Henri I is known as the French monarchy's lowest point. But was he such a bad king?
The scions of House Capet were in a far weaker position than the early leaders of either of the two dynasties that preceded them. Clovis I was an epic figure who united the Frankish tribes, crushed the Visigoths and Aquitanians and secured the support of the Catholic Church. Charles Martel again united the Franks, crushed the Aquitainians and various Islamic forces and consolidated the church under his authority. The Merovingians and Carolingians who followed afterwards inherited kingdoms where the king was by far the most powerful figure. But the century-long Carolingian decline took its toll on the monarchy. When Hugues Capet became king the monarch was one of many great powers. In the north, the Capetians struggled for dominance with the counts of Vermandois, Blois and Anjou and later, the rising power of Normandy. Capetian power in the south was minimal at best.
Thankfully for the Capetians they recognized their weakness from the start. Six months after becoming king, Hugues uplifted his son Robert II as junior king. This way, when Hugues passed, there would already be another king on the throne, offsetting potential rivals. Robert II likewise knew that many in the kingdom still regarded his family as usurpers and that he needed to do everything in his power to prepare the way for his successor. However, an incestuous love triangle threw all these plans into chaos and opened up the kingdom for potential disaster.
In 996 Robert II married Bertha of Burgundy to secure his western territories, though it seems Robert II genuinely loved her. Yet, Bertha was his second cousin, and such a union was forbidden by the church. When the French king refused to put aside his wife Pope Gregory V, under pressure from the Holy Roman Emperor, excommunicated Robert II. Robert II had no choice and he separated from Bertha.
Afterwards he took a new wife, Constance of Arles. But the king and his new queen had no love for each other. Robert II was northern French and disliked the ‘effeminate’ customs of her southern French retinue. He was generous to an absurd degree, unlike his frugal wife. Robert II and his closest compatriots, among them Hugues, Count of Beauvais, schemed to have Constance dismissed so that he could reunite with Bertha. During a hunting trip assassins executed Hugues in front of the king, who suspected his wife played some role in the murder. Robert II was furious and travelled to Rome to ask the Pope if he could divorce Constance and marry Bertha. But the pope refused and Robert II consigned himself to his fate. The mutual hatred that king and queen felt for each other would carry over to their children and threaten the monarchy’s power.
Despite all the bad blood between them, the two still did their duty to the kingdom. In 1007 Constance gave birth to her first son Hugues, named after his grandfather and the first king of House Capet. The following year she bore Henri, and in 1011 delivered her last healthy son Robert. King Robert II made his eldest son co-king in 1017 when the boy was only 10 years old. According to the admittedly biased chronicles, Constance drove Hugues into rebellion in 1025, and the junior king and his knights ransacked royal territories. The rebellion was over in months, but no sooner had Hugues made amends with his father he died of an unknown illness.
Hugues’ death meant that Henri was first in line for the throne. Constance believed Henri was unfit to rule, accusing him of laziness and loose morality. The queen favored her youngest son Robert and advocated for him to become the heir-apparent, though this might not have been out of genuine love; instead the queen was probably playing her children against each other to limit their power while retaining her own influence. King Robert II ignored his wife’s counsel as he usually did. In 1027 he had Henri crowned co-king at Reims, a move which so angered the queen that she rode out of the city in a fury.
On 20 July 1031 Robert II died and Henri I became the sole king of France. The queen-mother refused to cede power to her son and immediately seized her dower lands, which included the important towns of Senlis and Sens, among others. Henri I could not suffer losing some of the most important crownlands and went to war against his mother, besieging Sens. Constance and Robert the younger could not hope to defeat the king alone and so she gifted Sens to Odo II of Blois in exchange for his support. Odo II lifted the siege and Henri I fled to Fécamp. There Henri I called upon Robert I, Duke of Normandy to honor his oaths of fealty and march out to war with him. After raising an army of Normans, Henri I drew further support from his ally Baldwin V of Flanders. These forces marched on Poissy, forcing the queen to flee and sue for pardon. Henri I granted his mother clemency, though she died shortly thereafter of a coughing fit. During all this Fulk Nerra of Anjou sided with Henri I and took the opportunity to smash the rival country of Blois, defeating Odo II in two major battles, forcing him to surrender.
