Monarchs Reviewed: Henry I

I’ve tried to avoid writing about great and grim English and British monarchs because it’s a path well-trodden elsewhere. However, in looking what is available out there I have noted some of my favourite King and Queens of England have either been largely mistreated or altogether forgotten. In this series I will explore some of my favourites, who it turns out aren’t national favourites and try and vindicate these mud stained …. And sometimes blood-stained sovereigns.

The Boy who would be King

Henry son of William ‘Billy the Bastard’ of Normandy, was never meant to be a King. He wasn’t the heir; he wasn’t the spare. As lesser son of a king he was trained for and was expecting a comfortable career in the church. However, whilst his brothers William and Robert enjoyed the licentious pleasures of court, he watched his father, the bastard Duke of Normandy who became King of England. He was born after the Norman invasion. He was the son of one of the world’s most fascinating men and frankly one of the most powerful. And unlike his brothers he was watching and learning.

The new King feared Flemish leaders capitalising on his depleted military resource following the invasion. It would be the perfect opportunity for them to either strike England, which would likely be  ambitious even post invasion, or take the Duchy of Normandy which they had long coveted. William I took two actions which later his son Henry would clearly reflect upon. He ensured the men holding his lands in Normandy were solid. He would have to concentrate his efforts on England and establishing his rule. He could not lose the Duchy due to lack of his direct leadership. Next, he had to take stock of his resources, how many men he could muster and how hard he could tax his newly obtained Kingdom. He set about what may be considered the first national census, it was certainly an audit of incomprehensible scale given the means of the time. However, the King seemed to have some insight into the nature of men, so he collected data twice, once from the landholders in the territories he was asking to report, and then he would send someone who had no affiliation with that territory in to check the returns.

Side Note: I have no idea how he dealt with the inevitable discrepancies in the returns, however the Normans traditionally managed treachery swiftly and without theatrics, ensuring a punishment for the first offence would entirely remove the possibility of a second.

Williams first son Billy mk II had little interest in logistics, or chivalric pursuits. He had a taste for fine clothes, a lot of references I have read mention his expensive pointy shoes. He also had a great love of wine and meat resulting in him obtaining the epithet Rufus, meaning ruddy or red in colour.

Side Note: Would it be too childish to refer to him from this point as Red Willy? Maybe Willy the Red.

As for the second son Robert, he enjoyed more conventional “manly” pursuits of the time, hunting mostly. He also took a minor part in some campaigns in Flanders and later went off to fight in the first crusade. He certainly tried to conform to the expectations of a Norman lord, however despite his efforts I have struggled to find any indication that he was anything other than a walking definition for mediocrity. In the interests of balance, I should point out how could any son follow up the achievements of their father who was the bastard son of a Duke and a tanner’s daughter, who eventually became both Duke of Normandy and King of England. He would forever be “the conquerors son” and would struggle to achieve a reputation in his own right.

So, let’s look at the current line of succession. We have Big Bad Billy the Bastard on the throne. We have his son Willy the Red as next in line. Then Robby the Unremarkable. And then we have Henry, hardly as gregarious as the others we have mentioned he would later obtain the epithet Beau Clerc, or the clerk, which fits, he was studious, academic and one hell of a strategist. He also cultivated a name for himself on the battlefield, proving a skilled and charismatic leader.
Side Note: It still takes some work to wrap my head around the idea of preparing an adolescent for a career in the clergy but giving them a sword and telling them to learn how to fight. The Normans weren’t too far removed from the Anglo Saxons who on more than one occasion had armed priests on the field, preaching love and tolerance with one hand whilst cleaving someone’s skull in twain with an axe in the other.

Death of Billy the Bastard

As time progressed William I, King of England and Duke of Normandy died. Given Robert was his eldest son I had expected him to inherit all of the titles. However, Primogeniture was yet to be established and the Normans still used a Merovingian system of inheritance by which all of the titles and assets were divided up. It should be noted this is still evident in some of the Escher-esk country boundaries in Europe today. Robert got the Duchy of Normandy and William gained the Kingdom of England. And Henry? Henry acquired five thousand pounds.

Side Note: Five thousand pounds was actually an incredible sum of money at the time however without lands Henry was without credibility, or authority. I also recognise I am being quite hard on Robert but even those who actually have any emotion toward the man struggle to muster any enthusiasm. If he were a colour, he would be beige. From now on I shall refer to him as Beige Bob. I really have a hard time thinking about him without audibly sighing. He worked so hard just to get to mediocre.

Willy the Red, now King Bill II, had changed not at all. He spent incredible sums on feasts, and fine clothes, and grand hunts. His wine cellar probably equated to the GDP of Luxembourg in 2010. There are lots of texts referring to his overt homosexuality which, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries was a bit taboo. However, I can’t find any contemporary sources to suggest this. This either means it’s a narrative added later to appease a King who wasn’t a fan of Billy II, or no one was stupid enough to call, even a foppish Norman, gay.

The Ascension

One evening after a particularly heavy Christmas feast, which I think it is fair to presume involved a lot of alcohol. King William II had a “hold my pint and watch this”, sort of epiphany. Some time later his party was riding through the New Forest looking for some woodland critters to prove their manliness against. What happened next could have been a conspiracy given Henry was in the party, however I am totally willing to accept it was a pure accident as pissedly hunting in dense undergrowth at night sounds like a fairly good way to get yourself killed. William lay dead, the victim of a huntsman’s stray arrow.

I like to imagine a roguish smile slipped onto the face of the otherwise very controlled prince. William was dead, their brother Robert was off fighting in the middle east. This is the first point at which Henry really shows what he is made of, he takes what destiny has handed him and takes control of the narrative. Riding furiously into the night, not to London, the seat of power, but to Winchester, the home of the treasury.

