Henry I: The Life & Reign of a Notorious English King

What’s the story of Henry I? Find out if there’s more to this notorious English king than just rumors of fratricide!

Feb 20, 2024By Chester Ollivier, BA (Hons) History



The adjective “notorious” tends to sum up the man and the king when it comes to Henry I. From rumors that he murdered his brother to steal the throne, to fathering over 20 children — including plenty of illegitimate ones, to seeing a civil war erupt, to eventually finding his demise against a “surfeit of lampreys.” The reign of King Henry I is one of the most action-packed of any English monarch.


Early Life of Henry I

Henry I, from Chronicle of Matthew Paris, c. 1255, via British Library


Henry was born around 1068 and was the youngest son of William I of England (better known as William the Conqueror) and his wife, Matilda of Flanders. Henry was also the younger brother of another king of England, William II, also known as William Rufus.


Henry did not have a strong relationship with any of his brothers, and the real challenges before his reign began with the death of their father, in 1087. Upon William I’s death, he left Robert (the eldest son) land in Normandy and the Dukedom of Normandy, and William (his favorite) the Kingdom of England. Henry was left a large sum of money, as well as lands in Gloucestershire and Buckinghamshire, England.


Yet because none of the brothers ever got on particularly well, William confiscated Henry’s English lands almost immediately upon becoming king, while Robert demanded some of Henry’s money, while still holding onto his land in Normandy.

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However, while initially refusing this offer, Robert made another offer to Henry which he duly accepted. He would make Henry a Count in western Normandy in exchange for some of his money. Because Henry was landless, he accepted, viewing it as an opportunity to build his power and extend his reach and influence.


Statue William I, in Falaise, France, by Man Vyi, via Wikimedia Commons


In  1088, Henry returned to England to request his English lands back from William – but this request was not granted. In Normandy, rumors began to spread that Henry was in league with William, and upon his return to France, he was duly arrested, and imprisoned — and was only released due to the actions of some members of the French nobility.


While Henry was out of the picture, William and Robert resolved their animosities, instead agreeing to support each other at Henry’s expense. Nevertheless, crusading fever grabbed hold of Robert, and when he left on the First Crusade, William gained temporary control of England — it was now that William turned to Henry, and it appears that the two brothers grew close — so much so that William invited Henry on that fateful hunting trip, on August, 2nd 1100.


Henry’s Accession to the Throne

William II’s death, from Grande Chroniques de France, c. 13th century, via British Library


While on this hunting trip, William was shot and killed by an arrow that went through his chest and punctured his lung. Nobody knows who did it, though various theories have emerged over the years — including the theory that it was a planned assassination attempt by Henry himself, although to this day this has never been proven.


With William II dead (he had never married nor had any children), Henry seized the opportunity; within three days, he rode from the New Forest to Westminster Abbey and was crowned King Henry I of England on August 5, 1100.


Henry I’s Early Reign

Parents of Matilda of Scotland, Malcolm III and Queen Margaret, from the Senton Armorial, 1591, via Westminster Abbey


Henry grew into the role of King immediately and gained a lot of support very quickly. He laid out a coronation charter stating his various commitments, which included abandoning William II’s policies towards the Church, preventing royal abuse of the barons’ property rights, and assured a return to the milder customs of Edward the Confessor.


However, it was not just the common people who Henry I aimed to please — he also cleverly incorporated many of William’s courtiers into his royal household and William’s chancellor, William Giffard, was made Bishop of Winchester. On the other hand, Ranulf Flambard, William’s alleged homosexual lover who was also the Bishop of Durham, was imprisoned in the Tower of London on charges of corruption.


Arguably the most important feature of Henry I’s early reign was his marriage to Matilda, daughter of King Malcolm III of Scotland, on November 11, 1100. Contemporaries argued that while their marriage was politically strategic, uniting Scotland and England, the couple were also emotionally close, and it appeared that they had a genuine love for each other. The couple soon had children, and their eldest daughter (also named Matilda) would later come to play a hugely important part in the period of English history known as The Anarchy.


Henry I and Normandy

Robert of Normandy, Tomb in Gloucester Cathedral, by Nilfanion, via Wikimedia Commons


Despite a relatively successful start to his reign, Henry still had the issue of Robert, who arguably had a stronger claim to the throne than Henry as he was older than him. The two brothers met at Alton in Hampshire in 1101, and signed a peace treaty known as the Treaty of Alton. The terms of the treaty meant that Robert released Henry from his oath of homage and recognized him as King of England, while Henry renounced almost all of his claims on western Normandy, and agreed to pay Robert £2000 per year for the rest of his life. If either brother died without an heir, the other would inherit his lands.


Yet this treaty did not keep Henry out of Normandy for long. In 1103, he invaded unsuccessfully but was more successful three years later. Henry’s second invasion of Normandy sparked the Battle of Tinchebray, on 28 September 1106.


