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Statue of King Henry I - © Nash Ford PublishingKing Henry I (1068-1135)
Born: September 1068 at Selby, Yorkshire West Riding
King of England
Duke of Normandy
Died: 1st December 1135 at St. Denis-le-Fermont, Gisors, Normandy

Henry was the youngest son of William the Conqueror and his only child born in England. He came into the World at Selby, in Yorkshire, while Queen Matilda was accompanying her husband on his expedition to subdue the North. Henry was always his mother’s favourite and, though his father held a life interest, he inherited all her English states upon her death in 1083.

As a boy, Henry received an excellent education at Abingdon Abbey in Berkshire. Though a native speaker of Norman-French, as well as learning the usual Latin, he was taught to read and write in English. He also studied English law, possibly with a view to entering the Church, like so many other younger sons. Henry had a particular interest in natural history and, being far in advance of the times, eventually collected together the first zoo in the country, at his palace in Woodstock (Oxfordshire). His wide-ranging knowledge earned him the epithet of ‘Beauclerc’ meaning ‘Fine Scholar’, a name of which he was extremely proud. In later years, he even declared that ‘an unlettered King was but a crowned ass.’

Knighted by his father at Whitsun 1086, Henry became one of the barons who suffered from divided loyalties after the latter’s death the next year. The Conqueror left Normandy to his eldest son, Robert Curthose, and England to his second son, William Rufus. For nine years, this resulted in many disputes in which men like Henry, with lands in both realms, were obliged to take sides with one overlord while unintentionally antagonizing the other. Eventually, however, Robert renounced Normandy and set off on crusade, leaving Henry and the other barons to serve the monarch of a united kingdom. He was thus attending his brother, William, in the New Forest when he was accidentally (or otherwise) shot dead whilst out hunting on 2nd August 1100. Recognising the need for quick actions, the young prince left his brother’s body on the forest floor and rode straight for Winchester to secure both the treasury and his election as King by a small band of available councilors. He then left for Westminster where Bishop Maurice of crowned him in the Abbey, four days later.

Henry promised to return to the ways of his father and his first act as king was to restore the exiled St. Anselm to the Archdiocese of Canterbury. He then began his search for a suitable wife and quickly decided Princess Edith (later renamed Matilda), the eldest daughter of King Malcolm Canmore of Scots. Her mother was St Margaret, the grandaughter of the penultimate Saxon King of England, Edmund Ironside. So their children united the blood lines of both the old and new ruling houses.

Anselm’s return was not without controversy and the monarch and prelate soon clashed over the question of lay investiture of ecclesiastical estates. Believing he held his estates from the Pope, for years, the Archbishop refused to do homage for them to King Henry, until the frustrated monarch finally forced him to flee into exile once more. The King's sister, the Countess of Blois, eventually suggested a compromise in 1107, by which the bishops paid homage for their lands in return for Henry allowing clerical investiture.

King Henry’s elder brother, Robert, had returned from the Crusade in 1100, but proved such an ineffectual ruler in Normandy that the barons revolted against him and asked Henry, a wise monarch and a skilled diplomat, to take his place. The King crossed the Channel to aid their struggle and Duke Robert was prisoner at Tinchebrai. Disquiet continued to harass Henry’s rule in Normandy over the next few years, and this was not helped by war with France. However, in 1109, his foreign policy was triumphant in arranging the betrothal of his only legitimate daughter, Matilda, to the powerful German Emperor, Henry V. They were married five years later.

Despite his numerous bastard progeny, King Henry had only one other legitimate child, his heir, Prince William, a boisterous young man whom the monarch completely idolized. Tragically, in 1120, the prince was needlessly drowned - along with many of his generation at court - while making a return trip from Normandy in the ‘White Ship’ which ran aground and sank. It is said that Henry never smiled again. His first wife having died in 1118, Henry took a second, Adeliza of Louvain, in 1122. But, despite the lady being many years his junior, the marriage remained childless. So, four years later, while staying for Christmas at Windsor Castle, the King designated as his successor, his widowed daughter, the Empress Matilda; and all the barons swore to uphold her rights after his death. The following May, Henry also found his daughter a new husband, in the person of Geoffrey, the rather young heir to the County of Anjou.

Henry found it expedient to spent an equal amount of time in both his realms but, on 1st August 1135, he left England for the last time. An eclipse the next day was seen as a bad omen and by December, the King was dead. He apparently had a great love of lampreys (eels), despite their disagreeing with him intensely. He had been ordered not to eat them by his physician, but, at his hunting lodge at St Denis-le-Fermont, near Gisors, the monarch decided he fancied some for supper. A severe case of ptomaine poisoning ensued, of which gluttonous King Henry died.

Several Norman monasteries wanted Henry’s body buried within their walls, but it was mummified for transportation back to England and only his bowels, brains, heart, eyes & tongue were interred at Rouen Cathedral. As he had wished, King Henry was laid to rest before the high altar of Reading Abbey, at the time, an incomplete Cluniac house he had founded in 1121. The Dissolution of the Monasteries was severe at Reading and little survives of its walls, let alone any trace of the effigial monument that once marked the Royal grave. Even the King’s vault, below the Forbury Gardens Nursery School, was broken into in the hope of finding his ‘silver coffin’, and his bones scattered in anger when it was found it be a myth. A large Celtic Cross to his memory now stands on the site of the old west front.


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