by Susan Flantzer
King Henry I is the tenth longest reigning British monarch, reigning 35 years, 120 days. He became King in 1100 at about the age of 32 and reigned until his death in 1135 at about the age of 67. Henry was the fourth and the youngest son of William the Conqueror (King William I) and Matilda of Flanders. His birth date and birthplace are uncertain, but he was probably born in September 1068 in Selby, Yorkshire, England. Henry had three brothers and at least five sisters. The birth order of the boys is clear, but that of the girls is not. The list below is not in birth order. It lists Henry’s brothers first in their birth order and then his sisters in their probable birth order.
- Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy, born between 1051–1054, died 1134, married Sybil of Conversano
- Richard, born c.1054, died around 1075 in a hunting accident
- King William II Rufus, born between 1056 and 1060, died 1100 in a hunting accident
- Agatha, died unmarried
- Adeliza, probably a nun of St Léger at Préaux
- Cecilia, born c.1056, died 1127, Abbess of Holy Trinity in Caen, Normandy
- Matilda, born around 1061, died about 1086
- Constance, died 1090, married Alan IV Fergent, Duke of Brittany
- Adela, died 1137, married Stephen, Count of Blois, mother of Henry’s successor, King Stephen of England
It seems that Henry received a good education, learning to read and write in Latin and also studying English (unusual for the time) and English law. As a younger son, it is probable that his destiny was to enter the Church. He earned the nickname “Beauclerc” (fine scholar), of which he was very proud. Later in life, he said that “an unlettered King was but a crowned ass.” Contrary to plans, Henry was knighted by his father in 1086.
In 1087, King William I divided his lands between his two eldest surviving sons. Robert Curthose was to receive the Duchy of Normandy and William Rufus was to receive the Kingdom of England. Henry was to receive 5,000 pounds of silver and his mother’s English estates. After his father died in 1087, Henry was constantly being forced to chose between his two brothers and whichever brother he picked, he was likely to annoy the other. In 1096, Robert left for the Holy Land on the First Crusade. In order to raise money for the crusade, he mortgaged the Duchy of Normandy to his brother King William II. The two older brothers made a pact stating that if one of them died without heirs, both Normandy and England would be reunited under the surviving brother. On August 2, 1100, King William II was killed in a hunting accident in the New Forest. Robert was still on Crusade, so Henry was able to seize the crown of England for himself. The day after William’s funeral at Winchester, the nobles elected Henry king and he then left for London where he was crowned in Westminster Abbey.
On November 11, 1100, Henry married Edith of Scotland (renamed Matilda upon her marriage), the daughter of King Malcolm III of Scotland and Saint Margaret of Scotland. Through her mother, Matilda merged the bloodline of the Anglo-Saxon kings with Henry’s Norman bloodline. Saint Margaret was born an Anglo-Saxon princess. Her father was Edward the Exile also called Edward Ætheling, the son of King Edmund Ironside (King Edmund II).
Henry and Matilda had two surviving children:
- Matilda (1102 – 1167), married (1) Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor, no issue; married (2) Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou, had issue including King Henry II of England
- William Ætheling (1103 – 1120), married Matilda of Anjou, no issue
In 1101, Robert Curthose tried to recapture the crown. His campaign failed, and under the Treaty of Alton, Robert recognized Henry as King of England. Four years later, Henry led an army across the English Channel to Normandy to avert another threat by his brother Robert. Henry defeated the Norman army in the Battle of Tinchebray, imprisoned his brother, and annexed the Duchy of Normandy as a possession of England.
On November 25, 1120, William Ætheling, Henry’s only legitimate son, was returning to England from Normandy when his ship hit a submerged rock, capsized and sank. William Ætheling and many others drowned. See Unofficial Royalty: The Sinking of the White Ship and How It Affected the English Succession.
King Henry I holds the record for the British monarch with the most illegitimate children, 25 or so illegitimate children, but the tragedy of the White Ship left him with only one legitimate child, his daughter Matilda. Henry’s nephews were the closest male heirs. In January of 1121, Henry married Adeliza of Louvain, hoping for sons, but the marriage remained childless. On Christmas Day of 1126, King Henry I of England gathered his nobles at Westminster where they swore to recognize Matilda and any future legitimate heir she might have as his successors. That plan did not work out.
Henry died on December 1, 1135. He had fallen ill after eating a number of lampreys against his doctor’s advice. It is possible the cause of death was ptomaine poisoning. Henry was buried in Reading Abbey in Reading, England, which was mostly destroyed during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. In March of 2015, it was announced that after the successful search for the remains of King Richard III, a search for King Henry I’s remains would be conducted under the ruins of Reading Abbey.
BBC: A search for bones of Henry I is planned in Reading
Upon hearing of Henry’s death, Stephen of Blois, one of Henry’s nephews, quickly crossed the English Channel from France, seized power, and was crowned King of England on December 22, 1135. This started the terrible civil war between Stephen and Matilda known as The Anarchy. England did not see peace for 18 years until Matilda’s son acceded to the throne as King Henry II of England in 1153.