Henry I of England

Henry I
By the Grace of God, King of the English
and Duke of the Normans
Reign August 3, 1100–December 1, 1135
Coronation August 5, 1100
Queen Edith of Scotland (c. 1080–1118)
Adeliza of Louvain (1103–1151)
Issue Robert, 1st Earl of Gloucester
(illeg., c. 1090–1147)
Empress Matilda (c. 1102–1167)
Royal House Norman
Father William I (c. 1028–1087)
Mother Matilda of Flanders (1031–1083)
Born c. 1068
Selby, Yorkshire
Died 1 December 1135
St. Denis le Fermont, Normandy
Buried Winchester Cathedral

Henry I of England (c.1068 – 1 December 1135), called Henry Beauclerc because of his scholarly interests, was the fourth son of William the Conqueror. He reigned as King of England from 1100 to 1135, succeeding his brother, William II Rufus. Henry also was known by the nickname "Lion of Justice", due to the refinements which he brought about in the rudimentary administrative and legislative machinery of the time.

He seized power after the death of William II, which occurred (conveniently) during the absence of his older brother Robert Curthose on the Crusades.

His reign is noted for his opportunistic political skills, the aforementioned improvements in the machinery of government, the integration of the divided Anglo-Saxon and Normans within his kingdom, his reuniting of the dominions of his father, and his controversial decision to name his daughter, as his heir.

Early life

Henry was born between May 1068 and May 1069, probably in Selby, Yorkshire in England. His mother, Queen Matilda of Flanders, was descended from the Saxon King Alfred the Great (but not through the main West Saxon royal line). Matilda named Henry after her uncle, King Henry I of France. As the youngest son of the family, he was most likely expected to become a bishop and was given extensive schooling for a young nobleman of that time period. William of Malmesbury asserts that Henry once remarked that an illiterate king was a crowned ass. He was probably the first Norman ruler to be fluent in the English language.

His father William, upon his death in 1087, bequeathed his dominions to his three remaining sons (third son Richard having died previously) in the following manner:

  • Robert received the Duchy of Normandy
  • William received the Kingdom of England
  • Henry received 5,000 pounds of silver

Orderic Vitalis reports that King William 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 played his brothers off against each other. Eventually, wary of his devious manouevering, they acted together and signed an accession treaty which effectively barred Henry from both thrones, stipulating that if either died without an heir, the two dominions of their father would be reunited under the surviving brother.

Seizing the throne of England

English Royalty
House of Normandy

William I
   Robert Curthose
   William Rufus
   Adela of Blois
   Henry Beauclerc
William II
Henry I
   Empress Matilda
   William Adelin
   Robert, 1st Earl of Gloucester
   Eustace IV of Boulogne
   William of Blois
   Marie of Boulogne

When William II was killed by an arrow whilst hunting on 2 August 1100, Robert was returning from the First Crusade. His absence, along with his poor reputation among the Norman nobles, allowed Henry to seize the keys of the royal hoard at Winchester. He was accepted as king by the leading barons and was crowned three days later on 5 August at Westminster. He secured his position among the nobles by an act of political appeasement, issuing the Charter of Liberties, which is considered a forerunner of the Magna Carta.

First marriage

On 11 November 1100 Henry married Edith, daughter of King Malcolm III of Scotland. Since Edith was also the niece of Edgar Atheling and the great-granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, 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 coin, however, was that Henry, by dint of his marriage, became far more acceptable to the Anglo-Saxon populace.

William of Malmesbury describes Henry thus: "He was of middle stature, greater than the small, but exceeded by the very tall; his hair was black and set back upon the forehead; his eyes mildly bright; his chest brawny; his body fleshy."

Conquest of Normandy

In 1101, the following year, Robert Curthose attempted to seize the crown by invading England. In the Treaty of Alton, Robert agreed to recognize Henry as King of England and return peacefully to Normandy, upon receipt of an annual sum of 2000 marks, which Henry proceeded to pay.

In 1105, to eliminate the continuing threat from Robert and to obviate the drain on his fiscal resources, Henry led an expeditionary force across the English Channel.

Battle of Tinchebray

On the morning of the 28 September 1106, exactly 40 years after William had landed in England, the decisive battle between his two sons, Robert Courthose and Henry Beauclerc took place in the small village of Tinchebray. This combat was totally unexpected and unprepared. Henry and his army was 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 and the running battle which ensued was spread out over several kilometres. 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 three Km North of Tinchebray where a farm named "Prise" (taken) stands today on the D22 road. The tombstones of three knights are nearby in the same road.

King of England and Duke 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 was bogged down in a swamp and he was recaptured. To prevent further escapes Henry had his eyes burnt out. Henry appropriated the Duchy of Normandy as a possession of England, and reunited his father's dominions.

He attempted to reduce difficulties in Normandy by marrying his eldest son, William, to the daughter of Fulk V, Count of Anjou, then a serious enemy. Eight years later, after William's untimely death, a much more momentous union was made between Henry's daughter Matilda and Fulk's son Geoffrey Plantagenet, which eventually resulted in the union of the two realms under the Plantagenet kings.

Activities as a King

Henry I depicted in Cassell's History of England (1902)
Henry I depicted in Cassell's History of England (1902)

Henry's need for finance to consolidate his position led to an increase in the activities of centralized government. As king, Henry carried out social and judicial reforms, including:

Henry was also known for some brutal acts. He once threw a traitorous burgher named Conan Pilatus from the tower of Rouen; the tower was known from then on as "Conan's Leap". In another instance that took place in 1119, King Henry's son-in-law, Eustace de Pacy, and Ralph Harnec, the constable of Ivry, exchanged their children as hostages. When Eustace blinded Harnec's son, Harnec demanded vengeance. King Henry allowed Harnec to blind and mutiliate 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 parlay at Breteuil, only for Juliane to draw a crossbow and attempt 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.

