Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

English Government under Henry I

Steve Muhlberger

Royal policy under William I, William II, and Henry I was dominated by war.

The constant continental wars of England's kings had a very definite effect on English royal government. All three kings were far more secure in England than in their homeland of Normandy. And government in England was far more developed than government in Normandy, or any other continental country. If the kings provided the land with a reasonable level of security and justice -- and they did -- they themselves enjoyed power and acceptance that any other contemporary European ruler would have envied. This meant that the Norman kings could exploit England to support their position in France.

The resources and tools were all there:

An effort towards efficient exploitation of England is particularly noticeable in the time of Henry I.

To win the support of his subjects in 1100, when his right to the throne could easily have been questioned, Henry promised various measures of good government. Two of them had a drastic effect on his income.

First, Henry said he would not take the income of vacant churches which had provided William Rufus with perhaps one fifth of his income

Second, Henry swore to discontinue charging his barons arbitrarily large sums for for the right to inherit -- a tax called relief -- or to marry.

Henry kept as few of his promises as he could, but he undoubtedly had less money to throw around than Rufus had, and thus had to work harder to raise revenue.

Although I am no fan of Henry, whose record shows that he was greedy and cruel, I think it likely that his reign of 35 years was something of a turning point in English history. Henry ruled in a period when the conquering Normans were entering the second and third generations of lordship. It was a period when the established noble families were beginning to think of their baronies and honors as hereditary possessions, pure and simple. Had there been a weak king, it is possible that England might have fragmented politically, as it almost did in the time of Edward the Confessor. The service that Henry performed was to keep the minor tyrants on a strict leash.

He preserved and even extended the royal power he had inherited from his Norman and Anglo-Saxon predecessors. Henry's treatment of sheriffs is a good case in point. 

If the king could control his sheriffs, his grassroots administrators, he could control the country. If he lost control, if sheriffs became independent magnates, then his power would be in danger.

Royal control of sheriffs had see-sawed over the centuries. In the time of Canute and Edward the Confessor, sheriffs had been overshadowed by powerful earls, who had a semi-regal position. William the Conqueror had effectively destroyed the great earls, even though continued to grant the title, and made the sheriffs more important again. However, the Conqueror gave the office of sheriff to great barons, usually the man who held the most land in a given shire. This was a good tactic for a time of conquest and occupation, but  it was easy for such men to think that their sheriffdoms and the profits therefrom were just another family possession.

Henry I realized this danger, and was constantly reminding the sheriffs that they must obey him, and act as his officers.  He was determined to preserve the fullest extent of his freedom and his own hereditary rights, and to stop other men from usurping his rights to add to their family estates.  He replaced powerful local sheriffs with lesser men, men who were not rich or influential enough to defy the royal will. Earls and barons were thus replaced with simple knights, or clerics from the royal household.

It was said by contemporary chroniclers that Henry raised men up from the dust to serve him.

Henry also supervised his sheriffs directly. The most famous method of doing this was the Exchequer, which was founded during his reign. In origin, the Exchequer was a special session of Henry's council, a gathering of his closest advisors, to receive from the sheriffs the money they owed the king. There was a set amount owing from every shire each year, made up of estimated profits from justice and royal estates. The sheriffs would have to pay the amount (called the farm of the shire) or produce receipts for expenditures accounting for the difference. The Exchequer was a simple, even primitive method of keeping track of this information, and also a technique for keeping the sheriffs on their toes.

The significance of the exchequer lies in several things.

First, it was the best method of governmental accounting used anywhere in Europe. It was a systematic way to keep track of the royal finances and the performance of the king's most important local agents.

Second, it demonstrates the growing use of written records in government in twelfth century Europe. The written record most applicable to Henry's primitive exchequer were the pipe rolls. The pipe rolls were so called because the financial parchments at the end of the year were sewed together and then rolled up into a great cylinder. We only have one pipe roll from the time of Henry I, that of 1130, but it is clear that there were others before and after it.

