Biographies & Memoirs

3. Politics

Until he lost his only legitimate son and heir in the wreck of the White Ship, King Henry I would prove himself to be a born leader. Physically resembling his father, William the Conqueror, he was of medium height with bright eyes, receding black hair, a stocky physique and a tendency to put on weight. He was intelligent and high-spirited, and while his acts of cruelty are alien to modern ethical standards, they were generally praised in his own lifetime as evidence of his determination to inflict just and summary penalties on evildoers. Unusually for a medieval king, he was abstemious except where women were concerned, avoiding excess and reducing the number of large, formal meals at court each day from two to one. Said to be eloquent and witty, he was a barely competent reader, but that still made him the first English king since Alfred the Great to be literate. Possessed of a didactic turn of mind that could provoke his younger courtiers to mock him behind his back, he was fully aware of the growing importance of charters and written documents as a tool of government, once remarking in his father’s hearing that ‘an illiterate king is a crowned ass’.

Aiming to safeguard his father’s inheritance on both sides of the Channel by whatever steps were necessary, Henry would for much of his reign achieve more raw, centralized power in his kingdom of England than anything seen since 1066, building on his father’s achievements and making the greatest strides in the fields of royal justice and finance. But the inescapable fact is that he had come to power as a usurper and the consequences would return to haunt him.

William the Conqueror’s principal legacy had been a transfer of landownership from the English to the Normans and a system of military feudalism in which every great lord was equipped with his own power and jurisdiction. The essence of feudalism was lordship: lords and tenants bound themselves to each other in a hierarchy culminating in the king as overlord. Some 200 Norman barons had displaced 4,000 English thegns as the king’s tenants-in-chief. According to Domesday Book, the comprehensive census of landholding compiled on William’s orders in 1086, some thirty of these barons held over a third of the land expressed in terms of value, whereas less than 1 per cent of the Old English population retained their pre-Conquest estates. Methods of agriculture would continue almost unchanged after the Conquest. The difference was that power was monopolized by the chosen few. King William’s ability to inspire his followers and lead them to a glorious victory had enabled him to stamp his authority on them, but in the longer term his short temper, avarice and intolerance would prove counter-productive. As his own reign progressed, Henry I would discover that he could rule England more effectively by surrounding himself with capable and well-educated councillors whom he trusted and by handling the leading barons tactfully.

One of his Achilles’ heels would be his difficulties with the Church, to which his father had made generous concessions. About 1072 William had issued a writ prohibiting ‘any matter which concerns the rule of souls’ from being heard in the secular courts, reserving it for adjudication by churchmen in church courts in accordance with up-to-date church law and procedure. Keen to win a reputation for piety and as a patron and protector of the Church, William had judged the two ancient provinces of the English Church, Canterbury and York, to be backward and immoral. A high proportion of the parochial clergy, and even some bishops and archdeacons, were married or lived openly with their mistresses; almost as many were said to have purchased their livings and then treated them as sinecures or appointed their relatives to them, an offence known as ‘simony’. Advised by his Norman bishops, William took as his benchmark the standards of the continental reformers who had the moral regeneration of the whole Church firmly in their sights.

These reformers, men like the great Cluniac abbot St Hugh and St Peter Damian, were motivated by ascetic ideals and had won over Pope Leo IX and several of his successors to their cause. Denouncing clerical marriage and simony as crimes against God, they demanded that the clergy be celibate and free from sin. William the Conqueror had at first cooperated with the pope, who in return for Norman support against his enemies in Italy had wholeheartedly backed his invasion of England and enabled him to market himself as the agent of enlightened church reforms against the barbarians. He had also worked closely with Lanfranc, prior of Bec Abbey near Gilbert Becket’s family home in Normandy, a moderate reformer whom he trusted and made archbishop of Canterbury. But growing fat and more dictatorial in his declining years, William had drawn a line in the sand, refusing to do fealty to the papacy when it was demanded and clamping down on contacts between England and the papal curia.

His change of attitude had followed hard on the election at Rome in 1073 of Gregory VII, a zealously reforming pope who sought to redefine his relations with the Christian community and so centralize his power. The key question was how far kings and princes would cooperate with the ascetic reformers, and in an uncompromising effort to stamp his own authority on the secular kingdoms, Pope Gregory had pronounced a decree against ‘lay investiture’ – the old custom whereby a king handed to a newly-appointed bishop his ring and pastoral staff to signify that he had appointed him to the post. In response to the papal decree, William had attacked what he saw as blatant interference in his realms, but it would be only after his death, when the amenable Lanfranc was succeeded as primate by the saintly, steely Anselm, a reformer who had also made his reputation as a monk and later abbot of Bec, that a rift between the Anglo-Norman monarchy and the church reformers became inevitable.

