A Bitter Brotherly Feud: Henry I And His Turbulent Rise To The Throne
After his dazzlingly fast conquest of England, William the Conqueror became one of the most powerful rulers in Europe. Just, decisive, and unyielding, he certainly left a big task for all his followers. And, as we all know too well, when a powerful king such as him is gone, the succession to the throne can often turn ugly. Henry I was the fourth son of William and became embroiled in the turbulent ups and downs of power struggles after his father’s death.
Looking Up to His Noble Father: The Early Life of Henry I
The death of a great king rarely failed to cause succession troubles, no matter the historical period. The king’s wealth and power are coveted by his offspring even before he is dead. And in early Norman England, this was especially true.
William, starting off as the Duke of Normandy, managed to greatly expand his power after launching a successful invasion of Anglo-Saxon England in 1066. Over the next few decades, he solidified his rule and in many ways greatly changed the face of medieval Europe. Of course, as a powerful ruler, William the Conqueror sired many children. He and his wife Matilda had at least nine children, however not all of them reached adulthood. The succession struggles would ultimately fall to his three sons: Henry, William Rufus, and Robert Curthose. All three of them inherited their father’s cunning and the desire to rule, all the more emphasized by their restless Norman roots.
The Bayeux Tapestry, chronicling the English/Norman battle in 1066 which led to the Norman Conquest, led by William the Conqueror, father of King Henry I. (alipaiman / Public domain)
Henry’s date of birth is generally accepted as 1068 AD. The location of his birth is most likely Selby, located in Yorkshire. His date of birth tells us that it happened just two years after his father, William, conquered England. His mother was Matilda of Flanders, the daughter of a prominent nobleman, Count Baldwin V of Flanders. Henry was the youngest son of this noble couple and the fourth son overall.
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An early portrait of the young Henry I long before he became king of England. (Public domain)
However, the couple’s second son, Richard of Normandy, would die early on in his youth, and that left only Henry, William, and Robert. There was also a noticeable age difference between the brothers, as Henry was born more than a decade after his siblings. However, this difference in no way stopped the brothers from vying for power.
Death of the Conqueror
In 1087, the fated day arrived. William the Conqueror died unexpectedly on September 9th of that year. On his deathbed, he partitioned his possessions amongst his three sons. Henry however, found himself quite dissatisfied with the result. Normandy was granted to the eldest son, Robert, known as Robert Curthose. England, the land granted by conquest, was given to William II Rufus (the Red). However, Henry I was given no land whatsoever, instead he was granted a considerable sum of money, and a promise of inheriting his mother’s meagre lands in Buckinghamshire and Gloucestershire.
The troubles began almost immediately. Robert Curthose was equally displeased: he expected his father to follow the custom of primogeniture, i.e., the eldest son is the main successor. But William the Conqueror seemingly followed the Norman tradition, which called for a particular division of lands amongst sons.
Robert Curthose was Henry I’s brother and worked with Henry to try to overthrow their other brother (William Rufus) who had taken their father’s throne when William the Conqueror suddenly died. (Public domain)
Battle For The Lucrative Throne Of England
Curthose at once voiced his issues, as he expected to be granted both Normandy and England. His anger grew even more when he found out that William Rufus had hastily crossed the channel and returned to England, where he was crowned king. Curthose at once stirred up a rebellion against William Rufus and began planning an invasion to conquer his brother’s kingdom. All the while, Henry was caught in between their conflict. He remained back in Normandy and attended to the court needs of his brother Robert. His motives at the time remain unclear: it is possible that he attempted to avoid opposing his brother William.
But even though he was landless, Henry still had some leverage in the situation. When Robert Curthose’s plans for invasion began fizzling out prematurely, he turned to his brother Henry for help. He initially asked for some of Henry’s inheritance money to help fund his armies. The latter refused but proposed an alternative solution: Robert would make him the count of the newly created Cotentin countship, in exchange for a sum of roughly £3,000 ($4000). Curthose agreed and Henry was now no longer landless. And he quickly established himself as a powerful count.
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Robert Curthose would soon come to regret this agreement. His invasion plans never succeeded, and his rule over Normandy became increasingly chaotic by the day. In the meantime, Henry was brilliant in his new role as a count. Cotentin was one of the most powerful regions of Normandy, and Henry was capable as its leader. He soon managed to win over a number of prominent noblemen from all over Normandy, gaining support for his future cause.
Seeing his rise in power, Curthose made attempts to cancel their initial agreement and to retake the Cotentin lands, but it was however, too late for that. This was only followed with further discontent. In 1088 AD, Henry sailed over to England to parlay with his brother King William of England, asking to be given the lands of their mother. While he was away, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the aging companion of William the Conqueror, sided with Robert Curthose and convinced him that Henry was plotting against him.
Odo was successful in furthering the brotherly feud, and when Henry returned to Normandy, he was imprisoned, and his lands seized. But the influence he had gained amongst the prominent nobles prevailed. By the spring of 1089 they pressured Robert Curthose into letting him free. And even though he was no longer a count of Cotentin, he still de-facto ruled western Normandy due to the influence and the followers he gained there. And thus, the feud amongst the brothers continued.
Acting upon it, King William Rufus instigated several barons in Normandy to take up arms against Robert Curthose. The Normandy baron faction was headed by Conan Pilatus. This baron managed to rouse the whole of Rouen to arms, forcing Robert, in a panic, to ask for help amongst his followers. And his brother Henry was the first to arrive with relief. Thanks to Henry’s exploits in the battle, they won.
