Category Archives: Chance in History

The Resurrection of King Richard III: February 2013

Exactly a week ago today, on 4th February 2013, we had the electrifying news that the skeletal remains discovered in a Leicester Car Park were those of King Richard III, the last ‘medieval monarch of England’. Experts from the University of Leicester confirmed that DNA from the bones matched the DNA of Richard’s descendants.

(A) The  Enduring Fascination of King Richard III.

(1) Richard III reigned for only two years (26th June 1483 to 22nd August 1485); yet he is one of the most famous monarchs in British History. Richard III is one of the few British monarchs to have a society named after him. ‘The Richard III Society’, founded nearly 90 years ago in 1924, is today a flourishing society. There is also a ‘Richard III Society’ in the USA, founded over 50 years ago in 1961.

A major function of both these societies is has been to rehabilitate the posthumous reputation of King Richard III. Shakespeare effectively executed a ‘hanging job’ on the last Yorkist monarch in his famous play:’ The Tragedy of King Richard III’ (written in 1593). In Shakespeare’s complete canon of cads only Iago exceeds Richard in criminal conduct. In his play, ‘The Third Part of King Henry VI (1591), Shakespeare portrays Richard as exultingly murdering the ‘saintly’ King Henry VI: “Down, down to hell; and say I sent thee thither.” [Act V, Scene VI.] However, Shakespeare was not alone in damming Richard III’s reputation. Another ‘saintly’ historical character, Sir Thomas More, did much to blacken Richard’s reputation in his ‘History of Richard III’ (written between 1512 and 1519). More’s account was little more than political propaganda. As Professor Hicks remarked about twenty years ago: “How was More’s  Richard III ever regarded as objective?” [M.A.Hicks, page 39, in ‘The Wars of The Roses’, Macmillan, 1995.] More is still often regarded as a very upright historical character. In the year 2000, More was even glorified by Pope John Paul II, who declared More to be the Patron of Catholic Politicians.

(2) The other reason for Richard III’s enduring fascination is the question of the ‘Princes in the Tower’. On 9th April 1483, King Edward IV died, only 41years old. Edward IV’s premature death caused a constitutional crisis, as his two male heirs were both minors: Edward, Prince of Wales (12 years old) and Richard, Duke of York (just over 9 years old).

Immediately after his father’s death, Edward Prince of Wales became King Edward V, but he was never crowned. Both Edward and Richard were effectively removed from the monarchy, and their uncle, Richard of Gloucester, became King Richard III. Both princes were lodged in the Tower of London, but both soon disappeared from public view, and, within a few months, were presumed dead. This is not the place to go into a long analysis on the sad fate of the two young princes; but Richard III must be counted as one of their potential ‘murderers’. If the princes had survived Richard III’s coronation, it was in Richard’s self-interest to exhibit the princes, if only to head off potential unrest.  He might therefore have given the order for their execution. However, there are two other possible ‘murderers’ who also might have ordered the princes’ murder.

(i) Henry Tudor (King Henry VII)

Like Richard III, Henry Tudor was a usurper. He had a weak claim to the English Crown (mainly through his mother, Margaret Beaufort). After he took the throne in August 1485 (by defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth), Tudor made sure he eliminated any rival claimants to the throne. Chief among these was Edward, Earl of Warwick (Richard III’s nephew). Henry Tudor ordered his execution in 1499. One feels that Tudor would have been equally prepared to have the two young princes executed after his accession to the Crown.

(ii) Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham.

A devious character, he played the key role in helping Richard accede to the English Crown in 1483. In recognition for Buckingham’s ‘Kingmaker Role’, King Richard III showered Buckingham with rewards, especially in Wales. (On this matter, Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ is simply erroneous).

Having been amply rewarded by Richard III for helping him  accede to the Crown in the summer of 1483, Buckingham then turned against Richard in the following autumn. Buckingham’s reasons for his sudden change of allegiance are still uncertain; but Professor Carpenter has suggested: “Possibly Buckingham had some idea that a rebellion in favour of Henry Tudor might remove Richard and culminate in his (i.e. Buckingham’s) ascent to the throne.” [Christine Carpenter, ‘The Wars of the Roses’, page 212, Cambridge, 1997.] Extending this line of argument, Buckingham would have had no scruples in having the two princes murdered in the Tower after Richard’s accession in June 1483.

