Henry Iby C. Warren Hollister, Amanda Clark Frost
Henry I, son of William the Conqueror, ruled from 1100 to 1135, a time of fundamental change in the Anglo-Norman world. This long-awaited biography, written by one of the most distinguished medievalists of his generation, offers a major reassessment of Henry’s character and reign. Challenging the dark and dated portrait of the king as brutal, greedy, and
Henry I, son of William the Conqueror, ruled from 1100 to 1135, a time of fundamental change in the Anglo-Norman world. This long-awaited biography, written by one of the most distinguished medievalists of his generation, offers a major reassessment of Henry’s character and reign. Challenging the dark and dated portrait of the king as brutal, greedy, and repressive, it argues instead that Henry’s rule was based on reason and order.
C. Warren Hollister points out that Henry laid the foundations for judicial and financial institutions usually attributed to his grandson, Henry II. Royal government was centralized and systematized, leading to firm, stable, and peaceful rule for his subjects in both England and Normandy. By mid-reign Henry I was the most powerful king in Western Europe, and with astute diplomacy, an intelligence network, and strategic marriages of his children (legitimate and illegitimate), he was able to undermine the various coalitions mounted against him. Henry strove throughout his reign to solidify the Anglo-Norman dynasty, and his marriage linked the Normans to the Old English line.
Hollister vividly describes Henry’s life and reign, places them against the political background of the time, and provides analytical studies of the king and his magnates, the royal administration, and relations between king and church. The resulting volume is one that will be welcomed by students and general readers alike.
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SETTING AND SOURCES
Henry I, in the words of the old Chinese curse, lived in interestingtimes. The youngest son of William the Conqueror and his royal wife,Matilda of Flanders, Henry was born in England roughly two yearsafter his father's victory at Hastings, at a time when the Norman gripon the English realm was still far from secure. By the time of his deathin his later sixties, after a reign of some thirty-five years (1100-1135),the Anglo-Norman monarchy and aristocracy had become deeplyrooted in England, while, in the larger framework of medievalcivilization, the great intellectual and cultural process known as thetwelfth-century renaissance had reached full blossom.
Henry's lifetime thus witnessed fundamental changes in the Anglo-Normanworld and, indeed, throughout Western Europe. Some ofthese changes were products of Henry's own governance; mostwere not. But Henry, whether by choice or necessity, adapted tothem all. He left the Anglo-Norman government far better organizedthan he had found it, so much so that he has plausibly been creditedwith the building of an administrative "machine" of unprecedentedeffectivenessthe most sophisticated government in transalpineEurope since the days of the Roman Empire. He and his ministersreconstituted and tamed the itinerant royal court along rationallines, reformed the exchequer and treasury, introduced the systematicuse of itinerant justices on a kingdomwide scale, developed royalpatronage into a science, and presided over a long generation ofpeace and prosperity in England and, to a lesser but verysignificantdegree, in Normandy. The prosperity of Henry's reign was propelledby a great wave of economic growth, resulting in an intensificationof international trademost notably the wool trade with Flandersandin the expansion of towns and the proliferation of markets. Henrygranted London its first charter of liberties (for a stiff but manageableprice), and his wife, Queen Matilda II, gave the city its first"public convenience." Moreover, Henry sold or confirmed importantprivileges to the citizens of such burgeoning urban centers as Lincolnand Newcastle, York and Beverley. He and his associates foundednumerous priories of the newly popular Augustinian order andsubstantial numbers of hospitals as well. He was a lavish benefactor ofthe venerable international congregation of Cluny and a vastly generouscontributor to its mother church, and when he established his greatmonastic foundation at Reading he filled it with monks bound to theCluniac rule. But he and members of his court also supported theestablishment of Britain's earliest Cistercian abbeys: Waverley, Tintern,Fountains, and Rievaulx. Henry's reign was marked by unbroken peaceand amity with the kings of Scots and relative stability along the Welshfrontiers, and it concluded with more than a decade of peace withFrance, ending two generations of intermittent warfare across the yearsfollowing the Conquest.
