We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Reference group
Henry I's new men (act. 1100–1135) were office- and landholders who secured social promotion and territorial enrichment through royal service in the early decades of the twelfth century. Although this expression was first applied to them in the Victorian age, it derives from comments by contemporary historians.

Definitions and identities

The most famous expression of the view that Henry I (r. 1100–35) created new men was made by Orderic Vitalis in his Historia ecclesiastica. Writing in 1136–7 he provided a detailed summary of the king's character and reign. After telling how Henry ‘pulled down many great men from positions of eminence and sentenced them to be disinherited’ he reported that:
on the other hand, he ennobled others of base stock who had served him well, raised them, so to say, from the dust, and heaping all kinds of favours on them, stationed them above earls and famous constables. Witnesses of the truth of my words are Geoffrey de Clinton, Ralph Basset, Hugh of Buckland, Guillegrip, Rainer of Bath, William Trussebut, Haimo of Falaise, Wigan Algason, Robert of Bostare, and many others, who have heaped up riches and built lavishly, on a scale far beyond the means of their fathers; witnesses too are the men who, on trumped up and unjust pretexts, have been oppressed by them. The king raised to high rank all these and many others of low birth whom it would be tedious to name individually, lifted them out of insignificance by his royal authority, set them on the summit of power, and made them formidable even to the greatest magnates of the kingdom. (Ordericus Vitalis, Eccl. hist., 6.17)
Other chroniclers, notably Richard of Hexham, the anonymous author of Gesta Stephani, and Henry, archdeacon of Huntingdon, likewise made reference to a new group of royal servants, sometimes in general terms, sometimes in similar detail. Henry, for instance, in his De contemptu mundi mentioned some of the same men cited by Orderic, namely Geoffrey of Clinton and Ralph Basset, and added to them Ralph's son Richard Basset and Geoffrey Ridel.

It seems to have been William Stubbs, bishop of Oxford, who in 1874—doubtless after reading the monumental edition of Orderic by Auguste Le Prévost, of 1838–55—was the first to apply the adjective ‘new’ to the men favoured by Henry I. The statement of Orderic, stamped with the authority of Stubbs, quickly became an established feature of this king's rule, receiving notice in William Hunt's biography of Henry for the Dictionary of National Biography (1891) and in J. H. Ramsay's volume on the Norman kings (1898). After Orderic and Stubbs it was R. W. Southern, in a Raleigh lecture delivered in 1962, who made the clearest and most eloquent statement on the king's creation of, as well as dependence on, men raised from the dust. Southern presented a dramatic, even slightly exaggerated, picture of their fortunes, in a lecture whose impact and influence has been extensive, delivered as it was at a time of renewed interest in secular landholders and élite society in the middle ages.

All twelfth-century kings were in some way reliant on men recruited from beyond the pool of established high-ranking laymen. The question of whether Henry I was more reliant on such men than his predecessors, successors, or peers is, however, very difficult to answer. What, for instance, Orderic meant by ‘dust’—whether, for instance, these were men of lower rank at court or, perhaps, men of provincial standing with limited prospects of advancement—is not entirely clear. At the date he was writing, less than seventy years after the conquest of England by Duke William and his followers, the earls and barones of England were men whose wealth and tenure were founded on conquest and who were themselves, in some sense, new men. Orderic himself was sensitive to this point, referring to William's promotion of the ‘adventurers’ (advenae) who had supported him in 1066.

The nine names that Orderic gives as examples of advancement under Henry I present certain difficulties. For men who apparently exercised such important office and accumulated such significant wealth, some (like Guillegrip and Robert de Bostare) remain remarkably obscure. The two intimate friends of the king identified by Gesta Stephani, Pain fitz John and Miles of Gloucester, were not named by Orderic. Nor, moreover, was Nigel d'Aubigny (d. 1129), singled out for special mention by Southern, though elsewhere Orderic included Nigel and his brother William in his list of magnates who remained loyal to Henry I through thick and thin. The chronicler could indeed be inconsistent in his pronouncements on the status of these men. In the final book of Historia ecclesiastica he referred to Wigan Algason as ‘a man of low birth but great power’ (Ordericus Vitalis, Eccl. hist., 6.454–5), yet elsewhere in the same book he recalled the actions of William Trussebut without passing judgement on his no less humble origins (ibid., 6.526–9).

Such inconsistency may well reflect Orderic's responses to events involving these two men at the time he was writing, and here and elsewhere suggests a degree of conscious, careful, and essentially subjective selection. What, for instance, distinguishes Hugh of Buckland from Walter de Beauchamp, Miles of Gloucester from William Maltravers, Wigan Algason from John Marshal? It is unclear, too, just how precise the chroniclers meant their statements to be. Hugh of Buckland was already serving as sheriff of Berkshire, London and Middlesex, Essex and Hertfordshire in the reign of William II. He was the only witness to King William's important writ-charter for the cnihtengild of London, and exercised enough influence to be cultivated by the royal custodian of Abingdon Abbey in the late 1090s. It was not King Henry who raised this particular man from the dust.

