Henry I: The man who was never meant to be king

Henry the First, who became king 920 years ago, was never meant to occupy a throne.
Portrait of Henry I by Matthew Paris and depicts the king holding the Church of Reading Abbey, where he was buried.
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This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald.

Henry was the fourth (and youngest) of William the Conqueror’s sons. Henry’s parents possibly intended him for the church: his education was entrusted to a bishop, and while his older brothers were instructed in the art of war, Henry learned to read – a skill that eluded his father and brothers. His literacy, and his subsequent enjoyment of intellectual argument, led to his nickname of Henry “Beauclerc”.

Henry seemed destined to be nothing more than a footnote to their life stories – until his chance came, and he seized it.

When the Conqueror lay on his deathbed, in 1087, his vast gut fatally ruptured by the pommel of his saddle, Henry was the only son in attendance. While Henry’s eldest brother, Robert (called “Curthose” by his father, in mocking reference to his stubby legs), received the family’s ancestral dukedom of Normandy, and the second son William Rufus was bequeathed England, Henry was left no land – only money. But William consoled Henry with a prediction that he would one day amount to much more than either of his siblings.

From time to time Curthose and Rufus used Henry’s military skills for their own benefit, but generally they treated him with disdain. They manipulated him, stole the lands that he had bought for himself, and even kept him prisoner. Henry seemed destined to be nothing more than a footnote to their life stories – until his chance came, and he seized it.

Henry rode alongside William Rufus, on 2 August 1100, in the royal hunting party.  The king was exhausted, having lost sleep to terrifying nightmares that left him screaming for the protection of the Virgin Mary. That morning, messengers had arrived from various religious houses telling of further dreams predicting the king’s death. William Rufus, who had scandalised and abused the church through his debauchery and corruption, claimed not to be concerned.

Nobody knows who fired the fatal arrow that day. But it smacked into the king’s chest, killing him outright, denying Rufus any hope of absolution.

Henry left his brother to stiffen in death. He galloped to secure the royal treasury in Winchester, before rushing on to London, where he was crowned on 5 August 1100. He was king before Robert Curthose, returning in triumph from the First Crusade, even knew that the crown that should have been his had been in play.

Soon afterwards Henry set about securing his dynasty. He had a bevy of mistresses who would eventually present him with twenty-two children. This would have provided a pool of potential successors in previous generations: William the Conqueror had succeeded his father, despite being born out of marriage. But since the 1070s the Papacy had managed to push through reforms in England and Normandy that renewed reverence for marriage and undermined the standing of the illegitimate.

Henry quickly married Matilda of Scotland, a princess descended from Alfred the Great. She was the mother to both of Henry I’s children born in wedlock: William Ætheling, and Matilda.

Henry faced immediate and serious challenges to his rule. Powerful aristocrats stood up to him, and his brother Curthose invaded England aiming to unseat him. But Henry was a statesman. He successfully wooed one of the great churchmen of the time, Anselm of Bec, whom Rufus had exiled while he was archbishop of Canterbury.

The returning Anselm blessed Henry’s cause, undermining Curthose’s invasion. A few years later Anselm negotiated with the king over the thorny question of investiture – who should control the ecclesiastical hierarchy in England? The compromise they reached – the church choosing the candidates; the crown receiving homage from them for their lay estates – was blessed by Pope Paschal II and remained largely intact until it was torn up by Henry VIII.

The first Henry understood the clear link between finance and royal power. To ensure he received what was due to him from his sheriffs, he initiated the Exchequer – a system of counting money paid and due on a large table with a chequered cloth. It is the ancestor of today’s government finances.

Henry fought tirelessly and successfully against his main opponent, Louis the Fat of France. By 1120 Henry had secured all he wanted: victory, and recognition of his son, William Ætheling, as his heir in Normandy and England. But, on a night-time voyage aboard The White Ship, precisely 900 years ago, Henry I’s legacy went down with the prince and the flower of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy. One man survived the catastrophe, an eyewitness to the greatest maritime disaster ever to afflict England.

Henry ruled for a further 15 years but failed to produce another legitimate male heir. After his death in 1135 the contested royal succession led to civil warfare so blood-drenched and dire that it became known as ‘The Anarchy’.

It is sad that this toxic legacy, brought about by the catastrophic shipwreck that upended all that Henry I had achieved and aspired to, remains the most memorable event in a reign that was, in so many ways, a great one.