Henry I of England was the son of William the Conqueror and reigned from 1100 to 1135. Henry had two legitimate children with his first wife Matilda of Scotland: Matilda and William. Sadly Henry’s heir William died at sea leaving Matilda as Henry’s chosen heir. This decision was very unusual for the time and led to decades of civil war upon Henry’s death after his nephew, Stephen seized the throne.
Aside from these two legitimate children, however, Henry I is remembered for having a large brood of illegitimate children from flings and long-term relationships. Keeping a mistress was common or even expected for Anglo-Norman noblemen or kings but Henry took this to the extreme, he kept many mistresses from all sorts of backgrounds and he conducted the relationships publicly. Rather than keeping his illegitimate children out of public life, he found advantageous marriages for them and elevated many of the sons to important positions.
There is no definite figure for the number of children that Henry fathered; it is presumed to be twenty-four but the real figure could be much higher. Some mistresses had children which were not recorded as Henry’s but could have been and also the information recorded at the time on female children was never as extensive as on male children, especially so for illegitimate daughters. Saying that however, it is incredible that we have information available on so many illegitimate children from a thousand years ago! As we do not have details on all of the children, we will focus on a few of Henry’s illegitimate offspring in this article.
One of the most well-known and probably the oldest child was Robert, 1st Earl of Gloucester. Robert was born in 1090 before his father became king. In the past, it was believed that Robert’s mother was Nest who was the daughter of the last king of Deheubarth but it is now believed a woman from the Gay family was his mother. Such details have been lost over time. From around ten-years-old, Robert lived within his father’s new household. In 1119 Robert married Mabel FitzHamon a wealthy noblewoman. This marriage was advantageous to both parties. Mabel was the eldest of four daughters and had inherited her father’s properties and titles when he died. Robert inherited the Lordship of Glamorgan and also became Earl of Gloucester through his wife and also took possession of a lot of property including Cardiff castle through the marriage. Although at first, Robert supported his cousin Stephen when he was proclaimed King instead of his half-sister Matilda, for the rest of his life he was dedicated to Matilda’s cause. Matilda supported her half-brother too and created him chief commander of her army. On one occasion, Matilda missed out on becoming Queen because she rescued Robert in a prisoner exchange by releasing her cousin Stephen. It is believed that Robert had seven children with Mabel and four illegitimate children.
A brother of Robert’s, named Richard was born around 1101 to Henry’s mistress Ansfride. The brothers were educated in the same household for a time, the home of the Bishop of Lincoln. Richard is remembered as a supporter of his father and half-brother William Adelin in battle. He fought by his father’s side and helped win battles for his half-brother to be recognised by King Louis VI of France as Duke of Normandy. In 1120, Richard became engaged to a woman named Amice but the marriage never took place. Richard sadly died alongside his brother and heir to the throne William Adelin and his illegitimate half-sister Matilda, Countess of Perche in the White Ship Disaster in 1120 which killed around three hundred people.
Henry’s illegitimate sons were often fiercely loyal to the family, and like his half-brother, Richard, another son named Henry FitzRoy would die in service. Henry was the son of Nest who was mentioned above as a possible mother of Robert of Gloucester. He held lands throughout Wales which led him to war against Owain the King of Gwynedd. In 1158 Henry Fitzroy was killed ‘in a shower of lances’ by Owain’s men while serving his nephew King Henry II.
Sometimes the illegitimate children were born from long-term relationships instead of flings. Examples of this are the children of Henry I and his mistress Sybilla Corbet. Reginald de Dunstanville was born in around 1110 to the couple. Like his half-brother Robert of Gloucester, Reginald supported his cousin King Stephen at first after his father’s death but switched to support his half-sister, Empress Matilda. This dedication to his sister cost Reginald greatly and he was stripped of his honours and lands although he later became High Sheriff of Devon. Reginald married Mabel FitzRichard and the couple had seven children, Reginald also had two illegitimate children. He died in 1175. Henry and Sybilla are also named as the parents of a daughter Sybilla who later went on to become Queen of Scots through her marriage to Alexander I, King of Scots. Sybilla was the only daughter to marry a King. Sybilla died in her early thirties and had no children. Reginald and Sybilla also had another full brother named William and supposedly sisters named Rohese and Gundred though details on these siblings are scarce and paternity cannot be confirmed.
As well as the sons we have mentioned above, a further four have been recorded though there is little information on them. We have briefly discussed the daughters Matilda, Countess of Perch who died in the White Ship Disaster and her half-sister Sybilla who became Queen of Scots due to her royal blood. Though some of the information on the illegitimate sons of Henry I is hard to track down, for many of the daughters the quest for knowledge is even harder. Sometimes even their names cannot be confirmed, so we will report what we can.
Little is known about the majority of Henry’s estimated fifteen illegitimate daughters even those who became Queens or Countesses. What is clear though is that many of them were married to noblemen who were located in places which would help to protect their father’s lands. These marriages meant that Henry could forge alliances with many families and the men the daughters married were then connected to the king. Though these daughters were often used as pawns by their father, these marriages and the children which came from them were important for the dynasty and the protection of the king’s lands.
We will end this post with the story of Henry’s rebellious child, a daughter named Juliane. Juliane is presumed to be Henry’s fourth daughter, her mother was his mistress Ansfride who was also the mother of Richard mentioned above and another son named Fulk. In 1103, Juliane was married to a man named Eustace de Bretuil and the pair had two daughters together.
Juliane was one of Henry’s older children and was perhaps expecting to get what she wanted from her father when she asked for it. In 1119, there was a dispute between Eustace and a man named Ralph Harnec over the castle of Ivry. Ralph controlled this castle but Eustace was adamant that he actually owned it. Everything got a little out of hand and Juliane and Eustace threatened to join a rebellion against King Henry unless he secured the castle for them. In order to help resolve matters, Henry I suggested that Eustace and Juliane temporarily took charge of Ralph’s son and that Ralph would take control of the pair’s two daughters. This exchange of hostages was supposed to help create more trust but instead, Eustace decided to blind the young boy in his care and send him back to his father. Ralph was understandably outraged and appealed to the king for justice. Juliane did not think her father would really do anything to her or her children because of this, but Henry could not allow laws to be broken and vassals to overrule him and decided that he would allow Ralph to mutilate his own small granddaughters. Ralph then took out the girl’s eyes and cut off their noses in revenge.
This gruesome story gets even more interesting because their mother Juliane then waged war on her own father and tried to kill him with a crossbow. She failed and was locked in a castle by her father who removed the bridge to trap her. Juliane then jumped from the window and swam across the moat. The couple were eventually pardoned but lost a lot of their lands. Juliane became a nun when her husband died.
As we have seen, Henry I of England had a vast number of illegitimate children who were mostly acknowledged by their father. He did not hide the children away and made sure that they came into good positions or marriages. It is clear that he loved the children and that they cared for each other and their legitimate step-siblings.