Little is known of Edwin F. Roberts (1818–64), who is the author of this long-running series, originally titled A New History of England, and serialised in Reynolds’s Political Instructor between 1849 and 1850. That he was a Chartist and republican will be apparent from his interpretation of events, and in May 1850 he became a regular contributor to Reynolds’s Newspaper. Every month a new instalment of Roberts’s long-forgotten radical history of England, transcribed by Stephen Basdeo, will be serialised here—for the first time since 1850!
For part one of Edwin Roberts’s history, examining the Norman Conquest click here.
For part two of Roberts’s history, looking at the reign of William Rufus, click here.
Henry I (surnamed Beauclerk)
HENRY, the 2nd son of the Conqueror, was born in 1068, and ascended, or rather reigned upon the throne in 1103. The agreement which had been made between his two brothers, William Rufus and Robert of Normandy, that the division should interest both dominions was forcibly broken by Henry, who at the moment of William’s death hastened to Winchester, and, despite the opposition of William de Breteuil, seized on the throne and took other measures for securing the Crown, without loss of time.
Robert’s absence gave him the opportunity. He was still in the holy land, where he greatly distinguished himself for his bravery, having on the 15th July, 1099, borne an active part in the taking of Jerusalem from the Sultan of Egypt. After this, returning home through Italy, while recovering from the fatigues of his campaign, his naturally indolent disposition was affected by the delicious climate of that country, while the beauty of a certain noble lady, whom he espoused, served to detain him there for a year longer. This delay was most fortunate for Henry, as it enabled him to consolidate his power and make his usurpation more familiar to the people, which, as there was no present opponent, had lost its darker hues; and as he had conciliated some of the churchmen most strenuous in their exertions against him, whose opposition was most to be feared, and besides was lavish of promises, he had become too firmly established on the throne to be moved. Three days had not elapsed after William’s death before he was crowned by Maurice, bishop of London. It was this quickness of decision, as well as of action; presence of mind to look calmly at the dangers and their consequences; and a determination to dare all at the expense of every principle of probity and honour, which in a manner won him the sceptre without so much as striking a blow for it.
Henry’s character, for the most part, has been represented in a very favourable light: and as a man has generally two phases of being—the one good and the other bad, according to the extent by which he represses or fosters his passions; so also, if one side of Henry’s nature is looked at, he may be all that is amiable and magnanimous, and what is comprehended by the term kingly.
But a man who gains his throne by treachery—who forgets the ties of brotherhood—and during that brother’s absence robs him of possessions which it had become lawful for him to have, must be destitute of those lofty sentiments and qualities that one holding such a station ought to possess. In seeking to strengthen himself in the state he had usurped, he spared neither promises or charters to the people—promises he never more thought of performing, and charters which were only the evidences of his duplicity and want of common honesty.
The Normans of England at that time proved themselves to be as vile as their ruler. They beheld with indifference the fundamental principles of justice broken by this act brigandage on the part of the king; and exhibited a total ignorance, even beyond that of barbarism, of the true nature of government, proving that they were as lawless and as rude as when in earlier times they quitted their country to rob and plunder every place that was defenceless, provided it promised them spoil.
Soon violating the principles of the charters which he had ostentatiously given his subjects, Henry brought upon him once more the wrath of Anselm the prelate, by keeping the see of Durham vacant for five years, and monopolizing its possessions and revenues; and when we reflect that these religious establishments were less the absolute property of the church than the legitimate support of the poor (as the dreadful destitution of succeeding times was then obviated or unknown) it is plain that he apostatised from his promises in a double sense, and increased the penury of the breadless and the houseless. Henry, who expected to reap great advantages from Anselm’s return from exile, sent to him at Lyons repeatedly. He at last complied with the king’s request, but, unfortunately for him, the return of the churchman had a contrary effect to what he anticipated, for he had been confirmed by the Pope in his opposition and refused to do the king that homage he had done to William; while Henry, dreading to carry things too far, agreed to a suspension of the controversy between them, and sent messengers to Rome, in order to prevail upon the pope to make those concessions which his vicar denied him.
In the meantime he procured a dispensation to marry Matilda (daughter of Malcolm III.), who had taken the veil. This appears to have been one of the most popular measures that he ever formed, as she had become dear to the English for many things, chiefly for her relationship to the last line of the Saxon kings; while the tyranny of the Normans brought the gentler rule of the past dynasty with more grateful remembrances to them—for they now served ungrateful masters, who sought their aid in tribulation, and tyrannised over them when the danger was gone by.
The return of Robert to Normandy was the signal for hostilities. Taking possession of his duchy without opposition, he began to assemble his barons and their vassals, in order to avenge himself upon his brother for the perfidy with which Henry had acted. His great warlike fame added to his influence, and several of the most powerful nobles of England declared for him, while the seamen took over to the court of Normandy the greater part of Henry’s fleet, in order to facilitate the enterprise in hand. It was the most perilous moment of his whole reign.
