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Reign of Henry I

Reign of Henry I. continued - Battle of Brenneville - Death, of Prince William, son of Henry I. - Career of William of Normandy - Second Marriage and Death of Henry I.
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Louis, who dreaded the power of the King of England, saw the advantage he might obtain by supporting the legitimate claims of William Fitz-Robert, or William of Normandy, as he was afterwards called. In the name of the young prince, he entered into a league with the chiefs of some of the neighbouring states, among whom was the Earl of Flanders. Henry was attacked at various points along the frontiers of Normandy, and some of his fortresses and towns were taken. At the same time, many Norman barons, who were secretly attached to the cause of Duke Robert, engaged in a conspiracy against Henry. For several years the king never retired to bed without ordering a sword and buckler to be placed beside his pillow. At length he succeeded, by policy, in dissolving the league against him. A treaty was signed, by which the estates of Helie de St. Saen were given to Fulk of Anjou, to whose daughter, Matilda, Henry agreed to marry his own son, William. The contract of marriage between Sibylla and the son of Robert was broken off, and the cause of the latter was no longer to be supported by the Earl of Anjou. William of Normandy retired to the court of Baldwin, Earl of Flanders, who was one of the warmest supporters of his cause.

Having brought these negotiations satisfactorily to an end - for which purpose he had spent two years in Normandy - Henry returned to England. The sums which had been expended by the king in obtaining the submission of the friends of William, were obtained by heavy burdens and exactions from the people of England. Each year is described as being attended with its peculiar calamity, and in the year 1110 the sufferings of the people were heavy, " caused by the failure of the crops and the taxes demanded by the king for the dowry of his daughter." (Ghren. Saxon)

This daughter, who bore her mother's name of Matilda, was at that time only five years old. By the feudal laws, the king was entitled to levy a tax on the marriage of his eldest daughter, and Matilda was betrothed to Henry V., Emperor of Germany, who had sent ambassadors to demand her hand. The nominal rank of the German emperor was high, but the country over which he ruled was poor, and the prince himself not unfrequently kept state with empty coffers. He demanded a large dowry, which, after some delay, was seized rather than collected from the English people, and the young princess was committed to the hands of the ambassadors, who conducted her "with all honour" to Germany, where she was to receive her education. Her embarkation was a splendid sight, and is described in glowing terms by contemporary historians, but the people could not forget "how dear all this had cost the English nation," (Ibid.) and Matilda's unpopularity in after years might in some degree be traced to the circumstances which had attended her marriage.

About the year 1111, the Welsh made incursions into the English counties on their borders, and overran the whole of Cheshire, causing great distress and damage to the inhabitants. Henry advanced against them, and as they retreated before him he followed them to the fastnesses of the mountains, defeating them whenever he could find an opportunity of engaging them in battle. As had been the case with his father, the Conqueror, and his brother, Rufus, Henry found himself unable to subdue a people whose home was among trackless mountains and dangerous morasses, and he contented himself with building a chain of forts or castles a little further into the country than those erected by his predecessors. He also brought over a number of Flemings, to whom he gave a district of Pembrokeshire, with the town of Haverfordwest. These people were at once industrious and warlike, and they maintained themselves in prosperity in their new colony, in spite of repeated attacks made upon them by the Welsh.

On May 1, 1118, the Queen Matilda died, "with the sad reflection that she had sacrificed herself for her race in vain." (Sir James Mackintosh) Of this unhappy lady the historians of the time record no acts which were not gentle and womanly; and she appears to have merited the affection of the people, and that title of "the Good," which they conferred upon her. For the last twelve years of her life she was neglected by her husband, and lived in the palace of Westminster, surrounded by the pomp and state of royalty, but not the less friendless and alone. She passed much of her time engaged in exercises, of devotion, and it is related of her that her chief recreation consisted in listening to the songs and the stories of minstrels, whom the spirit of chivalry prompted to offer their tribute to her virtues and misfortunes.

