Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.
Powered by Campus Explorer
All Rights Reserved.
Site last updated
26 June, 2013
Henry I, Beauclerc
King of England, nicknamed Beauclerk, the fourth and youngest son of William I. by his queen Matilda of Flanders, was born in 1068 on English soil. Of his life before 1086, when he was solemnly knighted by his father at Westminster, we know little. He was his mother's favourite, and she bequeathed to him her English estates, which, however, he was not permitted to hold in his father's lifetime. Henry received a good education, of which in later life he was proud; he is credited with the saying that an unlettered king is only a crowned ass. His attainments included Latin, which he could both read and write; he knew something of the English laws and language, and it may have been from an interest in natural history that he collected, during his reign, the Woodstock menagerie which was the admiration of his subjects. But from 1087 his life was one of action and vicissitudes which left him little leisure. Receiving, under the Conqueror's last dispositions, a legacy of five thousand pounds of silver, but no land, from whom he purchased, for the small sum of £3000, the district of the Cotentin. He negotiated with Rufus to obtain the possession of their mother's inheritance, but only incurred thereby the suspicions of the duke, who threw him into prison. In 1090 the prince vindicated his loyalty by suppressing, on Robert's behalf, a revolt of the citizens of Rouen which Rufus had fomented. But when his elder brothers were reconciled in the next year they combined to evict Henry from the Cotentin. He dissembled his resentment for a time, and lived for nearly two years in the French Vexin in great poverty. He then accepted from the citizens of Domfront an invitation to defend them against Robert of Belleme; and subsequently, coming to an agreement with Rufus, assisted the king in making war on their elder brother Robert. When Robert's departure for the First Crusade left Normandy in the hands of Rufus (1096) Henry took service under the latter, and he was in the royal hunting train on the day of Rufus's death (August 2nd, 1100). Had Robert been in Normandy the claim of Henry to the English crown might have been effectually opposed. But Robert only returned to the duchy a month after Henry's coronation. In the meantime the new king, by issuing his famous charter, by recalling Anselm, and by choosing the Anglo-Scottish princess Edith-Matilda, daughter of Malcolm III., king of the Scots, as his future queen, had cemented that alliance with the church and with the native English which was the foundation of his greatness. Anselm preached in his favour, English levies marched under the royal banner both to repel Robert's invasion (1101) and to crush the revolt of the Montgomeries headed by Robert of Belleme (1102). The alliance of crown and church was subsequently imperilled by the question of Investitures (1103-1106). Henry was sharply criticized for his ingratitude to Anselm (q.v.), in spite of the marked respect which he showed to the archbishop. At this juncture a sentence of excommunication would have been a dangerous blow to Henry's power in England. But the king's diplomatic skill enabled him to satisfy the church without surrendering any rights of consequence (1106); and he skilfully threw the blame of his previous conduct upon his counsellor, Robert of Meulan. Although the Peterborough Chronicle accuses Henry of oppression in his early years, the nation soon learned to regard him with respect. William of Malmesbury, about 1125, already treats Tinchebrai (1106) as an English victory and the revenge for Hastings. Henry was disliked but feared by the baronage, towards whom he showed gross bad faith in his disregard of his coronation promises. In 1100 he banished the more conspicuous malcontents, and from that date was safe against the plots of his English feudatories.
With Normandy he had more trouble, and the military skill which he had displayed at Tinchebrai was more than once put to the test against Norman rebels. His Norman, like his English administration, was popular with the non-feudal classes, but doubtless oppressive towards the barons. The latter had abandoned the cause of Duke Robert, who remained a prisoner in England till his death (1134); but they embraced that of Robert's son William the Clito, whom Henry in a fit of generosity had allowed to go free after Tinchebrai. The Norman conspiracies of 1112, 1118, and 1123-24 were all formed in the Clito's interest. Both France and Anjou supported this pretender's cause from time to time; he was always a thorn in Henry's side till his untimely death at Alost (1128), but more especially after the catastrophe of the White Ship (1120) deprived the king of his only lawful son. But Henry emerged from these complications with enhanced prestige. His campaigns had been uneventful, his chief victory (Bremule, 1119) was little more than a skirmish. But he had held his own as a general, and as a diplomatist he had shown surpassing skill. The chief triumphs of his foreign policy were the marriage of his daughter Matilda to the emperor Henry V. (1114) which saved Normandy in 1124; the detachment of the pope, Calixtus II., from the side of France and the Clito (1119), and the Angevin marriages which he arranged for his son William Aetheling (1119) and for the widowed empress Matilda (1129) after her brother's death. This latter match, though unpopular in England and Normandy, was a fatal blow to the designs of Louis VI., and prepared the way for the expansion of English power beyond the Loire. After 1124 the disaffection of Normandy was crushed. The severity with which Henry treated the last rebels was regarded as a blot upon his fame; but the only case of merely vindictive punishment was that of the poet Luke de la Barre, who was sentenced to lose his eyes for a lampoon upon the king, and only escaped the sentence by committing suicide.
