Saturday, March 3, 2012

Monarchy~ The Normans, William Rufus and Henry I

by Debra Brown

Monarchy Part I~ The Dark Ages House of Wessex
Monarchy Part II~ William the Conqueror

The Normans that followed the Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, provide an interesting historical story. William left Normandy to his eldest, who he considered to be too generous and easy-going to manage England. England he left to his second son, William, called William Rufus for his red complexion. William was crowned on September 26, 1087.

Rufus came to be known as cruel, ruthless, greedy and crude. He was always looking for ways to obtain more money, and when he couldn't get it from the Norman barons or the English townsfolk, he taxed the Church heavily. When the Archbishop of Canterbury Lanfranc died, the irreligious Rufus did not replace him, but kept the revenues normally allotted to the post for himself. He did the same when other bishops and archbishops died. When fearing death, he finally replaced the Archbishop with a Benedictine monk, Anselm of Bec, but upon recovering, he exiled him to Rome and seized his assets. This was a very different rulership from his famously pious Norman predecessors as well as the English kings, Alfred the Great and Edward the Confessor.

Rufus built the Great Hall of Westminster according to his grand scale ambitions. It was the largest secular space north of the alps, used for feasting and entertainments. He would sit on an elevated plane, crowned, robed and enthroned. The choirs would sing in Latin, wishing him long life and victory. The gap between rich and poor increased, and those with money began to dress extravagantly. Men wore flamboyant, puffed up tunics and curved, pointy-toed shoes. Women wore more and more extravagant jewelry. Rufus himself, or William II, surrounded himself with "half-naked", long-haired young men according to contemporary accounts.

England's French-speaking barons often owned estates both in England and Normandy- thus, they owed some of their allegiance to William's older brother, Duke Robert. Robert was staking his claim to the English throne, and some of the barons united in his support just a year after William's coronation. William crushed the revolt, and in 1090, he invaded Normandy to subdue Robert. He also repelled attempts by Malcolm III of Scotland and an uprising by barons in Northumberland.

William, like his father, loved hunting. William I had taken over huge areas of countryside, 90,000 acres, for his own use; Rufus took 20,000 more and made the rules of the oppressive Forest Law even harsher. (You might be interested in Judith Arnopp's The Forest Dwellers, a fictional work about some of those who were expelled from their homes in the New Forest by these kings.) Killing a deer was punished by death. Men were maimed just for shooting at one. The punishment for simply disturbing a deer was blinding. These rules were considered un-English and were a constant reminder that William Rufus was a foreigner, ruling and oppressing England.

After only 13 years of rule, in a superstitious age, it appeared that Rufus received punishment for his ways. While out hunting deer in the New Forest with a party which included his younger brother, Henry, he took an arrow and died "without repentance". His body lay neglected for several hours, and it was finally carried to Winchester in a charcoal-burner's cart. He was buried there beneath the cathedral tower. Imagine the thoughts of the superstitious people who hated this king when a year later the tower came tumbling down!

Who killed William Rufus? It has never been proved. One account says that he accidentally killed himself. Others stated that a Norman lord named Walter Tirel shot him. Tirel fled the country and always maintained his innocence. Interestingly, as soon as the king was dead, Henry seized power with suspicious ease. He wasted no time in mourning his brother. He rushed to Winchester, seized the royal crown and rode off to London to have himself crowned. His claim to the throne was dubious. Rufus and his older brother Robert, still Duke of Normandy, had agreed to be heirs to each other. Robert was known to be on his way home from the Crusades with a reputation for chivalry and a young wife who could bear him sons. There was no time to waste.

Henry turned to the English people for support. He was "born in the purple", the only one of William the Conqueror's sons to be born in England and that while his father was the English king rather than just the Duke of Normandy. Unlike his father and brother, he could read, write and speak some English. Rather than just swear to rule justly, as was normal at a coronation, Henry had his promises written down and widely circulated. He promised to bring back the laws of Edward the Confessor. He would rule with consent, like an Anglo-Saxon king, and not with force and extortion. He vowed to remove the tyrannical rule of the oppressed people as his father and brother had practiced. He was crowned in Westminster Abbey on August 5th, 1100.

Henry's Charter of Liberty was followed by all the kings up until the Magna Carta, and was copied fairly closely therein. He also set up the Curia Regis, or King's Council, to settle disputes between the monarch and the people. He married a Scottish princess, Edith, who was descended directly from Alfred the Great and Edward the Confessor, which helped him to placate both the Scottish and Saxons to some degree. She did, however, adopt the Norman name Matilda, and their two children were named Matilda and William.

A problem arose. Galloping inflation set in when the silver money began to be mixed with tin. England's stable currency had been the envy of Europe for three centuries. Henry arrested the one hundred and fifty men who had worked in the mint and put them on trial. Ninety four of them were found guilty and were punished with barbaric severity. Even though these men were not Normans, but Englishmen of high status, the people were behind Henry in the matter. The coinage must be protected at any cost.

For Henry, the greatest problem of all was the death of his young heir, William, at age seventeen. William was returning to England from Normandy in a ship. It crashed against rocks because of the drinking on board, and though William was safely put into a boat, he insisted on returning to the area to save his sister. It was only his sister who survived, of the two. (My error. After comments below, I discussed this with Elizabeth. The only survivor was a butcher. William had an illegitimate sister aboard the ship who also died. His sister Matilda was, at the time, living as Empress Consort of the Holy Roman Empire in Germany.)

Henry was said to have never smiled again. He was now faced with the need to choose a new heir to the throne. His nephew Stephen had no Saxon blood, something that had been important to Henry for his heir, and he so chose instead his daughter, Matilda, a descendant of Alfred. We'll see how well that goes in the next post of the series!

The Monarchy of Britain by Josephine Ross

The Complete Idiot's Guide to British Royalty by Richard Buskin

The Documentary "Monarchy" with David Starkey

Debra Brown is the author of The Companion of Lady Holmeshire.

Twitter: @kescah


  1. Lovely post, Debra, and thanks for mentioning The Forest Dwellers. another excellent book on Rufus' reign is Flambard's Confession by Marilyn Durham - it's a massive tome but unputdownable.
    also, one thing to bear in mind about Rufus is that the church detested him and all contemporary accounts were written by monks who were perhaps a little biased. Rufus may not have been quite as bad as he is painted.
    looking forward to your next post - The empress Matilda is another of my favourites :)

  2. Unfortunately the only survivor of The White Ship was a butcher who was on board for whatever reason. William Adelin and his sister both drowned. Henry deliberately married Stephen to Matilda of Boulogne, a lady from the same maternal bloodline as Empress Matilda and in fact the Empress's first cousin. Henry I was certainly considering Stephen as a contender to inherit in the ways that he built up Stephen's importance - see professor David Crouch's biography of Stephen for the details. When Empress Matilda was widowed he summoned her back and then he had two heirs in his pocket and could play one off against the other - that was Henry's style.

  3. Wonderful post! I'd be interested in knowing what you think of Ken Follett's treatment of the succession crisis in Pillars of the Earth.

  4. I liked it alot. the book and the tv series. I know there are some who criticise it for historical inaccuracy but I don't mind that. i know it's fiction and read it as such.

  5. Don't get me started on Pillars of the Earth. The edited version is read it as an adventure set in 'historical' times but don't believe a word!

  6. I enjoyed the posting Debbie and find the times of these early Norman kings so fascinating. Looking forward to Stephen and Maude- big Cadfael fan here!

    Thanks for sharing!


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