(B) Richard III’s Fall From Power 1483-1485

  • Richard’s usurpation engendered opposition from those Yorkists who supported the young King Edward V. This culminated in a major rebellion against Richard in southern England, led by the Duke of Buckingham in the autumn of 1483, and involving Henry Tudor. Even so, Richard crushed this rebellion with ease, so one feels that Richard’s ultimate overthrow, in August 1485, was not primarily linked to the circumstances of his usurpation. Richard’s very short tenure as King of England was due to a combination of long run factors and chance events.
  • Long Run Factor: Richard III’s Narrow Power Base.

Richard’s power base was the north of England. Richard had remained loyal to his elder brother, King Edward IV, when Edward had temporarily lost the English Crown in 1470. After Edward IV’s dramatic recovery of the English Crown in 1471, he rewarded Richard for the latter’s loyalty (especially in the north of England). In 1471, Richard was appointed High Sheriff of Cumberland and granted the lordship of Middleham. From 1471 onwards, Middleham Castle (in North Yorkshire), became Richard’s power base.

In the following year, 1472, Richard was appointed President of the Council of the North. This was King Edward IV’s experiment in devolution, and was designed to strengthen Yorkist government in the north of England, in an era of restricted communications. Richard seems to have successfully governed North England. According to one contemporary chronicler, Domenico Mancini:  “He (Richard) kept himself within his own lands (Northern England) and set out to acquire the loyalty of his people through favours and justice. [EHD, Volume IV, edited A.R. Myers, page 330.]

Richard’s policies in the North of England were very successful in the 1470s. Together with the Percies in Northumberland, Richard virtually ruled Northern England.  Richard’s crowning glory occurred in August 1482 (six months before Edward IV’s death). In that month, Richard led a northern English Army that re-captured the key fortress of Berwick upon Tweed. This military triumph protected northern England against Scottish incursions, thereby increasing Richard’s popularity in Northern England,

In a sense, Richard was a northern king imposed on a largely hostile south of England, including London. This meant that Richard’s power base was narrow, and it became even narrower after the southern Rebellion against him in the autumn of 1483 (The Buckingham Rebellion). The Rebellion was ended by Buckingham’s execution for treason. Richard signed the death warrant , not in London; but at Grantham (a Yorkist borough enfranchised by King Edward IV in 1463). Richard’s response to this southern rebellion was to dispossess disloyal southern magnates. This was understandable. What was less sensible was to replace them by ‘planted’ northerners. This mistake meant that Richard passed up the opportunity of broadening his narrow power base by getting southern support.

Thus, when Richard faced Henry Tudor’s invading Army at Bosworth in August 1485, his Army was mainly commanded by northern magnates; one of whom was to prove disloyal (Lord Stanley), the other was to prove indifferent (Lord Northumberland)

  • Short-Term Factors: Chance Events.

Historians have tended to play down the importance of chance events as major factors influencing historical change. Chance events tend to be very specialised. They fit into the Karl Popper mode of unique events: they cannot be replicated. As they are so varied, they do not  easily fit into the pattern of the ‘Hierarchy of Causes’, so beloved of historians. I may say that my personal instinct is to favour long run causes, which can be tabulated in importance. For example, in my recent, January Blog, on the internal weaknesses affecting Henry VI’s Lancastrian Regime, I focussed on economic factors. That is, I was applying a neo-Marxist analysis to the weaknesses of the Lancastrian Regime in the mid-Fifteenth Century. I am perfectly happy with this line of argument, as historical experience does show some linkage between economic pressure and political conflict. In other words, economic factors are significant in the hierarchy of causes. Similarly the extent and nature of a political power base is an important long run factor explaining the retention (or loss) of government. (For example, the British Labour Party’s power base in northern England in 2013 is like Richard’s power base in 1483 – too narrow to retain government.)

