A Norman feminist?

King Henry I was the third Norman king of England, after his father, William the Conqueror, and his older brother, William II. Henry reigned in England and most of Wales for 35 years, keeping a peace there, but he struggled with frequent outbreaks of rebellion in Normandy, where he was Duke from 1106.

It is interesting to speculate about King Henry I’s attitude to women. Because of his cross-Channel kingdom, he was frequently absent from England and, on several occasions, he entrusted the Regency of England to his capable wife, Queen Matilda. He had a close personal and political relationship with his extremely able sister, Countess Adela of Blois, who kept him well-informed about events in Normandy and France through an extensive network of spies.

King Henry had at least 15 mistresses and 22 illegitimate children. Spending time with women, hunting, and collecting relics appear to have been his main leisure activities when not coping with the enormous task of managing his kingdom. He took care of his mistresses and acknowledged, educated, and advanced the children he had with them, including his illegitimate daughters. A number of his mistresses were nobly born and were with him for several years, suggesting that these relationships were emotional and intellectual engagements, as well as sexual encounters. He had three children with Ansfride and between four and six children with Sybil Corbet.

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Empress Matilda

 

He made a serious attempt to install the first female sole ruler of England, when he named his daughter, Empress Matilda (or Maud), as his successor, after the death of his only legitimate son. He forced the English and Norman barons to swear oaths of fealty to Maud as heir to the throne. But when King Henry died suddenly in 1135, Maud was pregnant in Normandy and her cousin, Stephen, sped to Westminster and usurped her throne, sparking off 13 years of civil war in England.

 

Two of the Kings’s sons (his legitimate heir, William Adelin, and his illegitimate son Richard, by Ansfride) and one of his illegitimate daughters (Mathilde, Countess of Perche) drowned in The White Ship disaster in the English Channel in 1120, along with many other young members of his court, which must have been a devastating event for him to deal with.

There is one blip in his record of relationships with the female members of his extensive family. His illegitimate daughter, Juliana, by Ansfride, attempted to kill him with a crossbow after he had allowed her two small daughters, his granddaughters, to be taken as hostages and then maimed. They were blinded and had their noses slit. The incident was the fault of Juliana’s husband, Eustace of Breteuil, who was in rebellion against Henry and had first maimed the boy hostage in his care. However, as king, Henry could have chosen to protect his granddaughters. Instead, he chose to act according to the letter of the law, however brutal in this case. He was, certainly, a fascinating and complex character and a highly successful king.

The spyloft in St Alban’s Cathedral inspired a scene in my new novel, The Drowned Court. In the scene, King Henry first lays eyes on his last known mistress, Isabel de Beaumont. A spyloft was a structure with a concealed passage and spyholes, giving the monks the ability to discreetly keep an eye on visiting pilgrims and the priceless relics they had come to venerate. In the novel, King Henry, instead, uses the spyloft to gain an eyeful of the young Isabel.

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The spy loft, St Alban’s Cathedral

The Drowned Court is published by Impress Books in October, and is the second in my Conquest trilogy, focussed on the eventful life of the Welsh princess, Nest ferch Rhys, who was one of King Henry’s mistresses.

I will be giving talks on my historical fiction in November:

Wednesday 8 November 1pm at Gaywood Library in Kings Lynn

Monday 13 November 11am at Pembroke Dock Library, close to Pembroke Castle where Nest lived

Monday 27 November 2pm at Downham Market Library.

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