The Life of Henry I

Henry was born sometime between May, 1068 and May, 1069 in Selby, Yorkshire. Through his mother, Queen Matilda, Henry was descended from Alfred the Great. As the youngest son of William the Conqueror, England’s first Norman King and the founder of the House of Normandy, Henry was expected to become a Bishop in the Catholic Church. As a result, Henry was given a more extensive education than was usual for a young nobleman at that time.

The Rise of Henry I

In 1081, Henry’s older brother, Richard, died following a hunting accident the New Forest.

Following the death of Richard, William the Conqueror divided his possessions among his surviving sons. Robert inherited the Duchy of Normandy, which he was to rule as Robert II. William would succeed his father as the King of England, ruling as William II. Henry, meanwhile, was given 5,000 pounds in silver which was earmarked for the purchase of land.

Following the death of William the Conqueror, Henry tried to play William and Robert off each other. However, William II and Robert eventually grew tired of Henry’s constant plots and signed the Accession Treaty, which stipulated that if either brother died without an heir, the surviving brother would inherit the other brother’s lands and titles.

The Reign of Henry I

On August 2, 1100, William II also died in a hunting accident in the New Forest. Henry seized control of the Royal Treasury at Winchester, where William II was buried. At the time, Robert II, was away on the First Crusade. Some modern historians believe that Henry took advantage of Robert’s absence and arranged the assassination of William with the assistance of William Tyrel, the Lord of Poix. As a result, the ascension of Henry to the English crown occurred despite the earlier agreement between William and Robert. Henry was accepted by the English nobility and crowned King of England on August 5, 1100. He secured his hold on the throne by issuing a Charter of Liberties, which is considered to be a forerunner to the Magna Carta.

In 1101, Robert, having returned from the Crusades, challenged Henry’s claim and attempted to seize the English crown by invading England. However, Robert was quickly defeated and signed the Treaty of Alton, in which Robert recognized Henry as the King of England. In return, Henry agreed to pay Robert a tribute of 2,000 silver marks upon his return to France. Henry willingly paid Robert for five years, however, by 1105, the annual tribute was beginning to put a strain on the Royal Treasury and Henry invaded Normandy as a result, defeating Robert at the Battle of Tinchebray in 1106.

Henry was also embroiled in the Investiture Controversy with Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Pope Paschal II. The controversy was eventually settled in 1107 with the Concordat of London. In this agreement, Henry agreed to give up the right to appoint priests and bishops, but required them to swear loyalty to him each year, like the secular nobility.

Henry committed a number of acts of brutality during his reign. In 1119, Henry’s son-in-law, Eustace de Pacy, and Ralph Harnec, the Constable of Ivry, took each other’s children as hostages. When Eustace blinded Harnec’s son, Harnec demanded retribution. Henry allowed Harnec to blind and mutilate Eustace’s daughters, who were also Henry granddaughters.

Henry also introduced a new monetary system during his reign, with the aim of taking control of England’s money supply out of the hands of private goldsmiths. Known as the tally stick, Henry’s system would remain in use in England until 1826, serving as a memory device for the recording of debts. Henry also passed a number of laws requiring tax money to be paid with tally sticks instead of just coins.

The Death of Henry I

In 1135, Henry travelled to Normandy to see his grandsons. The primary sources claim that Henry loved his grandchildren, even though he often quarrelled with his daughter, Matilda, and his son-in-law, Geoffery, the Count of Anjou. One such argument caused Henry to delay his return to England in 1135. Henry died in Normandy on December 1, 1135. He is thought to have died of food poisoning after eating “a surfeit of lampreys,” which was known to be one of his favourite dishes. Following Henry’s death at Lyons-la-Foret, his body was sewn into a bull’s hide and taken back to England. Henry was buried at Reading Abbey.

Henry’s unexpected death would spark a power struggle between his daughter and his nephew. In the wake of Henry’s death the English crown fell to Matilda, Henry’s oldest daughter. However, Matilda was deeply unpopular among the nobility due to her gender and the fact that she married into the House of Anjou. As a result, Henry’s nephew, Stephen of Blois, was able to seize the English crown.

Today, the location of Henry’s tomb has been lost along with his remains. The location of Henry’s grave was lost following the destruction of Reading Abbey during the Protestant Reformation, during the reign of Henry VIII.


Hollister, C. Warren. Henry I. Yale University Press, 2001. (Yale Monarchs series)

Henry I. English Monarchs. Jun.5/10

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