However, perhaps we need to pay more heed to chance factors in explaining historical events, including Richard’s loss of power. There were at least two major chance events that collectively may explain Richard’s brief two year reign.

(i) Family Tragedies: 1483 and 1485.

On 9th April 1484, Richard’s only son(and heir), Edward of Middleham, died, aged only ten years old. This was a great personal tragedy for Richard, who received the sad news whilst in Nottingham (again, not London). On a practical level, it meant that Richard had no direct heir (he then designated his nephew, Lord Lincoln, as his heir). Just as bad, Richard’s own wife, Anne Neville, died on 16th March 1485. This was an ‘unlucky death’, as Queen Anne was then only 29 years old. It is thought that this chance event, a double tragedy, made Richard more reckless as a monarch. In particular, it might explain Richard’s headstrong actions at Bosworth, when he threw caution to the winds in his desire to personally eliminate Henry Tudor (instead of retiring northwards to re-group his forces, as his commanders advised).

(ii) Opposition of France 1485

It is not generally realised how much Henry Tudor depended on French help at the battle of Bosworth (certainly not mentioned by Shakespeare). Estimates of the size of the French forces vary, but 3,500 seems about right, and this clearly  was a major factor explaining Tudor’s ultimate triumph, especially as the French forces had superior weaponry. Not only that, but Tudor’s invading force was conveyed to Wales in French ships.

It seems that this determined French support for Henry Tudor was simple ‘bad luck’ for Richard, the result of a series of chance events and coincidences.

To begin with, in 1483, in France, as in England, a minor became king . In France, Charles of Valois became King Charles VIII of France on 30th August 1483 (he was then thirteen years old). The Regent was Charles’s elder sister, Anne of Beaujeu.  However, young King Charles VIII was threatened by his uncle, Louis, Duke of Orleans: just as King Edward V had been threatened by his uncle (Richard). The Regent Anne decided to oppose Richard (the Duke of Orleans was pro-Richard).

(C) Conclusion.

King Richard III remains a figure of controversy.  Even his skeletal remains are a cause of debate. It is absolutely right that Richard III receives an honourable interment; but the actual place of interment is today a matter of some dispute. One feels that Richard himself would prefer his final resting place to be in the North of England (York Minster would be an obvious resting place). However, it seems that Leicester Cathedral will have the honour of harbouring Richard’s remains, despite the fact that Leicester was a Lancastrian stronghold in the Wars of the Roses. Still, one feels that Richard would appreciate this irony; perhaps it is for the best.

(D)Conclusion.

King Richard III is one of the few medieval kings to lose his crown by losing his life in battle. Name two other medieval monarchs who similarly lost their thrones by losing their lives in battle.

 

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The White Ship Disaster Re-visited

As Professor Green has written:” The wreck of the White Ship was the worst personal and political disaster of Henry’s life.” (‘Henry I’, by Judith Green, CUP, 2009: page 164). In one fell swoop, Henry lost his only legitimate male heir, William Adelin, two other children and other close friends and companions.

On the night of 25th November 1120, Prince William the Adelin and his young companions had set sail on the ‘White Ship’, intending to cross the Channel. The White Ship met with disaster, being holed just off the coast of Normandy (Barfleur), resulting in the deaths of virtually all the passengers, including Prince William. The author of the contemporary Anglo/Saxon Chronicle lamented: “Their death was a double grief to their friends – one that they lost this life so suddenly, the other that the bodies of few of them were found anywhere afterwards.” (EHD, Volume II, page 196.) The contemporary historian, William of Malmesbury, went further: “No ship ever brought so much misery to England; none was ever so notorious in the history of the world.”(EHD, Volume II, page 323.) This latter judgement may come close to hyperbole; but it is not too far from the truth.

