From the Emperor’s Desk: When making out my list of English/British monarchs that may have been a usurper I overlooked King Henry I.
The succession of Henry I as King of the English is an interesting case. When his father, William I the Conqueror, became King he dissolved the Witan and replaced it with the King’s Council but also he held the authority to name his own successor.
In 1087, William I the Conqueror died of wounds suffered from a riding accident during a siege of Mantes. At his death he reportedly wanted to disinherit his eldest son Robert Curthose, but was persuaded to divide the Norman dominions between his two eldest sons.
To Robert he granted the Duchy of Normandy and to William Rufus he granted the Kingdom of England. The youngest son Henry was given money to buy land.
Robert II, Duke of Normandy
Of the two elder sons Robert was considered to be much weaker of the royal brothers and was generally preferred by the nobles who held lands on both sides of the English Channel since they could more easily circumvent his authority.
At the time of their father’s death the two brothers made an agreement to be each other’s heir. However, this peace lasted less than a year when barons joined with Robert to displace William Rufus in the Rebellion of 1088. It was not a success, in part because Robert never showed up to support the English rebels.
Robert took as his close adviser Ranulf Flambard, who had been previously a close adviser to his father. Flambard later became an astute but much-disliked financial adviser to William Rufus until the latter’s death in 1100.
In 1096, Robert formed an army and left for the Holy Land on the First Crusade. At the time of his departure he was reportedly so poor that he often had to stay in bed for lack of clothes. To raise money for the crusade he mortgaged his duchy to his brother William Rufus for the sum of 10,000 marks.
Background on Henry
Henry was probably born in England in 1068, in either the summer or the last weeks of the year, possibly in the town of Selby in Yorkshire. His father’s invasion of England had created an Anglo-Norman ruling class, many with estates on both sides of the English Channel.
These Anglo-Norman barons typically had close links to the Kingdom of France, which was then a loose collection of counties and smaller polities, under only the nominal control of the king. Henry’s mother, Matilda of Flanders, was the granddaughter of King Robért II of the Franks, and she probably named Henry after her uncle, King Henri I of the Franks.
Henry physically he resembled his older brothers Robert Curthose, Richard and William Rufus, being, as historian David Carpenter describes, “short, stocky and barrel-chested,” with black hair.
Henry I, King of the English
As a result of their age differences and Richard’s early death, Henry would have probably seen relatively little of his older brothers. He probably knew his sister Adela well, as the two were close in age.
There is little documentary evidence for his early years; historians Warren Hollister and Kathleen Thompson suggest he was brought up predominantly in England, while Judith Green argues he was initially brought up in the Duchy.
He was probably educated by the Church, possibly by Bishop Osmund, the King’s chancellor, at Salisbury Cathedral; it is uncertain if this indicated an intent by his parents for Henry to become a member of the clergy.
It is also uncertain how far Henry’s education extended, but he was probably able to read Latin and had some background in the liberal arts. He was given military training by an instructor called Robert Achard, and Henry was knighted by his father on May 24, 1086.
Death of William II
On the afternoon of August 2, 1100, King William Rufus went hunting in the New Forest, accompanied by a team of huntsmen and a number of the Norman nobility, including his brother Henry. An arrow, possibly shot by the baron Walter Tirel, hit and killed William Rufus.
Numerous conspiracy theories have been put forward suggesting that the King was killed deliberately; most modern historians reject these, as hunting was a risky activity, and such accidents were common. Chaos broke out, and Tirel fled the scene for France, either because he had shot the fatal arrow, or because he had been incorrectly accused and feared that he would be made a scapegoat for the King’s death.
Henry rode to Winchester, where an argument ensued as to who now had the best claim to the throne. William of Breteuil championed the rights of Robert, who was still abroad, returning from the Crusade, and to whom Henry and the barons had given homage in previous years.
Henry argued that, unlike Robert, he had been born to a reigning king and queen, thereby giving him a claim under the right of porphyrogeniture.
Let me explain the difference between porphyrogeniture and primogeniture.
Porphyrogeniture is the principle of royal succession in which the first son born after his father’s accession to the throne has the first claim, even if he has older brothers who were born before the father’s accession to the crown.
Primogeniture is the state of being the firstborn of the children of the same parents, and it is also the principle that the eldest child has an exclusive right of inheritance.
Tempers flared, but Henry, supported by Henry de Beaumont and Robert of Meulan, held sway and persuaded the barons to follow him. He occupied Winchester Castle and seized the royal treasury.
Henry was hastily crowned king in Westminster Abbey on August 5 by Maurice, the bishop of London, as Anselm, the archbishop of Canterbury, had been exiled by William Rufus, and Thomas, the archbishop of York, was in the north of England at Ripon. In accordance with English tradition and in a bid to legitimise his rule, Henry issued a coronation charter laying out various commitments.
The new king presented himself as having restored order to a trouble-torn country. He announced that he would abandon William Rufus’s policies towards the Church, which had been seen as oppressive by the clergy; he promised to prevent royal abuses of the barons’ property rights, and assured a return to the gentler customs of Edward the Confessor; he asserted that he would “establish a firm peace” across England and ordered “that this peace shall henceforth be kept”.
When William II died on August 2, 1100, Robert was on his return journey from the Crusade and was about to marry a wealthy young bride to raise funds to buy back his duchy.
Upon his return, Robert—urged by Flambard and several Anglo-Norman barons—claimed the English crown, on the basis of the short-lived agreement of 1087, and in 1101 led an invasion to oust his brother Henry.
Robert landed at Portsmouth with his army, but the lack of popular support among the English (Anselm, the archbishop of Canterbury, was decidedly against him and the Charter of Liberties issued at Henry’s coronation was well liked) as well as Robert’s own mishandling of the invasion tactics enabled Henry to resist the invasion.
Robert was forced by diplomacy to renounce his claim to the English throne in the Treaty of Alton. It is said that Robert was a brilliant field commander but a terrible strategist in the First Crusade.
The succession of Henry Beauclerc onto the English throne creates some interesting challenges.
When his father William I the Conqueror became King he abolished the Witan who previously had the right to elect the next King. As we have seen William the Conqueror named his successor to both Normandy and England.
Robert Curthose received the Duchy of Normandy and William Rufus received England. William Rufus never married and therefore never had direct heirs. He also never officially named his successor, although Robert and William did make an agreement to be each other’s heir. As mentioned, this agreement lasted less than a year when barons joined with Robert to displace William Rufus in the Rebellion of 1088.
Therefore, when William Rufus was killed in the hunting accident in the New Forrest legal succession was up in the air. Robert claimed the throne by right of Primogeniture while Henry claimed the throne by right of Porphyrogeniture.
Both Princes had a legal claim to the throne but without a clear heir being named by William Rufus and no law regarding which Prince was the lawful heir, the crown was truly up for grabs.
I believe Henry realized this dilemma and took advantage of Robert’s absence from the Kingdom and seized the crown for himself.
It is easy to think of Henry as a usurper because in our modern sense of hereditary succession based on Primogeniture, Henry, as the younger brother would mean Robert Curthose had the better claim.
However, I think it’s important to realize that at this moment in history the laws governing the succession to the throne were somewhat not clearly defined and the concept of Male Preferred Primogeniture was still in its infancy.
I don’t believe, therefore, that Henry was a usurper given the state of the laws governing the succession at the time. Henry had as much of a valid claim as his brother and was simply in the right place at the right time and took the crown making him the legal successor.