In November 1135, Henry I, the youngest of four sons of William the Conqueror, was staying at a hunting lodge in Normandy. At sixty-eight years old, the Conqueror was still in relatively good health to be planning to go hunting on the following day. Contrary to his doctor’s orders, it was said, he dined on lampreys and became ill during the night. Within a few days he was dead and the peace he had forged in Normandy and England was thrown into chaos. What kind of man had been able to assert his claim to the English throne over that of his eldest brother Robert and subsequently secure his father’s duchy of Normandy?
He had been able to command support, fear and, ultimately, respect, in a world that was competitive and at times brutal. He had lived through the deaths of his first wife, brothers and sisters, and, above all, through the tragic deaths of his heir and two other children in the wreck of the White Ship in 1120. The world changed around him, in some ways permitting a greater degree of material comfort, in other respects posing new challenges. The youngest son of a father who achieved eternal greatness, his rise to power seemed unlikely. His older brothers thought him insignificant and someone they could simply discount. In the end, he would be the last one standing through cunning, perseverance and sheer will.
5. Henry becomes king
In his will, William the Conqueror left England to his favorite son, William Rufus. To the youngest, Henry, he left a sum of money. An elder brother, Richard, had been killed while hunting in the New Forest. William Rufus was muscular man, built in a similar mold to his father. He was nicknamed Rufus due to his pale complexion. He is said to have had his father’s red hair and spoke with a stutter.
William Rufus was hunting in New Forest on August 2, 1100. In what was described as a ‘hunting accident’, he was killed when an arrow penetrated his lung, the circumstances of the incident are hazy. The arrow was fired by a nobleman named Walter Tirel. The monk William of Malmesbury, states that the King had an ominous dream the night before which led him to feel uneasy, but nevertheless set out into the forest for a days hunting with a few companions.The party spread out as they chased their prey, Walter Tirel was the only one who stayed with the king when the party scattered in the chase.The King fired an arrow at a stag, which wounded it and shielded his eyes with his hand against the rays of the low sun to spot where it ran. Just at this point, another stag appeared on the scene and Tirel fired at it. He missed and his arrow pierced William’s chest.
The King broke off the shaft which was protruding from his chest, but collapsed and fell on the remainder of the arrow, which drove it in further. Tirel supposedly ran to help him but found him unconscious and beyond help. William Rufus’ body was left where he died. Henry, who was present at the hunt, left the scene in haste and seized the treasury at Winchester. He then proceeded to London and had himself crowned within a day. The body of William Rufus was carried by a few peasants to Winchester and he was buried under the cathedral tower there. When its tower crashed to the ground the following year, there were many who perceived it to be the judgement of God upon William Rufus. Whether the shot was accidental or not, Tirel panicked and fled to France.
Walter Tirel was renowned as a keen bowman, and was unlikely to have loosed such an shot. Henry, who was among the hunting party that day, benefited directly from William’s death, shortly thereafter being crowned king. Opinion remains divided on whether his death was premeditated murder or merely an unfortunate accident.
4. Henry I could be brutal
Henry was 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 incident that took place in 1119, 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 mutilate Eustace’s two daughters, who were also Henry’s own grandchildren (illegitimate). Eustace and his wife, Juliane, were outraged and threatened to rebel. Henry arranged to meet his daughter at a parley 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.
3. Succession Crisis
In the year 1120, a ship known as the “White Ship” struck a partially submerged rock and sank soon after departure. Only two people aboard the ship survived.
King Henry had at least a dozen children. He and his wife, Matilda of Scotland, had two children together- Matilda and William. The rest of his children were with his mistresses. William was his clear and legitimate heir. Henry and the King of France had recently concluded an agreement through which William would marry the daughter of Count Fulk V of Anjou. As a result of this agreement, there was nothing stopping William from inheriting the Anglo-Normal Empire. King Henry was secure in the knowledge that his son would succeed the throne.
In November 1120, all of that would change. A fleet was being assembled to transport King Henry and his party from Normandy to England – a journey that required crossing the English Channel. Thomas FitzStephen, captain of the White Ship, offered to transport the King across the channel. King Henry declined this invitation, as he had already made his travel arrangements, but many in his party decided to travel aboard the White Ship – including William. Other nobles boarding the White Ship included Henry’s illegitimate son and daughter – William’s half-siblings Richard and Matilda – and many others. More than 300 people boarded the White Ship on November 25, 1120.
All of the passengers, including the crew, consumed large volumes of wine. It seems the Royal party had spread from the town and continued through to the voyage. Due to a long afternoon of indulgence, several people left the ship prior to departure, including Stephen of Bloise, who came down with a severe case of diarrhea. Eventually, the ship carrying the King disembarked, followed by the White Ship. The passengers on the White Ship urged the captain to try and catch up with the King’s vessel. The captain and crew were confident that the ship could reach England first. The crew rowed ferociously, fueled by their drunkenness from the wine. However, as the ship set sail into the waters, which were blackened by the nighttime sky, the White Ship struck a partially submerged rock. The port side of the ship was severely damaged and the White Ship quickly capsized.