The events that followed Henri I’s victory form the bedrock of the entire historical controversy over his reign. After securing his kingship Henri I offered the Duchy of Burgundy to his younger brother, while gifting the French Vexin to the Duke of Normandy. The result of these concessions is that under Henri I the royal demesne reached an all-time low. Under him, the crownlands looked somewhat like the modern nation of Sweden, with the top comprising Senlis and Paris, before stretching southward to include Orléans. This territory was roughly the size of the bordering County of Champagne the County of Blois or the Duchy of Burgundy and was significantly smaller than the nearby duchy of Normandy.
On paper, Henri I was the weakest king in French history, and it is for this that he is regularly condemned by historians who describe him as a failure. This view of Henri I as the low-point of the Capetians was widely accepted until the early 2000s as historians reappraise his career. Modern historians have been kinder to Henri I with Jim Bradbury even going so far as to argue that he began the Capetian ascendancy over the rest of France.
Henri I did cede the Vexin to Normandy and the Duchy of Burgundy to his brother, but that is because Henri I did not want to stretch himself too thin. Instead, he opted to cede territories to those he believed loyal to him. Henri I did retake the Vexin during Guillaume le Batard’s minority, proving that while he granted land to his faithful vassals he still possessed the strength to take lands he believed were his by rights.
In 1032, after crushing his family rebellion, Henri I met the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II at Deville. There the two formed an alliance entirely based on their opposition to Odo II of Blois. Henri I recognized that Odo II was his greatest threat, as Blois bordered his own territory to the west. Meanwhile, Odo II was the son of Conrad I of Burgundy; this being the Kingdom of Burgundy, which was larger and more important than the Duchy of Burgundy. Since the reigning King of Burgundy Rodolphe III had no successors, Odo II was first in line to inherit the kingdom. Just think about that; a powerful lord within France suddenly acquiring a kingdom, making him both the king’s vassal and his equal? That would be a disaster! As if that situation was not complicated enough, the Kingdom of Burgundy was part of the Holy Roman Empire; if Odo II took the kingdom he would be a vassal of both the King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor while being the French king’s equal and a major political leader in the Holy Roman Empire.
Henri I and Conrad II agreed that Odo II could not be allowed to inherit the kingdom. Moreover, Conrad II of Germany was the second-in-line to inherit the Kingdom of Burgundy, meaning if Odo II was denied his rights then Conrad II would be King of Germany, Italy and Burgundy, as well as being the Holy Roman Emperor. The King and Emperor solidified their alliance when Conrad II betrothed his seven-year-old daughter Matilda to Henri. The marriage never came to pass, as Matilda died the following year, though Henri I and Conrad II’s mutual opposition to Odo II remained firm. When the King of Burgundy died Odo II and Conrad II warred in the kingdom for two years upon which the German seized power. This was not the end of their conflict, and Odo II fought Conrad II in Alsace before dying in 1037. After Odo II’s death the County of Blois fell into civil war as his three sons fought for the greatest share of their father’s lands.
Henri I spent the next 23 years in a near-continuous state of warfare to expand the royal domain and curtail the power of his northern vassals. By 1041 Thibaut, Count of Blois, took control of most of his deceased father’s territory. Secure in his holdings, Thibaut led a coalition of northern nobles to overthrow Henri I and place a puppet on the throne, the king’s illegitimate brother Odo. Henri I led an army against the rebels and captured Odo. But ultimate victory came from his ally, Geoffroi Martel, the count of Anjou. Geoffroi smashed Thibaut’s forces and captured the rival count. Defeated, Thibaut bought his freedom by gifting Geoffroi the county of Touraine.
Under Geoffroi the county of Anjou tripled in size and became one of the major powers in northern France. This fact deeply disturbed Henri I, who realized that he had humbled one vassal only to create a much more powerful rival. Geoffroi understood that Henri I feared his growing power and he facilitated a marriage between his step-daughter Agnès and the Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich III. In response, Henri I allied with Godfroi of Upper Lorraine to seize Lower Lorraine from the Holy Roman Empire. Henri I could not take the territory but he pressured Heinrich III into signing a treaty of friendship, which effectively ended the alliance between Anjou and the Empire.
In the early 1050s King Henri I and Count Geoffroi Martel put aside their differences and became staunch allies for the rest of their lives. This sudden change of heart came about due to the rising power of Normandy, especially that of its Duke, Guillaume. Henri I had a long history with the Normans and their leader. During Guillaume’s perilous youth Henri I served as his protector. Yet, even after the boy came of age, Henri I acted as if he could interfere in Normandy as he willed, angering the young duke. In 1040 the king claimed lordship of the Norman fortress at Tillères-sur-Avre. When Gilbert Crépin refused to surrender, Henri I successfully besieged and demolished the fort.
