treaty with his brother William, who in February 1094 returned to Normandy and throughout 1094 and 1095 the conflict between the brothers was evenly matched. Orderic Vitalis indicates that Rufus controlled more than twenty castles in Normandy. (12)
On 2nd August 1100, King William Rufus went hunting at Brockenhurst in the New Forest. Gilbert de Clare and his younger brother, Roger of Clare, were with the king. Another man in the hunting party was Walter Tirel, who was married to Richard de Clare's daughter, Adelize. Henry was also present at the hunt. (13)
William of Malmesbury later described what happened during the hunt: "The sun was now declining, when the king, drawing his bow and letting fly an arrow, slightly wounded a stag which passed before him... The stag was still running... The king, followed it a long time with his eyes, holding up his hand to keep off the power of the sun's rays. At this instant Walter decided to kill another stag. Oh, gracious God! the arrow pierced the king's breast. On receiving the wound the king uttered not a word; but breaking off the shaft of the arrow where it projected from his body... This accelerated his death. Walter immediately ran up, but as he found him senseless, he leapt upon his horse, and escaped with the utmost speed. Indeed there were none to pursue him: some helped his flight; others felt sorry for him." (14)
Tirel escaped to France and never returned again to England. Most people expected Robert Curthose to become king. However, Henry decided to take quick action to gain the throne. As soon as he realised William Rufus was dead, Henry rushed to Winchester where the government's money was kept. After gaining control of the treasury, Henry declared he was the new king. (15)
Supported by Gilbert de Clare and Roger of Clare, Henry was crowned king on 5th August. Although Robert threatened to invade England, he eventually agreed to do a deal with Henry. In return for an annual payment of £2,000, Robert accepted Henry as king of England. (16)
Christopher Brooke, the author of The Saxon and Norman Kings (1963), has suggested that it is possible that Walter Tirel was involved in some kind of conspiracy that involved Henry and the Clare family. "Tirel's wife Alice was a Clare... The leading figures of the great house of Clare, his brothers-in-law and overlords, were well patronised by Henry; one of them was made abbot of Ely this same year... Tirel himself immediately fled - even if not guilty, he was clearly suspected by Rufus's devoted knights. He did not suffer in the long run, and his family clearly benefited from the change of king." (17)
King Henry I generously rewarded the Clare family for their loyalty. Although Walter Tirel never returned to England, his son was allowed to keep his father's estates. Some people suspected that Henry and the Clare family had planned the murder of William Rufus. Others accepted that William Rufus' death was an accident. Whatever the truth of the matter, the Clare family obtained considerable benefit from the death of William Rufus. (18)
After the death of William Rufus, Henry married Matilda of Scotland. He acknowledged being the father of more than twenty bastards but was determined to have an legitimate heir. According to William of Malmesbury, Henry was very much in love with his new wife. Matilda gave birth to a daughter, Matilda, in 1102 and a son, William, in 1103. (19)
In 1105 King Henry invaded Normandy and took Bayeux and Caen. He returned the following year and besieged Tinchebray Castle, that was held by William of Mortain, who was one of the few important Norman barons still loyal to Robert. After a few days Duke Robert arrived and tried to break the siege. The battle only lasted an hour. Most of Robert's army was captured or killed. (20) It has been called the most important battle since Hastings. (21)
Henry decided to imprisoned his brother in the Tower of London. He spent the next 28 years in prison. Christopher Brooke, the author of The Saxon and Norman Kings, has argued that "to imprison a great noble for life was rarely done; to imprison an elder brother almost never." (22)
Matilda of Scotland was a devout Christian. According to her biographer, Lois L. Huneycutt, "Matilda was particularly interested in the care of lepers, and on one occasion washed and kissed the feet of a group of sufferers who had been invited into her chamber. She built a leper's hospital outside London and patronized several other institutions dedicated to their care. Her good works included the construction of several bridges in Surrey and Essex and a public bathhouse at London's Queenhithe. Matilda is also known for her literary and musical interests." Matilda died in 1118. (23)
Henry was someone who was capable of extremely cruel acts. One of the worse cases involved the children of his illegitimate daughter, Juliane. Her husband, Eustace de Pacy came into conflict with Ralph Harnec, one of Henry's officials. In 1119, exchanged their children as hostages. Ralph claimed that one of his children lost their sight while in captivity. Harnec demanded vengeance and Henry agreed that he could take out the eyes of his own two granddaughters. Ordericus Vitalis, the only source of this story, commented, "innocent childhood, who had to suffer for their fathers' sins." When she heard the news about her children, Juliane used a crossbow in an attempt to assassinate her father. (24)
