In the hunting party which William Rufus led out on August 2, 1100, to his mysterious death in the New Forest, was the king's younger brother, Henry. When the cry rang through the Forest that the king was dead, Henry seized the instant with the quick insight and strong decision which were marked elements of his genius. He rode at once for Winchester. We do not even know that he delayed long enough to make sure of the news by going to the spot where his brother's body lay. He rode at full speed to Winchester, and demanded the keys of the royal treasury, "as true heir," says Ordesic Vitalis, one of the best historians of Henry's reign, recording rather, it is probable, his own opinion than the words of the prince. Men's ideas were still so vague, not yet fixed and precise as later, on the subject of rightful heirship, that such a demand as Henry's - a clear usurpation according to the law as it was finally to be - could find some ground on which to justify itself; at least this, which his historian suggests and which still meant much to English minds, that he was born in the purple, the son of a crowned king.

But not every one was ready to admit the claim of Henry. Between him and the door of the treasury William of Breteuil, who also had been of the hunting party and who was the responsible keeper of the hoard, took his stand. Against the demand of Henry he set the claim of Robert, the better claim according even to the law of that day, though the law which he urged was less that which would protect the right of the eldest born than the feudal law regarding homage done and fealty sworn. "If we are going to act legally," he said to Henry, "we ought to remember the fealty which we have promised to Duke Robert, your brother. He is, too, the eldest born son of King William, and you and I, my Lord Henry, have done him homage. We ought to keep faith to him absent in all respects as if he were present." He followed his law by an appeal to feeling, referring to Robert's crusade. "He has been labouring now a long time in the service of God, and God has restored to him, without conflict, his duchy, which as a pilgrim he laid aside for love of Him." Then a strife arose, and a crowd of men ran together to the spot. We can imagine they were not merely men of the city, but also many of the king's train who must have ridden after Henry from the Forest. Whoever they were, they supported Henry, for we are told that as the crowd collected the courage of the "heir who was demanding his right" increased. Henry drew his sword and declared he would permit no "frivolous delay." His insistence and the support of his friends prevailed, and castle and treasury were turned over to him.[16]

This it was which really determined who should be king. Not that the question was fully settled then, but the popular determination which showed itself in the crowd that gathered around the disputants in Winchester probably showed itself, in the days that followed, to be the determination of England in general, and thus held in check those who would have supported Robert, while Henry rapidly pushed events to a conclusion and so became king. There is some evidence that, after the burial of William, further discussion took place among the barons who were present, as to whether they would support Henry or not, and that this was decided in his favour largely by the influence of Henry of Beaumont, Earl of Warwick, son of his father's friend and counsellor, the Count of Meulan. But we ought not to allow the use of the word witan in this connexion, by the Saxon chronicler, or of "election" by other historians or by Henry himself, to impose upon us the belief in a constitutional right of election in the modern sense, which could no more have existed at that time than a definite law of inheritance. In every case of disputed succession the question was, whether that one of the claimants who was on the spot could secure quickly enough a degree of support which would enable him to hold the opposition in check until he became a crowned king. A certain amount of such support was indispensable to success. Henry secured this in one way, Stephen in another, and John again in a third. In each case, the actual events show clearly that a small number of men determined the result, not by exercising a constitutional right of which they were conscious, but by deciding for themselves which one of the claimants they would individually support. Some were led by one motive, and some by another. In Henry's case we cannot doubt that the current of feeling which had shown itself in Winchester on the evening of the king's death had a decisive influence on the result, at least as decisive as the early stand of London was afterwards in Stephen's case.

Immediately, before leaving Winchester, Henry performed one royal act of great importance to his cause, and skilfully chosen as a declaration of principles. He appointed William Giffard, who had been his brother's chancellor, Bishop of Winchester. This see had been vacant for nearly three years and subject to the dealings of Ranulf Flambard. The immediate appointment of a bishop was equivalent to a proclamation that these dealings should now cease, that bishoprics should no longer be kept vacant for the benefit of the king, and it was addressed to the Church, the party directly interested and one of the most powerful influences in the state in deciding the question of succession. The speed with which Henry's coronation was carried through shows that the Church accepted his assurances.