During the 1041-1044 war against the County of Blois, Henri I led an army into Normandy to pursue rebels. The King of France seized the Hiémois with the Norman noble Thurstan Goz and he rebuilt the fortress at Tillières. Henri I believed that his actions in Normandy were nothing more than a king’s duty and privilege to keep his kingdom in order. By contrast, Guillaume considered the French move an invasion. Yet, Guillaume depended on the king to put down his rebellious vassals and so he bit his tongue. While he could not punish the king he did exile Thurstan Goz for aiding the French monarch, a move which prompted Thurstan’s relative Haimo the Toothy to join a large-scale rebellion.
The year 1046 was among the darkest for Guillaume. According to the chronicles he was so desperate that he threw himself at Henri I’s feet at Falaise, begging for his aid. Henri I looked down at the young man and saw his past self. He remembered how early in his reign he faced a rebellion that threatened to end his rule, if not his life. In that moment he called upon Duke Robert of Normandy to save him, and the Norman had fulfilled his oaths. As he looked down at Robert I’s son he knew he had to repay his debt, and agreed to support him. Henri I and Guillaume fought side-by-side the following year, defeating the Duke’s enemies and securing Normandy. The king favored the duke, even allowing him to marry his niece Mathilde, daughter of the Duke of Flanders in 1051 or 1052.
Henri I’s alliance with Normandy dramatically ended after a successful campaign in 1051. That year Geoffroi invaded Bellême, seizing territory from its lord. Henri I could not allow the already mighty Count of Anjou to seize more power and he called upon Guillaume to join him in repulsing the Angevins. Guillaume dutifully followed his king westward; a bit too dutifully. The Norman army that the duke raised was significantly larger than the French army. While the two lords succeeded in their campaign, Guillaume received most of the glory and Henri I was humiliated.
We can only guess at Henri I’s psychology, though it is possible that he developed a certain paranoia. Given his history, it’s not hard to see why. When he first assumed kingship, he had to fight against a rebellion by his mother and younger brother. After surviving this threat he faced a conspiracy by his vassals and illegitimate brother. Throughout his long reign he was constantly putting down rebellions. Henri I was seeing enemies whenever he opened his eyes, though in fairness, most of those were real. Despite any genuine affection Henri I had for Guillaume, he decided he needed to oppose him if he wanted to secure the crownlands. Everyone in the kingdom knew Guillaume was the great power, including Geoffroi, who reconciled with the king after nearly a decade as his rival and joined him against the Normans.
In 1052 Guillaume’s uncle rebelled against him. Henri I sent a force to support the rebellion, which caught the Duke off-guard. The Norman ruling family had been close allies with the French kings going back to 911, regularly fighting alongside them against their rebellious northern vassals. Despite this stunning reversal, Guillaume recovered and assembled an army to meet the French and rebel Normans. The Duke sent out a small company to meet his enemies, which lured them into the open where the Normans smashed the French force.
This defeat convinced Henri I that he had to act. He was not alone; joining him were Geoffroi, Count of Anjou, the Dukes of Burgundy and Aquitaine and the leaders of Brittany. Henri I marched towards Rouen from the south while his brother Odo invaded from the east, in a strategy aimed to catch the Normans between hammer and anvil. The Duke of Normandy responded by sending an army east to check Odo while he personally led the greater host to meet his former guardian. The Normans found the French army had split apart. It is likely that the French forces did not think that the Normans would engage such a huge force, and the French plundered the countryside. Thus, Guillaume launched a sudden attack and massacred the invaders at The Battle of Mortemer. Henri I was not present at the battle; he learned about the slaughter from a Norman messenger who told the king to bring wagons to carry away the multitudes of dead soldiers.
Henri I’s 1053 invasion was a disaster. Defeat only convinced him of the necessity of action. In February 1057 Henri I and Geoffroi launched a surprise attack aimed at ravaging Normandy. The invasion was initially successful. Henri I took Caen and led his army across a narrow bridge over the Orne River. After half of his forces had made it to the other side, Guillaume and his Normans burst out of hiding and crashed into the French trapped on the southern bank. Henri I could only watch as half of his host were cut down or drowned in the river as they fled the Norman assault. The Battle of Varaville was another slaughter, and the king was again forced to abandon his campaign. Henri I never launched another major invasion into Normandy. But the king refused to be vanquished and he fought for control of fortresses along his northern border.