In my November 2011 Blog, I have already described the details of the White Ship disaster, including the series of chance factors that contributed to the shipwreck. The best account of the White Ship disaster is by Professor Green. (See her recent biography ‘Henry I’, pages 164 to 167.) In my November 2011 Blog, I analysed the impact of the White Ship disaster mainly from the viewpoint of King Henry II. The White Ship disaster was a chance event that paved the way for the ultimate accession to the English throne of Henry of Anjou. The White Ship disaster removed Prince William from the succession to the English Crown: Henry I’s only surviving legitimate heir was then his daughter, the Empress Matilda. The future Henry II was the eldest son of The Empress, so he had a legitimate claim to the Crown of England, a claim he was to realise in 1154. In this November 2012 Blog, I shall concentrate on the impact of the White Ship disaster on the reign of King Henry I.

The Impact of The White Ship Disaster on  the reign of King Henry I.

As explained in my previous blogs, Henry had gained the English Crown in August 1100 in exceptional circumstances. His brother, King William II, had died in a freak hunting accident in the New Forest, and Henry just ‘happened to be on the spot’. He effectively grabbed the throne in a royalist coup d’état; in the process out-manoeuvring his elder brother, Robert Curthouse, Duke of Normandy.

Although Henry I faced formidable opposition to his royal authority in England between 1100 and 1101, he managed to survive (see my July Blog). From then on, Henry ‘grew into his kingship’, and the first twenty years of his long reign were very successful.

(A) King Henry I’s Reign 1100 to 1120: Innovation and Success

(1) Re-Unification of England and Normandy.

After successfully scheming against Robert between 1100 and 1101, Henry took the offensive against Robert’s authority in Normandy by invading Normandy in 1106 (ironically with English soldiers). The result was Henry’s glorious success against Robert at the battle of Tinchebrai in 1106 (see my September 2012 Blog). Henry was now ruler of both England and Normandy. Henry’s authority as ruler of Normandy was confirmed in August 1119 in his defeat of the French King, Louis VI at the battle of Bremule (see my March 2012 Blog).

(2) Financial Reform

In about 1110, Henry and his financial advisors (such as Bishop Roger of Salisbury)  began to develop a system of financial accounting that led to the institution of  the Exchequer in the second decade of Henry’s reign (see my April 2012 Blog). This major financial innovation, together with the institution of the Pipe Rolls, was to literally transform the administration of English government in the 12th century and beyond.

(3) Legal Reforms.

Beginning in August 1100 with his Coronation Charter (see my August 2012 Blog), Henry I and his advisors (again including Bishop Roger) were to make important changes in the development of English Law, building on Anglo/Saxon foundations. Further notable legal innovations were enshrined in the 1115 ‘Leges Henrici Primi’, (see my October 2012 Blog) King Henry I fully deserves his sobriquet: ’The Lion of Justice’.  The key developments in the evolution of English Common Law occurred under King Henry II: the superstructure of English Common Law was erected in his reign (through the assizes). Even so, King Henry I’s reign laid the groundwork of English Common Law. Both were obviously necessary if English Common Law was to be successfully constructed.

(B) King Henry I’s Reign 1120 to 1135: Quiescence and Consolidation

It is a truism in History that it is often a mistake to try to categorise different parts of a ruler’s reign; and it is the case that in the second half of his reign (after 1120), Henry I still at times displayed his characteristic reforming zeal and drive.

For example, his determination to retain control of Normandy never wavered after 1120, as was demonstrated by continued military and diplomatic  successes against his traditional adversary, King Louis VI of France (such as Henry’s victory at the Battle of Bourgtheroulde in 1124). King Henry I also showed he had lost nothing of his  administrative skills by his dextrous political manoeuvrings between the varying clerical factions at the Council of Gloucester between 2nd and 4th February 1123 (see my February 2012 Blog). Henry I’s finances also remained ‘rock solid’. The Pipe Roll of 1130 indicated a very healthy recorded income for Henry of £24,550. Just as impressive, the Roll indicates that the total moneys actually paid into Henry’s Exchequer in 1130 were £22,900 (Henry I was clearly more efficient at cracking down on tax evasion than the present Government!)

