Henry I and Louis VI

Henry I of England – Reading Between The Lines Theatre Company’s modern history play.

A 1916 painting depicting the burial of King Henry I. Stephen of Blois wears the crown.

By the time of his death, William the Bastard had claimed his father’s duchy and conquered a kingdom. He had subdued with the sword and ruled with an iron hand. He had also fathered four sons.

Three of these—Robert (known as Robert Curthose), William (known as William Rufus), and Henry—survived to adulthood. Having thus produced an heir and two spares, William could reasonably expect his line to continue. What he seems not to have expected was the rebellion of Robert, his eldest son. Although William had placed Normandy under Robert’s care while busy subduing England, he was quick to remove his adult son’s authority and independence once the Conquest was completed. Angered by this, Robert argued violently with his father, who was infuriated by such insubordination and, in any event, unwilling to lose control over Normandy. Showing Robert the door, William banished him from his lands. Not surprisingly, Robert now found his way to Paris and to the more welcoming court of the French king.

Philip I, who was no fool, received the young man warmly and proceeded to install him in the muscular castle of Gerberoy, along the simmering Vexin frontier. Reacting with typical bluntness, William fortified his neighboring Norman castles and besieged Gerberoy, with Robert in it. But Robert refused to back down, sallying forth with his own men to engage the besiegers in battle.

William was still a formidable fighter, but Robert was far younger and—as his father may not have recognized—an outstanding warrior in his own right. Engaging his father at sword point, Robert managed to unhorse and wound him, forcing proud William to withdraw to Rouen—a defeat of the most humiliating kind.

Frantic efforts by Robert’s mother at last brought reconciliation. But after her death, trouble between the two broke out again. Despite William’s reluctant recognition of Robert as his heir in Normandy, Robert still had no real authority there—nor was it William’s intention to give him any. Exacerbating the situation, William regularly insulted Robert in public. Even Robert’s nickname (Curthose, or “Short Boots,” a joking reference to his height) became a verbal brickbat from the far taller father.

At length, William once again sent the discontented young man into exile, where he still was knocking about upon the Conqueror’s death. It may well have been Robert, in fact, who fomented that surge of trouble between Philip and William in the Vexin that led to the Conqueror’s demise.

Persuaded on his deathbed to do right by Robert, William gave him Normandy, as promised. But he refrained from giving him anything else: England went to the second son, William Rufus, who had played his cards right, while the youngest, Henry, received a large sum of money. In time, as in the fairy tales, the youngest would end up with the entire kingdom. But in the meantime, strife broke out between the two older brothers, with William Rufus supporting Robert’s rebellious barons, and Robert in turn receiving aid from the French king.

Several years later, when Robert gave Normandy to his brother as security for a loan to take him on crusade, William Rufus immediately fortified his Vexin borders with a vengeance—most notably at Gisors, where he piled up a steep artificial hill with a large tower on top (see illustration in chapter 10). He carried out the same plan at other locations along the Epte, including Château-sur-Epte. Unlike his brother, William Rufus was taking no chances with the French king.


Philip I was leery of William Rufus as well, for it was no secret that this boldly acquisitive English monarch (crowned as William II) wanted the French Vexin, and even entertained dreams of the French crown—a “detestable ambition,” as Abbot Suger caustically put it. Paris, which straddles the Seine upriver from Normandy, lay little more than forty miles from Norman frontiers, and at one point in his Vexin wars, William Rufus advanced as far as Pontoise—virtually at Paris’s door.

But William Rufus’s opportunities stemmed from more than geographic proximity. As he well knew, Philip I had only one son and heir. The chance that this heir—young Louis—would survive to adulthood was in those uncertain times far from likely. The Capetian monarchy was in fact a breath away from extinction, and William Rufus (who was related to the French royal family through his mother) sat ready and waiting to administer last rites.

