There have been eight kings of England called Henry and the least well known of them may have been the first to hold that name. He was the fourth son of William the Conqueror and, as such, would not have been expected to come to the throne. Nevertheless when his brother, the little-loved William Rufus died in a suspiciously convenient hunting accident in the New Forest Henry was ready to dash to London to quickly claim the crown. He proved tone a reasonably successful king who reversed many of his brother’s unpopular policies.
Even by the standards of medieval kings he had a large number of illegitimate children, many of whom joined his entourage. Possible because he was so busy with his mistresses he had only one male heir through his wife, Matilda of Scotland. This was William Adelin, who perished in the White Ship disaster of 1120. This was a kind of medieval Titanic event, a supposedly state of the art vessel brought down by the forces of nature together with human arrogance and carelessness. Not only William but his drunken friends and crew drowned and the captain reportedly joined them rather than report to the king that his son and heir had perished. Henry was said never to have smiled again after this loss.
The following year he founded Reading Abbey and arranged to be buried there. The Abbey Quarter has recently been reopened after a period of restoration and I stopped by on the way to borstal to see my son and his wife. The site of the king’s grave can only be guessed at and there are no actual bones, which might be identified as his through DNA analysis, in the way that those of Richard the Third were when they were uncovered in a Leicester car park in 2012 (https://diaryofatouristguide.blogspot.com/2015/11/looking-for-richard.html)
Why was the tomb of Henry lost? He was after all a king of England and might have expected better treatment. However, the last king of England to carry that name, Henry the Eighth, fell out with the Pope over the issue of his desire for a divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon. Catherine had been married to Henry’s elder brother, Prince Arthur, and the king used this as a reason to demand a divorce as it had involved breaking a biblical law which forbad men to marry their brother’s widow. One Pope had set aside this rule and another could have enforced it but Clement the Seventh was very much in the control of the Aragon family, who would not allow him to authorise the divorce as it would humiliate Catherine – and, after all, who was Henry the Eighth’s grandfather but some obscure Welsh squire?
This, “the King’s great matter”, led to a break with the Roman Catholic church and eventually the establishment of an independent Church of England. Collateral damage in the wars and disputes which followed included the monasteries of England and their inhabitants, the holy men who entered the monastery at a young age and took vows of obedience, celibacy and poverty. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid sixteenth century, many became beggars and their buildings – havens of peace, learning and piety in a violent world – became ruins. Reading, despite being the last resting place of a king who had many similarities with his namesake (both younger brothers, both had one son who died early) was not spared and the grave of the first Henry was destroyed by the officers of the Eighth Henry. What one Henry established, a later Henry destroyed.
My journey to Reading had begun at Clapham Junction where Oscar Wilde, recognised by the crowd was spat on while waiting to be taken to Reading Gaol. Here he wrote his wonderful poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol before going to Paris after his release. The gaol is now closed and Wilde is a gay icon and national hero. That, however, is a story for another day.