While Henri I fought many wars he was an active and enthusiastic administrator who regularly issued charters in his lands and those of his vassals. He expanded the royal bureaucracy and issued more decrees. He supported the Peace of God and Truce of God movements to limit violence across the realm. He was a generous patron of the church and sponsored St-Martin-des-Champs near Paris. One interesting episode occurred in 1034 when the ruler of Poland, Duke Casimir I, sought refuge in the kingdom. Casimir was in Germany when news arrived that a massive pagan uprising gripped the country, threatening the lives of the ruling Catholics. Henri I received Casimir I in Paris before the duke moved to Cluny Abbey. Casimir I took shelter in France on-and-off until 1041 when he returned to Poland as its ruler.
Henri I had a troubled love life. After the death of his fiancée Matilda of Franconia he pursued another marriage alliance with the Germans, this time to Matilda of Frisia, the niece of Heinrich III, Conrad II’s successor. The two married in 1034 when she was 10 and he 26. Matilda had a daughter in 1040. Tragically, mother and daughter fell ill and died in 1044. This tragedy seems to have had a deep impact on Henri I, who remained a widower for another 7 years. As he neared the end of his reign he sought another wife and in 1051 married Anne, daughter of Yaroslav the Grand Prince of Kyiv. Anne gave birth to three sons, Philippe, Robert and Hugues, and may have had a daughter as well. As a mother she had a profound impact on the future Capetian monarchs due to her insistence that her children receive a stringent education. According to historian Jim Bradbury, “She was the first French queen known to employ a tutor for her family.” Anne valued learning and knew how to write, a rarity among women, even amidst the nobility and passed on these values to her successors. Anne also introduced the Greek name ‘Philippe’ to France, a name which became the third-most used name for French monarchs, behind Louis and Charles.
Like his father and grandfather before him, Henri I secured the inheritance of his son by making him co-king. Henri I uplifted the 7-year-old Philippe I on 23 May 1059 at Reims. Under ideal circumstances Philippe would have only taken up the crown when he was older but Henri I’s time was coming to an end and he wanted to secure his legacy. In mid-1060 the king fell ill. His physician gave him a purgative to help with abdominal problems. While the physician was gone the king became thirsty and requested water. The water mixed with the purgative, becoming toxic in his stomach. On 4 August 1060 Henri I died in agony at Virty-aux-Loges. His body was later put to rest at Saint-Denis.
Historians long-depicted Henri I’s rule as the nadir of the French monarchy. Part of this has to do with surviving chronicles, most of which originate in areas controlled by Henri I’s enemies. Henri I certainly ruled less territory than any other king. Yet, he secured his territory against his legitimate family, illegitimate upstarts and rival aristocrats. Moreover, his granting of the Duchy of Burgundy to his brother was not a loss for the royal family, as the duchy became a staunch ally of the Capetians. Henri I defeated the threat from Blois, curtailed the power of the Angevins and countered aggression by the Holy Roman Empire. Henri I’s major political failure was his excursions in Normandy, though these were not wholly without victory. He managed to take Norman territory in the 1040s and, though he did not live to see it, his last campaign was a minor success which seized a border castle.
The early Capetians had been poorly-educated and were not known for their laws. Henri I’s reign was a turning point as he took a marked interest in administering the kingdom. Moreover he, or more accurately his wife, made sure that the next generation would receive the finest education before they wore the crown. Henri I was also a great patron of the church, and he supported peace movements throughout the country.
Henri I was not a great king but neither was he the failure that older historians often claim he was. Unlike many kings, who inherited stable kingdoms, Henri I’s reign could have been over before it started. Yet, the young man successfully put down the revolt by his mother. As he grew older he faced each threat with intelligence and charisma and deftly handled an ever-shifting political landscape. His victories were noteworthy, if not grand. His defeats were not cataclysmic.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of his entire reign was simply that he had a reign. Henri I’s grandfather Hugues consistently faced opposition from those who called him a usurper. Robert II was more accepted by the nobility but the Capetian dynasty was not a settled affair. Henri I ruled as the sole king for just over 29 years. By the time he died there was no one alive who remembered life before Capetian rule. The mere fact that Henri I exercised real authority was itself a triumph, one which further solidified the Capetian dynasty.
Jim Bradbury, The Capetians: Kings of France 987-1328, 2007.
Mark Hagger, Norman Rule in Normandy 911-1144, 2017.
Joel T. Rosenthal, “Education of the Early Capetians,” 1969.