Kings and Queens in London – Henry I
Continuing our series looking at the legacy of British Kings and Queens. This time Henry I, otherwise known as Henri Beauclerc
After the demise of William II in the New Forest, his younger brother Henry wasted no time in claiming the throne, being crowned in Winchester a few days afterwards. With his older brother Robert also keen to claim the English throne Henry was in need of supporters, and to gain popularity in London he grants a new charter to the city – and this has far reaching consequences. Among the many advantages it gives to Londoners is making them exempt from tolls and taxes levied by other towns, although London tolls still applied to those coming from other parts of England. This gives London a significant trading advantage over other parts of the country – the very early stages of seeing England’s business community concentrating in London. The charter also allowed Londoner’s to appoint their own sheriff, whereas the rest of the country had their sheriff chosen by the king, giving London some political and legal independence. Sadly this important charter no longer survives, but we know its content from copies made at the time of King John – you can read a transcript here.
Another populist measure was imprisoning Ranulf Flambard, William II’s minister who had imposed taxes to pay for repairs to London Bridge. Ranulf didn’t stay prisoner long however – he became the first person to escape the Tower of London and joined up with Henry’s brother Robert. Henry soon appointed another minister though, a man called Rahere. Legend has it that Rahere was originally Henry’s court jester, but it is unclear if this is true. However Rahere is the founder of one of London’s great institutions – St Bartholomew’s Hospital in 1123, and the church of St Bartholomew The Great. You can visit Rahere’s tomb in the church today.
Henry attempted to unite the Scottish and English crowns by marrying Queen Edith of Scotland, she taking the name Matilda. Matilda was certainly an important person in her own right for she was given the rights to the duties of goods landed at a dock on the Thames, a dock we still call Queenhithe. You can find out more about Queenhithe on Tina’s walk which looks at the history and archaeology of the area and includes a bit of mudlarking too. Here is a video by South Bank Mosaics featuring Tina which explains an exciting new project to build a mosaic at Queenhithe
Matilda also founded a Holy Trinity Priory at Aldgate. The prior acted as the queen’s personal confessor, so must have been much in favour. Amazingly, despite being dissolved in 1532 parts of the priory still exist – inside the reception area of a modern office block on the corner of Mitre Street. Go and have a look, the reception staff are very welcoming to visitors.
There seem to be no places to eat and drink connected with Henry I, but possibly just as well in view of the way he died – from eating a surfeit of lamprey eels, despite being warned not to by his physician. There is a fantastic picture of his burial in Reading Museum, although his eel eating excess occurred in Normandy, he was buried in Reading Abbey, a building he founded during his reign.
Henry I was kept busy with his wars with Robert for most of his reign, but despite this he managed to father at least 23 illegitimate children, some say as many as 200. After the death of his only legitimate son William in the sinking of the White Ship, Henry’s daughter, also called Matilda, becomes first in line to the throne. However there are many who will refuse to accept a woman as ruler of England. For all Henry’s administrative reforms that benefitted London, after his death a period of civil war breaks out leading to the rule of King Stephen, which we will look at next time.