Yet, it is probably true that the second part of King Henry I’s long reign was marked more by governmental consolidation than by political innovation. The reason for Henry’s relative political quiescence after 1120 almost certainly lies in the White Ship Disaster. The loss of Prince William, his son and legitimate heir, was a savage blow to Henry’s morale from which he never entirely recovered. This was particularly the case as William’s death closely followed the death of Henry’s Consort, Queen Edith Matilda, in May 1118.                              Barfleur itself held such painful memories of William’s death that Henry never again used that port to cross the Channel after 1120. At the same time, Prince William’s drowning in November 1120 transformed the royal ambitions of William Clito, son and heir of Henry I’s brother and rival, Robert Curthouse. William Clito was now the obvious male successor to King Henry as King of England and Duke of Normandy. King Henry’s energies after 1120 were therefore increasingly directed at combatting William Clito’s growing ambitions, especially for most of the 1120s. It was not until William Clito’s death in July 1128, that Henry I was freed from anxiety about the threat to his succession from that quarter. However, worry over William Clito’s threat to the English succession was then merely replaced after 1128 by concern about the succession of Henry’s sole surviving legitimate heir, the Empress Matilda. It is no wonder that dynastic worries took up an increasing proportion of King Henry’s energy after 1120; and such dynastic concerns were entirely the result of The White Ship disaster.

Conclusion.

In her outstanding recent biography of King Henry I, Professor Green asserts that: “The wreck of the White Ship was the turning point of Henry’s reign.” [Judith Green, ‘Henry I’, CUP, 2009, page 168] To that extent, a chance event affected the whole course of one reign, and probably also the entire course of the 12th Century.

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Sibling Strife Part 3: Henrican Heroism and Anglo-Saxon Atonement: 1106

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.

Question

Does History merely consist of s series of random, unique events, as Karl Popper argued: or does History sometimes repeat itself?

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Sibling Strife Part 2 : King William II and King Henry I: August 1100

The second part of my Trilogy on Henry I’s Accession and Retention of Power takes us back from July 1101 to August 1100. Picture the scene:-

  •  It is the afternoon of 2nd August 1100. King William II (the second son of King William the Conqueror) is out hunting in the New Forest, accompanied by several magnates. He is in his mid-forties, quite healthy (having survived serious illness in 1093). Towards the end of that August day, tragedy struck King William. Let a contemporary chronicler, the reliable William of Malmesbury, tell us what happened next:

“The sun was now setting, and the king drawing his bow let fly an arrow which slightly wounded a stag which passed before him. He ran in pursuit, keeping his gaze rigidly fixed on the quarry, and holding up his hand to shield his eyes from the sun’s rays. At that instant Walter {Tirel}, forming in his mind a project which seemed good to him, tried to transfix another stag which by chance came near him while the king’s attention was otherwise occupied. And thus it was that unknowingly, and without power to prevent it (oh, gracious God!), he pierced the king’s breast with a fatal arrow. “[EHD, Vol II, page 318].