Among Henry's contemporaries were some of the foremost intellectualand spiritual luminaries of the twelfth-century renaissance,and he had dealings with several of them. During the early yearsof his reign he was a close associate, friend, and sometime antagonistof St Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury, to whom he consignedthe care of his family and kingdom during a royal absence overseasshortly before Anselm's death. He was also a friend of Suger ofSaint-Denis and met secretly with him on more than one occasionto negotiate peace with Suger's lord, King Louis VI. Two pioneers in theemergence of Western science, Petrus Alfonsus and (probably) Adelardof Bath, worked for a time in Henry's service. He and his two successivequeens, Matilda and Adeliza, engaged in correspondence with suchnotable figures as the poet-prelate Hildebert of Lavardin, the greatcanonist Ivo bishop of Chartres, Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny,who came to England in 1130 with Henry's authorization, and StBernard of Clairvaux who, in the company of Abbot Suger, Pope InnocentII, and others, visited Henry's court at Rouen in 1131.
As Sir Richard Southern has cogently observed, the renaissanceof the twelfth century was not limited to learning and the arts butextended as well to the realm of governance. In this sense, HenryI was both a child of the Norman Conquest and, in the contextof the twelfth century, a renaissance prince. Not only did he consortwith leading figures among the first and perhaps greatest generationof twelfth-century writers; he also absorbed and exemplified theirpassion for reason and order and applied it to the administrationof his realm, to diplomacy, and even to military strategy and tactics.Henry was no philosopher, but contemporaries were struck by hisopenness to new ideas and his seemingly boundless curiosity, traitshe shared with intellectuals of his era.
Still another facet of the twelfth-century renaissance, as Sir RichardSouthern aptly pointed out, was the writing of history, and this too wasreflected in Henry's reign. His activities were recorded by an unprecedentednumber of historians and annalists, including some of the mosttalented writers since Bede. Foremost among them was William ofMalmesbury (ca. 1095-ca. 1143), a gifted historical scholar and anomnivorous reader, impressively well versed in the literature of classical,patristic, and earlier medieval times as well as in the writings ofhis own contemporaries. Indeed, William may well have been the mostlearned man in twelfth-century Western Europe. A monk of theBenedictine community of Malmesbury, William was of mixed Anglo-Normanparentage. Although by no means a court historian or royalpanegyrist, he was deeply sympathetic toward Henry I and enjoyed thepatronage of Henry's curia through his contacts with the king's firstwife, Queen Matilda II. The queen's financial support was generousbut, as Malmesbury hinted, could have been more so toward Englishwriters such as himself: "The disposition came upon the queen toreward all the foreigners she could, while keeping the others insuspense, sometimes with effectual promises but more often withempty ones." Despite William of Malmesbury's veiled complaint, thequeen may well have contributed financially to his far-flung travelsthroughout England, reflected most directly in his Gesta pontificumAnglorum. This great work is a vividly descriptive history of the bishopricsand abbeys of England from the early Anglo-Saxon era to thetime of its completion in 1125. It dwells on the lives of Anglo-Saxonsaint-prelates, especially St Aldhelm, the learned, wonder-workingabbot of seventh-century Malmesbury, but it also casts valuable light onthe post-Conquest Church and, less directly, on the Norman kings.
William of Malmesbury's wide reading, extensive travels, and keeninterpretive talents contributed similarly to the writing of his best knownwork, the Gesta regum Anglorum, which he also completed in 1125. TheGesta regum, consciously patterned on Bede, relates the history of theEnglish monarchy (with occasional intriguing digressions) from earlyAnglo-Saxon times to about 1120. These two parallel historical works,ecclesiastical and secular, provide a valuable portrait of Henry I's reign,enlivened by William's wit and his striking descriptive portrayals of placesand persons (including Henry I himself) and deepened by his perceptivehistorical judgment.
In his later years William of Malmesbury revised his two gesta severaltimes, disclosing in his second thoughts the mellowing effect of age.Around 1140 he began the writing of his third and last major historicalwork, the Historia novella, in which he rushed through the finalyears of Henry I to dwell less hurriedly on the early years of Stephen'sreign and, in particular, the deeds of King Henry's favorite bastard sonand Malmesbury's hero, Robert earl of Gloucester. The Historia novellaends abruptly in 1142, halted presumably by its author's final illness.William of Malmesbury also wrote saints' lives, a history of Glastonburyabbey, and much else; but it is, above all, his three great historical worksthat illuminate most clearly the life and reign of Henry I.
