The king's death was unexpected: he was only in his fortieth year, and mens minds had not even begun to ponder over the question of who would succeed him. The crown of England was left vacant for the boldest kinsman to snatch at, if he dared. William had two surviving brothers, beside several nephews. Robert's claim seemed the more likely to succeed, for not only was he the elder, but England was full of barons who desired his accession, and had already taken up arms for him in 1087 or 1095. But he was far away, being at the moment on his return journey from Jerusalem, while on the spot was his brother Henry, an ambitious prince, whose previous efforts to secure himself a territorial endowment had failed more from ill-luck than from want of enterprise or ability. Seeing his opportunity, Henry left his brother's body unburied, rode straight off to Winchester with a handful of companions, and seized the royal treasure. This and his ready tongue were the main arguments by which he convinced the few magnates present, and persuaded them to back him, despite the protests of some supporters of Robert.
There was hardly the semblance of an election, and the Earl of Warwick and the chancellor William Giffard were almost the only persons of importance on the spot. But Henry, once hailed as king, rode hard for London and persuaded bishop Maurice to crown him without delay at Westminster, since the primate Anselm was absent beyond seas. He certainly lost no time: Rufus was shot on Thursday, the 2nd of August; his successor was crowned on Sunday the 5th of August! The realm heard almost by the same messengers that it had lost one king and that it had gained another.
Henry at once issued a proclamation and charter promising the redress of all the grievances with which his brother had afflicted his feudal tenants, the clergy and the whole nation. He would keep the ancient laws of King Edward, as amended by his father the Conqueror, and give all men good justice. These promises he observed more faithfully than Norman kings were wont to do; if the pledge was not redeemed in every detail, he yet kept England free from anarchy, abandoned the arbitrary and unjust taxation of his brother, and set up a government that worked by rule and order, not by the fits and starts of tyrannical caprice.
He was a man of a cold and hard disposition, but full of practical wisdom, and conscious that his precarious claim to the crown must be secured by winning the confidence of his subjects. Almost the first and quite the wisest of his inspirations was to wed a princess of the old English line Edith,1 the niece of Edgar Aetheling, the child of his sister Margaret of Scotland and Malcolm Canmore. The match, though his Norman barons sneered at it, gave him the hearts of all his English subjects, who supported him with enthusiasm, and not merely (as had been the case with Rufus) because they saw that a strong king would oppress them less than a factious and turbulent baronage. Henry won much applause at the same time by filling up all the bishoprics and abbacies which his brother had kept so long vacant, by inviting the exiled Anselm to return to England, and by imprisoning William's odious minister Ranulf Flambard.
He had just time to create a favourable impression by his first proceedings, when his brother Robert, who had returned from Palestine and resumed possession of Normandy, landed at Portsmouth to claim the crown and to rouse his partisans among the English baronage. Henry bought him off, before the would-be rebels had time to join him, by promising him an annual tribute of 3000 marks and surrendering to him all his estates in Normandy (1101). His policy seemed tame and cautious, but was entirely justifiable, for within a few months of Robert's departure the inevitable feudal rebellion broke out. If the duke and his army had been on the spot to support it, things might have gone hardly with the king. The rising was led by Robert of Belesme, Earl of Shrewsbury, a petty tyrant of the most ruffianly type, the terror of the Welsh marches. He was backed by his kinsmen. and many other barons, but proved unable to stand before the king, who was loyally supported by the English shire levies. After taking the strong castles of Arundel, Tickhill, Bridgnorth and Shrewsbury, Henry forced the rebels to submit. He confiscated their estates and drove them out of the realm; they fled for the most part to Normandy, to spur on duke Robert to make another bid for the English crown. From the broad lands which they forfeited Henry made haste to reward his own. servants, new men who owed all to him and served him faithfully. From them he chose the sheriffs, castellans and councillors through whom he administered the realm during the rest of his long reign.
This minor official nobility was the strength of the crown, and was sharply divided in spirit and ambition from the older feudal aristocracy which descended from the original adventurers who had followed William the Conqueror. Yet the latter still remained strong enough to constitute a danger to the crown whenever it should fall to a king less wary and resolute than Henry himself.
Henry was by nature more of an administrator and organizer than of a fighting man. He was a competent soldier, but his wish was rather to be a strong king at home than a great conqueror abroad. Nevertheless he was driven by the logic of events to attack Normandy, for as long as his brother reigned there, and as long as many English barons retained great holdings on both sides of the Channel and were subjects of the duke as well as of the king, intrigues and plots never ceased. The Norman war ended in the battle of Tenchebrai (Sept. 28, 1106), where Duke Robert was taken prisoner. His brother shut him up in honorable confinement for the rest of his life, though otherwise he was not ill-treated. For the rest of his reign Henry was ruler of all the old dominions of the Conqueror, and none of his subjects could cloak disloyalty by the pretence of owing a divided allegiance to two masters. With this he was content, and made no great effort to extend his dominions farther; his desire was to reign as a true king in England and Normandy, rather than to build up a loosely compacted empire around them.
Throughout the time of Henry's Norman war, he was engaged in a tiresome controversy with the primate on the question of lay investitures, the continuation of the struggle which Henry's had begun in his brothers reign. Every English king difficulties for five generations had to face the danger from the with the church, no less than the danger from the barons, church.
Anselm had come back from Rome confirmed in the theories for which he had contended with Rufus nay, taught to extend them to a further extreme. He now maintained not only that it was a sin that kings should invest prelates with their spiritual insignia, the pallium, the staff, the ring, but claimed that no clerk ought to do homage to the king for the lands of his benefice, though he himself seven years before had not scrupled to make his oath to his earlier master. He now refused to swear allegiance to the new monarch, though he had recalled him and had restored him to the possession of his see. He also refused to consecrate Henry's nominees to certain bishoprics and abbacies on the ground that they had not been chosen by free election by their chapters or their monks. The king was loath to take up the quarrel, for he highly respected the archbishop; yet he was still more loath to surrender the ancient claims and privileges of the crown. Anselm was equally reluctant to force matters to an open breach, yet would not shift from his position. There followed an interminable series of arguments, interrupted by truces, till at last Anselm, at the kings suggestion, went to Rome to see if the pope could arrange some modus vivendi.
Paschal II for some time refused to withdraw from his fixed theory of the relation of church and state, and Anselm, in despair, preferred to remain abroad rather than to press matters to the rupture that seemed the only logical issue of the controversy. But in 1107 the pope consented to a compromise, which satisfied the king, and yet was acceptable to the church. Bishops and abbots were for the future to be canonically elected by the clergy, and were no longer to receive the ring and staff from lay hands. But they were to do homage to the king for their lands, and since they thus acknowledged him as their temporal lord Henry was content. Moreover, he retained in practice, if not in theory, his power to nominate to the vacant offices; chapters and monasteries seldom dared to resist the pressure which the sovereign could bring to bear upon them in favour of the candidate whom he had selected. The arrangement was satisfactory, and served as the model for the similar compromise arrived at between Pope Calixtus II and the emperor Henry V fifteen years later.
1 As the name Edith (Eadgyth) sounded uncouth to Norman ears, she assumed the continental name Maheut or Mahelt (Eng. Mahald, later Mold and Maud), in Latin Matildis or Matilda. Sir J. H. Ramsay, Foundations of England, ii. 235. (Ed.)
Text extracted from the entry for ENGLISH HISTORY in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.