The Norman Kings (1066-1154)

After the death of William The Conqueror his kingdom was divided between his sons: Robert was given Dukedom of Normandy, William II was given the Kingship of England, and Henry was awarded riches. This uneasy arrangement was all but certain to cause tension.

William II was the second surviving son of William The Conqueror. He was called William “Rufus” or William “The Red” because of his ruddy complexion (long red-blond hair, piercing eyes, and a stammer). In general, history has not been kind to William Rufus. Unlike his devout father, William II was openly hostile to the Church, flaunting sacred customs, and he was almost assuredly a homosexual (he had many ‘special male friends’). He never married. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle characterizes William Rufus as an effeminate dandy dressed in outrageous garb, openly disparaging of Church customs, and yet he was still a ruthless tactician toward his enemies, particularly when fighting his brother Robert of Normandy and expanding the reach of his kingdom. English historian A.L. Poole, the author of From Domesday to Magna Carta (1951), called William Rufus ‘probably the worst king that has occupied the throne from a moral standpoint.’

Matthew of Paris’s depiction of William Rufus from the 12th century

William Rufus was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey in September 1087. Shortly after his coronation his brother Robert Duke of Normandy crossed the English Channel with his army and attacked England. Robert roused the nobles of England who stood in opposition to William’s blatant disregard for religious tradition, but William ultimately won the battle and peace was restored between the two brothers. The great barons owned properties on both sides of the Channel (in Normandy as well as in England) and they stood to benefit from infighting between William and Duke Robert. Despite William’s victory over Robert, baronial revolts were frequent. William finally solidified his leadership only when Robert angrily departed on the First Crusade to fight the Saracens and essentially loaned Normandy to England in his absence.

William further inflamed the passions of the faithful when he struggled to assert himself over the English clerical leadership. At first he maintained a mutually tolerable relationship with Archbishop of Canterbury Lanfranc, but when the gentle Archbishop died in 1089, William delayed a new appointment for several years until eventually appointing the saintly Anselm, the Abbot of Bec in Normandy, as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Tensions quickly grew between the two leaders as William committed open blasphemy against the Church, and so Anselm, a fierce critic of William Rufus, was eventually forced into exile in France and he remained there until William’s death.

William Rufus’s untimely death is a fascinating tale. Like most men of the time, William was an avid hunter. One day while out in his private forest, the aptly named ‘New Forest,’ William was accidentally struck dead by an ill-fired arrow by Walter Tirel, a nobleman (one of the earliest accounts of his death comes down to us from the writings of William of Malmesbury in 1125). The loose arrow killed the king immediately, and in a panic, the group dispersed and left the body of William Rufus lying cold and alone in the forest. His corpse was not discovered until the following day by a group of peasants who carried the king’s body all the way to Winchester for burial. Conspiracy theories have abounded throughout the ages: was William Rufus murdered? Was there a plot to kill the uncouth king? The most obvious benefactor of the king’s death was William’s younger brother, Henry, who was also a member of the fateful hunting party. However, there have been other elaborate theories involving the King of France who was opposed to William’s expansionist efforts beyond Normandy. Other conspiracies involve secret dealings with the devil and witchcraft, likely stemming from William’s irreligious nature. To many of the country noblemen William’s death was a deliverance from an immoral king. Winston Churchill describes William’s death as follows: “…he was mysteriously shot through the head [or chest] by an arrow while hunting the New Forest, leaving a memory of shameless extractions and infamous morals, but also a submissive realm to his successor” (76).

An illustration of the death of William Rufus

Within three days, William’s younger brother Prince Henry had marshaled his supporters, secured the treasury, and was crowned king at Westminster Abbey. Thus Henry I began his reign in August 1100. He was the youngest son of William the Conqueror, and he was sometimes called “beaclerc” (or “good clerk”) because of a lifelong love of learning, or “clerkship.” Orderic Vitalis wrote in his 12th century Ecclesiastical History that Henry “was well instructed in both natural philosophy and knowledge of doctrine.”

Henry I successfully repaired the crown’s relationship with the Church after it had been so disparaged during the reign of his elder brother. For example, he recalled Anselm Archbishop of Canterbury from exile and reinstated long-standing customs. Henry’s court also condemned the decadence of William II’s era by ordering new dress codes -all the men of the court were promptly ordered to cut their long hair short. He cast William’s unpopular adviser, Ranulf Flambard, to the Tower of London, and Henry elevated the country’s financial and judicial concerns into the capable hands of his trusted adviser, Roger Bishop of Salisbury. At this point sophisticated bureaucracy begins to appear in England (the word coming from the French writing desk or “bureau”).