A second major historian of Henry's generation, Orderic Vitalis(1075-ca. 1142), admired the king no less than did William of Malmesbury.Like William, Orderic was a student of the classics (although helacked William's deep erudition). Like William, too, he was of mixed,Anglo-French parentage. His mother was English; his father was a priestfrom Orleans who served as a chaplain to Roger of Montgomery, earlof Shrewsbury. Orderic's parents sent him from his Shropshire homeas a child of ten to live out his remaining fifty-seven years at the distinguishedabbey of Saint-Evroul in southern Normandy. As his life progressed,Orderic's perspective became increasingly Norman, but heretained his contacts with his native Shropshire and identified himselfin his writings as an Englishman, "Ordricus angligena."
Orderic did his historical apprenticeship during the first decadeof the twelfth century as a continuer of William of Jumièges' Gestanormannorum ducum, a sweeping history of the Normans and theirdukes from the founding of Normandy about 911 through theNorman Conquest and early settlement in England. Picking up thestory, Orderic carried it into the early twelfth century. But by1110/1115 he had taken up a far more arduous task, the writing ofhis magnum opus, the Historia ecclesiastica. This great rambling work,with its marvelous vignettes and fearlessly long digressions, occupiessix volumes in its magisterial edition-translation by Dr MarjorieChibnall. Orderic's Historia ecclesiastica, despite its title, is concernedwith the Anglo-Norman monarchy and aristocracy no less than withthe Church. Aptly described as the greatest social history of theMiddle Ages, it provides what is by far our fullest, most detailedaccount of the life of Henry I. Orderic drew on numerous sourcesincluding his own notes of current events, many of which he musthave gleaned from the visitors who were constantly drifting in andout of Saint-Evroul (in 1113 Henry I himself visited the abbey).Orderic derived some of his information from the writings of otherhistorians, past and present, and he seems to have learned much fromhis occasional travels, which carried him to such places as the Ile deFrance, Flanders, Burgundy, and England. Like all historians, Ordericcould lapse now and then into careless errorsas when, writing someyears after the event and confusing his notes, he conflates HenryI's two crucial military expeditions into Normandy in 1105 and1106 into a single campaign. But he is on the whole an honest andtrustworthy guide to the history of his times. He continued writinghis history, by stages, across the long generation from 1110/1115until 1141, when the approach of death, along with the dauntingtumults of King Stephen's anarchy and Geoffrey of Anjou's Normancampaigning, stilled his pen at last.
Contemporary with the works of Malmesbury and Orderic arean impressive number of other historical sources bearing on HenryI and his era. The most complex of these sources, the Anglo-SaxonChronicle, consists of a number of semi-independent year-by-year annals,in which the year and its events are often mismatched. Workingover many generations at various monastic houses, the anonymouscompilers of these texts appended their diverging versionsto copies of a single original, dating from Alfred's reign, that ranfrom the Incarnation through to AD 891. Because some of thesetexts have perished, the relationships among the remainder cannever be fully untangled. Fortunately for our purposes, by the timeof Henry I's reign the extant manuscripts had dwindled to one,MS E, generally known as the Peterborough Chronicle. This manuscriptis largely the product of a single scribe, who copied an earlierversion of the chronicle through the year 1121 in one stretch andcontinued it at intervals from 1122 through 1131, after which itproceeds in other hands, sporadically and often carelessly, untilthe accession of Henry II. A preoccupation with events at Peterboroughabbey in the annals of 1122-1131 identifies their authoras a Peterborough monk, and internal evidence of a similar sortshows that the earlier manuscript that he copied (now lost) hadbeen written at St Augustine's, Canterbury, for some years prior to1062. But it is impossible to locate with certainty the author ofthe annals for the years 1062-1121. The suggestion that themanuscript continued to be compiled at Canterbury during theseyears seems unlikely not only because its author provides an incorrectdate for Archbishop Anselm's death but also because of its silenceon such matters as the investiture settlement (AD 1105-1107),Anselm's return from exile in 1106, and his consecration of anunprecedented number of prelates-elect in 1107 (the consecrationsare mentioned but Anselm is not). It seems unlikely too that theyear entries prior to the 1122 copy were compiled at Peterborough,for although the earlier annals include several pointed referencesto local Peterborough events, these were clearly interpolated bythe 1122 copyist. But despite its multiple authorship, the portionsof the E manuscript relating to Henry I do convey the impression ofa relatively cohesive narrative running across the 1121-1122 break.Its tone is pessimistic throughout, reaching depths of despair whendescribing the reigns of William Rufus and Stephen but continuingintermittently during Henry I's reign to deplore the ravages ofbad weather, high taxes, cattle plagues, and abusive royal officials.This pessimism was doubtless shared by many post-Conquest Anglo-Saxonsthroughout England and need not be identified with a singleauthor or abbey.
