Henry of Blois (1129-1171)

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Henry of Blois (1129-1171)

Henry of Blois was “endowed with intelligence, educated for high office, and had an appetite for power” (Barlow). A prince by birth and inclination, he treated kings and archbishops as equals.

To some, Henry of Blois was a sort of monster: half monk, half knight. To others, he was “above gold and gems…Equal to the Muses in intellect and superior to Marcus in oratory”.

Henry was a supremely able financier and administrator. As a builder, art patron, connoisseur and collector of antiques he was without rival in his age.

A king-maker and, for a time, the most powerful man in England, Henry was a remarkable personality.

But neither his political nor his ecclesiastical activities were informed by far-sighted policies or ideals. Henry, though a “very able, curiously amiable, and in some respects even admirable man, was not, either as a man of action or of thought, absolutely great.” (Knowles)

Early Years

Born about 1095, Henry was the fourth son of Count Stephen of Blois, and Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror.

Like many other younger sons of royalty and the aristocracy, Henry trained as a monk at the Abbey of Cluny. He had a flair for legal affairs, administration and political debate. His education at Cluny would have emphasised:
• the centralisation of the Church
• freedom of the church from secular interference.
• the need for harmony between Church and State
Cluniac monasticism also permitted great ornamentation of churches, buildings and religious books. Henry had a life-long fascination with art and architecture.

In 1126, Henry I appointed his nephew as Abbot of Glastonbury. Even greater benefit from his uncle’s patronage came in 1129 when Henry was consecrated Bishop of Winchester. Allowed to retain Glastonbury, Henry became the richest churchman in England.

King Maker

Henry I’s only legitimate son drowned in 1120. In 1127, the king made his barons and bishops, swear allegiance to his daughter Matilda. Henry of Blois and his brother Stephen were among those taking the oath to accept Matilda as their future queen.

The oath was taken reluctantly because:
• the barons did not like the idea of a female ruler
• Matilda was little known in England
• she was arrogant, tactless and grasping
• the imperial and anti-papal policies of her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, were unpopular

Henry I died on 1 December 1135. His nephew Stephen immediately crossed the channel and within three weeks had been crowned king of England. How great a role his brother, Bishop Henry, played in the coup is unclear. It is very likely he helped his brother gain possession of the treasury at Winchester. He certainly helped persuade the Archbishop of Canterbury to crown Stephen.

The Church felt that William II and Henry I had deprived it of its proper rights, treating it as part of the royal estate. Bishop Henry and the other English bishops felt the Church should be self-sufficient and self-directing. They wanted the king only as protector.

In return for the bishops’ support, Stephen promised he would restore and preserve the freedom of the Church. He quickly disappointed hopes and soon lost the support of the Church and his brother.

In 1136, the Archbishop of Canterbury died. Henry hoped to succeed and began negotiating with the Pope. But Henry had political enemies and powerful religious adversaries. In December 1138, while Henry was away, a council led by a papal legate elected Theobald of Bec archbishop. The move looked planned and Henry blamed his brother. Thereafter, he “played largely for his own hand”.

The pope immediately compensated Henry for his disappointment with a papal legation. While papal legate from 1st March 1139 to 24th September 1143, Henry of Blois was the real ruler of the English church.

The Anarchy

In 1138, King David of Scotland, Matilda’s uncle, invaded northern England. Robert of Gloucester, her half-brother and the most powerful baron in England, declared against the king. In 1139, Matilda landed at Arundel and the ‘Anarchy’ began. It is about this time that Henry is recorded as beginning work on Farnham Castle. England was engaged in civil war for much of the following nineteen years.

In February 1141, Stephen was captured at the battle of Lincoln. In April, with the promise she would leave all ecclesiastical matters in his hand, Henry had Matilda recognized as queen. Her autocratic behaviour soon disillusioned him. When London expelled her before she could be crowned, he defended Winchester against her. After Robert of Gloucester was captured and exchanged for Stephen, Henry had his brother recognized as king again.

Queen Matilda died in 1152. In 1153, Stephen’s son and heir also died. Bishop Henry helped to negotiate a treaty in which Stephen adopted Matilda’s son as his heir and successor. On 25 October 1154, Stephen died.

Elder Statesman

Henry II was a masterful king. He regarded England as his legitimate inheritance. He set out to reclaim royal rights as they had been before 1135, including control of the Church.

Bishop Henry, an over mighty subject with a group of private castles was an anachronism in this new world. Transferring the bulk of his funds abroad, he followed them without asking for a license. He stayed away for England for several years spending time reorganising the finances of his old abbey at Cluny. During his absence, Henry ordered his castles, including Farnham, pulled down.

Henry of Blois returned to England about 1158. No longer a political power, he devoted himself to his ecclesiastical duties, his building (possibly at Farnham) and his patronage of the arts. He became “a venerable and beloved elder statesman”, retiring further and further from his ambitions and even from his riches as he drew nearer to death.

He was not, however, “a volcano wholly extinct.” Always quite fearless in his defence of the Church, he played one last small role. In the controversy between Henry II and Thomas Becket, Bishop Henry showed more moral courage and principle of conviction than many of his colleagues. He stood firm in his loyalty to the pope and the archbishop, and supported Becket in exile.

Barlow, F., 1979. The English Church 1066 – 1154. Longman, London

Brett, M., 1975. The English Church Under Henry I. Oxford University Press, London

Knowles, D., 1951. The Episcopal Colleagues of Archbishop Thomas Becket. Cambridge University Press, London

Riall, N., 1994. Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester: A Patron of the Twelfth-Century Renaissance. Hampshire County Council