Henry's English government was severe and grasping; but he "kept good peace" and honourably distinguished himself among contemporary statesmen in an age when administrative reform was in the air. He spent more time in Normandy than in England. But he showed admirable judgment in his choice of subordinates; Robert of Meulan, who died in 1118, and Roger of Salisbury, who survived his master, were statesmen of no common order; and Henry was free from the mania of attending in person to every detail, which was the besetting sin of medieval sovereigns. As a legislator Henry was conservative. He issued few ordinances; the unofficial compilation known as the Leges Henrici shows that, like the Conqueror, he made it his ideal to maintain the "law of Edward." His itinerant justices were not altogether a novelty in England or Normandy. It is characteristic of the man that the exchequer should be the chief institution created in his reign. The eulogies of the last Peterborough Chronicle on his government were written after the anarchy of Stephen's reign had invested his predecessor's "good peace" with the glamour of a golden age. Henry was respected and not tyrannous. He showed a lofty indifference to criticism such as that of Eadmer in the Historia novorum, which was published early in the reign. He showed, on some occasions, great deference to the opinions of the magnates. But dark stories, some certainly unfounded, were told of his prison-houses. Men thought him more cruel and more despotic than he actually was.
Henry was twice married. After the death of his first wife, Matilda (1080-1118), he took to wife Adelaide, daughter of Godfrey, count of Louvain (1121), in the hope of male issue: But the marriage proved childless, and the empress Matilda was designated as her father's successor, the English baronage being compelled to do her homage both in 1126, and again, after the Angevin marriage, in 1131. He had many illegitimate sons and daughters by various mistresses. Of these bastards the most important is Robert, earl of Gloucester, upon whom fell the main burden of defending Matilda's title against Stephen.
Henry died near Gisors on the 1st of December, 1135, in the thirty-sixth year of his reign, and was buried in the abbey of Reading which he himself had founded.
The Peterborough Chronicle (ed.Plummer, Oxford, 1882-1889);
Florence of Worcester and his first continuator (ed. B. Thorpe, 1848-1849); Eadmer, Historia novorum (ed. Rule, Rolls Series, 1884); William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum and Historia novella (ed. Stubbs, Rolls Series, 1887-1880); Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum (cd. Arnold, Rolls Series, 1879); Simeon of Durham (ed. Arnold, Rolls Series, 1882-1885); Orderic Vitalis Historia ecclesiastica (ed. le Prevost, Paris, 1838-1855); Robert of Torigni, Chronica (ed. Howlett, Rolls Series, 1889), and Continuatio Willelmi Gemmelicensis (ed. Duchesne, Hist. Normannorum scriptores, pp. 215-317, Paris, 1619). See also the Pipe Roll of 31 H. I. (ed. Hunter, Record Commission, 1833); the documents in W. Stubbs's Select Chapters (Oxford, 1895); the Leges Henrici in Liebermann's Gesetze der Angel-Sachsen (Halle, 1898, &c.); and the same author's monograph Leges Henrici (Halle, 1901); the treaties, &c., in the Record Commission edition of Thomas Rymer's Foedera, vol. i. (1816).
E. A. Freeman, History of the Norman
Conquest, vol. v.; J. M. Lappenberg, History of England under the
Norman Kings (tr. Thorpe, Oxford, 1857); Kate Norgate,England
under the Angevin Kings, vol. i. (1887); Sir James Ramsay, Foundations of England, vol. li.; W. Stubbs, Constitutional History, vol. i.;
H. W. C. Davis, England under the Normans and Angevins; Hum
and Poole, Political History of England, vol. ii. (H. W. C. D.)
contributed by Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911
11 April 2006