Matthew Paris’s 13th century depiction of Henry I

Shortly after his accession to the crown, Henry’s brother Robert, newly returned from the First Crusade, attempted to lay claim to the English crown but the two settled peaceably with Henry renouncing his claim to Normandy. However, as time went by Henry made calculated moves and alliances with the Barons surrounding Normandy, eventually ending in several invasions which led to Robert’s defeat in the early 12th century. He was imprisoned until his death in 1134. Thus, Henry was successful in reuniting his father’s realms. The Chronicler of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle honored Henry with the title “Lion of Justice” as the people often called him in his day, because he successfully reunited the lands of England, Normandy, and Maine (a province of France).

Henry was a strong but opportunistic monarch, yet medieval historians have disparaged him for being a licentious king. He sired more bastards than any other English monarch (over twenty illegitimate children from six different mistresses). Certain historians like William of Malmesbury tried in vain to mask his character flaws by suggesting the good king merely desired more children.

Henry married Edith in 1100 (who went by Matilda to sound more ‘Norman’). She was the daughter of Malcolm III of Scotland and St. Margaret (sister of Edgar the Aetheling), thus she was the last link to the Anglo-Saxon bloodline to ever sit on the throne of England. Henry’s marriage was a calculated effort to connect his rulership with the House of Wessex -the praiseworthy lineage of Alfred the Great. Matilda bore Henry two children who survived past infancy: a son named William and a daughter also named Matilda. Tragically, Henry’s only male heir, William, died in a shipwreck in the English Channel while en route to England from Normandy. The incident has come to be known as the sinking of the White Ship (1120), and it caused a crisis over the succession of the crown. In response, Henry announced that his daughter Matilda (“Maud”) would succeed him, rather than his nephew Stephen (the Count of Blois) or any number of Henry’s illegitimate heirs (the principle of succession by the closest blood relative had not yet been established). The crisis of succession was a fateful occurrence that would lead to a prolonged 20 year civil war throughout the land.

Early 14th century depiction of Henry I and the sinking of the White Ship

Henry I’s daughter Matilda, or “Maud” as the English called her, was betrothed to Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Germany. Thus she is often remembered as the “Empress Matilda.” It was a childless marriage and it did not last long. She became a widowed Empress at the age of 22 in 1122 when Henry V died, and she was later married to Geoffrey the Count of Anjou. This second marriage was a loveless partnership. Nevertheless, empress Matilda was indeed an impressive woman. She was a fierce, cynical, and proud politician who thrived in her role as monarch. It was said that she had the “nature of a man in the frame of a woman” but her successes are best remembered in her offspring. Matilda or “Maud” gave birth to one of the greatest kings of England: the future Henry II (or “Henry Plantagenet” the son of Geoffrey of Anjou). The Plantagenets became the future rulers of England for 400 years.

Stephen, on the other hand, was the son of Adela of Normandy (daughter of William The Conqueror and sister of Henry I). Upon the death of his father Stephen-Henry in 1102, Stephen inherited the Countship of Blois in central France. He was known as a well-liked, easy-going man among the baronial elite.

At any rate, Henry I spent his greying elder years securing promises of submission to Matilda’s succession in an effort to prevent a future civil war. At one point, he summoned all the barons to receive their sworn allegiances to Matilda. Up until this point, Henry had maintained thirty years of relative peace and security across the English isle. While abroad in 1135 he fell ill and died unexpectedly, perhaps due to complications from eating excessive lampreys (fish).

Immediately following the death of Henry I, the stability of the monarchy fell into disarray. The chaotic era became known to latter day historians as “The Anarchy” (when Christ and his saints all slept, per Peter Ackroyd). Matilda was away in Anjou with her husband when the elder King Henry died, and immediately Stephen (Henry’s nephew and Count of Blois, grandson of William The Conqueror) charged toward London from Normandy and claimed the crown. He had previously sworn allegiance to Matilda, but he knew well that many of the magnates had no wish to be governed by a woman. Stephen’s rulership brought deep divisions among the barons (including fierce opposition from Henry’s bastard son Robert of Gloucester who was a loyalist of Matilda) and the decisive choice to crown Stephen was made by the Church regarding Stephen. Meanwhile, King David of Scotland (Matilda’s uncle) invaded England from the north and took Northumbria, but the Archbishop of York mustered his forces and fought a ferocious battle against the invaders called the Battle of the Standard. It became the prelude to civil war.

