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Henry of Blois

Born: c.1100 at Blois Castle, Blois (France)
Prior of Montacute
Abbot of Glastonbury
Bishop of Winchester
Died: 8th August 1171 at Wolvesey Palace, Winchester (England)

Prince Henry was a maternal grandson of King William the Conqueror, son of the latter's daughter Adela by Count Stephen of Blois. From a young age, he was brought up at the great continental monastery of Cluny where he became a monk. However, such a tranquil life was not for Henry and, at the age of only about twenty-three, he was appointed Prior of Montacute in Somerset where his uncle, King Henry I of England was planning to create a fine Royal Abbey. The scheme was, unfortunately, abandoned in 1126 but young Henry was given the even greater position of Abbot of Glastonbury in recompense. Only three year later, by special dispensation from the Pope, he was able to add to this, the distinguished Bishopric of Winchester.

Henry quickly proved himself to be an enthusiastic administrator. He made vast profits both for himself and for the monasteries he held. He channelled large sums of money into grand building programmes both at Glastonbury and Winchester and, later, built the castles of Farnham (Surrey), Downton (Wiltshire), Taunton (Somerset), Merdon, Wolvesey and Waltham Palaces (all Hampshire). His taste for the finer things in life can be seen in many of their rich architectural embellishments, as well as those at Winchester Cathedral, influenced by the classical statues which he collected in Rome. Henry liked large rings and jewels; he was a patron of writers such as William of Malmesbury and Gerald of Wales; and probably commissioned many of the finest manuscripts of the Winchester School. He also, like his uncle, collected a fine menagerie of unusual animals and birds. He was a friend to the poor, founding the magnificent hospital of St.Cross on the outskirts of Winchester; and was probably the first Bishop of Winchester to take in hand the famous brothels on his Southwark estate: not by closing them down, but by regulating them! Despite all this, his Cluniac background made Henry a serious churchman. He would have liked an independent church with monastic bishops under the protection of a pious king, and saw it as his duty to try and influence secular matters towards this ideal. He has, however, often been criticised for such non-ecclesiastical "meddling".

Being ambitious for his family, as well as himself and the church, Henry was instrumental in securing the English throne for his brother, Stephen, upon the death of Henry I in 1135. In the process, he managed to extract guarantees for the church's autonomy, formalised in the so-called Oxford Charter of Liberties (1136). Although Henry hoped these moves would help him to dominate English politics, his brother, King Stephen, relied heavily on other advisors such as the powerful Beaumont family. They persuaded him to elevate Abbot Theobald of Bec to the Archiepiscopacy of Canterbury in 1138 and thus shattered Henry's own hopes of advancement in this direction. Despite such disappointment though, Henry's used his excellent contacts in Rome to secure his appointment to the, technically higher, position of Papal Legate the following year. Henry enjoyed his new position and skilfully wielded the power which came with it. When King Stephen arrested the Bishop of Salisbury and his followers, Henry summoned his brother to his Lagatine Court to explain himself. The Legate was unable to make any charges stick but his brother had recognised the jurisdiction of Henry's court which was quite a concession.

During the Civil War that broke out between King Stephen and the rightful heir to the throne, his cousin, the Empress Matilda, Henry tried to pursue an independent policy, walking a fine line between the two Royal opponents and also the Papacy. He tried to mediate between the two rivals in 1140, but was unsuccessful. The following year, after Stephen's defeat and capture at the Battle of Lincoln, Henry found himself obliged to make peace with Matilda and welcomed her into Winchester as Queen or "Lady of the English"; but she made life impossible for him by refusing to compromise with the people of London. Henry held secret negotiations with his sister-in-law and was soon being besieged by the Empress in Winchester before she was finally routed. Henry was forced to return to Stephen's camp with his tale between his legs. His loyalties remained close to his brother after the loss of his legatine commission when Pope Innocent II died in 1143.

Henry continued to try and exercise power, however, by promoting his half-nephew and protege, William FitzHerbert, as Archbishop of York. He further attempted to have Winchester made an archdiocese to compete with Canterbury, but these moves were not popular. In 1148, Henry failed to attend a Papal council and was subsequently suspended from office. However, there was no stopping this man and, two years later, Archbishop Theobald was forced to make an official complaint to the Papacy. Henry pleaded his case personally at the Papal Curia in Rome and survived in office long enough to play a considerable role in peace negotiations with the future Henry II at Winchester and Westminster.

Since Henry II was the son of the Empress, the old enemy of the Bishop of Winchester's brother, it is not surprising that he was not favoured by the new king. His castles and palaces were all confiscated in 1155 and Henry of Blois decided to retire to Cluny for a time. He did, however, return to England about three years later and settled into the role of elder-statesman at court. In 1162, as subdean of the vacant See of London, he presided over Thomas A'Becket's election and ordination as Archbishop of Canterbury and, in 1166, he was papal judge delegate over some mutinous Gilbertines; but the years of domination were gone.

Henry retained his independent spirit during the Becket controversy. He may have been associated with the Archbishop as early as 1155, when he was originally elected as Chancellor. He supported him at Northampton in 1164 and earned King Henry's resentment in return. Henry may have disapproved of Becket's extremism as he backed the Papal arbitration of 1166-67, but it was the Bishop of Winchester who ensured the Archbishop remained solvent during his exile and kept him in touch with political matters back in England. By now an ageing ecclesiastic, he was probably the only man who could get away with it. Even on his deathbed at Wolvesey Palace, Henry of Blois remained defiant and rebuked King Henry for his handling of Becket. He died shortly afterward and was buried before the high altar in Winchester Cathedral.


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