Third, it is obvious that specialists were necessary to run such an office.  This is a period when better-educated clerics ("clerks") were available to staff the royal government.  Such "royal clerks" often made careers in government.

Finally, the Exchequer was the first department of the central government to settle down in one location as a permanent body. The Exchequer always met at London, later Westminster, and did not follow the king around. It was the beginning of a trend.

In Henry's time he was the state. But his own innovations presaged the day when the king's household and the central government would no longer be identical.

As Henry tried and succeeded in taming his sheriffs, and in making them truly accountable, so also he worked at extending the king's role in the field of justice.

The English court system, as I have sketched it in the past, sounds very simple and rational: Hundred courts, shire courts, ultimate appeal to the king. The reality of the eleventh and twelfth centuries was more complex. There were many private courts: franchises granted to important earls or church corporations, manor courts, honour courts. Public courts had become private possessions. Henry's reign marks the beginning of a royal push to subject the shire and hundred courts to closer royal supervision, and to subordinate private courts to royal justice.

Henry worked very hard at pulling more business into his courts. Some examples:

Henry greatly expanded the number of cases that could be considered "pleas of the crown." Pleas of the crown were, in pre-Conquest times, such offenses as housebreaking, ambush, neglect of military duty, and breach of the king's special peace. In such cases, the king was the offended party, and all fines from those found guilty went to the king. Henry increased the pleas of the crown to include thirty-seven different offenses, including matters like rape, treason, and robbery, but also purely financial matters, like not paying Danegeld or concealing the discovery of buried treasure, which belonged to the crown.

To make the most profit out of this expansion of royal justice, Henry commissioned traveling royal justices to go out to shire courts to hear the pleas of the crown.

Nor were the direct fines the only method of making money off of justice. He could charge for access to the curia regis, the court held in the king's presence, or for access to his most important justices. This was very profitable for a simple reason, because any decision reached there (for example, over a property dispute) was final. It was not unknown for bribery to influence the outcome, and this was yet another source of profits.

A last way that Henry made money should be mentioned. This was the traditional method of selling privileges. Many people wished to buy privileges, but I will mention only one set of customers, towns.  To pursue their occupations, townspeople needed greater freedom from exactions and labor services than the average peasant. They were in a position to pay for that freedom, too.

Henry, as the lord of most English boroughs, sold charters of privileges that guaranteed burgesses -- the richer townsfolk who held land and paid taxes -- their right to make wills, to marry freely, and to buy and sell urban properties, etc.

I have portrayed the government of Henry I as one in which just about anything was for sale. I do not think this is an unfair portrait. But I would not like to give the impression that Henry was unique. Indeed, he was typical of 12th-century princes, if a bit ahead of the pack. Because of greater prosperity, the existence of a large cash economy, the growing number of well-educated clerics trained in law and logic, strong central governments were now easier to erect than at any time since the fall of Rome. Lords everywhere were selling privileges and justice to anyone who would buy. Peasants, townsmen, church communities were willing to pay for peace and order and freedom from arbitrary harassment if they thought their prince could guarantee those things. Henry was in a position to make a killing in the market. He had much to sell, and willing buyers.

His motivation was hardly altruistic -- yet his greed and his harshness contributed to welding England together more securely as a single political community. For all of his hangings, mutilations, and castrations of criminals, he was missed by many when he was gone, when things went to hell in a handbasket.

Ironically, Henry's single failure, which almost undermined everything he built, was beyond his control. Despite producing a vast number of bastards, he only had one legitimate son, William. William drowned in the Channel when his ship went down in 1120. Church law, now stronger than before, made impossible the succession of an illegitimate son, such as the respected Robert, earl of Gloucester. Henry made all his barons swear to accept as their queen his daughter Matilda, the widow of the German emperor Henry V (and thus known as "the Empress").

When Henry of England died in 1135, the settlement came undone. Too many barons could not accept a woman as ruler, and they found an alternative candidate. Civil war broke out.

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.