Just over 900 years ago today, on 20th July 1101, Duke Robert of Normandy landed at Portsmouth with an invading army from Normandy. Though numerically smaller than his father’s mighty invasion force had been in 1066, Robert’s invading army still posed a major threat to Henry I, King of England. What had caused this political and military crisis in England?
- Duke Robert and King Henry I were both sons of King William I: Robert being the eldest son and Henry the youngest son. King William I’s middle son was also called William (nicknamed Rufus). Robert and William had shared out the territorial spoils when their father, William the Conqueror, died in 1087. Robert succeeded to the Dukedom of Normandy, while William became King William II of England. Henry, the youngest son, had to make do with a massive payoff; maybe as much as three thousand silver marks. Henry’s two elder brothers had excluded him from political power: their cavalier treatment of Henry in 1087 perhaps sowed the seeds of the later sibling strife between Henry and Robert.
- As it was, for the next dozen or so years, Henry had to wait in the political wings, while Robert and William enjoyed the prestige that went with political office. Sexual liaisons seemed to have totally occupied Henry. Indeed, Professor Judith Green estimates that Henry fathered the amazing total of 19 illegitimate children between 1086 (when he was knighted) and 1100 (when he became King of England).* Henry was catholic in his choice of mistresses: Ede, Ansfrida and Edith were all well-born Anglo/Saxon ladies. Ansfrida was clearly more than just a passing fancy for Henry, as the couple had three children (their liaison began after Ansfrida had been widowed). Another of Henry’s mistresses, Nest, was a Welsh Princess; while yet another mistress, Isabel, was a well-born Norman lady (daughter of Count Meulan).
- Even so, it would be incorrect to dismiss Henry as merely a sexual adventurer. As the very reliable contemporary chronicler, William of Malmesbury, remarked about Henry: “He was early instructed in the liberal arts, and so throughout imbibed the sweets of learning that no warlike disturbance and no pressure of business could ever erase them from his noble mind.” [EHD, Vol. II, page 319] It seems likely that Henry had always closely followed political events in England and Normandy, to see how he could further his own interests. His chance finally came in August 1100, when William II died in an accident whilst hunting in the New Forest (see my forthcoming August Blog). The political situation in early August 1100 was uniquely favourable to Henry: William II of England had just died, while his elder brother, Robert, was still many miles away, returning from his participation in the First Crusade. Henry took his chance, seizing the English Crown. Why did Henry not also try to appropriate the dukedom of Normandy in August 1100? The answer seems to be that he initially needed to consolidate his position as King of England; as Professor Carpenter has sagely remarked about King Henry I: “he knew when to stop.” **
- Duke Robert returned to Normandy in the autumn of 1100. He immediately set about making plans to invade England, to dispossess Henry I of the English Crown. In February 1101, his cause was greatly aided by the arrival in Normandy of Ranulf Flambard. Flambard had been William II’s chief administrator. Henry I had imprisoned Flambard after his accession to the Crown in August 1100. Flambard now took his revenge against Henry, helping Robert, Duke of Normandy, to mastermind the Norman Invasion of England, which finally took place in July 1101.
- Duke Robert’s invasion Force posed a supreme challenge to King Henry I. To begin with, Duke Robert had assembled an invasion fleet of at least 200 ships. Secondly, Flambard bribed Henry’s English seamen to allow Duke Robert’s invasion fleet to land on English soil unopposed – which they did, at Portsmouth, on 20th July 1101. Finally, once Duke Robert and his invasion army had set foot on English soil, many of Henry’s Tenants-in-Chief began to desert him. It looked as if an action-replay of the 1066 Hastings Campaign, fought thirty-five years earlier, was about to happen. The then Duke of Normandy was successful in 1066: the question was would the new Duke of Normandy be equally successful in 1101?
- Yet King Henry I probably had more acumen than King Harold. To begin with, Henry had the unswerving support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the justly renowned Anselm. Anselm privately stiffened the loyalty of any magnates who were uncertain whether or not to support Henry. Secondly, Henry sensibly used all means at his disposal to maximise the size of his army. Like all Norman monarchs, he demanded that his tenants-in-chief (those that were still loyal) fulfil their feudal obligations to provide him with mounted knights. In addition, Henry utilised the Anglo/Saxon fyrd. He summoned his Englishmen to muster at Hastings (possibility deliberately invoking memories of 1066). The fact that Henry, alone of William the Conqueror’s sons, had been born in England (possibly in Selby), and that he had married an Anglo/Saxon Princess (Queen Edith Matilda) doubtless encouraged English troops to muster in the fyrd. Finally, Henry himself was a talented leader. Back in 1066, at the Battle of Hastings, King Harold had failed to properly discipline the English shield wall against William the Conqueror’s invading army. King Henry displayed no such military shortcomings. As the fyrd gathered at Hastings in July 1101, Henry himself repeatedly passed through the assembled ranks of the English soldiers. He personally instructed them how to repel a cavalry charge by maintaining their shield wall, and returning their enemies’ blows. Here indeed was a leader in action.
- The result was a military stand-off between the two armies; yet such a stalemate would ultimately favour Henry, as it would mean that the political initiative would return to him. That is what happened. With the help of mediators, Henry and Robert agreed to make peace, enshrined in the ‘Treaty of Alton’, which was formally ratified at Winchester on 2nd August 1101. It cannot have been lost on contemporaries that this was exactly a year since the death of King William II, close to Winchester, in the New Forest. The Treaty of Alton was a major boost for Henry I. By this Treaty, Robert formally renounced the English Crown. In return, King Henry I had to pay Robert a huge pension, possibly as much as £2,500. The latter tribute smacked of Henry imitating the Anglo/Saxon King Aethelred a hundred years earlier when the latter monarch paid the Danegeld; but such a comparison would be false. It is true that Henry gained a much needed breathing space by the Treaty of Alton; but he aimed to use the respite by further consolidating his regime in England, and then make his own bid for Normandy. That this was probably the case is supported by the fact that although Robert renounced the English Crown at the Treaty of Alton. Henry for his part was careful not to renounce his claim to the Dukedom of Normandy.
It seemed that by the Treaty of Alton, the sibling strife between Robert and Henry had given way to brotherly bliss; yet their rivalry remained. This Blog entry is the first of a trilogy of Blogs concerned with Henry I’s accession and retention of power between 1100 and 1106. The final sibling struggle was to be acted out on the playing fields of Tinchebrai, in Normandy, in 1106 (the subject of my September Blog entry). There, King Henry I sealed his triumph, becoming Duke of Normandy, as well as King of England. By 1106, Henry had effectively staked out his claim to be the most successful son of King William the Conqueror, a claim he was to make good in the thirty or so years after 1106.
Henry’s fecundity in fathering illegitimate offspring is still relatively unknown. What British monarch traditionally has ben regarded as being the father of numerous illegitimate children?
*Henry I by Judith Green. CUP. 2006
**The Struggle for Mastery by David Carpenter. Allen Lane. 2003