Meanwhile, a dangerous confederacy was forming on the Continent among the adherents of William of Normandy. Henry had neglected, in almost every instance, to perform the promises which he had made to the Norman barons; and he had refused to conclude the match which had been agreed upon between his son William and the daughter of Fulk, Earl of Anjou. Louis of France, who still extended his favour and support to the son of Robert, entered into a league with Fulk of Anjou and Baldwin of Flanders, for the purpose of wresting the dukedom of Normandy from the possession of Henry. The first campaign was favourable to the arms of the English king, who successfully defended his territory against the attacks of the allies. Louis then determined to demand the assistance of the ecclesiastical power. A council of the clergy was convoked at Rheims, at which the Pope, Calixtus II., was present; and thither the King of France carried the young prince, and presenting him to the council, craved its assistance on his behalf. Louis addressed an eloquent speech to the Pope, in which he dwelt upon the unjust and merciless character of the King of England, who not only refused to his nephew those possessions which belonged to him of right, but who also retained his brother, the Duke of Normandy, in solitary and endless imprisonment. Henry, who had been apprised of the purpose of the council, sent costly presents to the Pope and the clergy, and subsequently had an interview with Calixtus, at which similar inducements were employed with success. The council looked with coldness on the suit of Louis, and refused him the assistance he demanded.

The friends of William of Normandy continued the war with vigour, and Henry experienced several reverses. At the siege of Eu, Baldwin, Earl of Flanders, the most energetic and determined of the allies, was killed; and finding himself thus freed from one formidable foe, Henry determined to get rid of another by means which, on a former occasion, had proved efficacious. He sent messengers to the Earl of Anjou, proposing that the marriage between his son and the earl's daughter should take place immediately; a bribe of money was also added. The earl accepted the terms, withdrew his forces from those of the King of France, and the marriage soon afterwards took place.

The cause of the allies now rapidly lost ground. The less powerful barons, wearied with the ill success of their arms, or induced by presents, which were distributed with a lavish hand by Henry, deserted one after the other, until the French king was left to sustain the struggle almost unsupported. During the desultory warfare which was carried on between the opposing forces, an engagement took place, which has been honoured with the title of the battle of Brenneville, and which has been cited as a curious example of the mode of warfare common at that time.

(a.d. 1119.) Louis having laid a scheme for surprising the town of Noyou, Henry marched to the relief of the place, and encountered a portion of the French army at Brenneville. On the side of the French were four hundred knights, while King Henry was attended by somewhat more than that number. William of Normandy, at the head of a body of the French, made a gallant charge upon his opponents, and penetrated through their ranks to the place where Henry was standing. The English king was struck on the head by Crispin, a Norman soldier, who had followed the fortunes of William. Henry, however, was rather excited than injured by the blow, and he struck his adversary to the ground, following up his advantage with other feats of gallantry. By this means he encouraged his troops, and after an obstinate conflict the French were beaten off, le loss of their standard and one hundred and forty knights, who were taken prisoners. The number of dead in this engagement amounted only to two, or, as some say, to three knights. At this period the cavalry were encased in heavy armour, which almost secured the wearers from blows of sword or lance, while, according to the usages of chivalry, all knights, on whichever side they fought, were regarded as one brotherhood, and the object aimed at in battle was not to dispatch an adversary, but to take him prisoner. These circumstances account for the number of dead being unusually small as compared with the number engaged; though in the battle of Brenneville the proportion of the former seems to be less than in any other engagement on record.

The chivalrous courtesies which at this period were common on the field of battle, present a striking contrast to those deeds of inhuman barbarity which at intervals stained the records of the age, and covered the perpetrators with infamy. Juliana, an illegitimate daughter of Henry, had been married to Eustace of Breteuil, who afterwards showed symptoms of disaffection to the government of his father-in-law. The king demanded as hostages two children of the marriage, and in return a son of Harenc, one of his nobles, was placed in the hands of Eustace. In a moment of rage De Breteuil put out the eyes of the child of Harenc, and in this condition sent him to his father. Harenc demanded vengeance at the hands of the king, and the latter, in reply, informed him that he might avenge himself upon the children of Eustace, who were Henry's own grandchildren. The infuriated Harenc immediately acted upon the suggestion, and neither the youth nor innocence of the children saved them from a barbarous mutilation. Their eyes were torn out and their noses cut off. Juliana, their mother, driven to madness by this act of cruelty, watched an opportunity, and discharged an arrow at the breast of her father. Her aim, however, was unsteady; the shaft took no effect, and Henry caused his daughter to be subjected to a humiliating punishment.