On his deathbed, the Conqueror had partitioned his territories, bequeathing Normandy to Robert Curthose, his eldest son, and England to William Rufus, his second and favourite son. For his youngest son, Henry, there had at first been only a large sum of money, sowing the seeds of all that was to come. Little love had existed between the three brothers since an incident in late 1077 or early 1078, when Robert was in his late twenties and Henry only eight or nine. On that occasion Henry and Rufus, ‘deeming their strength equal to that of their elder brother Robert’, had urinated on him from the upper gallery of a manor-house in Normandy, humiliating him in the presence of his followers. After his father’s death, Rufus had swiftly laid claim to Normandy as well as England, while Henry – like an experienced card sharp – played off both his siblings, determined to carve out an inheritance for himself in either of their dominions and conquer the rest if he could.

Thoroughly incompetent as duke of Normandy, where he was idle and overgenerous to his supporters until their insolence knew no bounds, Robert Curthose had ignored the danger signals, allowing Rufus to incite his barons to revolt. So ineffective was Robert, he sometimes found he could not even dress in the mornings, because his servants had run away with his clothes. Soon his garrisons had been expelled from his castles and plunder became the order of the day. Using a mixture of English silver and diplomacy, Rufus had overrun the Norman strongholds one by one until he was the master of the lion’s share of the duchy. When in 1091 he had invaded Normandy, his brother rallied his forces, but it was too late to turn the tide. Five years later, Robert had opted out, answering Pope Urban II’s call to join the First Crusade against the Muslims and pawning Normandy to Rufus in exchange for 10,000 silver marks, the equivalent of almost £4 million today, before leaving for the Middle East.

With England and Normandy reunited, Rufus had set about governing his empire in the way he knew best. A coarse, boorish man, effeminate and licentious, probably bisexual and much criticized by monks for his lax morals and long hair, he had ruthlessly milked what he believed to be his royal prerogatives over the Church using his trusted agent, Ranulf Flambard, a low-born clerk whom he made his chaplain and the keeper of his seal, eventually giving him the bishopric of Durham. Astute, arrogant, ambitious and greedy, Flambard had taxed and robbed the Church, keeping bishoprics and abbeys vacant so he could seize their revenues, until Anselm, who arrived at Canterbury in 1093, rose up in protest, calling him ‘not just a bandit, but the most infamous prince of bandits’.

At the Council of Rockingham in 1095, Anselm had put the question that, under William the Conqueror, Lanfranc had never dared to ask. Addressing the assembled bishops and barons, he had demanded whether the duty he owed to the pope was compatible with the obedience he owed to the king. The issue was explosive, since a Norman bishop gave homage and an oath of fealty to the king. An eager convert to the higher principles of moral regeneration in the Church as preached by the ascetic reformers, the new archbishop had also fiercely defended his obligation to visit Rome and the Church’s right to manage its own affairs without royal interference.

Unable to endure Flambard’s plundering of his beloved Church any longer, Anselm had set sail from Dover in 1097 and gone into exile at Rome. Lodging at the main papal residence at the Lateran, the seat of papal government throughout the Middle Ages, he was given a place of honour at church councils at which strict reforming decrees were enacted against simony, clerical marriage and ‘lay investiture’. Inspired by his example, Thomas Becket would one day seek Anselm’s canonization before he himself chose exile as a platform for his own aims. But whereas his predecessor had interpreted his role as fundamentally pastoral and had merely sought to dissociate himself morally from the king’s evil deeds, Becket would seek to rectify them.

On Thursday 2 August 1100 Rufus had been struck in the chest by an arrow intended for a stag while out hunting in the New Forest. Falling forwards to the ground, he drove the arrow through his body and died instantly. His high-born companions had galloped off to safeguard their own interests, leaving his body unattended until some of his humbler servants threw a rough cloth over it and loaded it on to a farm cart for burial ‘like a wild boar stuck with spears’.

Among those racing off had been the king’s younger brother, Henry, who had dashed to Winchester to seize the castle and the royal treasury and proclaim himself king before Robert Curthose, now on his way home from his triumphs in the Holy Land, where his forces had played a leading part in the capture of Jerusalem, could do the same. Neither his prompt actions nor those of his associates suggest foreknowledge of the event, but the cloud of suspicion has never been entirely dispelled. To help win baronial consent to his accession as king of England, Henry had sent Flambard to the Tower and recalled Anselm, but he immediately quarrelled with him over whether the archbishop should give him fealty.

The end result would be a compromise, supported by the pope, whereby Henry agreed to recognize a clear demarcation between the functions of the bishops and abbots as feudal barons and as spiritual leaders. He could continue to receive their homage and oath of fealty for their temporal lands, but must no longer appoint them or invest them with the symbols of their spiritual office. It was a major victory for Anselm, creating what was intended to become a Chinese wall separating the bishops’ roles as feudal magnates from their duties as pastors. Naturally, this left a king as strong-willed as Henry free to continue to browbeat the cathedral or monastic chapters into electing his nominees, since he could sequester their property and enjoy the profits for as long as they resisted his suggestions. But the ascetic reformers had vindicated the principle that ‘lay investiture’ was illegal.