Early in his ultimate rise to the throne Henry I used Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France as his base of operations. (Diliff / Public domain)
Henry Never Gave Up His Ambitions
What followed these events was a continuous “rollercoaster” of newly made alliances and fights between the three brothers. No matter what approach they took, they could not find common ground or be satisfied with the lands and wealth they got.
In 1091, King William Rufus crossed over from England with a large army, hoping to force Robert Curthose to surrender. He succeeded in forcing negotiations and the two brothers signed a peace treaty at Rouen, to their mutual benefit. However, as part of this treaty, they completely excluded Henry from the picture, refusing him succession and his lands. This, in turn, pushed Henry to war against his brothers.
To face them, he assembled a mercenary army and holed up on the majestic tidal island castle of Mont Saint-Michel. But as the overwhelming forces of his brothers advanced, the support of Henry’s barons quickly dwindled and dissipated. Henry was defeated after a relatively short siege and forced to flee the castle and escape to France, once more on the losing end.
Left with only a small group of close followers, Henry did not abandon hope. He continued his efforts all over again, gaining followers and support step by step. Over the following two years he gradually rebuilt his retinue and gained a number of prominent supporters. He began securing their trust by promising them lands and castles as the future king of England. Of course, he owned none of the properties he was promising to give.
In the meantime, his brothers yet again fell out and abandoned their peace treaties. King William Rufus now decided to support Henry and provide him with funds for his efforts against Robert Curthose. Henry managed to get back on his feet, especially after securing the town of Domfort and the sturdy castle there. Over the following two years, the two brothers, Henry and King William Rufus, grew increasingly closer and helped one another in their fight against their brother Robert.
However, a curious turn of events would change everything fundamentally. On August 2nd, 1100, the King William Rufus, unexpectedly died. His death was ruled as an accident, albeit a highly suspicious one. While the king was enjoying some hunting in the New Forest, he was struck in the chest by an arrow, and died on the spot from a pierced lung. The arrow was shot by Lord Walter Tirel. It “bounced off of an oak tree” and struck the king’s chest. What a coincidence!
Some chaos ensued immediately, and the king’s retinue fled the scene. King William Rufus’s death was considered an accident but never truly accepted because the circumstances were so suspicious. Whether he was killed on purpose and by whom, remains a mystery.
King Henry I was coronated at Westminster Abbey on August 5th, 1100 AD. (Public domain)
Seizing The Chance: Henry I Becomes King Henry I
In any case, Henry I acted immediately. He promptly crossed the channel to England and arrived at Winchester Castle. His brother, Robert Curthose, was at the time abroad, returning from his campaigning in the Crusades. At Winchester, a brief feud erupted amongst the gathered nobles, over who was to become king. In the end, Henry and his followers managed to prevail, and he was quickly crowned in Westminster Abbey on August 5th.
As an attempt to ensure loyalty and support in England, he issued a “coronation charter” as was the tradition. In it he vowed to fix many of the issues that were brought on during the reign of his brother William. Of course, he rewarded many of his supporters with lavish land grants. At the time of his coronation, Henry was roughly 31 and in his prime.
However, this did not bring an end to the conflicts with his brother Robert. The latter was furious that he was denied the throne of England, and promptly invaded with his army in 1101. Alas, his invasion failed, and he was forced to accept Henry as the legitimate king.
Capitalizing on the situation, Henry then invaded Normandy with a large army in 1105 and 1106. He managed to defeat his brother at the decisive Battle of Tinchebray on September 28th, 1106 AD. Robert Curthose was captured and spent the rest of his life imprisoned: first at the Devizes Castle in England, and then at Cardiff, where he died. After this victory, Henry expanded his dominion to include Normandy as well. It remained under English control for nearly a century afterwards.
Miniature from Matthew Paris's Historia Anglorum, circa 1253 AD. The portrait is generic and depicts Henry holding the Church of Reading Abbey, where he was buried. (Matthew Paris / Public domain)
King Henry I Loved Eel And May Have Eaten Poisoned Eels
Henry I ruled as the king of England for 35 years. As a ruler, he was often harsh but rigorously just and effective. He relied on an already established Anglo-Saxon system that emphasized justice, taxation, and local government. He further expanded this system with his own contributions. His rule also focused on the clergy and the issues that plagued it. He was also a prominent supporter of the Cluniac Reforms of the English church.
Alas, Henry I would die somewhat unexpectedly, in 1135. The cause of his death was never clear. The most commonly provided cause of death was that he ate “too many” lamprey eels, of which he was immensely fond. A more probable reason was poisoning. And just as Henry I fought bitterly to reach the elusive English throne, his children endured the same fate.
The conflicts that erupted after Henry’s death plunged England into a bitter and chaotic period known today as The Anarchy. And it is just another example of how lucrative the promise of power and wealth is: it completely erases all family ties, all emotions, and all morals. Brothers turned against each another, love extinguished in its infancy. Such is the nature of the lust for power.
Top image: Portrait of Henry I. Source: Georgemiller381 / CC BY-SA 4.0
By Aleksa Vučković
Cartwright, M. 2019. Henry I of England. Ancient History Encyclopedia. [Online] Available at: https://www.ancient.eu/Henry_I_of_England/
Green, J. 2006. Henry I: King of England and Duke of Normandy. Cambridge University Press. Hollister, W. C. 2008. Henry I. Yale University Press.