Upon the death of William Rufus, Henry hastened to Winchester where the royal treasury happened to be located. Henry was the fourth son of William the Conqueror and he had inherited no land from his father although under the terms of the Conqueror’s will he had been left money.
Under normal circumstances it would have been William and Henry’s older brother who inherited England. Robert Curthose inherited Normandy from William the Conqueror and after some nastiness with William eventually came to terms with his younger sibling and took himself off on crusade. When William died in the New Forest Robert was on his way home from the Holy Land.
Henry on the other hand was in England and able to seize the opportunity that presented itself. Having taken control of the treasury he then ensured that some barons elected him as their king in a nod to the Anglo-Saxon practice of the Witan electing kings and arranged for his coronation to take place as soon as possible. This took place in Westminster on 5th August 1100.
Henry I’s Coronation Charter is the earliest one to survive. It is thought that the charter was part of the process by which a king came to the throne in Anglo-Saxon times. The new king would essentially say to his barons this is what I’m giving you in return for your support of me. More than one copy of the charter exists suggesting that is was circulated in the shires. Basically he condemns William Rufus’ rule “the kingdom has been oppressed by unjust exactions” and then claims that by becoming king Henry has brought peace to the English Nation. It is said that Henry I’s Coronation Charter is the basis for Magna Carta. The charter is also called the Charter of Liberties in some sources.
Henry promises that he will not take property that belongs to the Church. He also says that whilst he expects his barons to consult the monarch in the matter of their daughters’ marriages that he will not exact a tax for them being allowed to marry. He also explains that if a baron dies with underage heirs that Henry will determine who those heirs will marry but that he will consult with the rest of his barons in the matter. He also recognises that widows shouldn’t be required to remarry without their consent in the matter.
As well as dealing with feudal matters and wardship Henry also tackles the royal mint. He makes it clear that it is the king who mints the coinage – no one else is permitted to do so. He also makes sure that all the royal forests used by William the Conqueror remain in his own hands. This is a rather clever wheeze of ensuring that if anything had been given away or sold by either William the Conqueror or William Rufus it now returned to the Crown – an veritable example of “having your cake and eating it.”
Essentially the charter places Henry and his successors under the rule of law. Henry was aware that there had been recent rebellion and resentment of William Rufus. There was also the small matter of the difficult relationship with the Church. At a stroke Henry sets the clock back to zero and in so doing gives the barons president for Magna Carta and in turn for the Provisions of Oxford which Henry III was forced to accept by Simon de Montfort in 1264 and which Edward I was prudent enough to adapt in the Statute of Westminster. It is perhaps not surprising then that Henry’s by-name is Beauclerk – or good scholar.
Henry I would reign for thirty-five years. He set about bringing unity to his kingdom not only with his barons but also with his Saxon commoners by marrying Edith of Scotland, the daughter of St Margaret of Scotland (i.e. niece of Edgar the Aethling and granddaughter of Edmund the Exile, the son of King Edmund Ironside, who arrived back in England on the invitation of Edward the Confessor only to die in unexpected circumstances.) Edith was too Saxon a sounding name so it was promptly changed to Matilda but it was said of Henry that his court was too Saxon. Certainly his son William who was born in 1103 was called the Atheling in an attempt to weave two cultures together. So we can also see movement of a wise king towards the unification of his people. Of course it wasn’t as straight forward as all that not least because William was his only legitimate male heir and he was drowned in 1120 when the White Ship sank.
After the death of his son, Henry remarried to Adela of Louvain who I have posted about before.
It was just as well that Henry had been so conciliatory to his barons and the wider population because in 1101 big brother Robert did invade England. But, possession is nine tenths of the law and Henry gave him his properties in Normandy as well as an annuity to go away and leave England alone. In 1106 Henry took advantage of the political turmoil in Normandy and beat Robert at the Battle of Tinchebrai – no more annuities and an entire duchy to add to the list of things that Henry owned although Robert’s son William Clito was unhappy about the outcome for obvious reasons. Henry drew the line at killing his older brother but Robert would remain a prisoner for the rest of his life.