Legitimate children

He had two children by Edith-Matilda, who died in 1118:

Disaster struck when William, his only legitimate son, perished in the wreck of the White Ship on 25 November 1120 off the coast of Normandy. Also among the dead were two of Henry's illegitimate children, as well as a niece, Lucia-Mahaut de Blois. Henry's grieving was intense, and the succession was in crisis.

Second marriage

On 29 January 1121, he 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.

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 quarreled with his daughter and son-in-law and these disputes led him to tarry in Normandy far longer than he originally planned.

Henry died of food poisoning from eating "a surfeit of lampreys," of which he was excessively fond, in December 1135 at Lyons-la-forêt in Normandy. He was buried at Reading Abbey, which he had founded fourteen years before. (No trace of his tomb has survived and the probable site is now covered by a car park.)

Although Henry's barons had sworn allegiance to his daughter as their queen, her sex 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 popular support.

The struggle between the 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, as his heir in 1153.

Illegitimate Children

King Henry is famed for holding the record for the largest number of acknowledged illegitimate children born to any English king, with the number being around 20 or 25. 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. His mother was probably a member of the Gai family.
  2. Maud FitzRoy, married Conan III, Duke of Brittany
  3. Constance FitzRoy, married Roscelin de Beaumont
    Mabel FitzRoy, married William III Gouet
    Aline FitzRoy, married Matthieu I of Montmorency
    William de Tracy, died shortly after King Henry.
  4. Gilbert FitzRoy, died after 1142. His mother may have been a sister of Walter de Gand.
    Emma, born circa 1138; married Gui de Laval, Lord Laval.
    Eustacie, born circa 1084. Married William Gouet II, Lord Montmirial.

With Edith

  1. Matilda du Perche, married Count Rotrou II of Perche, perished in the wreck of the White Ship.

With Ansfride

Ansfride was born circa 1070. She was married Sir Anskill of Abingdon Abbey.

  1. Juliane de Fontevrault, married Eustace de Pacy. She tried to shoot her father with a crossbow after King Henry allowed her two young daughters to be blinded.
  2. Fulk FitzRoy, a monk at Abingdon.
  3. Richard of Lincoln, perished in the wreck of the White Ship.

With Sibyl Corbet

Lady Sybilla Corbet of Alcester was born in 1077 in Alcester, Warwickshire, England. 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 of England, married King Alexander I of Scotland.
    William Constable, born before 1105. Married Alice (Constable); died after 1187.
    Reginald de Dunstanville, 1st Earl of Cornwall.
    Gundred of England (1114 - 1146), married 1130 Henry de la Pomeroy, son of Joscelin de la Pomerai.
    Rohese of England, born 1114; married Henry de la Pomeroy.

With Edith FitzForne

  1. Robert FitzEdith, Lord Okehampton, (1093 – 1172) married Dame Maud d'Avranches du Sap.
  2. Adeliza FitzEdith. Appears in charters with her brother Robert.

With Princess Nest

Nesta verch Rhys of Deheubarth was born circa 1073 at Dynevor, Llandyfeisant, Carmarthenshire, Wales. She was married first to Gerald of Windsor (Geraldus FitzOther de Windsor, son of Walter FitzOther of Windsor, Keeper of the Forest and Gwladys verch Rhywallon), in 1095. Later, after several other liaisons and illegitimate children, she married Stephen of Cardigan, Constable of Cardigan Date of death unknown, but Stephen was Constable in 1136.

  1. Henry FitzRoy, died 1157.

With Isabel de Beaumont

Isabel (Elizabeth) de Beaumont (after 1102 – after 1172), 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, born circa 1120.
  2. Matilda FitzRoy, abbess of Montvilliers.


  • Cross, Arthur Lyon. A History of England and Greater Britain. Macmillan, 1917.
  • Hollister, C. Warren. Henry I. Yale University Press, 2001. (Yale Monarchs series)
  • Thompson, Kathleen. "Affairs of State: the Illegitimate Children of Henry I." Journal of Medieval History 29 (2003): 129-51.
Preceded by:
William II
King of England
Succeeded by:
Preceded by:
Robert Curthose
Duke of Normandy
Monarchs of England
Alfred | Edward the Elder | Ethelweard | Athelstan | Edmund I | Edred | Edwy | Edgar I | Edward the Martyr | Ethelred | Sweyn I*† | Edmund II | Canute*† | Harthacanute* | Harold I | Edward the Confessor | Harold II | Edgar II | William I | William II | Henry I | Stephen | Matilda | Henry II | Richard I | John | Henry III | Edward I | Edward II | Edward III | Richard II | Henry IV | Henry V | Henry VI | Edward IV | Edward V | Richard III | Henry VII | Henry VIII‡ | Edward VI‡ | Jane‡ | Mary I‡ | Elizabeth I‡ | James I‡§ | Charles I‡§ | Interregnum | Charles II‡§ | James II‡§ | William III‡§¶ and Mary II‡§ | Anne‡§
* Also Monarch of Denmark | † Also Monarch of Norway | ‡Also Monarch of Ireland | § Also Monarch of Scotland | ¶ Also Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Overijssel and Drenthe

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