Henry I (c. 1068/1069 – 1 December 1135) was the fourth son of William I the Conqueror, the first King of England after the Norman Conquest of 1066. He succeeded his elder brother William II as King of England in 1100 and defeated his eldest brother, Robert Curthose, to become Duke of Normandy in 1106. He was called Beauclerc for his scholarly interests and Lion of Justice for refinements which he brought about in the rudimentary administrative and legislative machinery of the time.
Henry's reign is noted for its political opportunism. His succession was confirmed while his brother Robert was away on the First Crusade and the beginning of his reign was occupied by wars with Robert for control of England and Normandy. He successfully reunited the two realms again after their separation on his father's death in 1087. Upon his succession he granted the baronage a Charter of Liberties, which formed a basis for subsequent challenges to rights of kings and presaged Magna Carta, which subjected the King to law.
The rest of Henry's reign was filled with judicial and financial reforms. He established the biannual Exchequer to reform the treasury. He used itinerant officials to curb abuses of power at the local and regional level, garnering the praise of the people. The differences between the English and Norman populations began to break down during his reign and he himself married a daughter of the old English royal house. He made peace with the church after the disputes of his brother's reign, but he could not smooth out his succession after the disastrous loss of his eldest son William in the wreck of the White Ship. His will stipulated that he was to be succeeded by his daughter, the Empress Matilda, but his stern rule was followed by a period of civil war known as the Anarchy.
William I's second son Richard was killed in an hunting accident in 1081, so William bequeathed his dominions to his three surviving sons in the following manner:
The Chronicler Orderic Vitalis reports that the old King had declared to Henry: "You in your own time will have all the dominions I have acquired and be greater than both your brothers in wealth and power."
Henry tried to play his brothers off against each other but eventually, wary of his devious manoeuvring, they acted together and signed an Accession Treaty. This sought to bar Prince Henry from both Thrones by stipulating that if either King William or Duke Robert died without an heir, the two dominions of their father would be reunited under the surviving brother.
When, on 2 August 1100, William II was killed by an arrow in yet another hunting accident in the New Forest, Duke Robert had not yet returned from the First Crusade. His absence, along with his poor reputation among the Norman nobles, allowed Prince Henry to seize the Royal Treasury at Winchester, Hampshire, where he buried his dead brother. Henry was accepted as King by the leading Barons and was crowned three days later on 5 August at Westminster Abbey. He secured his position among the nobles by an act of political appeasement: he issued a Charter of Liberties which is considered a forerunner of the Magna Carta.
The chronicler William of Malmesbury described Henry thus: "He was of middle stature, greater than the small, but exceeded by the very tall; his hair was black and set back upon the forehead; his eyes mildly bright; his chest brawny; his body fleshy."
On the morning of the 28 September 1106, exactly 40 years after William had landed in England, the decisive battle between his two sons, Robert Curthose and Henry Beauclerc, took place in the small village of Tinchebray. This combat was totally unexpected and unprepared. Henry and his army were marching south from Barfleur on their way to Domfront and Robert was marching with his army from Falaise on their way to Mortain. They met at the crossroads at Tinchebray and the running battle which ensued was spread out over several kilometres. The site where most of the fighting took place is the village playing field today. Towards evening Robert tried to retreat but was captured by Henry's men at a place three kilometres (just under two miles) north of Tinchebray where a farm named "Prise" (taken) stands today on the D22 road. The tombstones of three knights are nearby on the same road.
In 1113, he attempted to reduce difficulties in Normandy by betrothing his eldest son, William Adelin, to the daughter of Fulk of Jerusalem (also known as Fulk V), Count of Anjou, then a serious enemy. They were married in 1119. Eight years later, after William's untimely death, a much more momentous union was made between Henry's daughter, (the former Empress) Matilda and Fulk's son Geoffrey Plantagenet, which eventually resulted in the union of the two Realms under the Plantagenet Kings.
Henry's need for finance to consolidate his position led to an increase in the activities of centralized government. As King, Henry carried out social and judicial reforms, including:
Between 1103 and 1107 Henry was involved in a dispute with Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Pope Paschal II in the investiture controversy, which was settled in the Concordat of London in 1107. It was a compromise. In England, a distinction was made in the King's chancery between the secular and ecclesiastical powers of the prelates. Employing the distinction, Henry gave up his right to invest his bishops and abbots, but reserved the custom of requiring them to come and do homage for the "temporalities" (the landed properties tied to the episcopate), directly from his hand, after the bishop had sworn homage and feudal vassalage in the ceremony called commendatio, the commendation ceremony, like any secular vassal.
Henry was also 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 instance 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. 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.
Henry visited Normandy in 1135 to see his young grandsons, the children of Matilda and Geoffrey. He took great delight in his grandchildren, but soon quarrelled with his daughter and son-in-law and these disputes led him to tarry in Normandy far longer than he originally planned.
Henry died on 1 December 1135 of food poisoning from eating "a surfeit of lampreys" (of which he was excessively fond) at Saint-Denis-en-Lyons (now Lyons-la-Forêt) in Normandy. His remains were sewn into the hide of a bull to preserve them on the journey, and then taken back to England and were buried at Reading Abbey, which he had founded fourteen years before. The Abbey was destroyed during the Protestant Reformation. No trace of his tomb has survived, the probable site being covered by St James' School. Nearby is a small plaque and a large memorial cross stands in the adjoining Forbury Gardens.
Although Henry's barons had sworn allegiance to his daughter as their Queen, her gender and her remarriage into the House of Anjou, an enemy of the Normans, allowed Henry's nephew Stephen of Blois, to come to England and claim the throne with popular support.
The struggle between the former Empress and Stephen resulted in a long civil war known as the Anarchy. The dispute was eventually settled by Stephen's naming of Matilda's son, Henry Plantagenet, as his heir in 1153.