Robert Curthose, meanwhile, had returned home to his duchy of Normandy, basking in the glory he had earned in the siege of Jerusalem and accompanied by a rich widow he had married while wintering on his journey home. Henry had to prepare to meet the inevitable invasion, since his brother had no intention of allowing his own claim to the throne to lapse. Secretly aided by Flambard, who had escaped from the Tower to Normandy by climbing down a rope after throwing a drunken party for his gaolers, Robert had assembled a fleet and landed at Portsmouth in July 1101, wrong-footing Henry, who lay encamped between Hastings and Pevensey.

But after hopelessly botching his campaign, Robert had agreed to a truce, enabling Henry to begin his preparations to conquer Normandy, first suborning his brother’s barons with English silver as Rufus had done and stirring up revolt throughout the duchy. After landing unopposed at Barfleur in April 1105, he had turned Bayeux into a blazing inferno and captured Caen. Returning the following year, he destroyed the fortified abbey of Saint-Pierre sur Dives, near Falaise, before marching his army southward to Tinchebrai, where, in a final, desperate throw of the dice, Robert had hurled everything he had left against Henry and was resoundingly defeated.

Captured alive on the battlefield, Robert had been sent to England, where he was imprisoned for twenty-eight years until his death. Henry had then begun a long, gruelling slog lasting some ten years to recover the ducal castles, wresting them from their lawful occupants by fair means or foul. During these years Robert’s young son, William Clito, took over his father’s mantle, appealing for aid to King Louis VI of France and his chief ally, Count Fulk V of Anjou, and dragging Henry into a long guerrilla war. Clito’s tactics were especially threatening, since Normandy’s feudal subordination to the French monarchy went back to the days of Count Rollo and was a complex, long-standing bone of contention. The French king was the duke’s feudal overlord, even if, after 1066, successive dukes other than Robert Curthose had avoided giving homage to him on the grounds that they were also anointed kings of England.

With King Louis posturing as Clito’s protector, the battle for Normandy came to centre on the Vexin, the gateway from France into the eastern side of the duchy. Pointing like a dagger towards Paris itself, the Vexin was divided into a French zone (lying between the rivers Epte and Oise) and a Norman zone (between the Andelle and the Epte). Beyond this, no clear frontier existed, and in his final war William the Conqueror had been fatally wounded at Mantes while riding through the burning streets of the town in an effort to annex the French zone. Fighting between 1111 and 1116 would prove inconclusive, but in 1118 Louis led an army into Normandy from the east while in a classic pincer movement Count Fulk besieged Alençon in the south. Driven to fight on two fronts, Henry was made more vulnerable by the death of his wife, Queen Matilda, who had been regent in England while he was campaigning.

These were the circumstances in which Henry pulled off his greatest masterstroke, negotiating a dynastic marriage between his son Prince William and Count Fulk’s daughter for which the bride’s dowry would be the disputed county of Maine, the gateway into Normandy from the south. Fulk made peace with Henry, after which Louis and Henry wreaked fire and slaughter on one another, destroying castles, towns and churches and pillaging the goods of their enemies. Henry triumphed in a pitched battle, but barely escaped with his life when a sword pierced his helmet and drew blood. After a failed assassination plot, he began wearing his weapons indoors, sleeping with a sword and a shield beside his bed; the ringleader, a treacherous royal chamberlain, he had blinded and castrated.

Prince William would marry Count Fulk’s daughter just eighteen months before the White Ship began its fateful voyage. Immediately the knot was tied, he would be acclaimed as Henry’s successor by all the barons of England and Normandy, ending the war and leaving only King Louis to satisfy. This last piece of diplomacy would be overseen by Pope Calixtus II, who had arrived in France for a church council. After lengthy discussions and an interview at which Henry would humbly prostrate himself while carefully avoiding any recognition of the pope’s claims to dictate the affairs of the English Church, a peace was agreed in which Louis and Henry settled their quarrel concerning the French king’s right to feudal overlordship of Normandy by granting the duchy to William, who did homage to Louis, so binding him to Henry’s succession plan without binding Henry to him.

The treaty, ratified by papal nominees in May 1120, enabled England and Normandy to be officially reunited and the issue of the feudal superiority of France over Normandy resolved – so long as William stayed alive. The sinking of the White Ship would shatter these hopes. Far more than just a family tragedy, it was a political catastrophe, a devastating blow, because William’s drowning meant it could be only a matter of time before Louis and Count Fulk resumed their old alliance and Normandy was convulsed by rebellion again.