Philip, in the meanwhile, nurtured and prepared this single heir. Under his watchful eye, young Louis grew into a capable warrior, well able to deal with the various baronial insurgencies that repeatedly cropped up throughout Capetian lands. In addition, Philip formally associated his son with him on the throne.

Philip’s detractors have suggested that the old king merely passed along to his offspring what he had come to be too lazy to do for himself, and it is possible that his motives may have been mixed. Still, Philip’s willingness to allow his son and heir an active role in the royal government went a long way to ensure that the monarch who would someday take his place would be an effective one. Indeed, Louis turned out to be a good and successful ruler, credited by historians with consolidating lands and power in a meaningful fashion and starting the Capetian monarchy on its spectacular rise.

Of course, no one knew that things would work out that way. William Rufus was betting that Louis would not live long enough to receive the royal crown, and Philip, too, worried about this. Indeed, it probably was this concern that prompted Philip to remarry, putting aside his first wife, who had proven incapable of bearing him further heirs. But instead of securing the succession, the children from this second union created a new threat to Philip’s legitimate heir. Indeed, Philip’s death in 1108 precipitated a crisis in which a “conspiracy of wicked and evil men” tried to crown Louis’ young half-brother in his place. Louis (Louis VI) received his crown on the run, in Orléans—the first time that a Capetian monarch had not been anointed and crowned at Reims.

As if these perils were not enough, Louis’ most dangerous foreign enemy, the king of England, soon appeared on Normandy’s shores. But the king Louis now faced was not William Rufus, who had been shot by a longbow while hunting in the New Forest. Instead, it was the Conqueror’s youngest son, Henry, who had seized the crown.

Unlike his father and his brothers, Henry did not thrill to personal combat. A balding man of average height, with fleshy body and brawny chest, he was fond of saying, “My mother bore me [to be] a commander, not a soldier.” Beauclerk, he was later called, in tribute to his reputation for learnedness. Still, he was as ruthless and aggressive in his own way as either his father or next-older brother, and he was perfectly capable of mounting a successful campaign, even as he was quite capable of winning what he wanted through means other than war. Within six years after William Rufus’s death and Henry’s assumption of the crown, Robert Curthose was Henry’s prisoner for life. Robert never was Henry’s match.

Thus it was that as young Louis VI of France fought to save his crown, the Norman duke he faced was neither William Rufus nor Robert Curthose, but the far more dangerous Henry I of England. Refusing to pay homage for Normandy to the new king, Henry now arrived on Norman shores.


As a military objective, Paris at the opening of the twelfth century lacked distinction. Half a millennium before, Clovis had made it his capital, and his successors favored it as well. But the last of Charlemagne’s heirs had preferred Laon, and for most of the eleventh century the Capetian monarchs resided in Orléans. Paris in the eleventh century was in fact one of the smaller towns in Capetian domains. Yet by the century’s close, Philip I was spending an increasing amount of time there, and eventually his son, Louis VI, established Paris as his capital.

The site—a hill-ringed basin lying at the Seine’s confluence with the Oise and the Marne—certainly was propitious. Centuries before, the Romans had taken due notice, driving out the Parisii Celts and establishing what they called Lutetia at this junction of a major overland route between southern France and the North Sea. Erecting a temple and administrative buildings on the largest of Lutetia’s islands (now the Île de la Cité) and settling to the south on the hill later named for Paris’s patron saint, Geneviève, they created a small metropolis—with a forum near what now are the Luxembourg Gardens, extensive baths abutting the present-day Musée du Moyen Age, and an arena alongside the present Rue Monge. They also built an aqueduct leading in from the south.

Lutetia’s role as a strategic crossroads grew, with bridges (now the Petit-Pont and Pont Notre-Dame) linking what now is Rue Saint-Martin on the Right Bank with Rue Saint-Jacques on the Left. By the second century a.d., this metropolis contained a population of more than ten thousand—considerably less than the eighty thousand of Lyons or the one million of Rome itself, but still of respectable size.