Friendship and service

Not surprisingly, the precise origins of these men remain mostly obscure. Orderic recorded that the parents of Ralph Basset held a small fief in Montreuil-au-Houlme. Geoffrey of Clinton may or may not be the son of the William who in 1086 held Glympton (Oxfordshire) of the bishop of Coutances. Some were clearly of local consequence: Pain fitz John and his brother Eustace fitz John were the sons of a minor Domesday tenant-in-chief. A connection to western Normandy, where Henry, as count of the Cotentin, exercised territorial leadership in the 1090s and 1100s, may have opened doors to Henry's following even before he became king, but such affiliations must tell only a part of the story. Pain and Eustace certainly had hereditary links to the Avranchin (on the Cotentin's southern border), but their father's connections in East Anglia may have been more relevant.

In the end it was attendance at court and access to the king that were fundamental to the careers of these men. Some, so Gesta Stephani reported, began their careers as boys of the king's hall, in effect pages; Brian fitz Count later referred to himself as one ‘whom good King Henry had brought up and to whom he gave arms and an honour’ (Davis, 303). Others clearly came to court much later in life. But whatever their origins, and however they secured their entrée, they were united by their friendship with Henry I. Ailred of Rievaulx praised Eustace fitz John as ‘a most familiar companion to King Henry’ (Ailred, 191); and Historia ecclesie Abbendonensis recalled Hugh of Buckland as ‘so renowned a man and so close to the king’ (Hudson, 2.172–3). Friendship was both reflected in and facilitated by the installation of many of these men in household offices. In the words of Gesta Stephani, they were the archiministri of the palace. Geoffrey of Clinton served as chamberlain and treasurer; Miles of Gloucester was the royal constable. The regularity with which the names of certain men were entered in the witness lists of the king's writs and charters emphasized their presence at court and their familiarity with its business. It is entirely indicative that two of the men in Orderic's list—Haimo de Falaise and William Trussebut—are known almost exclusively as witnesses to the king's acts. It was precisely in this reign that the word curiales, as used of men identified by their attendance at court, was popularized by both Eadmer and William of Malmesbury, and the careers of these royal servants may have shaped the way such curiales were perceived. Some of them were clearly more curial than others, but even officials without household roles, such as Hugh of Buckland, attended the king's court. As both Orderic Vitalis and William of Malmesbury make clear in different contexts, these curiales were also distinguished by their outward display, including even their haircuts.

Service as well as friendship united these men to Henry I. Nigel d'Aubigny, in a letter addressed to King Henry, reminded him ‘I have been yours while I could and have loved you truly and served you most faithfully’ (Greenway, 6–7, no. 2). This service was performed not only in the king's court and household, but in the kingdom's shires and hundreds. Many of these men were employed as sheriffs, shire justices, and constables, as custodians, farmers, and conveyers of treasure, both in England and in Normandy. Pain fitz John and Miles the constable were described as exercising ‘lordship’ (dominatus) over the shires of Shropshire, Herefordshire, and Gloucestershire (Gesta Stephani, 24–5); and Hugh of Buckland, perhaps the outstanding example of the professional official, was credited by Historia ecclesie Abbendonensis (written less than fifty years after his death) with having been sheriff of Buckinghamshire and seven other shires. These were men well-versed in the demands of the exchequer and deeply familiar with the collection, conveyance, and power of coin. So familiar, and so identified, was Hugh of Buckland with exchequer practice that a contemporary treatise on the abacus attributed to him a detail concerning the number of hides in Essex. The recurrent appearance of many of these men as witnesses in royal documents establishes that they were often called upon, when resident at the king's court, to participate in business pertaining to their spheres of local office and interest. So it was, for instance, that Nigel d'Aubigny, Pain fitz John and his brother Eustace, and Hugh of Buckland were entered as witnesses to writs and charters of the king for beneficiaries from the shires where they served as justices and sheriffs.

Opportunities and perils

For Orderic the most telling measure of a man's social advancement was his surpassing the wealth of his father, and he drew attention to the way that the men raised from the dust garnered wealth, and particularly their building activities. He described Richard Basset, for instance, as building ‘a very well-fortified castle of masonry’ at Montreuil-au-Houlme ‘in the little fief he had inherited from his parents in Normandy’ (Ordericus Vitalis, Eccl. hist., 6.469). Geoffrey of Clinton can be credited with the construction of Kenilworth Castle and perhaps with that of Brandon (both in Warwickshire). And when narrating how these friends of the king refused to come to the court of King Stephen, the author of Gesta Stephani referred to their reluctance to leave ‘their castles’ (pp. 22–3).