  • At the time of his brother’s death, Henry was conveniently close by. He immediately galloped to nearby Winchester to get control of the important castle and the royal treasure. Henry was out to get the throne: this was his golden chance for power, while his elder brother (Duke Robert of Normandy) was still involved in the First Crusade. Possession of the important city of Winchester would clearly strengthen Henry’s claim to the English Crown. Having secured some baronial support for his monarchical coup d’état, Henry then continued his energetic pursuit of the Crown by quitting Winchester and, with a few baronial companions, riding post haste to London. It is possible that Henry covered the 70 miles to London in 24 hours (arriving in London on the evening of 4th August). And so it was that Henry was formally crowned King Henry I of England on the next day, 5th August 1100.
  • The speed of the political events, over the four day period 2nd to 5th August, was amazing: it fuels speculation that maybe there had existed a planned assassination attempt against King William II. Most historians dismiss this conspiracy theory. They see William II’s death as simply a tragic accident, caused by a series of chance events, such as the dazzling effect of the setting sun, William’s partial wounding of his quarry, and Tirel’s bow shot whilst William II was preoccupied. Such an interpretation is supported by William of Malmesbury’s own judgement that Tirel ‘unknowingly’ killed the king. However, Professor Judith Green, in her excellent recent biography of King Henry, considers that: “a conspiracy to murder Rufus involving Henry, Walter Tirel and the Clares {a powerful baronial family} is…… not out of the question.” {Henry I, by Judith Green (2009), p.40, CUP}. Walter Tirel’s later actions are certainly suspect. Describing Tirel’s reaction to King William’s hunting accident, William of Malmesbury dryly observed, “Walter immediately ran up, but finding the king senseless and speechless, he leapt quickly on his horse, and escaped at full gallop.” [EHD, Vol II, page 318]. It could be argued that Tirel’s flight was simply the result of fear. A possibly more convincing explanation is that Tirel made sure that William II really was dead, and having ascertained this fact, he immediately ensured his own escape.
  • Whether or not King William’s death in the New Forest was the result of accident or design, Henry would have to make some immediately important political gesture to shore up his new monarchical regime. It was therefore no accident that Henry’s Coronation on the 5th August (by Maurice, Bishop of London) was accompanied by King Henry I (as he now was) issuing his celebrated ‘Coronation Charter’. This Charter remains virtually unknown to today’s general public (unlike the 1215 ‘Magna Carta’). Yet King Henry I’s Coronation Charter of 5th August 1100 (exactly 912 years ago today) was a very important medieval document: so significant was Henry’s Coronation Charter, that it was re-issued by King Stephen in 1135 and King Henry II in 1154. It was even cited by Archbishop Stephen Langton in 1215 as a precedent for Magna Carta. Indeed, certain of its provisions (especially those dealing with women) are still relevant today.

King Henry I’s Coronation Charter, 5th August 1100.

As Professor Green and other historians have pointed out, many of the Charter’s Fourteen Points were not entirely new. [See Judith Green, ‘Henry I’, pages 45 to 49]. Even so, some of the specific details enshrined in the Coronation Charter were novel.

Clause 1By this Clause, Henry promised the Church that he would “neither sell or lease its property; nor on the death of an archbishop or a bishop or an abbot will I take anything from the demesne of the Church or from its vassals during the period which elapses before a successor is installed.”

Clause 2 concerned the succession of heirs to the estates of their fathers; and the inheritance tax (‘Relief’) they would have to pay to the Crown. Henry promised that such ‘reliefs’ would only be “Just and Lawful.”

Clause 3concerned both the marriage of aristocratic female heirs and the rights of widows. Regarding the childless widow of a tenant-in-chief, Henry stated that, “she shall have her dower and her marriage portion, and I will not give her in marriage unless she herself consents.”

Clause 4 further stipulated the rights of widows and their offspring: “If a widow survives with children under age, she shall have her dower and her marriage portion, so long as she keeps her body chaste; and I will not give her in marriage except with her consent. And the guardian of the land, and of the children, shall be either the widow or another of her relations, as may seem proper. And I order that my barons shall act likewise towards the sons and daughters and widows of their men.”

Clause 5gave a warning to counterfeiters of the coinage.

Clause 6 Henry promised to forego most of the debts owed to his late brother, King William II.

Clause 7 concerned intestate estates of the barons For those of Henry’s barons who died intestate, “his widow or his children or his relatives or one of his true men shall make such division {of the movable property} for the sake of his soul, as may seem best to them.”

Clauses 8 to 10dealt with various matters concerning the barons, such as the Law of the Forests.

Clause 11concerned the feudal obligations of the Knights (lesser tenants): “The knights, who in return for their estates perform military service equipped with a hauberk of mail, shall hold their demesne lands quit of all gelds {taxes} and all work.”

Clauses 12 to 14were general statements, including a pledge to keep the peace, and restore the law of the Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor.

{See EHD, Vol II, pages 432 to 434 for full details of King Henry I’s Coronation  Charter}

Interpretation of King Henry I’s Coronation Charter: Cunning or Commendable?