With Rome’s decay and the onslaught of Germanic invaders, Lutetia’s role as a Roman outpost withered. Yet the town (by now called Paris, after its first inhabitants) continued to function as a trading center, even while the third-century arrival of Denis, the first bishop of Paris, added a new element to the mix. Although St. Denis’ mission ended in martyrdom, he succeeded in creating a foothold for Christianity. When Clovis, first king of the Franks, converted to Christianity in the early years of the sixth century, he established his capital here.

By this time, a cathedral dedicated to St. Étienne dominated the eastern end of the Île de la Cité. Clovis made a significant addition to this ecclesiastical presence by building the church on the Left Bank later known as Sainte-Geneviève. Not many years later, Clovis’ son, Childebert, founded the monastery that became known (after St. Germain, bishop of Paris) as Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Members of the royal family had their final resting place here from Childebert on, until Dagobert changed the royal burial site to the Abbey of Saint-Denis.

During the years immediately following Clovis, Paris managed in a modest way to prosper. But after the Viking onslaught and the collapse of Charlemagne’s empire, little survived. Shrunken to scarcely more than the walled Cité, the town became a tangle of marsh and weeds.

Still, several of the great churches and their huddles of dependent villages remained. Recovery began during the eleventh century, and in the following years the city gradually grew to encompass these ecclesiastical bastions, slowly spreading to the marshy marais of the Right Bank as well as to the Left Bank of the Seine.

By this time the great fairs of nearby Champagne had begun to draw merchants from as far as Italy, spawning new traffic on roads and rivers leading everywhere. Wool from England and cloth from Flanders exchanged hands for spices, silks, and precious ornaments wrought of gold. These goods then made their slow return along the dusty Gallo-Roman roads, bringing quickened activity and prosperity as they came. Although Reims benefited most from the increasingly lucrative Champagne fairs, Paris, too, profited from its superb situation on the Seine. Port facilities had already sprung up along the river’s northern and wider arm by the time Louis VI transferred the markets to the Right Bank from the increasingly crowded Île de la Cité. Later in the century, Philip II would build covered warehouses on the site, soon to become known as Les Halles. He also expelled the Jews from the Cité; they eventually reestablished themselves on the Right Bank, which was becoming the commercial heart of town.

But in Louis VI’s day, most Parisians still lived on the Seine’s largest island, the Île de la Cité. Here at the western end lived the king, in a small palace that the second Capetian monarch, Robert the Pious, had erected on the site of an ancient Roman citadel. To the east, near the cathedral, resided the bishop of Paris and a growing throng of students, who flocked from great distances to listen to and debate with the likes of William of Champeaux and, the star of them all, Peter Abelard. In between these secular and ecclesiastical domains, perhaps three thousand craftsmen and tradespeople lived cheek by jowl, jostling each other along the cramped and muddy lanes as they cried their wares and scurried from place to place.

Here, amid the cacophony, mud, and stench, Louis began to fortify his palace, strengthening it not only against possible Norman attack, but also—and more imminently—against the welter of powerful lords that surrounded him. With this in mind, Louis linked the Cité to the growing port along the Seine’s right bank via a great stone bridge directly connecting the island with what now is Rue Saint-Denis, securing access with a stout fortification, the Châtelet.

Rue Saint-Denis, one of two major routes leading northward, led directly to the royal Abbey of Saint-Denis, founded centuries before at the burial site of the martyred saint. Here, even as Louis VI was building Paris into the seat of a reviving Capetian monarchy, Abbot Suger was planning a new abbey church that would reach to the very heavens. His church, with its arched and pointed vaults and astonishing deep-blue windows (of such brilliance that many believed the glassmaker had infused his molten glass with sapphires), led the twelfth century into those soaring Gothic realms where Chartres, Notre-Dame de Paris, and countless others would soon follow. But more than this, Suger created in Saint-Denis a fitting tribute to the saint who by this time was evolving into a political as well as a spiritual powerhouse.

