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King Henry I

The fourth son of William the Conqueror and his wife Matilda, Henry was born in England in the latter half of 1068 or early 1069. Local tradition has his birthplace as Selby in Yorkshire. Little is known of his upbringing. Contemporary sources describe Henry as being of middle stature with a broad chest and black hair.

He was literate and well educated in the liberal arts and was later given the name Beauclerc, meaning good scholar. Given his status, he would have also received military training and his father King William I knighted him in May 1086.

Henry was said to prefer diplomacy to battle and was more politically adept than his brothers.

He also had a cruel streak. In 1090 he made an example of one man who rose up against his brother Robert, then Duke of Normandy, by throwing him off the top of Rouen Castle.

On his father’s death Henry was left a large sum of money, usually said to be £5000. Of his two surviving elder brothers, William Rufus inherited the English crown and Robert Curthose the Duchy of Normandy. His brother King William refused to grant Henry the lands left to him after the death of their mother Queen Matilda, leaving Henry landless.

Henry remained at the Norman Court. In 1088 after a failed rebellion against King William, Robert Curthose needed money and agreed to give Henry land in western Normandy in exchange for £3000. Now the Count of Cotentin, Henry soon built up his powerbase and had the support of several barons.

The relationship between the sons of William the Conqueror was always turbulent and it wasn’t long before Robert turned against Henry and stripped him of his title, accusing him of plotting against him.Henry’s brothers were in a continuous struggle over England and Normandy, with each supporting uprisings and rebellions against the other. In 1091 William Rufus and his army landed in Normandy. The invasion ended with the signing of the Treaty of Rouen in which each agreed to be the other’s heir, excluding Henry from the line of succession.

Robert’s rule over the Duchy had been somewhat chaotic and William agreed to help him regain control, including over those lands held by Henry. They turned their armies against Henry, besieging him at the abbey of Mont Saint Michel and finally forcing him to leave Normandy in April 1091.

The truce between Robert and William did not last long and from 1092 Henry began to re-establish his powerbase in western Normandy and increasingly ally himself with William. In 1095 Robert left to join the First Crusade.

King Henry I

On 2 August 1100 King William II was shot and killed while out hunting in the New Forest. Henry had been part of the royal hunting party. Upon learning of his brother’s death Henry rode to Winchester and took control of the Royal Treasury. He declared himself king, seizing the English throne while his elder brother Robert Curthose was away on crusade. He was hastily crowned three days later on the 5 August at Westminster Abbey.

To secure his position Henry’s supporters were richly rewarded with grants of lands and favours. Several concessions were made to the barons in his Coronation Charter or Charter of Liberties.

The laws of Edward the Confessor and his father William I were to be restored, thereby ending those practices which the barons considered to have been an abuse of royal power during the harsh rule of William Rufus.

To secure England’s northern border and gain favour with the English on 11 November 1100 Henry married Edith (known by the more Norman name of Matilda after her marriage). Edith was the daughter of King Malcolm III of Scotland and as a descendant of Alfred the Great also of the West Saxon royal line.

During Henry’s reign, there was a move towards a more bureaucratic style of governing. Many of the men Henry brought to his court were not of high status and they had often risen up through the ranks as administrators.

The existing financial and justice systems were improved upon and high taxes were levied particularly during times of war in Normandy. The financial records of the time (known as pipe rolls) show a significant increase in royal revenues.

The Royal Exchequer was established and harsh penalties were given to those caught debasing the coinage. Royal justices toured the English shires although they were often overly aggressive in their duties. This strict system of justice and severe punishments for wrongdoing or disloyalty helped keep England at peace for the last thirty years of Henry’s reign.


In 1101 Robert raised an army and invaded England in an attempt to gain the throne. The invasion ended with the signing of the Treaty of Alton. Under its terms, Henry was confirmed as King of England while Robert settled for Henry’s lands in Normandy and an annuity of £2000.

The peace, however, was short-lived. Henry turned against those barons who had supported his brother and set about destabilising Robert’s rule in Normandy. Henry landed with an invasion force, finally capturing his brother at the Battle of Tinchebrai and routing his army in 1106. Robert remained Henry’s prisoner for the rest of his life.

France, Anjou, and Flanders were threats to Henry’s rule in the Duchy and Henry sought to increase his strength by forming alliances outside of Normandy. King Louis VI of France and Count Fulk V of Anjou declared Henry’s nephew, William Clito (the son of Robert Curthose), to be the rightful heir to the Duchy. War broke out in Normandy.

A settlement was reached when Henry agreed to a marriage between his son William and Matilda, the daughter of the Count of Anjou. Henry defeated Louis VI of France at the Battle of Bremule and the two kings eventually negotiated peace terms in 1120.


Henry had several mistresses and fathered at least 20 illegitimate children. However, he and his wife Matilda had only two children survive to adulthood a daughter Matilda born in 1102 and a son William, born in 1103. William was Henry’s only legitimate son and heir.

On 25 November 1120, William drowned when his vessel, the White Ship, struck a rock and sank shortly after leaving the port of Barfleur. In January 1121 Henry married Adeliza of Louvain (his wife Queen Matilda having died in 1118), although the union produced no children.

Henry’s only other legitimate child was his daughter Matilda. Empress Matilda now the widow of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, was brought back to England in 1126.

Intending Matilda to succeed to the English throne after his death, Henry had the barons swear oaths of fealty and recognise Matilda as his heir at a ceremony in Westminster. In 1128 Henry cemented his alliance with the Count of Anjou by marrying Matilda to his son Geoffrey Plantagenet.

King Henry I died in Normandy on 1 December 1135 after a short illness, possibly food poisoning from eating a surfeit of lampreys. His body was embalmed and later buried at Reading Abbey, although no trace of his grave remains.

Matilda’s cousin Stephen of Blois seized the throne and had himself crowned on the 22 December plunging the country into a civil war, known as The Anarchy, which lasted until 1153.