The final part of my Trilogy on Henry I’s rivalry with his two brothers, King William II of England and Duke Robert of Normandy, in the period 1100 to 1106, is centred on the Battle of Tinchebrai. This important battle fought in Normandy just over 900 years ago today, on 28th September 1106. It was a turning-point in Henry I’s reign (and indeed for the whole of Angevin England). Not only did the battle of Tinchebrai finally consolidate Henry I’s monarchy (he was to reign a further 29 years); but it also partially represented Anglo-Saxon recompense for their military humbling at the Battle of Hastings, forty years previously.
Background to Tinchebrai 1100 to 1103
(1) As my July and August Blogs have hopefully demonstrated, Henry made strenuous efforts to consolidate his régime in England after his spectacular monarchical coup d’état in early August 1100. He issued a ground-breaking manifesto, The Coronation Charter, to win support in England. Three months after the Coronation Charter, Henry made a judicious marriage with Princess Edith Matilda. Henry also managed to out-manoeuvre Duke Robert in the summer of 1101, when the latter invaded England with an army. Henry’s offer of £2,500 to Robert to persuade him to quit England brought Henry a much needed breathing space to consolidate his new régime.
(2) Henry used this breathing space to good effect. His wife, Queen Edith Matilda, bore him two children between 1101 and 1106: Matilda (probably born in February 1102) and William (born on 5th August 1103 exactly three years after the proclamation of the Coronation Charter). The birth of William The Atheling was especially important for the dynastic solidity of Henry’s régime, as it meant he had a son and heir, further enhancing his status among the Anglo-Norman magnates, and possibly also the Anglo-Saxon population.
Scheming for Normandy, 1103 to mid 1106
(a) Despite the undeniable progress Henry had made after 1100, the prize of Normandy still eluded him. Control of Normandy was the essential component in stabilising Henry’s regime in England. Re-unification of England and Normandy would greatly augment Henry’s status in England. Not only would Henry be able to claim that he had re-created the Anglo-Norman state established by his father, William the Conqueror; but Anglo-Norman magnates owning territories on both sides of The Channel would be re-assured that they would not owe allegiance to two different rulers.
(b) Between 1103 and 1106 Henry initiated a ‘Cold War’ against his brother Duke Robert. This ‘Cold War’ strategy took two main forms. To begin with, Henry launched a diplomatic offensive in France against Robert. Henry made agreements with the counts of Anjou, Maine, Brittany and Flanders. Such agreements were accompanied with proposals of marriage alliances, or monetary bribes (or perhaps both). Secondly, Henry actually ‘invaded’ Northern France, deliberately challenging Duke Robert. The ostensible reason for Henry’s foray into France in August 1104 was for Henry to visit his castle at Domfront, in Normandy. The fact that Henry’s visit was enthusiastically received by Anglo-Norman magnates such as Robert of Meulan, Richard Earl of Chester, Stephen Count of Aumerle and others, was a clear challenge to Robert’s ducal authority in Normandy. Henry made another raid into Northern France in the early summer of 1106 (where he was joined by the Counts of Brittany and Maine). This raid was, in fact, the prelude to Henry’s major invasion of Normandy, in September 1106.
The Battle of Tinchebrai, 28th September 1106.
Some years ago, Professor Carpenter famously remarked that Henry I “had that rarest of all assets among the successful: he knew when to stop.” [David Carpenter,’ The Struggle for Mastery’. Allen Lane (2003). Pages 134-135]. It could also be argued that Henry also knew when to start. He clearly felt that the time was right in the autumn of 1106 for the ‘final showdown’ with his brother, Duke Robert.
Henry’s precise movements between June and September 1106 are quite difficult to follow, but he undoubtedly had brought across the Channel a formidable array of English troops, to reinforce the soldiers of his continental allies. The key battle between the two brothers was to be fought at Tinchebrai in Normandy. This key battle was ultimately caused by Henry’s provocative action in besieging Tinchebrai Castle, which belonged to one of Robert’s few remaining allies, Count William of Mortain. Count William asked for help from Duke Robert, who duly brought up his army and, as King Henry I had hoped, decided to do battle against the forces of King Henry I. Henry’s army was organised in three lines. According to one contemporary account, given by a priest of Fécamp, King Henry’s Army numbered “about forty thousand men.”[EHD, Vol II, page 329]. This total is clearly an exaggeration, though it does seem to be the case that Henry’s army exceeded that of Duke Robert. The battle started at about 9.00 in the morning with a charge from Robert’s army. Henry himself seems to have dismounted and led his force of Englishmen and Normans into the heat of the battle. The crucial stage in the battle was probably when Henry’s mounted Bretons attacked on the flanks, destroying the Duke’s foot soldiers. Witnessing this reverse, Robert de Bellème, one of Duke Robert’s most important allies, fled the field. Duke Robert’s force now effectively disintegrated, and the battle was over in an hour.
Impact of Henry’s victory at the Battle of Tinchebrai
- Henry’s great military success confirmed his position as monarch. He was now both King of England and Duke of Normandy. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, expressed contemporary respect for Henry in a letter he wrote to Henry a few weeks after Tinchebrai: “To Henry, glorious king of the English and duke of the Normans, Archbishop Anselm sends faithful service with faithful prayers and wishing he may always increase towards greater and better things and never decrease.” The sibling strife between King Henry I and his brothers King William II and Duke Robert of Normandy was now over, and Henry was the ultimate victor.
- King Henry I had effectively re-created the Anglo-Norman state, which was to survive for just under a century, until 1204, when King John was defeated by King Philip Augustus of France. Secure as monarch, King Henry was now able to devote his energies to administrative reform in England, which was to bear fruit a decade later with Henry’s Exchequer reforms (See my April 2012 Blog) and the Legal Reforms (to be analysed in my next Blog, on 1st October 2012).
- For his part, Duke Robert was taken captive by Henry I’s army. He was placed under ‘house arrest’ in Devizes Castle, and later in Cardiff Castle, where he died in 1134 aged 80 years; (Henry I was to die a year later, in 1135, aged 67 years). Fighting alongside Duke Robert at Tinchebrai was Edgar the Atheling. His was a life of ‘near misses’. On the death of King Edward the Confessor, in 1066, Edgar, then fifteen years old, was the natural successor to the English Crown. However, he was passed over in favour of Harold Godwinson. The Anglo-Norman kings treated Edgar well, and Edgar became especially friendly with Robert. In fact, he fought alongside Duke Robert at Tinchebrai. Henry immediately released Edgar, who then lived quietly, dying at the age of 75 in 1126. His epitaph will always be, ‘The king who was proclaimed but never crowned.’
- Finally, was Tinchebrai a ‘revenge’ victory for the Anglo-Saxons? It is a fact that Tinchebrai was fought exactly forty years after Duke William’s huge invading force had landed on English soil (at Pevensey, on 28th September 1066). This remarkable co-incidence suggests that Henry I may have had some inkling of the historical parallel – he certainly used English troops at Tinchebrai. The reliable contemporary chronicler, William of Malmesbury, had no doubt of the historical co-incidence: “It was the same day, on which about forty years before, William had first landed at Hastings: doubtless by the wise dispensation of God, that Normandy should be subjected to England on the same day that the Normans had formerly arrived to subjugate that kingdom.” Whatever the truth of the matter, it’s a nice story.
Does History merely consist of s series of random, unique events, as Karl Popper argued: or does History sometimes repeat itself?