Centuries of close ties between the Abbey of Saint-Denis and the royal crown had quite naturally lent a certain aura to the martyred saint’s reputation. Since the late sixth century, members of the royal family had been buried there, and from about the same time the court had deposited copies of royal documents there for safekeeping. The royal regalia used at coronations came to be kept at Saint-Denis as well, although the coronation itself continued to take place at Reims, the site of Clovis’ conversion and coronation. Dagobert’s recognition of St. Denis as royal patron further enhanced the abbey’s reputation as the royal abbey, as did royalty’s extension of numerous special privileges, which freed the monks from the usual fees and obligations.

Yet these were evidences of royal favor, with power residing in the benefactor. Indeed, for more than a century, when the monarchy sank to its nadir, the abbey stood in danger of losing its independence to the real source of local power, the counts of Paris.

Still, as Abbot Suger was quick to recognize, the king held the French Vexin as a fief from the Abbey of Saint-Denis—in theory, from the saint himself, although in practice from the abbey and its abbot (who during Louis VI’s reign was, of course, Suger). A minister to the king during the reigns of both Louis VI and Louis VII, and regent during Louis VII’s long absence on crusade, Suger held a formidable position in the Capetian court. Clearly the fortunes of the Capetians and those of Suger were intertwined, for while this energetic abbot sent the arches of his abbey cathedral soaring toward the heavens, he was also hard at work erecting a political construct that would set the Capetian king at the pinnacle of feudal power—worldly power for, as Suger argued, the monarch was in turn vassal to the long-dead St. Denis. That the Abbot of Saint-Denis was the martyred saint’s agent here on earth did not at all intimidate Suger, who did not shy away from the obvious conclusion.

Suger’s political construct was at heart a simple one, positing a neat and tidy theory of landholding. According to Suger, the French territorial princes held their lands in fiefdom to the Capetian monarch in much the same way that lesser lords had traditionally held their lands within the hereditary Capetian realms. In Suger’s view, the count of Auvergne held his lands from the duke of Aquitaine, who in turn held his vast realms from the king of France. To Suger, Normandy and Aquitaine and all the rest were simply part and parcel of the kingdom of France—a neat and tidy theory, filled with possibilities for the Capetian monarchs. The only problem was that the territorial princes did not view things that way. As far as they were concerned, the king of the French could do what he liked in his own hereditary lands, but he had no business whatsoever in theirs.

Suger’s political construct thus did not yet represent reality, for feudalism, with its fundamental elements of loyalty and protection, landholding, and military service, was still evolving out of the disorder that had accompanied the widespread collapse of central authority in the ninth and tenth centuries. Certain of its elements had ancient roots, but tradition faltered in the face of raw aggression. Local conditions varied enormously, and men of power—whether great or small—simply demanded and took what the traffic would bear.

By Suger’s day, many of these arrangements had acquired a certain stability and even sophistication. But the messy and overlapping structure of French political society in the early twelfth century did not even remotely resemble a pyramid, and certainly not one with the king at its apex. Feudal relationships still were widely diffused, focusing on dukes and counts and even local lords rather than the monarch. Although Suger’s theory presented a kind of blueprint for power, the Capetian monarchs could not expect power to come their way by some sort of divine right but would have to impose it upon their recalcitrant subjects.

St. Denis pointed the way. With Suger’s encouragement, the king acknowledged that St. Denis was not only his spiritual patron but his feudal overlord as well. Facing invasion from the German emperor, Louis VI hastened to the Abbey of Saint-Denis. There he begged the martyred saint to defend his kingdom. Then he took from the altar the military standard of the Vexin—a forked scarlet banner embroidered with golden flames that legend ascribed to Charlemagne.