The battle of Brenneville was followed by a treaty of peace, which was arranged, by the intervention of the Pope Calixtus, between Louis and Henry. By this treaty, the interests of William Fitz-Robert were entirely set aside, and the whole of the duchy of Normandy was to remain in the hands of Henry, whose son William was to render homage to Louis for the possession of the duchy. By this means the King of England evaded declaring himself a vassal of the King of France - an act which, as Duke of Normandy, he was called upon to perform.

Henry carried his son William into Normandy, where he received his first arms, and was acknowledged as King Henry's successor by the barons. He also obtained the hand of the daughter of Fulk of Anjou. The bride was a child of twelve years old, and the prince had but just passed his eighteenth year. These various matters being accomplished, and peace established on a tolerably secure footing, King Henry prepared to return to England. (a.d. 1120.)

The fleet was assembled at Barfleur, and at the moment when the king was about to embark, a man named Thomas Fitz-Stephen advanced to speak with him, and, offering a mark of gold, said, "Stephen, the son of Erard, my father, served all his life thy father by sea, and he steered the vessel which carried the duke to the conquest of England. My lord the king, I pray thee to appoint me to the same office. I have a ship called La Blanche-Nef (The White Ship.) which is well rigged and fully manned." The king answered that, as regarded himself, the choice of a ship was already made, but that he would entrust the petitioner with the care of his two sons and his daughter, with the nobles and attendants of their train. The vessel in which Henry embarked then set sail with a fair wind, and reached the English coast in safety on the following morning. On board the Blanche-Nef were the prince, his half-brother, Richard, and their sister, the Lady Marie, or Adela, Countess of Perche, with other nobles of England and Normandy, to the number of 140 persons, besides fifty sailors. Before setting sail, three casks of wine were distributed among the crew by the prince's order; and several hours were spent carousing, during which many of the crew drank themselves "out of their wits." After nightfall, and when the moon had risen brightly, the vessel left her moorings, and proceeded with a soft and favourable breeze along the coast. Fifty skilful rowers propelled her an her way, and the helm was held by Fitz-Stephen. The sailors, excited by wine, pulled stoutly, so as to overtake the vessel of the king, when suddenly they found themselves entangled among some rocks off Barfleur, then called the Ras de Catte, and now known as the Ras de Catteville. The Blanche-Nef struck on one of the rocks, and immediately began to fill. The cry of terror which broke from the startled revellers passed through the calm night air, and reached the king's ship at a distance of several miles. Those who heard it, however, little suspected its meaning, and passed on their way unconscious of the catastrophe which had taken place so near to them.

As the ship struck, the stout-hearted captain hastily lowered a boat, and placing the prince with a few of his friends therein, entreated him to make for the shore without delay. The devotion of Fitz-Stephen was, however, without avail. William heard the screams of his sister Marie, who had been left on board the vessel, and he commanded the boat to be put back to save her. When the order was obeyed, the terrified passengers threw themselves into the boat in such numbers, that the frail bark was immediately upset, and all who were in it perished. In a few moments more the ship was also engulfed beneath the waters. The only trace which remained of the wreck was the main-yard, to which two men clung with the tenacity of despair; one of these was a butcher of Rouen, named Berauld, and the other a young man of higher birth, named Godfrey, the son of Gilbert de l'Aigle.

Fitz-Stephen, the captain, after falling into the water, rose to the surface, and swam towards the two men who were clinging to the spar. "The king's son!" he cried, "what has become of him?" "We have seen nothing of him," was the reply; "neither he nor any of his companions have appeared above water." "Woe is me!" the captain exclaimed, and immediately sank to rise no more. It was in the month of December, and the coldness of the water fast numbed the limbs of the younger of the two survivors, who at length let go his hold, and committing his companion to the mercy of Heaven, disappeared beneath the waves. Berauld, the butcher, the poorest of all those who had set sail in the Blanche-Nef, was the only one who survived to tell the story of the shipwreck. Wrapped in his sheepskin coat, he supported himself until daybreak, when he was seen by some fishermen, who rescued him from his perilous situation. This occurred Nov. 26, a.d. 1120.

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