Still in his early fifties when he lost his son, Henry was young enough to have many more children, so after consulting his advisers, he quickly announced his betrothal to Adeliza, the young and beautiful daughter of Duke Godfrey of Lorraine. Celebrated with pomp and pageantry on 29 January 1121 at Windsor Castle, the nuptials would be followed by Adeliza’s coronation next day. But the couple were destined to be childless. Over the next three years, and with his hopes that Adeliza would give birth to a son gradually diminishing, Henry would spend heavily on mercenaries, castle-building and diplomacy in Normandy, aiming to wear down Clito and his supporters by a mixture of carrot and stick and to keep the French at arm’s length.

Then, at his Christmas court at Windsor in 1126, he announced a new dynastic alliance between his only legitimate daughter, Matilda, the widow of the German emperor, Henry V, who had died the previous year, and Geoffrey of Anjou, Count Fulk’s son and heir. So desperate was Henry in his efforts to repeat his earlier tactics of isolating King Louis from his old ally that he crafted his new succession policy entirely around this alliance. On 1 January 1127, after moving his whole court to Westminster in readiness, he designated Matilda as his lawful heir and successor in England and Normandy and forced all the bishops and barons to swear oaths of fealty to her. She married the fourteen-year-old Geoffrey at Le Mans eighteen months later, leaving Count Fulk to honour his side of the bargain by granting Anjou and its dependencies to his son and taking himself off to the Holy Land to marry the heiress of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, never to return.

Matilda was a decidedly reluctant bride; her nomination as Henry’s successor would prove to be bitterly divisive. It had the effect of forcing even the most obedient magnates to doubt his wisdom, since in a deeply patriarchal society few could accept that a woman might rule unless her husband also became king. And Henry would allow his son-in-law’s position to remain dangerously ambiguous: no oaths were taken to him or financial provision made. Eleven years younger than his bride, the teenage count of Anjou was an arrogant schemer, a chancer who antagonized his superiors and despised his inferiors, making no secret of his belief that it was his birthright to rule over them.

Soon the ill-matched couple would be quarrelling violently, and when at last they were reconciled, Geoffrey’s clumsy attempts to seize control of the castles of southern Normandy would create a rift and lead eventually to outright war with his father-in-law. As his reign drew towards its close, Henry himself would come to wonder whether the marriage had been a mistake and would increasingly place all his hopes on the birth of grandchildren. The omens were bad and during his final months, which he spent mainly hunting in Normandy, the chroniclers would record an eclipse of the sun, an earthquake and violent winds, all occurring within a few weeks, which they interpreted as a stark warning of evil times to come.

When Henry died on 1 December 1135, on the eve of a hunting expedition in the forest of Lyons near Rouen, Thomas Becket would be just three weeks short of his fifteenth birthday. The world as he knew it was about to be turned upside down by the fallout from the dead king’s long struggle to secure the succession for his own bloodline. Much of this turmoil would be caused by the ambition of someone who had narrowly escaped the disaster of the White Ship. A few minutes before the doomed vessel had set sail, a dozen or so passengers had disembarked, among them two monks of Tiron Abbey and Henry’s nephew Stephen, son of Adela, William the Conqueror’s daughter. Stephen, as Orderic Vitalis laconically records, ‘was suffering from diarrhoea’. A stickler for politeness, he urgently needed privacy, unobtainable amid the drunken revelry on board. He had decided to leave, perhaps also scandalized by the sacrilege of a group of ‘riotous and headstrong youths’ who mocked and jeered at the priests bringing holy water to bless the vessel as the final preparations for departure were made.

Stephen’s diarrhoea was to change the course of history. A principal beneficiary of Henry’s policy of generosity to nobles and kinsmen he felt he could trust, he came to enjoy a princely inheritance in England and Normandy. At the ceremony at which Henry had attempted to resolve the succession crisis by naming his daughter Matilda as his heir, Stephen had vied with Robert, Earl of Gloucester, the king’s eldest and favourite illegitimate son, for the honour of being the first of the lay magnates to take his oath to her, a contest that he won.

An oath took Matilda’s claim to the succession to a much higher, spiritual plane. Regarded as sacred promises to God, oaths bound those who took them unconditionally: to break one was to commit perjury, for which the penalty was eternal damnation. By invoking God as his witness and by swearing upon the Gospels or upon the relics of a saint, Stephen made a holy promise to acknowledge Matilda as Henry’s successor: if he reneged on his commitment, he could be excommunicated by the pope or have an interdict placed on his lands until he saw the error of his ways and made the appropriate spiritual and material reparations. The consequences of this oath, and of Stephen’s eventual perjury, would be momentous. They did not simply jinx Henry’s succession plan during his lifetime, they precipitated a long, vicious civil war after his death.

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