How Solidly Based Were Henry I’s Achievements As Ruler Of The Norman Empire?
As the third and longest of the Norman kings, the reign of Henry I is remembered best as a time of development and consolidation of the Norman empire. Tradition recalls a time when peace and justice were kept well, the frontiers of the empire were defended and the governance of the kingdom made significantly more sophisticated, with new institutions and expanded royal power. It is also remembered as the calm before the storm of the reign of Stephen, and the contrast between the two makes Henry even more fondly remembered, not least by contemporary chroniclers, as a strong king who kept unity and upheld justice. However, the traditional view of Henry, like that of Stephen, has more recently been challenged by assertions that the reign of Henry was not as peaceful and progressive as has been assumed, and also that many of the troubles of Stephen’s reign can be traced back to Henry.
Perhaps the most enduring image we have of Henry is of the "Lion of Justice". It is true that he did not bring in much new legislation, but he did made the royal justice both more widely and readily available by reforming the way in which justice was administered in the localities. After the conquest the administration of justice was left in the hands of the Sheriffs, a flawed system as they collected fines and so had a financial interest in the outcome. To remedy this "local justiciars" were sent out to administer justice, but by the middle of Henry’s reign the system was replaced with officials described as "Justices of all England", with more permanent and specific tasks. They were able to hear all kinds of judicial business and revenues from fines they collected went to the treasury rather than the Sheriffs. The Justices were not only a way of making justice more available and less corrupt, but were an important step in the extension of royal power in the localities.
The other side to the keeping of justice in the reign was the notorious severity of punishments Henry used. One especially infamous incident was in 1124-25 when all the moneyers in England were mutilated because of forgery and bad quality coins, and in another instance in 1124, 44 thieves were hanged in one day. He also had two of his granddaughters (by an illegitimate daughter) blinded, as they were hostages. This was in an age where punishments such as mutilation of criminals and hostages were generally viewed as acceptable, and hardly were hardly exceptional, but it does still show us that Henry was capably of the most harsh of judgements, and the fact that his cruelty is so often commented on by contemporary writers could indicate that his justice was severe even for the times he lived in.
Of course the severity of the punishments was still preferable to the lawlessness that followed his reign, and the extreme punishments helped keep the peace, but the keeping of justice, one of the most enduring achievements of the reign, can be seen in a different light, indeed it may be more true to say that justice was in fact poorly administered and peace was maintained with violence and repression. Much of the contemporary writings were from monastic chroniclers, who meant by justice that the church was able better to protect its landed interests, hardly an unbiased opinion, and those who petitioned the king could be assured a hearing because the operation of royal justice was very profitable for the crown. Royal officials were apparently able to make accusations without any safeguards against unsupported conviction. An example of how the kings justice could be simply a series of patches to solve individual problems rather than a planned programme was when Henry bishop of Ely complained to Henry that the people were being treated unfairly by the royal officials, the king responded by granting the church of Ely immunity from official accusation and extortion. The king did set up a system for royal justice, but he failed to set up enough rules to govern it and failed to supervise the justices and sheriffs, and so this achievement, well remembered though it was, did not have a every solid base.
The changes to justice were not the only changes in the administration of England which Henry is well known for. His reign was very important for the continuation of a trend which began at the Conquest - the increase in centralised, interventionist royal control though the kingdom, with institutions linking the parts of the economy to the centre to ensure the crown got its full rights. Delegation of duties to an effective system of central government was essential for him as he spent so much time outside the country - over half his reign - and what time he spent in England was usually in the South East. The most durable and important of the institutions he created was the Exchequer. This was at first not a department but, as Gerald of Wales tells us, "a sort of square table in London where royal dues are collected and accounted for". The table was divided into squares, acting as a giant abacus where counters were used to calculate the amount owed by whoever’s accounts were being examined. With the inventions of the Pipe Rolls and Tallies, which provided records of money paid and owed for both treasurer and people, this was a very effective system, easy to understand even for the semi-literate and quite expandable.
The Exchequer ensured both that the king exploited his rights to the full and his subjects were not unduly taxed, and it became the basis for bureaucracy in the middle ages. It was probably invented in the reign of Henry, and he certainly seems to be the first to put it to great use. He used it to great effect to make royal power more widespread and taxation more organised. Indeed, this was a time of great financial activity - the kings income recorded in the only surviving Pipe Roll, that of 1129-30, is higher than any recorded until 1177, much of this coming from the operation of justice. This extreme level of taxation in a time of prolonged peace, at least in England, raises the question of whether the king was guilty of avarice or needed the money for the scale of the costs he faced defending his frontiers, even in this period of relatively little military engagement. The collection of such sums can be seen as a great achievement of the administration of Henry I, but it can also be seen as a sign of flaws in the method of governing Henry used. To keep support he gave away many of his lands to nobles, and the lost revenues from these lands needed to be made up elsewhere. The costs of the mercenary armies defending Normandy also needed to be met. Therefore, although the exchequer system made sure the sheriffs paid what was due to the crown, they did not check how it was obtained - the great wealth of the crown was due to "a vast foraging operation" - not only leading to unfair and unjust treatment of many people but also something which was unlikely provide for a long term solution to the problem of financing the kingdom, storing up problems for the future. The long-term failure of Henry’s methods of managing the kingdom’s economy come because it was not so much a reforming and shaping of the system and institutions but rather better management of the crown’s resources and rights - he makes up the shortfall in the established system with ingenuity and ad hoc measures, where a real and successful change and reorganisation was needed to provide for the future needs of the Anglo-Norman state.