The Charter was a mixture of both. On one level, Henry’s Coronation Charter was clearly an ingenious device to win support for his royalist coup d’état. In the words of the famous BBC character Baldrick, King Henry I ‘had a cunning plan’ to win support from those sections of English society whose support was vital to any monarch: the Church, Tenants-in-Chief, and the Knights. In this sense, the Charter was simply a Political Manifesto, intended to help Henry defeat his elder brother’s opposition to his accession to the English Throne. The reference to the Knights (Clause 11) is especially significant. By giving the knights the privilege of tax exemption, Henry I attested his faith in the military organisation of the ‘Feudal Levy’ (Servitium Debitum), by which Henry I could nominally count on 5,000 knights to aid him in a crisis.

However, what is also striking is the rights King Henry I accorded to women, especially widows (Clauses Three, Four, and Seven). Such repeated assertions of the rights of widows almost implies that the Coronation Charter was a ‘Medieval Feminist Proclamation’. In this sense, the Coronation Charter certainly was commendable, because there was little political reward for Henry in making such ‘suffragist’ declarations.

Conclusion.

In promoting his Coronation Charter, Henry I had made a good start in rallying support. He made another politically astute move three months after the promulgation of the Coronation Charter, by marrying the Anglo-Saxon Princess, Edith Matilda, on 11th November 1100. Edith Matilda was the daughter of King Malcolm III of Scotland. By her mother, Edith Matilda was also the great grand-daughter of the Anglo-Saxon King, Edmund Ironside. By his marriage, Henry I probably also gained the backing of the Anglo-Saxon population In England, as well as the friendship of Scotland. Even so, would all these plus points help Henry I withstand the expected challenge to his Crown from his elder brother Duke Robert of Normandy?

Sibling strife was a potent factor affecting relations between Henry and Robert (and also William II). In acceding to the English throne in August 1100, Henry had thrown down the gauntlet to his brother Robert (perhaps literally)! Duke Robert picked up the gauntlet and invaded England in the summer of 1101. What happened next? See my July Blog for details!!!!

Question

King Henry’s Coronation Charter of 5th August contained 14 Points. Which other important historical political charter also contained 14 Points? (Clue – think 20th century.)

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The role of chance in History: The White Ship Disaster, 25th November 1120

It is Friday, 25th November 2011. Dusk is now falling late on in the afternoon, so perhaps it is fitting that I devote my November blog to a very sombre historical event. This is the wreck of the ‘White Ship’, which occurred exactly 891 years ago, just off the Normandy coast, on the night of 25th November 1120.  Although this tragic event happened just over twelve years before the birth of Henry II, the White Ship disaster had an important indirect impact on him. King Henry I’s son and heir, William Adelin* drowned in the shipwreck, thereby making Henry I’s only other legitimate child, his daughter Matilda, his heir. Henry II was the eldest child of Matilda and her husband Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, and Henry therefore had a legitimate claim to the English crown via his mother. However, if William Adelin had not drowned in the shipwreck, Henry would probably not have succeeded to the English crown, because William Adelin would have become king on Henry I’s death, and presumably then would have married and had legitimate heirs.

[* The title ‘Adelin’ was given to William, son and heir of King Henry I. The title is a variation on the Anglo-Saxon title, ‘Atheling’, which means ‘prince’ or ‘lord’.  It is especially appropriate to William, because his mother was an Anglo-Saxon princess, Queen Edith Matilda; and William himself was born in 1103 in Winchester, the seat of Anglo-Saxon government in Wessex.]

