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Henry of Blois

Henry of Blois was a 12th century churchman for whom political power and personal wealth had far more importance than holiness or the cure of souls. In this he was not unusual for his time!

Probably born in 1096, he was one of the five sons of Count Stephen of Blois. His mother was a daughter of William the Conquerer. He was brought up as a monk in the Benedictine abbey at Cluny.

In 1126 his uncle King Henry I gave him the abbey of Glastonbury and, three years later, the bishopric of Winchester. He made excellent use of these gifts, holding them both for 40 years and exploiting their potential as money-making enterprises. He therefore became the wealthiest churchman in England.

When King Henry died in 1135, Henry played an important role in helping his brother Stephen to become king in preference to Henry’s daughter Matilda. However, the brothers were not always close, and there was a time when Henry switched his allegiance to Matilda’s cause before changing back again.

Stephen died in 1154, to be succeeded by Matilda’s son Henry II, who had been extremely active in his mother’s cause. Henry reckoned that his best plan would be to return to Cluny, where he stayed for the next four years.

However, Henry was not deprived of his bishopric and he still had many interests in England that he wished to oversee and maintain. He therefore returned to England and played the role of elder statesman to King Henry.

Henry of Blois was a lifelong builder of castles and palaces.The works he commissioned included additions to Winchester Cathedral, the Winchester Palace at Southwark as a London residence, and castles at Bishop’s Waltham, Taunton and Wolvesey. He also built many smaller churches and inspired the construction of villages and canals.

Henry also had a liking for ancient pagan statues, buying a large number in Rome and bringing them back to England. His interest appeared to be entirely artistic, but this activity did not escape censure from the austere Bernard of Clairvaux, who questioned why a senior churchman wanted to acquire so many statues of naked and semi-naked gods and goddesses. Henry’s reply, namely that he sought to save the people of Rome from being tempted to worship idols, did not save him from being called the “whore of Winchester” by the sainted Bernard.

Henry died in 1171 aged about 75.

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