Henry I – The Lion of Justice

Henry IAfter the upheaval of the conquest, and the unpopularity of William Rufus’ reign, what the country really needed was a period of peace and consolidation. This was what Henry I gave during his long reign.

Henry I is a shadowy and little known figure to most people. We have all heard of William the Conquerer, and William Rufus is quite well known for having been shot by an arrow in the New Forest.

A great light has been shone on the subsequent troubled reign of Stephen and the civil war by the wonderful Brother Caefiel books of Ellis Peters.

In between lies the long reign of Henry I. Thirty five years of comparative peace. Henry I was a strong King who preferred to take the peaceful route if he could, reinforced by kingly ferocity when he felt his rights and honour had been impinged.

What was he like?

Amazingly we have a description. William of Melmesbury, a contemporary historian, describes him as being of medium height, stocky (fat in later life, like his father WIlliam I) and having hair that was dark and, until his hairline receded, flopped over his forehead, and whose dark eyes had a kindly expression.

He was the youngest of William and Matilda’s sons and had been better educated than his brothers (he was later nicknamed Beaucleric because he could read and write latin), no doubt being intended for the Church.

However his education helped him greatly in his later career as king, and he is reported by William of Melmesbury as saying that an illiterate king was a crowned ass. He was also the first of the Norman kings to be fluent in the English language.

A swift coronation

Quite by chance, Henry happened to be in the New Forest on 2 August, when William Rufus was unaccountably killed by an arrow (although diligent research by academics hundreds of years later has shown that he almost certainly had nothing to do with it).

As soon as it was clear that Rufus was dead, Henry hastened hot foot to Winchester to secure the treasury and he was crowned a few days later on 5 August at Westminster Abbey.

His elder brother Robert was not pleased about this, but as he was at that time on crusade, there was little he could do about it. Later he challenged Henry but was defeated and spent most of the rest of his life as Henry’s prisoner.

The Charter of Liberties

At his coronation (at which time things looked initially to be a bit tricky) Henry was keen to distance himself from his brother. Rufus had been vastly unpopular with just about everybody.

To appease the Barons, Henry issued the Charter of Liberties (also known as the Coronation Charter), a remarkable document which promised to reform the abuses of Rufus, in particular over taxation, the abuse of vacant sees, and the practices of simony and pluralism. He also promised to restore the laws of his father and Edward the Confessor.

The charter is considered a landmark document in the development of English legal history and foreshadowed the more famous Magna Carta in the reign of King John.  (It is also no doubt, one of 1066 and All That‘s famous ‘chartas and gartas of the realm’.)

Needless to say, once well established on the throne, Henry quietly forgot many of the promises in the charter (which for all practical purposes were probably unenforceable anyway, at least against the king). For example Wikipedia tells us of the establishment of the Exchequer, ostensively to end corruption and fraud in the taking and holding of taxes, but which in reality led to greater power of the crown.

A strong king

Henry was a very able king, greatly respected by his contemporaries. The picture which has come to us down the centuries is of a forceful man who loved wealth, but who was also generous to his followers. Although he never forgot a grudge and could be ferocious to his enemies, particularly to anyone who betrayed him.

A huntsman

He also loved hunting. This is evidenced by the fact that many writs and charters are recorded as being drawn up near the various forests, such as Brampton in Northamptonshire and Woodstock in Oxfordshire.

However he seems to have mostly steered clear of the New Forest, no doubt feeling that it was an unlucky place, having claimed the lives of two of his brothers, William Rufus and earlier, his brother Richard in 1081.

And a lover

Henry’s other passion appears to have been sex, as he has more recorded illegitimate children than any other King, over 20, most of whom he subsequently found very useful for diplomatic marriages.

In this he was very different from his predecessors, his father who appears to have been faithful to his wife Matilda, and his brother Rufus, who seems to have been homosexual (from the records of his court and the fact that he never married or appears to have had any mistresses).

Henrys own marriage was a masterpeice of cunning – he married Edith, daughter of King Malcolm III of Scotland (who promptly changed her name to Matilda to fit in with her new station in life). As she was descended from many of the old English kings, Henry’s marriage did a lot to make him acceptable to the English people.

A keen administrator?

Henry’s long reign allowed time for the administrative functions and the common law of the country to develop. There is some dispute among his biographers about the significance of this, his most recent biographer, Judith Green, holding In her book (Henry I: King of England and Duke of Normandy) that Henry did not do this knowingly or in any excess of reforming zeal, but that it was something that just developed due to circumstances.