In all humility, Louis received this silken banner in a manner that acknowledged his vassalage to his saintly overlord, St. Denis. He then called for all of France to rally around him against the common foe. The response was impressive, with many of France’s most powerful barons flocking to his side. Reconsidering, the emperor decided to head for other parts (German historians insist that he had more pressing business elsewhere). Rejoicing in this turn of events, Louis returned the banner to the abbey in triumph.

“It is neither right nor natural that the French be subject to the English, but rather the English to the French,” Suger gloated, anticipating days of glory that still lay well ahead. But for the first time a king of France had caught a whiff of the possibilities. For nearly three centuries thereafter, the French would go into battle bellowing their famous war cry, “Monjoie Saint-Denis!” and carrying before them the flame-colored silken banner of Saint-Denis known as the Oriflamme.

Already, this banner was emerging as the royal standard of France.


“Louis, king of the French,” wrote Suger, “conducted himself toward Henry, king of the English and duke of the Normans, as toward a vassal, for he always kept in mind the lofty rank by which he towered over him.” As duke of Normandy, in other words, England’s Henry I was Louis VI’s feudal dependent, no matter what other titles he bore. For years, Henry resisted this logic, and this recalcitrance lay at the heart of Henry’s struggles with the French king.

Louis in turn countered by rallying to the cause of the imprisoned brother, proclaiming Robert Curthose’s son—an attractive young man by the name of William Clito—as the rightful Norman duke and English king. Until his untimely death, Clito served as a rallying point for all of Henry’s enemies, which was exactly what Louis had in mind.

William Clito was not the only son upon the political chessboard, for Louis and Henry each had sons. In a reversal of previous generations, Henry had but one legitimate son, while Louis was blessed with eight. In much the same spirit as his father, Louis designated the eldest of these as his successor and associate in the crown, while the next in line, a mild lad by the name of Louis, departed for a monastic career.

The White Ship. The White Ship (French: la Blanche-Nef, Latin documents Latin: Candida navis) was a vessel that sank in the English Channel near the Normandy coast off Barfleur, on 25 November 1120.

Henry I’s son, known as William Aetheling, was but seventeen years old when Louis VI appealed the cause of William Clito to the pope, with such success that Henry had to scamper to protect both his duchy and his crown. To ensure his son’s succession in Normandy against William Clito’s claims, Henry now agreed that young Aetheling would do homage to Louis for Normandy—a significant concession, although not quite the same as the king himself bending the knee. William Aetheling did as he was directed and then prepared to return to England on the White Ship, the newest and finest vessel in his father’s fleet. It was a lovely evening in late November, and he and his young friends were prepared to party all the way.

The king set sail first in a light breeze, just before twilight. Delayed by their festivities, young Aetheling and his friends did not push off until well after dark, with a crew that by this time was almost as drunk as the passengers. Catching sight of the king’s ship well ahead, the passengers called out that “those who were now ahead must soon be left astern.” The ship fairly flew, “swifter than the winged arrow.”

Too late, the crew saw the rock that rose above the waves. As the boat impacted with a grinding crash, the young nobles cried out in alarm, suddenly realizing their peril. Out came the oars and boat hooks, as the crew tried in vain to force the vessel off. But the rock had split the prow, and water now came pouring in.

Amid the terror, as frantic bodies fought the sea, someone thought to launch the single skiff and push the prince inside. Well on his way toward shore and safety, he heard one voice above the others—his illegitimate half-sister, the young countess of Perche, who shrieked out for him not to abandon her. Overcome with pity, William Aetheling ordered the little boat to return, thus sealing his fate: “for the skiff, overcharged by the multitudes who leaped into her, sank, and buried all indiscriminately in the deep.”

There was but one survivor, a butcher who managed to seize the mast and keep afloat until morning. He alone remained to tell the terrible tale. Lost were countless sons and daughters, the cream of England and Normandy’s young aristocracy. Scarcely a noble family went untouched.

Worst of all was the king’s loss. For now Henry, duke of Normandy and king of England, had no legitimate son and heir.

The White Ship had changed history.

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