Along with his reputation for harsh justice, some have seen his methods of keeping loyalty from his magnates as being violent and repressive. However, the notion that loyalty could be sustained over such a long reign simply by repression is unrealistic, especially considering the number of barons prepared to support Robert against Henry at the start of his reign. His understanding of the weakness of his position without the support of his magnates was shown in the first few months after his succession, when he did everything possible to win magnate support, offering earldoms, marriages and estates to the greatest landowners. When his brother invaded Henry gave the magnate families the choice of supporting him or being deprived of their lands and exiled. Still, many gave Robert either passive or active support when he came in 1101, and the lands that many had taken from them were used by Henry to enrich his supporters without reducing the royal lands and treasury. In the years after the defeat of Robert he won the magnates’ loyalty through proving he could provide stability and justice for the state, effective patronage for the nobility, protection for their lands and unity between Normandy and England. However, many landowners had very localised estates, and this effective provincial control was something that undermined the internal integrity of the state, and something Henry did little to solve. The weakness was shown in 1118-19 when William Clito, the son and heir of Robert, received strong support from landowners in southern Normandy. These structural faults helped cause the collapse of the Anglo-Norman empire only 6 years after the death of Henry.
However, despite the questionable achievements of Henry’s reign in spheres of justice and administration, the real test of the success of Henry came from warfare. Looked at in a simplistic sense, the reign seems very successful militarily, standing as it is next to the disaster and defeat of the reign of Stephen. However, although Henry did not see the frontiers of the Norman state pushed back, it is clear that his reign did see the stagnation of Norman power and, crucially, the loss of Norman domination over its French neighbours, especially Anjou. There were no longer the spoils of conquest, only the expense of holding the frontiers of Normandy against attacks from Anjou and the French king. This took much of the wealth of the Norman Empire, mainly because the old feudal levy was not sufficient to mount serious campaigns or garrison areas permanently and so mercenaries had to be used. The path to future disaster was being clearly marked out, as finance became essential to warfare, and the system was overtaxed and exhausted by even the localised and sporadic conflict of Henry’s reign. The inability of the Normans to fight off a large scale sustained attack, especially one also involving England, now seems obvious. Henry wanted to avoid the expense and danger of conflict, and so let the relative power of the Anglo-Norman state dwindle, buying or fending off enemies, a tactic that would result in disaster after Henry’s death.
If the achievements of a king are the results of his policies and actions, there is little wonder that the extent of his success causes disagreement among historians. If his reign alone is looked at, we can point to many things as very positive achievements. He reigned for a long time, despite two strong claims on the throne and initial opposition from many important magnates, and he died a peaceful death. His reign saw fundamental changes in the way the kingdom and duchy were governed, and were an important step towards the development of England in the middle ages. He was a competent soldier who led his armies from the front and never suffered a serious defeat in battle. Regarding his personality his famous cruelty can be interpreted alternatively as being strength and for the greater good of the people and kingdom, and a generous side to him can be seen in his acknowledgement of many illegitimate children and the wealth he gave to favourites and supporters. However, if the results of his reign are seen in terms to the state of his Empire after his death, we can only judge him to have failed in what he tried to do. Firstly, the chaos of the disputed succession on his death, which meant that his successor never reigned over a united and peaceful empire, was to a large extent his fault, as he had built up Stephen to a position where he could challenge for the crown, and failed to ensure his chosen successor came to power unopposed. He may have left a full treasury, but this was exhausted by conflict very quickly and the costs of sustained war, something never really faced by Henry, showed the financial inadequacies of the system that Henry built up. Stephen faced fresh and established enemies, who had greater resources than the Norman state and who had been allowed to build up their dominance by the inactivity of Henry. We cannot blame the disasters of Stephen’s reign and the ultimate collapse of the Norman empire entirely on Henry, but it must be acknowledged that he played his part in this, as his short term minded policies, generally born of expediency rather than a consistent plan, left the Empire financially unable to fight, with no universally accepted leader, militarily outclassed by its neighbours and surrounded by enemies.