Henry of Blois

Henry of Winchester
Bishop of Winchester

Contemporary plaque showing Henry of Blois, now in the British Museum
Appointed 4 October 1129
Term ended 8 August 1171
Predecessor William Giffard
Successor Richard of Ilchester
Consecration 17 November 1129
Personal details
Born c. 1098
City of Winchester
Died 8 August 1171 (aged 72/3)
City of Winchester
Buried 8 August 1171
Winchester Cathedral
Denomination Roman Catholicism
Parents Stephen Henry, Count of Blois
Adela of Normandy
Previous post Abbot of Glastonbury

Henry of Blois (c. 1098  8 August 1171), often known as Henry of Winchester,[1] was Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey from 1126, and Bishop of Winchester from 1129 to his death. He was a younger son of Stephen Henry, Count of Blois by Adela of Normandy, daughter of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders. Thus, he was a younger brother of Stephen, King of England.

Early life and education

Henry was one of five sons of Stephen II, Count of Blois, by Adela of Normandy (daughter of William the Conqueror) and the younger brother of King Stephen.[2] Henry's father died in 1102 while on crusade during the Second Battle of Ramla, leaving an estate with more than 350 castles and large properties in France including Chartres.

Henry was educated at Cluny and adhered to the principles of Cluniac reform, which included a sense of intellectual freedom and humanism, as well as a high standard of devotion and discipline.

Abbot and bishop

Depiction of Henry, with his staff and ring

Henry was brought to England by King Henry I, to be Abbot of Glastonbury.[3] On 4 October 1129, he was given the bishopric of Winchester[4] and allowed to keep his beloved Glastonbury Abbey. He was consecrated bishop on 17 November 1129.[4] He had ambitions to become Archbishop of Canterbury, but refused to abandon his work and obligations to Glastonbury. Soon after his appointment to the see of Winchester, Henry came to resent his subservience to Canterbury. He therefore set about building a power-base to persuade the king to create a third, West Country archdiocese with himself at the head.[5] This scheme was unsuccessful. However, on 1 March 1139, during the reign of his brother Stephen, Henry obtained a commission as papal legate, which gave him higher rank than Theobald of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury, making him the most powerful figure in the English Church during the troubled times of the so-called "Anarchy". Thus, when his brother was unavailable, Henry of Blois was the most powerful, and possibly the wealthiest, man in England.

Stephen of Blois was crowned King of England in 1135, but the relations between the two brothers were not always peaceful. After the Battle of Lincoln in 1141, Henry found it more advantageous to support Empress Matilda; but later found her arrogant and greedy. Later that year, Henry rejoined his brother's side and, with the help of Queen Matilda and an army commanded by William of Ypres, his successful defence of Winchester against the Empress was the turning point of the civil war. As Abbot of Glastonbury, Henry remained in contact with Peter the Venerable at Cluny and was made aware of most of the controversies on the continent, specifically the persecution of Peter Abelard (whom Peter the Venerable defended) and the translation of the Koran from Arabic to Latin (which Peter the Venerable commissioned).


Before and after his elevation to Bishop, Henry of Blois was an advisor to his brother Stephen and survived him. Henry of Blois engineered hundreds of projects, including villages and canals, abbeys and smaller churches. He was most proud of his contributions to the greatest developments at Glastonbury Abbey, long before the destructive fire of 1184. Unlike most bishops of his age, Henry had a passion for architecture. He built the final additions to Winchester Cathedral and Wolvesey Castle in Winchester, including a tourist tunnel under the cathedral to make it easier for pilgrims to view relics. He also designed and built additions to many palaces and large houses including the castle of Farnham, Surrey[6] and began the construction of the Hospital of St Cross at Winchester. In London he built Winchester Palace as a residence for the bishops of Winchester. In Rome, John of Salisbury reported,[7] he acquired an impressive number of ancient Roman sculptures, defending his purchases as preventing the Romans of his day from worshipping these "idols".

Henry was responsible for building six castles in 1138, namely those at Bishop's Waltham, Downton,[8] Farnham, Merdon, Taunton, and Wolvesey. Contemporaries were surprised that a bishop would be such a prolific builder of fortification. Much of Henry's work was undone in 1155, when the new king, Henry II, ordered that his castles be thrown down.[9]


Henry was also enamoured of books and their distribution. He wrote or sponsored several books including On the Antiquity of the Glastonbury Church by William of Malmesbury, a close personal friend. He sponsored the Winchester Bible, the largest illustrated Bible ever produced. It is a huge folio edition standing nearly three feet in height. This Bible is still on display at Winchester, although it was never fully finished. His production of the Winchester Psalter, also known as the Blois Psalter, is preserved in the British Library and is considered a British National Treasure.

Later years and death

Hospital of St Cross founded in the 1130s by Bishop Henry

The expiration of Henry's legatine commission on 23 September 1143[2] deprived him of much of his power. His efforts to renew the commission were unsuccessful, but he made a personal visit to Rome and secured several favours for Glastonbury and the Benedictine order in general. Shortly after his brother's death and the accession of Henry II, the bishop retired to Cluny for three years to mourn his mentor Peter the Venerable, who died on Christmas Day, 1156.

In his later years Henry of Blois was appointed to preside over the trial of Thomas Becket and secretly supported Becket's family before and after his assassination.

Henry died on 8 August 1171.[4] Among his gifts to Cluny, was a pyx set with gems in the choir.[10] Henry of Blois is now buried in Winchester Cathedral in a plain stone crypt in the choir, but there is a controversy because some sources claim he was buried at Cluny. Recent research indicates he was also entombed for a time in a small church (Saint Mary the Virgin) at Ivinghoe, England. One explanation describes his heart enshrined at Cluny while his corpse and other artifacts were moved From Ivinghoe to Winchester in the 17th century. For many years his sarcophagus was thought to be that of King William Rufus son of William the Conqueror. During his lifetime, he was arguably the richest and most powerful man in England, and has been referred to as a king without a throne, and the power behind the throne. In the Antiquities, William of Malmesbury who knew the bishop well, described him, saying, "Yet, in spite of his noble birth he blushes when praised."


  1. That name was also a nickname of Henry III of England.
  2. 1 2 British History Online: Bishops of Winchester; accessed on 2 November 2007
  3. Carley, James P. (1988). Glastonbury Abbey. Guild Publishing. pp. 18–21. ISBN 0-85115-460-3.
  4. 1 2 3 Fryde, et al. Handbook of British Chronology p. 276
  5. McIlwain, John (1999), The Hospital of St Cross, page 4, Pitkin Unichrome Ltd, Andover. ISBN 0-85372-642-6
  6. History of Farnham Castle accessed on 2 November 2007
  7. J. Saresburiensis, Historia Pontificalis quae supersunt, R.L. Poole, ed. (Oxford) 1927:81f, noted in Roberto Weiss, The Renaissance Discovery of Classical Antiquity (Oxford: Blackwell) 1973:9.
  8. Baggs, A.P.; Crittall, Elizabeth; Freeman, Jane; Stevenson, Janet H (1987). Crowley, D.A., ed. "Victoria County History – Wiltshire – Vol 11 pp19-77 – Parishes: Downton". British History Online. University of London. Retrieved 8 July 2016.
  9. M. W. Thompson, "Recent Excavations in the Keep of Farnham Castle, Surrey", Medieval Archaeology 4 1960:87
  10. Lawrence Medieval Monasticism pp. 97–98


Further reading

Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
William Giffard
Bishop of Winchester
Succeeded by
Richard of Ilchester
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