Side Note: Whichever way you paint it the bowman Walter Tyrel became a regicide that night and I’d guess the poor sod was lining up his excuses for St Peter. There is a little more to his story which I hope to cover at another time. Also I cant see that anyone checked but I do wonder if a promissory note for five thousand pounds was lodged firmly up the kings arse post mortem.

Within three days Henry I was crowned at Westminster. From what records remain there appear to have been very few arguments, particularly from those who knew Robert. However, there was some vocal opposition from Ranulph Flambard who was the chancellor and possibly the lover of Willy the Red. Henry having learned well from his father, ensured the men around him were sound and Ranulph found himself in the Tower of London.

Side Note: Flambard holds the note of being the first person to escape from the tower. However, he sounded really whiney, so it is possible the guards just left the door open and didn’t try too hard to find him.


Its worth looking at what right Henry had to the throne of England. Afterall his elder brother, the conquerors firstborn was still alive and well. It’s said an agreement made between Billy II and Robert the Beige was a sort of tontine for titles, if one died the survivor gained their title. However, there is no evidence of this nor precedent for its lawfulness.

Henry however was born in England, reportedly in Selby in Yorkshire, but no one is perfect. He was the first son of the conqueror to be born on English soil. Whilst that doesn’t provide legal legitimacy it would have helped to reconcile the Anglo-Norman rift.

In addition to this Henry married smartly. Edith, daughter of Malcomb III of Scotland. Who was directly descended from Edmund Ironside a King of England and leader of the royal house of Wessex. Again, this would not have done much by way of lawful legitimacy, but it would have won popular favour amongst the people and nobility Henry needed to keep himself on the throne.

Side Note: He was an incredible strategist who subtly played the long game. There are two fictional characters who I feel have components of Henry in their writing. The first is Tywin Lannister and when I think of Henry the Image that comes to mind is Charles Dance in a crown. The second, mostly in character is Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork. Henry is reported by Geoffrey of Monmouth to be of average build, to eat and drink in moderation and to sleep soundly.

Henry absolutely understood that the law could go begging as long as he had the favour of the people.

The Rule

Eventually Beige Bob summoned enough spirit to take a punt at the English throne. In the first engagement he agreed to negotiate with Henry without any meeting of arms. In the second he was soundly thrashed, captured and spent the rest of his life in the Tower of London. The tower wasn’t a prison in a conventional modern sense, there were servants, and chefs as well as gaolers. What Bob the Beige received was a quiet place to sit and read, I suspect it suited him very nicely.

With any competition for the throne out of the way Henry, King of England and Duke of Normandy knew that it was essential he supplied for the succession. The blood-soaked chaos of the last succession crisis ending in a heap in a field at Hastings. Promptly Edith provides a daughter, they all think about this and try again and Boom! Son! The dynasty is saved. Either a spare wasn’t considered important or wasn’t possible. Edith died without having any more children.

Some years later, Henry’s son William was on his way back from a successful campaign in Europe with almost everyone who had even a vague claim to the throne of England. They boarded what would be considered the flagship of the navy at the time, the white ship. The lads were all partying and celebrating their victory. One man stepped off of the ship before it set sail, apparently on account of a really bad case of diarrhoea. His name was Steve, and we will come to him later, he becomes important. Needless to say, The White Ship sinks. Now it could be because the pilot was absolutely legless and tried to off road his single hulled galley. However, the entire succession was wiped out in the space of about ten minutes…. With one exception.  

Side Note: In every account I have read, William strikes me as a proper Essex boy. I have no idea where he was born but he was constantly surrounded by his lads, drinking and fighting. If this ever becomes a modern screen play, I picture him in a neon tracksuit with a kappa peaked cap. He was educated, and a gifted fighter, but I can’t shake this feeling that today he would be a strongbow swilling prat.  

Apparently it took two days for anyone to find the courage to tell Henry. His reaction isn’t recorded in any meaningful sense. As a father of twenty-first century English culture. I am not sure how I could survive the loss of a son. However, these were harder times, and children, even noble children couldn’t be assumed to make it to full adulthood. However, Henry knew the importance of securing a succession. He would have seen all of his work, and the work of his father unravelling. He hastily remarried however there were no children of this union.

In an act of what was probably desperation he gathered his lords and barons and required them to swear fealty to his daughter, Matilda, now Empress Matilda. Which they duly did however its unclear how seriously they would have taken this vow. No woman had ever inherited such titles in Norman society. It only loosely happened in Anglo-Saxon society.

This seemed to be a trigger point in France. Both the King and William Cleto, count of Flanders and importantly, the son of Beige Bob feel he is the more appropriate heir. Henry avoids conflict through what I am assured was some dazzling diplomacy.

In 1135 Henry died. Apparently of a “surfeit of lamprey”, he ate too many little wormy things. However, this came from Henry of Huntingdon who was keen on fabricating history to weave a moralistic narrative.

My Analysis

What happened after Henrys Death is to this day known as “The Anarchy” where those loyal to Steve (Stephen of Bios, Henrys Cousin) take on the forces of Empress Maude (Matilda the daughter of Henry). However, Henry seems to have done everything he could to prevent another succession crisis.

He was a proven warrior and leader, a skilled strategist and a diplomat. Unlike almost every King who came before him combat wasn’t his first resort but when driven to it, he was ultimately victorious. Sun Tzu would have had a lot to say about Henry.

Also, of note he started a trend, he required that his children were well educated. Not a requirement of any King before him however it has been a requirement of every ruler for the following thousand years.

There is so much to the rise, the life and the death of Henry Beau Clerc, King of England, Duke of Normandy. However, history just remembers what followed.   

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