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Accession of Henry I

Accession of Henry I., surnamed Beauclerk, ad. 1100 - Marriage of Henry with Matilda - Battle of Tenchebray - Imprisonment and Death of Robert of Normandy.
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When the news of the death of William Rufus was brought to his brother Henry in the New Forest, the prince immediately set spurs to his horse and galloped to Winchester. Presenting himself before the officers in charge of the treasures of the crown, he demanded the keys; but before he had obtained them, William de Breteuil, the royal treasurer, who had followed Henry from the New Forest, arrived on the spot, and interposed his authority. De Breteuil reminded the prince of the oath of allegiance which they had both taken to Robert of Normandy, to whom also, as the eldest son of the Conqueror, the throne as well as the treasure by right belonged. A violent altercation took place, and Henry drew his sword and threatened De Breteuil with instant death unless the treasure was given up. Several nobles of the late king's court supported the demand, and the treasurer found himself compelled to abandon an opposition which proved entirely unavailing.

Henry, whose abilities had procured him the surname of Beauclerk, or the fine "scholar," proved himself as prompt in action as skilful in design. He immediately distributed some of the jewels and money of the crown among his adherents and the clergy of Winchester, and with these gifts and promises still more lavishly bestowed, he secured a certain degree of popularity in the town. Having been acknowledged as king by the Witan, who were assembled in the neighbourhood, he hastened to London, when he again distributed large gifts among all those whose adhesion it was necessary to obtain. So rapidly was all this accomplished, that on the 5th of August, three days after his brother's death, Henry was proclaimed king, and was crowned in Westminster Abbey by Maurice, Bishop of London.

At the death of Lanfranc, the see of Canterbury had been given to Anselm, a monk of the Abbey of Bee, in Normandy. When the privileges of the Church were infringed by the exactions and persecutions of Rufus, Anselm made his escape from the country to lay his complaint before the Pope (a.d. 1098). He had travelled to Home in the disguise of a pilgrim, with staff in his hand and scrip by his side, and was received with due honour by the Pope. At the time of the accession of Henry, he still remained absent. The archbishopric of York had been vacant for several years, and Maurice was therefore the highest ecclesiastic in the kingdom.

It will be remembered that, by the treaty signed at Caen between Robert of Normandy and William Rufus, the crown of England devolved upon the survivor; but while Henry was obtaining possession of the throne, Robert was not yet returned from the Holy Land. Soon after the fall of Jerusalem, the Duke of Normandy had quitted Palestine and landed in Italy. Here he was received with high honour and welcome by the Norman barons who had conquered large possessions in that southern land. Passing through Apulia he was entertained at the castle of the Count of Conversano, who was a relation of Robert Guiscard. The count received his guest with the utmost hospitality, and all the resources of a princely establishment were placed at his command. Within the castle were troubadours and jongleurs, mirth and music; without were broad plains and forests stocked with game, horses, and hounds in abundance, a beautiful landscape, and a sunny sky. It is not surprising that all these pleasures should attract a man of the character of the Duke of Normandy, who had just escaped from the protracted hardships of the Crusade, and who was well disposed to enjoy that ease and self-indulgence which he believed himself to have earned. But the Count of Conversano had a daughter; she was young, accomplished, and of great beauty. Robert fell in love with the Lady Sibylla, and obtained her hand in marriage. Ignorant of the critical position of affairs in England, and probably troubling himself little about the future, the Duke of Normandy lingered among the pleasures of Italy, while his more ambitious brother was firmly securing himself in the sovereignty he had usurped.

