Henry I

Miniature from illuminated Chronicle of Matthew Paris

Adapted from Wikipedia:

Henry I (1069-1135) was the fourth son of William I of England.  He succeeded his elder brother William II as King of England in 1100 and defeated his eldest brother, Robert Curthose, to become Duke of Normandy in 1106.  A later tradition called him “Beauclerc” for his scholarly interests – he could read Latin and put his learning to effective use – and “Lion of Justice” for refinements which he brought about in the royal administration, which he rendered the most effective in Europe.

Henry’s reign established deep roots for the Anglo-Norman realm, in part through his dynastic (and personal) choice of a Scottish princess who represented the lineage of Edmund Ironside for queen.  His succession was hurriedly confirmed while his brother Robert was away on the First Crusade, and the beginning of his reign was occupied by wars with Robert for control of England and Normandy.  He successfully reunited the two realms again after their separation on his father’s death in 1087.  Upon his succession he granted the baronage a Charter of Liberties, which linked his rule of law to the Anglo-Saxon tradition, forming a basis for subsequent limitations to the rights of English kings and presaged Magna Carta, which subjected the king to law.

The rest of Henry’s reign, a period of peace and prosperity in England and Normandy, was filled with judicial and financial reforms.  He established the biannual Exchequer to reform the treasury.  He used itinerant officials to curb the abuses of power at the local and regional level that had characterized William Rufus’ unpopular reign, garnering the praise of the monkish chroniclers.  The differences between the English and Norman populations began to break down during his reign and he himself married a descendant of the old English royal house.  He made peace with the church after the disputes of his brother’s reign and the struggles with Anselm over the English investiture controversy (1103–07), but he could not smooth out his succession after the disastrous loss of his eldest son William in the wreck of the White Ship.  His will stipulated that he was to be succeeded by his daughter, the Empress Matilda, but his stern rule was followed by a period of civil war known as the Anarchy.


Early life:

Henry was born between May 1068 and May 1069, probably in Selby in Yorkshire.  His mother, Queen Matilda, named the infant prince Henry after her uncle, Henry I of France.  As the youngest son of the family, he was almost certainly expected to become a bishop and was given more extensive schooling than was usual for a young nobleman of that time.  Henry’s biographer, C. Warren Hollister, suggests the possibility that the saintly ascetic Osmund, Bishop of Salisbury, was in part responsible for Henry’s education.  Henry was consistently in the bishop’s company during his formative years (about 1080–86).  “He was an intellectual”, V.H. Galbraith observed, “an educated man in a sense that his predecessors, always excepting Alfred, were not.”  The chronicler William of Malmesbury asserts that Henry once remarked that an illiterate king was a crowned ass.  He was certainly the first Norman ruler to be fluent in the English language.

William I’s second son Richard was killed in a hunting accident in 1081, so William bequeathed his dominions to his three surviving sons in the following manner:

  • Robert received the Duchy of Normandy and became Duke Robert II.
  • William Rufus received the Kingdom of England and became King William II
  • Henry received 5,000 pounds in silver.

The chronicler Orderic Vitalis reports that the old king had declared to Henry: “You in your own time will have all the dominions I have acquired and be greater than both your brothers in wealth and power.”

Henry tried to play his brothers off against each other but eventually, wary of his devious manoeuvring, they acted together and signed an accession treaty.  This sought to bar Prince Henry from both thrones by stipulating that if either King William or Duke Robert died without an heir, the two dominions of their father would be reunited under the surviving brother.

Seizing the throne of England:  Duke Robert had not yet returned from the First Crusade when, on 2 Aug 1100, William II was killed by an arrow in a hunting accident in the New Forest, where Henry was also hunting,  His absence allowed Prince Henry to seize the royal treasury at Winchester, Hampshire, where he buried his dead brother.  Conspiracy theories have been repeatedly examined and widely dismissed.  Thus he succeeded to the throne of England, guaranteeing his succession in defiance of William and Robert’s earlier agreement.  Henry was accepted as king by the leading barons and was crowned three days later on 5 Aug 1100 at Westminster Abbey.  Henry secured his position among the nobles by an act of political appeasement: he issued a coronation charter guaranteeing the rights of free English folk, which was subsequently evoked by King Stephen and by Henry II before Archbishop Stephen Langton called it up in 1215 as a precedent for Magna Carta.  The view of Henry and his advisors did not encompass a long view into constitutional history: the Coronation Charter was one of several expedients designed to distance him from the extraordinary and arbitrary oppressions of William Rufus’ reign, claiming to return to the practices of Edward the Confessor, made clear in clause 13, a statement of general principles.  Its first clause promised the freedom of the church and the security of its properties, and succeeding clauses similarly reassured the propertied class.