However there is no doubt that a long and peaceful reign is just what England needed. It was a huge disaster for the country when he died in 1135 at the age of about 68, allegedly of a surfeit of lampreys.

The problem of the sucession

Henry’s only legitimate son, William, had died in 1120 in the sinking of the White Ship on a crossing from Barfleur in Normandy. This had been a devastating loss for Henry, and also one which caused major problems for the succession.

Henry ordered his Barons to swear homage to his daughter, the Empress Matilda, and promise to accept her as Queen. However, when the time came, many of them preferred her cousin Stephen. This resulted in a prolongued civil war , a dreadful time when ‘god and his angels slept’.

It is perhaps hardly surprising that in retrospect, Henry became known as “The Lion of Justice”.

Henry I picture is Wikipedia commons

Please feel free to add a comment. All comments are moderated but this is just to make sure no spam gets through.

There are no comments yet. Be the first and leave a response!

Leave a Reply

Wanting to leave an <em>phasis on your comment?

CommentLuv badge
This site is using OpenAvatar based on
Trackback URL http://www.historyoflaw.co.uk/henry-i-lion-of-justice/trackback/
The Norman posts
What the Normans did for law in England

Looking back of over the Norman period and considering what impact they had on the English legal sys[more]

Westminster Hall

Westminster Hall has over the past 900 years held a central place in the life of the nation. It was [more]

Cadfael and law in the reign of Stephen

The Cadfael books cast a light on law in the reign of Stephen as well as the political history of th[more]

Oaths and Ordeals

Ordeals by fire and water and trial by battle - how they were used and descriptions of the events [more]

Sheriffs in Norman times

Introducing the office of Sheriff, an important one in English legal history. We will be looking at[more]

Writs, law and the nature of lawyer DNA

There is a big difference between law now and in Norman times which this post covers, along with som[more]

Custom and courts before and after the conquest

Looking at how England was divided for administration before the conquest and the three levels of co[more]

Henry I – The Lion of Justice

Taking a look at Henry I, what he was like and what his reign meant for the country. Henry I was a [more]

The Domesday Book

The Doomsday Book has been called Britain s greatest treasure. It is certainly unique and has been[more]

The Lord of the Manor

In this post, I am going to take a look at the lower end of the feudal system. The end that you and [more]

The Estates of Man in Norman England

Taking a quick look at the different levels of society and their names. If you want to know about K[more]

The Kings Demesne

‘Demesne’ is the word for land a lord keeps for himself. This post looks at the land kept by th[more]

Norman Barons: Writs and Relief

Here we look at the ‘head lessors’, the Barons. There was a massive change at this level of soc[more]

Landlord and tenure

This was the very first history post, and looks at the word ‘landlord’ and what it means, and al[more]

The Angevin posts
The Constitutions of Clarendon and the Becket affair

If anyone knows anything about the reign of Henry II, they know about the Beckett affair. About the [more]

Towns in medieval England

Medieval towns and cities or boroughs, would have a charter from the King, Lord or Bishop/Abbot gran[more]

Medieval slavery and unfree villeinage

Slavery was by no means absent from Medieval England. Whether villeins were the equivalent of slave[more]

The Kings courts and the start of the common law

Looking at how the rise of the Kings Courts lead to a reduction in the power of the lords to decide [more]

The petty assizes and the development of the jury system

The petty assizes were the new forms of action designed to maintain the status quo - the writ of nov[more]

The General Eyre and the Court at Westminster

In my last post I said I was going to be looking the new forms of action developed by Henry II, but [more]

The Writ of Right and the start of Henry II’s legal reforms

Henry II was responsible for many important legal innovations. For example land disputes now had to[more]

Battle Abbey v. Gilbert de Balliol

Here we have an example of actual 12th century litigation - the long drawn out case of the Abbey at [more]

A confusion of courts

I looked briefly at courts in my post here. However, now we have reached Henry II it is time to look[more]

The Cartae Baronum of 1166 and the Elephant

How the survey of 1186, known as the Cartae Baronum, allowed Henry to claim more under this feudal d[more]

The Exchequer in the time of Henry II

A discussion of the workings of the Exchequer in Henry IIs time, and the duties of the sheriffs, tog[more]

The Kings household and the administration of government

Looking at how the members of the Kings household, such as his Chaplin and chamberlains, were involv[more]

Feudal incidents

The incidents which went with the feudal system are the real reason why it lasted so long, This pos[more]

Crowned King of England

Looking at the coronation of Kings and considering if this is where they get their legal authority [more]

The Young King Henry II

Introducing King Henry II, a king who ruled for 35 years and who had a profound influence on the gov[more]