These servants secured their wealth and financed their castle building through varied means. Marriage provided the most convenient route to wealth. As a royal charter in favour of Richard Basset reveals, the settlements behind such unions represented closely negotiated deals. The opportunities presented by matrimony were supplemented by a steady stream of gifts, loans, and custodies granted by the king to men who were also extremely proficient in gathering riches. The cartulary of Kenilworth Priory, the house founded by Geoffrey of Clinton, has preserved a remarkable documentary record of the purchases and gifts secured by Geoffrey for himself and his foundation. Henry II's charter confirming to Eustace fitz John's son and successor the estates held and claimed by Eustace has been justly called ‘an unparalleled record of acquisitive achievement’ (Holt, 302). And, most famously, the dossier of documents drafted on behalf of Nigel d'Aubigny some time between 1109 and 1114, very likely in the expectation of his imminent death and inevitable damnation, provides eloquent testimony to his capacity for predatory and efficient self-enrichment. The willingness of the king to raise men from the dust was witnessed, so Orderic believed, not only by the list of those so raised, but also by the many who had been oppressed by them. Pain fitz John and Miles of Gloucester, according to Gesta Stephani, had ‘raised their power to such a pitch that from the river Severn to the sea, all along the border between England and Wales, they involved everyone in litigation and oppressed them with forced services’ (Gesta Stephani, 25). The line between the forceful exercise of office and its unashamed exploitation was doubtless a thin one, but that sharp practice was a distinguishing (and perhaps necessary) characteristic of these men seems equally certain.

The position of such men was a demanding, difficult, and sometimes dangerous one. Retaining the friendship of the king, sustaining influence at court, exercising local office, and maintaining their territorial interests required a capacity for hard work, an endurance of constant travel, and a mastery of local legal custom, tenurial detail, and exchequer practice. Failure to do the king's will rarely went unpunished. The standard penalty was usually financial, but the methods that brought material success also created enmities capable of threatening life and property together. About 1130 Geoffrey of Clinton was ‘charged and defamed’ with ‘wrongful treason against the king’ by his foes at court, and though he was acquitted the accusations were serious enough to warrant examination by David, king of Scots, in the king's court (Ordericus Vitalis, Eccl. hist., 4.277).

The risks to the men whom Henry I promoted were never so real or formidable as in the period following the death of that king. Most escaped the fate of William Maltravers, murdered almost immediately afterwards, but the dangers were real enough—Gesta Stephani told how Pain fitz John and Miles of Gloucester refused to come before the new king without an exchange of hostages. As England slid into civil war, the coolness of King Stephen towards men like Brian fitz Count, Miles of Gloucester, John Marshal, and Eustace fitz John, all prominent supporters of his opponent the Empress Matilda, the daughter of their former patron Henry I, may even have helped to create an image of a body of royal servants who needed to be constrained and disciplined. For it may only have been in retrospect that they were perceived as a distinct type, by chroniclers writing in the late 1130s and afterwards. More recent historians have found it convenient to repeat the judgements of their distant predecessors, without always testing them against what can now be known of the individual careers of these industrious, capable, and grasping servants and friends of Henry I.

H. F. Doherty


Ordericus Vitalis, Eccl. hist. · OMT, Rolls Series, 81 (1884) · William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum Anglorum / The history of the English kings, ed. and trans. R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson, and M. Winterbottom, 2 vols., OMT (1998–9) · Henry, archdeacon of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. D. E. Greenway, OMT (1996) · J. Hudson, ed. and trans., Historia ecclesiae Abbendonensis, 2 vols. (2002–7) · St Aelred [abbot of Rievaulx], ‘Relatio de standardo’, Chronicles of the reigns of Stephen, Henry II, and Richard I, ed. R. Howlett, 3, Rolls Series, 82 (1886) · Richard of Hexham, ‘De gestis regis Stephani et de bello standardii’, The priory of Hexham, ed. J. Raine, 1, SurtS, 44 (1864) · Reg. RAN · D. E. Greenway, ed., Charters of the honour of Mowbray, 1107–1191 (1972) · W. Stubbs, The constitutional history of England in its origin and development, 3 vols. (1874–8) · J. H. Ramsay, The foundations of England, or, Twelve centuries of British history, 55 B.C.–1154 (1898) · H. W. C. Davis, ‘Henry of Blois and Brian fitz Count’, EngHR, 25 (1910), 297–303 · R. W. Southern, ‘The place of Henry I in English history’, Medieval humanism and other studies (1970), 206–33 · J. A. Green, The government of England under Henry I (1986) · C. W. Hollister, Monarchy, magnates, and institutions in the Anglo-Norman world (1986) · J. C. Holt, ‘1153: the treaty of Winchester’, The anarchy of King Stephen's reign, ed. E. King (1994)