First marriage:  On 11 Nov 1100, Henry married Edith, daughter of King Malcolm III of Scotland.  Since Edith was also the niece of Edgar the Atheling and the great granddaughter of Edmund Ironside (the half-brother of Edward the Confessor), the marriage united the Norman line with the old English line of kings.  The marriage greatly displeased the Norman barons, however, and as a concession to their sensibilities Edith changed her name to Matilda upon becoming Queen.  The other side of this, however, was that Henry, by dint of his marriage, became far more acceptable to the Anglo-Saxon populace.

Conquest of Normandy:  In the following year, 1101, Robert Curthose, Henry’s eldest brother, attempted to seize the crown by invading England.  In the Treaty of Alton, Robert agreed to recognize his brother Henry as King of England and return peacefully to Normandy, upon receipt of an annual sum of 3,000 silver marks, which Henry proceeded to pay.  In 1105, to eliminate the continuing threat from Robert, Henry led an expeditionary force across the English Channel.

Battle of Tinchebray: On the morning of 28 Sep 1106, exactly 40 years after William had made his way to England, the decisive battle between his two surviving sons, Robert Curthose and Henry Beauclerc, took place in the small village of Tinchebray, in Lower Normandy.  This combat was totally unexpected.  Henry and his army were marching south from Barfleur on their way to Domfront, and Robert was marching with his army from Falaise on their way to Mortain.  They met at the crossroads at Tinchebray.  The running battle which ensued was spread out over several miles.  The site where most of the fighting took place is the village playing field today.  Towards evening Robert tried to retreat but was captured by Henry’s men at a place about two miles north of Tinchebray where a farm named “Prise” (grip or capture) stands today on the D22 road.  The tombstones of three knights are nearby on the same road.

King of England and Ruler of Normandy:  After Henry had defeated his brother’s Norman army at Tinchebray, he imprisoned Robert, initially in the Tower of London, subsequently at Devizes Castle and later at Cardiff.  One day, while out riding, Robert attempted to escape from Cardiff, but his horse bogged down in a swamp and he was recaptured[1].  Henry appropriated the Duchy of Normandy as a possession of the Kingdom of England and reunited his father’s dominions.  Even after taking control of the Duchy of Normandy he did not take the title of Duke.  He chose to control it as the King of England.  In 1113 Henry attempted to reduce difficulties in Normandy by betrothing his eldest son, William Adelin, to the daughter of Fulk, Count of Anjou, at the time a serious enemy.  They were married in 1119.  Eight years later, after William’s death in 1120, a much more momentous union was made between Henry’s daughter, (the former Empress) Matilda and Fulk’s son Geoffrey Plantagenet, which eventually resulted in the union of the two realms under the Plantagenet Kings.

Henry I, King of England, held court at Berkhamsted Castle in 1123.

Activities as a King:

Henry’s need for funds to consolidate his position led to an increase in the activities of centralized government.  As king, Henry carried out social and judicial reforms.  He issued the Charter of Liberties and restored the laws of Edward the Confessor.  Between 1103-07, Henry was involved in a dispute with Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Pope Paschal II in the investiture controversy, which was settled in the Concordat of London in 1107.  The settlement was a compromise.  In England, a distinction was made in the king’s chancery between the secular and ecclesiastical powers of the prelates.  Employing the distinction, Henry gave up his right to invest his bishops and abbots but reserved the custom of requiring them to come and do homage for the “temporalities” (the landed properties tied to the episcopate), directly from his hand, after the prelate had sworn homage and feudal vassalage in the ceremony called commendatio, the commendation ceremony, like any secular vassal.

Chateau de Domfront, a ruined castle in the Orne département of France: In 1049, the castle at Domfront, belonging to Guillaume II Talvas, lord of Bellême, was besieged by William the Conqueror, duke of Normandy. In 1092, the people of Domfront revolted against Robert II de Bellême, Earl of Shrewsbury, transferring their allegiance to the third son of William the Conqueror, Henry, who became duke of Normandy and Henry I King of England. The remains that we can see today were erected by Henry I to protect the southern border of the Norman Duchy, after the Domfront area was added to Normandy around 1050.

Some of Henry’s acts are brutal by modern standards.  In 1090 he reportedly threw a treacherous burgher named Conan Pilatus from the tower of Rouen.  The tower became known as “Conan’s Leap.”  In 1119, Henry’s son-in-law, Eustace de Pacy, and Ralph Harnec, the constable of Ivry, exchanged their children as hostages.  When Eustace inexplicably blinded Harnec’s son, Harnec demanded vengeance.  King Henry allowed Harnec to blind and mutilate Eustace’s two daughters, who were also Henry’s own grandchildren.  Eustace and his wife, Juliane, were outraged and threatened to rebel.  Henry arranged to meet his daughter at a parley at Breteuil, only Juliane drew a crossbow and attempted to assassinate her father.  She was captured and confined to the castle, but escaped by leaping from a window into the moat below.  Some years later Henry was reconciled with his daughter and son-in-law.