Henry, like his brother, had recourse to that then supreme power, the church. He sought to conciliate Anselm, whose reputation for piety and asceticism was largely spread abroad, and had thus much influence over the people. By show of repentance, his promises on behalf of Rome, and his concessions to the church, he won the primate, who in turn prevailed upon the nobles and the people that were wavering in their adherence, to side with the king. Thus he was enabled to oppose Robert’s landing at Plymouth with a very formidable array, and the two armies, after lying in sight of each other for several days, at last parted without coming to blows: Robert accepted an annual pension of three thousand marks for quietly parting with his birthright, and made the same agreement which had formerly been made between William and himself previous to William’s death and Henry’s usurpation regarding the survivor’s governing both countries.
Henry soon broke through his part of the treaty. Taking advantage of his brother’s dissipated and dissolute nature, induced by his want of energy during times of peace, he ruined several of the noblemen who had taken part with Robert in the late attempt to wrest the crown rom him. The duke again hastened to England, but without an army, and remonstrated with Henry in severe terms for this scandalous breach of faith, but by this he only placed his liberty and life in danger, and purchased his escape by resigning his pension, which the unprincipled Henry with great complaisance appropriated to his own uses. Finally, in 1106, after some severe fighting, the conquest of Normandy was effected by Henry, for Robert’s apathy had alienated his friends from him and disgusted his allies. Robert was taken prisoner at the siege of Falais (his son William being consigned to the care of Helie de St. Saen), and with a diabolical refinement of cruelty, which speaks less for the magnanimity and enlightenment of Henry than anything else can, he was kept in close imprisonment by his own brother, and after an incarceration of eight and twenty years, died in Cardiff Castle.
In 1107, after the taking of Normandy, the dispute with Anselm was compromised with much base trickery on Henry’s part, who suborned three bishops to swear falsely. The prelate was confirmed in his determination not to do homage as a vassal to Henry, for the possessions bestowed in trust upon him; and Pascal II. had written to the king,
“It is monstrous that man should pretend to create God: priests are called gods in scripture; and will you—by your pretensions to grant them investiture—assume the right of creating them?”
This polemical logic was not convincing, and Henry said,
“that he would rather part with his head, than with the right of granting investiture,”
and as Pascal was so involved at the time with the Emperor, Henry V., and others, it was finally arranged that the Pope should resign the right of granting investiture, and permit bishops to do homage to the king for their temporalities.
The acquisition of Normandy brought Henry in contact with Louis (le gros), of France, and a war ensued, which was attended with no particular consequences. Louis was unable to wrest Normandy from the English crown, though many attempts were made, both diplomatic and otherwise; and after the war was closed, things remained in almost the same condition as at the outset of this last unproductive broil.
Henry may be said to have attained the height of his prosperity, when he was taught a severe lesson in the insecurity of earthly happiness, by a domestic loss, which inflicted upon him so severe a blow that he never recovered from it. This was the death of his only son, William, then in his eighteenth year. The king anxious to have his subjects understand that his son was to be their future ruler, and remembering with what facility a crown may be seized and retained, took him over to Normandy, in order that the barons might do him homage and pledge him their future fealty. Returning from Harfleur, Henry set sail first, and, as the wind was fair, soon lost sight of land. The vessel in which the prince embarked struck on a rock, inconsequence of the drunkenness of the captain and his crew, they having held a revel onshore, and they were obliged to take to the boat. A butcher of Rouen was the only one who escaped, and it is to him we are indebted for the following information:—
“William, being put in the long-boat, had got clear of the ship, when hearing the cries of his natural sister, the Countess of Perche, he ordered the seamen to row back, in hopes of saving her, but the number who crowded in sunk the boat, and the prince, together with his whole retinue, perished.”
Above a hundred and forty young noblemen, of England and Normandy were lost. Fitzstephen, the captain, clung to the same mast with the butcher, but being informed of the extent of the catastrophe, he said he would not survive the disaster, and threw himself headlong into the sea. For three days did the king entertain hopes that his son might yet be saved; but when tidings, the truth of which he could not doubt, confirmed his fears, he fainted away, and it is said that he never smiled again.
Be that as it may, irrespective of the sympathy which every one feels on the occasion of every great calamity, we do not agree with Hume
“that the death of William may be regarded as a misfortune to the English,”
but an event on which they might congratulate themselves; for he admits that the prejudices of Norman blood, name, and nation, had made Henry tyrant enough over his English subjects, and we do not see how their condition would have been improved under the rule of a young monarch who had often been heard to say that
“the moment he was king he would make them draw the plough and turn them into beasts of burden,”
and other threats, by which he exhibited a violent and deep-rooted aversion to the English; and yet the historian, who describes him in much the same terms, utters this audaciously impudent paradox that
“his death was to be regarded as a misfortune!”
The only child that Henry had now left was a daughter, Matilda, whom he had betrothed to Henry V. of Germany.