The battle itself only lasted an hour, but Henry’s knights had won a key victory which resulted in Robert’s capture and imprisonment. Robert would end up in various castles under imprisonment, and died at Cardiff Castle in 1134. Henry had regained Normandy, and still ruled England — something that his brother William II had failed to do.


Henry’s Personal Life

Henry I, c. 1321, via British Library


As well as having legitimate children with his wife Matilda, Henry was known to have an enormous sexual appetite, with estimates that he fathered around nine illegitimate sons and 15 illegitimate daughters. Naturally, this would pose a threat to any succession, but throughout his reign, Henry maintained that none of his illegitimate children should succeed him as ruler of England.


However, as well as being a notorious medieval womanizer, Henry was also a highly educated man and gained the nickname “Beauclerc,” meaning “good scholar,” due to his education and wisdom. He was an avid reader, which is clear in his diplomatic negotiations and skills throughout his reign.


Henry’s Foreign Relations

Crowning of King Louis VI of France, by Jean Fouquet, 1455-60, via Wikimedia Commons


Henry experienced difficulty with his foreign policy — naturally, this was to be expected given the amount of territory that he ruled. King Louis VI came to the French throne in 1106, and began to reassert central royal power. Eventually, this culminated in Louis mobilizing an army to take Norman territory from Henry, although the two kings ended up retreating without signing a treaty, leaving the issue unresolved. Henry had slightly more success with Henry V, the future Holy Roman Emperor, to whom he betrothed his six-year-old daughter Matilda in 1108. She was eventually crowned as German Queen in 1110.


Rebellion in France did not help Henry’s cause, and between 1111 and 1113, Henry crossed the English Channel into Normandy to support his nephew Theobald. However, around the same time, Henry also had a conflict on home soil — this time with Wales, rather than Scotland. Years of conflict eventually took their toll, but perhaps the most famous event in Henry’s reign was the White Ship disaster, which transformed English history forever.


The White Ship Disaster

The White Ship Disaster, c. 1321, via British Library


On 25 November 1120, Henry had sailed back from Barfleur in France in the late afternoon or early evening, leaving many of the younger members of his court behind, including his son William. They were to follow him back on a different vessel, named the White Ship.


Many of the crew and passengers had been heavily drinking for some time prior to setting sail, and thanks to the stormy conditions, the ship hit a rock outside of the harbor and sank. Of all 300 people on board, there was one survivor — a butcher from Rouen. Because of Henry’s notorious reputation, many members of his court were too scared to tell him that his William had died. When he was eventually told, it was reported that he collapsed due to grief.


The Succession Crisis

Enamel effigy of Geoffrey Plantagenet, c. 1151, via Wikimedia Commons


England now had a succession crisis. Henry’s only legitimate son was dead, and two of his half-siblings had been killed in the White Ship disaster, too. Henry turned to his nephews for a potential successor. His daughter Matilda was still alive and well, yet the thought of having a female ruler of England in this period was almost unfathomable.


However, Henry had had some time to think this over. When his daughter Matilda’s husband died in 1125, Henry changed his mind, and recalled her to England the following year. He declared that should he be unable to produce a male heir before he died, Matilda should succeed him and become Queen Matilda of England.


Henry began to build plans for the future of the English throne over the coming years. In 1127, he married Matilda to Fulk’s son (Fulk was King of Jerusalem), a man called Geoffrey Plantagenet. Once again, Henry I was responsible for changing the course of English history forever with this move.


The couple, despite their differences, had two sons — Henry and Geoffrey, who were born in 1133 and 1134, respectively. Henry would eventually go on to start the Plantagenet dynasty, which would rule England for 245 years.


Henry I’s Death and Legacy

King Stephen, Tudor Period, via the National Portrait Gallery


In Henry’s final years as king, his relations with Matilda and Geoffrey soured. Matilda and Geoffrey were not convinced that they had any genuine support in England, and wanted Henry to hand over the Norman castles to them in France instead.


While Henry was in France, according to the contemporary chronicler Henry of Huntingdon, he ate a “surfeit” (“too many”) of lampreys which was apparently against his physician’s advice. Henry’s condition worsened over the course of the next week, and on December, 1st 1135, he died, aged around 66-67.


Because of the succession crisis, things would not go smoothly following Henry’s death. His nephew, Stephen of Blois, crossed from Boulogne to England upon hearing news of his uncle’s death, and seized power in England, eventually being crowned King of England on December 22, 1135. Naturally, Matilda and Geoffrey did not want to give up their claim, and a period of history known as The Anarchy ensued from 1135 until 1153, just before Stephen’s death.

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By Chester OllivierBA (Hons) HistoryChester is a contributing history writer, with a First Class Honours degree BA (Hons) in History from Northumbria University. He is from the North East of England, and an avid Middlesbrough FC supporter.