During his reign, King Henry introduced the tally stick, which started primarily as a form of record keeping but evolved into a monetary system.  Since tally sticks could be used to pay the taxes imposed by the king, he created a demand for tally sticks.  This demand expanded their role and they began to circulate as a form of money.  This practice survived for many years, a little over 700 in fact, until it was finally retired in 1826.  The Bank of England then continued to use wooden tally sticks until 1826.  The tally sticks were then taken out of circulation and stored in the Houses of Parliament until 1834, when the authorities decided that the tallies were no longer required, and that they should be burned.  As it happened, they were burned rather too enthusiastically and in the resulting conflagration the Houses of Parliament were razed to the ground.



Children from first marriage:  Henry had three children by Matilda (Edith), who died on 1 May 1118 at the Palace of Westminster.  She was buried in Westminster Abbey.  Some accounts list another son, Richard, but they are incorrect:

  1. Euphemia (July/August 1101 – young); her existence is unlikely.
  2. Matilda. (c. February 1102 – 10 Sep 1167).  She married firstly Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor, and secondly, Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou, having issue by the second.
  3. William Adelin, (5 Aug 1103 – 25 Nov 1120).  He married Matilda (d.1154), daughter of Fulk V, Count of Anjou.

Children from second marriage:  On 29 Jan 1121, Henry married Adeliza, daughter of Godfrey I of Leuven, Duke of Lower Lotharingia and Landgrave of Brabant, but there were no children from this marriage.  Left without male heirs, Henry took the unprecedented step of making his barons swear to accept his daughter Empress Matilda, widow of Henry V, the Holy Roman Emperor, as his heir.

Illegitimate children:  King Henry I is famed for holding the record for more than twenty acknowledged illegitimate children, the largest number born to any English king.  They turned out to be significant political assets in subsequent years, his bastard daughters cementing alliances with a flock of lords whose lands bordered Henry’s.  He had many mistresses, and identifying which mistress is the mother of which child is difficult.  His illegitimate offspring for whom there is documentation are:

  1. Robert, 1st Earl of Gloucester, born 1090.  He is often said to have been a son of Sybil Corbet.
  2. Maud FitzRoy, married 1113 Conan III, Duke of Brittany
  3. Constance or Maud FitzRoy, married 1122 Roscelin, Viscount de Beaumont (died ca. 1176).
  4. Mabel FitzRoy, married William III Gouet.
  5. Alice FitzRoy, married Matthieu I of Montmorency and had two children: Bouchard V de Montmorency (c. 1130–1189) who married Laurence, daughter of Baldwin IV of Hainault and had issue and Mattheiu who married Matilda of Garlande and had issue.  Mattheiu I went on to marry Adelaide of Maurienne.
  6. Gilbert FitzRoy, died after 1142.  His mother may have been a sister of Walter de Gand.
  7. Emma, married Guy de Laval IV, Lord Laval.  This is based on epitaphs maintained in the chapterhouse of Clermont Abbey which appear to refer to Emma as the daughter of a king.  There may be some confusion here, however, in that Guy’s son, Guy de Laval V, was also married to an Emma who described herself as the daughter of Reginald de Dunstanville, Earl of Cornwall, who was an illegitimate son of Henry I as noted below.  Additionally, if the elder Emma was also an illegitimate child of Henry I, this would make Guy and his wife Emma first cousins, something that casts more doubt on the claim.

With Edith:

  • Matilda, married in 1103 Count Rotrou III of Perche. She perished 25 November 1120 in the wreck of the White Ship.  She left two daughters: Philippa, who married Elias II, Count of Maine (son of Fulk, Count of Anjou and later King of Jerusalem), and Felice.

With Gieva de Tracy:

  • William de Tracy

With Ansfride:  Ansfride was born about 1070.  She was the wife of Anskill of Seacourt, at Wytham in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire):

  1. Juliane de Fontrevault (born about 1090) married Eustace de Pacy in 1103.  She tried to shoot her father with a crossbow after King Henry allowed her two young daughters to be blinded.
  2. Fulk FitzRoy (born about 1092), a monk at Abingdon
  3. Richard of Lincoln (about 1094 – 25 Nov 1120).  He perished in the wreck of the White Ship.

With Sybil Corbet:  Lady Sybilla Corbet of Alcester was born in 1077 in Alcester in Warwickshire.  She married Herbert FitzHerbert, son of Herbert “the Chamberlain” of Winchester and Emma de Blois.  She died after 1157 and was also known as Adela (or Lucia) Corbet.  Sybil was definitely mother of Sybil and Rainald, possibly also of William and Rohese.  Some sources suggest that there was another daughter by this relationship, Gundred, but it appears that she was thought as such because she was a sister of Reginald de Dunstanville but it appears that that was another person of that name who was not related to this family.