Henry only legitimate son, William, was granted the title the Duke of Normandy and was groomed to become the next king of England. When he was ten years old, he began to attest royal documents and became the instrument of his father's diplomacy. According to William of Malmesbury, he was "trained for the succession with fond hope and immense care". (25)
In November 1120 Henry and William returned from Normandy by boat. "Henry sailed first, having turned down the offer of a new ship - the White Ship - from Thomas Fitzstephen... followed in the new vessel. But the inebriated crew and passengers were in no fit condition for a night voyage, and the ship was rowed onto a rock outside the harbour of Barfleur. William was put into a small boat and would have escaped had he not turned back on hearing an appeal for help from his bastard sister, whereupon the boat was overloaded by others seeking safety, and sank." (26)
Henry now married Adeliza of Louvain in the hope of obtaining another male heir. Adeliza, was 18 years-old and was considered to be very beautiful, but Henry was now in his fifties and no children were born. After four years of marriage he called all his leading barons to court and forced them to swear that they would accept his daughter, Matilda, as their ruler in the event of his dying without a male heir. (27)
William the Conqueror had abolished capital punishment in preference for blinding and mutilation and other less fatal forms of punishment. Henry rejected this idea and brought back the death penalty for certain crimes. For example, in 1124, he had 44 thieves hanged on the same day. The following year he ordered that "moneyers who issued false coins" were to be mutilated without having the right to a trial. (28)
In 1128 his brother Robert Curthose was transferred to Devizes Castle and during his last couple of years was held in Cardiff Castle. It is claimed that he attempted to escape but his horse was bogged down in a swamp and he was recaptured. To prevent further escapes, Henry had Robert Curthose's eyes burnt out. (29)
During his rule of 35 years Henry had little difficulty holding on to power. One biographer has commented: "Henry was a hard man who knew how to keep men loyal; he may not have won their hearts but they looked forward to the rewards he had to offer and they certainly feared his wrath... Careful, sober, harsh and methodical he chose his servants from men of a similar stamp... But from 1102 until the end of his reign there was no revolt in England. A king who could keep the peace for over thirty years was a master of the art of government." (30)
King Henry I died on 1st December 1135. William of Malmesbury claims that a seizure was brought on by a surfeit of lampreys, his body "much weakened by strenuous labours and family anxieties". (31)
There survived in medieval Europe a tradition of kingship more exalted than that of feudal overlord. The king was not merely the, apex of the feudal pyramid, but the anointed Vicegerent of God upon earth. The collapse of the Roman Empire had not entirely destroyed this Roman conception of sovereignty, and Henry now set himself to inject this idea of kingship into the Anglo-Norman State. The chroniclers spoke well of Henry I. We must regard his reign as a period when the central Government, by adroit and sharp accountancy and clerking, established in a more precise form the structure and resources of the State.
On the whole, Henry I got a good press from the chroniclers of the day. In part this might be attributed to fear or hope of favour; in part to tact, since for example William of Malmesbury's Chronicle of the Kings of the English was dedicated to Henry's most distinguished illegitimate son, Robert earl of Gloucester... Several of the chroniclers are frank about some of his weaknesses, all praise his virtues. God had endowed him, says Henry of Huntingdon, with three gifts of wisdom, victory and riches; but these were offset by three vices, avarice, cruelty and lust.
The contemporary historian William of Malmesbury, who excelled in the art of personal description, portrayed Henry as of medium height, with black, receding hair, a broad chest, and a tendency to gain weight with advancing years. He was sociable and witty, temperate in eating and drinking, casual and informal in speech. He slept soundly and had a most regrettable tendency to snore. Unlike Rufus, he preferred diplomacy to battle...
In political affairs, Henry was more cautious than Rufus, more thoughtful (or calculating), and by all indications more intelligent. He was unique among medieval monarchs in maintaining strict peace throughout his kingdom of England during his final thirty-three years - an achievement that was widely and deeply appreciated by his subjects. He maintained this peace through a policy that combined strict justice, high taxes (particularly in times of war in Normandy), severe punishment for wrongdoing, and the adroit use of royal patronage to attract talented new men to his court while at the same time keeping most of the old conquest families loyal to his regime.