In order, however, to perpetuate his name, and secure, if possible, a legitimate successor to the throne, his first wife being dead, in 1121 he married Adelais, daughter of the Duke of Louvaine; but this project was an utter failure, as far as his ambitious projects went, for she brought him no children, to his great discontent. Had he chosen, he might have looked upon his bereavement and his disappointment, as something in the light of a retribution; for a man who had sought to aggrandize himself at every cost, with the violation of every oath and promise, and had exhibited so unnatural a disposition towards his own kindred, might have found in his condition food for much thought.
His fears about William, the son of Duke Robert (now protected by the Court of France), were quieted, for though the prince had been put in possession of the Earldom of Flanders, in the right of his grandmother, wife to the Conqueror, he was killed, 1128, during a sharp skirmish with the Landgrave of Alsace, who disputed Flanders with him.
More than ten years back, Henry, in order to put a stop to the predatory excursions of the tameless Welsh chieftains, brought over some Flemings, and established them with their fulling-mills, &c., (with many privileges, which gave a spur and impulse to wool-manufactures) in Pembrokeshire. This act of policy was of infinite use to the people in general, who soon improved their rude textile fabrics, so that it became an important branch of business; and the industrial channel for a more valuable kind of labour, which increased the worth of the raw material, was thereby greatly extended.
The concluding days of Henry were chiefly taken up in resisting the encroachments of the Court of Rome. Anselm, Abbot of St. Sabas, who was intending to come over as Legate, in 1116, was prohibited from entering, and Henry, in addition, extracted a promise from the Pope who was then in great polemical difficulties, that no legate should be again sent: but this promise was secretly violated, and more stringent measures were taken to secure what were termed the liberties of the English Church.
It seems ever to have been between spiritual and temporal princes an understood thing, a conventional mode of action, that they should lie broadly, act with duplicity, promise with prodigality, and never, unless compelled, perform any one pledge. It is astonishing to witness the imperturbable calmness with which these rulers in turn beheld so many of their basest actions exposed. It was only a clever scheme well encountered, and they seem to have felt more annoyance at being overreached, than in having their “punic faith,” their gigantic false hoods, hurled back to their teeth. In the meantime the people paid for all.
In 1131, while England enjoyed a certain kind of tranquillity, Henry paid a visit to Normandy, whither he was invited by his daughter, the Empress Matilda; though, her husband the Emperor Henry having died, she was now the wife of Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. It was here she presented him with a grandchild, named Henry, and after a stay of some three years, he appeared to have made up his mind to close his days there, had not another dangerous and threatening incursion of the Welsh, in 1135, compelled him to prepare for his return. He had set forth on his journey, when he was taken seriously ill at St. Denis le Forment, after having eaten plentifully of lampreys, a dish but ill-suited for his satiated palate and shattered constitution. He left Matilda the heiress to his dominions by will, without having made mention of her husband’s name in any way.
The historians say, that he was
“one of the most accomplished princes that ever filled the English throne;”
but, if this refers to his accomplishments, one might add, that Fauntleroy and Barrington were accomplished men also.
“His temper was susceptible of the sentiments as well of friendship as of resentment.”
His temper, on the contrary, appears to us a very bad and vindictive one. A man, who, for nearly thirty years, could keep his brother captive, cannot claim much of our admiration. That
“his person was manly, his countenance engaging, his eyes clear, &c.”
is to say little or nothing, and all the litany of virtues that can be added to his name will not obliterate the fact that he was treacherous in the first instance, insolent, and so debauched and licentious, that seven sons and six daughters, all illegitimate, were living at the time of his death.
“To kill a stag, was (with him) as criminal as to murder a man; all the dogs found wandering in the precincts of the royal forests were mutilated, and, in addition, he punished their possessors with fines, imprisonment, or mutilation; while the ‘progress’ which he now and then made through the land, came like a devastation upon his luckless subjects, who so dreaded this mode of living at ‘rack and manger’, at their expense, that they deserted their houses at the first approach, as if an army of invaders were come.”
“In other respects, he executed justice.”
Little did the historian dream how true was the cruel pun he made so unconsciously; how can justice be expected from such a man? Selfish, haughty and arrogant, all things must give place to him. He who fosters in his own child (as he did in Prince William) sentiments of contempt and aversion towards the people he is destined to rule, can merit nothing but the severest censure. All his actions, when closely scrutinized, fill us with the most unequivocal contempt.
Henry granted the City of London a charter, which confirmed their privileges, strengthened their power, and first made them a corporation. They were empowered to keep the farm of Middlesex, at 300 l. a year, to elect their own sheriff and justiciary, to hold pleas of the crown, exempted them from scot, Danegelt, trial by combat, and, last, but certainly not least, the infamous tax of lodging the king’s retinue.
But this was far more likely to spring from his boasted style of policy than from any liberal feeling or liking towards them. His Norman nature, proud and rapacious, was not very likely to heed the peaceful thriving of a town or a borough, unless his own interest was very closely connected with it.
 Original citation: Edwin F. Roberts, ‘A New History of England: Henry I’, Reynolds’s Political Instructor, 24 November 1849, 12–13.