In 1139, Matilda freed herself from entanglements in France and returned to England to claim the throne. Many of the barons, dismayed by Stephen’s weaknesses (Stephen, as it turned out, made a better soldier than a king), joined forces with Matilda along with the Church and in 1141 a general rebellion broke out against Stephen. He was imprisoned at the Battle of Lincoln, a battle which saw Stephen overwhelmed while trying to storm the castle at Lincoln. Stephen’s own brother, Henry the Bishop of Winchester, joined Matilda’s side. During this period, the barons took advantage of the lack of leadership by claiming any and all riches for themselves according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. They stole themselves away into vast castles throughout the countryside to bide their time while country tore itself apart. However, thanks to the quick work of Stephen’s wife (who was also named Matilda) Stephen was released from prison and he narrowly escaped recapture.

Throughout this conflict mistakes were made on both sides. It was a war between cousins, a chess match of castles won or lost. Despite not having a coronation ceremony, Matilda was the de facto ruler of England for several months in 1141, however London rose up in open rebellion and forced Matilda out of the city. She was accustomed to ruling imperiously and the city was loyal to Stephen. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicler describes Matilda as haughty and intolerable -an arrogant and cold ruler. The entire region fell into a chaotic civil war for six more years, and with the death of Robert of Gloucester (Henry I’s bastard son and the one true loyalist of Matilda) all eyes fell on Matilda’s young son, Prince Henry to bring law and order back to the land. Eventually, Matilda left England and returned to Normandy where her son’s powerful kingdom was on the rise, but she never stopped advocating for Henry’s accession to the throne in England. In November 1153 it was the Church that brought the two sides together with the signing of the Treaty of Winchester, a treaty which forced Stephen to recognize Prince Henry as his heir. Within a year Stephen would be dead (perhaps due to an intestinal infection, though some suspect poison) and Henry of Anjou (son of Matilda) was set to become king.

Timeline of the Norman Monarchs:

  • William The Conqueror (December 25, 1066 – September 9, 1087)

    • Spouse: Matilda, daughter of the Count of Flanders
    • Bastard son of Robert Duke of Normandy (hence the moniker “William The Bastard”)
    • Duke of Normandy from the Viking bloodline. He conquered all of England following his decisive victory at the Battle of Hastings (October 14, 1066)
  • William II, William “Rufus” (September 26, 1087 – August 2, 1100)

    • Spouse: Unmarried
    • The second son of William The Conqueror, William Rufus was known as an unpleasant man who openly flaunted the sacred customs of the Church. He was likely a homosexual, never married, and was an unpopular ruler.
    • William Rufus was killed in a mysterious hunting accident in the New Forest.
  • Henry I “Henry Beauclerc” (August 5, 1100 – December 1, 1135)

    • Spouses: Edith (went by the name Matilda to sound more Norman) daughter of Edgar the Aetheling; Adela, daughter of the Count of Louvain.
    • Henry I was present at the hunting party where his brother was killed. He wasted no time in mourning and was crowned King of England three days later at Westminster Abbey.
    • Henry I repaired relationships with the Church and united his lands abroad, but he was a licentious man siring over 20 bastard children.
    • Henry’s only legitimate son William died in the tragic White Ship sinking. This caused a crisis of succession which eventually led to a prolonged civil war.
  • “The Anarchy” (1135-1153)

    • A 20 year civil war between Henry’s nephew Stephen Count of Blois, and Henry’s legitimate daughter and appointed heir Matilda (“Maud”). The period ended when Matilda’s son Henry (soon to be Henry II of the Plantagenet house) became king.
    • Stephen initially claimed the throne in 1135 despite prior promises to support Matilda. He was briefly captured and imprisoned in the mayhem and Matilda became Queen in 1141.
    • The two sides settled, thanks to the intervention of the Church, with the signing of the Treaty of Winchester in 1153 which acknowledged Henry as heir to the throne.

For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, Peter Ackroyd’s FoundationThe History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Matthew Paris’s chronicles, the writings of A.L. Poole, and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

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