  1. It is always interesting to speculate In History what would have happened if something that did happen hadn’t happened; but such counter-factual analysis can become too complicated. Probably more significantly, the White Ship Disaster highlights the importance of chance in History: how fortune can materially alter the course of History. Perhaps then History does only consist of a series of unique events, as the late Sir Karl Popper so brilliantly argued in his book, ’The Poverty of Historicism’, published in 1957. The events of the White Ship Disaster seem to support this Popper thesis. The tragic drowning of William Adelin changed the course of 12th century English politics in at least two main ways: firstly, as already mentioned, it meant that Henry’s daughter Matilda was now King Henry I’s heir, thus making possible the ultimate succession of the Angevin dynasty in England. Secondly, the succession of Matilda would very likely be opposed by Henry I’s nephew, Stephen. In fact, Stephen took possession of the English throne when Henry I died in 1135, thereby precipitating a murderous civil war with the Angevin supporters which lasted on and off for most of Stephen’s reign.
  2. Not only was the White Ship Disaster a major chance event, but was itself also made up of  fluke events on that fateful 25th November 1120:-

(i)              The main party, led by King Henry I departed from Normandy in the early evening out of Barfleur; but young William Adelin, accompanied by other young nobles did not wish to sail with his elders.

(ii)            A major contemporary chronicler, William of Malmesbury, now takes up the story (historians regard him as intelligent and reliable). William and “his boon companions” decided to launch their vessel, ’The White Ship’, later on, when it was dark.

(iii)           The young aristocrats then aimed to overtake the adults’ ship, by rowing their vessel too fast in dangerous waters at night.

(iv)           There were also casks of wine aboard the White Ship. According to William of Malmesbury, “these rash youths [were] flushed with wine” (as were the crew). The drunken helmsman paid little or no attention to his steering, and in consequence, the White Ship was holed by a large rock, submerged by the high tide. The ship capsized, with predictably dire results.

[For a detailed assessment and description of the White Ship disaster, readers can consult Judith Green’s ‘Henry I: King of England and Duke of Normandy’ (CUP).]

  1. There are of course other chance events in History which clearly do change the course of History. An example for the later Middle Ages would be the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses in 1453/55. King Henry VI had appeared to be in a strong position early in 1453, after seeing off Richard of York’s challenge the previous year. Then, in the space of only two months (in July/August 1453) the Lancastrian Government was hit by ‘a triple whammy’ of three chance events, which, in combination precipitated the Wars of the Roses. These three events were:- open conflict between the Percy & Neville families at Heworth Green (York); the English loss of Gascony to France after their defeat at Castillon; and finally Henry VI’s nervous breakdown. An example of the decisive nature of chance events in modern history was the ‘double whammy’ of the death of German Foreign Minister Stresemann and the effects of the Wall Street Crash within two weeks of each other in October 1929. This dual disaster probably finished off the fragile Weimar Republic in Germany, thereby paving the way for the Nazi Regime.
  2. But perhaps one can take this ‘chance theory’ too far. Fifty years ago in 1961, a seminal work was published by The University of Cambridge and Penguin books, called ‘What is History’ by E. H. Carr. In this important book, beloved of all S Level History students, E.H. Carr vigorously rejected the role of contingency as an important factor in historical change. Of course, there is much in Carr’s theory of the relative significance of historical causes. To take the two historical events discussed above.
  • It could well be argued that the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses was influenced by longer term factors. One was economic weakness in mid-fifteenth century England, aggravated by Henry VI’s financial impoverishment of crown assets. Another factor was the political & military impact of Henry VI’s disastrous policies in France from about 1440 onwards. It could also be argued that Weimar Germany was fatally weakened at its in birth in 1919 by having to accept the Versailles Treaty, and also by having a system of proportional representation which made coalition government too unstable.
  1. So, how significant was the White Ship disaster in affecting 12th century English politics? It surely stands out as a critical factor. It indirectly made possible the later accession of King Henry II to the English crown, with all the vital developments that flowed from his accession in 1154. It may be that the White Ship disaster is the exception that proves E. H. Carr’s rule; but it is also the case that the maritime catastrophe of 25th November 1120 demonstrates the plausibility of Karl Popper’s arguments. To adapt a well-known adage: ’You pays your geld (or scutage), and you makes your choice.’

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Filed under Angevins, British Kings and Queens, Chance in History, E H Carr, Henry I, Henry II, Historical philosophy, History, Karl Popper, Medieval History, Medieval Normandy, Wars of the Roses, White Ship disaster