  1. Sybilla de Normandy, married Alexander I of Scotland.
  2. William Constable, born before 1105. Married Alice (Constable).  He died after 1187.
  3. Reginald de Dunstanville, 1st Earl of Cornwall.
  4. Gundred of England (1114-46), married 1130 Henry de la Pomeroy, son of Joscelin de la Pomerai.
  5. Rohese of England, born 1114.  She married Henry de la Pomerai.
  6. Elizabeth of England married Fergus of Galloway.

With Edith FitzForne:

  1. Robert FitzEdith, Lord Okehampton, (1093–1172) married Dame Maud d’Avranches du Sap.  They had one daughter, Mary, who married Renaud, Sire of Courtenay (son of Miles, Sire of Courtenay and Ermengarde of Nevers).
  2. Adeliza FitzEdith.  Appears in charters with her brother, Robert.

With Nest ferch Rhys ap Tewdwr:  Nest ferch Rhys, born about 1085, was a legitimate daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, last King of Deheubarth by his wife, Gwladys ferch Rhiwallon ap Cynfyn of Powys.  In 1093, her father was killed in battle, and her older illegitimate half-brothers were killed, executed, or imprisoned.  What happened to Nest is unknown.  She came to King Henry’s attention sometime after 1100, and bore him a son, Henry fitzHenry (killed in battle in 1158).  Sometime thereafter, the King married Nest to Gerald de Windsor (aka Geraldus FitzWalter), a younger son of Walter FitzOther, Constable of Windsor Castle and Keeper of the Forests of Berkshire, by his wife Beatrice.  Gerald had lately been in rebellion against King Henry, together with the powerful Montgomery clan, but, with Nest as his wife, was restored by Henry to his former position in South Wales.  After her husband’s death, Nest was married to Stephen, Constable of Cardigan.  By the latter, Nest had at least one son, Robert FitzStephen, a leader of the Norman invasion of Ireland.  By Gerald she had five children, from whom descend the famous Fitzgerald clan of Ireland.

With Isabel de Beaumont:  Isabel (Elizabeth) de Beaumont (after 1102 – after 1172), was the daughter of Robert de Beaumont, sister of Robert de Beaumont, 2nd Earl of Leicester.  She married Gilbert de Clare, 1st Earl of Pembroke, in 1130.  She was also known as Isabella de Meulan.

  1. Isabel Hedwig of England
  2. Matilda FitzRoy, abbess of Montvilliers, also known as Montpiller

Henry I burial plaque at Reading Abbey

Death and legacy:  Henry visited Normandy in 1135 to see his young grandsons, the children of Matilda and Geoffrey.  He took great delight in his grandchildren, but soon quarrelled with his daughter and son-in-law.  These disputes led him to tarry in Normandy far longer than he originally planned.  Henry died on 1 Dec 1135 at Saint-Denis-en-Lyons (now Lyons-la-Forêt) in Normandy.  According to legend, he died of food poisoning, caused by his eating “a surfeit of lampreys”, of which he was excessively fond.  His remains were sewn into the hide of a bull to preserve them on the journey and then taken back to England and were buried at Reading Abbey, which he had founded fourteen years before.  The Abbey was destroyed during the Protestant Reformation.  No trace of his tomb has survived, the probable site being covered by St. James’ School.  Nearby is a small plaque and a large memorial cross stands in the adjoining Forbury Gardens.  Although Henry’s barons had sworn allegiance to his daughter as their queen, her gender and her remarriage into the House of Anjou, an enemy of the Normans, allowed Henry’s nephew Stephen of Blois to come to England and claim the throne with baronial support.  The struggle between the former Empress and Stephen resulted in a long civil war known as the Anarchy.  The dispute was eventually settled by Stephen’s naming of Matilda’s son, Henry Plantagenet, as his heir in 1153.


  • Cross, Arthur Lyon. A History of England and Greater Britain.  Macmillan, 1917.
  • Fleming, Donald F. and Janet M. Pope, eds.  Henry I and the Anglo-Norman World: Studies in Memory of C. Warren Hollister (Haskins Society Journal, Special Volume, 17). Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006.
  • Green, Judith A.  Henry I, King of England and Duke of Normandy.  Cambridge University Press 2008.
  • Hollister, C. Warren.  Henry I.  Yale University Press, 2001. (Yale English Monarchs series).
  • Thompson, Kathleen. “Affairs of State: the Illegitimate Children of Henry I.” Journal of Medieval History 29 (2003) p. 129–51.

[1] A story was later circulated that, to prevent further escapes, Henry had Robert’s eyes burnt out: this is not accepted by Henry’s recent biographer, Judith Green.


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