The Anglo-Saxon people are said to have been inclined in favour of Henry, from the circumstance of his having been born and educated in England. The advantage he thus possessed was improved to the utmost, and the new king exerted himself to obtain the good-will of that portion of his subjects who, however trodden down and oppressed by the arrogant Norman barons, were, in fact, the strength and sinew of the nation, A charter of liberties was passed, in which Henry bound himself to restore the laws of Edward the Confessor, with such alterations as had been made by the Conqueror. This charter was the cause of great rejoicing among the people, and though the effects produced by it were less advantageous than was expected, the charter is remarkable as having supplied the groundwork for that more important concession which was afterwards obtained from King John, At a subsequent period Henry retracted the promises he had made, and the copies of the royal charter, which had been placed in many of the churches throughout the kingdom, were seized and destroyed by the officers of the Crown. Three copies, however, were by some accident overlooked, and were left, one at Canterbury, one at York, and one at St. Albans.

These measures gave to Beauclerk a greater popularity than had been enjoyed by either of his predecessors. The nation had no fears of foreign invasion. Some of the most pressing grievances had been redressed, and strong hopes given of the removal of others; and although several generations had to pass away before the distinction of Norman and Saxon was entirely to merge into the general name of Englishman, the process had already commenced – a process which, rousing the slumbering Saxon from the lethargy of years, and stimulating the energetic principles of the Norman character to their highest development, eventually gave birth to a series of events which placed England foremost in the rank of nations.

Such was the state of affairs when the new king, rejecting all thoughts of an alliance with any of the princely families of the Continent, as the crowning act of reconciliation with his Saxon subjects, offered his hand to the exiled and portionless daughter of Malcolm, a humble novice in the Abbey of Romsey, but the representative of a long and illustrious line of Saxon princes.

We have seen how, on the death of Edward the Confessor, Harold obtained possession of the crown; his defeat and death, and the ultimate flight of Edgar, u the noble child," as the Saxon chroniclers fondly term him, with his mother and sisters to Scotland. The results of his voyage, and the marriage of Margaret with the King of Scotland, have been already related.

Six children arrived at years of maturity. Edward, who was slain with his father at Alnwick; Edgar, Alexander, and David, who each in turn succeeded to the crown.

The daughters were named Mary, who married Eustace, Count of Boulogne; and Matilda, or Maud, afterwards queen of Henry Beauclerk.

The death of Malcolm and his eldest son, which occurred in 1093, was soon followed by that of Margaret. The brother of Malcolm assumed the crown, to the exclusion of his three nephews; and to this cause we may doubtless attribute Matilda being sent, together with her sister, to the care of their aunt Christina, who had taken the veil in 1086.

Contemporary historians agree in naming Wilton and Romsey as the abbeys in which the future Queen of England found an asylum. They were both of Saxon foundation.

Wilton claimed an origin as early as the year 800, when Wulston, Duke of Wiltshire, founded a chantry, which his widow Alburga converted into a nunnery, and which, in after years, became the residence of St. Editha, the fair and pious daughter of the profligate King Edgar.

Romsey Abbey, to which Christina, the aunt of Matilda, retired, and of which, according to some writers, she became abbess, was built by Edward the Elder, and dedicated to the Virgin and St. Elfleda. This convent possessed many extraordinary privileges, amongst others the rare and anomalous right of la haute justice, or gallows tree; a privilege of which the records do not mention any use ever having been made. To this already wealthy and powerful establishment the Norman conquest, instead of spoliation, appears to have brought additional wealth and dignity.

The abbess of this convent was one of the four lady abbesses in England who were baronesses in their own right, and as such took their place at the court of the king.

It would be a most interesting task to trace the outline of the plan of education pursued in these establishments; unfortunately the materials for such an undertaking are too scanty. From Alfred of Rieviesby, a contemporary, we learn that very young children were sometimes admitted, and that the nuns display el towards them an almost maternal affection.

These children were taught reading, and in most instances writing. Music was also an important part of a conventual education, since all the scholars were expected to take their parts in the seven daily services of the church.