Despite the attention that the E text devotes to local events andnatural disasters, its authors were also capable of a wider perspective.They express serious interest in the affairs of the Anglo-Norman realmand its neighbors and thereby provide valuable information onthe domestic and international politics of the Norman kings. The Etext is, for example, our earliest witness to the significant informationthat Helias count of Maine (d. 1110) had rendered fealty to Henry Iand that in 1126 the empress Maud persuaded Henry to transfer hiscaptive brother Robert Curthose from Roger of Salisbury's custody tothat of her political ally, Robert earl of Gloucester. And notwithstandingits chronic complaints, the E text describes Henry I in retrospectas "a good man" who "made peace for man and beast."
Another major chronicle of Saxon and Norman England wascompiled during the Anglo-Norman period at Worcester Cathedralpriory. Its authorship used to be attributed to the monk Florenceof Worcester up to AD 1118 and to a fellow monk, John of Worcester,from 1118 to 1140. Although it is almost certain that John ofWorcester wrote a large section of the chronicle preceding 1140, theauthorship of the annals prior to 1118 is still disputed. That a Worcestermonk named Florence contributed significantly to these annalsis made clear by a notice in the annal for 1118 which reports hisdeath and adds, "This chronicle of chronicles excels all othersbecause of his deep knowledge and studious application." But otherevidence raises serious doubts about the traditional interpretation.Orderic Vitalis, who visited Worcester at some uncertain date,reports John as saying that he himself undertook the chronicleat the request of Bishop Wulfstan, who died in l095. If so, thenJohn would have written the entire chronicle, beginning it in hisyouth ante 1096 and completing it in 1140 as a person of unusualbut not impossible longevity. Perhaps Florence served as John'sassistant; perhaps, alternatively, Orderic erred. A further problemwith the traditional assumption, however, is that no perceptible breakin either the style or the manuscript tradition of the chronicle occurswith the annal for 1118. The likeliest solution to the riddle is thatseveral Worcester monks, including Florence, contributed to theproject up to 1118 and perhaps beyond. The earliest manuscriptof the Worcester Chronicle, Corpus Christi College, Oxford, MS 157,is written in several hands; a single hand has entered numerouscorrections and annotations from the beginning of the manuscriptto AD 1124, and this same hand, very probably John of Worcester's,produced the text from 1128 to 1140. The evidence from the CorpusChristi manuscript suggests therefore that John of Worcester, ascorrector-annotator of the earlier part and as author of the later part,is probably responsible for the whole of the chronicle in its presentform. But in deference to the accolade to Florence in the annalfor 1118, I will follow tradition and cite the chronicle as "FW."
The Worcester Chronicle owes much to earlier writings, two in particular:the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and a "universal" chronicle runningfrom the Creation to AD 1082 written by Marianus Scotus, a monk ofFulda who had migrated from Ireland. Like both these sources, theWorcester Chronicle is annalistic in format. It derives substantial amountsof information about pre-Conquest England from texts of the Anglo-SaxonChronicle that are now lost, and it is therefore a source ofconsiderable value for students of early English history. But it differsfrom the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle both in language (Latin rather thanOld English) and in its high standards of chronological accuracy. Formost of the Norman period it is a contemporary source of information,and it is an indispensable guide to the history of Henry I's reign. Itsupplies important and otherwise unknown details, for example, onHenry's decisive military campaign of 1102 against Robert of Bellême;it provides the only comprehensive account of the 1126 Christmascourt at which the magnates and prelates of England swore theirsolemn oaths to support the empress Maud as Henry's successor; andit may perhaps have inspired Charles Dickens by reporting (andvividly illustrating in line drawings) three nightmares suffered byHenry I during a single restless night in 1130.
Excerpted from HENRY I by C. Warren Hollister. Copyright © 2001 by The Estate of C. Warren Hollister. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
C. Warren Hollister was professor of history emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara before his death in 1997.
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