Henry’s son, William, was able to get to a small lifeboat in an attempt to escape the sinking ship. However, the Prince could hear his half-sister calling to him, begging him not to leave her to drown. He ordered his little boat to turn around, but the situation was hopeless. As William grew near, the White Ship began to descend beneath the waves. More and more people were in the water now and they fought desperately for the safety of the Royal dinghy. The turmoil and the weight were too much. The Prince’s life boat was capsized and sank without a trace.The White Ship sank in a location where people on shore, and even those aboard King Henry’s ship, could hear the passengers’ frantic screams. However, due to the darkness of night, it was difficult to tell where the screams were coming from, and no one was able to help them. There were only two survivors – a butcher from Rouen and Geoffrey de l’Aigle. When King Henry received the news that William had drowned he was devastated. The death of William led to a succession crisis for England.
King Henry had one remaining legitimate child – a daughter named Matilda. Henry had his barons swear an oath to support Matilda as King Henry’s heir, but after his death in 1135, the barons would not accept Matilda as the queen Regnant. Instead, King Henry’s nephew, Stephen of Bloise, became king.
Stephen’s behavior has been viewed as suspicious on the day of the sinking of the White ship. He was aboard the ship prior to it sailing and then left due to a “sudden illness.” He ultimately benefited from the sinking, becoming king.
Matilda launched a war against Stephen of Bloise as she pursued what she believed to be her rightful role as leader. This period was known as the Anarchy and lasted from 1135 to 1153. It resulted in severe destruction and despair in England.
2. The enigmatic Robert Curthose
As William the Conqueror lay dying in 1087, his second son William Rufus left him to his fate and sailed across the English Channel to have himself crowned king of England before his elder brother could do anything about it. Robert Curthose (eldest son of William the Conqueror) subsequently became Duke of Normandy. At his death, William supposedly wanted to disinherit his eldest son but was persuaded to divide the Norman dominions between his two eldest sons.
Having lost England, Robert Curthose became one of the leaders of the First Crusade to reclaim Jerusalem. Robert proved himself a skilled military leader and returned in triumph three years later with a beautiful young bride. Just before he returned, William Rufus was killed in a hunting accident and his brother Henry had himself crowned king of England the next day.
Robert had had enough. He decided to invaded England. In the summer of 1101, Robert landed at Portsmouth and acquired the support of several powerful barons, including Robert of Belleme, Earl of Shrewsbury and William of Mortain, Earl of Cornwall. Robert headed towards London but was intercepted by Henry at Alton in Hampshire. Robert was persuaded by his brother to sign the Treaty of Alton under the terms of which he renounced all his rights to the English throne in return for a considerable amount of money.
The wily Henry had no intention of keeping the bargain however, and set his sights on conquering the Duchy of Normandy. Robert proved to be an ineffective Duke of Normandy and much of the duchy was in a state of chaos.
In 1104, King Henry and his army took possession of the county of Evreaux. In 1105, he returned to the Cotentin, where he attacked and burned the town of Bayeux and received the surrender of Caen, after which he returned to England. Henry further refused Robert’s requests to return the possessions he had captured in Normandy. A contemporary chronicler, Orderic Vitalis, reports on an incident at Easter 1105 when Robert was supposed to hear a sermon by the venerable Serlo, Bishop of Sées. Robert spent the night before sporting with harlots and jesters, and while he lay in bed sleeping off his drunkenness, his unworthy friends stole his clothes. He awoke to find himself naked and had to remain in bed and missed the sermon. Sounds like some people I know.
Henry returned to Normandy in 1106 and defeated Robert’s army decisively at the Battle of Tinchebray and claimed Normandy as a possession of the English crown. He had his brother Robert imprisoned for twenty long years.
The legitimate daughter of Henry I, Matilda, married the future German Holy Roman Emperor Henry V when she was a child. Matilda and Henry V had no children, and when Henry died of cancer in 1125, the crown was claimed by Lothair II, one of his political enemies. Matilda left Germany and settled in Normandy. Her father, Henry I, fearing no heir to succeed him, married her to Geoffrey of Anjou. Matilda was 25 and Geoffrey was only 13.
It was not a match made in Heaven. The couple could not stand each other. Matilda finally left Geoffrey and returned to Normandy. Henry appears to have blamed Geoffrey for the separation, but reconciled the stormy couple in 1131. Matilda gave birth to her first son in March 1133 at Le Mans, the future Henry II.
When Henry I died, Stephen became King of England. In 1139, Matilda crossed to England to take the kingdom by force, supported by her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, and her uncle, King David I of Scotland, while her husband Geoffrey focused on conquering Normandy. Matilda’s forces captured Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141, but her attempt to be crowned collapsed in the face of bitter opposition from the London crowds. Robert of Gloucester was captured following the Rout of Winchester in 1141, and Matilda agreed to exchange him for Stephen. The war became a stalemate, with Matilda controlling much of the southwest of England and Stephen the southeast and the Midlands. Large parts of the rest of the country were in the hands of local, independent barons.
Matilda’s son Henry slowly began to assume a leading role in the conflict. He crossed over to England in 1142. In 1153, Henry II assumed the throne when Stephen died. 18 years after his death, Henry I finally had his heir.