As Matilda grew towards womanhood, more than one Norman chieftain had endeavoured to obtain her hand in marriage; but on preferring their request to William Rufus, that politic monarch had refused his consent. Pie did not wish to see a Saxon princess, a lineal descendant of Alfred the Great, allied to any man whose power or abilities might enable him to aspire to the throne. Matilda therefore remained in the seclusion of the cloister until King Henry sent to her his proposals of marriage. It is related that the young princess received the offer with dislike, if not with disdain. She was not ignorant of the sufferings which the Norman invasion had brought upon her countrymen, and her sympathy with their sorrows induced a hatred of their oppressors. Her friends and attendants, however, combated these scruples, and argued that, by her consent, she might restore, in some degree, the safety and happiness of the people, while her refusal would certainly tend to increase the enmity between the Norman and Saxon races. It is one of the penalties attached to royalty that those connections which, in a lower and happier sphere of life, are matters of choice and affection, become among princes mere questions of state policy. Matilda felt herself unable to resist the arguments brought forward in favour of the match, and she gave an unwilling consent. An opposition on the other side, meanwhile, arose among the Norman adherents of Henry, who were ill-disposed to have a Saxon queen to reign over them, and were probably jealous of the effect such a marriage would produce among the people in the king's favour.

It was asserted that the chosen wife of the king was already the bride of Heaven; that she had been seen to wear the veil of a nun, which shut her out for ever from the world.

In this difficulty it was necessary for Henry to obtain the assistance of the clergy, and he therefore sent messengers to-Anselm, entreating him to return to England and resume the see of Canterbury. The king promised to restore the privileges of the Church, and to submit to its authority. Anselm acceded to the request, and agreed to perform the marriage ceremony; but when he heard the reports in circulation that Matilda had taken the veil, he declared that the matter required to be investigated, and that he would himself examine the princess on the subject.

On the question being put to her, Matilda denied that she had ever been dedicated to a religious life, or had worn the veil of her own consent. The reason she gave for having been made to do so at particular times, gives a striking picture of the lawlessness and brutality of the Norman soldiery. "I confess," she said, "that I have sometimes appeared veiled, but the cause was this: in my youth I was under the care of my aunt Christina. She, in order to preserve me from the Normans, by whose licentiousness the honour of all women was threatened, was accustomed to throw a piece of black stuff over my head; and when I refused to wear it, she treated me with great harshness. In her presence, therefore, I wore that veil, but when she was away, I used to throw it on the ground, and trample upon it in childish anger." (Eadmor.)

Anselm convoked a council of nobles and ecclesiastics, who assembled in the city of Rochester, and to whom the evidence given by Matilda was submitted. Witnesses were examined in support of her assertions, and the assembly decided that the princess was free to dispose of her person in marriage. They cited, as an authority for this decision, the judgment of Archbishop Lanfranc, who, at a time when some Saxon women had taken refuge in a convent from fear of the soldiers of the Conqueror, permitted them to regain their liberty.

At the time of the coronation of Matilda, London could not have presented much to attract the eye. The convents were few, and the churches humble. The tall spire, rising like an aspiration towards heaven; the richly traceried window; the carved portal, did not yet exist to form a picturesque contrast with the rude, low houses built in irregular lines.

The Thames, crossed by one poor wooden bridge, was not then, as now, crowded by a fleet of merchantmen. At the Tower, the Vintry, and Edred's-hithe, a few small vessels, indeed, might be anchored; and from time to time some tall Norman galley might glide over its silvery waters.

On either side of the city, and close to the water's edge, Stood the important fortresses of the Tower and Castle Baynard, whilst a rude collection of huts, of the poorest description, formed that general receptacle of thieves and outlaws, the Borough. Close to them stood the convent -and church of St. Mary, and far beyond, on the same side of the river, rising above the marshes which surrounded it, might be seen the towers of the palace of Lambeth.

As the procession moved on, the eyes of the princess -encountered a fairer spectacle; for, on quitting the village of Charing, she entered the broad but irregular road which led to the palace of Westminster, the residence of the sovereign of England. There the hand of improvement, guided by art, had lavished countless cost both on church and hall.

Although the authorities for describing the palace of Westminster are so scanty, a minute picture may be drawn of the abbey church in which Matilda was crowned, as it was finished by Edward the Confessor.

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